Carolina Panthers

‘I’m just very fortunate.’ Emotional Ron Rivera becomes winningest coach in team history

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This ritual can be practiced, but never perfected.

If it could, Ron Rivera surely would have done so by now. He has made the same walk to the press conference podium hundreds — likely thousands — of times as head coach of the Carolina Panthers. Beep in through a side door, accompanied by a characteristic electronic blip and the shackle of a metal door swinging open.

Then comes a brief moment to compose himself before the questions ring out. Time for sweat beads to glob on his forehead, but barely more.

And some days, the process is painful. Tough losses yield tough interrogation, queries on everything from play calls to job security. Other days, it’s pleasurable. Fifteen wins in 2015 certainly qualified as such, not to mention the inherent fun that sort of success breeds.

But for all the wins and all the losses, Sunday was different. On the stat sheet, it’ll be listed as just another win, 34-27 over the Jacksonville Jaguars. And while that’s notable because it moves the Panthers to 3-2 on the season and just one game back in the NFC South, it’s just as notable for the personal milestone Rivera hit:

Sunday marked his 74th career victory as the Panthers’ coach — more than anyone else in team history.

John Fox, who lasted nine years in Carolina and took the team to its first Super Bowl appearance, had 73.

As Rivera stepped to the podium Sunday, the same walk he makes day-after-day for almost a decade now, there was something different.

“It’s kind of cool,” Rivera began. “It truly is a tribute to our team. I’ve been very fortunate with Mr. (Jerry) Richardson giving me my opportunity, and he stood by me and I was able to get past my third season.”

The Panthers went 13-19 in Rivera’s first two seasons, back when quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly were still young upstarts in the league. But with those two building blocks in place, Rivera was allowed to return for a third season.

He went 12-4 and won the first of three consecutive NFC South titles.

“He’s the best,” Kuechly said. “I mean, coach Rivera is one of those guys where he loves the players, and I think that’s the best part about him. Obviously he’s a great coach, he understands ball, but I think he loves the guys, and I think the guys appreciate that. Guys feed off that.

“And he’s always super constant. We’ve been in tough situations since I’ve been here when we haven’t started as well as we needed to — like this year, we started 0-2 and everyone could have said the sky is falling. But coach Rivera does a great job of keeping everybody involved, everybody encouraged and has the same message every week: That we’re a good football team, we just need to play like it.”

Back at the podium, Rivera pressed on.

“Then the players that we have had have been tremendous,” Rivera continued. “The coaches, I’ve been very fortunate enough to have great coaching staffs with guys like that. Mr. (David) Tepper, with the things he has given us and the opportunities he is creating for this football team to get better and better, it’s pretty exciting.”

Tepper, the billionaire hedge fund owner who bought the Panthers last summer, inherited Rivera. And on the heels of an 11-5 season and a playoff berth, it made sense to keep him. But as Carolina’s season unraveled last winter — a seven-game losing streak ended any playoff aspirations the group had to begin 2018 — there were reasons for Tepper to doubt. Reports surfaced that he was looking to make a change at coach.

But he didn’t. At the end of the year, Tepper showed Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney patience, and he gave them another chance to rectify past mistakes.

After an 0-2 start, the Panthers have now won three straight games, even without Newton and a number of key starters.

“It’s special. It’s really special,” running back Christian McCaffrey said of Rivera’s milestone. “He deserves it all. I love Ron.

“Obviously he believed in me, and just for drafting me, that meant a lot. He took a chance. You know, a lot of people didn’t. There were seven teams in front of me that didn’t, and he did, so I’ll always be appreciative of that. ... He deserves it. He’s a heck of a coach, heck of a mentor to all of us, so happy for him.”

Back to Rivera at the podium. At this point, he started to slow down. Gave pause before speaking, whether calculated or to control his emotions.

His eyes, so intensely focused after games, swelled a little. His voice cracked.

“I’m just very fortunate,” Rivera said, gathering himself as he went on. “To my family, I’m very fortunate. With my family, my parents, my brothers and then my wife Stephanie and kids have been with me the whole way...”

Then Rivera’s voice got quiet as if memories were playing back in his mind; nine years of love and loss and life flashing before his eyes in seconds.

His whole family has ingrained itself in the fabric of Charlotte. While the coach appears on local radio shows and at charity functions, so too does Stephanie. Their year-old golden retriever Tahoe is training to be a therapy dog, and he can be spotted all around the city, too. The whole family supports countless local philanthropic efforts, especially in support of pancreatic cancer, the disease that took the life of Rivera’s brother Mickey in 2015.

And as the Panthers have gone this decade, when Newton and Kuechly helped catapult Carolina into the national relevancy, Rivera has always been there. Always deferring the credit when the team wins, always assuming the blame when it loses.

Rivera earned his first game ball nine years ago against Jacksonville, one he admitted this week he keeps on the mantle in his home. After Sunday’s win over the Jaguars, he came full circle, earning a game ball for his 74th win as head coach.

It’s no wonder he was choking back emotions and looking for words. And then he found them, honest as he’s been for so much of his tenure in Charlotte:

“It feels pretty good,” Rivera said smiling. “It really does. It’s cool.”

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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