CHARLOTTE, N.C — Jerry Richardson, a member of the Baltimore Colts’ 1959 championship team who went on to found the Carolina Panthers and become 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.”
Richardson said in 2018 his greatest mission in life was bringing the NFL to the Carolinas.
The Panthers began play in 1995 and Richardson quickly built Carolina 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 was a source of irritation for 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.
“I will always be grateful to him for the opportunity to coach the Carolina Panthers & for his patient, steadfast leadership during 7 seasons,” Rivera said on social media.
Richardson was well liked by his players.
Former tight end Greg Olsen posted a four-minute video on Twitter, saying that when Richardson learned his unborn son had a serious heart defect, he insisted on flying his family to Boston Medical Center in his own personal jet so they could receive the best medical advice.
Olsen and his wife Kara later named the child Trent “Jerry” Olsen after Richardson.
“We got love from a man that was my employer, my boss, not a close personal friend at the time,” Olsen said. “And he went above and beyond to bring comfort to a family at its toughest time.”
Quarterback Jake Delhomme, who led the Panthers to their first Super Bowl in the 2003 season, recalls getting a phone call from Richardson a couple of days after enduring a disastrous four-turnover performance in a 33-13 home loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the 2008 playoffs.
“He calls and says, ‘Jake, the sun came out today at my house, did it come out at yours?,’” Delhomme told The Associated Press on 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 affect his image.
He also had a policy that fans weren’t allowed to remove their shirts during games.
And during Richardson’s tenure as owner he always made sure the NFL logo — instead of his team’s — was at midfield of Bank of America Stadium.
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, a former first-round draft pick, was convicted on a murder conspiracy charge in connection to the drive-by shooting death of his pregnant girlfriend. Carruth was imprisoned for 16 years.
And in 2014, star defensive end Greg Hardy was placed on a commissioner’s exempt list after he was accused of throwing his girlfriend on to furniture and threatening to kill her. Prosecutors dismissed domestic violence charges against Hardy after they said the accuser in the case couldn’t be found.
Richardson is survived by his wife, Rosalind, son Mark and daughter Ashley Richardson Allen.
Steve Reed is an AP sports writer.