Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera is on the verge of the biggest victtory in his football career, but not all of them can be measured in yards and points. In the complete picture, Super Bowl 50 represents something as significant for the Cal product if not greater.
In 1984, Rivera became the first NFL player of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent when the Chicago Bears drafted the man known as “Chico” in the second round. Now, he can join ex-Raider Tom Flores as the only minority coaches to claim a Super Bowl victory.
At a time when Latinos have begun to push hard for Flores as a Hall of Fame candidate, Rivera finds himself in position to heighten awareness for his people again.
“I honestly wasn’t aware of it until I got drafted and people started asking me to come talk to different Hispanic groups,” said Rivera, not one to get caught up in himself. “I was like, ‘Hey, that’s great.’ But it wasn’t something I gave a lot of thought to. I guess that all goes back to my father and the military environment. You don’t see color and you don’t see race. The only thing you see is rank.”
The son of a Mexican-American mother and Puerto Rican father who became a U.S. Army officer, Rivera comes from a devout Catholic family with a military background. They migrated from Mexico to Colorado and then to the Northern California town of Seaside, near Monterey, where his idol was Roberto Clemente, the legendary Puerto Rican baseball player. His wife, Stephanie, was a pretty fair Cal athlete herself before a torn achilles limited her career. She has coached basketball at every level since then.
In college, Rivera was Cal’s co-Most Valuable Player as a sophomore linebacker in the 1981 season. Cal diehards still recall his 17 tackles against future Heisman Trophy-winner Herschel Walker and Georgia that year. Decades later, he holds the school record for tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Now, Rivera has a score to settle against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, and he can do it 45 miles from where he once played on Saturdays. Rivera was Bears defensive coordinator in Super Bowl XLI, when Manning and the Indianapolis Colts scored a 29-17 victory. In the days before the game, he watched countless hours of game film in an attempt to decipher Manning’s pre-game maneuvers. While Manning was voted MVP despite modest numbers in a driving rainstorm — 247 yards, one touchdown — it was the ground game that beat his defense that day.
Nine years later, a lot has changed for both sides, most notably at quarterback, where Rivera and his team have a decided edge in athletic talent. Cam Newton represents a substantial upgrade over then-Bears quarterback Rex Grossman, while the 39-year-old Manning, in the twilight of his career, has seen better days.
Yet the biggest adjustment may not be in his approach to the game. Rivera suspects the Bears were wound a bit too tightly in their Super Bowl loss, and he promised that wouldn’t happen again. “Do what you’ve done,” Rivera said of the game plan. “Some of my experiences in coaching, you get to certain experiences like the playoffs and sometimes you get a little bit of panic. Am I doing enough? Should I do more? Should I change this?” What the Panthers have done is play fast and loose this season, not unlike the legendary 1985 Bears team on which Rivera was a reserve linebacker. “One of the things coach [Mike] Ditka emphasized to us was to enjoy the moment,” he said
Rivera wants more of the same when his team arrives in the Bay Area on Sunday.
“You start to talk to people about how to do things the next couple of weeks,” Rivera said. “People start to say, ‘Well, we should think about doing this, think about doing that.’ I go, ‘Wait a minute, guys. Let’s stick to what we’ve done. That’s what got us to where we are.’ So that’s going to be my emphasis as I go through the schedule of getting prepared for the next two weeks. “The moment doesn’t come very often. It’s hard. It’s hard to get to where we are right now.”