Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford saw his team losing its identity defensively. He had run out of ideas to reverse that.
So he reached out to a friend, a guy who works a dozen or so blocks from Time Warner Cable Arena. Another coach in another sport.
The one who will coach in Super Bowl 50.
Clifford and Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera are close. They occasionally lean on each other for support and advice. It started with the occasional “Way to go” text when either won a big game. Then they started trading philosophies each summer when neither one was otherwise occupied.
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So in mid-January, after the Hornets had lost seven in a row, Clifford reached out to Rivera. The Hornets under Clifford had always taken great pride in defense. Yet in this losing streak they were allowing more than 106 points per game.
Clifford asked for help. Rivera did what friends do.
“He suggested some procedures he’d used in practice. We had lost our basics,” Clifford recalled. “We’re talking real basics – teaching individual defense.”
The problem was balancing the need for practice with the stresses of an NBA schedule. Clifford didn’t have many opportunities to correct technique without further tiring his players. Rivera grasped the problem and suggested an alternative: Break the team up into small groups and work very specifically on the skills and strategy that had eroded.
So Clifford tried more 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 drills with very specific goals.
“He suggested doing it in shorter periods, but in a way that would get their habits back,” Clifford recalled.
So after two days of practice, the Hornets had a home game against the Atlanta Hawks, a team that had dominated them for years. The Hornets won by 23, holding the Hawks to 84 points.
Nice to have friends, huh? Rivera knows he could have gone to Clifford the same way in a time of need. They are peers and colleagues.
“Steve is terrific. He’ll call or I’ll call and we’ll text back and forth,” Rivera said. “We’ve actually gotten together and talked about philosophies. I’ve got a lot of respect for him.”
They are remarkably similar: earnest and candid in their dealings with the public and media. Unpretentious about what they do. A good feel for when to be demanding and when to go with the flow.
This friendship started when Rivera and wife Stephanie started attending Hornets home games on Friday “date nights.” That’s not insignificant. Stephanie played college basketball for California until a knee injury ended her playing career.
She went on to coach, eventually becoming an assistant with the WNBA’s Washington Mystics.
Basketball is Stephanie’s passion. So Ron tags along to listen and learn. Think of her as the “hoops whisperer,” translating basketball terminology to football lingo.
“(He’ll) ask about a play maybe and I’ll say, ‘So was the help-side defense not there in time?’ or something like that. Because that’s how I would refer to it,” Stephanie Rivera described.
“And he said certain football terms like ‘over the top.’ And I’m like, ‘Is that similar to meaning like staying deep?’ Because he’ll say a football reference and I have to relate it to basketball. So I’ll always transfer it back to a basketball term.”
Clifford knew of Stephanie’s career but didn’t meet her until the Riveras had courtside seats near the Hornets bench a few years ago. That’s when Steve and Ron exchanged phone numbers and started texting. Two summers ago they set aside a day to debrief each other on coaching.
Don’t dismiss Stephanie’s importance to this dynamic. The Riveras recently used a weekend off to travel to Durham to watch a Duke game. They had ties to Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski, who grew up in Chicago, from Rivera’s time as a Bears linebacker.
Ron sat back and watched. Stephanie guided.
“He was watching Coach K really carefully and I was watching and I said, ‘Oh, that was great movement without the ball.’ And he was, ‘What? Huh?’ ” Stephanie recalled. “I was like, ‘The guy penetrated, the guy rotated, he just dumped it, boom, dunk. That was great movement.’
“He’s like, “Ah, it looked like a dunk to me.’ ”
Yet Ron is learning and paying attention to that other sport.
“He’ll ask me a question about how we’ll guard a team’s best shooter or whatever,” Clifford said.
Rivera can’t lie; he’s just parroting the family expert.
“I go because Stephanie loves the game,” Rivera says. “I go because I like to watch the coaching.”
Staff writer Joe Person contributed.
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell