How Panthers owner David Tepper has been a 'force of nature'

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- On any given day you might see a somewhat nondescript man wearing blue jeans, a T-shirt and baseball cap walking down Mint Street toward Bank of America Stadium. He easily could be one of the plethora of people hired to keep the stadium grounds immaculate or just an average Joe out for a morning stroll.

You’d never guess David Tepper was worth $11.6 billion and the owner of the Carolina Panthers.

"He has no detail around him," Charlotte city councilman James Mitchell said. "No bodyguards. He feels the vibe. He gets it. I call him the action man. He’s all about action."

Until the sale of the Panthers was finalized a year ago on July 9 -- for an NFL-record $2.275 billion -- the organization had had one owner, founder Jerry Richardson. There was some apprehension about what to expect from Tepper, a now 61-year-old Pittsburgh native, beginning with whether he would keep the team in Charlotte.

Mitchell was among those who were apprehensive. But it didn’t take long for him to realize Tepper was not only was the right person to take over an organization embroiled in allegations of sexual misconduct by Richardson, but to be an agent of change and progress in North and South Carolina.

"It’s been like a breath of fresh air," Mitchell said.

Local real estate developer Brian Leary, who last month led a question-and-answer session with Tepper at the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance’s inter-city trip in Pittsburgh, agreed.

“David Tepper is a force of nature, while at the same time the most down-to-earth billionaire you’d probably ever meet," Leary said as he recalled the session at Carnegie Mellon University, Tepper’s alma mater. “Force of nature can come in many forms, whether it’s the wind, the sea or the sun.

“When [Dave] comes into a room, when he shares his idea, you can’t ignore it. It’s just like the weather."

Tepper has plenty of ideas, and he’s been quick to implement many in his first year at Carolina. He built an indoor practice facility adjacent to the stadium coach Ron Rivera and others have wanted since the Panthers' first season in 1995.

  • He struck a deal for a $115 million tax break with South Carolina lawmakers to build the team headquarters, including a state-of-the-art practice facility and other world-class amenities, in nearby Rock Hill by 2022.

  • He hired women to head some of the most powerful positions in the organization and an in-house mental health clinician that NFL officials call a "game-changer."

  • He’s made it clear the stadium will be a hub of activity from football, to concerts, to one day hosting an MLS team. He even holding a beerfest there.

  • Tepper also allowed Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney to sign controversial talent such as safety Eric Reid, the first player to join then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in kneeling during the national anthem to protest social injustice.

"David identified his priorities early on and that was winning on the field and in the community," said team president Tom Glick, who prior to being hired by Tepper was the chief operating officer for the English Premier League's Manchester City Football Club.

"He’s done an outstanding job of doing his homework, listening to fans and making the right adjustments to help our organization find competitive advantages."

Tepper has been active in the community, from passing out book bags and school supplies to children to funding the West Charlotte High School basketball team’s trip to Raleigh, North Carolina for the state championship.

He’s done most of it quietly, so as not to direct attention to himself. He chose not to be interviewed for this article.

"In the one year David Tepper has owned the Panthers," Leary said, "I believe [North and South Carolina] have gotten to know him in a way they never knew the previous owner ... in a very personal and passionate way about what’s important to him, the community and the organization."

'Very authentic'

Last May, the night before being unanimously approved by league owners to purchase the Panthers, Tepper sat in a hotel bar outside of Atlanta and ate a hamburger with reporters swarming the area as they typically do at an owner’s meeting.

This wasn’t trying to stand apart from the mostly buttoned-up owners. Tepper blends in as a regular guy because that’s what he was growing up as the son of an accountant and teacher. He leaves the business suits and fancy attire in his closet except for must-wear situations.

During a May visit to West Charlotte High to be honored for his generosity to the basketball team, Tepper arrived wearing sneakers, jeans, an untucked polo shirt and a Panthers cap.

"He was so unassuming," said school principal Dr. Timisha Barnes-Jones. "I would never have guessed he was who he was. He put on one of our jerseys. A very easy-going guy, very authentic in who he is in an unassuming way. He didn’t want to have the spotlight on him."

That Tepper without hesitation put on the jersey, which was at least a size to small, showed he was in tune with the moment more than his personal appearance.

He even led a school chant, shouting “Dub C" to which the student body responded quickly, “You know!"

"He nailed it," Mitchell said. "He just wanted to be able to relate to them, and to say the West Charlotte slogan helped very quickly.'"

Tepper called Mitchell about a week before the playoff trip and told the council member to stop trying to raise money for the tournament and focus on raising money for the city.

"He came at the right time," Mitchell said of Tepper. "When you talk about what type of vision we need in Charlotte, he has the right vision."

A fan at heart

Tepper doesn’t just sign checks. He’s heavily involved in team and league decisions. He’s not as heavy-handed and outspoken as Dallas owner Jerry Jones, but when it comes to personnel and other matters that will influence the perception and performance of the organization he has the last say.

"He likes talking ball," linebacker Luke Kuechly said with a smile. "He’s just a guy that enjoys the game. ... That’s the thing you notice the most. He wants to come in, have fun, but he also wants to win."

And Tepper is willing to give the football side everything it takes to win, beginning with the indoor practice facility after a 2018 season in which rain and sometimes heat impeded the team’s weekly preparation.

“There’s a lot of things, and you don’t have to look very far, to see progress and transition and his ideas at play,’’ said tight end Greg Olsen, looking at the bubble going up during a June minicamp.

Tepper also played a part in the thought process that led Rivera to take over the defensive playcalling late last season, something that will continue in 2019. In his words: When you have a great defensive mind, take advantage of it.

“David is just getting started,’’ said Mark Hart, the team’s vice president and chief operating officer. “This first year he has done a lot of listening and research so now we have a much better feel for what is really needed."

On games days, though, you won’t see Tepper hovering on the sideline or interfering with staff. He spends most of his time as a fan. You might see him drinking a cold beer at a random tailgate party.

“He is a snappy dresser,’’ Rivera said jokingly of Tepper’s style. “He can make anything go with jeans.’’

Tepper doesn’t want to draw attention to himself for his lack of style as quarterback Cam Newton does with his flamboyant outfits. He wants to draw attention to the organization for winning titles, as the Pittsburgh Steelers -- the team of he rooted for -- did when he was a kid.

He understands that’s what he’ll ultimately be judged on as an owner.

"We have the mantra we’re trying to get in the organization," Tepper told a crowd in Rock Hill during the official signing of the tax bill. "It’s a mantra of excellence and a mantra of winning."