Originally created 12/26/96

Capers' world - his stadium - almost always beckons



CHARLOTTE, N.C. - As the reputation of Dom Capers grows, the world around him shrinks. In fact, the world of the Carolina Panthers' head coach is exactly the size of Ericsson Stadium - which has become Capers' private office, restaurant, gym and prison cell this season.

Capers' 11-4 Panthers will play Pittsburgh in that stadium Sunday at 1 p.m. For three hours, millions of people will watch him.

For the other 165 hours of every week, hardly anyone outside of the Panthers family sees Capers.

This story is about those other 165 hours.

To start a tale about the personal side of Ernest Dominic Capers, you still begin at the stadium - where about 110 of those hours are spent each week.

Capers sleeps at Ericsson 2-3 nights every week on a black foldout sofa in one of his two offices. That allows him to stretch his normal 17-hour day into 18 hours.

Capers sleeps 5-6 hours a night and eats meals in quick 10-minute bursts.

"People look at me and say, `Hey, get a life!' " Capers says.

In fact, Capers has exactly the life he wants.

At 46, Capers has no children and a demure wife named Karen who still works full-time as a flight attendant. She is out of town 8-12 days per month. With that low-demand family combination, Capers can put in as many guilt-free hours as he likes.

The Panthers' coach is undeniably successful, unfailingly polite and unstoppably obsessive.

Capers spends every Tuesday and Wednesday night during the season - and many Mondays, too - in his stark downstairs office near the team locker room in Ericsson Stadium.

Its nickname: "The Cell."

Think of a college dorm room on move-in day and you're close. Capers allowed a Charlotte Observer reporter to see The Cell this week, but didn't want its picture taken.

Martha Stewart would hate the place's Early American Cinderblock look. A hunter-green bedspread neatly tucked into the foldout Panther-black couch is the only touch of color.

There are no windows. The TV is turned away from the bed and toward a corner - Capers never watches for pleasure.

But The Cell fits Capers' personality perfectly. Like its occupant, it is practical and sturdy.

The Cell is now the second home of a man who used to edge his family's small-town Ohio lawn with a fork to make it look just right and who wore crisply ironed dress pants every day to Meadowbrook High. So it's no surprise Capers always makes his own bed and hangs every shirt facing the same way.

"I've got a radio down here, a shower, a john, a fold-out bed and a desk," Capers says, laughing. "I've got everything I need. I could move right into a minimum-security prison and not miss a beat."

Capers and his wife own a 5,000-square-foot house on Lake Norman that includes a full-sized panther statue in the den. But the coach sometimes forgets what his home looks like in sunshine.

He leaves his house by 5:30 a.m. most days for the 30-minute drive to Ericsson Stadium. On the nights when he comes home, he gets back somewhere between 10 p.m. and midnight - "if I don't have to work late," he explained.

In the month of November, Capers was at home in Lake Norman for exactly four daylight hours.

"That was a little weird," Capers said. "I told Karen, `It just goes to show you how much you actually don't need a house.' "

If there ever was a coach who could be employed without worry of embarrassing headlines, it would be Capers.

When asked to name the worst thing he ever did, he pauses for 10 seconds, then offers: "Oh, I've been caught for speeding before."

Says Panthers cornerback Toi Cook: "Dom Capers is the perfect coach for the Bible Belt."

Life beyond the stadium pretty much passes unnoticed by Capers. He didn't vote in the presidential election - it would have interfered with developing the game plan for the New York Giants.

When all his defensive assistants gathered by a TV to watch O.J. Simpson get announced last year as "not guilty" in his criminal trial, Capers languished alone in a meeting room, wondering if everyone on the staff had suddenly quit. The only TV show he watches is ESPN's "NFL PrimeTime" highlight show every Sunday night.

"When I'm here in the stadium, I don't really know what's going on outside," says Capers, his deep voice rolling from behind a desk in his second office at the stadium - a formal one where he receives visitors. "And that's kind of how I like it."

Some NFL types compare Capers to former Dallas coach Tom Landry. Others link him to former Washington coach Joe Gibbs. Gibbs, who was owner Jerry Richardson's first choice for the Panthers job, slept in his office several nights a week. Despite living in Washington, he also somehow missed out on the Oliver North trial entirely.

Capers' players generally adore him, despite strict rules that include fines for being one minute late to meetings.

Says Panthers wide receiver Dwight Stone: "We know he's not cheating us, so how can we possibly cheat him?"

The trains always run on time in Capers-land. No exceptions.

