Ron Rivera's moment at the brink of failure

THE POOR, BESPECTACLED MAN in front of the meeting room had prepared a speech about hope. He had just returned from a trip to Minnesota, in minus-7 wind chills, and maybe his brain was still frozen. When would Ron Rivera get a clue? It was Dec. 1, one month left in the 2014 season, and it was over.

The Carolina Panthers could not win in the heat, nor the cold, nor with two weeks of preparation off a bye. And Rivera was so meticulous in those weeks before the game against the Minnesota Vikings. They packed chicken broth and extra layers, and the coach droned on and on about "the two big dudes," as Carolina return specialist Corey Brown liked to call them, who liked to come after punts.

Regardless of the preparation and warnings, Minnesota blocked two punts that were returned for touchdowns -- something that hadn't happened in the NFL for 24 years -- and the Panthers lost 31-13.

They were 3-8-1, and hadn't won in two months. Brown said when the Panthers walked off the field that Sunday, they were mentally beat. "At that point," Brown said, "we weren't a very good football team."

The next morning, Rivera opened his Charlotte Observer and saw a front-page headline in caps that read, "THE SEASON IS SHOT."

But it was Monday, and Rivera, a man of routine, had to walk his dogs, go to work and get up in front of his team.

"Guys," he said, surveying the room during the team meeting, "we're still in this. Believe it or not, like it or not, we're still in this."

He referenced the Monday paper, and how everyone was counting them out. Rivera told them that the organization picked every man in the room for a reason, and that they are his team and he believes in them.

Somewhere in the mass of Panthers fleece sat Ryan Vermillion, the head athletic trainer. Now, other than the coach's own wife, there might not be any bigger Ron Rivera fan than Ryan Vermillion. They had grown tight in their four years together at Carolina, and when things were going bad, Vermillion was the guy who was there to listen. But even Vermillion was having a hard time swallowing the message.

"I remember going, 'Holy smokes. We believe in these guys?'" Vermillion said. "We just got handed our lunch to us pretty badly.

"I'm sure a lot of guys were saying, 'Here's another coach throwing a bunch of stuff at us.' Because their confidence level was shook. We just needed them to believe in themselves. We needed someone to tell them they were good."

What followed in the next few weeks helped change the course of Carolina's franchise. The Panthers have won 22 of 24 games since then and will play in their first Super Bowl in more than a decade on Sunday night in Santa Clara, California. It would be silly to say that one rah-rah speech on a desperate winter morning was what catapulted a team from a middling NFC contender to one of the league's most dominant forces.

But the journey has been one of patience, trust, luck and hopeless optimism. It is hard to remember, now, how precarious Carolina's franchise looked just 14 months ago. Quarterback Cam Newton was coming off an ankle surgery and a rib fracture, and in a week, on Dec. 9, 2014, he'd be involved in a car accident that would sideline him for a game. For most of the season, he looked nothing like the self-assured superhuman of present day.

And Rivera wasn't exactly the most popular man in Charlotte at the time, either. At least twice in his first few years at Carolina, there had been multiple reports that he'd either been on the brink of being, or was in fact going to be, fired.

Rivera casually told ESPN last week that he never was worried about losing his job. Crazy? Maybe. But no one is questioning Rivera now as he stands on the verge of giving Carolina its first championship in franchise history.

"Sometimes," Rivera said, "all you ask for is just a chance."

RON RIVERA, more than anything, is an optimist. James Lofton worked with him for one season in San Diego. It was 2007, and Rivera had every reason in the world to be bitter at the time. A few months earlier, Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith had fired Rivera despite his running a defense that helped the team to the Super Bowl.

Lofton used to sit behind Rivera in the general team meeting every day for an entire year. Every day, Rivera was in his chair, scribbling up a new blitz.

"He's always upbeat," Lofton said. "That's the thing. He doesn't let what happened on Sunday affect the rest of the week."

Lofton was asked whether every coach, to some degree, is upbeat.

"No," he said. "No they're not."

Perhaps Rivera believes just a little bit more because he was once the guy most people counted out. He interviewed for eight head-coaching jobs in six years before the Panthers finally took a chance on him in 2011. At the end of the 2012 season, when the Panthers finished 7-9 and second in the NFC South in just his second season, the NFL Network ran a video with the headline, "Ron Rivera expected to be fired today."

"Sometimes, all you ask for is just a chance." Ron Rivera

Like most good coaches, he benefited from luck. His boss, Jerry Richardson, did not pull the trigger like so many other owners have in the past five years, even when a poll in The Charlotte Observer from 2013 said that 80 percent of those polled wanted him gone.

And in the winter of 2014, Rivera had more good fortune. The NFC South was atrocious. After the Vikings game, Rivera found out that both Atlanta and New Orleans had lost, leaving Carolina within striking distance of those teams' 5-7 records.

Rivera knew there were reasons behind the Panthers' struggles in 2014. They'd lost four regular offensive linemen to retirement in the offseason, were decimated by injury at running back, and went into the season needing to replace receiver Steve Smith and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, staples in the lineup. Rivera also acknowledged that the Greg Hardy domestic violence case and subsequent timeout loomed large over the team. (Hardy signed with the Dallas Cowboys in March 2015).

