The head coaches are always a big story leading up to the Super Bowl. After all, they are the guys who drive the ship. Ron Rivera and Gary Kubiak won't be nearly the focus as the coaches were last year - the Bill Belichick versus Pete Carroll storyline was compelling on so many levels. This is still a very exciting matchup, though, and one that is very much worth breaking down and looking at more closely. They both replaced John Fox when they took their current jobs, and that isn't the only thing they have in common. Let's break this matchup down from several angles:
Career: Rivera, who just turned 54, played linebacker for the Bears from 1984 until 1992. Upon retirement he went into TV before joining his old team as a quality control assistant - the bottom rung of the coaching ladder - in 1996. He left in 1999 to coach linebackers in Philadelphia. He was back in Chicago again by 2004 as defensive coordinator. He had good success there but left after the 2006 season when the Bears tired of him interviewing for head coaching jobs and were unwilling to pay him what they would have to on a new contract. He went to San Diego where he coached linebackers for a year and then was defensive coordinator until he was hired in Carolina in 2011. He has a career record of 50-34-1 as a head coach, including 3-2 in the postseason. This is his fifth year in charge of the Panthers, He was the NFL Coach of the Year in 2013, and he has a good shot at that honor again this year.
Kubiak, who is just five months older than Rivera, was a backup QB for the Broncos from 1983 until 1991 - backing up his current boss, John Elway. When he retired, he went right into coaching, spending two years at Texas A&M, his alma mater, coaching running backs. From there he went to San Francisco and coached quarterbacks for one season. He returned to Denver, serving as offensive coordinator and quarterback coach - again working with Elway - until 2002. Then, for his last three years in Denver he dropped the quarterback coaching duties before leaving Denver after the 2005 season to take over as head coach in Houston. He was 61-64 there and 2-2 in the playoffs, and he was fired midway through the 2013 season. He rebounded and spent last season in Baltimore as offensive coordinator before returning to Elway and the Broncos for a third stint this year.
Kubiak's 12-4 mark this year matches his career best, while Rivera's 15-1 far eclipses his previous best of 12-4.
Super Bowl experience: Despite both making their first Super Bowl appearance as head coaches, neither is at all new to the Super Bowl. Rivera won a Super Bowl in 1985, playing for Mike Ditka and the Bears. He also appeared in the game as defensive coordinator in 2006, losing to none other than Peyton Manning and the Colts. He has the chance to become the fourth coach to win as both a player and head coach, joining Ditka, Tom Flores and Tony Dungy. Kubiak never won a super Bowl as a player, but he was a part of a Super Bowl losing team three times. He won his first Super Bowl in his first year as an NFL coach - the Niners and Steve Young crushed the Chargers. He won two more as offensive coordinator with the Broncos. He is the first guy to appear in a Super Bowl for the same team as player and coach. He was 5-7 for 76 yards in two mop-up appearances in blowout Super Bowl losses.
Familiarity with each other: They are the same age and have played and coached in the league their whole lives, so they likely know each other well enough. They have met only once previously as head coach, though - the Panthers beat the Texans 28-13 in 2011. They also met the previous year with Kubiak's Texans again losing to defensive coordinator Rivera and his Chargers.
Public affection: No real edge here - unlike last year where Carroll was definitely the people's champion and Belichick the villain. It doesn't feel like the public has a strong impression one way or the other about either of these guys. They are probably viewed mostly as positive, but they aren't major factors in the thinking of casual bettors. If anything, Rivera might have a slightly better reputation only because the memory of Kubiak's firing in Houston is still fresh in the minds of many.
Assistants: Kubiak's offensive coordinator, Rick Dennison, is very loyal. He has been working with Kubiak since 1995, only taking a break to replace him as offensive coordinator of the Broncos from 2006 until 2008 and followed him to Houston and Baltimore. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has been the superstar of the staff this year. The former head coach worked in the same role for Kubiak in Houston for three years and took over as interim coach when he was fired. Kubiak has a group around him he is very comfortable with. So does Rivera. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is the only guy to have filled that role for Rivera in Carolina. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula spent Rivera's first two years as QB coach before moving into his current role. In a world in which coordinators move about very freely, it is striking that both coaches here have benefitted from such loyalty and consistency.
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