CHARLOTTE, N.C (AP) — Jerry Richardson, the Carolina Panthers founder and for years one of the NFL’s most influential owners until a scandal forced him to sell the team, has died. He was 86.
Richardson died peacefully Wednesday night at his Charlotte home, the team said in a statement.
Richardson became the first former NFL player to own a team since Chicago’s George Halas when he landed the expansion Panthers in 1993.
A former teammate of Johnny Unitas who caught a touchdown pass in the Baltimore Colts’ victory over the New York Giants in the 1959 NFL championship game, Richardson only spent two years in the NFL before venturing into the restaurant business. He used his championship bonus money to open the first Hardee’s in Spartanburg, South Carolina — close to where he had attended Wofford College.
He went on to make his fortune in the restaurant business, becoming chief executive officer of Flagstar, the sixth-largest food service company in the country at the time.
The Spring Hope, North Carolina, native spent years trying to persuade the NFL to put a team in the Carolinas, ultimately succeeding through a relatively original concept of funding a new stadium through the sales of permanent seat licenses.
“Jerry Richardson’s contributions to professional football in the Carolinas are historic,” current Panthers owner David Tepper and his wife Nicole said in a statement. “With the arrival of the Panthers in 1995, he changed the landscape of sports in the region and gave the NFL fans here a team to call their own. He was incredibly gracious to me when I purchased the team, and for that I am thankful. Nicole and I extend our deepest condolences to Rosalind, the entire Richardson family, and their loved ones. We wish them much peace and comfort.”
Carolina began play in 1995 and Richardson quickly built the Panthers into one of the league’s model franchises, while becoming a powerful figure in the NFL. Richardson served on several high-level owners committees, playing a key role in labor negotiations with the players’ union.
But Richardson’s reputation took a tremendous hit when he announced he was selling the Panthers on Dec. 17, 2017, — the same day Sports Illustrated reported that four former Panthers employees received significant monetary settlements due to inappropriate sexually suggestive language and actions by Richardson. It was also reported he used a racial slur directed toward a team scout.
He sold the team to Tepper, a hedge fund owner, in May 2018 for a then-NFL record $2.27 billion. The following month the NFL fined Richardson $2.75 million for alleged workplace misconduct.
Richardson never addressed the allegations against him publicly.
After purchasing the Panthers, Tepper said he was “contractually obligated” to keep the statue of Richardson, flanked by two panthers, outside of the downtown Charlotte stadium that Richardson built.
But in June 2020, the Panthers removed the statue, saying they were concerned there may be attempts to take the statue down due to protests and unrest following the death of George Floyd.
The team said that “moving the statue is in the interest of public safety.” It has never returned.
Although Richardson once promised the Panthers would win a Super Bowl “within 10 years” of beginning play in 1995, they never did. The team reached the Super Bowl in the 2003 and 2015 seasons, but lost both times.
The lack of consistency irritated Richardson, as Carolina failed to put together back-to-back winning seasons during his 23 seasons as owner despite hiring four coaches: Dom Capers, George Seifert, John Fox and Ron Rivera.
Richardson had a unique style of dealing with players, but generally was well-liked by those who played and coached under him.
“Stephanie & I were saddened to learn of the passing of Jerry Richardson,” Rivera said on social media. “I will always be grateful to him for the opportunity to coach the Carolina Panthers & for his patient, steadfast leadership during 7 seasons. Condolences to Rosalind, Ashley, & Mark and the Richardson family.”
Former Panthers general manager Marty Hurney worked under Richardson from 2002-12 and then returned to the team in 2017 and worked four more years.
Quarterback Jake Delhomme, who led the Panthers to their first Super Bowl in the 2003 season, said Richardson was well respected in the locker room and “great to me and every player who played for him.”
Delhomme recalls getting a phone call from Richardson a couple of days after he had a disastrous four-turnover performance in a 33-13 home loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the playoffs in the 2008 season.
“He calls and says, ‘Jake, the sun came out today at my house, did it come out at yours?,’” Delhomme said Thursday. “I said, ‘Yes sir, it did.’ He said, ‘that’s a good thing — everything will be OK.’ And then he hung up the phone.”
When linebacker Thomas Davis retired in 2021, he thanked Richardson for believing in him and keeping him on the roster despite having suffered three torn ACLs in the same knee.
Conservative by nature, Richardson once cautioned Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton against getting tattoos and piercings after drafting the quarterback No. 1 overall in 2011 for fear it would impact his image. He also had a policy where fans couldn’t remove their shirts during games.
But Richardson’s tenure was marred by off-field issues.
He fired both his sons — Mark, the team president, and Jon, the director of stadium operations — following a sibling squabble at the stadium in front of other employees while he was recovering from a heart transplant in 2009. It was expected at the time one of the boys might inherit the team, but that never happened. Jon Richardson died of cancer in 2013.
In 2000, wide receiver Rae Carruth, the team’s first-round draft pick in 1997, was convicted on a murder conspiracy charge in connection with the drive-by shooting death of his pregnant girlfriend. Carruth was imprisoned for 16 years.
Three months later, running back Fred Lane, who had just been traded to Indianapolis, was shot and killed by his wife in their Charlotte home.
And defensive end Greg Hardy was suspended after he was arrested for communicating threats after allegedly throwing his girlfriend on to furniture and threatening to kill her. He was later released.
Richardson is survived by his wife, Rosalind, son Mark and daughter Ashley Richardson Allen.