Q&A with Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera (part one)

Cody Dalton
Sports Editor

The Hickory Sportsman’s Club welcomed Carolina Panthers head football coach Ron Rivera for its bi-annual meeting at Rock Barn Golf & Spa in Conover on Monday.

Rivera, who was hired as the Panthers head coach in 2011 and led the team to Super Bowl 50, is the 70th speaker in the history of the long-time club.

Before Monday’s Hickory Sportsman’s Club meeting, O-N-E Sports Editor Cody Dalton was able to have an exclusive one-on-one interview with Rivera on a number of topics.

CD: Memorial Day is approaching, and I know you grew up in a military family. How has that shaped who you are as a person and your coaching career?

RR: Growing up in the military most certainly did help shape who I am as a person. I think a big part of it obviously is that you want to emulate your heroes., and growing up my first heroes were soldiers. My father was one. Living on an army base and seeing those guys gals — I just admired them for who they are and the fact that they serve so selflessly for our country. I always looked at them that way.”

CD: I know you were a standout athlete, but was coaching something that was always in the back of your mind?

RR: I was always that guy that they would say was coach on the field. When I first retired, I worked at a sports channel in Chicago at WGN Radio. I covered the Bears and did pre-game, halftime and post-game reports. I missed the game. My wife used to watch me my first year or two out (of playing), and she said ‘you miss it. you need to get into it.’ I really thought about it, and when I got the opportunity, I started coaching.

CD: For someone wanting to get into coaching, what advice would you give them?

RR: The number one thing is to make sure you know your game. You have to learn the game. One of the best pieces of advice I got was is if you want anything in life, go get it because it isn’t going to send you a limo. Number two is to invest in yourself. If you want to make an investment, invest in yourself. That’s how you become successful.

CD: Who are some of the guys you idolized?

RR: Today, I read everything on General (Dwight) Isenhower, General (George) Patton and (Omar) Bradley. I love World War II history. I love Winston Churchill. I’ve read his autobiographies and biographies on him. I read “Halas” by (former Chicago Bears head coach George) Halas. I read Vince Lombardi’s “When the Game Still Mattered.” I read as much as I could, and I’ve really enjoyed it.

CD: As a head coach, how do you keep things fresh? Do you change things around?

RR: You have to. You have to find that trigger each year, at least I feel you do. Sometimes that trigger changes during the middle of the season. One of the best things that happened to us was in 2013 — my first winning year. We started the season out talking about earning the opportunity to be on the team. Then it became to become relevant. We played a game against the Rams here at home. We had a huge brawl during that game. We kicked their ass. We whacked them good, but all everyone could do was talk about the fight. They barely mentioned we won the game. This was on national television. On “Sunday Night Football” when they did their review, all they could do was show us in the fight. That really pissed me off because that was the first time in my coaching career that we were above .500. I got in front of the players and told them they weren’t even relevant. I kind of used that to motivate the guys.

CD: Being a California guy, the big thing in the NFL has been the Chargers moving to Los Angeles and the Raiders moving to Las Vegas. What is your take on that? Do you think it’s a good thing or bad thing?

RR: I’m not a big fan of moving teams around. I’m really not. I grew up a Raider fan. To see them leave Oakland — after they came back after being in L.A. for all of those years — is almost disappointing because of the fact that they’ve left. I’m not a big fan of the relocation plan that goes on in the league.

CD: Does it ever concern you that the Panthers could move?

RR: I don’t know how possible it is. I hope it never happens. I think there are enough fans in this area to sustain it. We’ve proven it. We’ve got an incredible consecutive sellout record right now. I could tell you right now our fans are as good as anybody in the league. They want to talk about the “12th Man” in freaking Seattle. They have open mics. They leave their mics open so they can catch all that freaking noise. Our fans are just as loud as anybody else’s. In a certain way, they are always very respectful. When you come to play at our place, you aren’t going to have to put up with that b.s. That’s what I really appreciate about the fans here.

CD: I know the big talk is about Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers’ first-round draft pick. When was the first time you got to see him play live in action?

RR: I’d seen him play obviously on film and on television. Unfortunately, he went to Stanford, and my alma mater, Cal, is its big rivalry game. I think in those two games, he’s accounted for 600 yards or something, which is an unbelievable record. I kind of always kept an eye on him. I think his second year, he should have won the Heisman Trophy. I really do mean that. He was the most versatile player in NCAA history. He shattered all these NCAA record, which was phenomenal, but then really I get to study him and watch him on tape. He was very impressive. I’m very excited. I think he is going to fit us very well. His versatility is going to play nicely into what we want to do on the offensive side of the ball. He’s going to give us an extra weapon because not only is he a good runner and runs well inside and outside, but he has great hands coming out of the backfield.”

CD: Reading the mock drafts, everyone was saying the Panthers would take Leonard Fornette, who went to Jacksonville instead. Was Christian always on your radar and the guy you wanted from the get-go?

RR: Yes because we didn’t think Leonard was going to be there. Christian was always the guy that we targeted.

CD: You mentioned him being a Stanford guy. I guess the Stanford-Cal football game this fall will be interesting for you two.

RR: That was a tough one for me to swallow. It still is, but I’m real appreciative of who he is as a football player. If we can get what he did in college football to translate to the NFL, we can be very explosive. It’s on us as coaches to make sure we utilize him well.

CD: The Panthers will look a little different this fall with some new signings and rookies in the fold. What’s the feeling for you heading into this year with this new crew and some of the veteran guys you have back?

RR: What’s interesting is if you go back and compare 2015 and 2016, a lot of people forgot we had a mass exodus, too. If you go back and look at the guys we lost — we lost Charles Tillman, Roman Harper, Dwan Edwards, Jared Allen and Josh Norman. We lost a very big corps of our players. We lost Jerricho Cotchery, who was a big loss for our offense because he was Cam’s underneath go-to guy. We went through a little transition there, and we had the injuries that we had. It really didn’t bode well for us last year at the beginning of the year. With the group that we have now, you look at the guys that we went out in free agency and brought in. We brought in Julius Peppers. Well that’s Jared Allen and Dwan Edwards right there. We bring Captain Munnerlyn back. That’s Charles Tillman. We bring in Mike Adams, and that’s Roman Harper. We consciously went after guys that we thought would be able to replace the guys that we lost. We lose Teddy Ginn, and we go out and draft Curtis Samuels, who was the second fastest guy at the combine this year. We feel good about some of the things that we’ve done.

Read part two of Cody Dalton’s interview with Ron Rivera in the Wednesday edition of The Observer News Enterprise and visit www.observernewsonline.com