The Carolina Panthers turn 15 today.
It was on this date in 1993 that Jerry and Mark Richardson learned their bid for a Carolinas' NFL franchise was successful.
Within weeks, construction of their uptown Charlotte stadium commenced.
Less than two years later, they played their first game.
Today, at the halfway point of their 14th season, they're 5-2 and hosting the Arizona Cardinals (4-2) at Bank of America Stadium in search of the fourth playoff berth in franchise history.
“It's gone very quickly,” Mark Richardson, the team president, said of the organization's first 15 years. “Some years go faster than others.”
The Panthers have experienced extreme thrills, topped by a Super Bowl XXXVIII appearance, and disappointments, such as a 1-15 record in 2001.
“For me, the highs and lows are connected,” said Jerry Richardson, the team owner and Mark's father. “It happens every week. When we win, it is wonderful to see the fans happy, and when we lose, you feel awful for all those who support the team.”
The Panthers have played in three NFC Championship Games since debuting in 1995 – an accomplishment bested since then by only the Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles (four each).
In Charlotte and the Carolinas, the sports scene is radically different now than before the Panthers arrived.
Home games in the fall bring up to 70,000 spectators to uptown Charlotte, where fans over the years have been able to watch such visiting stars as Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Brett Favre, Dan Marino, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Deion Sanders, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
It all became possible on the evening of Oct. 26, 1993, in a Chicago hotel.
‘Thank you, thank you, thank you'
A 61/2-year quest to land an NFL franchise – much longer than anyone expected – came down to one last sales pitch to league owners.
Jerry and Mark Richardson and marketing consultant Max Muhleman made their morning presentation to team owners and then were taken to a hotel suite to wait with future team president Mike McCormack for the remainder of the day.
Four other cities also were vying for one of the two expansion franchises to be awarded. Like the Panthers, the other prospective teams already had nicknames – the St. Louis Stallions, Jacksonville Jaguars, Memphis Hound Dogs and Baltimore Bombers.
“There was a lot of anxiety and excitement, and fear of the unknown – not knowing what's going to happen, not knowing if we were going to get picked,” said Mark.
Finally, they were summoned and received the astounding news that NFL owners had voted unanimously to award the Carolinas a franchise and to delay awarding the second expansion team for another month.
Eventually, it went to Jacksonville. St. Louis and Baltimore later got franchises when existing teams (the Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns, respectively) moved to their cities. Memphis still has no team.
At an evening news conference when then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue introduced Jerry Richardson as the league's newest owner, Richardson pointed to Carolinas television cameras and sent a “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” message back home to the fans who had supported the expansion bid by purchasing permanent seat licenses.
Current NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Richardson's thanksgiving was his favorite memory of the night.
“I was impacted by Jerry doing that,” said Goodell, who was assigned by Tagliabue to help lead the '93 expansion process. “I think it's reflective of Jerry's strong bond with the community. His reaction that day is something I'll always remember.”
It was a rare burst of public excitement for Richardson, which delighted Muhleman, who had spent years urging Richardson to be more comfortable speaking to the media.
“That was probably the most spontaneous thing I've ever seen him do,” said Muhleman.
Mark Richardson recalls thinking that while the long journey to get a franchise was finally over, the hard work of starting one from scratch loomed next.
“It was kind of like watching the dog chase the bus,” said Richardson. “He's always chasing it and he never catches it. Well, that day we finally caught the bus. After that, it was like, `What do we do now?'”
The Richardsons had known for years that they wanted to name their team the Panthers.
“We didn't do focus groups or public opinion,” said Mark Richardson. “It was basically what we felt comfortable with.”
Jerry Richardson hardly tried to hide the idea, driving a car starting in late 1989 with a license plate that read “PNTHRS.”
“The advantage we had was most people, when they buy a sports team, they're buying somebody else's team,” said Mark. “So you've bought a nickname, you've bought colors, you've bought somebody else's heritage and their history.
“The unique situation we had was we had a chance to do all that from the start. We had a chance to pick the colors, pick the name, design the uniform and write our own history.”
When the team was announced, the logo and silver helmet design already were finalized, but work on selecting a uniform design was ongoing.
Originally, the Panthers unveiled uniforms with a darker shade of royal blue, including a combination of blue jerseys with black pants.
Eventually, the team settled on white, black and blue jerseys to be matched with white and silver pants.
Finding the right shade of bright blue – lighter than Duke's and darker than North Carolina's – was a tedious process, but the Panthers eventually settled on a color known as “process blue,” which contrasts brilliantly with black, silver and white.
