Panthers' new owner David Tepper not like the man he replaces

ATLANTA -- David Tepper had a team of speechwriters and a public relations department at his disposal when he began preparing the commencement address he would deliver Sunday at Carnegie Mellon University.

They all told him to be proper and not too controversial.

He also listened to some of the best commencement speeches "of all time" from politicians and actors, noting how they were delivered with "eloquence" and in a "professional manner."

"Let me apologize to all of them in advance," the hedge fund billionaire told the graduating class and other honorees as he began. "Sorry, guys. Not going to happen. … To all those in attendance, if you expected to hear a professional speech today, you may be at the wrong commencement.

"What I can promise you is as much honesty and personal life experience as I can muster."

This is the man, who on Tuesday at the NFL meetings in Atlanta, received unanimous approval from the 32 owners to purchase the Carolina Panthers.

That he was a 5 percent minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers made it a formality since he already had passed the league's vetting process.

That was a big reason his winning bid of $2.275 billion was chosen over a bid by Charleston, South Carolina-based billionaire Ben Navarro, who according to sources bid $50-60 million more.

The league wanted to get the sale completed so it could move on with the results of its investigation into sexual and workplace misconduct of Panthers founder Jerry Richardson, who put the team up for sale after the season.

One thing is clear, Tepper won't be anything like Richardson.

This is a man who once bought the 6,165-square-foot Hamptons summer home of a former boss for $43.5 million and tore it down to build another palatial mansion.

And this is a man who told CNBC during the 2016 presidential election that Republican nominee and eventual winner Donald Trump was "the father of lies." He also told a student at Carnegie Mellon University that Trump is a "demented, narcissistic scumbag."

"Who do you treat better: The president or the garbage man?" Tepper said during his speech. "I'm talking generally, not relating to any specific president, by the way.

"But the answer is you treat them both the same. Both men and women deserve to be treated equally and with respect."

Richardson seldom, if ever, said anything controversial in the media -- particularly when it came to politics. He seldom, if ever, spoke to the media at all.

Richardson kept a low profile at owners meetings, as he did in his final one Tuesday when he kept out of sight of reporters before presenting Tepper for approval.

Tepper was visible from the time he arrived at the Whitley Hotel. He spent much of Monday night talking to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell while eating a hamburger in the hotel bar.

"David is a really smart guy," Steelers owner Art Rooney II said. "He is not afraid to speak his mind. I know he thinks about what he has to say."

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said it's good for the league when a businessman like Tepper makes such a huge investment to become an owner.

"In a way it's kind of an endorsement of what the league is doing, our future," Jones said. "David has a keen reputation for his business judgment. When men and women like him elect to come into the league, that's a good feeling, that's a good endorsement for the NFL. It shows there's a bright future ahead."

His $11 billion net worth aside, Tepper likes to consider himself a regular guy. He insists he's not much different than the kid who grew up in the working-class neighborhood of Stanton Heights in Pittsburgh, worked his way through the University of Pittsburgh and then got his MBA at Carnegie in 1982.

Early in his career, he remarked how he wasn't afraid of having to go back and work in the steel mills.

So he won't be afraid to address bold issues and make bold decisions like the one he made 25 years ago to found Appaloosa Management after he didn't make partner at Goldman Sachs.

"A kid who couldn't afford to go to an NFL game until well into his 20s is on the verge of getting [the] NFL's approval to buy the Carolina Panthers," Tepper told the graduating class. "Not too shabby."

Overcoming abuse

Tepper's voice began to crack as he talked about how he was physically abused by his father, a cycle that he said was passed down from previous generations.

"In my life, there was nothing more terrifying, there was no greater adversity," Tepper said as he fought back tears. "But I prayed to God I would never be the same to my children.

"I'm proud to say, that was … the greatest accomplishment of my life, I broke that cycle."

Tepper obviously was impacted by the abuse. He was surprised he got through that impromptu moment as well as he did.

He also admittedly learned a lot from his dad, starting with work ethic. His dad worked 60 hours a week to keep the family afloat financially.

He also preached the importance of giving to charity or others less fortunate, even if you're in hard times, a big reason Tepper takes as much pride in his philanthropic work as anything he has accomplished.

He has donated more than $125 million to the Carnegie school of business now named after him. He donated $1.2 million in gift cards to families impacted by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

The lesson of whether you treat the garbage man or president better also came from Tepper's father.

