CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The bank king is on the phone, cutting a deal to bring a professional football team to Charlotte.

It is a Wednesday morning in September and Hugh Leon McColl Jr., chairman of NationsBank Corp., is in his little office in the clouds, up near the top of his new 60-story tower.

The building dominates all the other bank skyscrapers of Charlotte, a city so defined by the money industry that people are beginning to call it the American Zurich.

The view from McColl's office goes straight out to the horizon, beyond which lie the other cities of his realm, places such as Washington, Baltimore, Dallas and Atlanta. Since 1988, McColl has become the No. 1 banker in all of those cities, and a number of others besides.

But McColl, a 58-year-old who loathes inactivity, isn't much given to contemplative staring out of windows. No, just now people are on his speaker phone discussing a big-money football franchise, and he is absolutely focused on the deal.

Jerry Richardson, the restaurant mogul whose company owns the Denny's and Hardee's chains, reports that his effort to bring a National Football League team to Charlotte has hit a snag.

Sales of "permanent seat licenses," which give fans the right to buy season tickets in Charlotte's planned stadium, are $30 million under target. An NFL official has let the Richardson group know that if all the seat licenses were covered, Charlotte would blow away the competition, the other cities seeking an expansion team -- St. Louis, Baltimore, Memphis and Jacksonville, Fla.

McColl is a leading banker in several of those places and he has said he supports their efforts as well. But Charlotte is home, after all.

He tells Richardson and a consultant who is the other voice on the line that NationsBank will guarantee $15 million of the total. Now they should go, McColl says, to the heads of the other two North Carolina bank giants, NationsBank rivals First Union Corp. and Wachovia Corp., and use this as a prod.

"Ask them if they might scrape the other $15 million up," he says.

Having committed the money without consulting anyone else in his company, he calls down to Jim Nash of NationsBank's corporate banking division to deliver the news. The secretary who answers the phone tells the chairman that Nash is not available but she might be able to find someone else.

"I don't want to talk to anybody but Nash," McColl says testily in a choppy accent resonant of his small-town South Carolina origins -- something between a drawl and a bark. "AND I WANT IT TO HAPPEN."

It happens.

A National Figure

Ten years ago, when Hugh McColl became chairman of NationsBank's predecessor company, NCNB Corp. (North Carolina National Bank), it was a mid-size, business-oriented North Carolina bank with about $7 billion in total assets. Today it is a $150 billion giant and the third-largest U.S. bank company, having recently surpassed New York's Chemical Banking Corp.

It wasn't long ago that North Carolina bank executives briefing New York investment analysts brought along maps to show where they were from, recalls Salomon Brothers Inc. bank analyst Diane Glossman. Now, thanks in part to the high-profile growth of McColl's company, everyone on Wall Street knows about Charlotte, the bank boom town.

And suddenly McColl is a national figure -- the most prominent and, arguably, the most influential banker in America -- friend and ally of arguably, the most influential banker in America -- friend and ally of President Clinton, and self-appointed leader of the revolution that is slowly but surely transforming banks from lenders and deposit-takers into full-service financial institutions.

Using acquisitions of other banks and a variety of legal stratagems to evade federal barriers to banks' expansion across state lines, McColl has patched together a retail banking franchise that spans nine states and the District of Columbia. NationsBank is by far the No. 1 bank in greater Washington, with almost a quarter of the market as of its Oct. 1 takeover of MNC Financial Inc.

McColl also has been collecting a diverse array of non-bank financial companies, which do everything from sell stocks to lend money to trade the most sophisticated financial instruments for big corporate customers.

While his admirers say he is peerless at acquiring companies, McColl's detractors contend he has yet to show he is as skilled at running them. They point to the fact that, in profits, NationsBank has lagged behind many other top-flight bank companies. Some wonder if McColl is letting his ego get the best of him and expanding his company too quickly in too many directions, without any guarantee that the whole machine will work.