After the Vikings game, Rivera actually found several things encouraging. Mike Remmers had started at right tackle for the first time, and he looked solid; Rivera finally felt good about the offensive line. He also inserted rookie defenders Bené Benwikere, Tre Boston and Kony Ealy in the second half and was satisfied by what he saw. All three have played significant roles in 2015.

Around this time, the Panthers had also implemented a no-huddle offense for Newton.

"It's not the hurry-up no-huddle like Philadelphia does," Rivera said. "It's the no-huddle where Cam gets up and audibles and checks and tries to put us in the best offense to give us a chance. And that really took off. Cam really grasped onto that."

Undrafted cornerback Lou Young was signed to Carolina's practice squad in late November 2014. He was surprised to see such energy in a locker room that had absorbed so many losses. Young remembers Rivera constantly saying, "We're still in the hunt!" "We've still got a shot!"

He said it every single day.

"Coach never panics," Panthers assistant head coach Steve Wilks said. "Everything can be in disarray, but you look back on that season, and I never saw a sense of panic in his facial expressions. When you have a leader like that, it's easy to fall in line."

BACK AT HOME, Rivera stuck to his routine. He and his wife, Stephanie, had date nights on Fridays. The week after the Minnesota game, Stephanie thinks they went to Dogwood Southern Table & Bar that night and ordered one of her favorites: bacon jam on country bread.

The couple met in college, at Cal, in the 1980s. Ron was taking summer school and saw her at a frozen-yogurt shop called Yogurt Park. Stephanie was working a basketball camp and asked him if he'd round up some guys to play pickup ball. "That's how we started hanging out," she said.

More than anyone else in his life, she gets him. She coached in the WNBA, college and high school. She loves it so much that she has even helped coach a third-grade YMCA team. After wins and losses, they break down games together.

Ask Stephanie to analyze that Minnesota game, and she says nearly the exact same thing Ron does. The Panthers, at that time, were so close to being a good team. Take away the two blocked field goals, she said, and it's 17-14 and winnable. Everything the team was doing then, she said, was correctable. So they had hope.

Rivera, the son of a military man, craves structure. When he was out of the league for a few years after he retired as a player, he missed the set routine of having his practices and meetings and meals all on a schedule. Today, Stephanie wonders whether it's structure or superstition. Every morning, he has to walk their two dogs before he goes to work. He eats the same breakfast before every game. If there are guests over and it's time for Rivera to go to sleep, he politely turns in and leaves it up to Stephanie to entertain.

The thing that Stephanie and many of the Panthers appreciate about him is that he's steady. He's also sentimental. Whenever the couple is in Northern California, they stop at Yogurt Park.

"We understand the pressures. That's why I think we get along so well," she said. "Our date night in college was probably renting a movie and staying in because we were always exhausted."

ON DEC. 7, 2014, the Panthers went to New Orleans to play the league-leading Saints. Newton threw for three touchdowns, and he appeared to start a fight when he went over the pile for another score. He jawed with a couple of players, then ripped out his Superman celebration. The crowd booed, and Carolina blasted the Saints 41-10.

The Panthers were animated, cocky and loose, hints of what they'd become in 2015. After the game, Rivera was nonchalant about the win. "It's what we expect," he said.

They'd go on to win their last three contests, wrap up the division and beat Arizona in the wild-card game. Rivera believes that the confidence the team earned in those final weeks of the season was a springboard to this year's success.

Rivera saw a confidence in Newton that hadn't been there in his first three seasons. Rivera believes the car accident was "an enlightening moment." It matured him, and Newton grew more comfortable in Mike Shula's offense.

In the offseason, Newton signed a $103.8 million contract, solidifying his spot as the team's cornerstone. Their struggles for much of the season seemed to draw them closer.

Tight end Greg Olsen said the team couldn't have done it without Rivera's even temperament.

"I think in this league, everybody just assumes that in order to be a football coach, you've got to be standoffish, you've got to be secretive, and you've got to be a little bit of a prick," Olsen said. "But you don't. You can demand guys' respect, you can have the respect and the ear of the entire organization by the way you go about your business. The way you treat people.

"Ron, I think, is the perfect example. He treats guys like men; he has high expectations. His standards are through the roof. Guys take a lot of pride in upholding his standards. They don't want to disappoint him."

Two years ago, before 3-8-1, Rivera built a second office, this one on the ground floor of Bank of America Stadium, near the locker room. He wanted a better handle on how his players were feeling and what they were thinking. He'd sit in the cafeteria and make rounds through the training room, learning about their wives and their dreams and the things that annoyed them.

Perhaps that's one of the reasons Rivera always knew, even back in 2014, that this moment at the Super Bowl would come. He knew their abundant talent, sure. But he also knew their hearts.

Just a few days after his speech, Rivera huddled his team together again on the Saturday night before the New Orleans game. He said that after 30 years, he finally got it. He understood the meaning of any given Sunday. It's not the best team that wins; it's the team that plays better.

He tells them that every single day.

ESPN's Dylan Hanley and Carl Carchia helped research this story.