Ron Rivera was the fourth head coach in Carolina Panthers history, and I’m trying to remember anything interesting about the first three. Dom Capers wore a ball cap. George Seifert was better in San Francisco. John Fox had a voice like mine and loved to say “it is what it is.”
Maybe all three were complicated, interesting men with lots of layers. If they were, we never got to see it.
But Ron Rivera, we saw.
Rivera brought his wife and daughter to practice because he wanted his players to see how they should treat women. He wore T-shirts supporting local charities to his press conferences. He opened up about how hard it was to watch his brother die from cancer. He loves dogs so much that he and his wife, Stephanie, are the honorary chairs of the campaign to rebuild Charlotte’s Humane Society.
Last year, when the Panthers signed safety Eric Reid, he told Reid he didn’t understand why he knelt on the field during the national anthem. But after doing his own research, he changed his mind and supported Reid. He kept a copy of the Constitution in his office.
That office was its own story. When he got the job coaching the Panthers in 2011, he was given a spacious office on the second floor of the building in Bank of America Stadium. But a year later he moved down to a closet-sized space next to the locker room. He wanted to be closer to his players.
Of course, in the brutal world of professional football, none of that matters. It also didn’t matter that Rivera won NFL Coach of the Year twice and took the Panthers to a Super Bowl. What matters is now, and the Panthers are the one thing owner David Tepper refuses to be: mediocre.
Their last two home games closed the deal. The Panthers got blown out by 2-7 Atlanta, then pummeled by 2-9 Washington. They were booed off the field by the fans – at least the ones who showed up. As Braves announcer Skip Caray used to say, a lot of fans came disguised as empty seats.
Quarterback Cam Newton is out for the season, as well as a couple of key defensive players and the Panthers’ kicker. But losing at home to bad teams is hard for any coach to survive. And last week, Tepper fired Rivera.
Rivera will find another coaching job soon, and he and the Panthers will both have a chance for a fresh start. That’s probably best for everyone. But Ron Rivera leaves Charlotte as not just the best coach the Panthers have ever had, but also the most memorable. He made himself part of this city, and showed us the beating heart underneath all those T-shirts. And that made him someone worth rooting for.
Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at firstname.lastname@example.org.