CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Speculation that Andrew Luck returned to Stanford for a fourth year to avoid going to the Carolina Panthers with the first pick of the 2011 draft has been tossed around so much that some people believe it.
Luck shot down that theory Wednesday as he prepared to face the undefeated Panthers for the first time.
“Absolutely not," the first pick of the 2012 draft said on a conference call, as he looked ahead to Monday night’s game at Bank of America Stadium. “And I hope people don’t think that."
While there are some who believe the Panthers were desperately hoping Luck would enter the draft as they came off a 2-14 season, he never was on coach Ron Rivera’s radar.
Rivera was hired a few days after Luck announced he wouldn’t enter the draft. When then-general manager Marty Hurney first showed Rivera the team’s draft board, “the name at the top was Cam (Newton)," Rivera said.
Rivera said every quarterback the Panthers looked at the rest of the draft process was compared to Newton.
“We were going to pick a quarterback (No. 1)," Rivera said. “The first one I watched with Marty was Cam. All I could think to myself was, ‘This was going to be the guy.'"
A final trip to Atlanta to meet with Newton and his parents the week before the draft sealed the decision.
“There was just something about watching him in his home environment and the way he was, his demeanor, his politeness, his upbringing," Rivera said. “You could tell he was brought up in a good home. You could tell this guy was going to be able to handle it and do things the right way.
“The one thing you never learned though was how hard he takes losing. It was a little bit of an awakening to learn how hard he takes it."
Newton lost 19 of his first 32 games. He earned a reputation for sulking, as he sometimes sat on the sidelines alone with a towel on his head. There was doubt outside the stadium about whether the Panthers made the right decision.
Most of that doubt was erased the past two seasons as Carolina won consecutive NFC South titles and a playoff game.
What doubt was left has dissipated after a 6-0 start in 2015, with Newton’s name coming up in MVP conversations.
Rivera has never played the “what if" game in terms of Luck’s decision to stay at Stanford. Neither has Luck, who said his intention all along was to stay in school for four years.
“Finishing my education was important to me," he said. “I needed to stay an extra year to get that done. I felt like I still needed to grow and learn as a football player, and college would give me that opportunity to grow and learn."