CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jerry Richardson, out of competitive necessity, kept it secret for years.
He says a phone call five years ago was vital to the NFL's decision to award him and the Carolinas a pro football franchise one year ago today.
It was late 1989. Pete Rozelle had just retired after 30 years as NFL commissioner. Richardson had already announced his pursuit of an expansion franchise based in Charlotte.
"Pete," Richardson said to Rozelle via long-distance call, "if it wouldn't be awkward for you, now that you're no longer commissioner, would you mind if I came to see you and asked you to help coach us in trying to get this franchise?
"Would you think about it? I'll call you in a couple of days."
Rozelle's response was immediate: "I don't have to think about it. I'll be glad to help you."
Thus began an intimate relationship between Richardson and Rozelle, spawning at least a half-dozen intense meetings Richardson said educated him on the politics of winning an NFL franchise.
"If he gave me advice, I tried to follow it," Richardson said. "I didn't get creative."
The creative part was approaching Rozelle in the first place. None of Richardson's expansion competitors -- there were four other finalists -- did likewise, which Richardson admits "is amazing to me."
Rozelle was possibly the most powerful commissioner in the history of professional sports. Under his leadership from 1960-89, the NFL grew into an American institution. He presided over the first billion-dollar television contract, the birth of the Super Bowl and "Monday Night Football." He also oversaw the expansion of the league three previous times.
However, Rozelle perhaps was best known for his soft-spoken persuasiveness with owners on important issues.
For Richardson, Rozelle was the ultimate insider, perhaps as important to making the Carolina Panthers a reality as was the financial support of NationsBank's Hugh McColl Jr. and the marketing wisdom of Max Muhleman.
"He's the best resource on the NFL I could have had," Richardson said of Rozelle. "We probably had half a dozen or more one-on-one, in-person, very intense sessions, plus a number of letters and a lot of telephone calls."
Said Rozelle: "I gave him all the information I could, what I felt the owners would be seeking in a new franchise city and a new franchise."
Though they didn't know each other personally until their meetings began, Rozelle's earliest memories of Richardson date back to 1959, when Rozelle was general manager of the Los Angeles Rams and Richardson was playing offensive end for the Baltimore Colts.
"Jerry, to me, was sort of a Cinderella story," Rozelle said. "It wasn't just the fact that he played for the Colts during their heyday, it was also the fact that he's a very, very charming and able man. He was so honest and outgoing."
Rozelle also admits he pulled for Richardson to get a team because the only other ex-player to own an NFL team was George Halas of the Chicago Bears, who died in 1983.
"He's obviously a very hard-working individual, just as he was as a player," Rozelle said. "He developed his skills to the utmost through tenacity and dedication. Those same characteristics followed through with his business success. It was obvious he would make a very good owner."
Most of the meetings were at Rozelle's office in San Diego. Richardson recalls the first:
"We agreed it would be a private conversation and would be very confidential. He preferred I didn't take notes."
On other occasions, Richardson took very detailed notes.
In January 1993, the week before Super Bowl XXVII, Rozelle advised Richardson that a proposed permanent seat license sales campaign would be essential to getting a franchise since other expansion cities, unlike Charlotte, had publicly funded stadiums.
The PSL campaign was approved by NFL owners three months later.
Last fall, shortly before NFL owners met to make a final decision on expansion, Richardson went to see Rozelle again.
"I told him what we were trying to get was get all 28 votes," Richardson said. "He told me he'd been commissioner for 30 years and never got 28 votes on anything."
Nevertheless, Rozelle discussed each owner with Richardson, breaking down, one by one, what it would take to win each vote.
One year ago today, when NFL owners met in Chicago, Richardson and the Carolinas became the NFL's 29th franchise by a unanimous vote.
A few days later, Richardson said he received a "beautiful, incredible, wonderful" letter from Rozelle.