Jerry Richardson, Who Founded the Carolina Panthers, Dies at 86
Jerry Richardson, the former N.F.L. player who turned a championship bonus into a restaurant empire and then used his fortune to buy an expansion team, the Carolina Panthers, died on Wednesday at his home in Charlotte, N.C. He was 86.
A family spokesman, James Gray, did not specify a cause of death but said that Mr. Richardson had a heart transplant in 2009.
Mr. Richardson was only the second former player to own a team (George Halas of the Chicago Bears was the other), and he made the most of his two seasons in the league. A wide receiver for the Baltimore Colts, he caught a touchdown pass from quarterback Johnny Unitas in the 1959 N.F.L. title game and used his bonus of several thousand dollars to pay for the first Hardee’s hamburger restaurant in Spartanburg, S.C.
Mr. Richardson would open hundreds more restaurants in the next 30 years, making him one of the richest men in the Carolinas.
“It was the luckiest thing I ever did,” Mr. Richardson told The New York Times in 2004. “If I hadn’t left the Colts, I never would have made the money to own the Panthers.”
Loyal to the Carolinas and the game of football, Mr. Richardson used his money and connections to lobby the N.F.L. to put an expansion team in Charlotte. In 1993, the N.F.L. owners voted unanimously to make the Panthers the league’s 29th team. Mr. Richardson and his partners paid $206 million for the club.
The team never fulfilled Mr. Richardson’s promise to win a Super Bowl within 10 years, but the Panthers made it to the title game twice, in the 2003 and 2015 seasons. Though the team has had flashes of success, it has never had back-to-back winning seasons.
Still, the Panthers were widely admired as a franchise, with a centrally located stadium built entirely with private financing. Mr. Richardson became one of the league’s most influential owners.
As a former player, he understood the game like few owners could, and as an entrepreneur, he had a hard-nosed grasp of the league’s business. He played critical roles in labor negotiations and the development of stadiums, including his own, which included the novel concept of selling personal seat licenses to fans to help defray some of the cost of construction.
However, Mr. Richardson would leave the league in shame.
In 2017, he announced he was selling the Panthers soon after Sports Illustrated reported on accusations that he sexually harassed women working for the team and that he had used a racial slur in the presence of a Black scout. The league investigation into Mr. Richardson’s workplace behavior led to a $2.75 million fine. But by then, he had already reached an agreement to sell the team for a then-record $2.3 billion. Mr. Richardson never publicly addressed the allegations.
Jerome Johnson Richardson was born on July 18, 1936, in Spring Hope, N.C., a small town near Rocky Mount. Times were tough. His family’s home did not have running water or electricity.
An only child, he moved with his parents about 90 minutes south to Fayetteville, N.C. His father, George Bertram Richardson, was a barber, and his mother, Mary Williams Richardson, worked in a women’s clothing store. Jerry is said to have worked in the tobacco fields. The Richardsons did not have a car until Jerry was 16.
Tall and lanky, Jerry was also known as Stick. A standout football player, he won a partial scholarship to Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., where he starred as a player. He was drafted in the 13th round by the Colts in his junior year, but he returned for his senior year and graduated in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
In Baltimore, he was voted the team’s rookie of the year and befriended Unitas, the greatest quarterback of his generation. Richardson caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Unitas to help the Colts capture the N.F.L. crown. In two seasons with the Colts, Richardson played in 22 games, and caught 15 passes for 171 yards and four touchdowns.
After his second season, he asked for a raise to $10,000. After the team offered $9,750, Richardson returned to Spartanburg, and with his former college teammate, Charles Bradshaw, bought the first Hardee’s hamburger restaurant there. Mr. Richardson was hands-on, cleaning parking lots, mopping floors and flipping burgers.
“He was very serious, very intent, and very quickly found himself to be interested in the running of the businesses,” said Hugh McColl, the former chief executive of Bank of America who, in the 1960s, lent Mr. Richardson $25,000 to open a Hardee’s in Charlotte, and who later helped him purchase the Panthers and build a new stadium.
Decades ago, Mr. McColl visited a Hardee’s with Mr. Richardson and watched him pick up trash outside the restaurant and hand it to the manager. “I’ve never seen it before or since,” he said of Mr. Richardson’s attention to detail.
Mr. Richardson and Mr. Bradshaw quickly expanded, and in the 1970s their company, Spartan Food Systems, was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The company grew to include about 1,300 Denny’s restaurants, 500 Hardee’s franchises and 215 Quincy’s Steakhouses. The company was bought several times, but Mr. Richardson remained as its leader.
In 1994, the company, then called Flagstar, agreed to pay more than $54 million to settle lawsuits filed by thousands of Black customers who accused Denny’s of discrimination. The company also settled other civil rights suits, tarnishing Mr. Richardson’s reputation.
A year later, Mr. Richardson stepped back from his corporate duties to focus on the Panthers full time just as they began their first season. He was both loved and feared. He donated more than $250 million to Wofford, his alma mater.
At 6-foot-3, Mr. Richardson had a commanding presence. He expected employees to show up to meetings early and wore a suit and tie in the owner’s box at home games because he considered it his office. He was simply called “Mister” by many staff members.
He was a hard-liner in labor talks with the players’ union. During negotiations in 2011, he reportedly insulted quarterback Peyton Manning, saying, “Do I need to help you read a revenue chart, son?”
Mr. Richardson rarely spoke to the media, at one point going nine years without a news conference. But after the league signed a new labor deal to end a contentious lockout, Mr. Richardson took a victory lap by his standards.
“It’s 10 years for our fans, our teams, our owners and organizations to focus on football without any worry in any direction,” he said. “It’s historic.”
Mr. Richardson co-chaired a committee that chose Roger Goodell as the N.F.L. commissioner in 2006, and steered another committee focused on finding a team to move back to Los Angeles.
Mr. Richardson is survived by his wife, the former Rosalind Sallenger; a son, Mark Sallenger Richardson; a daughter, Ashley Richardson; and nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. Another son, Jerome Jr. died of cancer in 2013.
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