In the mid-1980s, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle had seemingly overcome every obstacle, conquered every challenger and slain every dragon standing between his league and total domination of the American sports landscape. There was only one thing left to do: expand.
"It's not like they had to put out an RFP, you know?" said Max Muhleman, chuckling. Muhleman—pronounced like "Sullivan," he says, and don't worry about getting it wrong since he's been married over 50 years and his wife still struggles with it—is a Charlotte-based private sports marketing consultant. He spoke to Bleacher Report about his integral role in the Carolinas' NFL bid.
"They dropped hints," he said, "and the suitors started elbowing each other." The prestige of the NFL "brought out the bees to the honey in a hurry."
By the spring of 1987, the upstart USFL had been stomped out, a lucrative round of TV contracts had been signed, and negotiations on the next collective bargaining agreement were about to begin. Deciding the time was right to broaden the NFL's revenue base, Rozelle summoned representatives from cities far and wide—Phoenix, Montreal, Memphis, Jacksonville and more—to an owners' meeting.
In fact, Rozelle hadn't overcome all the obstacles, and the time wasn't at all right. The CBA negotiations were acrimonious, resulting in a work stoppage, picket lines and replacement players. Shortly after the asterisk-heavy season ended, Phoenix got its franchise by enticing the Cardinals to move from St. Louis—and suddenly that city topped the jilted-fanbase priority list.
"They were talking about two [new franchises] almost from the beginning," Muhleman said, "and the national media saw Baltimore and St. Louis as the front-runners." The Carolinas group didn't officially come together until a few months after that 1987 meeting—and by Muhleman's reckoning, it wasn't considered a serious contender for at least two-thirds of the yearslong bidding process.
If Carolina was a long shot, Jacksonville was a punch line: The nation's 55th-ranked television market at the time, Jacksonville was smaller even than NFL outposts such as Buffalo and Green Bay. Despite its populous urban center, the suburbs and outlying areas are all but nonexistent. As Muhleman put it, "180 degrees of Jacksonville's TV market is fish."
On top of all that, Jacksonville's bid would be the third team in the state of Florida—and in 1986, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had been in business for only a decade.
St. Louis' bid featured NFL legend and Hall of Famer Walter Payton as a major partner. The Baltimore bid was headed up by Malcolm Glazer and his family and included self-made Baltimore billionaire Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, who owned the Merry-Go-Round chain of mall clothes. Even the Memphis bid, which included FedEx CEO Fred Smith and the estate of Elvis Presley, had more star power than either of the Southeastern sites.
But the Carolinas had a lot of assets the other bids didn't. One was would-be owner Jerry Richardson, a former player who'd built a restaurant empire across the South. Another was Hugh McColl, who was then the chairman of the Bank of America.
"Hugh had banked Jerry from the time he started his first Hardee's franchise," Muhleman said. While Richardson's business ventures had succeeded and expanded, McColl had moved up the ladder at Bank of America.
"It was really nice to have that credibility. Got two of the next-biggest banks in the Carolinas, NationsBank and Wachovia, to put up a loan that would cover the entire cost of the stadium." Muhleman chuckled as he recalled the pledged amount: $150 million, just over a 10th of the cost of today's nine-digit superstadia.
Richardson's group got stronger when he retained the services of Mike McCormack, a Hall of Fame offensive tackle who'd also worked as a head coach, general manager and team president in various stops around the league. Then, there was Muhleman.
"I'd spent 14 years in southern California, and I'd worked with Gary Davidson, who started the WHA [the World Hockey Association, now defunct]. I was in charge of league marketing. That gave me experience in how leagues work and how owners think."
Muhleman had great respect for how Richardson recruited him to the team.
"When Jerry asked me to do this, he said, 'Let's not waste each other's time.' He was an all-star at that." Richardson, a straight shooter, made it clear he expected the same from everyone in the organization.
"[Richardson] started off saying, 'Here's how we do things: We're always on time, we always do what we say we're going to do and we believe in the team.'" Those values would serve the team well as they ran a yearslong gauntlet.
The Jacksonville bid was organized by a group called "Touchdown Jacksonville!" Founded by then-Florida Times-Union publisher Carl Cannon, the primary players were shoe magnate and would-be owner J. Wayne Weaver, Jacksonville insurance giant Tom Petway III and future Florida governor Jeb Bush.
In the earliest stages of expansion talks, Jacksonville had one big advantage over other markets: the Gator Bowl, a stadium that had been expanded to 82,000 seats in 1982. The turnkey stadium and football-crazy city were powerful draws: Per the Los Angeles Times, at least five different NFL teams considered a move to Jacksonville throughout the 1980s.
The NBA's expansion Charlotte Hornets, founded in 1987, were then the only major pro sports team anywhere in the Carolinas.
"We had a two-pronged campaign," Muhleman said. "First, lobby the heck out of the NFL." Richardson personally reached out to all 28 NFL owners, some more than once.
"His purpose was not to say, 'Here's what I'm going to do if you give me a franchise,' but 'Tell me what I should do," Muhleman said. "Among people who are successful, and perhaps even a little egotistical, that's unusual."
NFL executives thought highly of McCormack. According to Muhleman, former New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi once said, "If anyone doesn't like Mike McCormack, he oughta be investigated." With bugs firmly planted in owners' ears, what was the second prong of attack?
"Sell to the fans," Muhleman said. "South Carolina was a very, very good football state, with Clemson particularly. But we've still got to have people willing to pay higher prices for season tickets than they ever have for college."
The Carolinas bid wasn't just one city, but two states—so to both whet the Carolinian appetite for NFL football and prove to the NFL sufficient demand existed, the Carolinas bid group hosted three neutral-site preseason games: in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1989; Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1990; and Columbia, South Carolina, in 1991. The group made sure to charge NFL-average prices. All three sold out and then some, according to Muhleman.
