Ron Rivera: Rough Seas Make Great Captains
By RICH CIRMINIELLO
Depending on whose reports you trust, Ron Rivera was almost fired by the Carolina Panthers—twice. He struggled out of the blocks in his first two years with the organization, both losing seasons, and was 1-3 at the outset of 2013. Rumors of impending doom besieged the first-time head coach. Rivera, though, was unflappable, a bedrock characteristic of one of the NFL’s rising stars of the sidelines.
Carolina, specifically owner Jerry Richardson and GM Dave Gettleman, exercised patience with Rivera, and has subsequently been reaping the dividends. Since bottoming out in Week 5 of the 2013 campaign, the Panthers have gone 33-10-1 in the regular season, with three consecutive NFC South titles. And during this past season, they steamrolled through the schedule, flirting with perfection before becoming just the seventh team all-time to finish a regular season 15-1 or better.
For being the steady hand that guided the Carolina Panthers to an NFC Championship and a spot opposite the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50, Rivera is the recipient of the 27th Greasy Neale Professional Coach of the Year Award.
Rivera is constantly evolving as a coach, ever-aware of the new wrinkles emerging in the game, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. The disciple of legendary coordinators Buddy Ryan and Jim Johnson is an Xs and Os guy who explains defensive schemes in easy-to-digest terms that every player can understand. But Rivera’s success, both as a coach and as a player with Cal and the Chicago Bears, transcends the banality of a playbook. He wins because of a time-tested core of beliefs first forged a half-century ago on military bases in the U.S. and abroad.
Growing up in a military household, Rivera learned at a tender age the value of discipline, hard work and attention to detail. He also understood the importance of consistency and accountability, rarely allowing his emotions to become too high or too low. It’s a quality that would serve the coach well throughout his life, but especially when he entered the coaching ranks two decades ago.
Following stops in Germany, Panama and the Washington D.C. area, the Rivera family settled in Northern California, where Ron attended high school and laid the groundwork for a college stint in Berkeley. He authored an All-American career as a linebacker with the Bears before remaining a Bear once Chicago selected him in the second round of the 1984 NFL Draft.
Rivera played nine seasons with the Bears, retiring to the broadcast booth in 1993 to work for WGN and SportsChannel Chicago. But he longed to be back in the game, where camaraderie and competition lived, an itch that could only be scratched by a foray into coaching.
Although it was unlikely he knew it at the time, Rivera was perfectly suited to coach at the NFL level. He’d always possessed the acumen for the sport, and his even-keeled personality was the basis for a teacher whose lessons included a hands-on approach. With Rivera, what you see is what you get, a look-you-in-the-eye authenticity that reaches athletes on a very personal level.
“The thing about Ron is that he’s very smart, extremely loyal and his communication skills are outstanding,” offered longtime NFL and college coach Dave Wannstedt, who gave Rivera his first shot in the profession in 1997 with Chicago. “Ron’s done a good job through the years of keeping his foundation, while mixing in the ideas of some really good mentors.”
It took 14 seasons as an assistant, five in Chicago, five in Philadelphia and four in San Diego, before Rivera finally earned his first opportunity to be a head coach in 2011 with Carolina. There were ups on the journey, such as helping lead the Bears to the 2006 NFC Championship. And there were downs, like not having his contract renewed by Chicago just weeks after coaching the D in Super XLI. The circumstances changed. The coach, though, remained as steadfast and committed as ever to the blueprint for success that had carried him through life.
After those 14 seasons, and myriad job interviews that failed to produce an offer, Rivera was finally given his shot to replace longtime Panther John Fox in Carolina. And Rivera has returned the favor to Richardson and Gettleman the only way a coach knows how … by helping turn the Panthers into a prolific winning franchise.
“He’s a player’s coach,” said A.J. Klein, a Panther linebacker the past three seasons. “It goes back to his own days as a player. Coach has been in our shoes. He knows what we’re going through. And his communication skills are second to none. When he lays down a vision for a season, he stays true to that plan. There’s a mutual respect and a genuine sense that he cares about his players, which is why he’s truly a great coach.”
True, Rivera started slowly in Carolina, going 6-10 in his debut and 7-9 a year later. However, neither his confidence nor his perpetually positive attitude were shaken. In fact, the coach doubled down on his beliefs, which did not go unnoticed by his Panther players. The man in charge maintained his laser focus and determination, and his young roster of players were eager to follow his lead.
A relatively well-kept secret no longer, Rivera truly broke through this past season, capturing the attention of the league by winning the first 14 games before bowing to Atlanta on Dec. 27. The prolific run shined a spotlight on the fifth-year coach’s strengths, from his interpersonal skills and his knack for building around the strengths of his personnel to his penchant for encouraging individuality.
Rivera has long stressed that his players operate within the construct of their own unique personality. So, while the coach is often the strong and silent type, he happily embraces the flash and swagger of Panther originals, like QB Cam Newton and CB Josh Norman. And by permitting his players to play fast and loud, the entire 2015 team benefitted.
Rivera survived the stickiest stage of his head coaching career, riding out the early waves with a dogged dedication to his players and his process. And while falling one victory short of a franchise-first Super Bowl title can make for a frustrating offseason, Rivera is bullish on the future. And why not? He has a head of steam, a team that’s matured exponentially under his watch and an entire state positively relieved that its head football coach was afforded the chance to continue what he started five years ago.
Rich Cirminiello is the Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, and someone who revels in the opportunity to tell each award winner’s unique story.
Winner: Greasy Neale Award – 2015