SouthPark Sit-down: Danny Morrison

Features People

March 1, 2024

Natalie Dick dining with Danny Morrison at Park Road Soda Shoppe

The executive director of the Charlotte Sports Foundation — which packs local stadiums with enthusiastic college fans — discusses leadership, the power of sports and embracing time at his favorite local diner.

by Natalie Dick | photographs by Richard Israel

At 70, Danny Morrison still has a boyish quality about him. He’s kind, classy — a real southern gentleman who is more comfortable singing the praises of his team at the Charlotte Sports Foundation (Charlotte Sports) than sharing personal stories. In his fifth year as executive director of the nonprofit, Morrison embraces simplicity and has a profound appreciation for the gift of time.

“I tell my friends, you don’t know what the luxury of time is until you have it,” he says.

He should know. He returned to Charlotte in 2019 after a brief semi-retirement teaching at the University of South Carolina’s Department of Sport and Entertainment Management and doing occasional consulting work while commuting from Sullivan’s Island, where he and his wife, Peggy, have a home. 

“A lot of people thought I would go nuts. I wasn’t bored one second. I loved the free time. I am pretty good at Island Danny.”

These days, he splits his time between Charlotte, Columbia and the coast. While he still teaches a couple of classes at USC, Morrison is subtly persistent in his pursuit to amplify Charlotte’s reputation as the place in the country for major sporting events. 

“Sports brings people together. And it brings people together from all walks of life. There’s nothing like the energy around sports,” he tells me excitedly. 

And events like the ACC Football Championship and the Duke’s Mayo Bowl are a financial boon to Charlotte as well. Charlotte Sports events infuse nearly $100 million into the local economy, Morrison says.

Morrison admits he has a slight addiction to Jordan Brand sneakers. “I probably have 15-18 pairs now, but nobody would know because they all look about the same. They are either gray or black, high- or low-top. They’re comfortable!”

While Morrison is constantly on the move, he admits he can be predictable about some things — like his breakfast and lunch selections at his favorite diner, Park Road Soda Shoppe, where we’ve met to talk. 

“I’m pretty consistent. Oatmeal in the morning with double walnuts, blueberries, a little brown sugar and some raisins. For lunch, it’s salad with grilled chicken, honey mustard dressing on the side and vegetable soup.” He even brings his own Styrofoam cup for refills of tea. “Not that I have any idiosyncrasies,” he says with a grin. “They know my order here. It’s unsweet with a little splash of sweet on top.” 

The last time I spoke to Morrison seven years ago, he was president of the Carolina Panthers. Back then, his routine attire was a sport coat and tie. Today, he’s much more casual, wearing a Duke’s Mayo Bowl quarter-zip and a trendy pair of gray Jordan sneakers. 

“I love the Jordan shoes,” he says. “I try to stay on brand, so I wear them most every day.” 

Beneath Morrison’s friendly demeanor is a fiercely competitive side. He says it goes back to his early days as a basketball player at Wofford College. 

“Sometimes when they call you scrappy and say you play hard and you’re very competitive, that’s really a way of disguising them saying you aren’t very good. I have been very competitive my whole life.” 

Born in Winston-Salem, Morrison grew up in Burlington and graduated summa cum laude with a mathematics degree from Wofford. Later, he earned a master’s of education at UNC Chapel Hill and a Ph.D. in educational leadership at USC. 

“I have loved every job I have ever had,” he says. “I never really chased jobs. Good opportunities happened to come to me.” 

His first job was as a geometry teacher and basketball coach at his old high school. “I wasn’t much older than the players — I was 22, and I thought I could do that for 40 years. Nobody makes more of a difference in young people’s lives than coaches and teachers.”

He spent five years there followed by another five at Elon College (now Elon University) before accepting the athletic director job at Wofford. 

“I was 31, and it was the toughest decision I ever had to make. I had the opportunity to go there as the basketball coach or athletic director. I chose the administrative route, and it worked out good for Wofford because we got a better coach (Richard Johnson).” 

