Still catching on: Richardson nearing Carolina goal line

John Steadman

August 26, 1991|By John Steadman

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There was this pressing desire to own a professional football team and to place it not in a single city or an individual state but to make it the focal point for an entire marketing area embracing both North and South Carolina. So Jerry Richardson, once of the Baltimore Colts who parlayed vvTC 1959 championship game check of $4,674.44 into one of the nation's most successful multiple-restaurant operations, is now within grasp of his objective.

The National Football League admits Richardson has most assuredly gotten its attention. Two expansion clubs will be added and Charlotte (rather the Carolinas) has moved ahead of Baltimore and St. Louis in the quest for a franchise. It's still tentative at this juncture but Richardson, via his financial standing in the nation and unpretentious personal charm, has impressed the NFL like none of the other applicants.

From part ownership in a Hardee's outlet in Spartanburg, S.C., which was his early investment, the ascendancy of Richardson reads more make-believe than reality. He built the country's fourth largest food empire, under the banner of TW Services, where he has 108,000 employees and creates $3.7 billion in annual revenue via his multiple ownership of 992 Denny's, 483 Hardee's, 212 Quincy Steak Houses and 114 El Pollo Restaurants -- plus the immense Canteen Corp.

All this from a reserved young man who was born in the right community -- Spring Hope, N.C. -- to dream and achieve such illustrious goals. His father was a barber in Fayetteville and Jerry played end for Wofford College and then came to the Colts.

Catching a touchdown pass in the only title the Colts ever won in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium is high on his personal memory list, but his proudest achievement came in 1976 when his company was afforded a listing on the New York Stock Exchange. The genesis for his interest in the NFL goes back to his experiences with the Colts and, without any semblance of doubt, would be the kind of an owner the league covets but rarely finds.

To this point in the project, Richardson has committed himself to building a $125 million stadium in Charlotte with his own money and the city has cleared the land and prepared a lease. So all that's needed is for the NFL to approve. He already has an able director of football operations in Mike McCormack, who is on a retainer, and a son, Mark, who is endowed with extraordinary personality and intelligence.

Mark played on a national championship team at Clemson, graduated in 1983 with a degree in administrative management and has a master's in business from the University of Virginia. The Richardsons, father and son, and brother Jon, who played at the University of North Carolina and was once in the Colts' training camp, know football from more than a cursory aspect.

And if you want a prediction it's natural to assume Jerry's former Colts' teammate, Raymond Berry, the Hall of Fame end, will become the head coach if time and circumstances permit. That must await future developments but it is a distinct possibility.

So far, in the expansion effort, the Richardsons haven't made a mistake. They hired what is considered the most adept sports promotion firm in the land, namely Muhleman Marketing, based in Charlotte, where it cares for the publicizing of numerous motor sports presentations, and is headed by a former newspaper columnist, the innovative Max Muhleman.

"We believe we have made considerable progress," says the elder Richardson, who is low-key and disdains being caught in the company of braggarts. That's not his style. "I see the way we have been received by the publicand it makes us feel good. But there is no assurance we will be one of the two places named. Next comes the scrutiny of our application by the league."

For the last three years, Richardson has tried out his two-state team proposal by playing a series of exhibition games. Two nights ago, a crowd of 69,117 watched the Washington Redskins lose to the New York Jets at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C., where Sen. Strom Thurmond took up the beat in proclaiming to the audience in pre-kickoff ceremonies: "Nothing could be finer than to have the NFL in Carolina."

Previously, exhibitions played in Raleigh drew 52,036 and the one in Chapel Hill 52,855. Both were sellouts and the same would have happened in Columbia had it not rained most of the afternoon, which deterred further advance ticket buying at prices of $19 and $24. There were 22 corporate sponsors with hospitality suites in the air-conditioned state fair building that adjoins the stadium and then each host brought its guests to the game.

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