Panthers coach Ron Rivera faces Jeff Fisher on sideline for first time

jjones@charlotteobserver.comOctober 18, 2013 

For the second consecutive week, Ron Rivera will be on the opposite sideline of a coach he once played beside on the Chicago Bears.

Jeff Fisher’s St. Louis Rams come to Charlotte one week after Rivera’s Panthers visited Leslie Frazier and the Minnesota Vikings.

The three were teammates on the Super Bowl-winning 1985 Chicago Bears team, and since then each has climbed the ladder to become head coaches of NFL teams.

“I’m just very happy for Ron and Leslie (Frazier),” Fisher said. “As teammates, you knew that they understood the game. They were passionate about the game, and all of us were given opportunities to coach immediately after we were done playing. I’ve been very, very happy for Ron’s success.”

Rivera was a second-year linebacker on the team, and both Fisher and Frazier were in their last season in the NFL as defensive backs. Last week, Rivera called Frazier a “spiritual confidant.” Rivera and Fisher aren’t as close, but he has a lot of respect for the 18-year head coach.

“Jeff had a great way about him and seemed to put his arm around the young guys and tell them, ‘Hey you got a chance,’” Rivera said. “And he told me. He was right, and he’s a sharp guy.”

Sunday will be the first time Fisher and Rivera face each other as head coaches. Fisher was known as the Bears “unofficial” coach in the 1985 season after suffering an ankle injury that put him on injured reserve.

After retiring following the Super Bowl win, Fisher went to Philadelphia with Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, who became the head coach of the Eagles. Fisher was the defensive backs coach for two years before becoming the defensive coordinator from 1988-1990.

Fisher was head coach of the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans for 14 seasons before joining the Rams in 2012.

When Rivera began looking for employment in the coaching ranks, he got entrenched with Andy Reid’s first staff in Philadelphia in 1999. He became defensive coordinator in Chicago in 2004 and held the same position in San Diego from 2008-2010 before coming to Carolina.

“We had a guy who was a tremendous motivator in (Bears head coach) Mike Ditka and I think the guys that came from that system were probably the kind of guys you wanted,” Rivera said. “There are probably three or four more guys that could have coached if they really wanted to. But a group of us wanted to and we got in it.”

Former 49ers coach Mike Singletary was a linebacker on the Super Bowl team, but Ditka’s coaching tree of former players goes beyond the 1985 Bears team. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh played under Ditka from 1987-1992, and New Orleans coach Sean Payton was a member of the 1987 Bears team made up of replacement players during a strike.

“This (Panthers) defense is definitely a reflection of Coach (Ditka),” Fisher said of Rivera. “He’s done a great job with it. They’re emotional and they play hard, and they play correct. They play mistake-free football.”

Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell said he or middle linebacker Luke Kuechly would make the best coaches because of their “understanding and love for the game.”

Wide receiver Steve Smith said offensive linemen Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil and tight ends Ben Hartsock and Richie Brockel would be the best coaches from the Carolina team.

Smith left himself off that list. The longest-tenured Panther, Smith said coaching after football doesn’t interest him, and even if it did, he wouldn’t be good at it.

“I’m too high energy,” Smith said.

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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