"When I played for San Francisco, we held a plane one time for 40 minutes because Ricky Watters was late," cornerback Cook says. "When Kerry Collins was a few minutes late for the plane this year before one game, we just left him."

Collins had to pay his own way to the game and got fined as well.

The players tease Capers about being so strait-laced. But they love his consistency. The maddest they have ever seen him get was eight days ago, when a film projector went out unexpectedly.

Capers' face turned red. He hadn't expected this, and he hates the unexpected. He barked: "OK, break the meeting - we'll reschedule this!"

But no one can name a single instance in which Capers publicly ripped a player.

"I've played for eight NFL head coaches in 10 years," Panthers quarterback Steve Beuerlein says, "and I've never seen another one who won't scream at a guy in front of everyone else occasionally. I've also never seen one who - if you look only at him on the sidelines - you have no idea if we're 50 points be50 ahead."

Says center Mark Rodenhauser: "He's not going to come to the meeting room and be Mr. Jocularity one day and then Satan's twin the next."

Capers often laughs at himself. He can even take jokes at the expense of his thinning hair, which he either hides with a cap or carefully combs over the top of his head.

Rodenhauser is an amateur desktop publisher and once printed up a fake poster of the Beatles last year. By grafting a Capers mug onto the head of one of the Fab Four, he gave Capers a computer-generated, shaggy Beatles haircut and announced the coach as "The Lost Beatle." Rodenhauser then plastered the poster up in the Panthers' locker room.

Capers saw it - and liked it.

Says Rodenhauser, who once played for Chicago: "Believe me, I never would have done that to Ditka."

The person who sees Capers away from the office most is his wife, Karen Capers. After Capers' first marriage dissolved, he met Karen Grupp on a United Airlines Chicago-to-Pittsburgh flight in 1992.

Capers sat in coach those days - "no first class for assistants," he laughs.

"I remember that he hung up his own garment bag, and I thought that was nice," Karen says. "A lot of people give us these 200-pound bags and say, `Here, hang it!' "

They talked enough on that flight for Dom - then the defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh under head coach Bill Cowher - to get Karen's phone number in Chicago and ask her out to dinner a few weeks later.

It would be a difficult first date logistically.

Karen lived in Chicago and had to fly to Pittsburgh, which she could do for free because she was a flight attendant. She was supposed to arrive at the Pittsburgh airport at 5 p.m., with Dom leaving from the office and picking her up there.

"About 4:30 p.m., Bill Cowher walks in and wants to talk defense," Capers says. "Well, I can't say, `Bill, I've got this date, OK? We can't talk defense.' So it gets to be 5:30. It gets to be 6 o'clock. And finally I excuse myself and tell our secretary to call the airport and page Karen."

Finally, at 7 p.m., an unnerved Capers pulled into the airport.

There was Karen - nervous because the last flight to Chicago had already left, wondering what had gone wrong.

"I had talked to him enough to know that he wasn't the kind of person who would stand you up, though," Karen says.

"Here it's the first time we've ever gone out, and I'm two hours late," Capers says. "I figure, hey, if she sticks around, she knows exactly what she's getting into."

Karen Capers, who is slightly younger than her husband, has been a flight attendant with United Airlines for 23 years. She arranges her schedule each week so that she takes overnight trips early in the week and then comes home to see her husband toward the end.

"I've done it for so long, I think it'd be scary not to work," she says. "It would be a real lifestyle change."

"It works out great," Capers says. "She's doing something she wants to do, and my busiest time is in the early part of the week, so we wouldn't see each other any more if she were here then."

The two reserve Friday night for each other - that is their "date night." They usually go to an early dinner and a movie.

Capers is so tired by Friday night, however, that you better take him to "Independence Day" rather than "The English Patient" - he has a tendency to fall asleep even during a 7 p.m. show.

Capers is an efficiency expert as a coach - a statistics freak who can tell you down to the inch obscure stats like the Panthers' average drive-start after an opposing team's kickoff.

He is effective. Businesslike. Everywhere.

"You never know at what meeting he's going to pop up," Panthers offensive guard Greg Skrepenak says. "But he always seems to be around."

He stresses consistency. And accountability. The quickest way to get Capers upset is to do something wrong and then blame someone else.

"I don't like surprises," Capers says. "I like taking responsibility."

Avoiding surprise is the main reason Capers puts in the hours that he does. As a further guard against any stunning development, Capers has taken down everything he ever does in a yearly journal since 1982 - every meeting, every meal, every jog.

Capers loves watching game film over and over with players, trying to find small weaknesses in the opposition to exploit.

