Panthers’ owner David Tepper learned valuable lessons while growing up in Pittsburgh
The man responsible for shaping the future of the Carolina Panthers and the region that houses them did not grow up with power or influence.
David Tepper was raised by a schoolteacher and her accountant husband in a small, well-loved brick house, built in 1950 in the working-class neighborhood of Stanton Heights, Pittsburgh.
He carried his books in a brown paper bag as he walked downhill to school every day. The steep, 2-mile slope was fun to coast down on a bike, or sled when it got slick in the Pittsburgh winter, but it was a grueling walk back so he often hitchhiked to get home.
Sometimes it hurt to be in that little brick house. Tepper has said his father was physically abusive to him and his two siblings.
So Tepper loved to be outside. He used to sit on the front porch with his grandfather, listening to Pittsburgh Pirates games on the radio.
And he loved football. He joined the football team at Peabody High, where they played games in a dirt field that was oiled down to keep the dust from rising.
A couple of miles away, locals were buzzing about a young quarterback with a big arm named Dan Marino who would play on the emerald green field at Pittsburgh Central Catholic High, in front of big crowds.
Tepper and Peabody, meanwhile, played rival Westinghouse in front of empty bleachers. Spectators were banned after fights between fans.
Tepper has come a long way since those days.
Sunday marks his first regular-season game as the new owner of the Carolina Panthers, against the Dallas Cowboys at Bank of America Stadium.
It also marks the beginning of an era. Tepper can have great impact on the economy and social structure of both Carolinas, as one of 32 owners who will make decisions for the multibillion-dollar industry that is the NFL.
But to understand how, we must return to Tepper’s roots.
Bigger than its walls
Tepper’s father worked 60-hour weeks, but the family couldn’t afford to see games at the NFL stadium across the bridge. Instead, they gathered on Sundays around a tiny television to watch the Steelers.
Tepper watched Terry Bradshaw’s rookie season on that grainy screen when he was 13 years old.
The love of football sent Tepper and his friends to the Allegheny Cemetery, which is flanked by stone turrets and arches and filled with giant marble tombs and headstones that date back centuries.
They paid no mind to the morbid scene. The cemetery had the best grass around, much better than the dirt at Peabody. They hollered in the quiet air and dove to avoid the tombstones and monuments that document the city’s substantial history.
As a child, Tepper had an unusual perception of how buildings were supposed to look.
“I used to think buildings were black because that was just the color they made them,” he said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “But they were black because of the soot.”
Pittsburgh’s original booming industry was steel, and the soot came from the mills within the city.
There aren’t any operational mills within the city limits anymore. Now, some of the city’s top industries are based in business, computer science and technology.
Google set up a campus five years ago in East Liberty, the former neighborhood of 19th-century steel magnates that sits adjacent to Tepper’s old neighborhood. Locals say the restaurant scene has erupted, too, with the flood of young professionals entering the city.
“It’s changed a lot since I was a kid,” Tepper said.
So has he.
After working multiple jobs to put himself through the University of Pittsburgh as an undergrad, then through Carnegie Mellon’s rigorous MBA program, Tepper has spent the past three decades amassing an $11 billion fortune as one of the world’s most successful hedge fund managers.
In 2004, he donated $55 million to Carnegie Mellon, which renamed its business school after him.
But lots of billionaires with MBAs have done that.
Tepper wanted more. He wanted to create something different.
A new idea with old roots
The David A. Tepper Quadrangle, which houses Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, officially opens Thursday, the week of Tepper’s 61st birthday and of his Panthers’ season opener.
The Tepper Quad is not a building, Tepper likes to say. It’s meant to be a physical manifestation of how modern global business works. It connects all seven CMU colleges, integrating tech, analytics, business and creativity, with the Tepper School at its center.
“The idea was to build a new thing,” said Bryan R. Routledge, an associate professor of finance at the Tepper Business School who worked closely on the project.
“This idea of not just making the business school better, but making it different I think was really at the core. ... (Tepper’s) description of success is not improving rankings, but being No. 1 in some category that has not happened yet.”
Unlike the buildings of Tepper’s childhood, the Tepper Quad is not soot-covered, or gothic. It instead is a blueprint of “new Pittsburgh,” a 4.5-acre innovation hub composed of sloping curves, sustainable materials, advanced technology, malleable spaces, angles and light.
But all of it is distinctly Tepper.
There is still some “old Pittsburgh” mixed with the new. During construction, steelworkers scampered across the huge curving ceiling beams that provide the building’s structural integrity. But the floors are built from new-age “bubble concrete” reinforced with recycled plastic.
“It’s a Pittsburgh thing. You don’t notice a lot of oak around here,” laughed Routledge, with a sly wink toward CMU competitors Harvard and Yale. “We have polished concrete floors and exposed (steel) ceiling beams. … We are a factory, not a country club.”
Most of the windows and the transparent walls that divide the building can be folded back to create open environments.
Everything is collaborative. The seating can be rearranged to create cocoon-like workspaces or pulled back into large-scale group areas.
This emphasis on collaboration feels like Tepper. He loves people.
“He’s a regular guy,” said Bob Dammon, the current dean of the Tepper School of Business. “He’s a guy you want to have a beer with. He’s a guy you can sit down and talk football with.”
