Ron Rivera has admired Jim Harbaugh's work ethic since the two were teammates with the Chicago Bears in the 1980s.
But as NFL head coaches they couldn't be more different. Rivera, a Marina, Calif., native, appears even tempered as he walks the sidelines for his Carolina Panthers. 49ers coach Harbaugh, meanwhile, wears his emotions on his sleeve.
“Jim is very intense,” Rivera said. “He wants to win. But he has fun. There is no reason not to have fun. There's no reason not to be competitive. I admire the guy.”
That admiration as a player has translated to the coaching ranks for Rivera, whose Panthers host the 49ers on Sunday in the NFC divisional playoffs.
“I've watched what Coach Harbaugh has done,” said Rivera, a linebacker on the Bears' 1985 Super Bowl title team. “This goes back to his days at Stanford.”
To a degree, Rivera has emulated what Harbaugh has done, building the Panthers around defense, a running game and a young, athletic quarterback.
Yet, while Harbaugh is an offensive-minded coach, Rivera is a defense guy, having orchestrated top-ranked units as a defensive coordinator in Chicago and San Diego.
The Panthers defense harassed the 49ers in their regular season on Nov. 10, holding them without a touchdown in a 10-9 win at Candlestick Park — one of only two teams this season to keep San Francisco out of the end zone.
Some looked at the game as a signature win for Rivera and the Panthers, who rattled off their fifth straight victory by beating the 49ers to put themselves in the playoff picture after a 1-3 start.
“It was a big win, but I don't know if it was a signature win,” Rivera said. “We beat the defending NFC champions in their yard. But there have been a lot of big wins for us this year.”
Most have come at home, where the Panthers have won seven straight since falling 12-7 to Seattle in their season opener.
Rivera has the Panthers pointed in the right direction, taking over a 2-14 team in 2011, and going 6-10, 7-9 and then 12-4 this past season.
“There are a lot of positives,” said Rivera, whose defense is ranked second in the NFL, having held eight opponents under 15 points. “Things are headed in the right direction.”
There are also similarities between both the Panthers' and 49ers' budding franchise quarterbacks.
As dangerous as Collin Kaepernick is with his legs, Rivera has a quarterback that can do damage on the ground as well in former Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton.
Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, threw for 3,379 yards and 24 touchdowns this year, while finishing as the team's second-leading rusher with 585 yards and six touchdowns.
Climbing out of a 1-3 start to the season turned each game into a playoff-type battle. So Rivera felt the week off last week was good for the Panthers.
“People forget that we had a bye after Week 3,” Rivera said. “Every game became a must win. We were chasing New Orleans. We had the 49ers and Arizona on our tails. Every week has been so intense.”
For someone who has played in a Super Bowl and has been an assistant coach in the Super Bowl, being a head coach in a playoff game feels different — special.
“It's pretty exciting,” Rivera said. “Obviously it's completely different as a player. As an assistant, you are one of the guys. But as the head coach in the postseason, I'm the one in the middle of it all.”