" if they’re not willing to do it your way, it’s time to f----- get rid of those guys"
CHARLOTTE – He had a Cuban cigar in one hand and a glass of sublime California Cabernet in the other and, at that moment, not a care in the world.
As Ron Rivera huddled around a wood fire pit on a clear Carolina Friday night, with smiling friends and family members in his midst, the former coach of the Panthers – and a man who’d almost certainly be hired to coach another NFL team sometime in the next 72 hours – looked refreshed, relaxed and anything but burnt out.
Three-and-a-half weeks after being fired by Panthers owner David Tepper, Rivera was full of holiday cheer as he stood in the backyard of a neighbor’s house with his wife, Stephanie, and their daughter Courtney by his side. His demeanor was typically composed, but inside, the 57-year-old coach’s head was spinning: Once the regular season concludes on Sunday, a flurry of wooing and decision-making await him, and he is eager to pounce on his next opportunity.
“I’m ready to roll, and I’m ready to make a quick decision,” said Rivera, who has attracted interest from multiple teams pondering coaching changes. “In a roundabout way, word gets to you – but nothing’s for sure (until an actual offer comes). So all you can do is prepare and be ready. That’s kind of what I’ve tried to do.”
If losing his job after nine years with the Panthers showed Rivera anything, it’s that the two-time Coach of the Year is a very popular man in NFL circles. Though there may be fewer openings than in recent years, Rivera appears to be at or near the top of virtually every team’s list (other than the Panthers, of course). Having received enough back-channel signals early on to convince him of the possible suitors gazing his way, Rivera has been breaking down film and preparing presentations in a manner consistent with his professional ethos.
“Even though I’m out of it, I still pop up every day at 4:45 am. – I just can’t help it,” Rivera said late Friday night as we sat in his kitchen and snacked on blueberries and banana slices. “I lay there for about 30 or 40 minutes with my mind racing, and then I get up and work. Stephanie stays asleep and the dogs don’t even move, so I come down here and break out my laptop and I’ll work on something – everything from looking at the teams that already have coaching changes coming or could potentially have coaching changes, assembling a coaching list, redoing some of my philosophies on stuff and producing books in terms of getting ready for the interviews.”
The apparent competition for Rivera’s services has been both humbling and flattering. The last time he can remember being in such a position was four decades earlier, when the prep star from the central California coast was being hotly recruited during his senior season. After Rivera chose Cal, his father, Eugenio, a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, insisted that he personally decline each offer. Recalled Ron: “I got on the phone and said no to Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame – on the same day.”
After a stellar career in Berkeley that ended with the prolific linebacker earning consensus All-America honors, Rivera – who’d met Stephanie, a women’s basketball recruit for the Golden Bears, while attending summer school before his senior season – was picked in the second round of the 1984 draft by the Chicago Bears. He spent nine seasons with the franchise, that included winning a Super Bowl, before retiring and entering the workforce. It wasn’t a particularly fulfilling experience.
In addition to working for a Chicago television station, Rivera got a job selling title insurance for a downtown firm. He was doing pretty well, but fitting into the culture was a challenge.
One experience in particular pushed him to reassess his career path: Rivera was set to write the title insurance for a client making a lucrative purchase, but when it came time to sign the closing documents, the seller’s attorney informed the buyer that a single document --the building’s final water bill – was missing. No matter, the attorney said: Let’s just get everything else in order, and we can come back after the weekend and finalize the deal.
Impatient, Rivera drove down to the nearest water and power office to see if he could retrieve a copy of the bill himself.
“The line stretched out forever – it was a nightmare,” Rivera recalled, laughing. "But one of the guys who worked there recognized me. He said, ‘Hey, Chico! What are you doing here?’ I told him what I needed, and he took care of me. So I drove back and showed the document to the seller’s attorney, and he got really angry and stormed out. I asked what had happened, and it turned out that this was part of his usual deal: He’d always be short one document so that everyone would have to come back, and he’d get paid for another day of work.
“I got home that night, and Steph could tell I’d had a bad day. She had my favorite liqueur (Bailey’s Irish Crï¿½ï¿½me) waiting for me, and we got in the hot tub, and I told her the story. I said, ‘Everything I believe about teamwork – this is not that.’”
Said Stephanie: “I told him, ‘You don’t like working with civilians. You’ve got to get back in football.’”
Shortly thereafter, Rivera began a coaching career during which he built an impressive resume as a position coach and defensive coordinator. After numerous head coaching interviews, he finally landed the Carolina job, with then-Panthers owner Jerry Richardson hiring him to take over following the 2010 season.
After a pair of losing seasons, Rivera worried that he might be fired – but Richardson stuck with him, and the Panthers went 12-4 and won the NFC South in 2013. By the time he was done, Rivera had compiled a record of 76-63-1 and had taken the Panthers to the postseason four times – including the magnificent 2015 campaign, in which Carolina went 17-1 before falling to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
“I was fortunate that I had an owner who stuck with me past the second year,” Rivera said. “If you talk to people in the military, they’ll tell you it takes three-to-five years to completely change a culture. It’s about making sure, first of all, that everybody understands what the intent and what the vision is. Then you have to map out how you’re gonna get there. And as you start to do that, you’ve got to find out who’s in and who’s not in.”
Rivera recalled a story from early in his Panthers tenure, when he publicly took the blame for his players’ failure to execute the coaches’ plan. The following day, he read a quote from one of his players in the newspaper that set him off.
