CHARLOTTE - Joe Reich powered off his cell phone when it started buzzing. He was busy meeting with recruits on a Thursday afternoon, gearing up for his 23rd season as head football coach at Wingate University. Signing day lingered less than a week away.
Just over 30 miles down the road, video boards at Bank of America Stadium illuminated with a welcome back message to his brother, Frank Reich, who agreed to terms to serve as the sixth head coach in Panthers history.
Joe Reich turned his phone back on to find 134 text messages from friends and family. Frank was coming back to Carolina, where he had been the franchise's first starting quarterback, and Charlotte, the city where he and his family planted roots from the time his playing career ended in 1998 to when he took his first coaching position with the Colts in 2006.
"I was so caught up in what I was doing here; I was like, 'Wow, that's pretty cool,'" Joe said just over 24 hours after the news broke. "It's been a whirlwind. But I can guarantee you - we did talk last night - he's really excited to be back here in Charlotte.
"(It's) very exciting, and very, very great to have him back."
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With his move back to Charlotte, Frank will live in the same state as much of his family. Joe has been in the area since taking the Wingate job in 2000. His daughters live in Charlotte and Greensboro, and his sister, Cyndee, lives in Greensboro too.
Joe talked with Frank on the phone the night before he got the job, and the two exchanged text messages the night after the news. His older brother, who he called a natural-born leader, teacher, and coach, was already talking about the amount of work ahead of him.
But Frank also beamed with an excitement palpable across the phone.
"It was great to hear that enthusiasm," Joe said. "You could hear it through the text message; you can hear in the phone call. He was really, really, really excited about this opportunity. And I don't mean to overstate that, but you could tell."
At the same time, Joe knows what to expect from the "pressure cooker" of a head coaching job, especially in the NFL.
"It's amazing and nerve-wracking," Joe said. "I'm a head coach, and he's a head coach, and you understand the pressure that goes along with being a head coach at any position, let alone essentially what is now your adopted home."
Joe Reich is the winningest coach in the history of Wingate football, going 150-89 at the head of the Division II program competing in the South Atlantic Conference. He's led the Bulldogs to two conference championships, in 2010 and 2017, and they've made the NCAA playoffs in four of the last five completed seasons (the 2020 playoffs were canceled due to COVID-19).
The three Reich siblings grew up in Pennsylvania, the children of two educators and coaches. Their father, Frank J. Reich, was an industrial arts teacher and coached football. Their mother, Patricia, was a middle school physical education teacher and coached "everything," Joe said.
Competition started early, and the Reich household was known for being one of the most competitive in their neighborhood. Joe said the younger Frank was "infamous" for making up rules that favored him during board game nights, winning at any cost when they'd play The Game of Life or Risk.
Frank had also been the captain of every team for as long as Joe could remember. It's how his older brother was wired, and it was a role that always suited him.
"I would never tell him this to his face, of course, because he's my brother, but he's a great man," Joe said. "He's a good character guy. He's a great leader. When you look at him, from the time he was younger, he was the quarterback; he was the captain of the team."
Frank's playing career took him from Cedar Crest High School in Lebanon, Pa., to Maryland for college and a role with the Bills backing up Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly for nearly a decade. Frank's first stop at Carolina came in March 1995, when he signed to play quarterback for the expansion Panthers.
Joe called it "chance" that so much of his family ended up settling in North Carolina. For one, Frank liked Charlotte and decided to return to North Carolina after his final season in the NFL with the Lions ended in 1998.
Frank started earning his Master of Divinity degree at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, eventually becoming president of the Charlotte RTS chapter in 2003. He and his wife, Linda, raised their three daughters in Charlotte for much of their childhood.
Joe found his way to Wingate and enjoyed living close to his brother while watching him learn while leading the seminary.
"Is running a seminary a lot different to running a football team? Yes, totally different, but you learn a lot of lessons in that," Joe said. "And I think those are leadership lessons for him that he's carried over. ... He's one of those guys that is going to learn something every step along the way."
