The search for ‘sustained winning’: A few takeaways from David Tepper’s decision to fire Ron Rivera
Charlotte’s weather on Sunday was as close to perfect as you could ask for in early December. Mid-60s, barely a cloud in the sky, even though it had rained that morning. Football weather. Ideal for watching a struggling team beat a very bad team, the Washington Redskins.
Yet crowds were scarce at Bank of America Stadium minutes before kickoff. The get-in price for tickets was $13 on StubHub. Quarterback Cam Newton wasn’t playing, and won’t be for the rest of the season. The Panthers lost 29-21, dragging their record down to 5-7 and squashing their playoff hopes for good.
On a day like that, fans seemed not just frustrated with the Panthers but … detached.
So maybe it wasn’t a surprise when team owner David Tepper fired coach Ron Rivera on Tuesday, with four games left in the regular season. After all, Tepper told reporters a few weeks ago that he won’t tolerate prolonged mediocrity. In retrospect, that seems prescient.
During an impromptu press conference Tuesday evening, Tepper said that finding a new head coach is one step toward creating long-term success for the Panthers.
“You heard about Rome, right?”
Here are a few takeaways from Rivera’s early termination:
1. Rivera was well-liked in the locker room and in the community.
A former linebacker for the Chicago Bears, Ron Rivera is a players’ coach. He’d show up at players’ charity events, and he’d stand up for his guys. Like when he spoke to reporters and NFL executives for 20 minutes in 2016 to defend Newton. The quarterback had been slammed for leaving a post-Super Bowl press conference early.
“What we ask players to do after a game like that is tremendously unfair,” Rivera said, the Observer reported at the time. “Personally I’ve always felt that in a situation like that there’s only one person that needs to talk, and that’s the head coach.”
Rivera was also popular among fans for his community involvement.
He comes from a military family — his dad, Eugenio, served in the U.S. Army for more than three decades — and was involved in veteran-related organizations like Charlotte’s Veterans Bridge Home. Rivera and his wife, Stephanie, are also active with the local USO.
The Riveras have raised funds for a number of causes close to their hearts, including pancreatic cancer research. Rivera’s older brother, Mickey, lost his two-year battle with the disease in 2015.
2. It was not an easy decision to fire Rivera.
Tepper described his conversation with him at the stadium Tuesday as emotional and honest.
Rivera is someone Tepper has always liked and respected, and he knows fans feel the same. Tepper says he hopes to find a new coach who demonstrates a similar commitment to the local community as Rivera has.
The billionaire team owner got choked up when talking about saying goodbye to the coach and his family.
“For the fans out there that, um … ” Tepper said, his voice breaking, “For the fans out there who love the Riveras, I’m there, too.”
3. Rivera played a big part in developing the Panthers’ culture over the years.
He got his nickname “Riverboat Ron” for his tendency to go for fourth-down conversions. The moniker refers to riverboat casino gamblers, known for risk-taking. There’s some dispute over where the nickname came from, but one theory is a 2013 game against the Buffalo Bills.
Toward the end of the fourth quarter, Rivera elected to kick instead of go for it on a fourth down. The Bills came back with a touchdown and beat the Panthers, but Rivera didn’t forget the lesson he learned. And soon, Riverboat Ron cartoon images were plastered all over T-shirts and team gear.
4. With a record of 76-53-1, Rivera was team’s winningest coach.
Rivera was hired in 2011, the year after the team finished the season with a record of 2-14.
In the years after that, he was twice named the NFL’s coach of the year, including in 2015, the magical season the Panthers’ made it to the Super Bowl.
But Newton is out, and this is the second year in a row the Panthers won’t make the playoffs. The Panthers’ last two losses were against teams who’d only won two games this season. On Tuesday, the Panthers said secondary coach Perry Fewell would act as the team’s interim head coach.
5. Tepper has always been clear about his thoughts on losing.
“The first thing I care about is winning,” Tepper told reporters when NFL owners approved him as the next Panthers’ owner. “The second thing I care about is winning. Third thing I care about is … (winning.) On and off the field.”
When he bought the team almost a year and a half ago, Tepper made sweeping changes on the business side of the Panthers organization, which he described as “an absolute wreck” before. He hired MLS executive Tom Glick to be the Panthers’ president. He brought on former Pittsburgh Steelers executive Mark Hart as the team’s new chief operating officer.
The football side of things at first was OK, and Tepper was willing to be patient. But now it’s time for a change, he said.
“I never want this team to be at a competitive disadvantage if I can help it,” Tepper said. “I’m hiring a person to win football games. Long-term, sustained winning.”
6. It’s not a complete surprise. It’s not completely expected.
Vanderbilt sports economist John Vrooman says it doesn’t shock him to see Rivera go before the end of the year.
The risk for Tepper, Vrooman said, is getting trapped in a cycle of getting rid of coaches who don’t yield “sustained success” quickly enough.
“The customary ‘change in culture’ decision was probably already made when David Tepper originally acquired the Panthers, and there may be a slight early bird advantage from firing Riverboat Ron before the end of the season,” Vrooman said.
“Tepper probably already has a short list and he’s checking it twice.”
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