The “Carolina Panthers” are situated in the NFC South division with the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The odd part of this division is that every single club entered the league as an expansion team at some point.
At home Panthers’ games, the PA rings out Neil Diamond’s hit song “Sweet Caroline”, which seems appropriate. Lots of teams have TD traditions like the Lambeau Leap, but at Bank of America Stadium in uptown Charlotte, North Carolina, the Panther players hand the TD football to a young fan sitting in the stands. Every touchdown. Every game. In its maiden season of 1995, the Panthers played their home games in South Carolina at Clemson University’s Memorial Stadium. As a nod to their South Carolina roots, their annual training camp is based in South Carolina, at Wofford College in Spartanburg.
Many teams have songs most notable the Chicago Bears, Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles. The Panthers, however have a rallying cry. “Keep pounding” is their official battle cry since 2012. This came from former linebacker-turned assistant coach Sam Mills who was battling intestinal cancer. Before each home game, a special guest is invited to beat the “Keep pounding drum” four times, to signify how many quarters the home team must fight to win. Many of the special guests have overcome adversities of their own, including many Make-A-Wish children; but some are well-known dignitaries such as NASCAR icon Jimmie Johnson (who has won eight races at Charlotte Motor Speedway) and Charlotte native Steph Curry of the current NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
The Panthers’ mascot is “Sir Purr.” In one game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, as a punt bounced around harmlessly in the end zone, Sir Purr pounced on the live ball. The officials called for a touchback as the crowd went wild and Carolina players came over and gave their congratulations amidst the laughter. In 2017, Sir Purr was named Mascot-of-the-Year awarded at the NFL Mascot Summit.
In the mix as possibilities for the franchise’s team names before Panthers was selected were Cougars, Rhinos and Cobras; the latter a former Arena Football League club. The original team owner was Jerry Richardson. His son Mark decided on the name Panthers from the list of possibilities. The moniker “Carolina” was chosen instead of “Charlotte” in order to draw fans from across both North and South Carolina states. From 1995-2002 the helmet was silver, but now it is more of a metallic color to go with the team colors of black, blue and white. The club was sold for $2.3 billion in May of 2018 to David Tepper, president of Appaloosa Management and a former Pittsburgh Steelers minority owner.
But the Panthers aren’t the first pro football team to call the area home.
The “Charlotte Bantams” were an independent club for two seasons from 1932-1933 and played other semi-pro teams up and down the Atlantic states. The 1933 team went 10-3-0. In 1934, another professional football league was formed called the American Football League (AFL). This was the second league that called itself the AFL, so this is usually referred to as AFL2. The league focused on cities predominately located in the South and Southwest United States in order to avoid competing with current NFL cities.
The AFL consisted of the Memphis Tigers, Dallas Rams, Tulsa Oilers, Louisville Bourbons, St. Louis Blues and the Bantams. The Tigers were a significant member because in 1929 this independent team played and defeated the Green Bay Packers, the current NFL champions. Tigers’ owner Clarence Saunders then claimed Memphis to be the “National Professional Football Champions.” This franchise supposedly gave the AFL credibility.
The AFL schedule was a double round-robin format with home-and-away games for each of its clubs. The league was dominated by the Blues who captured the title with a 7-0-1 record with a tie against the Tigers. The Bantams played at Robbie’s Field in Charlotte and despite going 3-7-0 they averaged 3.222 fans per contest. The league was cancelled for the 1935 season due to most of the teams had not bothered to assemble rosters, so it was announced that the AFL would resume in 1936, but that never materialized.
Bantams’ wide receiver Dutch Kreuter and offensive guard George Mougin made the AFL First-Team All-Star team while halfback Earl Clary was named to the second-team squad. In 2011, The FC United Bantams soccer team based in Columbia, South Carolina was formed in the Premier Development League.
Back in 1936 an independent pro football league was established called the “South Atlantic Football Association.” It featured a 5-6 team lineup each season until its demise in 1947. It was frequently referred to as the “Dixie League” as all teams were based in the mid-Atlantic to later the southern states. The original lineup were the Washington Pros, Norfolk Clancys, Portsmouth Cubs, Richmond Arrows, Baltimore Orioles and Alexandria Celtics.
In 1941 the “Charlotte Clippers” joined the Association and played home games at American Legion Memorial Stadium, a 21,000-seat venue and at the time just five years old. Even though the Clippers finished in second place with a 7-3-0 record, they led the league in points scored with 184.
From 1942-1945 the league remained dormant because of World War II. For the 1946 season, the Clippers’ roster was full of men from the war who had played college football but enlisted to fight overseas instead. Most of the roster was comprised of former standout players from Duke, Wake Forest, North Carolina, Appalachian State, Clemson and South Carolina. Former All-American Gene McEver was named head coach.
Their first home game was seen in front of over 13,000 paid patrons in a 28-3 loss to the NFL Detroit Lions. It was a common practice back then for NFL clubs to play other teams in order to field a full schedule. Other games throughout the season averaged about 6,500-7,000 spectators. The Clippers finished the season 9-1-0 with their only league loss to the Richmond Rebels 21-7. Since there wasn’t a playoff format, Charlotte was declared the league champion. The Clippers again were scoring champs with 196 total points.
After a successful season, the Dixie League was preparing for the 1947 year with six franchises. Before the first game, two of the clubs withdrew. After the opening week of games in which the Clippers lost to the Rebels 21-13, the league folded. Charlotte would continue as an independent team through 1949.
