Panther Tracks

Is she the secret to Panthers coach Ron Rivera’s success?

jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

If you could be a fly on the wall of Stephanie Rivera’s suite at Bank of America Stadium on game day, you’d see the wife of the Carolina Panthers’ head coach behaving herself.

Or, at least, trying very hard to.

She’ll of course applaud a black-and-blue touchdown, and her face might tighten into a grimace if the visitor forces a turnover, but there’s an air of dignity to the way she roots for the home team when 75,000 fans are in the same building.

On the other hand, if you had a window into the living room of the couple’s south Charlotte home when her husband’s team is playing on the road, you’d see Stephanie Rivera: Unfiltered.

“No one,” she replies, upon being asked who she watches games with when the team is on the road. “My daughter, maybe. That’s it. ’Cause I SCREAM at the TV. My dogs actually leave the room. They’re like, ‘Uh-oh. Mommy’s mad.’ 

“If a normal person sat and watched football with my mom at home, it would not end well, I don’t think,” says that daughter, 23-year-old Courtney, a social media intern for the Panthers.

“We’ll be watching the game and a big play will happen for the offense that we’re facing, and she’ll go on and on about it. It’s as if she was one of the coaches on the sideline. I’ll be like, ‘You might as well just go to the meetings with Dad. He should just have you sit in next time.’ 

Spend an hour and a half talking to Stephanie Rivera, and it’s abundantly clear: She still has the same competitive spirit she honed as a basketball player at the University of California (evident on the golf course, where she hits from the red tees and boasts a 7 handicap); she still has the same coaching instincts she exploited at virtually every level (including as an assistant for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics in 2000).

And – more than anything else – she still has the same passion for football she developed while growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, in a middle-class Filipino household that swore by John Madden’s Oakland Raiders.

When Ron met Stephanie

A big reason she still loves the game so much, of course, is because she’s married to the Panthers’ head coach, Ron Rivera, who has served the NFL in various capacities for more than three decades.

Before coming to Charlotte in 2011, he was an assistant in San Diego. Before that, he was a defensive coordinator in Chicago. Before that, he was linebackers coach in Philadelphia. He started his coaching career with the Bears in 1996, as the defense’s quality-control coach, after working as an analyst for WGN-TV in Chicago.

Ron Rivera also spent nine seasons as a linebacker for the Bears, from 1984-1992 (all under legendary coach Mike Ditka) – and yes, that means he owns a Super Bowl ring. He earned that bling less than two years after being drafted by Chicago in the second round, and less than eight months after Stephanie slipped a wedding band onto his finger.

When we met, I was like, ‘So, do you start? What position do you play?’ I had no idea he was a preseason All-American.

Stephanie Rivera

The couple became acquainted at Cal in August of 1983 during a chance meeting at Yogurt Park, which still hawks frozen treats to co-eds in Berkeley, Calif., today. The two athletes (Stephanie Tamayo was a point guard for the women’s basketball team, Ron Rivera a star linebacker) had seen each other around the university’s gym before, but had never been formally introduced.

“When we met, I was like, ‘So, do you start? What position do you play?’ ” Stephanie Rivera recalls. “I had no idea he was a preseason All-American.”

She invited him to organize a group of guys to play pickup basketball against her and her friends, and the following Monday, they were on the court together. “We played pickup three days in a row, and then the third day, he finally asked me on a date,” she says.

By that December, they were engaged. Less than six months later, in May of 1984, he was drafted by the Bears. He went off to become the first person of Puerto Rican, Mexican and Filipino descent to play in the NFL, she stayed in the Golden State for her junior year.

But a midseason knee injury rattled her – she’d previously had surgery to repair a torn ACL, as a freshman – and Stephanie Rivera abruptly called it quits. “I’m like, ‘OK, I’m done,’ ” she recalls. “I told Ron, ‘I don’t want to go through rehab and all that other stuff. Let’s get married. I’ll take a semester off and see what this married life is all about.’ 

Finding her place as a coach

After tying the knot in front of about 425 guests at The Galleria in San Francisco, and after her introduction to life as an NFL wife, and after the birth of their first child (son Christopher, now 30 and a production manager in L.A.), she did eventually return to Cal to finish her psychology degree.

Then, while her new husband racked up tackles for the Bears, Stephanie Rivera put her schooling and her vast knowledge of the game of basketball to work as she shuffled through a variety of coaching jobs: as head of the Chicago Twisters, of the now-defunct semipro Women’s Basketball Association; as an assistant for the Chicago Condors, a women’s team in the now-defunct American Basketball League; and as an assistant at Trinity University in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield.

While Ron was in Philly, she did her stint with the WNBA’s Mystics in Washington, D.C., but her absence was tough on the family, so she quit after one season and coached AAU ball across the river in New Jersey. Then while Ron was in San Diego, she coached daughter Courtney’s varsity team at Cathedral Catholic High School.

Since moving to Charlotte in 2011, though, arguably the most significant coaching job Stephanie’s had is helping out a team of elementary-school-age girls basketball players at the Harris YMCA as a favor to a golfing friend.

