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August 2010
Moving The Chains
By Ellison Clary

     A sportsman at heart, Danny Morrison has always enjoyed rock-solid coaches and bosses, and credits himself with being smart enough to learn from each one. He’s blended lessons from mentors with hearty portions of planning and hard work, plus a pinch of good luck, to concoct a career of sequential successes. The most recent is unfolding in Charlotte.

     Long a respected leader in collegiate sports, the president of the National Football League’s Carolina Panthers admits he faced a learning curve when he took the position in October 2009.

     “There’s a difference in scale, in media attention and in terminology,” admits the former athletics director from Texas Christian University. Then he focuses on similarities.

     “The NCAA rule book and its NFL counterpart are about the same thickness,” he chuckles. “They both have a lot of nuances, and I’m working to learn all the NFL nuances,” he says.

      “The fundamentals are a lot the same,” he adds. “For example, the way you work with a coach. You just want to be there in a supportive role.”

      “And like a college AD [athletic director], the president works with facilities, sponsorships, the business and marketing areas and communications.”

     When Morrison took the presidency, it was a new position combining the responsibilities that owner Jerry Richardson’s sons Mark and Jon had performed until their simultaneous resignations as team and stadium presidents, respectively.

     Morrison offers high praise for the Richardson brothers and the opportunity they left him, at the same time realizing that he faces definite challenges.

     “Mr. Richardson has high, high expectations,” Morrison says. “He expects things to be done well, done right. But he’s also willing to take some risk. He realizes risk and progress are complementary variables.”

     That’s one of many lessons Morrison has gleaned from his superiors through the years. “Every boss I’ve ever had has been fantastic and yet they’ve led with different styles,” he says.

 

Suiting Up

     While it surprised some that Richardson picked a career college sports executive to run his front office, those familiar with Morrison feel he’s well-suited.

     “It wasn’t surprising to those of us who really knew Danny and the relationship he had with Mr. Richardson,” says Judy Rose, athletics director at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She mentions long-time associations between Richardson and Morrison, many connected to their shared alma mater of Wofford College.

     “It’s almost like Mr. Richardson was grooming him all those years,” Rose observes. “Danny is very qualified and he’s a great people person, a great person to have out in this community.”

     Rose feels Morrison is fast becoming the face of the Panthers, “and that’s very positive,” she adds.

     Morrison, 56, has known Richardson since he was a freshman on what in 1971 was the Wofford College Terriers’ basketball team in the NAIA, a small-college sports governing body. Richardson invited the basketball players to his home for Thanksgiving dinner.

     Richardson was well-known in Spartanburg, S.C., for his success as a player at Wofford and in the NFL. Further, he was already a successful fast-food entrepreneur.

     The Richardson-Morrison relationship that was born that Thanksgiving evening endured through the years. It strengthened after Morrison took over as athletics director at Wofford in 1985. He moved the Terriers first into NCAA Division II and then to NCAA Division I-AA.

     In 1987, Richardson sent Morrison a hand-written note: “Confidential. We’re going after an NFL team for the Carolinas.”

     It sparked a Morrison-led drive to turn Wofford College into the Panthers’ annual pre-season home. Morrison remembers: “We wrote him back and said, ‘When you get your team, we want to be in a position to host the training camp.’”

     Morrison started a study of every NFL team’s training facilities. Good fortune was evident, because Wofford already had instituted a year-long scrutiny of campus needs.

     “The incredible part was that the things we had identified in the long-range strategic plan mirrored with things we needed for a training camp,” he says. That helped with the necessary, and impressive, fund-raising for additions and improvements that had to be accomplished in a tight time frame.

     The NFL announced that it would award a franchise to the Carolinas in October 1993. “We had to raise the money, acquire the land and have everything in place by July 1, 1995, because that was the first year of practice,” Morrison says.

     “That’s when my hair started turning gray,” jokes the snowy-pated Morrison. “But it was a great project. It showed the value of people working together, public and private, everybody on the same page to make it happen.”

 

Getting an Education on Sports

     Helping Morrison achieve that success were lessons from his steady academic and professional progression.

     After graduation from Williams High School in Burlington, N.C., Wofford coach Gene Alexander convinced Morrison to come to Spartanburg and try out for the Terrier basketball team. Though he didn’t stand out, Morrison did earn a scholarship.

     As a freshman, he met a young professor named Joe Lesesne who taught him two semesters of Western Civilization. They became friends and, the next fall, Lesesne took the Wofford presidency, a position he held for 28 years.

     Coupled with the Thanksgiving encounter with Richardson, it was an eventful year for Morrison. “The first semester at a college campus and you meet two people who are going to have a profound influence on your life,” Morrison marvels.

     The son of Concord natives, Morrison moved around as a youngster as his father climbed the ranks at JC Penney. But his stops were always in the Carolinas, because his father wouldn’t accept a transfer anywhere else.

     Morrison graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Wofford in 1975 with a bachelor’s in mathematics. He got a master’s of education from the University of North Carolina in 1981 and a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of South Carolina in 2000.

     What he wanted to do in 1975 was coach on the secondary school level, so he returned to Williams High in Burlington. He taught geometry and moved up from junior varsity basketball coach to head coach in his second year. Early on, referees mistook the 22-year-old for the student manager.