In 1956 the Charlotte Clippers hockey team competed in the Eastern Hockey League while in 2003 the basketball Charlotte Clippers team was formed.
This was a team in the short-lived World Football League (WFL) in 1974. The franchise originally was placed in Boston and called the “Boston Bulldogs” which later became the “Boston Bulls.” The owner was Robert Keating with colors black, red and yellow. Babe Parilli was named head coach.
Unable to find a suitable stadium, the Bulls merged with the New York franchise and then named the “New York Stars.” Stadium issues arose again for the club as Yankee Stadium was closed due to renovations, Shea Stadium was home to the New York Mets and now the New York Yankees baseball teams, plus the New York Jets and New York Giants NFL clubs. The only stadiums left was Columbia University’s Baker Field (32,000 seating) or the 22,000 capacity Downing Stadium. However, Columbia didn’t want an extra tenant so Downing, built in 1936, was the only choice.
The Stars began 7-4-0. The franchise was in deep financial trouble just like every other WFL team. At one point the club was over $1 million in debt although the league needed New York City as a franchise. After defeating the bankrupt Detroit Wheels 37-7 in front of 4,220 fans, the Stars announced they were relocating to Charlotte.
The new team was called the “Charlotte Stars.” Former New England Patriots executive Upton Bell became the new owner and with help from Charlotte mayor John Belk they got the transfer complete. The NY Stars helmet logo was a big yellow star outlined in white with a black “NY” located inside the star. Because of the move and a game only a week away, the Stars’ equipment manager simply stuck a red letter “C” over the “NY” on each helmet. After the Stars defeated the Chicago Fire 41-30 with suddenly a 9-4-0 record, the team was renamed the “Charlotte Hornets.”
During their second week of practice in Charlotte, their uniforms were impounded because of an unpaid laundry bill that originated in New York. After Bell paid the bill, the Hornets played their first home game at the now-expanded 25,000-seat American Legion Memorial Stadium. A sell-out crowd of 25,133 watched the Hornets lose to the league-leading Memphis Southmen 27-23. Over 5,000 patrons could not buy a ticket.
The Hornets lost four of their last five games to finish in second place in their division with a 10-10-0 mark. The club did qualify for the playoffs, but only 1,000 tickets had been sold in Orlando against the Florida Blazers so the game was cancelled. Charlotte had 68,182 fans for three home games, all losses.
The WFL returned in 1975 and the Hornets again competed until the league folded with games left on the schedule. The club was 6-5-0 and in third place in their division when the ax fell. In three home games, the team attracted 8,447, 10,564 and 7,750 patrons, respectively.
When the Arena Football League decided to expand in 1992, they placed the Charlotte Rage into the Charlotte Coliseum. Former NFL QB Cliff Stoudt was part-owner as was Allen Schwalb, producer of the movie “Rain Man.” Their team colors were maroon, teal, gray and white. Babe Parilli was named their first head coach and the team went 3-7-0. The team lasted until 1996 and had a different head coach every season including former Florida Gators’ coach Galen Hall in 1994. The franchise made two playoff appearances but were defeated each year. Their five-year win-loss total was a combined 24-38-0.
Another Arena Football League franchise, this team originated in 2000 in Raleigh, North Carolina with team colors of black, red and gold. The “Carolina Cobras” qualified for the playoffs two of three seasons despite losing records. Both times they lost in the playoffs. In 2003, they relocated to Charlotte hoping for better attendance. What team owner Pete Loftin did not anticipate, however, is how badly the current squad played en route to a 0-16-0 season. The following season again provided fans with a losing team as they went 6-10-0.
The Cobras were meant to be a swing schedule team in Charlotte to fill open dates when the NBA Charlotte Hornets moved to New Orleans. But when the NBA placed the newly-formed Charlotte Bobcats into the Charlotte Coliseum, the Arena League dissolved the franchise and all of its players went into a dispersal draft.
Another professional indoor team, the “Carolina Speed”, was set to play in the Professional Indoor Football League in 2007, but the league rejected their entry citing insufficient financial standing. Owner Eddie Littlefield instead joined the American Indoor Football Association (AIFA). Their team name was a tribute to the Charlotte Motor Speedway while home games where played at Charlotte Coliseum. Their colors were red, yellow, black and white.
After three seasons in which the franchise went 7-7-0 twice and 6-8-0, Littlefield did not field a team in 2010. For 2011, the Speed dropped out of the AIFA and joined the Southern Indoor Football League for a single season and went 3-9-0. Another year layoff was announced, and the franchise just never played another season in any league again.
The second indoor team to call itself the “Carolina Cobras” was established in 2017 with its maiden season set for 2018 in the National Arena League. The Cobras are a tenant at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex in nearby Greensboro, North Carolina. National Sports Venture are listed as the owners of the club with colors of black, red, white and silver.
This indoor team went 10-5-0 during the regular season, defeated defending league champion Jacksonville Sharks 73-48 in a semifinal playoff game, and then defeated the Columbus Lions 66-8 in the NAL Championship Game. Along with the 1946 Charlotte Clippers, this marked the second pro football championship for the Carolina region.
The formation of this indoor football franchise called the “Carolina Energy” allows the Charlotte Coliseum, now the Bojangles Coliseum, to offer fans another sports tenant. Formed in 2017, the Energy are members of the American Arena League and owned by Daniel Rudmann. Their first season of 2018 the club went 5-3-0 and then lost to the Richmond Roughriders 43-57 in the playoffs. Their colors are black and gold.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.