CORRECTED: 1/18/16 3:50 P.M.
This year’s Super Bowl will mark a milestone with its 50thanniversary and at the same time score another win for diversity with the first team featuring a Latinohead coach and Black quarterback playing in the big game.
Thecredit for the first minority head coach and quarterback to play together in a Super Bowl goes to Oakland Raiders head coachTom Flores and his quarterback Jim Plunkett, both of Mexican descent, who wonSuper Bowl XV in 1981.
And during the ensuingSuper Bowls, there have been many minoritycoaches and quarterbacks who have played, albeit not together on the same team until this yearwiththe Carolina Panthers’ two key leadership roles playing in the championship game: Latino head coach Ron Rivera of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent and Black QB Cam Newton.
The push for diversity in the National Football League began in earnest in 2003 when the NFL established the Rooney Rule named after Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and chairman of the NFL’s diversity committee which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for an open head-coaching position. Minority candidates must be entitled to the same interview process, must meet with the same executives and be given the same amount of time as all other candidates.
In the 10 years prior to the Rooney Rule, a minority was chosen to fill only seven of the 92 head-coaching vacancies, totaling less than 10 percent, while 70 percent of players in the NFL were Black. Since its enactment, however, minorities have filled 17 of the 87 head coaching vacancies, or about 20 percent. In 2015, six of the 32 head coaches, about 18 percent, were minorities.
Rivera himself was interviewed by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2006 to satisfy the team’s Rooney Rule requirement. Rivera was not hired that year, losing out to head coach Mike Tomlin (who is Black). Rivera was eventually hired as head coach of Carolina in 2011.
As a player drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1984, Rivera became the first Puerto Rican to play on a Super Bowl championship team when the Bears beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX in 1985.
Like any good executive, both Rivera and Newton have evolved in their respective roles over the course of their careers. Three short years ago, after back-to-back 2-8 starts, the consensus was that first-time head coach Rivera was going to be fired. The team missed the playoffs for the third year in a row, and most experts pinned Cam Newton as a bust. Fast-forward four years, and “Riverboat Ron” is the favorite for NFL Coach of the Year and Newton is a league MVP candidate.
Coming out of Auburn University, where Newton led the Tigers to the 2011 national championship, he was known for his mobility and size; however, once he arrived in Charlotte, he quickly learned the new job environment would require him to build new skills. For most of his professional life, Rivera learned football from traditionalists like Mike Ditka, who wanted to play smashmouth football. However, as an executive, Rivera looked at his team’s strength and reinvented his business strategy to a fast-paced, pass-heavy game.
In addition to changing business practices, Cam Newton is redefining the image of a quarterback. For the past 15 years, NFL fans have grown accustomed to stolid leaders like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, who seem to live in the film room and are famous for their clich responses to the media. Enter Newton with his lavish fashion statements, emotion on the field and his vision of himself as an entertainer.
In a profession like football, where regiment and discipline have been the code of conduct, Newton is revamping how the position is played. Historically, the head coach of an NFL team trains his players to block out everything going on in their personal life once they enter the locker room.
But in an interview with Fox News Latino, Rivera explained how his upbringing in a Hispanic military family has influenced his unusual open-door policy with his players. “One of the lessons I learned as I was going through adversity is that in order for me to deal with things, handle things and help with things, I had to be truly available to the players,” he said. “I had to have an open-door policy.” Due to the unique experience of these two professionals, the Carolina Panthers are at the forefront of the new way business is conducted.
Both Cam Newton and Ron Rivera have found a way to break the mold and defy stereotypes by creating their own identity in an industry entrenched with tradition. This new model of leadership has propelled the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl. At the same time, they are ushering in a new age of acceptance in the NFL.