<
>

Panthers' Jerry Richardson, the 'Big Cat,' has another shot at elusive Super Bowl title

play
Jerry Richardson had vision for Panthers (1:08)

ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton says that when Jerry Richardson founded the Panthers, his vision was to build a franchise the Carolinas could be proud of. The only unfulfilled promise now is winning a Super Bowl. (1:08)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Mark Richardson's voice began to crack as he described standing on the field to watch his father, Carolina Panthers founder and owner Jerry Richardson, hoist the NFC championship trophy last Sunday.

"It was a joyous night," Mark Richardson said. "I'm happy for the fans, the organization and the players, but mostly for my dad. I know how much it means and how bad he wants it."

Emotion poured from one word to the next as Mark unsuccessfully fought back tears while sharing how it felt to see his father's team advance to Super Bowl 50 against the Denver Broncos.

"I know how much it means to him," he said, barely able to continue, "and I don't think there is anybody more deserving."

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is surprised Jerry Richardson doesn't have a Lombardi Trophy already.

"He's one of the great owners of all time," Jones said of Richardson, whose nickname is "Big Cat" but is known by most as Mr. Richardson. "He's outstanding, very knowledgeable about the NFL, and it's very fitting that he's got the quality of team that he's got. He's really put it together."

Unlike Jones, Richardson stays in the background. He seldom, if ever, talks to reporters, letting his coaches and players take the credit. But Richardson, 79, commands respect. Even people he has fired or parted with remain loyal, expressing compliments instead of bitterness.

That makes Mark Richardson's comments especially poignant.

He used to be the team president, being groomed as his dad's heir apparent. Then two weeks before the 2009 opener, he and his brother, Jon, abruptly resigned. No reasons were given. There was just a short statement from Jerry Richardson, thanking his sons for their contributions.

Richardson was seven months removed from a heart transplant. According to reports at the time, the brothers were at odds over how to run the team while their father recovered. When he was healthy enough to return, he summoned his sons and made it clear he was back in charge.

That Jon, the Bank of America Stadium president, was stepping away made sense. He had cancer and had told employees a month earlier he was going to step down, in part because of his health. He died in July 2013 at age 53.

Mark's resignation was shocking. It felt more like a firing, even though the Panthers were 12-4 the previous season.

Mark didn't talk about the reasons then and he didn't want to talk about them now. He only wanted to express his love and admiration for the man who raised him and ultimately let him go.

That tells you something about the regard with which Jerry Richardson is held.

Former Panthers general manager Marty Hurney is another example. Richardson fired Hurney after the team's 1-5 start in 2012, yet Hurney won't say a negative word about his boss of more than 10 years.

"He's class all day," Hurney said. "Probably the best manager of people that I've ever been around."

The Panthers' stoic owner is an imposing, 6-foot-3 man whose powerful voice typically makes people sit up and listen. But the public saw a different Richardson -- tearful, soft-spoken -- one night in September 2014.

Richardson and his organization were facing criticism for allowing Greg Hardy to play while the Pro Bowl defensive end awaited a jury trial on domestic violence charges.

The pain and embarrassment this caused Richardson was evident three nights after the season opener.

"When it comes to domestic violence, my stance is not one of indifference," he said at an event honoring him with the Echo Foundation's Award Against Indifference. "I stand firmly against domestic violence, plain and simple."

"To those who would suggest that we've been too slow to act, I ask that you consider not to be too quick to judge," Richardson continued, struggling to maintain his composure. "Over the course of our 20 years, we have worked extremely hard to build an organization of integrity. ... I will work hard to continue to earn your trust."

The Panthers didn't activate Hardy for their next game, and he spent the rest of the season on the NFL's commissioner exempt list.

Carolina didn't attempt to re-sign Hardy when he became a free agent that winter -- and Richardson made it clear the decision was his. "We do things right," was his comment on the matter at the NFL owners meeting in March 2015.

"People around him understand clearly where he's coming from," said Mark Richardson, who now runs a commercial real estate business. "There's not a whole lot of interpretation that needs to be done. He's very direct and thoughtful."

