Richardson's joy tempered by sadness over Baltimore's loss

January 27, 1994|By John Steadman

ATLANTA -- It's difficult for Jerry Richardson to find the appropriate words, something of a fitting and consoling message, to comfort Baltimore, the city that gave him a start in the NFL and, ultimately, allowed him to establish himself as one of the country's outstanding business leaders.

He's here for a quick visit to the Super Bowl, his first as owner of the Carolina Panthers, who will not begin play until 1995. Richardson was hoping the NFL would honor Baltimore with the other expansion franchise but that didn't happen.

"I was on a plane, flying somewhere," he recalled, "when the pilot came back and told me Jacksonville [Fla.] had been picked to be the second city. I felt heartsick. My relationship with Baltimore has been close over the years. I wanted it to be back in the league."

Had he not committed to Charlotte, N.C., he would have tried to be in Baltimore. He won't say that, but he can't deny it either.

Richardson, of course, understands the disappointment and torment that has ensued. "After 6 1/2 years of work, I told everyone if Charlotte didn't get it then that would be the end for me. I wasn't going to put myself through it again, just too emotional."

Richardson spent two years with the Colts as a swing-end alternating between Raymond Berry on one side and Jim Mutscheller on the other. His roommate during that time was John Unitas.

Appropriately, after Charlotte/Richardson got a team, the first voice he heard on his telephone answering machine upon returning home was that of Unitas. "He told me, 'Congratulations, Jerry, on your first victory. You won, 28-0.' What a nice thing for John to do."

The 28-0 score was the vote count of NFL owners when they picked Charlotte and Richardson. Or was it Richardson and Charlotte because, in reality, the personality and standing of Richardson certainly played a part in the verdict.

"Yeah, the old Colt guys certainly made me feel good. Let's see there were beautiful letters from Alex Hawkins and Jim Mutscheller. Milt Davis, Don Shinnick, Raymond Berry and Dave Sherer called. It made me realize my teammates from Baltimore hadn't forgotten me."

Richardson took the $4,674.44 check for being on the Colts' championship team in 1959 and bought half-interest in a Hardee's franchise in Spartanburg, S.C. Now he is chairman and chief executive officer of Flagstar Cos. Inc., which owns the Denny's Restaurant chain, most of the Hardee's outlets in the South and Volume Services. Total employees: at last count 120,000.

The cost to Richardson for the expansion effort was $6 million. "My situation was different than what Baltimore had to go through because the city and state helped with the funding," he said. "I was doing it as an individual."

What he insisted he would not do, under any circumstances, was attempt to attract a team from another city, citing the loss Baltimore suffered, and he did not want the tax-paying public of the Carolinas to have to foot the bill for the franchise.

He said when he first broached the idea of Charlotte's being an NFL member, three owners were particularly encouraging, namely Paul Brown, Joe Robbie and Billy Sullivan. The first two have died and Sullivan is out of the NFL.

"Stop to consider when we started the effort, the Cardinals were still in St. Louis [not Phoenix] and Pete Rozelle was the commissioner," Richardson said.

"The stadium in Charlotte is right downtown, just like with Baltimore's Camden Yards. It won't be ready until 1996 so we'll play our first year at Clemson University in an 81,000-seat stadium.

"I don't think Charlotte will feel the impact of total enthusiasm until we play in our home facility. Meanwhile, the citizens will watch the stadium being built and that will build an enormous crescendo of interest."

Richardson becomes only the second player in the 74-year history of the NFL to own a team. The only other was George Halas, who started the Chicago Bears and also played end and coached.

Max Muhleman, the marketing genius who prepared the strategy for the Charlotte bid, says Richardson was the catalyst. "Our owner was in an area where we made it real easy for the league," he said.

There was never a question about the integrity or qualifications of Richardson. The NFL has a better man than it deserves because he doesn't deal in duplicity or sham, which makes you wonder why those respectful virtues weren't used as reasons to disqualify him, considering the state of the league and some of the stiffs it permits to own teams.

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