"What we were showing was, it's a regional market," Muhleman said. "It's not just an urban market, but there are good growth urban centers in the region. Those kinds of crowds at those kinds of prices really impressed [the league]."
Paul Tagliabue had taken over for Rozelle as NFL commissioner back in 1989; continuing Rozelle's efforts to expand was high on the league's to-do list. He formed an expansion committee of owners and charged one of his top lieutenants—Roger Goodell—to oversee the process.
Labor unrest and CBA negotiations again diverted league attention in 1991 and 1992, delaying the process even further. Once the way was finally clear to award the teams, the financial landscape of the NFL had changed—much to the detriment of the languishing bidders.
"Jerry had done some asking around back [at the beginning]," Muhleman said, to guess at what the NFL might charge for the expansion fee. Word came back that number would be about $50 million. "I bumped it up to $75 million," Muhleman said, to be safe. By 1993, when the NFL was finally prepared to award teams, the Carolinas found out they'd be on the hook for $225 million.
"What we did," Muhleman said, "was take our bank-financing money for the stadium and use that to pay for the franchise. Of course, everybody borrows that—nobody does cash, you buy a franchise, you get terms—but every other bid had or was building a stadium. 'Well,' Jerry said to me, 'I'm not sure where we're gonna go to get the money.'"
That's when Muhleman came up with the idea that saved the bid.
He'd recently worked on bringing the NBA to Charlotte, and that ownership group had wanted to reward the initial season-ticket depositors with something "really cool," such as a leather jacket. Instead, Muhleman proposed they get the chance to own their seats—own a piece of the team. "Charter seat rights," as they were called, could be passed between friends, down through generations or even sold.
One day, Muhleman noticed a classified ad for third-row CSRs: The owner was asking a gob-smacking $5,000. Muhleman dialed the number, and the seller said nine other people had called about buying them. "I should have asked for $10,000," the seller said, and the penny dropped.
The idea, reworked as a fundraising plan and run through the legal team, became "Permanent Seat Licenses."
"As long as this team plays in Charlotte," Muhleman said, "if you hold the license you own the seats. We had a 30-day subscription period where we explained to the fans, 'Here's what you get, here's what it's going to cost'—and again, we asked for substantial deposits, which averaged at least $1,000."
With 72,300 seats in the stadium—including 10 percent of them, at Muhleman's suggestion, reserved for single-game tickets—the potential revenue was enormous.
"Jerry asked what I thought a good first day would be. I said about $10 million worth of commitments. Well on the first day we sold $41 million. Roger Goodell called me up and said, 'What is going on down there? Did you really sell that much? That's New York money!' And I said, 'Well, down here you only have to pay it once!'"
With the market commitment proven, expansion fee covered and stadium financing in place, the Carolina bid was ready. That's when Jacksonville's bid imploded.
Over the course of the drawn-out effort, it had become clear the aging Gator Bowl needed a major refurbishment to compete with modern NFL stadiums. But in the summer of 1993, with bids all but set to be awarded, the Jacksonville City Council voted down a $112 million renovation agreement.
Crushed, Weaver announced Jacksonville was dropping out of the race. Touchdown Jacksonville! was shuttered. Ticket and luxury-suite deposits were refunded. Weaver moved back to his home state of Connecticut, and per Mike Preston of the Baltimore Sun, frustrated would-be Jaguars fans called him a "carpetbagger."
The St. Louis bid group began unraveling, and Washington owner Jack Kent Cooke was bristling at the idea of a Baltimore franchise on the doorstep of his home market. Even Memphis was saying they would be known as the "Hound Dogs," complete with a pompadoured dog on the side of the helmet. The NFL urged Jacksonville to get its band back together.
Per the Sun, Weaver and city officials negotiated in secret and finally came to a renovation agreement. Weaver was back in, on one condition: The fans had to pony up for reservations on at least 9,000 of the 10,000 club seats. "NFL Now!", another Cannon-led grassroots effort, sold all 10,000 club seats in just one week. On the cusp of the 1993 season, Weaver was back on board—and the Jaguars were back in business.
Finally, that October, it was time for the five finalists to present their bids. The owners quietly assembled at the O'Hare Hyatt in Chicago, and the tension was as high as the stakes.
"Each group was on a different floor of the hotel," Muhleman said, explaining NFL Security wanted no chance of the bidders getting a glimpse of one another's presentations. The Carolinas were the first of the five finalists to make their 16-minute presentation.
"Mark went first and explained the financials," Muhleman said. "And I did the case for the market: Here's why the Carolinas, here's why Charlotte." Before he introduced Richardson—"our closer," Muhleman said—he shared a personal anecdote about the prospective owner, and how he ran his restaurant business:
"Recently there was a lower-level employee, a custodian, who died. Not only did Jerry go to the funeral, he went to the widow's home afterward. He noticed the grass was a little high, and he could see a lawn mower in the garage, and he took off his jacket and cut the grass for her.' I said, 'Isn't that the kind of man you want as a partner?'"
After the presentation, Richardson, Richardson's son Mark, Muhleman, McCormack and the bank officials went back up to their hotel room and gutted out hours of sequestration. Muhleman said they spent about six hours cooped up in there with no idea what was going on. Then, there came a knock at the door.
"It was the head of NFL Security. He said, 'We want three of you to meet with the owners.' I knew it would be Jerry and Mark, and I figured it would be Mike McCormack. And Mike said, 'No no no, you did so much of the work'—and of course, he did a ton, too." In a gesture Muhleman deeply appreciates to this day, McCormack insisted Muhleman be the third member to hear the owners' decision in person.
"If the CIA had a route through the hotel," Muhleman said, "this was it." There was a cargo elevator, dark hallways and an empty galley bristling with pots, pans and kitchen equipment. "We end up in this little room with a long table and a white tablecloth, and he says, 'Wait here.' Mark kind of puts his ear up to the wall, and the next room over is the ballroom where the owners are meeting."
