The person Jerry Richardson hand-picked to keep watch of his Carolina Panthers blazed an unlikely career path, from professional football cheerleader nearly 20 years ago to running the NFL team.
Richardson, the owner and founder of the Panthers, announced Dec. 17 he was selling the team. The next day, he said he was stepping aside. The news came as Sports Illustrated published an investigation outlining allegations of workplace misconduct by Richardson toward former Panthers employees.
Richardson left the franchise’s day-to-day management up to Tina Becker – a long-time Panthers employee who has worked closely with Richardson and ran the owner’s office for three years. Before that, Becker worked in game-day entertainment for the team.
Her appointment put her in the national news. But locally, Becker, 44, has kept a low profile in Charlotte’s executive circles.
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Felix Sabates, a part owner of the Hornets who is mulling a bid with investors to buy the Panthers this year, said he hadn’t heard Becker’s name until Richardson named her chief operating officer.
“If I’ve met her, I didn’t know who she is. But, no, I don’t know her,” Sabates said in early January, adding that he’d welcome the chance to meet Becker.
Several other key business and sports consultants with close ties to the Panthers in Charlotte also told the Observer they’ve had no working experience with Becker. Instead, it seems, Becker has quietly found prominence inside the Panthers’ enterprise.
She was hired by the Panthers in 1999 as full-time coordinator for the Top Cats, the team’s cheerleaders, and she ran the Top Cats’ youth program. Before that, she was one of the team’s cheerleaders.
In 2012, she was named the team’s entertainment director, overseeing fan engagement and special Bank of America features, like the pre-game “Keep Pounding” drum ceremony. She helped coordinate the team’s annual Christmas tree lighting program – a personal favorite non-football event of Richardson’s – and helped manage the team’s drumline performance group, “PurrCussion.”
Then, in 2014, she was promoted to executive director of Richardson’s owner’s office.
When Richardson stepped back from the team last month, Becker said it was a “tough day.” In a Q&A done in-house by the Panthers media staff in December – the only interview Becker appears to have done as COO – she thanked Richardson for “the opportunities he has given me personally.”
She added: “I wouldn’t be here today running an NFL team if not for him.”
Meanwhile, the team’s front office staff is waiting for the NFL to begin an investigation into the accusations against Richardson. The league announced its investigation following a Sports Illustrated article that said Richardson had paid four legal settlements to former Panthers employees. The allegations include inappropriate remarks and physical contact with female employees and use of a racial slur aimed at an African-American football scout who worked for the team.
The Panthers 2017 media guide, released in the preseason, says Becker, as executive director, collaborated with Richardson “in executing the organization’s business and administrative priorities.” A second reference says Becker worked “directly with Richardson.”
Now, the bio on the Panthers website describes her ascent in the organization but doesn’t mention Richardson.
Since Becker was promoted to COO, the team added in her bio that she’s “one of the highest-ranking female executives for any of the 32 teams in the National Football League.”
It’s unclear the specific role she has played in the Panthers’ business operations. Most mentions of her work with the Panthers are on the entertainment or operations side of the game.
Becker didn’t return phone calls or interview requests by the Observer. Steven Drummond, the Panthers director of communications, refused the Observer’s multiple requests for an interview and for more information about Becker’s roles and accomplishments with the team. Four past and present Panthers executives the Observer contacted to ask about any work they had done with Becker either refused to talk or gave no response.
A spokesperson for Leon Levine, founder of Family Dollar Stores and limited partner in the Panthers ownership group, said, “Unfortunately, Mr. Levine has not had the opportunity to work with Tina or see her work within the organization.”
There are few references on the Panthers website about Becker’s work after she took the job in Richardson’s office.
One of the only mentions says that Becker, over the summer, called Marty Hurney – now interim general manager for the Panthers – on Richardson’s behalf to set up a meeting at Richardson’s home.
“A buddy of mine actually called me Monday and told me the news that Dave (Gettleman) had been released. Then late in the afternoon, I got a call from Tina (Becker) asking me if I would meet with Mr. Richardson yesterday, and I said yes,” Hurney said during a July news conference.
Hurney was offered the GM job and accepted, bringing him back to a football team he’d helped build, starting in the late ’90s.
Now, Becker is in position to make major decisions – including whether to keep Hurney as general manager.
The day before the Panthers’ season-ending playoff loss to the Saints, the Panthers, under Becker’s leadership, finalized the deal for Coach Ron Rivera’s $15.5 million contract extension, securing a stay through the 2020 season.
In the locker room, Rivera provides stability at a time when he has fired offensive coordinator Mike Shula and quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey.
In a December interview with the NFL Network, Rivera said of Becker: “She’s been involved in operations since the beginning. She’s a solid person, has worked her way up and knows the inner workings of the organization.”
Rivera has said he supports a permanent spot on the command staff for Hurney. If that’s to happen before Richardson sells the team, the final decision appears to be Becker’s.
There could be turnover among the front office staff, too, if a new ownership group brings personnel changes. Many of the executives have been with Richardson since nearly the beginning of the Panthers’ existence.
In recent years, Richardson had gradually reduced his day-to-day involvement with team business. He usually attended one or two Panthers practices or spring workouts a year, and would be seen riding on a golf cart. Several years ago, he stopped going to annual NFL team owners’ meetings, sending representation instead.
On the inside of the Panthers leadership group, and part of the delegation to league meetings, was Becker.
Up until December, the chain of command inside the Panthers business office had six people at the top, all serving under Richardson. That leadership group was assembled after Danny Morrison, former Panthers president, left in February 2017.
When it came time to select a COO in December, Richardson’s choice of Becker catapulted her into an unfamiliar spotlight. The move surprised many Charlotteans who have spent years working alongside Richardson and the Panthers.
“I know most of them (Panthers’ executive staff). But I don’t know Tina,” said Ron Kimble, former city manager of Charlotte and now a consultant. Kimble led the city’s negotiations in 2013 to decide how much taxpayer money would be spent on Bank of America Stadium, and served as local government’s main liaison to the team.
Kimble said Becker wasn’t one of his contacts inside the Panthers office, but that he hopes to meet her.
Becker is married, has an 11-year-old daughter and lives in Huntersville. Public records show she lived in Pennsylvania and Virginia before moving to Charlotte.
Maria David and Jourdan Rodrigue contributed.