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Charlotte has reason to celebrate

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- His is the first face you see as you enter Ericsson Stadium. That is a good thing because on a day that crackles because it is so cool, security guard John Coleman exudes warmth, and the good cheer in his voice puts you at ease, even amid the onrush of chaos.

"Lot going on around here. Have you heard, we're going to the Super Bowl," Coleman said to a visitor signing in, and the man who had been sent to fix the copy machine laughed. "I heard," he said before Coleman pointed him toward the elevator, directing traffic even as members of the Carolina Panthers' coaching staff walked by, headed to practice.

"Yes, sir, Mr. Richardson told us when he first came here that we'd be in the Super Bowl in 10 years," said Coleman, a reference to Jerry Richardson, founder and owner of the NFL's 29th franchise, the Carolina Panthers. "And here we are, going to the Super Bowl -- one year earlier. Mr. Richardson was right. We're going to the Super Bowl. Imagine that?"

A Super Bowl date with the New England Patriots is nine days away. Imagine that?

People in this fair city never dared.

It's tough to call Charlotteans long-suffering sports fans. Not in the same sense that Cubs fans and Red Sox fans and Lions fans are long-suffering. Major pro sports teams, after all, didn't arrive in the Queen City until the NBA's Hornets tapped off in 1988 (the Panthers came in '95, the NHL's Hurricanes in '97), the citizenry, whose grandfathers had made the city a wrestling mecca throughout the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, more than content to consume themselves with college basketball and the roar of stock-car racing.

But there's no denying the distinct pain that has befallen the sports fan in this likable Sun Belt city in a short period of time. Indeed, they have learned in a hurry that with pro sports comes baggage that runs the gamut from embarrassing to socially unacceptable to criminal, and the fans' resolve and faith in their pro athletes have been tested:

* During the 1998 season, Panthers quarterback Kerry Collins quit the team amid allegations of excessive drinking and racism.

* In November 1999, the town was thrust into an unflattering national spotlight when Rae Carruth, a highly touted wide receiver for the Panthers, was arrested in the murder of his girlfriend, Cherica Adams, who was pregnant with his child. Two deaths, one horrible time for Charlotte, and even today, with Carruth serving a 25-year prison term, you get blank stares and cutting looks if you even mention the name around any of his former teammates.

* It was barely two months after the Carruth incident that Bobby Phills, a popular player with the Hornets, climbed into his Porsche after practice for a senseless drag race with teammate David Wesley. Phills was dead at the scene when his car went out of control.

* Another car crash in the winter of 2000 left the people here devastated, though this one cut deeper and the wounds still haven't healed because Dale Earnhardt -- native son of North Carolina killed during the Daytona 500 -- was a bona fide legend of proportions hard to comprehend.

* July of 2000 was when Fred Lane, the former running back for the Panthers, was shot and killed at his Charlotte home. His wife, Deidre, was convicted of the crime and sentenced to eight years.

* Then there was George Shinn, owner of the NBA Charlotte Hornets. He became embroiled in messy allegations of sexual harassment and it played out like a cheap soap opera in court, all of it at a time when he wanted taxpayer help to build a new arena. Widely viewed as arrogant and flamboyant, Shinn alienated the people of this city and when he took his franchise to New Orleans two years ago, there were no shortage of volunteers to drive him to the airport. (A new NBA team, the Bobcats, will begin play next season in Charlotte.)

"Skeptics might have thought, `That's part of sports for you,' but that's as unfair as any other generalization," said Max Muhleman, a marketing executive who helped get the Hornets, then the Panthers, started.

He remembers an article in a national sports magazine that focused on such misfortune.

"We did have an inordinate run of bad luck, bad news, and bad eggs," he said. "But because of all that, I think people here are more excited, more joyful about what is going on with the Panthers. They're learning how special these types of events can be. It's always been a great sports market, but we're not used to this stuff."

Not even when you consider a shocking Year 2 for the Panthers, a 12-4 record and a spot in the NFC Championship game following the 1996 campaign. That's a distant memory in the aftermath of six straight losing seasons, a 30-66 cumulative mark over that time, and empty seats have been the rule in previous seasons. The problem, at least from where Humpy Wheeler sits, has come from a lack of a blue-collar fan base. To finance the state-of-the-art stadium, the club sold private seat licenses, a process that pretty much eliminated the working-class fan who traditionally is at the heart of so many sports franchises.

"It's been an elite crowd [at Panthers games]. The bankers were there, but not the biscuit-makers," said Wheeler, president of Speedway Motor Sports and general manager of nearby Lowe's Motor Speedway, which three times a year packs 'em in at between 145,000 to 188,000 for NASCAR events. "If it wasn't sunny and warm and the team wasn't winning, there wasn't a crowd."

The string of bad sports karma certainly contributed, he said, but Wheeler concedes that 2003 has been different.

"This year, for the first time, the team has rallied the general population in a way that I haven't seen previously. I think maybe we're learning to be a pro team sports town."

It's just that no one here is boasting that the passion rivals that of, say, Packer fans or Chicago Bears fans. You're talking a nine-year-old franchise, not one that is steeped in history. "And besides," said Muhleman, "for the most part, it's a fundamentally Southern fan base and generally, they're a little softer, a little more polite.

"We don't boo as much -- but we don't tend to cheer as often, either."

Which isn't to say that the team has not been embraced. Far from it. Officials estimate the crowd at 8,000 Sunday night when the team returned to Ericsson Stadium after its NFC Championship win in Philadelphia and thousands more are expected to converge today for a pep rally at the Square at the corner of Trade and Tryon streets.

Sarah Strohschein, the Panthers' merchandise manager, said that more merchandise was sold this past Monday morning than on game days with some 73,000 people in attendance. When the folks showed up at Dick's Sporting Goods Store in the downtown area Monday morning, they discovered a line of shoppers.

So while you couldn't categorize the mood here as total euphoria, Muhleman said Charlotteans have bought into the Panthers and their Super Bowl quest "in a naive sort of way."

"Think of a teenage crush," said Ron Green, a longtime sportswriter with the Charlotte Observer, and the description fits perfectly, because there is a civil obedience about the fans' reaction here, the sports talk shows filled with far fewer screamers than you get in Boston and New York.

Along Tryon Street Wednesday night, the sports bars were filled with patrons more passionate about the Duke-Maryland basketball game. And the upcoming NASCAR campaign -- especially the decision to revamp the season-long points system -- still receives top play in the Observer. But so, too, are the newspapers filled with classified ads, people looking for Super Bowl tickets, and owners of small restaurants are scrambling to see if they can get larger TVs in place for Feb. 1.

"A roller-coaster ride, no doubt," said Muhleman. "We had one big dip, chronologically, but now? People here are excited. This is big stuff."

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