They were waiting again—and this wait, though much shorter, was no less agonizing.
"After a while, [late Chicago Bears chairman] Ed McCaskey comes in, and says, 'Oops! Wrong room.' He said, 'Good job, fellas, good job,' and he turned to me. 'And you, young man'—now I was about 52 or 53 at the time—'If I ever have someone speak to my doctors for me, I want it to be you.'" Despite this encouraging sign, when Tagliabue and Goodell came in to break the news to them, Muhleman and the Richardsons couldn't get a read on which way the news would break.
"Roger had a pretty good poker face on," Muhleman said. "Tagliabue starts with, 'Well, Jerry'—and, you know, those weren't the first two words I expected to hear if the news was going to be good—'You've been awarded the 29th franchise in the NFL.'" Richardson's celebration was as exuberant as Muhleman ever saw from the usually stoic leader. Tagliabue led the Richardsons through the door, which opened up onto the ballroom stage.
They were greeted with a standing ovation by the assembled owners—who'd just unanimously voted to accept them into their ranks.
In a twist, they deferred voting on the second franchise until November. Per Jon Morgan of the Baltimore Sun, the St. Louis bid group's rapidly changing membership and hazy stadium plans led to a botched presentation, while Weaver and company's "boffo" performance turned the Jacksonville group from pipsqueak to powerhouse.
"You've got to understand, we were unraveling for two weeks and just came together Monday," said George Westfall, then St. Louis county chairman, to Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times. "This is definitely good news for us. They need to take a closer look at us, then everything will be fine."
But by the time the second presentation and re-vote arrived, the new St. Louis group, patched together by Stan Kroenke, was no more stable or impressive. According to Don Pierson of the Chicago Tribune, Payton's involvement had become unclear, and Kroenke's follow-up presentation was unconvincing.
The owners voted 26-2 in favor of Jacksonville. Pierson called it "one of the greatest come-from-behind victories in NFL history."
After all that work, though, the real work was just beginning: They had to turn their bid groups into football teams. The Panthers secured the services of Bill Polian, who'd built the phenomenal late-1980s/early-1990s Buffalo Bills.
"Mike McCormack asked me, would I be interested," Polian told Bleacher Report, "and largely because of him I said yes."
Was the idea of starting from a clean sheet exciting to an experienced general manager?
"It was," Polian said, but for him the enormity of the challenge tempered the excitement. "It was a competition to secure the franchise, and there were people already on board who'd been invested in that. I think there was a feeling that since they'd won that competition, winning in the National Football League would automatically follow. We kind of had to let people know that this was going to be harder than many expected."
The Jaguars quickly moved to snag a young, up-and-coming executive, Michael Huyghue, who in his early 30s was already an NFL front-office veteran. By Huyghue's reckoning, he was the second employee hired after president/COO David Seldin.
"I was working for the Detroit Lions as the assistant GM," Huyghue told Bleacher Report, "and they were looking for someone to run the football operations. When they called, I had no idea—I thought it was Jaguar, the car company. I didn't even know where Jacksonville was."
In the one-year layoff between the franchises being awarded and play actually starting, the teams existed in a Schrodingerian real-but-not halfway state.
Tom Coughlin, the franchise's first head coach, was hired in February of 1994. Unlike the strong GM model being used in Carolina, Coughlin was granted personnel powers to help shape the team as he saw fit.
"Tom and I spent all of that first year together," Huyghue said. "Literally, we both went down there before our families did, so we ate dinner together every night, spent 24/7 together." The two formed a close bond as they envisioned turning their pretend franchise into a real one.
"We had offices at the old Gator Bowl stadium," Huyghue said, "basically just trailers sitting in the parking lot as they were building the stadium. We spent the '94 season preparing for the expansion draft. We built out a possible roster based on who we thought would be available, gave ourselves a salary cap, tried to fit ourselves under that salary cap. We imagined players getting injured, studied game film as if we were preparing for opponents…really did as much of a simulated season as we could."
Polian was working on an overall approach to player acquisition that would maximize flexibility.
"In terms of putting the team together," Polian said, "very early on we decided on a strategy. Because the salary cap was new and free agency was new, and we were going to have a clean slate on the cap except for the players we were forced to take through the expansion draft. With rare exceptions, we decided to take the players with the lowest salaries we could—while still trying to get good football players.
"We weren't looking for names. We weren't looking for people who could sell tickets. We were trying to create as much room as we could under the cap to sign unrestricted free agents. That paid dividends, as we were able to put together a great, veteran defense, which Dom Capers did a phenomenal job assembling."
Capers, Polian's choice for head coach, wasn't brought on board until January 1995—almost a full calendar year after the Jaguars hired Coughlin.
"Dom Capers brought with him a defensive system that was, at the time, at the forefront of being very efficient in the National Football League," Polian said. "Many people didn't know how to handle it, and it gave us an advantage in terms of being tough to prepare for. In addition, he was exceptionally organized, exceptionally detailed, exceptionally task-oriented. More than that, he's a very engaging and sincere and honest guy, who's a great teacher. All of that set him apart from the other candidates."
One other key unrestricted free agent signed under the Panthers' flexible cap was quarterback Frank Reich, who while relieving Hall of Famer Jim Kelly in Buffalo engineered the greatest comeback win in NFL history. With Carolina, Reich had a chance to step out of Kelly's shadow and into a starting opportunity. Reich, currently the offensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers, shared with Bleacher Report why he chose to sign with the expansion Panthers.
"I was incredibly excited about the opportunity, knowing Bill Polian," Reich said. "Knowing the kind of person he is, just that he was a winner. I didn't know anything about the Richardsons, but I came to find out what kind of class act they are."
