Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Capology 101

If the dream has always been to have a league that’s competitive, or with “parity” then the salary cap is the warm milk NFL administrators have taken in order to drift off to sleep at night. The salary cap has brought mighty teams down, making them pay for what was once thought to be a virtue: a desire to win.

The cap is supposed to give each team an equal opportunity to compete, year in and year out. Many teams have found ways around it, the 49ers did with Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark in charge. They go caught, and have paid hefty fines. As many who break the rules say, their only crime was they got caught. Maneuvering around the salary cap is rampant in the league, the Niners are just the first to be exposed.

The Jacksonville Jaguars have taken advantage of their advantage as an expansion team. Starting out, their balance was zero. They paid no money to players not on their roster. Nobody counted against the cap that wasn’t in uniform. Using that advantage, they signed players to lucrative contracts, attracted free agents, and became instantly respectable. Now, they’ll fall in line with the rest of the league.

Although Head Coach Tom Coughlin says he doesn’t sense a “rebuilding” year ahead, he has used the phrases “magic wand” and “a challenge” when describing salary cap issues in the upcoming off season. If there is one thing the league needs inside the salary cap rules, it’s a provision for injury. Setting a team in the off-season takes plenty if imagination and ingenuity. The balance created between the stars and the backups on any roster is very tenuous. One injury, and that balance is forfeited. If you lose a star player, you can’t go try and replace him, but his salary counts against your cap.

Inside the Jacksonville Jaguars locker room, the talk is about a .500 record, the Giants and playing for pride, at least publicly. Outside of the locker room, the talk is of the salary cap, and that’s it. Estimates range as high as $40 million as the number the Jaguars will be over the cap next year. Michael Huyghue, the Jaguars Vice President of Football Operations, their capologist, says the number is not quite that high but they will have some cutting to do. He lists, Mark Brunell, Leon Searcy and Kevin Hardy as the team’s top priority in restructuring contracts for next year.

No mention of Keenan McCardell, whose cap number is just over $4 million. If the team cuts him, he’ll still count $1.8 against the cap next year, so for not much more, they can keep him. If you go through the offense, there are no more than 5 players who will definitely be back in the teal and black next year.

Brunell says ‘no question” he’ll be back next year. His cap number will need to be around $7 million. Jimmy Smith is the best bargain in the NFL, Tony Boselli and Fred Taylor are under contract. After that, it’s wide open. Kyle Brady has been valuable, but are they willing to pay $3 million for a Tight End? Jeff Smith and Todd Fordham are both free-agents who have made themselves some money in the last 6 weeks. Brad Meester will only be in his second year. Daimon Shelton and Brendan Stai seem to be returning players, if their salaries are at the right level.

Huyghue’s comment about Searcy was the most puzzling. Leon is in the driver’s seat. They owe him money if they cut him or if they keep him. The Jaguars didn’t allow Searcy to show the rest of the league he can still play when they put him on injured reserve at the end of the season. He didn’t like that, but didn’t make a stink about it either. As Tom Coughlin said, he’d like to wave a “magic wand” to keep Searcy on the team, but it will be very difficult.

Defensively, the question centers around Carnell Lake and Hardy Nickerson. The Jaguars have admitted they went out of their model for success in signing both players, but Tom Coughlin says they did that because they were productive players who had never been hurt. Both have been injured. Bringing them back seems unlikely, except Nickerson already counts over $2 million against the cap next year so he might return.

They have to make a decision on Tony Brackens and the second half of his bonus. Gary Walker is a Pro Bowl caliber player, but do they want to spend that money on a defensive tackle? Joel Smengee wants to return and says he’ll be reasonable with the Jaguars because, frankly, he doesn’t want to move and play somewhere else. If he returns, it will be with an entirely new contract.

Huyghue admits the team will have what he calls a “catch up” year, in order to pay for being very competitive for the last five seasons. Every other team in the league has had to “catch up” and it looks like the Jauguars turn.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

A Quarterback’s Confidence

I’ve been accused over the years of being arrogant by my detractors. I’ve never been able to figure this out. Arrogance denotes some sort of mean spirited attitude. I don’t have that. I do have confidence.

A quarterback’s confidence.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve thought of myself as the quarterback. I actually played the position in high school, a little bit in college and in a ridiculous semi-pro league. When I used to run around in the front yard as a kid, throwing the ball into the bushes, I pretended to be the quarterback. I’ve always thought that way, and still do. I’m the quarterback of the sports team at Channel 4, given the responsibility of getting the job done while being part of the team.

I’ve always been fascinated by the mental part of the quarterback’s job. It’s one of the few jobs in sports that blends the cerebral with the physical. It’s part motivation, part inspiration. Without all facets clicking, a quarterback’s job can’t get done. No position in sports is as difficult, or as important.

When quarterbacks are in competition with each other for a starting job, it can divide a team. The Cowboys with Craig Morton and Roger Staubach, the Redskins with Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer and now with Brad Johnson and Jeff George. No matter how hard a coach and the quarterbacks themselves try to smooth things over, they can’t. The team looks to them as the leader, and they choose sides.

Former NFL quarterback Matt Robinson, now a color analyst for the Jacksonville Jaguars, was involved in a competition with Richard Todd, both vying for the starting job with the New York Jets. “We were friendly,” recalls Robinson, “but it was definitely competitive. There was always an edge there, even when you were out socially.” How do you deal with that, I wondered. “Depending on the guy, sometimes you can talk about it. Richard and I decided we’d do our best with what is always a tough situation. No bad mouthing, no sabotage.”

