Rivera played college football at the University of California in Berkeley, and was recognized as an All-American linebacker. He was selected in the second round of the 1984 NFL draft by the Chicago Bears, and was a backup on the 1985 team which won Super Bowl XX.
As a coach, Rivera was the defensive coordinator for Bears in the 2006, who were NFC champions and competed in Super Bowl XLI. In 2011, he was named head coach of the Carolina Panthers. Rivera was recognized as the NFL Coach of the Year by the Associated Press in 2013 and in 2015. Since taking over the Panthers, he has led the team to three straight divisional titles, and an appearance in Super Bowl 50.
Rivera was granted a football scholarship to California, where he was a consensus All-American linebacker, leading the Golden Bears in tackles for his last three years as a player. He once held Cal's all-time sack and career tackles records, and still holds the record for most tackles for loss in a season, set in 1983. Rivera was the MVP of the 1984 East-West Shrine Game.
In the 1984 NFL draft, Rivera was selected in the second round by the Chicago Bears. During the 1985 season, he played in Super Bowl XX, where the Bears routed the New England Patriots, 46–10. Rivera was the first Mexican/Puerto Rican to play on a Super Bowl championship team. He became the starter in 1988, serving for three seasons. Rivera played for the Bears for a total of nine seasons (1984–1992).
In 1993, Rivera went to work for WGN-TV and SportsChannel Chicago as a TV analyst covering the Bears and college football. In 1996, he became a defense quality control coach for the Bears.
In 1999, Rivera was named linebackers coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. During his tenure, the Eagles advanced to the NFC championship for three consecutive seasons. He is credited with developing linebacker Jeremiah Trotter into a two-time Pro Bowl performer.
On January 23, 2004, Rivera was named defensive coordinator of the Bears. In 2005, the Bears defense was rated second-best in the NFL. The Bears qualified for the NFC playoffs, losing in the second round to the Carolina Panthers, 29–21. The 2005 performance of the Chicago Bears earned him consideration for Head Coach assignments from several NFL teams.
In 2006, the Bears' defensive efforts failed to match the success of their 2005 season. Nevertheless, the team was still a notable presence in league, finishing with the league's third ranked and conference's top-ranked points allowed category. The defense's success earned Rivera recognition among franchises looking for new head coaches. The Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers interviewed him in January 2007. He was a candidate for the vacant Dallas Cowboys head coaching position, a job that ultimately went to San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Rivera was named as a potential candidate to replace the fired Marty Schottenheimer in San Diego, but the job was filled by Norv Turner, the brother of fellow offensive coordinator, Ron Turner, Rivera's offensive counterpart in Chicago. After the announcement, ESPN reported that the Bears were considering letting Rivera go. This came after several other teams interviewed him, and the negotiations between his representatives and the Bears were making little progress. On February 19, 2007, it was announced that Ron Rivera's contract with the Bears would not be renewed.
The San Diego Chargers hired Rivera as team's inside linebackers coach after he left the Bears. On October 28, 2008, Rivera was promoted to defensive coordinator with the Chargers after the team released former defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell. Rivera had used the 4–3 defense for most of his coaching career, but adopted a 3–4 scheme with the Chargers.
On January 11, 2011, Rivera was named the fourth head coach of the Carolina Panthers. He is the fifth Latino to be an NFL head coach, following former New Orleans Saints coach Tom Fears, former Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks coach Tom Flores, former New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts coach Jim E. Mora, and former Atlanta Falcons coach Jim L. Mora.
During his first year as head coach, the Panthers went 6–10 and finished third in the division. In 2012, the Panthers finished 7–9 and finished second in the division. Following the 2012 season, Rivera was expected to be fired.
Over the first 34 games of his coaching career, Rivera was known for exceptionally conservative decision-making that led to a 2–14 record in games decided by less than a touchdown. Against the Buffalo Bills in Week 2, Rivera decided to kick a field goal while up 3 points and facing a fourth and one deep inside the Bills territory late in the fourth quarter. The Bills proceeded to drive for a touchdown on their next drive, scoring on a touchdown pass with less than 20 seconds remaining in the game. With Carolina opening the 2013 season 0–2, reports circled that the front office was already performing background checks on new potential head coach candidates. Rivera then changed his coaching philosophy and became a more aggressive coach. Facing a 4th and 1 from the two yard line in the first quarter against the also 0–2 New York Giants in Week 3, Rivera went for the touchdown instead of a field goal. A Mike Tolbert run found the end zone, and Carolina ended up winning the game 38–0.
Over the next five games, the Panthers went for a first down five times in situations where conventional strategy called for a field goal attempt. They converted on four of them and ended each of those drives with touchdowns, all in wins. The lone failure was against the Cardinals when Brandon LaFell dropped a wide open pass across the middle from Cam Newton that would have resulted in a sure touchdown as well. This sudden aggression in his play-calling earned Rivera the nickname "Riverboat Ron", after Riverboat gamblers. Rivera has expressed discontent with the nickname, however, explaining he is "a calculated risk taker" not a gambler. He has since reverted to his conservative nature now that his job is no longer in jeopardy; his Twitter nickname is "RiverboatRonHC." The Panthers went 11–1 to finish the season, including a then-franchise record eight-game winning streak, to win the NFC South title and make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Rivera was honored as the 2013 AP NFL Coach of the Year.
In Rivera's fourth season as the Panthers' coach, Carolina recovered from a 3–8–1 start to win its final four regular season games and clinch the NFC South championship for the second consecutive year. The Panthers defeated the Arizona Cardinals 27–16 in the NFC Wild Card playoff game for the team's first playoff win since 2005.
The team's momentum would continue in 2015. The Panthers produced the best season in franchise history, and one of the best regular seasons in NFL history. The Panthers started the season 14–0, the best regular-season start in franchise history. They ultimately finished 15–1 (their only loss was in week 16 in Atlanta, a 20–13 defeat by the Falcons), a franchise record for wins in a season, to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. They defeated the Seattle Seahawks in the Divisional Playoffs by a score of 31–24, and routed the Arizona Cardinals with a 49–15 victory in the NFC Championship Game, leading the Panthers to their second Super Bowl appearance. Rivera is the fifth man of color to lead a team to the Super Bowl. He was also recognized as the 2015 AP NFL Coach of the Year; his second such honor of his career. On February 7, 2016, Rivera coached the Panthers in Super Bowl 50. The Panthers fell to the Denver Broncos by a score of 24–10.
Despite reaching the playoffs three years in a row from 2013–2015, Rivera has been unable to produce back-to-back winning seasons as a head coach.
Rivera has two children, a son, Christopher, and daughter, Courtney, with his wife, Stephanie, who is a former assistant coach for the WNBA's Washington Mystics. In 2003, Rivera was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He was also inducted into the Cal (University of California, Berkeley) Sports Hall of Fame in 1994. On January 5, 2015, Rivera's home in Charlotte, North Carolina, caught on fire. Everyone escaped the house without injuries. On July 28, 2015, Rivera's brother Mickey died after a two-year battle with cancer.