"Garbage man may be the right answer, because somebody has to take the trash out of here," Tepper said. "If he doesn't take the trash you're really in trouble.

"But actually the answer is you treat them both the same. All men, and women, deserve to be treated equally and with respect."

The latter could be interpreted as a reference to Richardson and the allegations of harassment.

On Tuesday, Tepper pleaded "stupidity" on how he might change the culture at Bank of America Stadium, because he hasn't been in Charlotte to experience the current culture.

"But I'll say this -- and this has nothing to do with whatever's there, because I don't know. ... I've had a business for 25 years," Tepper said. "I'm a person that believes in equality for everybody, including men and women. … Anything that comes out of this is the past. The past is the past."

Tepper credits his 86-year-old mother, a former school teacher, who was in the audience for the commencement speech, for much of his past influence.

"I think my mom is a little happy about today," he said of her being present for him getting his honorary doctorate at Carnegie. "But my mom sometimes can be a pain in the butt. I'm sure your parents can be, too. But there's nobody more on earth that I owe more to.

"In life, you should recognize your parents."

Football and gravestones

Most of Tepper's football experience came playing touch football in the street and tackle football in the cemetery near his childhood neighborhood.

"We tried not to hit the gravestones," he said with a laugh.

Tepper also played high school football in what he describes as a rough environment in east Pittsburgh.

However, his experience on the field is nothing compared to that of Richardson, the only current owner who played in the league.

But Tepper is a huge football fan. His Miami-based Appaloosa Management offices look more like a sports bar than a hedge fund firm.

Tepper's experience as a minority owner with the Steelers the past nine years also gives him much-needed experience.

"David will be a good owner," Rooney said. "I'm excited for him to be a part of the league. He has great passion for the game of football, loves the game. He came from Pittsburgh. What else can you ask for?"

Tepper has come a long way since applying for his first job -- at McDonald's.

"I got turned down," he told the graduating class. "I think it was because I had an oversized afro."

Tepper, who had a head full of curly hair growing up, then took off his commencement hat to show his bald head.

"Wouldn't be a problem today," he said, getting a laugh from the crowd.

Tepper went on to explain he finally got a job as a short-order cook at a deli, later sold knives door-to-door and once worked at a bakery.

He explained how Goldman Sachs turned him down the first time he applied for a job there, so he went to work for the treasury department of Republic Steel.

Three months into that job, the company made a 7 percent pay cut across the board and Tepper's friends called to say, "Great choice, Tep."

But Tepper stuck with it, eventually getting a job with a mutual funds company that led to a job at Goldman Sachs, where he quickly advanced to head trader.

"There's a lesson here," he told the graduates. "In all life, get all the experience you can. While you're young, go for the experience versus the paycheck."

Life lesson

Tepper's goal was to be a partner with Goldman Sachs, one of the leading investment banks in the country.

That changed after he was asked by one of the "powerful partners" to buy a company just removed from the restricted list. He contacted company lawyers and was told it was legal to do but admitted it "still didn't seem right."

He ultimately refused to make the transaction.

"I didn't get fired, but when I got shot down for partner I wasn't incredibly upset," he said.

That's because he already was contemplating starting his own company, Appaloosa Management.

"I ended up doing something that was a lot more fun and made my life better in so many ways," Tepper said. "In life, do what's right. You have many lives and opportunities ahead of you, and don't let anyone tell you different."

Tepper will use all of his life experiences in running the Panthers. He's expected to leave the football side alone, understanding Carolina has made the playoffs four of the past five seasons -- including the Super Bowl during the 2015 season.

That doesn't mean he won't make changes or ruffle feathers.

But for now he will sit back and observe.

"I like to know what I know I know," Tepper said. "And I don't know what I don't know. I don't want to say too much about what I don't know."

'Helluva week'

"It's been a helluva week," Tepper said as he began his commencement speech.

It began with the announcement that he'd won the bid to purchase the Panthers and continued with him receiving the honorary doctorate degree for business practices.

It continued Tuesday with approval by the league. Unless there's a hiccup in finalizing details, he'll be completely in charge by the time the Panthers report to training camp in late July.

Tepper, divorced from the mother of his three children, says he is as happy as he has been in life. He's in love with the new woman in his life and the new football team.

"I've had an incredible life from humble beginnings," Tepper said as he wrapped up his commencement speech. "I've raised three great kids, have a woman I love, had a successful business career and incredible philanthropic endeavors.

"And now I am speaking to you as a newly named doctorate and on the verge of being named an NFL owner."