“That’s right,” adds current Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell. Brunell was in a similar situation in Jacksonville with Steve Beuerlein. “You try to make the best of it, and it really depends on the other guy. There can be tension, but you know it’s going to be a competition going in. Steve and I got along so it wasn’t a problem. With some other guys, it could be.”

Jaguars Head Coach Tom Coughlin admits how competing quarterbacks handle themselves in the meetings and in the locker room factors into the final decision. “It’s not one of the first things you look at, but certainly how a guy handles himself, his reaction to his teammates and his competitors factors into it.”

A quarterback can’t be a small person. He has to have a magnanimous side. He gets too much credit and knows it. He takes more blame than deserved, and he knows that too. A quarterback has to have a “selective memory.” “Oh yeah,” Brunell agreed. “You have to be able to forget every bad play that’s happened and move on. Sometimes that’s really tough.” He has to believe the next play is going for a touchdown, no matter what.

“Confidence is the word I’d use,” added Brunell. “You have to be confident in your own abilities, your teammates’ the coaches, the scheme, everything. You go into every situation confident of success, confident you can make it happen.” Robinson thinks that confidence is what can carry the other guys on offense. “When you step in that huddle, all eyes are on you. Your body language, how you call the play, even how you step into the huddle. The guys are looking at you for a cue. Some want some kind of direction, they’re looking for a leader.”

Other position players agree there’s a common thread that runs through all successful quarterbacks. “They all have different personalities,” says Pro Bowl wide receiver Keenan McCardell. “But the good ones come into the huddle and can tell who’s ready to play and who’s not.” “They’re not interested in talk, about what happened beforehand, about the mouthing from the other side of the ball. When it’s time to go, they’re ready to go. You can see it. They shut everything else out and say ‘Let’s go.'”

I asked Sam Huff, the Giants Hall of Fame linebacker about the difference between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants in the ’58 NFL Championship game. “They had John Unitas, we didn’t,” Huff said immediately referring to the Colts Hall of Fame quarterback. “What about the rematch in ’59,” I probed. “They still had Unitas,” Huff barked. “You knew when he was in the game, he believed they would win which meant they believed it. You could sense it in how they came to the line of scrimmage, how they played, how they walked. They all were a reflection of Unitas.”

Pro Golfer Jim Colbert once said he plays a game with himself when he stands over an important 4-foot putt. “I ask myself, will you be more amazed if you miss it or if you make it? And I always said I’ll be absolutely shocked if I miss it,” Colbert explained. That’s a quarterback’s confidence.

Just don’t call it arrogance.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Locker Room Interviews

Sometimes I leave a locker room pretty happy with what was said about the team or the upcoming opponent. Sometimes the comments are so cliché ridden it’s amusing. That’s why some athletes are known as media “go-to guys” and others aren’t seen or quoted in the media so often. Just like in any group of people, some are smarter than others, some speak more eloquently than others, some welcome the spotlight, while others shun it.

You can always tell when a team has been “coached” by the staff on what to say to the media. Anytime you ask four or five players a similar question and they come up with the same phrase like, “they’ll try to control the line of scrimmage” you know the coaching staff has used that phrase over and over in their meetings. Some coaches put a muzzle on their players. Jim Fassel of the Giants hasn’t let his team speak in anything but generalities since the middle of November.

Some players close themselves out from the media completely. I’ve always thought that was irresponsible. Aaron Beasley decided early in his career he didn’t like being criticized in print. He stopped talking to the media for a while, but since has relented and is a very good and thoughtful interview.

Part of being a professional athlete is dealing with the public, including the media. If you think a writer has been unfair, close him out. Steve Spurrier did that with Larry Guest of the Orlando Sentinel for years. And he was probably right. Guest wrote what Spurrier thought were unfair and untrue things about the program, so he stopped answering his questions, just ignoring him like he was invisible. One time he even said, “you know I don’t answer your questions,” looked up and said, “anybody else?” I don’t have a problem with that. If you ask a fair and honest question, you usually get the same kind of answer.


Some players and coaches don’t mind lying to the media and others are using it for their own personal gain. Some even turn it into a game. John Jurkovic used to “hold court” near his locker, spewing all kinds of sayings and platitudes, turning the interview into a show. That’s okay. John was friendly and honest and was thinking ahead a little bit to a possible career after football.

Some players have an interview schedule. Did you know Mark Brunell only talks to the media on Wednesday? Clyde Simmons had the same rule. That’s fine too. Everybody knows what the rule is and abides by it. Whatever reasons the player has for it don’t have to be justified by anybody. You’re talking Wednesday? Good, I’ll be there.

Jimmy Smith admitted he ran from the media after the AFC Championship game last year. He was gone by the time the locker room was open. “I just couldn’t face it,” said the Pro Bowl wide receiver. He wasn’t alone. The post-game locker room was nearly empty by the time it was opened to the media. I think that’s fairly lame. Reporters who cover the team regularly know the players as people too and are generally wise about how to ask a question after a loss. The national media is a little more savage, but a cold look in the eye to an unknown reporter after a stupid question usually sets the ground rules.

