Ron Rivera and Bruce Arians have taken the road less traveled to this Sunday’s (6:40 p.m.) National Football Conference championship game. When they stand on opposite sidelines at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Rivera, head coach of the No. 1-seeded Carolina Panthers, and Arians, the No. 2-seeded Arizona Cardinals, will carry profiles that set them apart from nearly all of their peers.
The 54-year-old Rivera is only the third Latino head coach in NFL history, following Tom Fears, who piloted the New Orleans Saints from 1967 to 1970, and Tom Flores, who coached the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders to two Super Bowl victories in 1980 and 1983.
As a second-year linebacker on the iconic, free-spirted 1985 Chicago Bears, Rivera, the son of a Mexican-American mother and Puerto Rican father, became the first player of Puerto Rican descent to win a Super Bowl title. His coaching personality and philosophy can be traced back to his nine-years in a Bears uniform.
Rivera’s fingerprints are all over the unrestrained Panthers, a tight-knit, demonstrative collective led by QB Cam Newton, soon to be named the 2015-16 NFL MVP. An Army brat born in Fort Ord, Calif., he has crafted a team that is mentally tough, physically imposing and selfless. They’ll need to exhibit all of those qualities to defeat Arian’s Cardinals.
A tough street kid born in Paterson, N.J., and raised in York, Pa., Arians, quick to speak his mind and adverse to engaging in football politics, didn’t get his first full-time NFL head coaching opportunity until he was 60-years-old because of those exact characteristics. But when the Cardinals smartly hired him in January of 2013, Arians quickly affirmed his bona fides.
He also continued to do what he had done seemingly his entire coaching life: provide opportunities to Black coaches and women, notably Jets current head coach Todd Bowles and Jen Welter, whom he employed as the first female coach ever in the NFL during training camp last summer.
The pick here is Panthers 23, Cardinals 17. Regardless of the outcome, both coaches have already established unique legacies.