Rivera: 'Truly blessed' to have late John Madden as mentor


The NFL and sports world as a whole lost an icon on Tuesday, as legendary Raiders head coach and broadcaster John Madden unexpectedly died. He was 85.

Madden's impact reached past and current NFL players and coaches, including Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera. Shortly after the news broke about Madden's passing, Rivera took to Twitter to thank him for being a mentor.

"Coach John Madden was an NFL icon, who played, coached and gave his name to a video game," Rivera wrote. "But to me he offered his time, wisdom and coaching insight. I was truly blessed to have him as a mentor! RIP Coach."

Although Rivera never played under Madden or coached alongside him, Washington's boss drew plenty of inspiration from the all-time great. 

During Rivera's first two seasons as the Panthers' head coach in 2011-12, his team's played hard but often came up short. After that second season, Rivera got in touch with Madden and asked if he could get some help.

The two coaches met up in California and reviewed game tape. By the end of the meeting, one of the biggest lessons Rivera learned from Madden was to be more aggressive and to trust his gut. The following season, Rivera did just that, and his famous nickname Riverboat Ron was born.

"'You’ve played enough football, you’ve got a good football team. Go with your gut instinct.' I said, 'Well, I was just going by the book,'" Rivera said. "He looked at me, said 'Ron, what book? So there’s a whole book about making those types of decisions, those decisions are made by guys that have experience and understand the game. The guys played the game because of coached the game just like you have. Use your gut experience. Use your intuition. You have enough of it. You know how to do it.' And so I’ve kind of kept that mentality going into my third season."


During that meeting, one thing Rivera appreciated most was the Madden would tie everything back to some of his own experiences.

"When you sit down and talk with him, and you discuss something with him, he would tie in a story of something he had gone through, he had done," Rivera said via Zoom on Wednesday. "He related those things to you and made it so you could understand from practical experience because you know he had already experienced this. His knowledge wasn't guessing or telling you, it was practical experience. He had gone through those things. To me, it's always cool that somebody else that's been there is drawing you the map."

Madden didn't only give Rivera just on-field coaching tips, either. Rivera recalled one line that Madden told him about leadership, something that has still stuck with him today.

"We sat down and the first thing he ever said to me was 'Don't ever forget, you are the head coach. Everything will stop and start with you and everything will come across your desk,'" Rivera said. "It was interesting, because from that point on -- and I had already been a head coach for two years -- but just having him put it to me in those terms, very direct, very blunt, very straightforward really helped galvanize my feelings towards being the head coach."

The Panthers went 12-4 in 2013, Rivera's first season after meeting with Madden. The 2013 campaign was the first of three straight NFC South titles for the Panthers, highlighted by a 15-1 record and Super Bowl appearance in 2015. 

For Rivera, having that chance to sit down with Madden personally is one of his favorite memories.

"Favorite moments, gosh, there are a lot of them," Rivera said. "But first, just getting a real, true opportunity to visit with him and work with him and have him help navigate me through being a head coach at the beginning of my head coaching career. He's always been very supportive. He was a tremendous inspiration for me."