Like Polian, Huyghue saw the expansion draft—theoretically there to help him lay the foundation for his team—as a poor source of affordable talent.
"Some agents," Huyghue said, "called us ahead of time to let us know their players might be available, but most people didn't want to be associated with an expansion team." The prior round of expansion had been a "disaster" on the field, as Huyghue said, and many in the league felt that going to Jacksonville would be "like being sent to purgatory."
In fact, from Huyghue's perspective, the expansion draft did more to help the other 28 teams.
"If you cut a player," he said, "you're on the hook for his signing bonus and guarantees, but if you put him in the expansion draft, you could get rid of his salary. It sounded great for us, but it was really a free dumping mechanism for teams to get rid of players they didn't want to pay anymore."
The Jaguars decided to focus on building their team around youth instead.
"In the draft," Huyghue said, "Tom [Coughlin] had a very clear plan in terms of building the team, and the priority positions we wanted to target. We wanted to build a team that could compete in the division; there were a lot of big running backs. We knew that it was going to start up front with the offensive and defensive lines. We figured if we won the up-front battle, we could kind of build off that with the skill position players."
One of the few key skill players available in the expansion draft was quarterback Steve Beuerlein. The chance to add a starting-caliber passer who hadn't quite turned 30 yet was an obvious starting point for either franchise.
"I had been told by both teams that if they got the first pick that they wanted to pick me," Beuerlein told Bleacher Report. "I met with both teams—and truly, in my heart of hearts, it would have been Carolina. The coin flip didn't work out that way."
Though the Panthers thought highly of Beuerlein, Polian said they were glad that coin landed the way it did.
"We were hoping to get the first pick in the college draft, not the first pick in the expansion draft," Polian said. "The fans and the media wanted it the other way around; we had to explain to them that the first pick in the college draft was far more valuable."
"Both teams asked me," said Beuerlein, "if they took me, would I be excited to play for them? Of course I told both teams, 'Sure, if you get the pick I'd love to come.' I didn't want to tell Jacksonville, 'No, I'd rather go to Carolina.'"
Why did Beuerlein prefer the Panthers?
"It was just a gut feeling," he said. "I remember sitting down with my wife, we'd just gotten engaged to be married at that time. We went to both cities, did our little visits. Charlotte, we loved the city. Bill Polian was there, and that was instant credibility. The city of Charlotte, I think, was a little bit more ready to support the team."
Even though he didn't get his wish, Beuerlein was still glad to get an opportunity.
"I was excited to go there and get a fresh start," he said. "For me, it would have worked out a lot better, because of the way things worked out in Jacksonville. Tom Coughlin was the head coach, and very little of what they said would take place took place; things didn't happen the way they told me they would happen. Shortly after I arrived there, before I even set foot on the practice field, they made a trade for Mark Brunell of the Green Bay Packers."
Coughlin, Huyghue and the Jaguars were moving aggressively to build the young, trenches-first team they'd spent so long sketching out on paper. They targeted blue-chip USC left tackle Tony Boselli with their No. 2 overall pick from the very beginning.
"Back in March of that year," Boselli told Bleacher Report, "I had a pretty good idea I was going to Jacksonville. I didn't care about it being an expansion team, I just wanted to be drafted as high as I possibly could." Together with second-round tailback James Stewart, second-round guard Brian DeMarco and second-round linebacker Bryan Schwartz, the Jaguars stuck close to their ground-and-pound blueprint.
The Panthers took their coin-flip prize, the No. 1 overall pick, and flipped it to the Cincinnati Bengals for the No. 5 selection and a second-rounder; they spent that fifth pick on Penn State signal-caller Kerry Collins. Suddenly, the Panthers' future at quarterback was clear—and Reich wasn't in the foreground.
"I went down there hoping to get a chance to start," Reich said, "but Kerry Collins was the fifth pick in the draft. It was obvious he would be the guy. Bill told Jack Trudeau and I that his plan was to have Kerry ready to play at some point that year."
With the quarterback situation settled, the Panthers had finally assembled a real roster—but they were far from ready to play.
"There are so many growing pains when you start a new franchise," Polian said. "Strangely enough, one was the choice of a doctor and hospital—which became something of a cause celebre here in Charlotte, because there were two competing hospitals. There were those kinds of unexpected hiccups."
Helping soothe those hiccups however he could was future San Diego Chargers general manager Tom Telesco, who had interned for Polian's Bills while in college.
"I graduated from college in the summer of '95," Telesco said. "I think Bill just said, 'Hey, do you want to come down? Maybe it'll turn into something more, or not.' I'd interviewed for a job in Cleveland, interviewed for some regular jobs. I ended up working a football camp for a week, then just drove down [to Charlotte] and went to work."
There was plenty of work to do.
"Things would pop up," Telesco said, "and nobody knew whose job it was. I'd help out in the weight room, I'd help tarp the field. I didn't know if it was temporary or permanent, so I just did anything I could that needed doing."
"We'd planned to have our temporary facility in downtown Charlotte," Polian said, "but when Mike and I went to inspect it, it wasn't nearly up to snuff. We were well on the way to putting a team on the field, and we didn't have a practice facility!"
Telesco didn't remember their temporary executive offices as being particularly, well, executive.
"We had a draft room that doubled as a Director of Scouting office," Telesco said, "that had three people and two tables in it."
"The first year," Polian said, "was really almost as though you were walking in the dark. We started off with the fact that we had to create a practice facility from whole cloth; we were very fortunate that we were able to come across Winthrop [University], who welcomed us with open arms. We were on the verge of holding practice at a high school field until that came about."
"Even with our new stadium—the stadium address is on Mint Street, I called it the 'Miracle on Mint Street'—they had to play the first year in Clemson," Muhleman said, "which is 130 miles away. It was a logistical nightmare."
