HONOLULU, Hawaii – Last January, head coach Ron Rivera found himself on the hot seat. This January, Rivera is enjoying a chair beside the pristine Pacific Ocean and is scoring seats to the NFL's hottest events.
"It's a neat honor. You'd most certainly rather be getting ready for the Super Bowl, but this isn't bad duty," said Rivera, whose coaching staff was selected to coach in the Pro Bowl opposite the Indianapolis Colts staff. "We earned this opportunity. We most certainly would have rather earned that other opportunity, but this is a pretty good consolation prize."
The Panthers fell two victories short of the dream destination that is the Super Bowl. But thanks to 12 victories and the team's first playoff appearance since the 2008 season, Rivera will head from the Pro Bowl to the Super Bowl.
He's been invited to attend the NFL Honors awards show on the eve the Super Bowl, where the Associated Press Coach of the Year will be announced. Rivera has already been named the Professional Football Writers of America Coach of the Year.
"It means a lot, because it speaks to the coaching job we did this year, to our assistants and coordinators. I'm very proud of those guys," Rivera said. "It also speaks to our players and really the whole organization for supporting us and to Mr. (Jerry) Richardson for believing in us."
Rivera has taken part in the Pro Bowl before, as an assistant coach in both San Diego and Philadelphia, but getting to bring a staff that he heads to Hawaii has added another element to the experience.
"I'm happy for our staff. I really am," Rivera said. "These guys work very hard and did a very good job for us this year. They did a nice job of coaching up the players and helping keep them focused as we moved forward.
"This is a good bonding chance for our staff in an informal setting. Most of the guys brought their wives, and a lot of them brought their kids. It's a long season, a hard season, and this is a nice little reward."
Wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl played in four Super Bowls, but this is his first trip to the Pro Bowl. He knows what it's like to play on a special team, and now he's seeing that the same feeling is possible on the coaching side.
"When you're a player and you have success as a team, you grow together as a team. It's the same with this staff with what we've been through the last three years and how we've come together," Proehl said. "We've all grown as coaches. We learned through tough times, and now we appreciate the good times.
"For us as a staff, it was a great year. We're disappointed with how it ended, but it's nice to come out here as a staff and enjoy each other, enjoy our families. You get to know each other on even another level out here."
Whether the coaches cross paths by the pool or at dinner, it's inevitable that football becomes a topic of conversation (they are football coaches, after all). And even though this week is about celebrating the successes of the past season, the coaches can't help but think about next season – one that they hope ends with a trip to another kind of paradise.
"We don't want to just be a one-year wonder. We've got to sustain," Proehl said. "We've got a lot of pieces in place, and we've got to add to that so we can get over the hump.
"What we did this year was good; we've just got to build on it."