Carolina Panthers head football coach Ron Rivera doesn’t so much enter a room as he does burst through the doors as if they were offensive linemen trying unsuccessfully to keep him from their quarterback.
It’s no surprise. Rivera, after all, was an All-American linebacker at the University of California-Berkeley, before the Chicago Bears selected him in the second round of the 1984 NFL Draft. He was the first man of Puerto Rican descent to play on a Super Bowl championship team, when the Bears demolished the New England Patriots 46-10 in 1985. And he has led the Panthers to a 17-1 record and a spot in the upcoming Super Bowl.
What isn’t as commonly known is that Rivera is the son of an Army officer and proud Legionnaire, and growing up in a military family shaped the man and coach he is today.
“My father, Eugenio, was a chief warrant officer fourth grade,” Rivera says. “He served 32 years. He joined when he was in Puerto Rico and was pretty much assigned all over the United States, but our home base was Fort Ord, Calif. That’s where my three brothers and I all were born.
“It was a great way of life for him, and it was a great way of life for my family. We really enjoyed growing up that way. When you move around as much as we did, your best friends are your brothers.”
Rivera’s family lived on military bases in Germany, Panama, Washington, D.C., and Maryland before settling in for a longer stretch in Monterey, Calif. There, he attended Seaside High School, where he played football, basketball and baseball.
Growing up, Rivera and his brothers were taught what he likes to call the military “way of life,” summed up in three simple rules:
• Be on time. It shows commitment.
• Pay attention, so others know you know how.
• Play hard, so you know you can be counted on.
“We learned that if you follow these three rules, you’ll build trust with the man in the foxhole, and the man in the foxhole will trust you,” he says.
That upbringing set the tone for Rivera’s remarkable career – nine seasons as a player with the Bears and nearly 20 years as a coach.
“Football is what has helped me clarify the difference between a dream and a vision,” he says. “A dream is what you hope for and what you wish for; a vision is what you plan out and execute. That’s the stuff that our dad taught us: you should have a plan, you should have an idea as to how you want to attack the problem.”
In 1992, Rivera retired from playing professional football. For four years, he covered the Chicago Bears and college football as a television analyst for WGN and SportsChannel Chicago. Still, he wasn’t content staying on the sidelines.
“I was miserable, and my wife knew I was,” Rivera says.
“I was coaching our son in pee-wee football, and I was always talking about coaching, and she looked at me and said, ‘You need to get back in it, because you have no structure in your life. When you were growing up, your dad was getting you up at 6:30 every morning. Then you got into the NFL and you got up every morning at 6 o’clock to work out and get ready for games and all that stuff. You were regimented for such a big part of your life, and that part is missing.’ Transitioning into coaching was really just an extension of growing up military.”
In 1997, Rivera joined the Bears as a defensive quality control coach. From there, he worked as the Philadelphia Eagles’ linebackers coach and returned to the Bears as a defensive coordinator in 2004; the team’s NFC championship win and appearance in Super Bowl XLI in 2006 put Rivera on the radar of several NFL teams as a potential head coach.
He joined the Panthers as a rookie head coach in 2011, inheriting a 2-14 team. Three years later, Carolina became the first repeat champion in the NFC South since 2002.
Rivera and his wife, Stephanie, care about military and veterans issues, supporting events for the USO in North Carolina. They buy tickets for, and host, a military family at every Panthers home game. In addition, Rivera speaks out about the importance of employers hiring veterans, who he believes have all the training and discipline to make great employees – and even greater leaders.
In an interview with USAA, Rivera shared his thoughts about the advantages of a military upbringing.
“I’d like to believe that if you paid attention and really watched what your parent or parents went through as a soldier, you understand a lot sooner than other kids what it means to be an American,” he says. “You are taught self-sacrifice early, you are taught to do things for the greater good a lot sooner, and you understand the significance of making a commitment and giving your all. When you hear people talk about being brought up in an environment where you learn early on about commitment, teaching and sacrificing, that shapes who you are. I think that’s a bonus for coaches because you know young people like that are even more committed.”
Though he’s proud of what he’s accomplished in his life, Rivera’s not one to live off past successes; there’s still a lot he wants to do, and he knows it’s up to him to make it happen. As he likes to say, “If you want something in life, go get it, because they are not going to send the limo.”