"We had to go to Clemson for 10 games," Polian said. "Ten, quote, home games, close quote—and we'd actually get back to our residences faster, I think, even from the West Coast than we got home after playing in Clemson. If not the West Coast, then certainly every other road game, we were home sooner than our home games. That was wear and tear on the team, and it made for a pretty eventful and, well, new experience most of us had never encountered."
"For me, it was my first time," Telesco said. "I don't know if I knew any different, but a lot of people were younger. And we were all just sort of growing together. It helped me that there was no set rhythm, so I could do whatever was needed, be it data entry or anything else."
"I'll never forget that training camp," Reich said. "It was the hottest training camp I've ever experienced. But there was so much excitement around being part of a brand-new franchise; you looked at everything with a positive attitude." The players sweating out the final roster cuts weren't the only ones wondering if they'd have a job for the season.
"Training camp ended," Telesco said, "and nobody told me to leave. So, I just kept coming in every day. At some point in the fall, it may have been October, either Bill or Mike McCormack told me they were bringing me on full time."
As the youthful Jaguars assembled for training camp, the incoming veterans relished the chance to make their mark. One was defensive lineman Jeff Lageman, who'd racked up 34.5 sacks in six seasons as a 3-4 defensive end for the New York Jets.
"I was excited for me," Lageman told Bleacher Report, "after many years in New York without winning seasons. I'd dealt with some injuries, and I was just looking for a place to put excitement and fun back in the game. What better place than in a city starving for football?
"There wasn't much of a feeling-out process at camp, because we'd already done all the workouts, OTAs, minicamps. Coughlin was a real stickler for attending absolutely everything that was available to us."
"Tom was a very demanding, very tough coach," Boselli said, "who demanded a lot of discipline. He did a good job of being the coach that he wanted to be and knew what he wanted to ask of his players. I think everyone was just trying to take care of themselves. It was a very tough camp, two-a-days in Stevens Point, Wisconsin."
Wait, what? Wisconsin? Why did the Jaguars camp over 1,300 miles north of Jacksonville?
"We did training camp in Stevens Point, Wisconsin," Huyghue said, "because we thought it was going to be too hot to run practice the way Tom wanted to practice. You know, he was a real buckle-your-chinstrap kind of guy. Well, they had their hottest summer on record that year; it was actually warmer in Stevens Point than Jacksonville. A lot of veterans didn't really want to run, really didn't want to practice the way Tom wanted to practice. We kind of outsmarted ourselves there."
"Just long," Lageman said. "Very long. Physically demanding. Extremely arduous, mentally exhausting. We had an extra preseason game, because of the Hall of Fame Game. Tom had gotten a lot of the players to come in early for camp. It was really a weeding-out process; he wanted to find those who were willing to go to battle. As a veteran guy, I looked around and I was like, 'Man, we got some holes to fill.'"
If some of the Jaguars veterans were skeptical, some of the Panthers veterans saw promise.
"Everybody's expectations from the outside were real low," Reich said, "but our expectations—as players, you don't know any better. You think you're gonna win every game. We played the Falcons on the road in the opener, took them into overtime. We gave a decent performance, and I think everyone realized we had a special group of guys."
Unfortunately, after that Week 1 overtime loss, Reich and the offense couldn't get into a rhythm either. The Panthers were outscored 62-19 over their next two games—and during the Week 4 bye, the rookie got the nod.
With Collins at the helm, the Panthers lost by seven points in Week 5. Then by four points. Then they got the first win in franchise history, a 26-15 victory over the New York Jets. Then another, and another.
"Obviously Kerry came in and played extremely well," Reich said. "Played well period, but extremely well for a rookie." The Panthers reeled off four straight wins and then played .500 ball over the last two months of the season.
"Once we got our feet on the ground, got Kerry in the lineup," Polian said, "then the wins started to come. By the end of the season, we felt pretty good about where we were going."
The Panthers finished their first season with an impressive 7-9 record and had played winning football with Collins in the lineup. The future was obviously bright.
The Jaguars' first season was a little dimmer.
"They'd told me I was gonna be the guy," said Beuerlein, who went down in the record books as the Jaguars' inaugural starting quarterback. "I was still told that I was gonna be the guy—but as the facts played out, in the middle of the third quarter of the first game in franchise history, they pulled me and put in Brunell. I was like, 'Wait a minute, coach. It's the first game! It's only seven-nothing and I haven't turned it over!' So, I saw the writing was on the wall for me there at that point."
The Jaguars lost that game to the Houston Oilers 10-3 and dropped each of the next three games.
When they went to the Astrodome in Week 5, though, they returned the favor: A late touchdown pass from Brunell to Desmond Howard put the Jaguars up 17-16, and the Oilers' Al Del Greco missed his chance to answer with a last-second field-goal attempt.
"It was great," said Boselli, "a lot of fun. To get that first win was big for everybody."
The Jaguars followed it up with their first home win in Week 6 and another in Week 8. Instead of firing off a bunch of wins, though, they sagged through a seven-loss slump, bouncing between Beuerlein and Brunell as each struggled with minor injuries.
"It was a tough year," Beuerlein said. "[Coughlin] was trying to lay down the law. He was trying to rule with an iron fist. All the veterans were doing their best to try and follow along."
After a 44-0 Week 16 mauling at the hands of the Detroit Lions, the Jaguars sent the dedicated home fans away for the winter happy: A Mike Hollis field goal in the season's final seconds sealed a 24-21 win over the Cleveland Browns.
"Frank [Reich] and I were kind of tied at the hip," said Beuerlein. "He left [Carolina] after that first season, and I came in the next year to back up Kerry Collins."
After one season, everything had worked out for the best: Beuerlein was in the city he'd wanted to be all along, and the Jaguars had their man under center. Solving that identity crisis was a huge boost to the Jaguars veterans.
"We knew who our quarterback was going to be," said Boselli, "and we signed a couple of good free agents, guys who'd had success. Definitely more confident in ourselves."