When Kevin Carter was at Florida, he was a great “go to guy” in the Gator locker room. (the Gators locker room is now closed and they bring the players out to be interviewed. I also think this is lame. There’s no uniqueness to sticking a microphone in front of a guy’s face as part of a mob scene) Auburn beat Florida in Gainesville, and I approached Carter in the post-game locker room for a comment. He kept his back to me and mumbled into his locker, “I’m not talkin’.” “What,” I exclaimed. “I’m not talkin’,” he repeated. “Oh, I guess you only talk when you win,” I snidely replied. (remember, this was during my young and stupid phase) Carter turned and stared a hole through me, but I didn’t budge. Actually I thought he might hit me. He relented and answered a couple of questions. I went about the rest of the locker room, gathering information, and eventually, alone, made my way back to Carter’s locker. I told him how much I appreciated his talking with us, and how as he moved on to a professional career, he didn’t want to get a reputation as a guy who only talked when things were good. Nobody respects that. He nodded a couple of times, and I left. Maybe it sunk in, maybe not.

My Hall of Fame of interviewees is probably just like anybody else’s. Joe Namath, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Richard Petty and Arnold Palmer. All knew the media had a job to do, some were more entertaining than others, but all understood how to portray or promote themselves through the media. Jordan was the greatest post-game locker room interview ever. You had to wait until he was dressed (impeccably) then he would answer any and all questions without exception. When the questions stopped, he would ask, “everybody got what they need?” look around the room, then slip out the back door. Namath was always honest, Petty and Palmer patient and polite without fail.

Gary Player adopted the habit of knowing a reporter’s name, and using it during the interview. That usually makes for good press.

The day of the outburst, the bulletin board material is probably gone with a few exceptions. Coaches warn players about the “evils” of the media. Players see their comments on the cable highlight shows. With the exception of Andre Rison, nobody’s been really outrageous in the Jaguars locker room.

No Richard Todd stuffing a reporter in a locker.

No Ryan Leaf having a temper tantrum.

Tom Coughlin has yelled at me a couple of times, outside of the press conference. He didn’t like a couple of my questions.

That’s okay. He’s doing his job.

I’m doing mine.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

BCS Blunder

If there’s one thing I don’t like about the BCS, it’s the self-serving attitude of the inventors.

“Oh, it’s just what college football fans want,” they say.
“A true national championship game,” they gush.
“They’re full of it,” I answer.

The BCS is not what college football fans want. They want to see fairness, they want to see competition, and they want to see a playoff. Why is it every other NCAA sport is decided by a playoff, but the biggest one of them all comes down to a . . . vote?

“It really keeps people talking about college football,” they opine. Sure, if you want people talking about how stupid the system is.

This year, hopefully, the BCS will raise enough of the ire of fans that when the contracts run out in 2006, hopefully it will go away.

Computer rankings have Oklahoma #1 followed by Florida State, Miami, Washington and the rest. How do they get those computer rankings? Actually, parts of it are kept a secret, (you know, the intrigue keeps people talking about college football, that’s brilliant) and they throw in record, strength of schedule, eye of newt and love potion #9, plus a compilation of the voters polls.

Hmmm, the voters have a say. Interesting.

Coaches who either let their Sports Information Directors do the voting or vote their opponents higher than they should be in order to make themselves look better if they happen to beat that higher ranked team. The coaches poll has always been known as the poll of deceit. The writers poll is equally flawed, known affectionately as the poll of ignorance. Writers don’t see more than two or three teams in the poll in a season, and these days are influenced by whatever some editor of the nightly cable highlight show decides to air that evening. They can vote, but not about college football.

There are ways to determine a national champion on the field, include the bowls and make money. The problem is, for some conference commissioners, not enough money. The NCAA oversees the college basketball tournament, paying out money to each member team, and additional money to the teams in the tournament. The farther they go in the tournament, the more money the school makes. Sounds like a good plan. Except when you look at the big conferences in college football and their relationship with the bowls.

The money paid out by the bowl games goes to the conferences, and on to the individual schools. A conference without a bowl team (Patriot), gets nothing. A conference with six bowl teams (SEC), gets plenty. Need your 6th place team in a bowl? Fine, invent the Music City Bowl. Split the money up, reward the teams actually in the bowls with a little extra, and move on. Keep those other schools down for fear they might actually be competitive some day.

A playoff with 8 or 16 teams would be easy. Some schools might get left out of the season-ending tournament, but that happens every year in basketball. Let the conference champions in automatically, making the regular season important. Figure out a wild card formula, play it over four weekends and you’re finished by the second week of January, at the latest.

Just think, at this rate, Florida State will be off for 6 weeks before playing for the national championship. Will they be “game sharp?” Of course not. Whoever their opponent is will have a month off as well.

By the time the BCS bowls roll around, just about everybody’s forgotten who’s playing where, except in the game to decide the national championship. It has made the other bowls meaningless, and actually demeans their regular season effort.

“Oh, you’re playing in the Fiesta Bowl, great, is that before or after the Orange Bowl?”

It doesn’t matter to me whether Oklahoma, Florida State, Miami, or Washington get to play in the big game. They all should be playing in a big game at the end of the year. A game that means something to them. A game their fans will be excited about. A game where there’s something on the line.

Like a playoff game.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com


Boy, to I have a lot to be thankful for.

