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Panthers turn to Chargers DC Rivera as their next coach

After eight failed interviews, Ron Rivera finally received his first shot as an NFL head coach -- with the woeful Carolina Panthers.

Just don't expect a wild celebration despite the windy, bumpy road to get there and the significance of being just the third Latino to be handed control of an NFL team.

Rivera has too much work to do.

He showed up to his introductory news conference Tuesday all business. The former San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator barely cracked a smile and stayed on point. It was as if he realized the immense challenge in replacing John Fox and in charge of the NFL's worst team.

"I'm thrilled to death for the opportunity. I almost want to say relief," said Rivera, a linebacker with the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears. "When you get into playing, you strive for one thing, that's to be a Super Bowl champion. When you get into coaching, you strive to be a Super Bowl-winning head coach. That's what my goal is."

Rivera, 49, inherits a 2-14 team that fizzled under the weight of inexperience, questionable personnel decisions and suspect talent. It led to a messy end of Fox's nine-year run, in which he clashed with management over the team's direction.

Rivera is expected to turn it all around.

"It gives me comfort that he's a former player -- a much better player than I ever was," said Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, a former Baltimore Colts wide receiver. "But the fact that he was a former player and I was a former player, it seemed to be a pretty quick bonding with us."

It's the first head-coaching job for the 49-year-old Rivera, a son of a U.S. Army officer who is of Puerto Rican and Mexican heritage. He joins former New Orleans Saints coach Tom Fears and former Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders coach Tom Flores as the only Hispanic head coaches.

"I'm very proud of the fact that I am of Hispanic descent," Rivera said. "I'm very honored to have this opportunity."

It took a while. Rivera interviewed for eight head-coaching jobs in six years. He said that experience helped when the Panthers called.

"I'm excited for Ron," Chargers coach Norv Turner said. "He has aspired to be an NFL head coach, and I expect him to do an outstanding job.

"Ron is an outstanding communicator. He has worked under and learned from a long list of head coaches. That experience will serve him well. The Panthers are fortunate to land Ron."

Said Chargers general manager A.J. Smith: "It's been quite a wait for Ron, but it's finally come. We are all happy for him. He is very much deserving of this opportunity."

The Chargers will begin the process of finding a new defensive coordinator, and secondary coach Steve Wilks and linebackers coach John Pagano are expected to be interviewed for the job.

Rivera, who has worked for various coaches with diverse styles, ran the Chargers' defense since midway through the 2008 season -- San Diego was ranked No. 1 in the NFL in total defense and pass defense this season -- and was defensive coordinator in Chicago from 2004 to 2006.

Rivera was among four defensive coordinators interviewed last week by Panthers GM Marty Hurney and team president Danny Morrison. The others -- Perry Fewell of the New York Giants, Greg Manusky of the San Francisco 49ers and Rob Ryan of the Cleveland Browns -- weren't asked in for second interviews.

"All four did an outstanding job. Ron just surfaced to the top, and he was the one we wanted to bring in for the second interview," Morrison said. "He had a terrific second interview, so everything went well."

Rivera arrived Monday afternoon in Charlotte, in the middle of a rare snowstorm, met with Hurney, Morrison and Richardson, and by Tuesday, he had accepted the job.

Morrison said Rivera received a four-year deal with no option year. ESPN reported it's worth $11.2 million -- far less than Fox's last deal, which paid him more than $6 million this season.

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"Since we've been in business, we've had four head coaches," Richardson said, referring to Fox, George Seifert and Dom Capers. "His approach, his demeanor, his style, his experience, the fact that he's been a former player, seemed to me to be perfect for us at this particular point in time."

Rivera said he'd be "hands on" with the defense but would maintain Carolina's 4-3 scheme, although he used a 3-4 in San Diego because of the personnel. It's on offense in which Rivera faces major challenges.

Morrison said Rivera and Hurney would work together to hire the staff, with offensive coordinator the biggest decision.

Rivera's arrival means Manusky will be considered for the Panthers' defensive coordinator job, according to NFL Network insider Jason La Canfora. Manusky has ties to Hurney.

Ryan also could be a finalist for that job. Ryan's father, Buddy, coached Rivera in Chicago.

Ron Turner, an assistant with the Indianapolis Colts (who was offensive coordinator in Chicago when Rivera was there), and Chargers tight ends coach Rob Chudzinski could be top candidates to become the Panthers' offensive coordinator, a league source told La Canfora. Bears assistant special-teams coach Chris Tabor would be a top candidate for the Panthers' special-teams coaching job, according to sources.

Carolina was the NFL's lowest-scoring team this season and managed just 16 offensive touchdowns.

"Look forward to meeting him and getting to work," rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen wrote on Twitter.

Rivera said figuring out the QB situation is a top priority for the Panthers, who have the No. 1 overall draft pick. Clausen was 1-9 as a starter with three touchdown passes and nine interceptions. Matt Moore, who finished the season on injured reserve, is an impending free agent.

Rivera said he looked forward to seeing "if Jimmy, or if there is a quarterback on this roster, that can become that franchise guy you need. If there is one thing I've been fortunate to be around the last four years is a franchise quarterback in Philip Rivers."

Rivera said personnel decisions would be a "collaboration" with Hurney. He talked of playing an aggressive defense and making a franchise that has never had consecutive winning seasons consistently good.

"I think we spent six hours with Ron, and it felt like an hour and a half," Morrison said. "He was just so focused. He has a great philosophy."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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