Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who was let go as Chicago Bears defensive coordinator after helping guide the team to Super Bowl XLI, admitted Monday that this week's game against the Bears has special meaning.
Rivera said he harbored no ill will after being assured by Bears head coach Lovie Smith that the move in February 2007 was not based on personal feelings, but just the same, as Rivera returns to the city where he was drafted and spent 17 years as a player and coach, the significance was impossible to hide.
"It's going to mean a lot," Rivera said during his Monday news conference in Charlotte. "I'm going back to where I played my career as a Bear and started my coaching career.
"It's a tremendous franchise with a tremendous history, a long history in the NFL, great city. The city embraced me and has been great to me. I'm excited about it, I really am. I'm not going to downplay it. People says it's another game, no it's not. They're all big. But this has a little personal meaning for me because it's Chicago."
After leaving the Bears, Rivera spent his next four seasons with the San Diego Chargers, including the final two as defensive coordinator before accepting his first head coaching job with the Panthers.
A popular player with the Bears, Rivera was a second-year linebacker when Chicago won Super Bowl XX.
It was the Bears' defense in 2006 that was credited with taking the team to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Indianapolis Colts, and Rivera's dismissal was not greeted warmly in Chicago.
But Rivera, who was hired by general manager Jerry Angelo to be Smith's first defensive coordinator in 2004, doesn't blame Smith for letting him go.
"The situation was he didn't hire me," Rivera said. "The nice thing was when it all went down, I asked him, 'This is not a personal thing?' He said, 'No, it's a football decision.' So it was time to move on.
"I had a great opportunity in San Diego and was able to build my resume."
Smith downplayed the significance of facing his former colleague.
"We are excited about getting an opportunity to play the Carolina Panthers," Smith said Monday. "I don't think Ron is going to be out there playing, but his football team is doing a heck of a job. They lost a couple of tough games before (beating the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday). I know their record (1-2) is the same as our record right now, but it should be a heck of a football game.
"We both need to win."
While Rivera admitted feeling more emotions about the game, he said there won't be any added pressure on his team.
"There won't be more pressure than there was last week," he said. "I really look forward to playing there. I really hope to win this football game.
"Coach Smith used to say when he was playing against coach (Tony) Dungy that it's like playing against your brother. You want to beat him, you just don't want to hurt anybody. I'm looking forward to it. It's a heck of a thing. It really is."