One also could argue, however, that the most significant coaching job she’s had here is helping out her husband – behind the scenes.

It can be as simple as offering practical advice to wives of his current players, such as: “I’ve said, ‘Please, please, I know you guys all have social media, try not to get into Twitter wars with fans. You’ve just gotta let it go, or just ignore them, block ’em, whatever,’ ” Stephanie Rivera says.

“And Kelly Davis (wife of Panthers outside linebacker Thomas Davis) one time said, ‘Uh, too late. Too late. I already did.’ She was laughing. I’m like, ‘Kelly!’ She’s like, ‘I know. I shouldn’t have. But I did.’ 

‘I’m OK with being arm candy’

The assistance she provides also can be much more sophisticated.

“Ron will say to me, ‘So and so’s struggling,’ ” Stephanie says. “So I’ll say, ‘Well, let me find out if something’s going on with the family.’ Or, ‘Maybe you should ask if their mom’s OK, if their girlfriend’s OK, if there’s something going on.’ Sometimes it’s family things that are bothering the guy’s performance on the field.”

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera spoke briefly about his discussion with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on the hits that Cam Newton takes.

During a recent phone call, Ron Rivera offers this example: On one of his old teams, he had a player who was dealing with marital problems. So he and Stephanie invited the couple over to their house for dinner, and after the meal, the women were able to speak privately.

Turns out the wife was feeling neglected as the player’s star had risen, and wanted to feel more involved in off-the-field appearances and events. Rivera broached the subject with his player, who seemed surprised but eventually started including her more; in time, the relationship was healed.

“(Stephanie) went through it as a player’s wife for nine years,” Ron Rivera says, “and she knows the demands on the player. At the same time, she knows how it is to be a player’s wife and to sometimes feel like you’re left behind.”

But Stephanie Rivera insists she isn’t feeling left behind these days.

If it’s Team Rivera, I’m a great assistant coach. Him being out front, it doesn’t bother me at all. He represents us as a couple well, and if I’m arm candy every once in awhile, I’m OK with that.

Stephanie Rivera

She in fact calls most of the plays when it comes to the couple’s involvement with their designated charitable partners – the Humane Society of Charlotte, the Ronald McDonald House of Charlotte, Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and the USO.

She also pours over media reports about the Panthers (Ron tries not to read any articles about the team that he doesn’t have to). If she thinks she sees inaccurate information, she’ll relay it to Ron; if it’s indeed a problem, he’ll set the record straight at his next press conference.

She even now routinely gets invited to appear with Ron in TV commercials for CPI Security.

“If it’s Team Rivera, I’m a great assistant coach. Him being out front, it doesn’t bother me at all. He represents us as a couple well, and if I’m arm candy every once in awhile, I’m OK with that,” Stephanie Rivera says, laughing.

Some (sweet) things never change

In the more than five years since the Riveras arrived in Charlotte, they’ve seen a transformation.

“When we got here (after the Panthers went 2-14 in 2010), we noticed that no one was wearing the gear,” Stephanie Rivera says. “This was in the offseason, but, I mean, when you’re in Chicago, and you grow up a Chicago Bears fan, it doesn’t matter what time of year it is – you’d see people in Bears hats and Bears T-shirts, sweatshirts. I’m like, ‘There is a team in town, right?’ 

And just look at us now, she says, post-Super Bowl appearance, in spite of the frustrations of the 2016 campaign so far.

“When you see suburban moms wearing Luke Kuechly jerseys, you know you’ve made it,” Rivera says. “That now they all care. That they’re all behind you. That you’ve changed the culture in the town.”

One thing that hasn’t changed, though, are her rituals on home game days.

About two hours before kickoff, Rivera hands off the family’s 11-year-old Golden Retriever, Fiyero, and their 10 1/2-year-old terrier mix, Penny, to the dog sitter. An hour later, she’s on the field. Then right before kickoff, she makes sure she stops by to say hi to Ron.

“He gives me a kiss,” she says, “and then we’re good.”

Up in the suite, she tries to stay calm, cool and collected, perhaps in fear of embarrassing her husband or the organization, or perhaps simply because she doesn’t want anyone around her to go deaf.

“But I did get the heart-rate monitor on my Apple Watch up to 130 beats per minute one time,” Rivera admits. “It got intense during a game last year, it went down to the wire. I looked at my watch, and it said 130. Then at the end of the game, it actually said, ‘Congratulations, you got your workout in for the day!’ 

And win or lose, before leaving the field post-game, Ron Rivera always makes his way to the 20-yard-line and looks up to his wife in her suite to deliver a message.

“It started way back when I was a player with the Bears,” the Panthers coach says. “The family tickets were between the 30- and 50-yard line, right behind our bench, halfway up, and she just happened to have two really good seats right around the 45-yard line. All I had to do is turn and look, and I could see her. ... It’s just something we’ve always done.”

Stephanie Rivera would scream it if she could, but again, at the stadium, in front of her guests, she strives for decorum.

So they use sign language to tell each other: “I love you.”

Janes: 704-358-5897;

Twitter: @theodenjanes

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