Bryan Strickland Senior Writer
Charlotte, NC October 26, 2013 – For the past two decades, the Carolinas have had a National Football League franchise to call their own.
But before the afternoon of October 26, 1993, the only field on the corner of Mint and Morehead streets in uptown Charlotte was an overgrown one. There were no Panthers players to cheer for, no black and blue jerseys to wear with pride.
There was no such thing as the Carolina Panthers.
Before that fateful day in the history of the region, all that existed was a vision, a dream hatched by a man with means as he drove down Interstate 85 on a spring day in 1987.
And Jerry Richardson had no intention of taking no for an answer.
“I never thought about not getting a franchise,” Richardson said. “The odds against us were huge. People had said it was 150-to-1, 200-to-1. That never deterred me.
“I didn’t pay any attention to it. I was told I couldn’t get my company on the New York Stock Exchange before I was 40. I was told, ‘You can’t make money selling hamburgers for 15 cents.’ I’ve been told a lot of things.”
But 20 years ago today, the man who turned an investment of less than $5,000 into a food service empire of 130,000 employees momentarily feared that he would be told no. Standing in a dark room inside the O’Hare Hyatt in Chicago, more than six years into his quest and mere seconds away from finding out whether he would be awarded a coveted NFL franchise, doubt crept in.
Then NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue walked in.
“We were just told to wait, and that was literally the first time – I promise – that I thought, ‘What am I going to say if we don’t get it?’ ” Richardson said. “Then Paul came into the room and said, ‘Congratulations Jerry, you’ve been awarded the 29th franchise in the NFL.’
“I can remember the feeling, but I can’t put a word to it. You work as hard as we did for six-and-a-half years and invest five-and-a-half million dollars, and if he had said no, that five-and-a-half million dollars is gone and all that work is gone.
“There would have been a lot of disappointment for a lot of people. So it was a huge relief.”
CAROLINA PANTHERS TICKETS
When Richardson wondered aloud if his dream for the Carolinas would suddenly be squashed, he did so in the direction of Max Muhleman.
Muhleman, hired by Richardson to coordinate the bid’s marketing strategy, had been there since the beginning of the protracted process. And he was there at the end, waiting for the verdict in the dank banquet room with Richardson’s youngest son, Mark, and Richardson himself.
They got their answer when Tagliabue, flanked by then NFL vice president of business affairs Roger Goodell, entered from the adjacent room where the league’s 28 owners had just voted.
“Roger had a good poker face on,” Muhleman recalled. “I had gotten to be real good friends with him, and I thought surely I could tell from his face. But if I could tell anything from it, I didn’t think it was good news because he didn’t smile.
“Tagliabue was looking down at his feet as he started talking, and I thought, ‘Oh, Lord.’ Then he started out, ‘Well, Jerry,’ and those weren’t two words that I thought would precede what I would hope was coming. And then he said, ‘I’m here to tell you that we have awarded you the 29th franchise.’
“Outside of having two children and getting married, that was the most impactful moment of my life. Jerry is one of the most stoic leaders you’ll ever see. He has tremendous composure, but he came as close to losing it as he probably ever has. It was just a wonderful thing.”
The day began with the Richardsons and Muhleman teaming up to present the Carolinas’ case for one of the two expansion franchises to be awarded. The five finalists (the others were from Jacksonville, Memphis and former NFL cities Baltimore and St. Louis) were afforded a mere 15 minutes to address the league’s owners.
Of course, all the groundwork had been laid well before the final presentation.
Richardson, a North Carolina native who caught a touchdown pass to help the Baltimore Colts win the 1959 NFL Championship, got the ball rolling in July of 1987. Three months after the idea came to him, Richardson contacted longtime friend Hugh McColl, chairman of NationsBank (now Bank of America), to discuss financial feasibility. McColl then contacted Muhleman, who was fresh off helping bring the NBA to Charlotte. About two years into the process, Richardson pegged Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike McCormack, who would eventually become the Panthers’ first general manager and president, as his primary football advisor.
Slowly but surely, Richardson’s group built its case, drawing massive crowds to NFL preseason games staged throughout the region – Raleigh in 1989, Chapel Hill in 1990 and Columbia in 1991. Behind the scenes, the principals pieced together a stadium funding plan built around Permanent Seat Licenses. On the first day PSLs were made available, just a few months before the NFL made its expansion decision, more than 41,000 were ordered.
