Offensively, though, the Panthers have had to weather the development of rookie quarterback Kerry Collins, whose 61.2 ranking compares favorably with those of other quarterbacks who have guided first-year NFL teams (chart, page 62). Collins made a big mistake on Sunday when, on first-and-goal at the Niner one-yard line, his rollout pass into the end zone was intercepted by Tim McDonald. "No excuses. There was no one open. I should have thrown it away," said Collins, who has thrown 16 interceptions and only 12 touchdown passes in 12 NFL games. "It wasn't a bad call. It was just a poor decision on my part. Hopefully I'll learn from that."
What the franchise has learned about its attendance woes is just as obvious. No team, expansion or otherwise, has played all of its "home" games so far from home. Clemson lies as many as 300 miles and as much as a six-hour drive from Durham, Greensboro, Raleigh and Winston-Salem, the four Tobacco Road cities in north central North Carolina that lend 1.3 million folks to the 10 million-plus fan base that attracted the NFL to the Carolinas in the first place. Clemson also lies 150 miles southwest of Charlotte, where the team's new 72,500-seat stadium will be ready for next season. After the Panthers move into that $160 million state-of-the-art facility, "they'll sell it out, and they'll never have another empty seat," predicts Charlotte Observer columnist Ron Green.
In the meantime North Carolinians seem as wary of Clemson as Clemson is of them. Still regionally infamous is the hell night of Aug. 12, when the Panthers played their first exhibition game al Clemson. Highway construction work on both the North and South Carolina portions of I-85, the only artery to Clemson, caused a horrific traffic jam. Creeping drives of four hours from Charlotte to the stadium were common. Those who missed the well-documented ordeal were traumatized by the hearsay. As for the Tobacco Road populace, they had largely given up on even trying the trip as soon as the temporary Clemson site was announced in 1993.
Carolina's players have quietly endured their 2½-hour bus rides from their Rock Hill, S.C., training site to Clemson on the day before home games. And they express appreciation for the hard-core fans who have shown up at Clemson. "When you've had to sit in traffic as long as some of our fans have, it shows their dedication," says McKyer.
So the painfully logical question is, and has been all along, Why Clemson? Well, it was chosen because Panther owner Jerry Richardson has a sociological agenda. Richardson was born north of Raleigh, in Spring Hope, N.C., but resides in and runs his food empire (Denny's restaurants, Hardee's hamburger emporiums) from Spartanburg, S.C. He, more than anyone, knows that laid-back South Carolina often feels left out of whatever hustling and bustling North Carolina is up to, so he was determined that the 1995 season be played in South Carolina to ensure that that state's 3.7 million inhabitants could "feel a sense of ownership of this franchise."
He initially dispatched McCormack to negotiate with the University of South Carolina for use of its 72,400-seat stadium in the state capital, Columbia. Replete with hotels, restaurants and an airport served by major airlines, Columbia is 90 miles south of Charlotte. But after university officials at first balked at harboring a pro franchise and then asked for a $5 million rental package for eight regular-season games and two exhibition contests, McCormack drove to Clemson and made a deal that will cost Carolina between $2 million and $3 million, depending on ticket revenues.
Max Muhleman, a Charlotte-based marketing maestro who orchestrated the courting of the NBA for the Charlotte Hornets and of the NFL for the Panthers, calls Clemson the worst geographical location in the region to place a pro football team. When he was attempting to attract the NBA in 1987, Muhleman drew a circle around Charlotte with a 100-mile radius (the equivalent of a two-hour drive from any direction, the maximum for weeknight basketball) and hired college students to look up the population of every town and hamlet inside the circle. Voilà! He turned NBA commissioner David Stern on to a market Stern might never have considered because he didn't realize it contained those five million people. Then, for Richardson, Muhleman widened the circle to a 150-mile radius (three-hour drive time, maximum for NFL Sundays) and presented NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue with that market of 10 million. According to Muhleman's spin-doctoring, Carolina television markets within that circle (Charlotte, the 28th largest TV market in the U.S., Raleigh-Durham the 30th, Greenville/Spartanburg/Asheville 35th, Greensboro/Winston-Salem/High Point 47th, Columbia 89th and Florence/Myrtle Beach, S.C., 114th) add up to the third-largest television market in America, slightly bigger than Chicago.
Stay well within the Muhleman Circle and "the equation works," Muhleman says, pointing to the chart he had used in his presentation to the NFL. From the core at Charlotte, north and east along Tobacco Road and even due south toward Columbia, the chart was darkly shaded with dense population dots. "Of anywhere in that circle, probably the worst place you could be would be right there!" he said, shoving a finger at a remote white speck on the southwestern rim of the circle—Clemson.
But that didn't matter in Richardson's strategic plan. "The overwhelming desire Jerry had was to unify the Carolinas," says McCormack. Unifying Germany might have been a simpler mission—or at least "they're probably comparable projects," says Muhleman, a native of Greenville, S.C. "The Mason-Dixon line should have been drawn between North and South Carolina," says Green. "They're different worlds."
Charlotte is the third-largest banking center in the U.S., behind only New York City and San Francisco. It is a hotbed of basketball, as evidenced not only by its longtime devotion to the college game but also by the strong demand for Hornet tickets among the nouveaux riches of Charlotte society.