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Successful from the top down

Despite different backgrounds, different approaches and different strings of luck, they somehow have managed to accomplish the same thing.

Jerry Richardson and Robert Kraft don't just own the Panthers and the Patriots, respectively, they provide a leadership force that offers some explanation of why both teams play Sunday in the Super Bowl.

"I think in both cases they have put together very good organizations, and ultimately the teams that have good organizations are going to have good teams on the field," Texans owner Bob McNair said. "Now, their styles are different, but that just goes to show that there are many ways to skin a cat. It's more about how you execute your plan than what your plan is."

For Richardson, 67, the plan began long before the NFL awarded him the league's 29th franchise on Oct. 26, 1993, long before he boldly predicted the Panthers would win a Super Bowl within 10 years.

A native of Spring Hope, N.C., the seed likely germinated when Richardson played for the Baltimore Colts and caught a touchdown pass from Johnny Unitas against the Giants in the 1959 NFL Championship Game.

Joining George Halas as the only owners to have played in the league, Richardson's unusual perspective has had a profound impact on his approach to ownership.

"I think I have an appreciation for this game unlike any other owner today," Richardson said. "I was in the huddle in the fourth quarter when the Giants were beating us 9-7. Obviously there's not a current owner with a memory like that. It has been a blessing for me. I'm grateful for it."

The former player is particular about his players, particular about how they treat fans and very particular about their public image.

"I try real hard not to be all over our players and coaches as they try to get their work done," he said. "I do get involved in conduct issues."

Richardson has had his share.

A former receiver, Rae Carruth, is in prison after being convicted in the shooting death of the mother of one of his children. A former running back, Fred Lane, was murdered by his wife, Deidra, after a tumultuous marriage scarred with charges of domestic abuse. A former quarterback, Kerry Collins, admitted he had alcohol problems.

Other players, including safety Rashard Anderson and offensive tackle Chris Terry, had legal problems that brought embarrassment.

None is still on the team, and Richardson said the Panthers have grown stronger after each circumstance.

"Life is not a bed of roses," he said. "I think one of the things that has made this franchise so strong is the adversity we've gone through."

Richardson is equally charged by the public's perception of his players. After receiving a letter from a Greensboro, N.C., psychologist condemning the way the team handled a brutal fight between receivers Steve Smith and Anthony Bright, Richardson drove Smith to Greensboro (two hours) to meet the letter writer and his 13-year-old son for a heart-to-heart talk.

"The fans are the heart of our business," he said. "They invest their emotions and their hearts, along with their money. When you disappoint them, they get very angry and they get frustrated with us. We don't want it the other way."

Ten years after purchasing the Patriots for what was then a record $170-million, Kraft says the same thing.

When he bought the Patriots, the beleaguered franchise was one of the laughingstocks of the NFL. In the six seasons before coming on board, the Patriots had been through two owners and three coaches and had won 19 of their past 80 games.

It was so bad, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said the league considered taking over the team.

"I did an uneconomic deal when I bought this team," said Kraft, a native of Brookline, Mass., who made his fortune in the paper commodities business. "I broke all my personal financial disciplines in buying the team and paying the price we paid. It was the highest price ever paid."

But Kraft, who inherited a team with the lowest payroll in the NFL, saw in the Patriots potential for rebirth and saw in the New England fan base the potential for years of dedication.

"It was a trek and a saga," he said. "We only make one visit that I know of here on this planet, so you try to hang out with people you like a lot and do the things you like to do."

Kraft provided two things: a new stadium and a solid coaching staff.

In the decade since taking over, Kraft hired Bill Parcells, said goodbye to Parcells, gave up draft picks to get Bill Belichick and built a $325-million stadium using his own money.

Under his ownership the Patriots have been to the Super Bowl two times, won a title, have a chance Sunday for another, have sold out 104 consecutive games and have a season-ticket waiting list of about 50,000.

"This is how we try to set up all our businesses to run," Kraft said, "Efficiently, with good interface between the key managers and having high quality people who are not afraid to push back and disagree with me and other key people."

He has also done it by staying out of football-related decisions, like releasing team captain Lawyer Milloy at the start of this season.

"If you want to hold people accountable, you have to give them the authority and you have to allow them to make errors and then learn from their errors," Kraft said. "If you interfere with their decisionmaking and their area of accountability, then you better look in the mirror if things don't go well."

Belichick appreciates the latitude.

"What you're looking for as a coach is support for your program and the ability to do what you need to do to be competitive," Belichick said. "Robert Kraft has given me all those things: facilities, salary-cap expenditures, coaching staff, support staff, all the things you need."