A wife who has tolerated me for more than 20 years, three beautiful children who are wonderful people, parents whose counsel I still seek, friends I can count on, and a career that is more fulfilling each day.

Thanksgiving is usually a work day for me. It’s a preview Thursday for a big college football game, something’s going on with the NFL, it’s part of the television rating period and it just seemed natural to be “on the air” that day.

Today I’m at home for the first time in 23 years. I’ll watch some football, have some friends over, eat a traditional meal, and spend time with my family. And there will be a little part of me wondering what’s going on at work. And I’m thankful for that.

Thankful that after 23 years of sports reporting I am still glad to go to work everyday. Glad that I am inspired by the very act of doing my job. Everyday, no matter whether I’m anchoring the sportscast, hosting a show, or reporting from the field, I report on people who are striving to be the best they can be. They’re measuring themselves against a standard of excellence that they know is out there, but can’t quantify. Kids, college players, professional athletes, Olympians, all have a common thread. They’re putting themselves on the line, testing themselves, and it inspires me to do the same. Stretch my capabilities, look for a way to be better in every situation.

Sometimes Thanksgiving is just another day for sports fans to sit in front of the TV and watch football. It is the perfect situation for that, but we should also reflect on the things that we are thankful for, even in a superficial way. The competition we watch. The school and teams we root for, even the opponents. Would it really be any fun for Florida or Florida State fans if one team was horrible, always?

There are a lot of things wrong with the sports world, but there are a lot of things right about it, and I’m thankful for that. The good work Leon Searcy does over the holidays for the community, the hospital visits Mark Brunell makes, the quiet encouragement Steve Spurrier and Bobby Bowden give to those who need it. I know a lot of bad guys in sports, but I know an awful lot of good ones too.

They’ve made me a better person.

They should make you better too.

Boy, do I have a lot to be thankful for.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Globetrotter Magic


The Globetrotters lost?

While it sounds like big news, actually it’s part of a “regeneration” of the Globetrotters as a basketball team.

For years early in their formation, the Trotters were a barnstorming, take on all comers team full of talented players. Abe Saperstein, the Trotters founder, believed being a good basketball player was the essential thing he was looking for from perspective Harlem Globetrotters. He was also looking for a little personality.

The NBA was in its infancy, salaries were low, race was an issue and the Trotters were a place where the game was fun. Not a lot of teams would take on the Harlem Globetrotters for fear of embarrassment. They even signed Wilt Chamberlain out of Kansas before he embarked on his NBA career.

Through the 60’s and 70’s the Trotters evolved into mainly a comedy act with some basketball sprinkled in. “Meadowlark” Lemon, Curly Neal and “Sweet” Lou Dunbar, carried the torch for the most famous basketball team in the world. They played almost every night, beating the Washington Generals and now the New York Nationals, handily.

I used to go to the Globetrotters every year with my Dad at the Baltimore Civic Center. The Civic Center was small, and you were close to the court so you saw the jokes firsthand. Oh, how I wanted to sit I the front row once and have Meadowlark throw that bucket of confetti in my face!

I used to always wonder how good the Globetrotters really were. I asked my father what Meadowlark meant when he yelled “cover the white guy” during a game in the ’60’s. I hadn’t noticed the Trotters were all black. They were just funny, talented heroes who never lost.

Manny Jackson bought the Trotters in 1993 and embarked on taking part of their legacy and make it part of their future.

Real basketball.

It’s a great idea.

They beat Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Legendary All-stars 10 out of 11 times in 1995. That’s the last time they lost before Monday night’s against Michigan State.

When I read the story about the loss and the quotes from the players and coaches of the Trotters it surprised me a bit when they didn’t blow the loss off as part of the show.

It shouldn’t have.

As all athletes say, when there’s competition to be had, and they’re keeping score, winning is important. Jackson talked about “missed baskets in the paint” and “not getting to the free-throw line enough” as reasons for the loss.

He didn’t mention the football game that broke out, or the “weave” or somebody hiding the ball under his shirt while play was going on. Maybe the ref didn’t do his job after taking the ball with no air in it and slamming it to the floor!

They’re the most successful professional sports team ever. There are a few team names that conjure up instant images: the Yankees, the Canadiens, the Celtics and certainly the Harlem Globetrotters. When somebody whistles “Sweet Georgia Brown” do you think of anything else but the Trotters in the “Magic Circle?”

More than 20,000 wins to their credit. Winning streaks of nearly 9,000, 2,500 and most recently 1,270 games. They’re known as the greatest ambassadors in the world. American ambassadors, sports ambassadors, ambassadors of fun.

I had forgotten that.
I won’t again.
I’m checking their schedule.
I can’t wait to take my son to see the Trotters.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Wanted: Blonde Bombshell

I get to spend a lot of time on the sidelines at football games. High School, College and NFL games have their own special appeal. The NFL now limits the number of people on the field, keeping most reporters off the sidelines. They don’t like the clutter. They want a clean look. College sidelines are usually buzzing. Lots of action, lots of passion. Many of the people charged with the duty of covering the game and reporting on it have an allegiance to one school or another. Sidelines in High School always have people who have a vested interest in the outcome. Lots of yelling, not a lot of reporters.

