CHARLOTTE - Warren Belin feels at home on the Panthers coaching staff, and not just because of the franchise's close proximity to his childhood and college homes.
Belin, the Panthers' new linebackers coach, was raised in nearby Marshville, N.C., and played linebacker at Wake Forest.
"I grew up 36 miles away, right down Highway 74," Belin said. "It's a great opportunity to come back to the state of North Carolina. I graduated from Wake Forest in December of 1990, and I've been gone ever since, other than coming back on occasion to visit family.
"This is the first time I've had a chance to be back and work in the state of North Carolina, so I'm excited."
Belin's comfort level, however, goes well beyond his North Carolina roots.
Belin played at Wake Forest with offensive consultant Ricky Proehl and strength and conditioning coach Joe Kenn, actually spending summers with Kenn in Florida working out. He met head coach Ron Rivera eight years ago when Rivera visited Vanderbilt to check out linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer. He also knows quarterbacks coach Mike Shula and defensive backfield coach Ron Meeks.
His closest relationship by far on the staff is with defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, and it's a unique one. Belin was linebackers coach at William & Mary in the mid-1990s when McDermott played defensive back for the Tribe.
"I had a chance to get to know him as a player, to watch him grow, and then after I left William & Mary, he and I stayed really good friends, stayed in contact," Belin said. "I've always been a big supporter of his as he's made his steps in the NFL. I had a chance to visit him several times in Philadelphia, and he always told me that if he got a chance to hire a position that he would like to at least recommend me."
That chance presented itself in Carolina, and now the families are united. Belin coached McDermott's younger brother, Tim, at Cornell a couple of years before Belin and Sean McDermott first forged their relationship.
"Sometimes you have surreal moments. Just think back years ago to when our relationship began: Who could have projected that we'd be sitting here in an NFL organization in the roles that we are?" McDermott said. "It's just been a blessing.
"He's affected so many people's lives, both on and off the field, in a positive way."
Belin's caring approach to coaching served him well for two decades in the college game, first at smaller programs and then over the last decade in the Southeastern Conference – eight seasons at Vanderbilt, then last season at Georgia.
Belin plans to bring much the same philosophy to the Panthers for his pro coaching debut.
"You can still do it the right way. When I first met Mr. (Jerry) Richardson, he talked about doing it the right way, with respect," Belin said. "Number one at this level or really any level of football is relationships. As a first-year coach in the NFL coming into what I think is a great group of linebackers - guys that are energetic, have a lot of talent and speed - I'm excited. I'm looking forward to forming a relationship with them.
"I'm not saying we're going to be buddy-buddy, but I want them to understand that Ron Rivera has brought me here for a reason - to get these guys better, week in and week out."
Now that Belin is back home, he only wishes his parents had lived long enough to see it. His father died in 2006, and his mother died Dec. 4, 2010. During what turned out to be the final five weeks of his mother's life, Georgia coach Mark Richt allowed Belin to travel home one day a week to be with her.
Belin does still have relatives in Marshville and also has two brothers who live less than an hour from Bank of America Stadium. He knows that his Panthers season tickets will be in great demand.
"Hopefully we're here for a long, long time and winning, and over time maybe my ticket number will increase," he said.