For now, McColl is riding high. Last summer Clinton referred to "my friend Hugh McColl, one of the most enlightened bankers in America." McColl dines upstairs at the White House. He mulls over global problems with fellow members of the elite Trilateral Commission. As of last week, McColl even has a graduate business school here named after him -- the sort of honor one typically has to die before receiving.

All of which is very impressive, but here is what Hugh McColl likes to do more than anything else: deals. Whether it is acquiring a new bank for his company or luring professional football to his town, he seems instinctively to know all the right moves -- intricate legal maneuvers, relentless courting of buyout targets and sheer determination.

When the NFL last Tuesday announced its choice of Charlotte for a new franchise, McColl joined thousands at a celebration in his building's atrium. For a full half-hour after the announcement, as television reporters lined up to interview him and jubilant Charlotte residents slapped him on the back, he was weeping for joy.

Art of the Deal

Several new deals bubbled up in the course of a day last month on which McColl allowed a reporter to observe him up close and they visibly changed his demeanor, focusing and animating an otherwise fatigued, harried man. He said it was a pretty normal day around the office, explaining: "If I'm here, something happens."

McColl, who last year made $2.5 million in salary and bonus, attributes the intense ambition that fuels the furious deal-making partly to Dixie vengeance. "I always felt that the New York banks looked down on us and snubbed us," he says. "I always wanted to be big enough to be able to take them on. ... There are Northerners who still haven't accepted the fact that there are people from below the Mason-Dixon Line who have fine minds."

He also raises the Napoleon factor: "I don't know whether it flows out of my being short." He is 5 feet, 7 inches tall, with close-cropped whitened hair, a muscular neck and the squared-off physique of a lifelong athlete.

McColl's build is not the first thing you notice about him, however. First you notice the speed. He tears around his office -- and his franchise -- like a man in his thirties, usually trailing an aide or two. And he races to work behind the wheel of a black BMW from his home in a close-in suburban neighborhood where Charlotte's Scottish-Presbyterian elite has tended to cluster.

You also notice his eyes -- small, hooded with the drooping skin of age, and hard to read. Eyes made for poker playing (which he likes to do), and for deal-making.

"He's a hellbent-for-leather type of guy," says Bennett Brown, an old friend whom McColl pursued aggressively, over the course of a few years, to do a deal. McColl wanted to take over Citizens & Southern Corp., the Atlanta-based bank company of which Brown was chairman. Brown resisted at first, but later gave in to McColl's blandishments, sealing what was then the biggest merger in banking history. McColl is "innovative and he's energetic and he has a vision of what he wants banking to be," said Margie H. Muller, Maryland state bank commissioner.

While the big "money-center" banks, the traditional titans of American banking like Citicorp and Chase Manhattan Corp., have spent the past several years mopping up the wreckage of the real estate crash, McColl has been constructing his own alternative money-center -- from the ground up, and far from the country's traditional banking capital of New York.

"He took a bank headquartered in one state and has moved it into a national persence," says Kenneth Guenther, executive vice president of the 6,000-member Independent Bankers Association of America, one of McColl's leading critics. "He has built his empire."

Well, not quite yet. McColl talks about expanding the NationsBank empire beyond its current confines, across the United States and into Canada and Mexico. He is an enthusiast of the North American Free Trade Agreement and has been studying Spanish for years. On this particular day his office's white marker board is scribbled with Spanish words for terms from one of his favorite sports, hunting: "Shotgun -- escopeta."

The $17 billion acquisition of MNC Financial Inc., the Baltimore parent company of Maryland National and American Security banks, was McColl's most recent bank deal. That purchase gives NationsBank a 22 percent market share in the combined commercial bank markets of Virginia, Maryland and the District, according to Rockville-based bank consultant Arnold G. Danielson. This region is now NationsBank's largest, richest market.

McColl's primary goal now, he says, is not so much to continue acquiring retail branch networks as to further extend NationsBank's reach into new kinds of non-bank businesses. He already has leapt into that realm, through such moves as setting up a joint-venture brokerage with Dean Witter; buying the Chrysler First consumer finance company and a commercial finance unit of US West Inc.; and acquiring Chicago Research and Trading Group, whose business is in highly specialized financial instruments such as derivatives.