“This player said, ‘You know – this is how we did it last year. It worked out great for us. I’m not sure why he wants to change things,’” Rivera recalled. "And I frickin’ lost my mind. I had this Powerpoint (presentation) all set, (but instead) I walked into this meeting – I had the newspaper rolled up – and I got in front of the team.
"I said, ‘Let me tell you guys something, just so you f------ guys understand this. If you do things the way we ask, the way you’re coached, the way it’s planned, and it works, you guys will get all the kudos. If it fails it’s on me, cause that’s what I’m telling you. But if you go out and do your own damn thing and we f------ lose it is on you, and I will never fall on the sword for you again. That’s f------ bulls----. Sit there and say that what we did last year worked? So 2-14 was f----- good enough for you guys? F— you.’ And I threw the paper down and walked out.
“I was very blunt about it. And that’s it. If they’re not all in, if they’re not willing to do it your way, it’s time to f----- get rid of those guys. And that’s what happened; we systematically got rid of guys that weren’t doing it our way.”
Having successfully changed a culture once, Rivera is supremely confident that he can do so again. In evaluating teams with potential openings, he is not squeamish about the possibility of rebuilding. Four criteria loom above all else.
“I’m gonna look at the whole picture,” Rivera said. “Personnel. Am I gonna be able to get the coaching staff I want? Am I gonna get the collaboration and cooperation I’m looking for (from the general manager)? And ownership. When I get a chance to talk to these people and go through all this stuff, that’s what I want to know. Location? Division? Those things don’t matter to me.”
Specifically, Rivera wants to be assured that he can have input on personnel decisions, though he does not expect final say over the roster.
“I don’t want personnel control,” he said. “I just want to be able to pick which 46 are active for game day, and have a collaborative relationship (with a GM)-- and, if there’s a conflict, be able at least to go to the owner and state my case.”
Chances are, Rivera will be comfortable enough to resume his coaching career; clearly, waiting is not a preferred option. While he has enjoyed time with family members and friends in the weeks since his dismissal, he is clearly not wired to spend an extended amount of time away from the game.
It was no coincidence that on the first Sunday after his firing, Stephanie – a five-handicap golfer – arranged a husbands-versus-wives golf outing at a local country club that coincided with the Panthers’ game against the Atlanta Falcons. After getting creamed by the ladies (Ron described it as a “crime scene”), the group went to the grill for a post-match meal.
“We played until 3 o’clock, which was right around the middle of the third quarter,” Ron said. “So we go to get something to eat at the grill, and it’s got TVs all over, and the people there changed all the channels and put it all on golf. They took all the football off of all the TVs, just so I didn’t have to sit there and look at it.”
There was another golf outing the following Sunday, but this time, Rivera watched the latter stages of Carolina’s defeat to the Seattle Seahawks, an experience he described as “surreal” and not particularly pleasant.
He has also been unnerved by the lack of routine.
“I’ve been getting my dates wrong,” River said. “I thought a week ago was gonna be Christmas. Steph goes, ‘Babe, it’s still a week away.’ I had nothing for scale. Usually it’s, ‘Hey, this is Week 16 – that’s Christmas.’ But I was all over the place.”
More enjoyable has been the outpouring of support he has received since his firing from those in the NFL community.
“It’s very humbling,” Rivera said. “And what’s been really kinda neat has been a lot of the responses we’ve gotten from my former players. I heard from guys that I coached during my first stint in Philadelphia, as a positional coach … (Hall of Fame linebacker) Brian Urlacher reached out. You don’t think about who you’ve touched. And I’ve been really fortunate. …I’ve been around some of the really special guys.”
Rivera also got a call from a former coaching rival who was fired from his first head coaching job but had considerably more success the second time around.
Said Rivera: “Coach (Bill) Belichick called me, and we talked a little bit about it. And he said, ‘Hey, the second time, you’ll know more.’ And that was really cool, to have him reaffirm that to me.”
For the past several weeks Rivera – with help from Stephanie, a former assistant coach for the WNBA’s Washington Mystic, who’s serving as his self-described administrative assistant --has been researching those potential opportunities. His goal, before riding off into the coaching sunset (or, perhaps, landing his dream job as the coach of his alma mater, should the Cal job ever open when he is available), is obvious.
“My biggest regret is not winning the Super Bowl,” he said. “Getting there was great and fun, but winning … when you win … when I win it … I want to be able to say, ‘This is how we did it.’ And because we didn’t, I can’t. That’s why I want to win one, I want to be able to say, ‘This is how you do it. This, to me, is the way.’”
On Friday night, Rivera reflected fondly on his time with the Panthers as numerous friends from the neighborhood enjoyed a party hosted by David and Lisa Cichan.
“We’re going to miss him a lot,” David Cichan said. “We don’t want him to leave. But we understand – he’s got a new challenge, and we’ll be rooting for him wherever he goes.”
After leaving the party, Ron and Stephanie went home and got an overzealous welcome from both of their pets: Tahoe, a Golden Retriever, and Sierra, a rescue dog. A few minutes later, as he sat at the kitchen table looking ahead to what will likely be his last weekend of unemployment for the foreseeable future, Ron insisted he has been completely recharged during his mini-sabbatical.
“I’m good,” he said. “I really am. It’s funny because people asked me, ‘Are you gonna take some time off?’ I said, 'I took four weeks . Then I’m gonna get right back to it. And honestly, I can’t wait.”