Tradition. Legacy. Heritage.
Big words that are not just abstract concepts for UNC Charlotte’s football program.
On Tuesday, the program got a huge infusion of financial support from Jerry Richardson – a self-made man who started out as a student-athlete at a small Southern college and went on to catch a touchdown pass from Johnny Unitas in the 1959 NFL Championship game. After a brief but successful NFL career, he became a prosperous businessman, and subsequently the majority owner of the Carolina Panthers.
At a festive news conference, the Panthers owner donated $10 million to the Charlotte 49ers for their football stadium, which will be called Jerry Richardson Stadium.
To some of the younger people in the crowd, it might come as a surprise to learn Richardson had to overcome some rather large odds when he brought the NFL to Charlotte in the early 1990s. After years of hard work by Richardson and his staff, the long shot Panthers were one of two expansion teams accepted into the league in 1995, along with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Panthers finished the season with a 7–9 record, the best from a first-year expansion team in league history.
In 1996, they posted a 12-4 regular season record and won the NFC West. The upstart Panthers beat the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round before losing the NFC Champion Game to the Green Bay Packers, who went on to win the Super Bowl. It started a tradition of winning for the Panthers that lasted for many years and brought them to the Super Bowl in 2003.
Richardson is the kind of person who does not forget his roots, and he made it clear at the podium on Tuesday he wanted to make the donation so others like him also can have the opportunity to succeed. Along with his $10 million gift to name the stadium in perpetuity, he and his wife Rosalind endowed a football scholarship in honor of their son Jon.
“Jerry Richardson staked his claim to UNC Charlotte 10 million times,” said UNC Charlotte Chancellor Philip L. Dubois. “He knows that football can bring the students and the city of Charlotte together, and he understands how athletics can advance the connections between a university and its community. As an institution, UNC Charlotte is on the rise, and this gift will give us escape velocity to take our place among other great universities. Jerry recognizes what UNC Charlotte can do for the city, and what a city can do for its University.”
Richardson said, “The role UNC Charlotte plays in our community cannot be underestimated, and its profile will only continue to grow. The addition of football is another step in that growth, and it is important that our community supports the school and its programs. The potential of both the University and its athletic department is unlimited, and I am pleased to be able to participate in their development. My personal experiences from football have been very beneficial, and this is a way to support both the future of the game and the University. We’re excited to be part of your program. We’re team players, and we hope to have many years together.”
The Charlotte 49ers completed construction on the stadium in October 2012. The football team began practice in the 15,300-seat stadium at that time. It is located across from Grigg and Duke Centennial halls, near the campus entrance off Highway 29.
For her part, Charlotte 49ers Athletics Director Judy Rose said Richardson did not have to make the gift to enhance his standing in the community.
“Jerry Richardson, by no means, needed to make this donation. His legacy in this community and around the country is firmly established,” she said. “Jerry Richardson wanted to be among the first to stand up and state, ‘This program is important to me.’ As a former college athlete, he wanted to make this donation because of all that college athletics has done for him. As an owner of our region’s NFL franchise, he wanted to make this donation to support the region’s largest university.”
In fact, it was Richardson’s idea to make the donation.
“Nobody asked us to do this,” he said. “Charlotte is our home (and) I think athletics plays a key role in any university or college experience.
“In fact, I don’t do well when people ask me for money. I’d rather give it because I want to give it.”
Paul Nowell works in University Communications.