Self-deprecating billionaire getting used to NFL spotlight as new Panthers owner

Panthers owner David Tepper: I have a great appreciation for how stupid I am

New Carolina Panthers David Tepper says, "I have a great appreciation for how stupid I am and that it is sometimes better not to do anything than do something."
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New Carolina Panthers David Tepper says, "I have a great appreciation for how stupid I am and that it is sometimes better not to do anything than do something."

On the morning of one of the biggest days of his life, David Tepper stood in the lobby of The Whitley Hotel in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood, fussing over his sleeves. He had forgotten the cuff links gifted to him by Carnegie Mellon University, where he'd delivered the commencement address just two days earlier.

"Does anyone have extra cuff links? Does this even match? Oh, well," said Tepper, who hours later would be unanimously approved as the next owner of the Carolina Panthers, a team he agreed to buy for a record NFL price of $2.275 billion.

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The NFL owners' approval gave the Panthers the team's second-ever owner. It also marked a new chapter for Tepper, a billionaire whose investments over the years have ranged from junk bonds to shares in tech giants to debt of distressed companies.

Tepper, the hedge fund manager, is getting used to being in the spotlight as Tepper, the NFL team owner. And his demeanor over the last week provided a glimpse into the kind of leader he'll be at Bank of America Stadium.

New Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper says that he feels comfortable with the area being strong in football and having great people.

Tepper's well-known in the finance world and is generally comfortable in front of the camera, having made countless appearances on CNBC and Bloomberg TV over the years. But he wasn't accustomed to the media swarm that greeted him at the Atlanta hotel Monday night. He remarked on the number of cameras present before he was quickly whisked off to the elevators.

After the NFL's approval vote Tuesday, Tepper addressed a room full of reporters with even more cameras. It was the second time this week he spoke to a large group: In an emotional and sometimes off-script commencement address Sunday, Tepper detailed his rags-to-riches personal story that started in Pittsburgh.

Tepper has said he's proud of how far he's come, but he also doesn't try to hide where he's from. In his Carnegie Mellon address, he talked about playing touch football in the street as a kid and working three jobs in high school.

"A kid who couldn't afford to go to an NFL game until well into his 20s is on the verge of getting the NFL's approval to buy the Carolina Panthers," Tepper said, fighting back tears. "Not too shabby."

Tepper, 60, is outspoken but also self-deprecating. ("I have a great appreciation for how stupid I am," he told the media after the approval.) He's made several references to his baldness in the last week.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft gives his impressions of new Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper as he walked to a meeting at the Whitley Hotel in Atlanta, GA. on Tuesday, May 22, 2018.

Tepper said in his commencement address that he was turned down for the first job he applied to at McDonald's because of "an oversized afro." Taking off his graduation cap Sunday, Tepper rubbed his bald head and said that "wouldn't be a problem today."

Tepper is worth an estimated $11 billion, according to Forbes. But he still opted to dine on burgers and fries at the hotel bar Monday night, despite the many onlookers. A few minutes into dinner, Tepper and his associates were joined by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who sat and spoke with Tepper for over an hour.

One of those associates described Tepper as outdoorsy. In Miami, for instance, Tepper likes to bike to his South Beach office from the condo he owns nearby.

Tepper is also well-known for his disdain for losing. He said as much during his remarks after winning the approval of his fellow NFL owners. He said his "winning" mantra applies to work both on and off the field.

"The first thing I care about is winning, the second thing I care about is winning, the third thing I care about is ..." Tepper said, pausing to let reporters chime in with "winning." "You guys are smart."

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gives a strong endorsement to new Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper on Tuesday, May 22, 2018 following the first day of NFL owner's meetings at the Whitley Hotel in Atlanta, GA.

The hedge fund manager is taking over a team that went up for sale on the same day Sports Illustrated published a story detailing allegations of workplace misconduct against team owner and founder Jerry Richardson. At Tuesday's news conference, Tepper said it was "impossible" for him to say what changes he might make because he doesn't know "exactly what's there." And, he noted, he doesn't officially take over the team until July.

But multiple times this week Tepper did emphasize how he values equality.

"All men and women," Tepper said, pausing to add "and women" again, "deserve to be treated equally and with respect," he said in his commencement address. And on Tuesday in Atlanta, Tepper told reporters: "I’m a person who believes in equality for everybody, men and women."

After NFL owners' meetings wrapped up for the day Tuesday, Tepper wouldn't say how he was planning to celebrate that night. But he said he treated himself to strawberry Nestle Quik and pork rinds a few days ago.

"That's Southern, right?"