Rivera embraces big chance
Rivera embraces big chance
Ex-Bear has no hard feelings, dives headfirst into first head coaching job with Panthers
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If you have lingering doubt about what happened when Ron Rivera left the Bears organization four years ago, the new coach of the Panthers wants to put it to rest.
It was business.
That's exactly what it was last month when Rivera offered Bob Babich a job as linebackers coach after Babich's contract with the Bears had run out. The man who replaced Rivera as Bears defensive coordinator after Super Bowl XLI was quickly a top candidate to join forces with Rivera.
"I have always felt Bob was one of the better coaches," Rivera said. "I've had the chance to watch guys work and my mind always goes back to how detail-oriented Bob is and how well prepared his players always are."
Babich ultimately re-signed with the Bears, but Rivera's job offer is proof Rivera is shooting straight when he says there never were hard feelings in a business that doesn't leave much room for them.
Fact is, Rivera's contract had expired after the 2006 season and Smith was intent on promoting Babich into a role he had wanted his longtime friend to fill all along. Chances were decent, too, that Rivera was going to leave for another franchise as a head coach.
The season after Rivera's departure, the Bears opened in San Diego, where he had landed as inside linebackers coach for the Chargers. In the week leading up to the game, Chargers linebacker Matt Wilhelm ripped Rex Grossman, comments that some assumed echoed Rivera's feelings. Olin Kreutz lashed out at Rivera and said he had spent time looking for jobs during the postseason. The words stung Rivera at his core. He didn't interview for another head coaching job in season again.
"I am thrilled for Coach Ron," Kreutz said. "He deserves it. I talked to him after that and we both understood. I know he will do a good job."
Bears ties deep
Signs of Rivera's ties to the Bears are everywhere in his spacious office at Bank of America Stadium. The first thing you notice is a framed photo of him posing with the late Walter Payton on the practice field in 1985. Both men signed the photo in silver ink. Rivera is grinning like he just heard a good joke. Payton looks like the prankster he always was.
Playbooks, including several from his days with the Bears, line a shelf. There's a large, empty space on the white wall above them for a framed photo of Rivera and former Bears teammate Jim Morrissey that is being delivered. A cutout in the matting reads, "Teammates last a career, best friends last a lifetime."
Rivera, 49, motions to the photo of him and Payton and tells the story of how his teammate opened the door for him into coaching. How the legendary Bears running back sent him on a journey that took 14 seasons to climb the ranks from quality control assistant under Dave Wannstedt with the Bears to being the fourth head coach in Panthers history and the third Hispanic head coach in the NFL following Tom Flores and Tom Fears.
As Rivera explains, he was on the sideline at Soldier Field for the first game of the 1996 season on a Monday night against the defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys. He was dabbling in media and was covering the game for SportsChannel. At the time, he was coaching his son Christopher's peewee team, but as the game unfolded, Rivera was drawn to the action on the sideline as much as on the field.
"I leaned over to Wally and said, 'I want to get into coaching. I want to see if I can coach for the Bears,'" Rivera said.
The next day, Rivera met Payton at his office in Schaumburg and reiterated his goal. Payton said he would talk to Ed McCaskey on his behalf. Soon Rivera had a meeting with McCaskey, who said he would speak to Wannstedt but not until the season ended. Sure enough, after the season McCaskey called and told Rivera that Wannstedt, who had cut Rivera to end his playing career in 1993, wanted to meet with him.
"Dave says, 'A lot of your ex-teammates have said they've wanted to do this and after a day or two or a week, they've stopped,'" Rivera recalled. "I said, 'Dave, I want to do this. You don't have to pay me. I want to see if it is for me.'"
As a volunteer, Rivera showed up before 7 a.m. for minicamp. He was invited back for OTAs. That's when Eric Studesville — the interim Broncos coach at the end of last season — taught him how to do quality-control work. Think a ton of time in front of a computer with a football twist. It's the grunt work of the NFL.
"He came in asking questions and wasn't above anything," Studesville said. "Ron wanted to learn everything correctly and do it first class. All I did was try to help him. He has approached coaching the same way he did playing, he has become very good at it because he has spent the time."
One day, Rivera was plugging away when Studesville wasn't around to help. He was struggling with a computer concept so he called the principal's office at Christopher's school and had his son pulled out of class. Christopher talked him through some steps so he could complete his task.
That's how I got started doing this," Rivera said.
Midway through training camp in 1997, Wannstedt approached Rivera about becoming full time in a paid role. Rivera stands up and walks behind his desk to a file cabinet. From it, he produces the typed proposal he had written for Michael McCaskey to create a position for him on the staff. Rivera talks about it with pride, flipping through the pages.
"It all started with that conversation from Walter," he said. "Once I got into it, I wanted to be a head coach. I watched Dave, I remembered how Mike Ditka was, then when I got the chance to go with Andy (Reid), he was tremendous."
Formidable task at hand
The work cut out for Rivera is considerable. There isn't a quick-fix phone call he can make to solve this mission. The Panthers own the No. 1 pick in the draft after tailspinning to a 2-14 record. The search is on for a franchise quarterback, and Rivera promises Jimmy Clausen, the former Notre Dame star, one thing: "There are absolutely no promises but the opportunity to compete."
He has met face-to-face with Steve Smith but can't be certain the wide receiver will not be traded. When Rivera studied the Panthers before a six-hour interview in San Diego with general manager Marty Hurney and team President Danny Morrison, he quickly identified the offensive line as a strength.
The team needs to re-sign running back DeAngelo Williams and pass rusher Charles Johnson. Rivera assures questions he had about the team's spending habits a year after Julius Peppers departed were answered before he accepted a four-year, $11.2 million contract. The defense has some strong parts, and the Panthers weren't blown out of many games. They gave the Todd Collins-led Bears all they could handle in Week 5. Rivera was hired because the Panthers lean toward defensive head coaches, and the belief is he can turn around that unit in short order.
"Whether it was his time in Chicago or San Diego, players felt like he was a guy they could respond to," Hurney said. "That is something that is critical when you're looking for a head coach, that ability to ride that middle line between discipline and being able to motivate guys.
"After we interviewed Ron, I talked to several teams that had interviewed him. Everybody you talked to said, 'He was terrific.' Nobody had anything negative to say."
Before the Panthers hired him, Rivera interviewed for head coaching jobs with eight teams, including the Packers in 2006 with general manager Ted Thompson meeting him at the Lincolnshire Marriott Resort. Five years later, the man Thompson hired, Mike McCarthy, is a Super Bowl champion.
"I think Ted was curious about me more than anything," Rivera said. "Probably five years ago I wasn't ready to be a head coach. Truthfully, that might have been the best thing that happened to me not to get any of those jobs."
Until he finds a home, he's staying in a hotel. He rises every morning between 4 and 4:30. He will compose notes, stuff he laid awake in bed thinking about, at a table in his room for a half-hour before beginning his day. He's at the stadium 14 hours a day.
He's entrenched as a Panther and finally has arrived in a job many had hoped he would land in 2007 so that Lovie Smith could have congratulated him on his way out of Halas Hall instead of the awkward parting.
"When I left the Bears, it wasn't personal," Rivera said. "It was football. There is no reason for me to look at it any other way. My eyes are being opened up to what is going on in this league. This is business.
"The only time it's a game is on Sunday and shoot, that's business, too, because that's the measuring stick."