In the office, he makes the calls all day long, because it comes with the territory of being a head coach in the NFL. Especially one who has gone 22–2 in his past 24 games, has his Carolina Panthers Super Bowl bound and is considered the runaway favorite for the league’s coach of the year award.
But when he heads home, Ron Rivera doesn’t always get to make the football decisions. That ship has sailed, and the best he can do is try to audible sometimes.
“I’m the one who’s always watching football, and he’s like, ‘Can we watch something else?’” says Stephanie Rivera, Ron’s wife of 30 years and a former women’s basketball coach at the youth, high school, college and WNBA level. “I’ll have the Monday night game on, the Thursday night game on, and he’s like, ‘Really? I don’t want to watch football.’ He’ll sit down a little bit with me, and then he’ll be like, ‘Okay, can we change the channel now?’ When he’s unwinding, he’d rather watch comedy before he goes to bed. I’m like, ‘Alright,’ and I’ll get up and go to the other room and finish watching the game. I guess he’s been watching football all day.”
A Super Bowl coach who doesn’t have to live and breath the game every waking moment? I knew I liked this guy, even if he can’t always manage total command of his remote control.
But then, who doesn’t find themselves admiring the job Rivera is doing these days? As the 17–1 Panthers prepare for their turn on the Super Bowl stage next week in Santa Clara, Calif., it becomes more apparent that Rivera’s touch in Carolina this season has been near perfect, just like his record. From his steady, even-keeled demeanor to his blend of encouraging both individuality and accountability from his players, Rivera has hit the right note throughout the Panthers’ magical run, coaxing more from this team than anyone had a right to expect.
And you have to love it when the good-guys-finish-last nonsense rings hollow once again. Rivera and his Super Bowl opponent, Denver coach Gary Kubiak, are two of the nicest, most well-rounded men in the league, and their success has struck another blow against the theory that you have to be a little maniacal and self-absorbed to get ahead in the cut-throat coaching business.
For far too long, Rivera, 54, has been one of the best-kept secrets in the NFL, but that’s all changing with his team reaching football’s preeminent game in his fifth season on the job. I reached out this week to Stephanie Rivera to try to learn more about the guy who has a chance to become the first 18–1 Super Bowl champion coach since Chicago’s Mike Ditka 30 years ago, with that same ’85 Bears team on which Rivera played linebacker.
What I found out didn’t surprise me, frankly, because whether it be in the face of his own shaky job security in the fairly recent past, the tumult of the house fire that he and his family endured last January or even the tragic loss of his 56-year-older brother, Mickey, to pancreatic cancer last July, Rivera’s perspective and resilience always shines through. He gets it. And when you’re around him, you can tell he’d be a players coach who would inspire both loyalty and respect.
“Ron’s always taken a little bit from every coach he’s ever worked with, but then obviously tried to put his own stamp on it,” said Stephanie, who met Ron in 1983, as a basketball player at Cal, their alma mater. “He seems like he’s doing it the right way. And so the crazy long hours as a coach aren’t necessary. Do your job, do your work, go home to your family.
“So he’s hoping he can say ‘Look, this is how we did it and we’re still successful.’ It is about family. Some of these guys work crazy hours, and you know what? It really isn’t necessary. You’ve got the game plan, the guys are going to absorb it, and that’s all you can do. You don’t need to be in your office at 4 in the morning or stay overnight. Get your work done, and then just coach ‘em up when you have them. Hopefully that can be the new trend.”
Stephanie, however, did enjoy disabusing me of one misconception about her husband, who never seems to lose his cool, or appear remotely out of control on the sideline. When necessary, Rivera, she said, can light up his players with the best of them.
“He does have you guys all fooled, because he will yell and scream,” she said with a laugh. “He just does it very judiciously. If you ask his players, he’ll have a few choice words for them at times. But he’s not a maniac. We laugh, because to this day his mom doesn’t really think he swears. [She thinks] he might say fire truck a few times. But no, I mean he doesn’t think a yeller and a screamer gets the job done. But every once in a while, they’re still guys, and you have to use colorful language to get the point across sometimes.”
What’s easy to forget is that Rivera’s tenure in Carolina, though celebrated now, often seemed as if it were never destined to last. There have been pressure points all along, and he spent multiple parts of his first four seasons coaching on the hot seat in Charlotte. Like when his Panthers started the 2012 season 3–9 after going 6–10 in his first year, giving him a dismal 9–19 mark that appeared to doom him. Even when his club rallied to win its last four games and finish 7–9 in 2012, it was reported by the NFL Network on Black Monday that Rivera would be fired, with a new Panthers general manager (the incoming Dave Gettlemen) expected to be given the right to bring in his own coach.
