Nearly 30 years ago, Charlotte banker Hugh McColl Jr. was approached by longtime business associate Jerry Richardson with a pitch: Help me bring an NFL team to the Carolinas.
“I thought he was crazy,” McColl recalled on Monday. “We had to overcome a huge amount of skepticism about whether we could build a stadium or sell the tickets.”
Today that team, the Carolina Panthers, is heading to the second Super Bowl in its history after handily beating the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. In an interview with the Observer, McColl reflected on the challenges of placing the team in Charlotte and also on the impact this season has had on how the world sees the city.
“We now can drop ‘North Carolina’ off of our address,” McColl said. “People know where we are, who we are. I think it’s been tremendous recognition for our city.”
McColl, who was then CEO of Charlotte-based North Carolina National Bank, would become a key player in Richardson’s drive to land an expansion team. Charlotte was granted the franchise in 1993. Richardson is the team’s owner.
McColl watched Sunday’s game at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium in Richardson’s box. After the Panthers defeated Arizona, McColl, clad in a Panthers jacket and baseball cap, got to hold the Halas Trophy, awarded to the team for its NFC championship victory.
“Jerry handed the trophy to me,” McColl said. “We got our pictures taken together with the trophy and our wives. It was a good time.”
But on Monday, McColl also recalled the long odds he said the city faced in winning the franchise because of its size at the time.
“We were a small market by anybody’s definition,” said McColl, now 80, who retired in 2001 as CEO of Charlotte-based Bank of America.
“We certainly were given no chance by the general public,” he said.
Richardson was an old friend and customer of McColl’s when he approached the banker in 1987 to seek his assistance landing the NFL’s first expansion team since 1976.
At a 1987 press conference at which Richardson unveiled his bid for a team, McColl joined him for the announcement.
McColl was a powerful ally – a well-known businessman who also headed a large and expanding bank. But Charlotte wouldn’t be the only city pursuing an NFL team at the time.
By 1992, as NFL owners prepared to award two expansion franchises, the list of competing cities was narrowed to Charlotte, Jacksonville, Fla., Baltimore, Memphis, Tenn., and St. Louis.
At one point, the NFL required Richardson to guarantee his ability to finance a privately funded stadium. McColl taped a video for each NFL owner, promising to loan whatever was needed.
One key component of the Panthers’ deal was a plan to sell PSLs, or permanent seat licenses, to fans as a way to build a stadium without taxpayer money. Buying a PSL guarantees a holder the lifetime right to buy a season ticket.
In 1991, North Carolina National Bank became NationsBank because of a merger. McColl was CEO of NationsBank, which along with Charlotte-based First Union and Wachovia formed a consortium extending financing for the team and a stadium. NationsBank and Wachovia guaranteed million of dollars worth of any unsold seat licenses.
McColl helped Richardson’s bid in other ways. “I went with him to meet with the league itself, and we met with other (NFL) owners. He, of course, was leading the way all the way,” McColl said.
He’s done the ‘dab’
Feb. 7 will mark only the second time the Panthers will play in a Super Bowl. The other occasion was in 2004, when the team lost by a field goal to New England.
McColl said he plans to attend the game in Santa Clara, Calif.
He estimates he’s made it to all but two or three of the Panthers’ home games throughout the team’s history.
“I don’t miss home games,” McColl said.
“Our team is just superb,” he said. “You have to be proud of them. The truth of the matter is Jerry has done a great job, surrounded himself with great people.”
McColl is predicting a 35-14 win for the Panthers. He has no bets going with anyone – yet.
“I’m sure I’ll find some,” he said.
And during the game he’ll probably do the “dab,” Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s signature dance move.
“I do it every game,” McColl said. “I think the dab’s great.”
Charlotte Observer researcher Maria David contributed.