"We found Andre Rison, Leon Searcy," Lageman said. "That was the realization for a lot of guys that we'd improve. Clyde Simmons, Natrone Means, these are guys you know could help right away. Not like in '95 when you look around the locker room and go, 'S--t, who's going to play this position?'"
Beuerlein discovered the two NFL franchises—despite having been built through the same expansion draft, college draft and free-agency period—were nothing like each other.
"You're talking about two teams that were built in dramatically different ways," Beuerlein said, "but the success both teams had in year two was absolutely amazing. In Carolina, there was a full-on veteran mentality. Bill Polian had filled the team with guys who knew how to play. That locker room was a very veteran mentality, very different."
"We did what we always did," Polian said of the Panthers' first full offseason. "We sat down and figured out what we needed to do to make the team better, and we went out and did it: We brought in Kevin Greene, Eric Davis, Toi Cook—those were three surefire starters—and then we had a pretty good draft that year. I think Mike Minter came in that year, Moose [Muhsin Muhammad] was the second pick in the draft. We had a great kick returner [Michael Bates] come in that year, and boy, he was a weapon. We added big-play guys to the team, and that was a team that was well-equipped to go a long way."
When the Panthers drafted Muhammad, the Lansing, Michigan, native had no idea what to expect of an expansion franchise in its second season—or even where his new home was.
"I was thinking, 'Where in the heck is Charlotte, North Carolina?'" Muhammad told Bleacher Report. "Didn't know much beyond that."
When he arrived at the Miracle on Mint Street, though, he was caught up in the buzzing atmosphere and civic pride.
"Walking around in a brand-new facility with a city that loves their team was a great experience," Muhammad said. "Expectations were tempered, but enthusiasm was high."
Telesco also recalled the excitement surrounding the team's fancy new digs.
"When we moved into the stadium in Charlotte," he said, "that was pretty neat. I had my own office—it was more like a closet, but I had a door and a chair and a phone so I thought it was great!"
Both Telesco and Muhammad got valuable on-the-job training that year. Both were first-time full-time NFL employees and key cogs in a high-powered machine.
"I got a chance to play with some veterans who'd been around," Muhammad said. "On the defensive side, Eric Davis, Sam Mills, Kevin Greene…you really had a mix of old and young, and the chances for early success were pretty fair. Mark Carrier, Willie Green, Dwight Stone; playing with receivers who'd been around for years gave me an opportunity to learn how veterans do it."
The Panthers again kicked off their season against the Falcons—only this time the Panthers crushed their only regional neighbor, 29-6. In Week 2, they beat the New Orleans Saints 22-20. Then they rolled Steve Young and the mighty San Francisco 49ers, 23-7. They ran their red-hot start to nearly midseason, going 5-2 across the first seven weeks.
In Jacksonville, both the incoming veterans and the maturing youngsters were chafing under Coughlin's iron-fist rule.
"We were very inconsistent," Boselli said. "All over the place. Making young mistakes, not playing good football."
A 28-3 embarrassment at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers dropped the 1996 Jaguars to a miserable 4-7, and that was the last straw.
"We had a tough point at the midpoint of the season," Lageman said. "We almost had a little rebellion against the head coach, because he was just riding us and riding us. Wayne Weaver called a few players in and talked to us."
"What happened was," Huyghue said, "Wayne asked me to round up a couple of players for him to talk to. There'd been so many grumbles about 'so many rules, so many fines, five minutes late' and all that. So I talked to Tom and he said, 'This is great, we'll get three black players and three white players, get Boselli and Brunell and those guys, and they'll tell [Weaver] it's OK.' So of course, the three black players all say, 'Tom's fine, we've got no problem with him.' When Weaver tells Tom to back off a little bit, Tom goes, 'You need to talk to Brunell! You need to talk to Boselli!' and it was like, 'Well, Tom, I hate to tell you, but those were the guys who were complaining.'"
"Tom backed off a little bit," Lageman said, "and suddenly we could relax, we could breathe. It was like, 'Let's just go play, let's just go see how good we can be.' We played without fear, we played without anxiety. We started to stack wins on top of each other."
The first game after the contentious meeting, the Jaguars gutted out a 28-25 overtime win over the new Baltimore Ravens, completing a division-rival sweep.
They won the next six in a row.
"We rode the wave of the underdog," Boselli said. "Nobody gave us any credit, nobody gave us a chance to win."
Boselli cited the emergence of receiver Jimmy Smith. The Dallas Cowboys had drafted him in the second round of the 1992 draft, but the Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles cut him in the summer of 1994. In 1996, he caught 83 passes for 1,244 yards and seven touchdowns.
"When you take an expansion team and have expansion players on it," said Lageman, "many viewed themselves as the unwanted, the castoffs from other teams. You had the expansion drafts, you had free agency...you kinda wanted to rub it in the face of all your peers, like, 'Hey, screw you.'"
While the Jags were putting together an incredible six-game win streak, the Panthers were doing them one better. Their last loss of the 1996 regular season came on November 3. Incredibly, they clipped the 49ers for the NFC West division title—breaking the 49ers' five-year streak.
What was it like to join a second-year team and steamroll the league with a 12-win season? Muhammad cracked up at the memory.
"I had a false impression of reality! The veterans kept stressing to me, ‘Man, enjoy this because it's not always like this.' I soon found out what they meant."
"Again, Dom was very professional," Polian said, "and that rubbed off on the players. It was business as usual: 'We're in the hunt, we're a good team, we're capable, let's just keep doing what we're doing."
"Our defense was unbelievable," Muhammad said. "Just the way that we were winning games was amazing."
Everything Richardson and Muhleman had told the owners about the Carolinas was true: It was a fast-growing market, a football-starved market—and the quick success made them regional icons.
