Football: Ron Rivera’s greatest Cal moment

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.

Jeff Faraudo

  • Steve W

    I listened to that game on the radio while I was living in Sacramento. It is my first memory of becoming a Cal football fan. Say what you want about Joe Starkey, but his broadcast of that game put the hook in my mouth.

    I never saw Rivera play, but I did get to see Jerod Willard and Zack Follett roam the field. They get my vote as the two best Cal linebackers over the past 25 years.

  • milo

    Great story Jeff. Cal has had a great tradition at LB and perhaps none finer then Rivera.

  • rollonubears

    this guy should be coaching the bears.

  • rollonubears

    by the way, do you seriously question the decision to take first and goal from the 2 over a field goal? with 1:20 left? this is the problem with tedford sympathizers. sure, it didn’t work out, but I guarantee you chip kelly would have gone the way of kapp.

  • aubear

    Sorry JO, David Ortega is the all-time leader in tackles at 525. http://grfx.cstv.com/photos/schools/cal/sports/m-footbl/auto_pdf/pdf-07FB121to150-072007.pdf

  • TOkuno

    I lived in the unit 1 dorms on Durant. I remember once seeing Ron Rivera downstairs with some buds playing the video games. In mufti, he was unremarkable (in a good way); just another student, getting along, having fun. Nice guy.
    Excited for his success, but wish that his coaching path had taken him through a prominent position on Cal’s staff, first. 🙂

  • noduck

    Sorry Aubear, Jeff wrote this piece. not really sure why he wrote it…

  • uh oh

    I can still hear, “The tackle by Ron Rivera” or “Ron Rivera on the tackle” over the loudspeaker!

    Perhaps if he flames out as an NFL coach (no, WHEN, he flames out, since it seems ALL NFL coaches flame out) he will consider coming back to Cal in some capacity.

  • aubear

    Apologies to JO and JF — you two are both off the hook because it was calbears.com that released the press release crediting Ron Rivera with the careers tackle record. Wonder how Dave Ortega feels as he is still employed by athletics at Cal!!

  • BobBear

    Fellow Bear fans, you should read more carefully. Mr. Faraudo said that Rivera finished the season as Cal’s all-time leader in tackles (336), “categories in which he still ranks fifth, tied for sixth and eighth on the school’s all-time lists today.” In other words, he said that Rivera currently ranks fifth in tackles on the all-time list. If we are Cal graduates, we ought to be able to read with some precision.

  • Mike

    I met RR at a party right after the GREAT Big game of ’82. Will never forget he had obviously shaved, showered & changed within an hour or so after the game; most of us were still in delirium (and haggard looking clothing) from storming onto the field and running amok. Ron was in a suit & tie, looked immaculate, greeted everyone (and me, ) and made THE most positive impression. He’s just a most excellent example of a Bear & gentlemen. C. Panthers have a good man in charge.

  • southseasbear

    JF said that Rivera is still the leader in “tackles for loss,” not tackles.

  • Augie Amato

    I was at that game! The Cal section was in the opposite end zone. I could not believe my eyes that Rivera made that play to rescue Kapp’s boneheaded judgement!

  • milo

    You know Cal should totally play up to Latino recruits as the place that produced Joe Kapp, David Ortega and Ron Rivera.

    p.s. Rivera married his college sweetheart (on the womens hoops team) from Cal…so the dude is 110% a Golden Bear.

  • Juancho

    As a latino, I’m pretty happy about this, especially b/c he’s a Cal guy. Rooney rule to me always seems to mean african-american, which makes sense b/c of the percentage of players that are – it’s cool to see a fellow latino as a coach.

  • Juancho

    Milo my amigo, don’t forget Tony GONZALEZ

  • milo


  • aubear

    Bobbear — cut and paste (with precision):

    Rivera finished his Cal career as the school’s all-time leader in tackles (336)

  • Jeff Faraudo

    Noduck — I wrote the blog item because I was there and Jonathan, I presume, was in middle school at the time. But fear not, he’s still your man covering football and I’m on hoops.

  • CALiforniALUM

    Don’t forget Jorge Ivan Gutierrez and his hot softball girlfriend. They may be making some blue bleeding latino bear cubs someday.

  • BobBear


    Rivera was the all-time leader in tackles at the time he finished his Cal career. His record has been eclipsed several times since. It’s as simple as that.

  • Bears

    Would love to see you write more on Cal football. Nothing against JO but I see nothing wrong with throwing a more experienced perspecive into the mix.
    You obviously have seen a lot at Cal and can contribute a lot because of that.
    I believe CC Times readers would appreciate both of you.
    Thanks to you both on the great job you do covering Cal sports!
    Go Bears

  • I matched up against Ron Rivera a couple of times playing pick-up basketball at Hearst Gym. He was friendly and quite down-to-earth, but you definitely didn’t want to get in his way if he beat you on the first step. Much like Kevin Johnson (another pick-up game), the truly great ones have a humility about them.

  • Doug

    That play is his most famous because it actually won the game, but there’s another he made up in Eugene near the end of a loss where he simply ripped the ball out of an Oregon RB’s hands and ran 25 yards or so for a TD. From a skill point of view, it was every bit as awesome. RR still ranks as my favorite Cal player ever, just nosing out a host of others.

  • milo

    Hey, so Cal pulls in another 4-star D-lineman…right from UO’s backyard. Right on.

  • Pug

    Dude, I was there. Felt like it was 150 degrees and I was sure the Bears would wilt by the third quarter. They didn’t.

    Heck of a game.