In 2001, he accepted an offer from the presidents of the Southern Conference schools to become commissioner. He remained in that role until Texas Christian University offered him what he calls “the best athletic director job in the country” in 2005. 

“Fort Worth people are fabulous,” Morrison says. “They are a lot like Charlotte. They wrap their arms around you — they want you to love Texas as much as they do.” One top donor made an especially grand gesture, gifting Morrison with custom ostrich boots complete with the TCU logo. (More about that in the video linked below.)

“We loved it there. I thought that would be my last job.” 

Instead, he found himself headed back to his home state and the NFL in 2009 when Carolina Panthers founder Jerry Richardson asked him to join the organization as team president. 

“I had never even thought of the pros, quite frankly,” he says. “It was such a special experience.” In Morrison’s eight years with the Panthers, the team won three back-to-back NFC South titles and played against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. Morrison played an integral role in the 2013-14 stadium renovations, a major effort that added three escalators, a new sound system, technology upgrades and more. 

While the Panthers have given fans little to cheer about the last few years, Charlotte Sports is keeping local stadiums filled with lucrative college football, basketball and baseball games. Signature events include the Duke’s Mayo Classic (played on the opening weekend of college football season), the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, the Ally Tipoff women’s basketball game, the Jumpman Invitational basketball competition and — coming Memorial Day weekend — the inaugural Meck Mile, a daylong running event at Memorial Stadium. 

Morrison credits Charlotte’s “secret sauce” for the organization’s success. 

“It’s how well we all work together,” he says, citing support from board members, professional sports teams, local government officials and corporate partners, including Novant Health, Ally Financial, Lowe’s, Truist, ESPN Events and Albemarle. “It takes everybody. We’re truly blessed with harmony.” 

It’s also because of Morrison’s reputation in the business community and the athletic world. He’s forged lasting relationships built on trust, integrity and authenticity, and his board of directors at Charlotte Sports is a veritable who’s who of Charlotte.

At each stage of his career, he has been encouraged to think big and go beyond the norm. 

“I have had the luxury of working with talented people my whole career — that’s called good fortune,” Morrison says. “Then, I had the added extra benefit of always having great bosses. They weren’t cut out of the same cloth. They had a lot of different personalities, but they all gave me the latitude, let me run, believed that risk and progress are complimentary variables, which is a big thing.” 

Now, Morrison is determined to pass on some of those same qualities to his students at USC and the young staffers at Charlotte Sports. “I love working with young people — I love seeing them grow and develop. Being around that creative energy is fun for me.” Morrison’s advice to them: Never stop learning and always remain true to yourself — be authentic.

“At the end of the day, the definition of a good leader is someone who is real, cares about people, and makes sure the team is aligned in the quest to do things in high quality and well without micromanaging or overcomplicating things. The older I have gotten, the simpler things become: Don’t try to overengineer things, trust your people, give them latitude, work together, treat people with respect. That goes a long way in establishing a foundation for success.”

Wise words, Island Danny. Charlotte is fortunate to have you back.  SP

WATCH: Danny talks more about the Panthers’ future, leadership and yes, his custom cowboy boots.

SouthPark Sit-down with Danny Morrison

TAKE FIVE 

Comments have been edited for length.

On the bucket list:
I’ve been fortunate to attend a lot of high-profile sporting events, but I’ve never been to the U.S. Open in New York. That’s something I plan to do one of these days. 

Hobbies:
I play tennis and golf and enjoy going on 6-mile walks with a buddy when I am at the beach. I also love books — especially biographies. I think it is fascinating to read about people — where they came from, where they end up and how they got there. 

Recommended reading: 
One of the books I use in all my classes is Reframing Organizations. I was introduced to it during an executive leadership program at Harvard. The book basically says no matter what situation you are in, there are four frames (perspectives) that come into play in how you look at something within an organization: structural, human resource, political and symbolic. 

SouthPark spot for a quick bite:
Rhino Market & Deli

Music:
Beach music 

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