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Lowell Cohn: Ron Rivera wanted to be an effective communicator

  • West’s Ron Rivera, University of California Berkeley linebacker, left, and quarterback Bo Eason from UC Davis, get a laugh from Lisa Martin, 16, of Napa, during West team visit to Shrine Hospital in San Francisco on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 1984. East and West clash in their annual classic on Saturday at Stanford. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

I have this charming memory of Ron Rivera and I want to share it with you.

Rivera is head coach of the Carolina Panthers who play the 49ers today at Candlestick Park. He played linebacker at Cal 1980-83 and he played in the NFL. Today, I'm interested in him at Cal, way back then.

Here's how I got to know Rivera. I would go over to Cal to interview football players during the week, and I would interview players after home games. And I noticed an intriguing phenomenon. Rivera would attend my interviews as an observer.

It happened like this. As I sat down with a player, Rivera — young, polite, soft-spoken — would say, "Do you mind if I sit in?"

I didn't mind at all. I was honored. I already knew him a little because I had previously interviewed him, and I had been impressed with his maturity and brains. So, as I interviewed another player, Rivera sat there listening. Sometimes, he had a pad and pen and he took notes. This was strictly amazing.

After the interview, he would sit with me and go over the questions and answers. He would methodically ask things like: "Why did you ask this question?" "What were you looking for?" "Did you get the answer you wanted?" "Why did you ask your questions in a particular order?"

I like to teach and now I was teaching a bright eager young man. I explained I tried to ask neutral, open-ended questions so my subject (the other player) would feel free, encouraged, to answer at length, maybe even tell stories. I tried to stay away from yes/no questions because they are conversation stoppers.

And I tried to push a subject out of his/her groove. If someone said to me, "We play them one at a time," I would know that's a clich? which is bad for a column or any story, and I'd know the subject had not been forced to think. He was speaking by rote.

So I might ask about a particular play in the game — not necessarily an important play. Or I could ask what he majored in and why, or why he shaved his head, or had long hair. Anything to make the subject think on the spot, anything to make the subject speak with new words and be original and actually try.

The whole time, Rivera took notes and nodded his head. I rarely have met a college athlete like him, although when I wrote a book about Stanford football in 1992, Cardinal players Estevan Avila and Tom Williams were exactly like Rivera. They wanted to know what I did and why I did what I did, and what I was thinking. FYI, I rarely have met professional athletes as curious and deep as Rivera was as a college student.

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