Sometimes, his enthusiasm for videotape will wear on players. Pittsburgh linebacker Greg Lloyd once said Capers had the "most monotonous voice in the world."

"You would almost go as far as saying he's anal-retentive," offensive lineman Matt Elliott says, laughing, "but maybe meticulous is a better word."

As a boy, Capers didn't like spilling anything on his shirt and always changed immediately if he did.

As a man, he doesn't like playing in Monday night games because they mess up the routine. By June, he has printed up his schedule for the rest of the year - hour by hour.

Capers is always writing something in his neat print, either on the sideline or after a practice. If you ever get his autograph, don't expect cursive. He prints in tiny letters, as precise as a typewriter.

"It's as if it is really important for him that you know exactly who he is and who that autograph is from," Panthers offensive lineman Matt Elliott says. "You never have a problem reading him."

"Dom writes so small," marvels Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher. "It's just amazing how he can economize a single piece of paper."

Cowher gave Capers his big break in 1992, naming him defensive coordinator of the Steelers. Previously, Capers had been an assistant for six collegiate teams and two pro teams - living the nomadic existence of a football coach on the way up.

On vacation, Capers isn't bad at leaving football alone. But during the season, he is relentless.

"He doesn't get much sleep," says brother Julius Capers, who is four years younger than Dom and still lives in the family's hometown of Buffalo, Ohio. Buffalo is six hours north of Charlotte on Interstate-77.

"He really runs himself ragged," Julius Capers says. "I see this season wearing on him. It always does at the end of the season. He starts losing some weight. But he still handles anything they throw at him."

Capers would seem a perfect candidate for one of the biggest NFL dangers - coaching burnout. Some of the league's best, hardest-driving coaches have eventually driven themselves right out of the game.

Dick Vermeil. Joe Gibbs. And just this season - the day after playing the Panthers and getting trounced - Capers' close friend and mentor, Jim Mora, resigned.

While admitting it's tough to keep his life in perspective sometimes, Capers does try. And - naively or not - he believes he can keep up this sort of schedule forever without flaming out.

"Getting a run in is an escape for me," he says. "If I don't do that for 2-3 days, I start feeling bad. Friday nights are very important to me, too - to have that time with Karen and get away from things a little."

Capers is the oldest of three children born to Eugene and Jeanette Capers - a sister, Nina, is 10 years younger than Dom.

Capers' mother wasn't sure she'd ever be able to have children before the boy she still calls "Dominic." She took up to 38 hormone pills per day while carrying Dom, successfully trying to avoid a third miscarriage.

Jeanette gave him the first name "Ernest" after a great-grandfather who had lived in Italy, but no one ever calls him that. The family name - Capers - was shortened from Caprera when Dom's grandfather, Giovanni Caprera moved from Italy to Ohio to work in the coal mines.

Capers zeroed in from coaching right after college and pursued a head-coaching job with the fervor of a bird-dog.

Now, with his dream job in hand, Capers hasn't relaxed a bit.

"He won't let up," brother Julius says. "He never will."

Eugene Capers was Dom's father and the man to whom he owes his even-keel personality. A highway project engineer and part-time carpenter, Eugene Capers died in 1982 of a heart attack. He was 57.

Jeanette Capers says her son has another father figure in his life now - Panthers owner Jerry Richardson. "He respects him so much," she says. "It does me good to see that."

Richardson called Jeanette Capers in Ohio just after her son finished his first press conference ever after getting a five-year contract as Panthers coach in January 1995.

"I just want you to know what a great job your son did today," Richardson told Capers' mother.

"Now how many people would have even thought to do that?" Capers asks. "That meant so much to me."

Capers tries to be thoughtful in what can be a hard business. Rather than leaving the difficult job to his assistants, he personally cuts every player the Panthers must let go.

He has taken the time to learn the name of everyone on the custodial staff at Ericsson Stadium, and will greet them by name when he sometimes roams the halls of the stadium late at night before retiring to The Cell.

"I treat people the way I want to be treated," Capers says.

He knows he isn't the most colorful coach in the NFL.

And he doesn't care.

He is doing exactly what he wants to do almost every hour of every week. And if you still think him boring after reading about the other 165 hours of his life - and he has a suspicion you will - that's OK, too.

"I'm not going to be evaluated on being a stand-up comedian," Capers says, smiling. "I'm going to be evaluated on how well we do."

Then he stands up. One of those 165 "other" hours has just expired, and Capers is itchy.

His world - his stadium - beckons.