     After five years, he hooked on at what then was Elon College, also in Burlington, to be assistant basketball coach, tennis coach and a math teacher. After two years, he continued coaching but swapped the math duties for an assistant athletics director position.

     Along the way, he learned the value of hard work and a gritty “stick-to-itiveness” from the likes of athletics director Barry Hodge at Williams High and Alan White and Bill Morningstar, athletics director and head basketball coach, respectively, at Elon.

 

Moving the Chains

     But Lesesne beckoned in 1985 and Morrison returned to Wofford as athletics director. Lesesne helped Morrison lead Wofford on a bold ascent up the college sports ladder.

     “Joe Lesesne was an amazing encourager,” Morrison recalls. “He instilled confidence. You didn’t worry about taking a risk with him because you knew if it didn’t work out, you’d just admit it and go try to do something else.”

     Wofford initiated a study whose results showed the college should move to Division I-AA. It so happened that the Southern Conference was looking to replace Marshall University as a football-playing member and Wofford filled that slot.

     “It’s always nice to do your homework, but it’s even better to get some good luck,” Morrison smiles.

By 1997, Morrison had become a senior vice president at Wofford.

     In his next transition, from 2000 to 2005, Morrison was commissioner of the Southern Conference. For the first time, he couldn’t cheer for a team. In his new-found impartiality, he made a discovery.

     “The officiating is a lot better than you think it is when you take emotions out of the game,” he laughs.

     In 2005, a search firm contacted Morrison about filling the athletics director position at Texas Christian University. He and TCU officials decided it was a perfect fit. During his tenure, he oversaw the development of the athletics program into one of the most successful in the nation and helped usher the Horned Frogs into the Mountain West Conference.

     In the 2008-09 athletics season, Texas Christian had 16 of its 20 sports represented in postseason play, and 12 were nationally ranked—highlighted by the football team’s ranking of seventh in season-ending polls. Additionally, the Horned Frogs won conference titles in four sports, and three coaches earned Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year honors.

     Morrison worked to bring a number of NCAA and conference events to the University. Texas Christian hosted the NCAA Rifle Championships, NCAA Baseball Regional and Mountain West Conference Baseball Championship in 2009 and was awarded the 2010 NCAA Rifle Championships.

     Under Morrison’s direction, the athletics department posted its top four years for revenue, and football season-ticket sales set records in two of his last three years. Non-revenue sports, including baseball, soccer and volleyball, established attendance marks in 2008-09. The increased interest in Texas Christian athletics resulted in the construction of new facilities and upgrades and improvements to others.

     Morrison praises his boss, Chancellor Victor Boschini, for encouraging excellence in all phases of the university. “He was always looking for ways to help and pushed for improvement.”

     The solid footing established under Morrison was evident even after his departure when the football team recorded an undefeated regular season and the baseball team advanced to the College World Series.

     Indeed, Morrison’s pattern of career advancement to the Panthers could be likened to “moving the chains” on the football field: combining hard work, lots of preparation, teamwork and some luck in steady movement toward the goal.

 

Applying the Lessons

     Morrison credits Boschini for his attitude toward pressure. “I believe that highly motivated people already put enough pressure on themselves,” he says. “Why would you put more pressure on somebody like that?”

     It’s part of his management style with the Panthers. “The cumulative effect of just grinding it every day creates success if you have the right people with the right values, who get along, who are smart enough to connect the dots,” he says. “And of course, they have to have integrity.”

     As team president, Morrison is responsible for the Panthers business operations and Bank of America Stadium business interests, in addition to representing the organization in many league matters. He also provides support and counsel to general manager Marty Hurney and head coach John Fox in putting a terrific team on the field. That’s not easy; he’s quick to point out, because of the heralded parity among NFL squads.

     “I think that balance energizes you,” he says. “We all love competition. We all want to do well.”

     For goals this season, besides seeing the Panthers succeed on the field, Morrison hopes to enhance the fan experience. There will be even more replays on the scoreboard’s giant video screen and those will be coupled with additional highlights from other games. And there will be other opportunities for positive fan involvement, he promises.

     A Spanish-language radio network will debut, a product of Panthers brass admiring the 63,000 turnout earlier this year to watch the Mexican national soccer team.

     Morrison likes it when people tell him Panthers games are among the few times their families can get together as one. And he enjoys hearing how the Panthers’ Super Bowl appearance of 2004 brought Charlotte together like nothing else.

     He and wife Peggy live near Queens University of Charlotte. They like Charlotte’s small-town feel coupled with its impressive growth. He professes to enjoy gazing at the center city skyline from the Panther practice field on South Cedar Street.

     Morrison points to a conference room table with a framed, small sheet of paper. On it are five lines, hand-written: “Hard Work, Harmony, Teamwork, Listen, Respect.” They’re the Panthers’ core values, he says, imparted by Richardson.

     “Mr. Richardson’s presence and value system permeates throughout the organization,” he says.

     He calls Richardson “the consummate leader,” praising his knack for planning ahead, as far out as five or 10 years.

     “I knew this was a very well-run organization, with great values,” Morrison says. “To get here and actually be working in it, it’s even better than I thought it would be.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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