Published January 11, 2011
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – After eight failed interviews, Ron Rivera is finally getting his first shot as a head coach with the woeful Carolina Panthers.
Just don't expect a wild celebration despite the windy, bumpy road to get there and the significance of being just the second Latino to be handed control of an NFL team.
Rivera has too much work to do.
He showed up to his introductory news conference on Tuesday all business. The former San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator barely cracked a smile and stayed on point. It was as if he realized the immense challenge in replacing John Fox and in charge of the NFL's worst team.
"I'm thrilled to death for the opportunity. I almost want to say relief," said Rivera, a linebacker with the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears. "When you get into playing you strive for one thing, that's to be a Super Bowl champion. When you get into coaching, you strive to be a Super Bowl-winning head coach. That's what my goal is."
Rivera inherits a 2-14 team that fizzled under the weight of inexperience, questionable personnel decisions and suspect talent. It led to a messy end of Fox's nine-year run in which he clashed with management over the club's direction.
Rivera is expected to turn it all around.
"It gives me comfort that he's a former player — a much better player than I ever was," said Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, a former Baltimore Colts receiver. "But the fact that he was a former player and I was a former player, it seemed to be a pretty quick bonding with us."
It's the first head coaching job for the 49-year-old Rivera, a son of a U.S. Army officer who is of Puerto Rican and Mexican heritage. He joins ex-Raiders and Seahawks boss Tom Flores as the only Hispanic head coaches.
"I'm very proud of the fact that I am of Hispanic descent," Rivera said. "I'm very honored to have this opportunity."
It took a while. Rivera interviewed for eight head coaching jobs in six years. He said that experience helped when the Panthers called.
"I'm excited for Ron," Chargers coach Norv Turner said. "He has aspired to be an NFL head coach and I expect him to do an outstanding job.
"Ron is an outstanding communicator. He has worked under and learned from a long list of head coaches. That experience will serve him well. The Panthers are fortunate to land Ron."
Rivera ran the Chargers' defense since midway through the 2008 season, with San Diego ranking tops in the NFL in total defense and pass defense this season. He also was defensive coordinator in Chicago from 2004-06 amid a career in which he's worked for various coaches and diverse styles.
Rivera was one of four defensive coordinators to be interviewed by general manager Marty Hurney and team president Danny Morrison last week. The others — Perry Fewell of the New York Giants, San Francisco's Greg Manusky and Rob Ryan of Cleveland — were not asked in for second interviews.
"All four did an outstanding job. Ron just surfaced to the top and he was the one we wanted to bring in for the second interview," Morrison said. "He had a terrific second interview so everything went well."
Rivera arrived in Charlotte on Monday afternoon in the middle of a rare snowstorm. He met with Hurney, Morrison and Richardson and by Tuesday had accepted the job.
Morrison said Rivera received a four-year deal with no option year. ESPN reported it's worth $11.2 million — far less than Fox's last deal that paid him more than $6 million this season.
"Since we've been in business we've had four head coaches," Richardson said, referring to Fox, George Seifert and Dom Capers. "His approach, his demeanor, his style, his experience, the fact that he's been a former player, seemed to me to be perfect for us at this particular point in time."
Rivera said he'd be "hands on" with the defense, but would maintain Carolina's 4-3 scheme despite using a 3-4 in San Diego because of the personnel. It's the offense where Rivera faces major challenges.
Morrison said Rivera and Hurney would combine to hire the staff, with offensive coordinator the big decision. Carolina was the NFL's lowest-scoring team this season and managed only 16 offensive touchdowns.
"Look forward to meeting him and getting to work," quarterback Jimmy Clausen wrote on Twitter.
Rivera said figuring out the QB situation is a top priority. The rookie Clausen was 1-9 as a starter with three touchdown passes and nine interceptions. Matt Moore, who finished the season on injured reserve, is an impending free agent.
The Panthers have the No. 1 overall draft pick, but lost a chance at taking Stanford's Andrew Luck when he announced last week he was staying in school.
"To see if Jimmy, or if there is a quarterback on this roster, that can become that franchise guy you need," Rivera said. "If there is one thing I've been fortunate to be around the last four years is a franchise quarterback in Philip Rivers."
Rivera said personnel decisions would be a "collaboration" with Hurney. He talked of playing an aggressive defense and making a franchise that's never had consecutive winning seasons consistently good.
"I think we spent six hours with Ron and it felt like an hour and a half," Morrison said. "He was just so focused. He has a great philosophy."