Total turnaround

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- His house and lawn were covered in toilet paper and congratulatory banners when Carolina coach John Fox returned home from the NFC championship game early Monday morning.

The drive home from the stadium took longer than usual because of the extra time it took to push through the thousands of fans who turned out to greet the Panthers following their 14-3 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.

Two years after the lowest point in Carolina history, Fox and the Panthers are headed to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.

'We've got great fans'

"We've got great fans and they were out at the airport and all along our trail to the stadium, and there were a number of people to greet us here at the stadium," Fox said. "I had all kinds of things on my house and everybody was really excited."

That's because the Panthers' turnaround has been nothing short of amazing.

A young franchise that had long been troubled by off-field problems, Carolina hit bottom on Jan. 6, 2002. The New England Patriots came to town for the regular season finale and humiliated the Panthers 38-6.

The game capped Carolina's 1-15 season and was played in front of a half-empty stadium. Of the franchise-low 21,070 in attendance, over half were New England fans. The Patriots, who went on to win the Super Bowl a month later, felt so at home that owner Bob Kraft was on the field shaking hands with their supporters after the game.

"The energy has been sucked out of our organization and our fan base," Panthers owner Jerry Richardson said the next day in firing coach George Seifert.

So Richardson went after a high-energy coach full of enthusiasm. He found it on Fox, who immediately set out to turn around the franchise.

In two seasons, he's done it, and Carolina's opponent in the Super Bowl is none other than the Patriots.

'One game to go'

"One of the first things I thought of is we played against New England in the final game of the 1-15 season," general manager Marty Hurney said. "That was one of the low points, and now we are playing them in the Super Bowl two years later. It's gratifying, we have one game to go to accomplish our goal."

The Panthers are longshots to do that: The Las Vegas oddsmakers made New England a seven-point favorite to beat Carolina.

But that's a huge improvement from how the Panthers were perceived last year. Just days after the last Super Bowl, Carolina was listed by oddsmakers as anywhere from 75-1 to 100-1 shots to win the NFL championship.

"America doesn't want us, but it's going to be a game," defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said. "Ain't nobody want to see the Panthers in the Super Bowl, but now you got to deal with it. Because right now in the NFC, we're the best thing going."

How they got here is a testament to Fox, who challenged their toughness in his first team meeting while laying out a blueprint for success. He wanted a hard-nosed defense, a run-first offense and to lift morale on a team that ranked last in the league in nearly every statistic.

And he planned to boost Carolina's talent level with smart draft picks and a selective process in free agency.

It was a plan that was supposed to take several years -- not two.

"I am not sure anybody expected it to happen in two years, to happen that fast," Fox said. "But we've changed the attitude and taken the approach that the foundation and the cornerstones were enthusiasm and hard work."

But Fox, who steadfastly maintains that very few things surprise him, admitted Monday he was taken aback by how willing the Panthers were to buy into his longterm plans.

"They were very willing to try anything," Fox said. "When you lose 15 games in a row, you are pretty wide-eyed and bushy-tailed about what our approach is going to be. My biggest impression was 'They fired the coaches, now it's going to be your turn so you better step it up.' They responded to it."

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