The idea is to compete with companies like Fidelity Investments and General Electric Capital Corp. These firms sell investments or make loans without the regulatory costs and legal strictures imposed by regulators on federally insured banks.

McColl says he is building three separate companies under the NationsBank umbrella: a traditional retail bank for regular consumers and commercial customers; an institutional or corporate bank modeled after New York's J. P. Morgan & Co., to serve the big-hitters; and a relatively unregulated finance company that seeks to emulate G. E. Capital.

"He is a visionary," says Al Lerner, the former MNC chairman, who now owns more than $100 million in NationsBank stock. "He does not deal with the banking business in its current state. He deals with the banking business as he thinks it will be."

"The big question is: Can he do it, can he make it work?" Muller says.

Specifically, some banking experts question whether NationsBank's growth-oriented approach will lead to stable profitability for the company, or whether it will run into the kinds of troubles that overextended banking behemoths, like Citicorp, have encountered in the past.

McColl says the geographic and business diversity he is pursuing provides protection against failure. "If you get all your eggs in one basket, you end up with a lot of broken eggs," he said, reciting a precept of Banking 101.

Still, NationsBank's profit numbers are not at the top of the industry. "I think they are, of all major banks in the country, the one on the most shallow ground, based on both historic earnings performance and the rapid increase in size over the last 10 years," bank consultant Danielson said.

For example, Danielson said, an analysis of NationsBank's income places it behind other big regional banks. The company's return on average assets -- a key measure of bank profitability -- has been in the range of 0.6 to 0.8 percent. By contrast, bank companies such as SunTrust Banks Inc. of Atlanta, and North Carolina-based First Union and Wachovia "are routinely above 1 percent," Danielson said.

Measured with another widely used earnings yardstick, return on equity, NationsBank's profits look better, Danielson said, but still lag behind those of such premier profit generators as Wachovia.

McColl dismisses such comparisons, arguing he is creating a new kind of bank.

"I don't think Wachovia is one of our peers," he said. "They're taking the franchise that they have, running it as efficiently as possible, maximizing the profits out of it, and that's all a harvest mode. I'm not in harvest mode. We're still investing in the future. I have an opinion that people who stop investing in the future cease to have one."

Salomon Brothers analyst Glossman, who recommends buying NationsBank stock, agrees it is not fair to compare NationsBank with super-regionals such as First Union or Ohio-based Banc One Corp., as many do. McColl's rapidly growing company is hard to classify. The jury is still out on whether McColl's grand scheme will succeed, she says.

A Natural Leader

The NationsBank chairman grew up in Bennettsville, S.C., where the McColl family was prominent. His father, now retired, was a successful third-generation banker. But McColl says it was his mother and grandmother who imbued him and his three siblings with preternatural ambition, demanding that they be first in everything.

At his mother's urging, the young McColl read a lot of romantic and heroic fiction. Even today he says many of his role models are the dashing, larger-than-life figures he remembers from books like "Beau Geste," "Beowulf," and "The Leatherstocking Tales." He remains a heavy reader -- last month he was making a go at the Mexican novel, "Like Water for Chocolate," in the original Spanish.

McColl was not an academic star, but he was a natural leader -- high school class president and president of his fraternity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

After college, he spent a few years as a Marine officer, without great distinction, by his own account. But the discipline and team ethic of the Marines marked him deeply and seem to form the backbone of his management philosophy today. He is famous for keeping a hand grenade on his desk and gives out crystal hand grenades for extraordinary performance.

McColl frequently refers to Marine Corps principles about the importance of showing respect for the troops. "He has surrounded himself with very strong people. He is one of those executives who's always trying to hire people smarter than he is," says longtime McColl friend Rolfe Neill, publisher of the Charlotte Observer.

After the Marine Corps, in 1959, McColl signed on as a trainee at a Charlotte bank that soon became NCNB. Initially he was rejected for the slot. But management swiftly reversed that decision when McColl's father, one of the bank's customers, called to inquire, "What's this about you don't want my boy Hugh up there?"

