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For Dom Capers, going back to Clemson brings back fond memories

Dom Capers

CHARLOTTE — Dom Capers hasn't necessarily missed the bus rides.

But he's never quite forgotten the feeling, either.

The Panthers senior defensive assistant can already imagine what it will be like when the Panthers roll back into Clemson for this year's Fan Fest since that was the site of "home" games during the franchise's first season in 1995.

"It'll be fun for me to go back there," Capers said from his office in Bank of America Stadium recently. "The crowd support was great, and we were doing everything for the first time.

"And it'll bring back a lot of really good memories."

When the Panthers played there during their inaugural season, everything was new. Beginning with the team itself, an expansion franchise granted in 1993. And with that new came a lot of excitement but also a lot of adjustments.

Since the stadium in Charlotte was still under construction, they trained at Winthrop University in Rock Hill. The small matter of where to play games wasn't settled until late, with Columbia a possibility before a deal was struck to host the first season at Clemson. That meant a slightly longer ride — especially on the way home — every home Saturday.

"I've mentioned many times that the joke between the players was the only difference between playing at home and playing the 49ers on the road was a hot meal and a couple of flight attendants," Capers said with a laugh. "Because it took the same amount of time to fly to San Francisco as it did the bus down to Clemson."

That joke has gotten nearly as much mileage as the buses over the years, but it's funny because it was true.

Players would load up at Winthrop on a Saturday afternoon and choose buses in part based on the movies that would be shown to kill time — at least two and a half hours, but often more based on traffic and road construction (some things still haven't changed since 1995). Those trips often stretched past three hours on the way home since the egress from a smaller college town back to the city wasn't as smooth as it is now.

"When the games were over, I mean, it took a long time to get out, " Capers said. "It would take a long time because of all the traffic coming back to Charlotte, and it just took so long to get back home."


Of course, it wasn't necessarily new to Capers either. Earlier in his coaching career, he was with the Philadelphia Stars of the USFL — along with an undersized linebacker named Sam Mills, whom he'd bring along to Charlotte. The USFL was always a league in flux, but in their third season, the Stars would "relocate" to Baltimore, and that meant getting on the bus at their Philadelphia facility and heading to College Park, Md., to play "home" games.

"So some of the schedules that we used then came in handy when we got here," Capers said. "That was just normal for us."

The logistics might have been a challenge, if not a nightmare. But they also may have contributed in some small way to what was by any measure an incredibly successful first season.

Being an expansion team meant building a team from discards and guys who were on the fringes of the league. They could sign free agents, but a lot of the roster was built with players other teams were willing to part with. That might have made the bus rides more bearable.

"Fortunately, we had a great nucleus of guys, and some of them were on their second chances, so they had an appreciation for everything about being in the league," Capers said. "Our roster changed quite a bit. You were always looking to upgrade the lower part of your roster. And so we were constantly bringing people in and working them out, but there was a lot of change that first year."

Early on, that came with some predictable results.

They started the year 0-5 (including home losses to the Rams and Buccaneers) before things started to change with that bus ride on Oct. 14.

The next day, Capers' future Hall of Fame middle linebacker intercepted a Bubby Brister pass and returned it for a touchdown, leading them to a 26-15 win over the Jets, their first win in franchise history in front of their own fans.

That was a turning point for the franchise in many ways, but it was also a chance to exhale after a start they anticipated wouldn't be smooth.

"Well, I remember what a relief it was because you're a first-time head coach with a first-time team, and we started like a typical expansion team, 0-5," Capers said. "But we had the right kind of guys in the locker room, had really good leaders, and it was just fitting that a guy like Sam Mills, who was basically one of our strongest leaders, turned that game around, and we won that game."

That wasn't just the first, however — it was the first of many.

The expansion team ripped off four straight wins at that point. Later in December, they'd beat a Jim Harbaugh-quarterbacked Colts team that would go to the AFC Championship game. The details about movies and meals and long bus rides might fade, but Capers can sit in his office 30 years later and recite game situations chapter-and-verse.

"I can remember running a what we called a double sting two blitz where we came off the edges, and we dropped (nose tackle) Greg Kragen out, and he intercepted a pass," Capers said. "And I can remember the next morning when I picked up a paper; they had a picture of him with a big smile on his face intercepting that pass."

Such games laid the foundation for what would become one of the true success stories in league history. Their seven wins in 1995 were the most ever for an NFL expansion team and was only the start.

After losing their first five, they won 20 of their next 28 games, including the playoff win over the Cowboys that sent them to the NFC Championship Game in just their second season.


"Obviously, every day I walk in here, it has a special feeling for me because I remember the way everything got started, you know what I mean?" Capers said. "I credit to the character of the guys that we had in the locker room because you would think, you know, you start 0-5 typical expansion team, but I don't remember ever hearing any grumbling or complaining or guys making excuses, pointing fingers, looking outside themselves. And so much of it was because of the leadership that we had in the locker room.

"I would meet with those guys early in the week and ask them, do I need to address this or this or this? And they'd always say, hey, we'll let you know if we feel you need to address it. So there was a sense of trust, I think, and confidence. And because of that, we were able to do some special things the first couple of years."

Part of the special feeling was the gratitude of having a new home in Charlotte for that second season.

But as much as the story of the first Panthers playoff team was written in Charlotte, the first chapter was definitely a long bus ride away during that first season.

The miles may be forgotten, but the smile on Dom Capers' face returns quickly when you mention going back to Clemson. After he left the Panthers, he'd go back there from time to time on scouting trips, but it will always be the place where he and the Panthers got their first NFL wins.

"I've got good memories there," Capers said. "So it was definitely a unique experience.

"And Clemson really was quite good to us."


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