And all the while, Richardson was making in-roads with the NFL owners who would eventually decide his fate.
“I was in awe of the effort he put in,” Muhleman said. “I am sure that Jerry did the best and most thorough job of one-on-one meeting with every single owner and influential person in the NFL that had ever been done by any expansion person. His impact on the owners was tremendous – his personal sincerity and determination, along with his wonderful personal football history.
“The way Jerry did it wasn’t, ‘Here’s what I’m going to do.’ It was, ‘What should I do? Tell me what I should do.’ That humility helped so much. Owner-types generally aren’t bashful about telling you what you should do. So that was not only sincere, but it was also a very smart way to endear himself to them.”
Finally, the day of reckoning arrived, with Jerry and Mark Richardson, Muhleman, McCormack and Ed Brown entering the owners’ meeting room for their 15-minute presentation. Brown, a NationsBank executive representing his own company as well as other financial backers, had lent his hand to the cause in an unexpected way the night before, when Muhleman learned that Business Week had just named the I-85 corridor between Atlanta and Raleigh as the hottest market in the country.
“I said, ‘My God, that’s our market. We’ve got to get that magazine and get it to the owners,’” Muhleman said. “Ed Brown jumps up and says, ‘The O’Hare newsstands will probably have it. I’ll go over there.’
“Here’s this powerful banker, and he’s at O’Hare, going newsstand to newsstand, saying, ‘I’d like 12 of those.’ I said if we could get 50 that would be great, and by golly he comes back about an hour-and-a-half later, and he’s got ‘em.”
The next morning, given the lack of time at their disposal, Brown and McCormack didn’t address the owners, who sat around a massive horseshoe-shaped table that surrounded a raised podium. Mark Richardson went first, detailing the stadium and financing plans. His brother, Jon, who would later serve as stadium president, surreptitiously signaled to Mark and the subsequent speakers to keep them on schedule.
Next up was Muhleman, who explained that 10 million people lived within a three-hour drive of the stadium site while other expansion hopefuls had existing NFL franchises that ate away at their markets. Before returning to his seat, Muhleman set the stage for Richardson.
“One of the lower-level employees that had been with Jerry’s company for years had died. Jerry not only went to the funeral but afterwards went to the employee’s house and visited the widow. As he left, he noticed that the grass was high in the yard, and he could see a tool shed with a lawnmower in it. He took off his coat, got the lawn mower out and cut the grass before going back to the office.
“I said, ‘Isn’t that the kind of man you want for a partner?’ That was my introduction of Jerry.”
Richardson took it from there, as only he could. The speakers were instructed to address the owners from behind the podium, but Richardson called an audible.
“When it was my turn, I didn’t do that,” Richardson said. “I walked down, and when I was talking, I looked at each person and talked.
“We did all of the stuff you’re supposed to do. We went to owners’ meetings, wrote letters, did all the lobbying you needed to do. But at the end of the day, you had to influence these people.”
After Richardson finished, the group was escorted to a suite in the hotel, at which time an excruciating wait ensued. Finally, after four-plus hours, the NFL’s head of security knocked on the door and asked that three representatives follow him.
“If the CIA had a route through the hotel, this would have been it,” Muhleman said. “It was through closets and behind kitchen kettles and pots. We didn’t see anybody besides the hotel laborers, and we ended up in a room that looked like a small meeting room – a couple of white-tableclothed tables with chairs. Looked like a place where the Kiwanis Club might have lunch or something.
“Mark kind of put his ear next to the wall and said, ‘We’re right next to the meeting room.’ One of the things that went through my mind was that they had brought us down to say, ‘Nice try, but…’ ”
Instead, that was the message delivered to the other hopefuls. Richardson was the only one awarded a franchise that day, with the vote on the other choice (Jacksonville) tabled for a month.
After Tagliabue delivered the good news to the Carolinas contingent, he presented Richardson to his now-fellow owners, who welcomed him into the fold with a standing ovation. Media interviews followed, affording Richardson the opportunity to thank the Carolinas for their support, and then at long last the group got the chance to celebrate and reflect.
“We drank a lot of champagne,” Richardson said. “All that the hotel had, I think.
“It took six-and-a-half years to get to that point, and then it all came together in essentially 24 hours.”