In a lighter moment during a mostly dry conference call Wednesday with Charlotte media, San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh warmly called Ron Rivera a lifelong friend.
The two were teammates for six seasons with the Chicago Bears, lived in San Diego when both were moving up the coaching ranks, and became NFL head coaches for the first time before the 2011 season.
Harbaugh, who stayed in the Bay area when he jumped from Stanford to the 49ers, enjoyed instant success. He’s one of eight coaches in NFL history to win division titles their first two years, and last season took San Francisco to the Super Bowl.
It’s been a longer climb for Rivera, who has the Carolina Panthers (5-3) in the playoff conversation after a pair of losing seasons. The Panthers face a tough test Sunday against the 49ers (6-2), winners of five in a row.
The Panthers lost 10 games in Rivera’s first season, which is one more than Harbaugh (30-9-1) has lost in three seasons.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher said recently on CBS Sports’ “The NFL Today” show that Rivera is among a couple of coaches – he also mentioned the Jets’ Rex Ryan – who have been grown into their roles.
Harbaugh also likes what he’s seen from the Panthers.
“Very talented, well-coached, play hard, good football team. Some of the best units we’ve played all year,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a very good football team the Panthers have put together.”
Rivera said he’s not surprised at the success of Harbaugh, who was the Bears quarterback in the early 1990s during Rivera’s last few seasons in the league.
“He’s a fighter. He’s got a lot of personality, similar to what Cam (Newton’s) is,” Rivera said. “He hates to lose. It was very evident when we were together.”
Rivera said it was also evident in the way Harbaugh turned around the programs at the University of San Diego (22-2 over his final two seasons) and Stanford, which went 12-1 and crushed Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl in 2010 during Harbaugh’s last year.
Harbaugh has done the same thing in the NFL, breathing life back into one of the league’s most successful organizations after it had fallen on hard times. The 49ers had not had a winning record since 2002 in former coach Steve Mariucci’s final year until Harbaugh arrived.
“A lot of people talked about what was a real good spot to be in, and San Francisco was one of them,” Rivera said. “A team that had been down for a number of years and had a whole bunch of high draft picks and had a whole bunch of good players.”
The 49ers had a veteran quarterback in Alex Smith when Harbaugh arrived, and took Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the second round of the 2011 draft. Harbaugh also inherited a talented defense from former coach Mike Singletary.
Harbaugh’s 24 wins in his first two seasons are tied for the third most in NFL history, behind two other 49ers coaches – George Seifert (28), who later coached the Panthers, and Mariucci (25).
After going 13-19 his first two seasons, Rivera wasn’t sure he’d back for a third year. But about a week after last season ended, the Panthers announced Rivera would be retained.
After another slow start this season, the Panthers have won five of six games to pull within a game of New Orleans for first place in the NFC South.
Asked how he’s a better coach than he was two years ago, Rivera smiled and said: “I go for it on fourth downs.”
While Rivera has changed his philosophy on fourth downs, Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy said Rivera has not changed in his upfront approach with players.
“He’s not going to lie to you. He’s going to tell you something, that’s how it is. He’s going to do something, and that’s the standard. He’s not going to ask you to do something he hasn’t done,” Hardy said. “People and players respect that. That’s how you get people to play for you.”
Rivera, San Diego’s defensive coordinator before coming to Carolina, visited with three ex-NFL coaches this past offseason – Mike Ditka, his Bears coach, Hall of Fame coach and broadcaster John Madden and Cowher.
“They all came around saying one thing: Be true to who you are. So I’ve tried to do that,” Rivera said.
“I’ve learned a lot. Did I make mistakes? Without a doubt. Did I do some good things? Absolutely. But am I better? Not a doubt in my mind I’m better. And I do look forward to every opportunity I’m getting right now.”
Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
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