As a coach, Ron Rivera learned early on it was important to own up to a mistake.
Speaking at a coaching clinic Wednesday, Rivera recalled how as the coach of the Panthers, he admitted to a candidate for an open position on his staff that he whiffed on not hiring him the first time around. He was likely referring to Jim Skipper, the former Panthers running backs coach who was let go in 2011 prior to Rivera’s first season — only to rejoin the franchise two years later. In recruiting him, Rivera told him he was wrong not to give him a chance before.
“He said, ‘You what?’” Rivera said. “I said, ‘I made a mistake.’ And this is what he said: ‘(Golly), in 30 years of coaching, I’ve never had anyone admit they made a mistake.’ Well I did, I made a mistake.”
Rivera relayed that piece of advice — and plenty of other coaching nuggets — over a video conference for coaches in the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship. Rivera was once a fellow in the program, but now the Washington coach got the chance to share his experience with other up-and-coming coaches around the league.
Rivera’s session was titled “Head Coach Perspective: Managing a Staff” and for part of the hour, Rivera detailed how he handled his assistants. Last year, he said, Rivera took a different approach depending on the assistant. The two men who fall directly under him — offensive coordinator Scott Turner and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio — were polar opposites in terms of experience, so Rivera said he couldn’t treat them exactly the same.
With Turner a first-year coordinator, Rivera said he checked in more often over the course of a week — dropping in on meetings and observing how players were responding. Del Rio, by contrast, has been a two-time head coach with a proven track record of building elite defenses.
Rivera urged the coaches on the call to empower their staff if ever in a position to be a head coach — but also be the example.
“You can delegate the authority, but you have to make sure you set the standard,” Rivera told them. “Because what’s going to happen is when you give somebody the opportunity to do something, when you tell someone, ‘Hey this is yours. This is what you do. Go out and do it.’ Well, I have to make sure … I instruct them as to what the standard is.
“If they don’t understand how it has to be done, they’re going to do it to the best of their ability and if their ability is not up to your standard, then well, whose fault is that?”
The assistants on the call were given the opportunity to ask Rivera questions, too. The Cowboys’ Alec Petrocelli, for example, wondered who — or what — had the biggest impact in Rivera’s career that shaped his coaching philosophy. Rivera replied that he’s taken a bit from each of the mentors he had in his past stops, including Andy Reid in Philadelphia and Norv Turner in San Diego. Others wondered about advancing in the industry and how to stick in the NFL when the fellowship was over.
There, Rivera was especially direct. When interviewing for jobs, he said, it’s not just enough to say what you’ve learned from others — but you have to demonstrate how you’re going to apply those lessons for that team.
“What you did is talk about somebody else,” Rivera said. “If they wanted that, they would hire that person. … It’s great to acknowledge them, but say, ‘Look, I learned this from Coach but this is how I’m going to use it.”
Interviewing is a task Rivera knows well. He famously interviewed with eight other teams before the Panthers finally hired him. At some point, Rivera realized it was critical after each interview to ask questions. If he didn’t get the job, he would inquire as to why. If he did, he sought feedback anyway to understand why he was hired.
“It’s good for you to know that,” Rivera said, “so you can either correct that or hone it and make it even better.”