When you stand on the sidelines, the view of the field is magnificent, yet very different. You hear the hitting, you can see pain and exhaustion. The perspective is unique. Bringing that perspective to the television audience isn’t new. In fact, when I was at the University of Maryland, ABC Sports interviewed a bunch of perspective sideline reporters, all college aged, trying to use a college reporter to talk about college students. I was excited about the interview, thought it went well, but Roone Arledge picked Jim Lampley, then a student at Stanford, and a Don somebody who went on to a local television career in Philadelphia. Neither of those guys could get a job with the network these days as a sideline reporter though.

On any given Saturday, Sunday or Monday, the sidelines are littered with sweaty guys doing different odd jobs, security guards, poorly dressed reporters, the chain-gang in ill-fitting uniforms, photographers with all kinds of equipment hanging around their necks or perched on their shoulders, and some fabulous babe carrying a microphone.

During the Florida-Georgia game, I spent the first quarter in the press box, until I went to get some water and at least fifteen guys stopped me to ask, “have you seen Jill Arrington.” So I went to the sidelines to see first-hand what the commotion was about. It didn’t take long to spot the person who didn’t seem to fit among the regular throng. Arrington is a sideline reporter for CBS who doesn’t look like anybody else on the sidelines. Tall, with long blonde hair, well dressed in very tight clothes, Arrington is part of a new breed of television sideline reporter that the networks seem to think is necessary these days. The broadcast team is made up of a serious play-by-play man, some former player, and a striking female reporter on the sidelines.

Arrington, Bonnie Bernstein, Melissa Stark, Pam Oliver and Jillian Barberie are all part of network broadcast teams. Are they good reporters? Who knows? Most guys haven’t heard a thing they’ve said and women are commenting on their hair and their clothes. Is this fair? All could be fantastic journalists, but will never get the chance to show it based on the cosmetic aspect of the television industry. Nobody’s yelling “Quiet, I want to hear what Melissa is saying,” during Monday Night Football. “Great turtleneck,” is what’s being shouted in the local sports bars. Lesley Visser is pretty well connected throughout the NFL, but her choice of headwear was what garnered most of the attention during her reports on MNF.

A couple of years ago, Bonnie Bernstein sent me a tape, looking for a job as our weekend sports anchor. She was working in Reno, Nevada at the time and her tape stood out among the other applicants. Not because she was a woman, but because she was a very good reporter. I’ve worked probably two dozen games where Melissa Stark was the sideline reporter, first for ESPN and now for ABC Sports. She worked pretty hard during her ESPN games and is doing the same on MNF. You’d be hard pressed to see any of that now with the role the networks are asking them to play. They don’t seem to be complaining, so I’m wondering what is the point here.

Are these women gladly posing on the sidelines, knowingly acting as a distraction? Are the viewers getting any information? Is there anything the matter with any of this? Have the sideline reporters slipped into the category of cheerleader eye candy?

Actually, this could be much ado about nothing. The women on the sidelines are the next generation of pioneers, and will have to endure the catcalls and doubting that comes with blazing any trail. Network executives should be careful about how they formulate their hiring practices. The viewing public’s trust is at stake. If they lose that, they’ll never get it back.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Super Selection

Putting themselves into play as a potential Super bowl site, North Florida and the city of Jacksonville were complete unknowns. In the early 80’s then-Mayor Jake Godbold courted the NFL, even hosting a “Colts Fever” rally at the old Gator Bowl in 1979. Fifty-thousand people showed up for a hot dog and a Coke to see Colts owner Robert Irsay fly onto the floor of the Gator Bowl to wave and say “I might .”

Unknown to most people was the conversation between Godbold and Irsay as they exited the World War II construction era stadium. “If I come here, you’ll have to tear this thing down,” said steel expert Irsay. Godbold was a little taken aback. After all, the stadium was Jacksonville’s primary resource in their effort to lure a team. Irsay did move, to Indianapolis, and Jacksonville did build a new stadium, for an expansion team instead of a relocation.

After an inferior Cincinnati Bengals team beat San Diego in the AFC Championship game at home in sub-zero weather, there was a movement a foot in the NFL to play the championship games at neutral sites. Although the idea never flew, Jacksonville was asked several times to make a preliminary Super Bowl bid, actually angling as a potential championship game site.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse was a huge proponent of Jacksonville. I ran into him at the Tampa airport one night and he engaged me in a conversation about the city’s potential. We talked for a half hour about what could be done based on the political and social landscape surrounding the city at the time. Culverhouse liked Jacksonville, had lived in North Florida, and was the city’s biggest ally. (Even though when awarded an NFL franchise, he put it in Tampa.)

Godbold was a visionary as the mayor, and fulfilled the requirement of also holding the unofficial office of “best friend of the city.” He was encumbered by a lack of resources, and a lack of full support of some movers and shakers in Jacksonville who wanted to remain a sleepy South Georgia stop-over. Jacksonville had barely over 200-thousand residents when Godbold began his NFL quest. His dalliance with the USFL was a year late because he heeded the warning of a local columnist to stay away from the rogue league for fear it would anger the imperial NFL.

To my surprise, Mayor Godbold pulled me into the NFL owners’ meeting room when Jacksonville was asked to make their Super Bowl bid presentation. (Obviously before they had rules about this stuff) Jake was persuasive, and the presentation was slick. The normal questions about hotel rooms were raised, and Culverhouse slowly stood and gave a testimonial about Godbold’s commitment, Jacksonville’s potential and how the city could be always counted on to be a ‘friend” to the league. It was pretty heady stuff, but nothing got done.

