Friday, November 15, 2013

Memories of gentlemanly Mike McCormack and the Panthers

You could argue that Mike McCormack -- who died at age 83 on Friday in California -- had the most successful front-office tenure in Carolina Panther history, even though it was brief.

Panther owner Jerry Richardson hired McCormack (whose statue outside Bank of America Stadium is pictured above) as a consultant in 1989, and his main job was to help Richardson and his partners win an NFL franchise for Charlotte.

“Just his presence gave our ownership instant credibility,” Richardson said once.

Every one of my dealings in those early years with McCormack was fun. He was consistent and classy, a guy who had done everything in the NFL but never tried to lord that over you.

McCormack was a genuinely kind person -- Sam Mills once called McCormack the "ultimate gentleman," and coming from Mills that's quite a compliment. By the time Richardson hired him, McCormack had been in the NFL for nearly 40 years. He was a Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive tackle, earning that honor after paving holes for Jim Brown in Cleveland and blocking for quarterback Otto Graham. His old coach, Paul Brown, once said he was “the finest offensive lineman I ever coached.”

McCormack then turned to coaching. He was the head coach of three different NFL teams in his career – for the Philadelphia Eagles, Baltimore Colts and Seattle Seahawks. He also served as the Seahawks’ president.

The Panthers were awarded an NFL franchise on Oct.26, 1993. McCormack was the team’s first general manager, but later was elevated to become its first president when he and Richardson hired Bill Polian as the GM.

Then McCormack stayed on through the heady first two years of the Panthers – the better-than-expected 7-9 season of 1995 and the NFC championship game appearance in 1996. Right after that, McCormack retired, so he got to skip the next six years of playoff misses.

My longtime colleague Charles Chandler just reminded me of a story that shows how much even reporters who covered the team were affected by McCormack. In 1996, when Charles was the head beat writer covering the Panthers and I was his backup for The Observer, we got a landline at the stadium. We needed to establish a voicemail so we could check it every day. We picked the password "1951," which was in honor of McCormack's rookie year in the NFL.

Richardson thought so much of McCormack that he made McCormack the first inductee into the Panthers’ Hall of Honor. A statue of McCormack was unveiled outside the stadium in 1997.

McCormack would wonder later if he had retired too soon from Carolina. He had a year left on his contract, and his moderating influence was obviously missed in the front office. But he was 65 by the time the Panthers began play in 1995. He thought he was leaving the team in the hands of a strong front-office man in Polian – his handpicked successor – but Polian left for the Indianapolis Colts only a year later.

“When I left, I felt it was in good hands and everything would be fine,” he said once in an interview with The Observer. Instead, the team slowly unraveled, although McCormack also hastened to say that he might not have been able to stop the decline, either.

But McCormack, who moved back to the West Coast after his retirement, remained a fan of the team and was cheered by its three playoff appearances in the 2000s. He is still one of the men remembered most fondly from the Panthers’ early days.

As Richardson said when announcing McCormack would be the first man in the Panthers’ Hall of Honor: "Mike is a person who typifies everything the Panthers stand for. We think he's the best benchmark for all of us in the organization. There is no more appropriate person than Mike to start our Hall of Honor. It sets a high standard for all who follow.”

I would like to suggest something to those Panther fans who come to Monday night's game against New England. Walk by McCormack's statue outside the North Gate and pay your respects. Thank a kind thought or say a prayer for him. He was a great man who lived a long and fulfilling life. May he rest in peace.


Born and Bred said...

Well written, Scott. I thank Mr. McCormack for everything he did to bring the Panthers to Charlotte. May he RIP.

Anonymous said...

The Panthers are going to win Monday night for Former Panthers president Mike McCormack!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Scott, can you write a column about what today's other games outcomes mean regarding Carolina's playoff chances