Sports

New man in charge of Panthers

You wonder when Jerry Richardson first knew.

Was it in 1993, when the owner of the Carolina Panthers announced his alma mater, Wofford College, would serve as the training camp home for the NFL's newest team because the school - thanks to an ambitious fund-raising and building program conceived by its athletics director - had NFL-worthy facilities in place?

Was in 1987, when Richardson sent a note to the Terriers' 33-year-old AD, Danny Morrison, telling him of Richardson's plan to go after an expansion franchise - and the reply came from Morrison that read, "WHEN (not if) you get an NFL team, we want to be in position to host your training camp"?

Or was it 15 years before that, when a bright young Terriers basketball player from Burlington, N.C., sat at the Richardson family's table with his teammates for Thanksgiving dinner - an event that Morrison says "made a huge impression on an 18-year-old freshman"?

Regardless, a whirlwind month for Morrison will reach its end Tuesday when he officially becomes president of the Carolina Panthers. Before that could happen, though, there was Saturday's trip to Clemson, where Morrison, athletics director at TCU, watched his No. 15 Horned Frogs play the Tigers at Death Valley.

"It's a great experience for our players and fans, a great atmosphere," said Morrison.

As for his "experience" this weekend ... Morrison laughed.

"Originally I was going to spend some time with a lot of friends in the area," he said, "but my schedule has changed somewhat."

Saturday night, Morrison returned to Fort Worth with the team. He planned to "tie up loose ends" at TCU today and Monday, then attend the Dallas Cowboys' Monday night game in nearby Arlington against the Panthers. By Tuesday afternoon, he expects to be in Charlotte, on the job.

It will be, Morrison said, a steep learning curve.

"The first question I asked (of Richardson) was: 'You do know I have no NFL experience?'" he said. "(Richardson) chuckled and said I'd learn what I'll need to learn."

For Morrison, that is the story of his professional life.

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Morrison has spent a career learning new skills on the fly. It also would be accurate to point out he has been successful each time.

That freshman basketball player who dined with the Richardsons in their Spartanburg home - the Terriers had remained on campus during the holiday and Jerry, the school's most famous alumnus/athlete, figured the kids could use a home-cooked meal - was also a Phi Beta Kappa majoring in math. Former Wofford president Joe Lesesne always figured his former student was meant for big things.

But the NFL? Lesesne, 72 and now in a working "retirement" as Wofford's director of football operations, laughed.

"I always thought he'd be a terrific math teacher," he said. "But I have tremendous trust in the judgment of Jerry, so the chances are high Danny will be successful.

"If it's a question of judgment, energy, being able to get along with people, study things ... Danny's good at deciding what needs to be done, then continuing to react (to others) in the process. He carries them along with him."

After graduation, Morrison seemed destined to fulfill Lesesne's career prediction. He returned to his old high school (Williams High), teaching geometry and serving as assistant basketball coach. In his second year he became the head coach at 22.

"They took a big chance on me," Morrison said. "My first varsity game, an official came over and asked where the coach was. I guess he thought I was the student manager."

Five years later, the "student manager" was an assistant basketball coach, head tennis coach and math teacher at Elon College. Soon after, he became the school's assistant athletics director ("I swapped math for that," he said). In 1985, "out of the blue," he accepted Lesesne's offer to become Wofford's AD. He was 31.

"That was a defining point for me. I had thought I'd be a high school basketball coach forever," Morrison said.

He laughed. "I have never looked for a job." The jobs kept finding him.

About the time Morrison was writing to Richardson about Wofford hosting his future NFL team, he also was leading his school through the transition to Division I-AA (now Football Championship Subdivision) and into the Southern Conference. The move - and the facilities upgrades that would make Richardson's decision an easy one - meshed perfectly, if not easily.

"We had to raise the money, do the planning and fund-raising" for new fields and upgrades to Gibbs Stadium "in such a compressed time frame," Morrison said. "That's when my hair started turning gray."

In 1997, with the Panthers' training camp a reality, Morrison became the school's senior vice president. Five years later, the Southern Conference hired him as commissioner, and in 2005, when USC hired Eric Hyman away from TCU, the Mountain West Conference school came to South Carolina to find his replacement.

At the time, that appeared to be a tough act to follow. Morrison, by all accounts, has made it look easy.

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Gary Patterson, the Horned Frogs football coach since 2000, has led TCU to 11 wins in four of the past six seasons. His roots at the school go back to Hyman, and the two are good friends. He says perhaps Morrison's best accomplishment has been continuing Hyman's legacy.

"No. 1, their management styles are different," Patterson said. "Eric was more an 'internal' guy, Danny's more 'external' - he helped get us money (for facilities upgrades)."

