Ron Rivera, named head coach of the Carolina Panthers today, was one of finest players in Cal history. According to the Cal website, Rivera is the 14th ex-Golden Bear to become an NFL head coach.
I covered football in a former life and was there to see perhaps Rivera’s greatest play as a Cal linebacker. It was the 1983 season opener, Cal’s first game the year after The Play, and the Bears were visiting Texas A&M. A great road trip to College Station, a funky and friendly place with beef ribs that still make me hungry.
A&M was debuting new coach Jackie Sherrill and re-introducing its 12th man tradition, where fans stood throughout the game to share in the players’ sacrifice.
The score was tied at 17-all with 1:20 left when Randy Pratt kicked a 28-yard field goal to put the Bears in front. But the Aggies were flagged for roughing Pratt and Cal coach Joe Kapp made the questionable decision to take the points off the board and take a first down at the 2-yard line.
The theory was the Bears could run some more clock and probably score a touchdown to ice the game. Instead, quarterback Gale Gilbert fumbled the snap and A&M recovered.
Defeat seemed certain. Two plays later, on second-and-9 from the 4, Sherrill called for a sweep to the right. Fullback Jimmie Hawkins got the ball in the end zone and Rivera knifed through the line to tackle him for the game-winning safety with 57 seconds left.
Back-to-back boneheaded coaching decisions, and Rivera took Kapp off the hook.
Rivera finished his Cal career as the school’s all-time leader in tackles (336), sacks (22.0) and tackles for loss (47.5), categories in which he still ranks fifth, tied for sixth and eighth on the school’s all-time lists today.
He was a first-team All-America pick as a senior, when he was also named the Co-Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and won the Pop Warner Trophy given to the top senior on the West Coast.
Rivera set single-season school records in tackles for loss (26.5), tackles (138) and sacks (13.0) during his final season at Cal. The tackles for loss mark remains Cal’s single-season record.
Years later, one of them stands out above the rest.