"We had some celebrities coming in. Kevin Greene was doing WWF [now WWE] wrestling at the time, so we had Rowdy Roddy Piper, Macho Man Randy Savage coming around the team."
At the end of their incredible late-season run, the Jaguars sat at 8-7. If they could beat the Falcons to close out the season—and get a little help—they would make the playoffs.
"That's the game we probably played our poorest," Lageman said.
The reality of the situation hit home, and for the first time, they felt the pressure. With the Jaguars nursing a 19-17 lead into the fourth quarter, a late three-and-out gave the Falcons a chance to play spoiler. They drove down to the Jaguars' 13-yard line and brought out storied kicker Morten Andersen.
"We got a little bit lucky," Lageman said, "because Morten shanks one—and holy s--t, he never shanks kicks."
"It was a real definition of a wild card," Huyghue said. "We didn't have any pressure on us. It gave us the freedom to do a lot of things. Teams couldn't really game plan against us. We won the field-position game very well; we had an outstanding kicker and an outstanding punter, so if we got within 50 yards we had a good chance to get three points—and if we punted, there was a good chance you'll have to go 90 yards against us."
Huyghue again credited Coughlin's attention to detail.
"It's just the little things," Huyghue said. "We spent so much time on special teams, like onside kicks, two-point conversions, fake field goals, we spent hours and hours on gadget plays—not because it was important, but because if we needed to use it we'd need to be able to execute."
"We were very well-coached," agreed Boselli. "Tom did a great job getting us ready to play. We had some good players, and a quarterback in Mark who was pretty damn good. Instead of going out and hoping you win, you had the confidence of going out and knowing you can win."
With nothing to lose, the Jaguars went to Ralph Wilson Stadium and bumped Kelly and the vaunted Bills out of the playoffs. The next week, they went to the old Mile High Stadium and eliminated John Elway's Broncos.
"None of our guys were even aware of the history or the significance of 'Wow, this is John Elway,'" Huyghue said. "They weren't smitten by what was at stake."
Less than five years after Wayne Weaver announced he was taking his ball and going home to Connecticut, the Jacksonville Jaguars—underdog of underdogs, a franchise nobody thought would ever exist—had secured a spot in the AFC Championship Game.
On the other side of the bracket, the No. 2-seed Panthers enjoyed a bye through the first round and hosted the Cowboys in the second.
"It was so much fun," Muhammad said. "I played against guys like Deion Sanders, guys I grew up watching and admiring."
Sending the Cowboys home losers, 26-17, was even better—especially since it earned the Panthers a spot in the NFC Championship Game.
Two years after the Jaguars and Panthers started play, the NFL was one week away from an all-expansion Super Bowl. Suddenly, the league's also-rans were crying "no fair."
"We didn't start with zero in the salary cap and be able to spend money any way we wanted to and go out and select whoever we wanted to in the free-agent market," just-fired St. Louis Rams head coach Rich Brooks told the Chicago Tribune's Melissa Isaacson at the time. "We didn't get double draft choices."
Of course, the goal had been just to make sure the expansion squads weren't perennial doormats like the Buccaneers and Seahawks had been—and as Polian and Huyghue affirmed, the expansion draft was more of a burden than a boost. Both teams were given advantages, yes—but they each maximized them in smart, unique ways, and both squads earned their chances at titles.
"We felt we were just as good as [New England]," Boselli said, "if not better. It's always great when you're on offense and you've got a defense out there taking care of defense for you."
But it wasn't to be. Though Lageman and the defense picked off Drew Bledsoe and held him without a touchdown pass, Brunell struggled against the Patriots, throwing two picks. Stewart's fourth-quarter fumble was returned for the game-sealing—and season-ending—score.
"It was a huge disappointment," said Boselli.
"We had one hell of a run," Lageman said. "It's something I'll never forget the rest of our lives."
What did Polian and the Panthers think of their chances of going through Brett Favre to get to the Super Bowl? Polian paused and then sighed.
"We thought it was a tough row to hoe," he said. "I don't know if we were the second-best team in the conference that year. In my heart of hearts I think that's true—though Troy Aikman got hurt early in our game against them, maybe that would have changed the outcome—but I know that the best team was the Packers, at that point. Playing in Lambeau, for all the marbles, in that game they were better than we were."
Sure enough, the better team won.
"We went to the NFC Championship Game my rookie year," Muhammad said, "so of course I just thought we were going right back."
But the NFL doesn't issue line-jumping passes. The Panthers struggled through a 7-9 follow-up season. Polian left to rebuild the Indianapolis Colts around Peyton Manning, and Carolina fired Capers after the team went 4-12 in 1998.
"I think there were two pivotal parts," Polian said of the Panthers' collapse. "The first was that Kevin Greene was a holdout, and we didn't get that settled the way we should have."
"That was a big distraction," Muhammad agreed. "It really disrupted things."
"[Greene] ended up departing," said Polian, "and we had absolutely no one to replace him. He was the pivotal part around which the rest of our defense worked. We just couldn't replace him, we didn't have the time, nor the manpower to do it."
Polian, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015, thinks Greene deserves serious consideration for the honor. Polian politely suggested Hall of Fame voters who are quibbling over Greene's statistics should look at the Panthers before, during and after Greene's stint to understand his on-field impact.
"We were a defensive-oriented football team," Polian said. "Our offensive style was to run the ball and be a good possession passing team, and with Kerry get some big downfield plays when necessary, that was the winning formula. Once we lost Kevin, we had some age on the defense anyway—which we knew we'd have to replace—it just didn't function, the whole plan."
"We were sort of being picked apart," said Muhammad. "The sort of thing that brought us together—free agency, the expansion draft—kind of worked against us as guys wanted new contracts. Guys came in, played well, wanted to get paid, and it kind of flipped on us."
