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Ron Rivera’s flexible demeanor guides Panthers to SB 50

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Ready to play despite a broken bone in his foot, Jared Allen didn’t hide his displeasure at Ron Rivera’s decision to hold him out of the NFC Championship Game — not from the media, not from his teammates and not even from Ron Rivera.

“I wasn’t happy with it. You guys [reporters] know I don’t pull any punches. So I just told him I didn’t agree with it — that I was ready to go. That’s the type of player I am. I want to be on the field if I feel I can go.”

But that was that. Allen admitted there had been previous coaches on previous teams where it might have escalated and become a distraction.

“Me and Brad Childress [Allen’s coach with the Vikings] were laughing about it,” Allen said. “He texted me and said, ‘Ron did the right thing by keeping you out.’ or something like that. And I basically told him, ‘Me and you might have had to have a closed-door meeting on this one.’

But with Rivera, Allen quickly was on board after letting off some steam. “I respect his decision,” he said. “I don’t have to be happy with it and it all worked out great.

“And I think that was what was so great about it. He allows those conversations to happen — ‘Hey, here’s what’s going on. Here’s what I think.’ And you listen. That’s why I like him so much. There’s just something about coach Rivera — he’s just cool, calm and collected. He gets it. He allowed me to vent. I explained my point of view and argued. But he’s going to make his decision and I’m going to respect that. And now we’re sitting here ready to play Super Bowl 50. It’s a pretty cool deal.”

That’s part of the secret of Ron Rivera’s success — even players he won’t let play for him want to play for him. The former Bears linebacker is far from the most effusive personality in any room. He was not a Hall of Fame player. But he knows how to manage people — from personalities as disparate as linebacker Luke Kuechly and Cam Newton. He’s the right kind of tough.

“He’s hard on us when he needs to be hard on us,” said Kuechly, a two-time Pro Bowl players. “He’s able to joke with guys when he wants to joke with guys, because of the time and effort he puts into each individual relationship with guys and I think that’s special.”

“He gets guys to want to play for him,” said Panthers cornerback Charles Tillman, who played for Rivera with the Bears when Rivera was the defensive coordinator. “When you make a mistake, you feel like you let your dad down. So you want to go out there and give if your all and make your coach proud.

“He knows how to lead. He’s not like that military [type], yelling in your face. But he motivates you. He’s that guy, when you’re tired in training camp in South Carolina and it’s 100-plus degrees and you want to go home, he can motivate you to give it 100 percent every single day, even when you’re tired. He’s that guy. He has that ‘it’ factor.”

The Panthers’ appearance in Super Bowl 50 is a just reward for the hard-working Rivera, who worked his way up from near absolute bottom of the NFL coaching ranks to get where he is today. Rivera was an analyst on Bears broadcasts after his playing career ended and got into coaching when he was hired by Dave Wannstedt as a defensive quality control coach in 1997 and 1998.

Rivera, who replaced John Fox as the Panthers’ coach in 2011, knows how far he has come, but he isn’t celebrating this as a personal achievement or reveling in the fact that he has a team in the Super Bowl while Lovie Smith — who fired him as defensive coordinator of the Bears after the Super Bowl season of 2006 — is looking for work.

Instead, Rivera has talked more about his good fortune — getting quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Kuechly in back-to-back drafts in his first two seasons as head coach. In what seemed like at least an indirect nod to his unpopular departure from the Bears, he emphasized the continuity of his coaching staff, most of which has been with him all five seasons.

“It’s been very beneficial to our players — that’s the biggest thing,” Rivera said. “From the time KK [Kawann Short] and Star [Lotuleilei] have been here, they’ve been learning and growing with the same coach. Luke has had the same guy with him for four years. Having that continuity has been very important to the growth or our team.”

And also credited the patience of owner Jerry Richardson, who stuck with him despite three losing seasons in his first four years as head coach.

“There’s a lot of satisfaction because of our owner, Mr. Richardson giving me the time and being patient,” Rivera said. “In today’s world, [it’s about] instant gratification. We want it now. Just knowing that Mr. Richardson was willing to have the patience and bet on me and have enough faith that I was going to get it done. A lot of it has to do with the patience of our owner.”

With plenty of talent to work with, Rivera has guided the Panthers to a meteoric rise. In December of last season, the Panthers were 3-8-1 and had not won a game in nine weeks since beating the Bears in October. But, with the playoffs still a possibility in the weak NFC South, Rivera coaxed four consecutive victories out of his promising team to win the division — and perhaps save his job.

“I don’t know if it was necessarily confidence or just optimism,” Kuechly said. “But we were 3-8-1 and hadn’t won a game in who knows how long. And his message was always the same. He was never up. He was never down.

“He said, ‘We’re right where we need to be. If we take care of our business we’re going to make the playoffs.’ For guys to hear that in the way that he said it, as calm as he did — it was very comforting, knowing that we’re 3-8-1 and our coach still has extreme confidence in us. He isn’t giving up on what got us here. It’s a special thing and I think that’s why everyone appreciates him.”

Over the years, Rivera has honed his flexible demeanor. He recalled a divisional playoff game against the 49ers in 2013 when he went overboard arguing calls with officials and the team played poorly in a 23-10 loss at home.

“I got a little bit out of control and I lost my composure — and the players reflected that,” Rivera said. “So I’ve learned first and foremost, I have to maintain my composure. I’ve done it for the most part during the season, but for whatever reason I lost it then. I think we’ve gorwn as players and coaches. And I understand how important it is to maintain your composure and try to be who you are more than anything else. I think that helped a lot.”