Actually the Michael Jackson tour deal did get done at those meetings. I was walking down the hall of the hotel in Washington, D.C. with Jake when we ran into Billy Sullivan, the owner of the New England Patriots. “How about holding a Jackson’s concert in Jacksonville,” Sullivan asked, half joking. Godbold asked me what I knew about Michael Jackson, then the hottest performer on the planet and he said, “wait right here.” Twenty-five minutes later, Godbold emerged from a room with Sullivan and whispered to me, “the deal’s done, we’re getting the Jackson’s at the Gator Bowl for three shows. Do you think that’s good?” I laughed out loud, told the Mayor he was a genius and immediately called the newsroom.

Larry Jaffe was the point man for Godbold and the city of Jacksonville in its bid to get in front of the NFL. Jaffe was at a preliminary meeting with league officials in San Francisco when he and his associates came up with the idea of cruise ships on the river to supplement the hotel rooms. During a meeting with Pete Roselle’s top assistant Don Weiss, and the Special projects coordinator, Jim Steeg, whose job it is to run the Super Bowl, Jaffe laid out his plan and received the appropriately polite response. As Weiss and Steeg got up to leave, Jaffe blurted out, “has anybody told you about the cruise ships?” Simultaneously, Weiss and Steeg sat back down and asked “what cruise ships?” Jaffe explained the idea to augment the city with hotel rooms provided by cruise ships, and the idea was born. It wasn’t universally accepted, and in fact it was ridiculed at the time both within and outside the NFL. The success of cruise ships as “floating hosts’ at the Barcelona and Sydney Olympics made them a viable option for Jacksonville’s Super Bowl bid. The city was making inroads, but neither a team nor the Super Bowl seemed on the horizon.

Still, some city leaders persevered.

Godbold called me during the inaugural USFL season to ask, “Did we miss something here?” “Yes,” I replied, “but you can fix it.”

Six weeks later, my phone rang again, it was the Mayor saying he had somebody he wanted me to talk with.
“Hi Sam, this is Fred Bullard,” said the voice on the other end.
“Mr. Bullard, are you going to try and put a USFL team here?” I asked.
“Not try,” he replied, “it’s going to happen.”
“Don’t jerk us around,” I snapped into the phone. (I’m pretty embarrassed by this now but I was young and stupid at the time. I’m just not young anymore)
“We’ve been jerked around enough, don’t lead us down some path that comes up empty because we’re really not going to like it.”
“Don’t worry,” Bullard allowed.
“Do you have this kind of money Mr. Bullard?” I demanded.
“It’s going to take something like $13 million to get this thing done” (Perhaps I should have had my head examined immediately afterwards)
“I think we can handle it,” was the coolly confident response.

Jacksonville had just gone through a protracted flirtation with John Mecom, the owner of the New Orleans Saints. Moving the Saints to Jacksonville was all but a done deal, but Mecom wanted out from under some of his losing buildings and other properties in Louisiana. In one meeting, a local businessman threw his checkbook on the table and said, “I’ll write a check for $50 million right now for the team, you can keep the rest.” Mecom was looking for about $75 million for the whole deal. He mulled it over and eventually rejected the partial sell off, selling the team to car dealer Tom Benson.

So Bullard brought an expansion USFL team to town, climbing on the roof of some television satellite production facility in Denver with me and Larry Csonka, his General Manager, to make the formal announcement. The USFL Bulls were snake bit on the field, but fans showed up, and the NFL noticed. From that wasteland that had the PGA TOUR headquarters and little else, an identity was emerging. Passionate about sports when the product was legitimate and willing to go the extra mile to get things done.

Getting an NFL franchise turned out to be a compilation of a lot of things, not the least of those the involvement of Wayne Weaver. Mayor Ed Austin and some of the heavyweights in town tried to kill the deal off, but it seemed to have a life of it’s own. The dream, the idea of moving to the top rung among cities wouldn’t go away. Even at the last minute, the NFL owners asked Weaver if he wouldn’t really rather be an owner in St. Louis. He declined, citing the contract and committment he made to Jacksonville. His popularity among the owners was the deciding factor to bring a team to Jacksonville.

Now, the NFL will bring it’s biggest showcase to town. All from the seeds of one man and one dream. Jake Godbold always believed, and wanted people to feel better about themselves and the place they lived. He knew about the quality of life and couldn’t figure out why people were so down on his town.

It’s a long way from the “City that stinks” to “Super Bowl XXXIX.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Birth Right

Growing up as a kid in Baltimore, I was a fan of the Orioles and the Colts, just like everybody else. Exactly when football came up on my radar screen I can’t pinpoint. I can vaguely remember a newspaper headline lamenting the Colts’ NFL Championship Game loss to the Cleveland Browns 27-0 (1963) and I sat on the porch and sulked when Joe Namath’s Jets beat the Colts in Super Bowl III as an 18-point underdog. I became a huge Namath fan after that, and even wore white shoes in my high school football days (way before it was considered OK).

Baseball is a different story though. I remember the day the Orioles traded Milt Pappas for Frank Robinson and I can trace my fan allegiance to the Orioles to one event: The’66 World Series. Baltimore sweeps the Dodgers in 4 straight to win their first world championship

It’s part of a working class town’s birth right to have a close tie to their sports teams. That’s true in Baltimore, there’s an added bonus;

You get to hate the Yankees.

