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Senior Bowl: NFL’s most vibrant job fair turned into a 'ghost town'

Pete Thamel
·5-min read

In January of 2006, Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule jumped in his blue Chevy Impala for an eight-hour haul from Cullowhee, North Carolina, to Mobile, Alabama.

Like so many young coaches and prospective NFL front-office candidates, Rhule’s haul down Interstate 65 to the Senior Bowl is recalled as a rite of passage for attempting to break into the league. Rhule recalls crashing in the hotel of veteran coach Phil Snow, hop-scotching around Mobile from the practices to the restaurants with Pat Stewart and Jarrett Wishon, fellow staffers from Western Carolina, to rub elbows with NFL coaches and executives.

On Saturday, Rhule will coach the American team in the Senior Bowl, marking a coda from arriving in southern Alabama a decade-and-a-half ago as an FCS assistant coach with nothing more than ambition and a few connections.

Amid the quiet streets of Mobile this week, one of the NFL’s most vibrant unofficial job fairs has nearly gone dark. A city that’s typically a bustling mix of agents, media, coaches, front-office members and many attempting to join those ranks – always social and occasionally overserved – has been muted this week. The meetings, gossip and small talk that go from pre-dawn to last call have largely been tabled.

Quarterback Mac Jones of Alabama (10) shares a laugh with American Team head coach Matt Rhule (Carolina Panthers) during the American team practice for the NCAA college football Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Rusty Costanza)
Quarterback Mac Jones of Alabama (10) shares a laugh with American Team head coach Matt Rhule (Carolina Panthers) during a Senior Bowl practice Thursday in Mobile, Alabama. (AP Photo/Rusty Costanza)

While Rhule is giddy for the chance to meet, evaluate and coach some of the country’s top NFL prospects – “we campaigned to coach in this, we wanted to coach in this” – there has also been a sense around Mobile this week of what’s missing.

Last year, wearing a bright turquoise Panthers pullover, Rhule stood in Veet’s, a quintessential local dive across from the Senior Bowl’s main hotel with requisite sticky floors, cheap drinks and sparse bathroom. Last year, Rhule happily greeted all of the job hunters, Draft Twitter mafioso and anyone else who ambled on by. This year, Veet’s and the other downtown establishments that typically buzz with hustlers – Dumbwaiter, The Haberdasher and Wintzell’s Oyster House – are mostly quiet.

Rhule, a devout foodie, said with a tinge of sadness in his voice Sunday evening: “We’re driving to Whole Foods to order unhealthy stuff from a healthy store.”

Stewart is now the Carolina Panthers’ director of player personnel, and he likes to consider his career a success story born partly in Mobile. He was a graduate assistant at Western Carolina back in January of 2006 when Rhule arrived at the Senior Bowl and encouraged him to come down.

Stewart jumped in his Hyundai Santa Fe for the trek, and ended up handing his resume to a then-New England Patriots scout named Adam Peters who overlapped with Rhule back when he was a graduate assistant at UCLA. Stewart ended up getting hired by the Patriots a year later, and he credits Peters, now the 49ers’ vice president of player personnel, for passing it along.

Stewart chuckled last year at the notion of Rhule, 15 years later, fielding the same types of requests that they had delivered on their first trip down. (A highlight for the Western Carolina crew was seeing Tom Coughlin in the stadium watching practice, which is funny now because Rhule ended up working for him for a season with the New York Giants.)

Stewart remembers doing a double-take seeing prominent agent Drew Rosenhaus for the first time. “It’s pretty cool,” Stewart said in a phone interview this week about the full-circle nature of how things unfolded. “It does show everyone that there are success stories.”

Stewart has been to Mobile more than a dozen times now as a scout and front-office member, and he points out that there’s multiple appeals of Mobile to those seeking jobs. One is that getting to Mobile typically takes a connecting flight or a long drive, so there’s few with casual ambition who go.

The other is that once they arrive – especially at the old Ladd Peebles Stadium – there are way fewer checkpoints and credential checkers than the sanitized and over-regulated NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

“Everyone is out in the open [in Mobile],” he said. “There’s only four or five bars. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel in some ways. You have everyone at your disposal.”

So what’s it been like on the ground in Mobile this week for those in need or work, networks and trying to bump into decision makers? The fish aren’t around and the barrels never arrived. Some local spies reported Veet’s had fewer than 10 people in it Thursday, the restaurants were near-empty and even shaking the hands of decision makers was difficult. (The universal greeting in Mobile has been a fist-bump.)

“It was a ghost town,” said Joey Fitzgerald, the former wide receivers coach at Louisiana Monroe, who came to network. He bumped into a few coaches and got to catch up with a few others, but the reality was that the streets of downtown were practically empty.

It has been a credit to Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy that things have run so smoothly, as daily COVID-19 testing, limited access and strict protocols have made the experience as ideal as it could be during a pandemic. They’ll be no celebrations until the game kicks off Saturday, but the week has been an ideal showcase for players and setting for NFL decision makers who couldn’t travel outside the team bubble to watch college games in person this season.

Even for all that has been gained, there’s a lot missing in Mobile. They’ll be success stories that never had the opportunity to be written, as a rite of passage – like so much else the past year – skipped a season.

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