Ron Rivera interviewed for so many head-coaching jobs when he was an assistant coach that he’s lost track of the final count.
Based on Rivera’s recollections and an Observer review, it appears Rivera had eight interviews before the Carolina Panthers finally hired him in 2011.
Suffice to say: A lot of teams passed on Rivera before former Panthers general manager Marty Hurney brought him to Charlotte to succeed John Fox after a 2-14 season in 2010.
Five years later, Rivera has taken the Panthers to the playoffs three seasons in a row and has led them to the Super Bowl for only the second time in the franchise’s 21-year history.
And while Rivera has resisted the urge to release a public “I told you so,” he says he’s bumped into some GMs who expressed regret at having him passed him over.
“I’ve run into a couple owners, too. It’s really about, ‘Boy, you’ve really developed. Maybe I should’ve taken a little longer to look,’” Rivera said. “I’ve gotten some really nice compliments, too. ‘You know, we always thought you were on the cusp. We just felt with a little more seasoning you’d get your chance.’”
The bulk of Rivera’s head-coaching chances came during Chicago’s Super Bowl season of 2006, when he was the Bears’ defensive coordinator under head coach Lovie Smith.
Rivera interviewed with five teams, a list that included the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were looking for a defensive-minded coach. The Steelers reportedly didn’t want to wait on Rivera until after the Super Bowl, and hired Minnesota defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin instead.
That’s worked out pretty well for the Steelers: Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl in Tomlin’s second season, played in another Super Bowl and have made the playoffs in six of his nine seasons.
But many of the other coaches who were hired for vacancies that Rivera interviewed long ago were cast aside or moved on.
▪ Cam Cameron lasted only one season in Miami, which has cycled through four coaches in nine years.
▪ St. Louis fired Scott Linehan early in his third season after the Rams had lost 17 games in a 20-game stretch.
▪ Bobby Petrino, hired by Atlanta in 2007, made it 13 games before resigning. Petrino infamously informed the Falcons players of his decision in a 78-word letter posted in the locker room.
Having gone through it and where I am today made me realize if I’d gotten one of those early ones it might’ve been a disaster.
All told, only two of the eight coaches hired for the jobs Rivera interviewed for are still in those positions – Tomlin and Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy, who won a Super Bowl in 2010 by beating Tomlin’s Steelers.
Rivera said some of those teams might have done him a favor by not hiring him.
“Having gone through it and where I am today made me realize if I’d gotten one of those early ones it might’ve been a disaster because I’ve seen some of the guys that got the jobs,” Rivera told the Observer this week. “They were young guys like me, first-timers like me, and they didn’t have as much success as I know they would’ve liked to.”
Rooney rule a factor?
After so many interviews that did not result in a job that it’s fair to wonder whether some teams brought Rivera in to comply with the Rooney rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head-coaching openings.
But Rivera, who is of Hispanic descent, says he never felt he was helping teams check a Rooney rule box by interviewing.
“Once I took a step back and really thought about what I accomplished, I knew it wasn’t the Rooney Rule. A lot of people felt it was,” he said. “But the further I went into it, the further I looked at it, the more I realized it was really about my merit.”
Rivera, the Coach of the Year in 2013 and a favorite to win it again this season, said he only turned down one interview – in Seattle when Pete Carroll was hired in 2010. Rivera and everyone else in football circles knew Carroll was getting the job.
And though the Seahawks interviewed Leslie Frazier, who is black, they were criticized for violating the spirit of the Rooney rule by putting Frazier through a sham interview when they apparently already had decided on Carroll.
“A lot of people thought me going up there was to just do the Rooney Rule. And they kept saying coach Carroll was going to get the job,” Rivera said. “Well, quite honestly, I knew coach Carroll would probably get the job. I really felt this was going to be Pete’s job.”
‘He just wanted to know why’
Stephanie Rivera said her husband never got dejected when he’d fly home to Chicago or San Diego (where he worked after the Bears) without a job offer.
“He just needed to know why,” she said. “Sometimes it was we were still in the playoffs. Once it was they really wanted offense. Once they wanted someone with head-coaching experience. OK, so those made sense.
“And then some of the other ones – one was an owner was just tired of the interview process and said, ‘That (coach) is fine.’ We were like, ‘Really?’ Actually two were like that, ‘We’re done.’
“Then you look and those teams have all been through two coaches since they interviewed Ron. So it was one of those like, well, maybe we’re glad we didn’t get involved in that organization.”
Instead, Rivera landed in Carolina as the Panthers’ fourth head coach. After Hurney was fired in 2012 during Rivera’s second season, there was speculation that Rivera would be the next to go.
Panthers owner Jerry Richardson told Rivera he wanted to see the team “trending upward.” When the Panthers won their last four games to finish 7-9, Richardson decided to stick with Rivera.
The Panthers have made the playoffs every year since, becoming the first team to win the NFC South three seasons in a row (no team had previously won the division even two years in a row).
Giants owner John Mara credited Richardson for having patience with Rivera.
“Once a coach has one bad season or maybe even two, it’s very rare to see him come back for a third season,” Mara said. “Jerry’s been around the game for a long time as a player and now as an owner. I think he realizes that you have to have some patience and allow a team to be built properly and allow them to come together.
“He always believed in Ron Rivera and now that patience and that belief has paid off.”
Patience and communication
Rivera said he’s lucky to work for a patient owner. Rivera added that he and Dave Gettleman – who succeeded Hurney as GM – have a good rapport.
“I’ve been very fortunate that both general managers I’ve worked with, we’ve communicated very well,” Rivera said. “Dave this year has been terrific. The last three years here have been outstanding as far as communication is concerned.”
Rivera says he’s learned a lot during his five years as a head coach. He concedes he should have had a former NFL head coach on his initial staff to help with logistical things such as meeting and practice schedules (Rivera still doesn’t have an assistant with NFL head-coaching experience).
But Rivera always believed he’d end up where he is now.
“I knew eventually I’d get an opportunity. I really did. I really believed it,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence. And I knew it was just a matter of opportunities.”
He’s made the most of this one.
Observer researcher Maria David contributed.
The One that Got Away
A look at the eight jobs Panthers coach Ron Rivera interviewed for before he came to Carolina, who was hired instead of him and how each coach fared:
Packers have remained a perennial playoff team under McCarthy
Rams lost 17 of their last 20 games under Linehan
Offensive-minded coach had two winning seasons in six years
Blasted by Falcons players and coaches for resigning after 13 games
Successor to Nick Saban fired after going 1-15 in only season
Former def. coordinator has maintained Steelers’ winning tradition
Rivera joined Turner’s staff after interviewing with Chargers for HC job
Only one winning season in five years with Lions