The other piece, said Polian, was Collins' battles with injuries and alcoholism. After struggling through 1997, Collins made it through four games of the 1998 season before admitting to Capers his heart wasn't in it—and per Sports Illustrated's Peter King, Capers "interpreted his remarks as those of a quitter" and released him.
"The loss of Kevin and the loss of Kerry really threw us for a loop," Polian said. "The two guys who drive the train are missing, and that's really hard to overcome."
Though the Panthers won many more games more quickly in their first two seasons, it was the youthful Jaguars that were built to last. They went 11-5 each of the next two seasons. In 1999, Coughlin hired Capers to run the Jaguars defense, and the team won an incredible 14 games.
"The next couple of years were really special," Lageman said. "The '99 year was really, really special. I retired in '98, but I continued to cover the team as a broadcaster, media guy. I look back on it now and go, man, you lose to Tennessee three times. ... I'm not saying the team would have won the Super Bowl, but it damn sure would have been in it."
That fateful third loss to the Titans in the 1999 AFC title game was as close to the Super Bowl as the Jaguars would ever get.
"At the end of the day," Huyghue said, "I think what hurt us is, if you have a young team, if you see the difficulty of having a young team, it's late in the playoffs. All of a sudden, we had expectations. We had the third-highest revenue in the league after just three seasons. If there were power polls, we were in the top three of everything."
Two early exits and another title-game choke after the magical 1996 run, Coughlin ran out of answers. He cycled through coordinators and assistants over the next few years while the team turned in losing season after losing season after losing season.
"I kept in touch with a lot of the guys there," Beuerlein said, "and that was constantly a theme in Jacksonville. Even though [Coughlin] had a lot of success, he wore out his welcome—and not just players, he was running off a lot of good coaches."
"He was a task master, he was over the top, he was a pain in the ass," said Lageman, "but at the end of the day, there weren't very many players who didn't have a great amount of respect for Tom Coughlin. Ever since he left, it's like you want to hit the snooze button all the way to now."
Huyghue and the executive team struggled to keep the nucleus of the team intact as they grew rich (and old) together.
"The cap can be so fungible," said Huyghue, "you can stretch it like a credit card. We kind of let it run as long as we could. So, we finally made some hard cuts, and we should have been doing that years ago."
Then again, Huyghue said, sometimes it's better to jam open that championship window for as long as you can: "You don't win by saving money, you win by getting great players."
That group of great players he'd started with, though, were more than the sum of their parts.
"We had a lot of cohesion," said Huyghue. "That really makes a difference, when players get along together. A lot of times players can be cliquey—offense/defense, black/white—but it was like a family. We argued the way families argued, not the way individuals argue. With the young team and Tom, it was kind of like the kids arguing together against the parents."
"I look back at my experience at Jacksonville," Beuerlein said, "and it was a negative experience for me personally—but [Coughlin] was obviously a heck of a good football coach to get them to the AFC Championship Game in year two. I was bitter because of how I was treated, but that's just the way the business works. I licked my wounds, I moved on to a lot better situation for me, personally."
Beuerlein proved his value during Collins' struggles—and after Collins left, Beuerlein hit his stride: He threw for over 10,000 yards and 72 touchdowns across parts of 1998, 1999 and 2000—including leading the NFL with a career-high 4,436 yards in 1999. Even so, the Panthers didn't do any better than 8-8 during that stretch and wouldn't return to the playoffs until 2003.
What made the early Panthers squads special?
"Good reads," said Muhleman. "Jerry Richardson read the owners right in soliciting their advice rather than telling them what he was gonna do—sincere humility still works—we read the market right, and finally we were able to create a seat license plan that conveyed real value in what buyers received."
"Just the closeness of the team and organization," said Reich. "Mr. Richardson was just such a class act. He was so all-in for the team and the city. He was very approachable and yet still very demanding. Having been a former player, you know he kind of knew the ropes. He was such a highly successful person, and with Dom Capers doing such a good job, and you just knew this team was going to be successful."
"The quality of the people," Polian said, "led by Dom Capers. I mean, really great guys. John Kasay was as fine a person—just phenomenal people."
"What I remember is," Telesco said, "it seemed like a big family. I was just out of college, so a lot of the players were the same age, a lot of the support staff were the same age. New team, new city, new uniforms, our players played with a chip on their shoulder. That kind of trickles down to everybody. For me it was an incredible learning experience. When I left to go to the Colts, it kind of felt like leaving a family."
"Dom Capers," Beuerlein said. "I could not say enough good things about him. He was a guy that just was compelled and obsessed with trying to do things the right way, whether or not he ended up having what it took to be a successful head coach in the long run is irrelevant. There are very few people I have as much respect for as Dom Capers. If you ever find anyone who tells you anything negative about Dom Capers, I would tell you that that person’s got a lot of problems."
Polian, now an ESPN analyst, values those teams for far more than their on-field accomplishments.
"I think, like most things in sports, when you're in the middle of the maelstrom, you lose sight of what the important things are. Years later you look back on that team and think, 'Wow, what a great bunch of guys.' And that's why we did as well as we did: They were such great people."
Rozelle was commissioner for nearly 40 years, from January 1960 until November 1989. Expanding the 13-team league he took over to 30 franchises was to be the exclamation point on his epic legacy. Before he passed away on December 6, 1996, he'd gotten a glimpse of the NFL's blindingly bright future: His successor's successor had done the work of awarding two franchises to the long-neglected Southeast, and those two franchises had unprecedented on- and off-field success.
Twenty years later, history is beginning to repeat itself: St. Louis is frantically trying to keep its house in order. Charlotte is scrounging for stadium money, and Jacksonville is fending off questions about moving to a bigger market—most probably, as Bleacher Report's Jason Cole reported, St. Louis—but we should never forget the incredible effort, passion and sacrifice of the bidders, executives, coaches, players and fans to bring winning football to these two unlikely cities.