While some schools struggle to find funding for infrastructure projects, TCU's Frog Club and other groups have donated more than $40 million the past three years alone, according to the school's Web site. During his tenure, Morrison oversaw construction of a $17 million Olympic sports building, the $7 million Sam Baugh indoor practice facility for football, and the $13 million Dutch Meyer Athletic Complex and Abe Martin Academic Enhancement Center.

The last is part of a South End Zone facility at 45,000-seat Amon G. Carter Stadium, the beginning of what Morrison said will be an eventual $150 million renovation that will make it "the Camden Yards of college football."

Bryan Trubey, lead architect for the HKS firm that designed and built the Dallas Cowboys' new $1 billion-plus stadium, said working with Morrison on TCU's stadium project has been a delight.

"When Danny came in 2005, he visited with us, and he 'got' what we'd been trying to convince college people to do: do the same quality (facilities) as the pro owners," Trubey said. "He's as visionary a guy as I've worked with, and in our business, there are plenty who aren't."

Questions remain, however, if Morrison's experience in the college ranks will translate to success in the NFL.

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Morrison said his first call from Jerry Richardson came on Saturday, Aug. 30 - 72 hours before the Panthers' owner, who in February underwent a heart transplant, announced the departures of sons Mark, president of the team, and Jon, president of Bank of America Stadium.

"Mr. Richardson called and said there was an extraordinary opportunity (to consider), but he wasn't in position to elaborate," Morrison said. "I had no idea what he was talking about - no thoughts about the president of the Panthers.

"He called back (Sunday) and talked about it, and on that Tuesday (Sept. 1), it came to fruition. It was that quick."

Suddenly, Morrison's world was turned upside down. He and wife Peggy had come to love Fort Worth, but how could he turn down a shot at the top rung on the sports ladder given his history with Richardson?

"The people at TCU have been great to me," Morrison said. Even as he was accepting the job, "Mr. Richardson understood; he told me, 'You should do what you need to do to finish up properly.'"

Hence Morrison's continuation of doing TCU business as he prepared for his departure; other than a trip to Charlotte Sept. 3 to meet team officials and take in the Panthers' final home exhibition game vs. Pittsburgh, he said his attention has been focused on the Horned Frogs.

Starting Tuesday, that same focus will be on an NFL team shaken by the Richardson brothers' departure - insiders say there were conflicts between the two over advertising deals at Bank of America Stadium; the team announced Jon Richardson was leaving due to a reoccurrence of cancer, but offered no explanation about Mark Richardson - and a disappointing 0-2 start heading into Monday's game.

At least one NFL veteran, though, believes Morrison will thrive.

Gil Brandt was the Cowboys' vice president of player personnel for 30 years. These days, he writes about the league for NFL.com and hosts an NFL Radio talk show. He also was one of the first people Morrison called after accepting the Panthers' job.

"Jerry Richardson didn't just hit a home run" with Morrison's hiring, "he hit a home run with the bases loaded," Brandt said this week. "This guy is really, really good. He's a person who's not too proud to ask others for knowledge; he's a very good listener, and an even better decision-maker.

"Danny recognizes he has a lot of learning to do. But he's an unbelievable person when it comes to not getting people angry with him. A lot of guys are good, but they get people (ticked) at them. Danny will build relationships because they like and respect him.

"It's a win-win for the Panthers."

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To date, Jerry Richardson has issued a brief statement regarding Morrison. "We are very familiar with Danny and he is very familiar with our organization," he said. "He has been successful as a college administrator and commissioner and brings a business expertise and sense of community that fits the position perfectly."

It was fitting, too, that Morrison's final act as a college administrator came at Clemson. He credits former Tigers athletics director Bobby Robinson with taking Morrison under his wing when he first came to Wofford in 1985 and teaching him the ropes.

"It was a great learning experience for me through all my years at Wofford," Morrison said. "Bobby was a terrific mentor and wonderful to me over the years. I continue to call him for advice."

For his part, Morrison knows the skeptical eyes of the league and its followers will be squarely on the "new kid." He said he will approach the Panthers the same way he has done every previous challenge.

"In any new job situation, the first thing you do is listen and learn their way of doing things," Morrison said. "I was green coming to Wofford and when I became senior vice president; I was green when I went to the Southern Conference, and certainly when I came to TCU.

"The key elements are to work hard, have integrity and get along with people, have respect for them ... and be smart enough to connect the dots - see how something in one area impacts another area."

Did Richardson see this day coming? Did he take note of Morrison's skills with people, with business, with consensus-building, in those heady days when the Panthers' and Wofford's goals were intertwining?

Or does it go back further, to a bright 18-year-old sharing a meal on Thanksgiving Day, a young man who made an impression, one Richardson stored away in his memory until he needed it?

Only the Panthers' owner knows. Maybe sometime in the future, everyone else will, too.

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