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Mike McCormack, first Panthers team president, dies at 83

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/15/19/03/HFC3p.Em.138.jpeg|265
    BOB LEVERONE -
    Mike McCormack, the first team president in Carolina Panthers history and a member of the ring of honor at Bank of America Stadium, died Friday. He was 83.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/15/19/03/Obwu5.Em.138.jpeg|257
    PATRICK SCHNEIDER -
    Former Carolina Panthers president Mike McCormack, who died friday, was the first inductee to the team's Hall of Honor, in 1997.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/15/19/03/bhcfh.Em.138.jpeg|390
    BOB LEVERONE -
    The early braintrust of the Carolina Panthers, Bill Polian, coach Dom Capers and Mike McCormack (left to right). McCormack died Friday, at age 83.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/15/19/03/171HJ0.Em.138.jpeg|386
    BOB LEVERONE -
    Carolina Panthers President Mike McCormack (left) was in Charlotte at the outset, leading NFL expansion team’s first tryouts, in 1994.

Mike McCormack, the first general manager and president of the Carolina Panthers and first inductee into the team’s Hall of Honor, died Friday. He was 83.

The Hall of Honor is apt. Honorable is what McCormack was.

“He was always good to everyone, especially the little people,” says Jackie Miles, Carolina’s equipment manager since the franchise’s inception.

McCormack made the initial overture to Miles, in essence recruiting him.

“I was just happy to know him,” Miles, 52, says. “It was kind of a highlight that a guy of his stature would want a 33-year-old guy like me.”

McCormack lived in Palm Desert, Calif. When he returned to Charlotte to see the Panthers, he made a point of walking through the locker room to Miles’ office.

“People say about somebody, ‘He was a great man,’” says Charlie Dayton, the team’s director of communications, also a McCormack hire. “Mike is who they’re talking about. He was a great man. He was a good man.”

McCormack was a great offensive tackle. He played for the Cleveland Browns from 1951-62, blocking for quarterback Otto Graham and later the great Jim Brown. He won two championships and played in six Pro Bowls. He was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1974.

McCormack went into coaching and became head coach of the then-Baltimore Colts, Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks. He also became Seattle’s general manager and president.

Jerry Richardson, who owns the Panthers, hired McCormack as a consultant in 1989. McCormack’s assignment was to introduce the NFL to Richardson and his sons Jon and Mark, as well as to Charlotte and the Carolinas.

McCormack “lobbied the owners,” says Mark Richardson, who had replaced McCormack as Carolina’s president. “He really did lobby. We couldn’t get into the owner meetings. So we’d go to the lobby an hour before the meeting, wait for their break an hour or an hour and a half in, and be there when the meeting ended.”

Everybody knew McCormack. He’d pursue whomever he wanted to speak to, or an owner would go to him. McCormack had the contacts, the class and the presence. He was a big man with meticulous white hair.

“When he walked in you couldn’t help but notice,” says Panthers scout Clyde Powers. “But it wasn’t about him. He cared about the game.”

McCormack hired Powers in Baltimore 33 years ago. Powers eventually became director of pro personnel after the Colts moved to Indianapolis. McCormack was then Baltimore’s head coach and Powers, who played safety five seasons, went to him after his playing career ended.

“He was a big man, a big barrel-chested guy, a little intimidating,” Powers says.

Powers, whom McCormack hired as assistant to the head coach, quickly learned his employer’s ways.

“He wanted input,” says Powers, 62. “He wanted information. I think that’s one of the first things I really learned to like and respect about him. He wanted to know what I thought about things. He wanted to know what everybody thought. He didn’t want a yes man.”

Adds Powers: “I have the utmost respect and will always be indebted and will always remember him.”

At McCormack’s Hall of Fame induction his coach, Paul Brown, called him the “the finest offensive lineman” he had ever coached.

The Hall of Fame credentials are impeccable. But what did McCormack do to become the first inductee into Carolina’s Hall of Honor?

“It’s safe to say we would not have a team in the Carolinas if it weren’t for Mike McCormack,” Jerry Richardson says in a statement. “He had the contacts in the National Football League and was universally respected by everyone associated with professional football. He was a wonderful man and our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Ann, and the entire McCormack family.”

So here’s a big man, a Hall of Fame player, a product of the trenches. Yet the quality that reverberates, the word people repeatedly use to describe him, is kind.

“He was a very humble, straightforward, kind person,” says Mark Richardson. “He was kind to players, coaches, scouts, fans and sponsors.”

After the NFL sold Richardson a team, Richardson entrusted the football operation to McCormack. The Panthers went 7-9 in McCormack’s first season and made the NFC Championship Game his second.

After the 1996 season, the NFC Championship Game season, McCormack retired. He was 66.

“He reminded me of Jerry Richardson,” says Miles. “Both of them were 6-(foot)-6 or 6-5, and they both played in the NFL. They were former (tough guys). And they’re kind. But you don’t mistake their kindness for weakness.”

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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