It’s part of the deal. Nobody is an Oriole and a Yankee fan. You can like the Pirates, or the Phillies, even some of those teams out west, but not the Yankees. Paul Blair went to play for the Yankees and was immediately disowned. Don Larsen finished his career with Baltimore, but he was always that guy from the Yankees who threw the perfect game in the World Series.

There’s nothing similar about Baltimore and New York except both are port cities with immigrant neighborhoods. For the longest time, there was nothing similar about the Orioles and the Yankees either. In Baltimore there was “the Oriole way.” How you played baseball the right way. In New York, they were always trying to make some deal to get the top players away from inferior clubs.

If you followed the O’s, you hated the Yankees and that was that. (You also got to make fun of the Red Sox and laugh at the Senators but that’s a different story)

Hating the Yankees was a daily summer pastime. I’ll be the pitcher and you be Mickey Mantle and I’ll strike you out in the bottom of the ninth! You be Whitey Ford and I’ll hit a three run homer off you to win the game! Every day in the street in front of my house from March ‘till October, the Yankees were defeated by some dramatic feat. Even in curb ball (a Baltimore city game) the hated Yankees went down to defeat as the sun was setting and my mother called me for dinner.

Apparently Yankee hating isn’t limited to kids from Baltimore. It’s somewhat of a national obsession and represents all that is good, and sometimes bad about being a fan.

What is it about the Yankees that is so “hateable” anyway? They’re good, if fact they’re arguably the best pro sports franchise of the 20th century. I’m not jealous of them. If they win, they win. I don’t check their scores, unless they’re playing the Orioles.

I suppose when you’re on top, you’re an easy target and they have had their share of characters over the years, starting with Babe Ruth (who’s from Baltimore by the way). Ruth is the only larger than life figure in baseball history, and he was a Yankee! Traded from the Red Sox, Ruth built the stadium and started the Yankees on the most successful championship run in sports history.

People hated the Yankees in the 20’s and 30’s because they always won. They came up with the best players, sometimes coerced from smaller city teams for big money. The 40’s were dominated by the war, and in the 50’s the Yankees went back to dominating baseball. Between Ruth, Gerhig, DiMaggio and Mantle, the Yankees had four of the best players ever!

Maybe it’s their fans that people dislike. When things are good, they’re out in force. When things are bad, they’re in hiding, or explaining how they used to win, bringing up some old box score and acting like it’s only a matter of time before they ascend to the throne again. Yankee fans are passionate, that’s for sure. Nobody is a casual Yankee fan.

George Steinbrenner is easy to dislike from afar. He seems to act like a jerk more often than not, but the few times I’ve talked with him, he’s been as charming as anyone I’ve ever met. And he wants to win!

It is harder to dislike the Yankees with Joe Torre as their manager. Who wouldn’t want Joe Torre as their manager? He’s smart, honest, a real baseball guy and isn’t a glory hound.

How can you dislike Derek Jeter? Or Bernie Williams? They’re two of the best players in the game today, and they happen to be Yankees.

I admit, the Yankees are great. Maybe the greatest sports franchise ever.

I have a lot of respect for them.

But somewhere in my heart I hate them.

I must.

It’s a rule.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com


I’ve been off for a couple days over the last two weeks. First to entertain friends in town and then to play in a golf tournament. I’ve also been out of town visiting for a day, so I’ve been outside of my normal route between work, home and the gym. Everywhere I went, I was asked the same question a couple of hundred times, “What’s wrong with the Jaguars?”

I’ve heard about Brunell’s problems, the offensive line, the defensive line, Fred Taylor, the crowd, Coughlin, just about everything.

After hearing most everything, I’ve settled on a theory of my own about what’s the matter with the Jaguars. It’s the same thing that can cause good teams to go south in every sport: fear. Not fear of hitting somebody or cowardice in anyway but fear defined by the classic Greek word phobos.

In Steven Pressfield’s book Gates of Fire, he describes the Spartan warriors as the ultimate fighting force. A full unit, confident in their comrades and their equipment, reverential of their leaders and trained to perfection. The phobos that infects their opponents doesn’t make them run away, but rather lose their discipline, react wildly and break down any semblance a coordinated defense or attack. That phobos has infected the Jaguars, making them afraid to react as football players, rather than mechanical robots carrying out an assignment. It infects baseball teams when they stop hitting. You’ve heard the expression “hitting is contagious,” and the opposite is true. An entire team can go in a collective slump, leaving the manager and the players bewildered at the cause. They’re all trying to win the game with one swing, instead of just going to the plate and hitting the ball hard, somewhere.

Rick Ankiel was a successful pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals during the regular season. In the post-season, Ankiel set records for wild pitches in an inning that might never be touched. Did he all of the sudden forget how to pitch? Kind of. Instead of a discipline of mechanics and athletic control, Ankiel was trying anything to throw a strike. It almost becomes a physical affliction.

Ever see somebody with the yips? Why wouldn’t somebody who’s able to smash a golf ball 300 yards off the tee barely be able to take the putter back and through with any kind of consistency? The fear, the phobos.

How can one basketball team go six minutes at the end of the game and not score a single point?

