SANTA CLARA -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera began being called "Riverboat Ron" this season after he showed a repeated willingness for high stakes gambles.
The 1-3 Panthers were looking at a dismal season when Rivera took his gamble. In an October game against the Minnesota Vikings, twice on the same drive Rivera had the Panthers go for it on fourth-and-1 rather than kick a field goal.
Both plays succeeded -- the second was a touchdown -- leading to a 35-10 victory that helped turn their season around. The Panthers have won 11 of their past 12 games, and Sunday they host the 49ers in an NFC divisional game. A win, and Carolina will be a step closer to the second Super Bowl in the franchise's 19-year history. The Panthers lost the Super Bowl to New England in the 2003 season.
As it turns out, the roots of Rivera's gambling ways sprouted in Berkeley.
Rivera was at Cal in 1983, playing for coach Joe Kapp. The Bears had just kicked a field goal against Texas A&M in the final minute to break a 17-17 tie, but Kapp took the points off the board when the Aggies were penalized. On the next play, Cal fumbled the ball away inside the 5.
One play later, Rivera, then an All-America linebacker, tackled a Texas A&M runner in the end zone for a safety, and Cal won 19-17.
"Ron Rivera saved the day," Kapp told this newspaper this week. "A coach's goal is to prepare a player to succeed, and he's really succeeded."
Rivera, who played at Seaside High before coming to Cal, credits Kapp for much of his success. During a Wednesday conference call, Rivera said, "Joe Kapp has always been a huge influence in my life."
"Ron was quiet," Kapp said, "but his personality was always that of a leader. No one thought Carolina would do that much this year, but he's got them right there."
The Panthers are a young team, and Rivera, who interviewed nine times for NFL head-coaching jobs before landing in Carolina in 2011, has always been one to show the kids how it's done.
Bill Cooper, who coached linebackers at Cal under Kapp, said he didn't know Rivera would end up coaching. But Cooper did know that Rivera would work well with the younger set, no matter what he did.
"I know he had a real affinity for kids," Cooper said. "I know because I saw how good he was baby-sitting my son. Kevin grew up idolizing everything Ron Rivera did, on the field and off. Ron was always fully aware of the whole team concept and how he was a part of it. I think he's taken that into his role as the head coach."
Another Rivera strength is his ability to separate what he can control from what he can't.
A few hours after the Panthers fell to 0-2 on Sept. 15 with a one-point loss to the Buffalo Bills, the Charlotte Observer newspaper ran a poll asking fans if team owner Jerry Richardson should fire Rivera. At that point, the Panthers were 13-21 in Rivera's two-plus seasons.
Eighty percent of the readers answering the poll supported getting rid of the former Cal star.
A month later, Riverboat Ron was born during that thrashing of the Vikings.
"We are doing the things we need to do to play winning football," Rivera said. "We've been very consistent and relatively disciplined. We've had four fourth-quarter winning drives. That's something we haven't done in the past."
They're doing it now, getting their direction from Riverboat Ron, who's become quite the gambler.
Follow John Hickey on Twitter at twitter.com/JHickey3.