By Larry Fine
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The Carolina Panthers are eager to register their first Super Bowl triumph against the Denver Broncos in Sunday's Super Bowl 50, but it was patience that turned them into an NFL powerhouse.
There have been ups and downs since quarterback Cam Newton and head coach Ron Rivera both came to Carolina in 2011 but five years later Newton is being hailed as the league's top player and Rivera has molded the Panthers into a 17-1 juggernaut.
The Panthers story begins with former NFL player Jerry Richardson, who after retiring from the NFL in 1961 turned entrepreneur before fulfilling his dream of bringing an NFL franchise to his home state of North Carolina.
Richardson, who played two seasons as a receiver for the Baltimore Colts, joined forces with a former college teammate and parlayed ownership of the first Hardee's restaurant into a franchise chain and a subsequent food-service empire.
They were awarded an NFL expansion franchise in 1993 and began play in 1995.
There was surprising success early for the Panthers. In their second season they went 12-4 under coach Dom Capers and quarterback Kerry Collins and advanced to the conference championship.
Seven years later with Jake Delhomme at quarterback under coach John Fox, they went all the way to the Super Bowl but fell just short, losing to the New England Patriots 32-29.
The rollicking Super Bowl saw 37 points scored in a see-saw fourth quarter in a game made further memorable for the halftime wardrobe malfunction of pop singer Janet Jackson.
After a 2-14 season in 2010, Fox gave way to Ron Rivera and their number one overall draft pick was used to select Newton, a powerfully-built passer and bruising runner who had led Auburn to a national college title and scooped up the Heisman Trophy.
There were ups and down and growing pains as Newton was schooled in the ways of quarterbacking in the NFL, but Richardson told Rivera to build toward the ultimate goal.
After a rocky start in 2013, the Panthers jelled.
They finished 12-4 for the first of three successive NFC South titles for Rivera, who has struck a balance between disciplined attention to detail and giving his players freedom to express their personalities.
Mixed into Carolina's winning equation was the 2013 hiring of Dave Gettleman as general manager.
Gettleman, like Newton and Rivera, a rookie linebacker on the fabled defense of the Super Bowl-winning Chicago Bears of 1985 and successful assistant with the Eagles and defensive coordinator for the Chargers, was accustomed to winning.
A Broncos scout who left Denver after they won their first Super Bowl in the 1997 season, Gettleman joined the New York Giants front office, where he won two Super Bowls before coming to Carolina.
“You know what it should look like, smell like, taste like, feel like and that was a great experience for me," he said about building a winner.
Rivera said he took great pride in giving sports fans in Carolina fans a common team to cheer.
"Whether we win or not, I think the most important thing about it is what we’ve brought to the Carolinas and to the community," says the coach.
North and South Carolina have long been hot beds for NASCAR and college sports, particularly basketball with such successful teams as Duke and the University of North Carolina, and the Clemson (South Carolina) football team.
"We’ve brought some excitement," said Rivera. "We’ve united the Carolinas so they can really cheer (together) for one group."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)