After Ron Rivera’s Panthers won the NFC title last week and knew they were heading to Super Bowl 50, one of the first questions asked of the coach was where the team would be practicing once it reached the San Francisco Bay Area.
“No, no, no,” Rivera said. “Thank goodness.”
That was the former Cal linebacker coming through loud and clear, not wanting anything to do with his college team’s biggest rival (and, coincidentally, Broncos executive John Elway’s alma mater).
Though being a head coach in this setting is new territory for Rivera, it’s actually familiar turf. The Panthers’ coach grew up in the Monterey area — about an hour south of Santa Clara, the site of next Sunday’s game — and played his college ball at Berkeley, close to where the Panthers are staying now that they have landed.
“It is kind of a homecoming,” Rivera said this week. “The hard part is tickets, they’re at a premium. But it’s nice. At some point, I’ll be able to see my mom and dad and brothers, be able to get together and visit.”
But while Rivera is a product of Northern California, he’s also carrying a different heritage into the Super Bowl. He has a chance to become the second head coach of Hispanic descent to win the title, following Tom Flores, who did it twice with the Raiders.
Rivera, whose mother is Mexican and father is Puerto Rican, was in high school and college in the early 1980s when Flores was breaking those barriers in nearby Oakland. He said he looked up to Flores, Jim Plunkett (the Raiders’ Mexican-American quarterback) and Roberto Clemente.
“Being of Hispanic descent, you always lean toward things like that,” he said.
Now kids can look up to him.
“It’s a responsibility,” Rivera said. “My parents have always shared that with me, just how important it is to carry myself the right way, that I represent our heritage. It’s important. It really is. It’s a responsibility and I look up to it.”
Rivera said he had a chance to meet Flores last summer at a charity golf outing. The two spoke briefly about their backgrounds and their journeys. He also noted that his father’s side of the family is planning several big Super Bowl parties in Puerto Rico.
“I’m very proud of that,” Rivera said. “To me, it’s kind of neat.”
Rivera had to wait a long time to become a head coach. During his years as a successful defensive coordinator in Chicago and San Diego, The Charlotte Observer recently reported that he interviewed for but did not get eight head-coaching jobs. Offers instead went to others, including quick flameouts such as Cam Cameron in Miami, Scott Linehan in St. Louis and Bobby Petrino in Atlanta. Mike Tomlin and Mike McCarthy are the only two head coaches who beat out Rivera for a job offer and still hold that position.
Now Rivera has a chance to join them as Super Bowl-winning coaches. And he gets a chance to join Flores as a Hispanic on that list. And he gets to do it at home . . . without ever having to set foot on Stanford’s campus.
“Personally, a tremendous amount of pride,” Rivera said when asked what it would mean to do all of those things. “I really appreciate my heritage growing up the way I did and the family I had.”