Besides the infamous set of brass testicles — chronicled in a New York magazine profile that’s been quoted often this week — soon-to-be new Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper had a lot of Pittsburgh Steelers collectibles in the office where he built his hedge fund fortune, according to the magazine piece.
Tepper has been a Steelers’ minority partner since 2009 when he bought a 5 percent stake that’s now worth $122.5 million, based on Forbes’ $2.45 billion valuation of the Steelers.
The New York magazine piece compared Tepper’s Appaloosa Management offices to “a high-end sports bar—all polished mahogany and flat-screen TVs and black-and-gold Steelers paraphernalia—or a wealthy frat house.”
With NFL owners set to vote on Tepper’s winning $2.275 billion bid on the Panthers on Tuesday in Atlanta (the approval is considered a formality), it seems safe to assume he’ll leave the Terrible Towels and other Steelers trinkets behind in his office, now based in Miami.
The bigger question is how much of the Steelers’ mentality and organizational philosophy will Tepper — a Pittsburgh native — bring with him to Charlotte when the sale closes in July?
“Just look at the Steelers today. They’re a physical team. They’re a lunch pail, blue-collar, in-your-grill kind of team. They’re representative of the Steel City,” said Hall of Fame linebacker Kevin Greene, who played for both the Steelers and Panthers during a 15-year career.
“Obviously if he can bring a little bit of that with him, I would think that would be definitely positive.”
Tepper, with a net worth of more than $11 billion, is part of that tradition, and at some level it’s fitting that Richardson will hand his team over to someone from the Steelers’ organization.
Richardson has long respected the Steelers franchise and the Rooney family that has owned the team since its inception in 1933.
When Steelers chairman Dan Rooney died last April, Richardson said in a statement: “No one in the National Football League provided me more friendship and counsel over the past 25 years than Dan, and I will always cherish our time together.”
The first head coach in Panthers history was then-Steelers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who was offered the position after Joe Gibbs turned it down.
And this August the Steelers and Panthers will meet in the final preseason game for the 16th year in a row.
A known quantity
All that said, former Panthers coach John Fox believes it was Tepper’s standing as a minority owner — more than his Steelers ties — that resulted in him winning the bid.
“It’s a very exclusive club and I think they’re very careful and choosy on who they allow in. He was already partially in,” Fox said. “I haven’t talked to (NFL commissioner) Roger Goodell about it, but I’m sure that played a part.”
The fact Tepper was already part of an NFL ownership group meant he’d already been vetted. Tepper was able to finance most of the $2.275 billion in cash, eliminating the need for minority partners, all of whom would have been subject to the NFL’s vetting process.
That process takes time, which would have caused the sale to drag on in the shadow of the investigation of Richardson’s alleged sexual and racial misconduct.
In the end, Richardson still was able to draw a record price for an NFL team.
And the Panthers-Steelers connections will now extend to the owners suite at Bank of America Stadium.
Stability and continuity
In addition to their trademark helmet logo that honors the steel industry, the Steelers have been synonymous with consistency and continuity.
The Steelers have had three head coaches since 1969, and no team has appeared in more playoff games than the Steelers, who have won six of the eight Super Bowls they have played in.
“The Steelers organization, in terms of the continuity, consistency and the way they do things, is right up at the top,” said Capers, the first Panthers coach.
Capers said teams that fire their head coaches every few years don’t just undergo a coaching staff shakeup. The new coaches bring in new schemes, and then want new players to fit those schemes.
“When you change like that,” Capers said, “it’s like you’re starting over.”
Will it happen here?
Fox, who broke into the NFL ranks as a Steelers assistant in 1989, doesn’t think Tepper will make wholesale changes with the Panthers — at least not on the football side of the organization, where general manager Marty Hurney and head coach Ron Rivera recently received extensions through the 2020 season.
“He’s watched a very good franchise — how they operate and what they do. He’s observed a good way to do it,” Fox said. “I don’t think they’re gonna make any changes. I mean, I don’t know what he’s gonna do. But it would surprise me.
“He’ll put his fingerprint on it, whatever that is. I have no way of knowing, other than there will be some patience involved, I think, if he models what they did with the Steelers.”
While Rivera has had his team in the playoffs in four of the past five seasons, the Panthers’ organization has been anything but stable personnel-wise in recent years.
Team president Danny Morrison left in 2017 and was not replaced. Richardson offered no explanation last summer after he abruptly fired general manager Dave Gettleman a week before the start of training camp.
Watching from afar, Fox viewed the departures as “peculiar, to say the least.”
Then there is the apparent culture of protectiveness surrounding Richardson, who made significant settlements with at least four former employees following misconduct allegations, according to Sports Illustrated.
A new plan
Fox said Tepper needs to express a clear-cut plan early in his ownership.
“It’s been kind of rudderless for a minute. So just reassuring what the plan is,” said Fox, who’s working with ESPN and still has a house in Charlotte.
“I’m sure there'll be that kind of (evaluation of) what are we doing now? And what their projections are to do going forward, and I’m sure there will be patience involved in that,” Fox added.
“Everybody’s probably a little paranoid or a little uncertain, which would be understandable. So it would just kind of ease all those anxieties.”