Sports marketing executive Max Muhleman, who played a big role in the building of Bank of America Stadium, was welcoming everyone to their first meeting in Charlotte with Jerry Richardson when the Panthers' owner interrupted.

"He says, 'Excuse me, may I come to the point? I want you to know how we do things. No. 1, we believe in teamwork. No. 2, we're always on time. No. 3, we do what we say we're going to do,'" Muhleman recalled of that day 22 years ago.

"It was such an unusual way to start a relationship. But thinking back, it was darn effective."

Richardson wasn't always a businessman. He grew up playing football in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He earned a scholarship at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He still holds the school's single-game record with 241 receiving yards.

In 1958, he was a 13th-round draft pick by the Baltimore Colts. He caught a touchdown pass from Johnny Unitas in the 1959 NFL championship game.

Richardson used his bonus check from that game to open the first Hardee's restaurant franchise in Spartanburg. That blossomed into a multi-million-dollar company, which made it possible for him to purchase an NFL team.

His approach to both businesses was similar.

While in the food industry, it wasn't uncommon for Richardson to show up unannounced at a Hardee's and pick up trash or go inside and flip burgers.

When he began the Panthers, Richardson could be found picking up trash outside the stadium. The grounds have so many flowers and plants, it looks more like a nursery. Blooms peeked through snow and ice that hit the area two days before the NFC title game.

"He wants things done with class and he wants it done a certain way," said Jake Delhomme, who quarterbacked the 2003 team that reached the Super Bowl. "That's extremely, extremely important to him."

Richardson pulled an oversized drumstick back and struck the ceremonial "Keep Pounding" drum with all his might before the NFC Championship Game last Sunday.

"I had chills," said Kevin Donnalley, an offensive lineman on the 2003 Super Bowl team.

So did practically everybody who has been on this journey with Richardson.

"Probably one of the most influential men in my life and in many of the Panthers' players' lives," Delhomme said.

"I played for several organizations where I never talked to the owner," said former Panther Ricky Proehl, currently the team's wide receivers coach. "Mr. Richardson knows his guys. He loves them and cares about them. It shows, because of the way these guys talk about Mr. Richardson, how bad they want to win for him."

Carolina's current success would've seemed far-fetched early in the 2013 season. The Panthers, who were 13-19 in Ron Rivera's first two years, were off to a 1-3 start. But Richardson told Rivera no changes would be made during the season, so the coach and his staff could work without fear of being fired.

Since then, the Panthers are 33-10-1 in the regular season.

"He stuck with key people that he's got in his organization," Jones said, "and they're being rewarded."

That's one reason why it meant so much to see Richardson pound the drum that honors the legacy of Sam Mills, a former Panthers linebacker and assistant coach who died in 2005.

"When I hit it a few years ago, [Richardson] looked at me and said, 'You know, nobody has ever broken that drum,'" Delhomme said with a laugh. "When I see him, I'll say, 'I wish you had swung harder. It's a little bit thicker than you think.'"

An estimated 50,000 people gathered for a victory rally in Charlotte after Richardson was awarded an NFL franchise in October 1993. Richardson made a promise to win a Super Bowl in the first 10 years.

Muhleman was sitting next to team president Mike McCormack, a former Cleveland Browns offensive lineman and NFL coach and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"His head twirled around and he said, 'Oh, my world. I wish he hadn't said that,'" Muhleman said. "He knew how hard it was."

Richardson didn't stop there.

"I'm 60 years old," he said. "I expect to win a lot of Super Bowls."

Richardson was so optimistic that he already had a spot picked for the Lombardi Trophy in the stadium that wasn't yet built.

He came close to that dream in the Panthers' second season, 1996. Carolina went 12-4 during the regular season and reached the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay. The 2003 team came even closer, losing the Super Bowl 32-29 on a last-second field goal by Adam Vinatieri, then the kicker for the New England Patriots.

Mark Richardson was there for those moments. He'll be in the owner's suite, with his father, for this year's Super Bowl in Santa Clara, California.

"There are a lot of owners that have gotten to lift that Lombardi Trophy," said Mark, still fighting back tears. "I know he's closer than he's ever been. I hope he finally gets a chance to raise it high. He deserves it."

ESPN Cowboys reporter Todd Archer contributed to this report.