The Carolina Panthers have almost everything they need to be considered one of the NFL’s truly elite franchises. They’ll play for their final missing ingredient on Sunday night at Super Bowl 50: a Lombardi Trophy.
Even though a win over Denver will just get the Panthers (175-175 all-time) one game above .500 in their franchise history, the iconic trophy is all that’s in the way of the NFL elite class. For the record, that class includes just seven franchises in my book: Giants, Steelers, Packers, Bears, Chiefs, Cowboys and Patriots. (The Redskins were in this group, but when you start ripping seats out of your stadium by the thousands and you’ve lost multiple states of what was your territory to other teams over the past four decades, you’re kind of disqualified.)
What does it take to be a part of this group? Basically, it’s a team with a sustained level of success on and off the field, a market that is stable/never brought up when there’s a mention of a team moving, a passionate fan base and an owner who has the ear of the other owners in NFL business.
The owner — aside from talented players — is the most important part of that group. And Carolina’s Jerry Richardson — both the very public, fan-friendly version (”The fan is the most valuable member of our team.”) and the back room, hard line, old school owner — fits that bill perfectly.
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As one of only two NFL owners who played in the league (Chicago Bears founder/coach George Halas is the other), Richardson had the ear of NFL owners when he entered the meeting room. Then the business savvy that helped him turn a $4,744 bonus check for the Colts’ NFL Championship win in 1959 into his first fast food franchise helped the league expand its financial grip on anything involved with the game.
Richardson was named chair of the expansion committee in 1999 — just four years after the Panthers joined the league — that was needed when the NFL had to add a team to get to an even number of members after the Cleveland Browns debacle.
Sixteen years later, he was on the L.A. move committee that included other elite owners: Clark Hunt of the Chiefs, Robert Kraft of the Patriots, John Mara of the Giants and Art Rooney of the Steelers.
No NFL owner is without his failures and questionable judgment calls and Richardson has those as well.
While he’s a beloved shining example of what hard work and perseverance can do in the Carolinas, Richardson and the L.A. committee’s recommendation for a two-team arrangement in Los Angeles fell on deaf ears when the final vote came. And during the player lockout battles of the early 2010s, Richardson was the hardest of hard line owners in labor negotiations.
He famously claimed money woes for his club when the Panthers, under the Richardson Sports Limited Partnership banner, posted profits of $78.7 million in 2010 (while going 2-14 on the field) and of $33.3 million a year later, according to Deadspin.com.
It was the move of a super savvy business owner, trying to get everything he could for his side. Probably not unlike the drive that helped him turn his initial investment in a Hardee’s location in Spartanburg, S.C. into a 2,500-restaurant empire that allowed him to lay out more than $200 million cash of his own money to realize his lifelong dream and bring an NFL team to his fellow football fans in his home state.
That achievement, even with the occasional questionable judgment calls on money matters, is what has made him a beloved figure across the Carolinas. His close relationships with his players, hands off nature in letting the Panthers’ player personnel department and coaches do things their way and esteemed statesman appearance are all hallmarks of the poster boy NFL owner.
Richardson’s team stands one win away from the pinnacle of the NFL, in its much-celebrated 50th edition of the Super Bowl. As he always does, he’ll watch stoically from the owners box on Sunday night, eyeing another win and dreaming of where he might display a silver Tiffany trophy at Bank of America Stadium.