When Tepper owned a 5 percent share of the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2009-18, he used to wander the sidelines in a baseball cap shaking hands with everyone from the equipment managers to owner Art Rooney II. He also takes individual time with the CMU students when he visits the business school.
“He’s somebody who treats people well,” Dammon said. “I always say that you can tell the character of a person by how they treat people who cannot help them.
“And everybody I’ve seen him meet, he treats extremely well. And makes them feel as though he’s as happy to meet them as they are meeting him. And I’ve seen it time and again.”
As a man who has matured and safeguarded his fortune in part by staying abreast of analytics and business technology, Tepper saw the Tepper School’s tech as an important detail.
The intersection of business and technology is key to the school’s programming. The classrooms can be restructured easily to adjust to technological advancements such as virtual reality.
In fact, virtual reality curricula are being installed at the Tepper School. Students will, for example, learn foreign languages through the technology — if they’re learning French, Routledge explained, they will be able to order a baguette at a cafe in virtual Paris.
The entire project was a labor of love, conceived by Tepper and CMU’s board of trustees. Routledge and the project’s architects, Santa Monica, Calif.-based Moore Rubell and Yudell, worked directly with Tepper throughout the nearly five-year build, a task they found as nerve-wracking as they did freeing.
“You’d see people leaving his office from a meeting needing a tissue, like they’d come out crying,” Routledge cracked, before adding seriously, “He doesn’t tell you what to do. ...
“(Tepper’s) feedback was really helpful at times. He made sure to push and to pull at loose threads so that you zoom in on them. Are you thinking through these? Has this been thoughtfully developed?”
True to the vision
Tepper nipped at the details of the building that were unusual for someone in such a lofty position to notice, such as parking.
“It was quite nice in the sense that it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, this needs to be more yellow.’ Or, ‘This needs to be more blue,’ ” Routledge said. “It was all about just staying true to the vision.”
And about a “money guy” following through on an investment.
After donating the initial $55 million to rename the business school, Tepper committed $67 million in 2013 to bring the Tepper Quad to life.
The building is a long way from the little brick house in Stanton Heights. But Tepper is just as much here as he was there.
On the building’s third level, the glass doors open to a concrete terrace that provides a panoramic view of Pittsburgh. To the left, the University of Pittsburgh’s gothic-style Cathedral of Learning towers over the city.
And just below the Tepper Quad, pressing up against the back of the building, is a football field.
It’s a good field, with deeply green natural grass and freshly painted white lines that welcome the upcoming fall.
It’s Pittsburgh Central Catholic’s practice field. It’s where Marino played.
Different lives, same details
Tepper gave a commencement speech at Carnegie Mellon over the summer. In it, he said he believes peoples’ lives are a combination of a lot of different lives that they’ve lived as they’ve grown up.
He shook and his voice cracked as he told the audience that his proudest moment was breaking the cycle of physical abuse that looped from his father and grandfather.
He giggled gleefully when he got to say out loud that he had been approved for NFL ownership, and how as a child he couldn’t have imagined being in that position because he couldn’t afford to see his first game until he was in his 20s.
That was another life.
In Tepper’s current life, he can walk in blue jeans across the Panthers’ practice fields and belly up to coach Ron Rivera with a big grin. He can watch the Panthers practice, with a baseball cap on his head and his top few shirt buttons undone.
He can shake hands with players, slap backs and evaluate the offensive line with general manager Marty Hurney.
But he’s putting the important details from all of his “old lives” into his new one, including the way he treats people.
After Tepper’s first official month with the team, he created a new position within the organization that deals with outreach, social initiatives and alumni relations. On his first day of work, he made business cards for the Panthers employee who has worked the front desk for two decades, John Coleman.
A bigger vision
Still to be revealed in full are his big-picture plans for the organization, such as new multiuse facilities and practice fields, and improvement of the fan experience.
“He’s a very bright guy. He’s very interested in how we can take advantage of the new technologies that are available, particularly how he can connect with fans, fan engagement,” Rooney said last week. “In our meetings here, he was always interested in what we were doing with content development and fan engagement.
“I think he’ll have his eye on that in terms of how he can build more bridges to the fans.”
Tepper has given clues to how it will all unfold.
In August, he hired Tom Glick, a globally minded sports businessman with experience in international soccer, Major League Soccer, the NBA and each organization’s corresponding expansions and facility upgrades, as the team’s new president.
And Tepper’s eye for facility design is showcased in the Tepper Quad, displaying his love of innovative architecture, analytics and functionality.
It also perhaps offers a peek at what is in store for Charlotte.
Back to his roots
In early August, Carolina kicked off training camp with its Fan Fest celebration at Bank of America Stadium. Tepper had to wear a press badge because he was still so new that the field security guards did not know his face quite yet.
After the team’s practice that night, Tepper stood, alongside his fiancee and their tiny dog, with the crowd of players and their families, to watch the fireworks and laser show. He danced a little jig as the speakers blared AC/DC, blissfully ignorant of any eyes or cameras that might be on him.
As the show continued, photos showed Tepper standing still, tilting his head up at the sky.
Wonder flitted across his eyes and softened his mouth into a small “oh” as he stared up at the golden sparks arcing high into the Charlotte skyline.
In that moment, you could see the boy who grew up in the little brick house in East Pittsburgh.
You could see Tepper’s roots.