He survived that, but Rivera was back in the crosshairs early in the 2013 season when Carolina opened 1–3, with a report that Gettlemen had already drawn up a list of potential replacements for the Panthers coach, who had a win-loss record of just 14–22 at that point. But Carolina proceeded to rip off eight wins in a row, and 11 of 12, winning the NFC South and making the playoffs at 12–4. The Panthers lost their postseason opener at home that year to San Francisco, and when Carolina started off the 2014 season 3–8–1, Rivera’s status again seemed to be in some question.
You know the rest. Carolina won their last four games in a row last season, captured their downtrodden division to become the first repeat champion in NFC South history, and won a first playoff game at home against Arizona, before losing at Seattle in the divisional round. Tacking that 5–1 finish on to this year’s other-worldly 17–1 mark, the Panthers have won 22 of their past 24 games, and were 15–0 this season before falling in Atlanta in Week 16. At the 85-game mark of his tenure, Rivera stands 50–34–1, and has the Panthers playing well enough to be the comfortable favorites in the franchise’s first Super Bowl in 12 years.
“On NFL Network it did say we were supposed to be fired that year, and I remember some of our coaches went to Ron and said, ‘Coach, are we fired?’” Stephanie recalled, sounding every bit the coach. “And he said, ‘What are you taking about? I haven’t even met with the owner yet. Those are the things that just drives you nuts, because there are a lot of families that are involved in these decisions.
“What we were worried about was we wouldn’t get the time to turn it around. Because Ron knew he had the main pieces in place. He had the base. He had the quarterback (in Cam Newton) and an All-Pro center (Ryan Kalil), and then there were leaders on defense in (linebackers) Luke (Keuchly) and TD (Thomas Davis). We’re just so thankful that (Panthers owner) Mr. (Jerry) Richardson saw the upward trend, and the fact that no matter what, Ron never lost the locker room. Even at the lowest point, the guys were there for him, and a lot of them, when it seemed we could have been fired, went to Mr. Richardson personally and talked to him about Ron as a coach.”
Rivera may have done some of his best work this season in setting a steady, focused tone for the Panthers season, and not letting the recurrent criticism of Newton’s touchdown celebrations and ‘dab’ dancing rise to the level of importance or distraction. When a Nashville woman made headlines by writing an open letter to Newton in the Charlotte Observer in mid-November, castigating him for being a poor role model because he danced and “taunted” the opposing Titans, Rivera was firm in his defense of his quarterback. He encourages and allows for their individuality, as long as their actions don’t instigate problems and cross lines that jeopardize the team’s success.
Rivera, who played with some of the game’s most memorable and colorful individual characters on those Super Bowl champion 1985 Bears, wants his team to play loose, and his players to be themselves. And Newton’s transcendent soon-to-be MVP season has been the fulcrum of Carolina’s success.
“We talk about this all the time, but how can one person, some lady from Tennessee who has a five-second interaction with our quarterback, and then draw all these conclusions about him as a person,” Stephanie said. “They post it in the paper and now suddenly what she says about him is true? It’s really offensive to us that she has this platform to criticize him on five seconds of dancing.
“You don’t know this guy. He’s a wonderful young man. Yeah, he’s a football player and he’s celebrated. But you’re going to draw all these conclusions of him as a person? You don’t know that he has a foundation that does so many wonderful things for children. You don’t see the good he does for people in our community. You don’t know Cam at all. Of course Ron’s going to come to his defense, as well as everybody else did on our team.”
While 2015 has been a dream season in Carolina, the year itself featured off-field tests and trials for Rivera and his family, which includes the couple’s 29-year-son Christopher, a production manager for Disney who’s flying back from China to attend the Super Bowl, and their daughter, Courtney, who recently graduated from UCLA. The early-morning house fire that was caused by a defective installation of a fireplace did $500,000 worth of damage to their Charlotte home in early January and displaced their family for eight months. Then came the loss of Ron Rivera’s brother in July after a two-year battle with cancer, right at the start of Panthers training camp. Through it all, as he’s known for, Rivera remained unflappable.
“I mean, a lot of things have happened,” Stephanie said. “Not just the fire, but losing his brother was a tough, tough thing. You just realize and start to believe that everything you do has meaning and things happen for a reason. And now, there’s this season and the run we’re making, and it’s just so unbelievable. We’re just very thankful for everything.”
For Rivera and his ascendant Panthers, the ride to the top this season has been a dominant and defining one, but the best may still be to come.