Joe watched Frank transition from leading RTS to becoming the pastor at Cornerstone Presbyterian (now Ballantyne Presbyterian). Joe said he thought it was a "funny move" to go from heading up the seminary to serving as a pastor, but Frank had a solid answer when his brother questioned his move.
Joe remembers the conversation well. Frank's reasoning harkened back to his background as the son of educators. And in a way, it foreshadowed his upcoming career as an NFL coach; Frank was driven to teach.
"He goes, 'Look, let me just put it this way. I'm a teacher and a coach. I'm not an administrator. I don't want to just get up there and handle budgets; I want to coach, teach, and be hands-on with people,'" Joe said. "And I'm like, 'Say no more.' I thought that was a great answer. Frank is so well thought-out."
Frank moved away from Charlotte when he started his professional coaching career in 2006, with stops starting in Indianapolis and going to Arizona, San Diego, and Philadelphia, rounding back out with the Colts before the road led back to the Carolinas this week.
And like every move he has watched his brother make throughout his life, Joe said the Panthers should expect a head coach who is intentional with every move he makes.
"He doesn't do random," Joe said. "Everything is well thought-out; everything is thought through. He will take every inch of the program, will look through it, and try to find every little percentage - victory by inches kind of thing.
"He's not one to settle and say, 'Hey, this is the way I've always done it. I think he's always been a forward-thinker. Where am I going with this? What's new; what's cutting edge? What ideas can we think up on our own?"
Joe said he and his brother often bounce ideas off one another. He enjoys getting Frank on the phone, picking his brain for concepts to bring back to Wingate.
Joe recalled a prime example when he filled an entire whiteboard with topics he'd adopted from Frank while the two coaches brainstormed how to navigate the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Joe snapped a photo of the board and sent it to Frank after the conversation, texting, "This is what it's like talking to you on the phone."
Frank often adapts, which Joe said is a cornerstone of his brother's offensive philosophy.
Joe said Frank would often discuss the quarterback transitions he went through in Indianapolis, where the Colts moved from Andrew Luck to Jacoby Brissett and Philip Rivers to Carson Wentz, year by year.
"What you're going to get is a guy who is smart enough to have a system that's flexible, to maximize and take advantage of all the talents in their offense," Joe said. "Explosive plays, run the ball, be physical.
"I bet you the first thing he's going into is 'We're going to be physical. We're going to be a physical offense. We're going to run the ball downhill, and we're going to establish an identity of being physical upfront.'"
But before Frank dives into the Panthers' roster, builds his staff, and plans for the future, Joe said he knows his brother will take in the moment.
Joe remembers how Frank "noticed the moment" when he played in Super Bowl 27, coming in for an injured Kelly in the second quarter of a 52-17 Buffalo loss to the Cowboys.
Frank Reich had led the Bills in their first playoff win of that Super Bowl campaign, which stood as the biggest come-from-behind win in NFL history at that point. Buffalo came back from a 35-3 deficit against the Houston Oilers to win in overtime, a game known as "The Comeback."
But when Frank came in during the Super Bowl, he made mistakes, throwing two interceptions and losing two fumbles. Despite the outcome, Joe said his brother turned to him after the game and expressed gratitude for that moment - an attitude that has followed him throughout his lifetime.
"He looked at me, he goes, 'Dude, I just played in the Super Bowl,'" Joe said. "I loved that. Here's a guy who's been in the NFL, who's been in many big games and had the greatest comeback in the history of the league at that time, had played in all these huge games. And to have that perspective of, 'I just played in the Super Bowl,' like that's really cool."
Joe said special memories stick with Frank. And Joe believes that something as special as his brother returning to a city he loves, a team he has a fond connection to, and family connections across North Carolina is likely to elicit a similar emotion from him.
"I think it was the same thing here," Joe said. "Coming back to a place like Charlotte and the Carolina Panthers, it's such a special place to him that that moment won't be lost on him.
"That he was the first quarterback to throw a touchdown pass for the Carolina Panthers, and everything that goes into that. I think all that will be like this is where he makes his stand. This is where he digs in, and (a) 'this is it' kind of thing."