McColl rose quickly at NCNB, a scrappy company that toiled in the shadow of Wachovia, then North Carolina's starchy banking giant. Thomas Storrs, who preceded him as chairman of NCNB, recalls that McColl was extremely aggressive in going after business. Some competitors accused McColl of being "somewhat ungentlemanly," Storrs recalled, but he says it was necessary: "We started out way behind and the only way we were going to catch up was to run very fast."

By age 29, McColl was head of the bank's national division. By 38 he was president of NCNB, and in a three-way horse race to succeed Storrs. Storrs said McColl won the competition partly because, when the bank had a lot of bad commercial loans in the mid-1970s, McColl excelled as leader of the cleanup effort.

Installed as chairman in 1983, McColl continued an expansion effort in Florida that Storrs had begun, using an obscure NationsBank subsidiary there as a base, to get around a Florida ban on out-of-state bank companies.

Florida bankers were enraged, and McColl reveled in the fight. He posed for one photo wearing a combat helmet, holding the Florida flag in a conqueror's pose.

Where some admire this pugnacious energy, other McColl-watchers see nothing but hubris. Appearing with Clinton at a July 15 White House ceremony announcing the administration's community-development lending program, McColl opened his speech endorsing the bill with the words, "It's an honor to speak today on behalf of the banking industry." Guenther, whose group represents community banks, said many bankers were angered by this. The legislation is far from popular in the industry.

NCNB's Florida campaign was followed by acquisitions in Georgia and South Carolina. But the really big event was the 1988 government-assisted purchase of the troubled First RepublicBank Corp. of Texas. McColl and his merger team came up with an ingenious way to win the bidding. They obtained an Internal Revenue Service ruling that they could use the Texas bank's extensive losses to offset future taxes owed the government. That, together with their proposal for a gradual buyout of the Texas bank, allowed NationsBank to outbid its much larger rivals, Wells Fargo & Co. and Citicorp.

The C&S/Sovran Corp. merger came next, and then the MNC deal, with the non-bank acquisitions along the way. And, clearly, more growth is to come. During the same day he did the NFL deal, McColl buzzed in and out of several meetings about a new plan his lawyers had devised to break through a regulatory nemesis he is constantly denouncing: the federal ban on interstate bank branching.

Under current law, bank holding companies such as NationsBank must maintain separate banks in every state where they do business. The setup makes it harder for a company like McColl's to build the seamless, efficient, many-state operation that he dreams about.

McColl had barely slept for six days -- thanks partly to a weekend dove-hunting trip to Texas and Mexico with a gang of early-rising ex-Marines. But as the day went on and he learned about his lawyers' latest trick, he revved up.

The idea is based on an 1866 bank law allowing a national bank to move its headquarters 30 miles.

The headquarters of American Security Bank, the D.C. bank that is now part of NationsBank, would be moved -- on paper -- from its current location at 1501 Pennsylvania Ave. NW to a shopping center in Silver Spring.

American Security would then be merged with NationsBank-owned Maryland National Bank, and -- several steps later -- the resulting bank would become the single bank unit for the District and Maryland, evading the requirement for separate banks.

The word around the company is that somewhere in NationsBank is a map on which the lawyers have plotted out all the 30-mile jumps across state lines that will allow the company to unite all its bank units.

Asked if such a map exists, McColl chuckled. "I have good people, and you know they anticipate that I want to do that. They may well have it."

If regulators approve the move, it will be "revolutionary," McColl said late in the day. His shirt sleeves were rolled up, and he was beaming.

1987: NCNB Corp. of Charlotte, forerunner of NationsBank, acquires CentraBank Inc. of Baltimore with $262 million in assets.

1991: NCNB merges with C&S/Sovran Corp. of Atlanta, and new company is named NationsBank Corp. C&S/Sovran, with $50 billion in assets, was parent company of Sovran banks in Washington area.

1993: NationsBank acquires MNC Financial Inc. of Baltimore, parent of Maryland National Bank and of the District's American Security Bank. MNC had $17 billion in assets.