Not long ago, not long ago at all, the circumstances were aligned for neither man ever to arrive here, at a Super Bowl, coaching for the highest prize of his football life. Ron Rivera could have been fired. Gary Kubiak could have been dead.
Instead, both survived — and then thrived — in what stands as a telling testament to perseverance and faith in an industry too often quick to press the ziggy button on stragglers.
Just last season, Rivera started 3-8-1 with the Carolina Panthers and was rumored to be an imminent job casualty for what seemed an annual job watch. The year before, Kubiak was suffering through a horrible season in Houston when suddenly, walking off the field at halftime of a Sunday night showcase game, he collapsed and was rushed to the hospital as Bob Costas delivered gloomy updates on the telecast. He was diagnosed with a “ministroke” — when, of course, nothing is “mini” about a stroke — and somehow returned to the sideline days later amid reports the Texans were about to dismiss him, which happened a short time after.
Well, wonders be. Come Sunday night at Levi’s Stadium, one of the two men will lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy toward the sky. Though neither will say it, both have essentially flipped their middle fingers at a cruel profession, the fickle and impulsive world of NFL coaching.
“Did I think I would get another opportunity? I don’t know, but I knew I loved the work, and I felt good about continuing to go,” said Kubiak, completing a wildly successful first season with the Denver Broncos. “I’d answer that by saying I just feel fortunate that I have gotten another chance — a lot of coaches don’t.”
“All I can say is that I’m very fortunate to have an owner with a lot of patience, and a general manager that works with me very well,” said Rivera, referring to owner Jerry Richardson and general manager Dave Gettleman. “We’ve put players in position and had been hoping to get to this point, and we were fortunate enough to get to this point.”
At least Santa Clara will be blessed, if for only a day, with two well-managed organizations that had the vision to make sound decisions and the common sense not to screw around. The Kubiak story is a fairy tale, though not without its trials this season. He first realized, after spending a productive 2014 season as Joe Flacco’s offensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens, that he would have to stop living the cliche of the hopelessly obsessive coach. In his next gig as a head coach, assuming he got the chance, he would delegate more and pull back. A transient ischemic attack, the official diagnosis, is not to be taken lightly.
“I don’t think it changed me as a person. I think after going through that and talking to a lot of doctors, it made me change a little bit as a coach and how I go about things,” Kubiak said. “When I look back, I know exactly why it happened and what I was putting myself through. I was trying to do too much. I kind of ran myself into the ground a little bit. I’ve tried to do things different. I mean, I still love the work, so I’m going to be up early in the morning working the hours, but I told myself to try to go about it a little bit different — not try to take on everything myself and understand I’ve got good people with me.”
He needed a backer, someone who didn’t feel he was taking a wild chance on a damaged retread. Kubiak found one in his old roommate from their playing days, one of his best friends in the world. John Elway, the Broncos’ football boss, knew what his team needed: an extension of himself. Too many postseasons had ended with a thud, without energy or competitive edge, and when he parted ways with John Fox, he needed someone to lead a delicate transition in Peyton Manning’s twilight from an offensive machine to a program centered around a monstrous defense.
So he hired his buddy, nepotism and cronyism be damned. “We started as kids playing together. We’re very close,” Kubiak said. “Our families are close. Our kids are all kind of the same ages. We parted ways for a while, and then another break ensues and I get this opportunity. He hasn’t changed. I haven’t changed.”
And their chemistry hasn’t changed. While carefully handling the tender ego of Manning — first by downscaling his role in the offense, then by urging him to miss six games and heal with a foot problem — Kubiak successfully managed the Elway plan. “The hot seat Gary stepped into was the hottest in the league,” Elway said. “He proved that our decision was right.”
The players have responded for Kubiak because, they say, he is honest. “That’s exactly what he is — a normal, laid-back, honest, straight-ahead guy,” cornerback Aqib Talib said. “He’s just been straightforward with us, tells us what he expects out of us, and that’s what we give him. He lets us be men and he runs our team perfectly.”
All of this only 27 months after he was sprawled on a field, medics all around, a stretcher whisking him into an ambulance as millions watched and gasped. “I think that gave me a better understanding of how I should do things,” Kubiak said.
Rivera’s challenges were perceptional: Was he cut out to be an NFL head coach? He was rejected eight times by franchises until Carolina finally gave him an opportunity. In 2006, he’d been let go as defensive coordinator in Chicago, where he’d been a member of the legendary 1985 Bears extravaganza but was made a scapegoat by head coach Lovie Smith — who now is out of work after being fired twice himself. When Rivera finally was given his shot by the Panthers, it wasn’t long before they wanted to run him out of town.
“If you were Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, would you fire Ron Rivera this week?” asked a Charlotte Observer online poll in 2013.
Eighty percent of almost 11,000 respondents said yes.
It was about then that Rivera decided to adopt a looser style. A year later, he figured it was time to let his skilled but immature quarterback, Cam Newton, have more say in the offense and general leadership of the team. The situation looked bleak again for Rivera late in the 2014 season, but something interesting happened: The Panthers closed their regular season with four straight victories.
They have lost only once since, dancing and prancing and dabbing their way to a rarefied place in football history if they win Sunday. Ever so slightly, the Panthers remind us of those ’85 Bears, which hardly is a coincidence. “Keep your personality,” Rivera tells his team. “Be who you are. Be true to yourself. Don’t be more, but don’t be less. Be exactly who you are. That’s what got us to where we are today.”
He’s even offended when someone refers to his team as cocky, flamboyant, which is fascinating because the description certainly doesn’t fit him. “We’ve kind of crashed the party. We’re kind of new to the scene,” he said. “Not a lot of people know who we are and so to draw a quick conclusion on that based on a couple of things, I think is disappointing. So we’re just embracing it and being who we are. We’re staying relaxed. We’re able not to be distracted. I think that’s part of keeping your personality and making sure that you are who you are. That’s helped us and I’m not going to have our guys change now. All of a sudden you want our guys to tighten up?”
No one is prouder than his bosses. When he arrived in Charlotte before the 2013 season, Gettleman was faced with the “Fire Rivera” blitz. On two occasions, national media outlets reported that he would be fired. How do they look now? How do all the doubters look now?
“I had this crazy idea that there were smart people already in the building.” said Gettleman, explaining his rationale for keeping Rivera. “People think that firing is always the answer. I’m sorry, I think everyone should have an opportunity to do their job.”
Consider it an invaluable lesson for a goofish owner such as, oh, the 49ers’ Jed York, who decided that Jim Harbaugh’s idiosyncrasies trumped his three straight NFC title-game appearances and dumped him, only to compound the problem by hiring a woefully overmatched Jim Tomsula, only to confuse matters further by appointing another potential Harbaugh in control freak Chip Kelly. Is anybody surprised that York’s only headline of Super Bowl week was this beauty: kicking the Girl Scouts out of a planned sleepover at Levi’s so he could pencil in a more lucrative concert, then having the nerve to tweet a selfie of him buying Girl Scout cookies near the Super Bowl media center?
The best executives tend to lead their teams to the championship game. The best executives also understand who should be coaching their teams. Let Super Bowl 50 be remembered, then, for two profiles in the lost art of survivalism.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.