There have been only subtle uniform changes over the years. In 1996, cornerback Eric Davis convinced Mark Richardson to have players wear black socks with black jerseys, instead of blue socks with all of their uniform combinations. In 2003, defensive tackle Brentson Buckner successfully proposed to replace white shoes with black.
The latest lobbyist is receiver Steve Smith, who'd like to see the team wear black pants with their black jerseys at times.
Mark Richardson was noncommittal about whether that will ever happen.
“I never say never,” he said.
Any such change would require NFL approval, which could take up to two years.
Ups and downs
Mark Richardson chuckles when he thinks back to the organization's state of readiness when they were awarded a team.
“We were probably young and naïve and we didn't know what we didn't know,” he said. “Until you get into it, I don't think you truly understand it.
“You don't realize the impact (an NFL team) has on your community. You don't understand the depth of emotion that goes with the fans and the team. You don't realize how hard it is to win. You don't realize how difficult it is when you get to where you're winning, to continue winning. You don't realize when you're not winning how hard it is to get it turned around.
“My dad likes to say it's like holding Jell-O. When you hold Jell-O in your hands, you can't squeeze it. If you squeeze it, it runs between your fingers, through the cracks.”
Buoyed by being able to sign higher quality free agents than previous new teams, the Panthers' 7-9 record in 1995 was the best ever by a first-year NFL expansion team.
Then Carolina went 12-4 in 1996, including being undefeated (8-0) at home, and reached the NFC Championship Game, losing to Green Bay, one game shy of the Super Bowl.
“We probably got a little bit of a false sense that it was easier than it really is,” said Mark Richardson. “You (thought), ‘Why does everybody say this is so hard?'
“But after 15 years, I think you realize it is hard.”
The Panthers have had just three winning records in 13 seasons, but reached the NFC title games each of those three years and only twice have been worst than 7-9.
They've also been faced with tragedy and controversy.
Former first-round pick Rae Carruth was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison after being convicted of a first-degree conspiracy to commit murder charge for the killing of a young woman pregnant with his son.
Three starting offensive linemen from the 2003 Super Bowl team were later found to have obtained banned steroids and/or human growth hormone from a South Carolina doctor who eventually was sentenced to federal prison on related charges.
Former linebacker and assistant coach Sam Mills, one of the most beloved figures in franchise history, died of cancer in April 2005.
Through it all, the Panthers have steadfastly sought to bring in players who would be good citizens. When behavioral issues have arisen, they've not been reluctant to discipline players, and Jerry Richardson is well-known for one-on-one meetings at his home with players in trouble.
Setting a standard
Goodell considered the Panthers' anniversary so significant that he responded to the Observer's interview request and telephoned from London, where he was promoting today's New Orleans vs. San Diego game at Wembley Stadium.
Goodell said the Richardsons and the Panthers have been exemplary members of the NFL throughout their young history.
“It's a model franchise,” said Goodell. “It's had tremendous success on the field with three NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl appearance. But more than the actual wins, it's how they do it. The type of character and the way the team represents that community is something everyone in the Carolinas should be very proud of.”
Jerry Richardson has become one of the most influential owners in the league. He has served on some of the NFL's most prestigious committees, including co-chairing the search for a new commissioner after Tagliabue announced his retirement.
Richardson is widely known for putting the league's interests first, an old-school approach that has earned him the trust of other owners.
“Jerry is just a model for leadership,” said Goodell. “He realizes it's not just about winning, but about how you win.”
After the Panthers were awarded their franchise in 1993, Richardson vowed the team would win a Super Bowl – even multiple Super Bowls – within their first 10 years.
Though they reached the championship game once, they're still awaiting their first title.
While that remains their primary goal, Mark Richardson said the Panthers also want to be more consistent. They've yet to have winning records in consecutive seasons.
He said the team doesn't take lightly the passion of its fan base and realizes that, especially in today's uncertain times, the Panthers can be a salve for a hurting community.
“This is a difficult time everyone is going through with the cost of food, the cost of gasoline, people looking at their retirements, and unemployment starting to go in a direction we haven't seen in a long time,” he said.
“Winning on Sunday afternoon brings a very happy relief to what some people deal with Monday through Friday.”
Today, especially, is worthy of celebration, said Muhleman.
“It's probably as special as any anniversary in sports that we'll ever have in this city,” he said. “Super Bowl championships will be great, but there's nothing like birthing it.”