When the Raven’s kicker popped up the kickoff in the Sunday night game against the Jaguars, you could see the Jaguar players run to their positions on the field, doing their jobs as told. Some saw the football, others didn’t, but none reacted as football players, pouncing on the football and making a play. Instead they were bound up by the phobos that comes from playing tight, playing more afraid to make a mistake rather than just playing the game.

People have theories and I’ve heard dozens, some that make sense, others that came right out of Joe Theisman’s mouth. Theisman really harped on the Mark-Brunell-is-the-loneliest-guy-in-the-world theory during the Sunday night broadcast. Brunell and Coughlin don’t have the chummiest relationship, certainly not Walsh/Montana or Holmgren/Favre but Brunell does have people to go to. Bob Petrino is the quarterbacks coach and he’s on the sidelines during the game. Petrino also works on the offensive game plan during the week so he hears input from the players constantly. Do the Jaguars need an offensive coordinator? Actually they already have one in Petrino, but giving him the title might empower the players a bit and bring them out from under Coughlin’s thumb.

The Jaguars defense shed themselves of that fear last week, playing instinctively, and limiting the Ravens to just 193 total yards. Dom Capers deserves some of the credit for that, taking the cuffs off his defense and just letting them go play. The players lobbied for that move, and got it. The rest of the team needs to grab that feeling, starting with Coughlin, through Brunell and the wins will follow.

As I’ve said all along, four wins by the break after the Dallas game gives the Jaguars a chance at the playoffs. Less than that, and they’ll be making holiday plans off the field.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Bandwagon

Let’s see. The offensive line can’t play, the defensive line are bums, Mark Brunell is finished, Tom Coughlin forgot how to coach, Dom Capers isn’t using people right, Fred Taylor is soft, Jimmy Smith is playing for a contract and Keenan McCardell’s career is already over. Those are some of the things I heard this week from fans explaining why the Jaguars won’t win another game this year.

Earlier people were explaining how bad the Redskins were, Deion Sanders was finished, Bruce Smith should retire, Norv Turner was an idiot and should be run out of town, Michael Westbrook is a wuss, Steven Davis is fat and happy with his new contract and Daniel Snyder is just a short multimillionaire who doesn’t know what he’s doing with his new toy.

This week Turner is a genius, Sanders and Smith will have their numbers retired as Redskins, Davis is going to the Hall of Fame and Snyder made all the right moves in the off season.

It’s the bandwagon.

Even Deion referred to it after the game, “There’s room for y’all on our band wagon,” Sanders said after the Redskins won a riveting game against the Buccaneers.

This is one of the great things about sports. The bandwagon. What does it actually mean anyway? When was the last time you saw a band on a wagon?

Fans jump on and off all the time. That’s their job. Wailing at their team’s ineptitude, applauding their success. “The tires are going flat on that bandwagon so many people are jumping on,” is a favorite derisive remark by other teams’ fans.

The bandwagon is what fuels a team’s fan base. When they’re winning, everybody wants to jump on, everybody wants to buy their t-shirts, and some even want to take credit. Those are some of my favorites. The bandwagon jumpers who say “I knew it all the time.” They were also the first one’s off yelling, “We stink!”

Sports is just about the only thing you can feel passionately about, one way or another, within the span of a few days, hours or even minutes, express your feelings as loud as you want, and in the end, it really doesn’t matter. Whether your team wins or loses isn’t going to make you live longer, make you more money or all of the sudden become handsome. But we scream and holler, paint our faces one week and want to burn our season tickets the next.

Some people talk about “true” fans, and what they’re expected to act like. Baloney. Act anyway you want. Love your team or hate them. Tell them they’re the greatest, or the worst. Immerse yourself in it. Jump on that bandwagon, and enjoy the ride.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Competition vs. Promotion

I’m a little worried about the direction some of the players are taking in sports. Obviously, it’s a competitive business, and most are willing do anything, and others just about anything to gain a competitive edge. But there’s always been a certain understanding that everybody else is out there trying to do the same thing.

Keyshawn Johnson’s comments all week about the Jets and Wayne Chrebet were ludicrous, and perhaps were masking some fear Johnson has of being overshadowed by his former team. He’s outrageous, and off the field, entertaining, but his act is tired. Terrell Owens’ display in the middle of Texas Stadium was way out of line. At least out of line from what has been always the acceptable norm. Maybe this is what the XFL is going to be. An over the top, outrageous, no holds barred kind of spectacle.

In other words, pro wrestling.

There is certainly a spot for pro wrestling. I like it, it is very entertaining and I think the people in the ring are fantastic athletes. The outcome being predetermined has no effect on my enjoyment and the soap opera aspect of it lets me drop in an out in different weeks without missing a beat.

I’m trying not to use the word “respect” here, but that’s what players in all of professional sports talk about. Getting it, giving it, using it as motivation and talking about it at contract time. The only time pro wrestlers talk about respect is when they’re making fun of it.

Calling the other guy out for not having enough. Do they really care about it? Of course not. It’s part of the act, and part of that act is to make fun of things that happen in the real world. Do they really have it for one another? Certainly. Without it, somebody would get seriously hurt every time they stepped into the ring. The problem is, pro football players are trying to do more and more to call attention to themselves. They want to be on the national cable highlight shows. It leads to more money, on the field and in endorsement money. If the players in the NFL start to lose respect for each other as competitors and for the game as a team competition, the who sport is in big trouble. Fans are beginning to reject the game already because the players are so detached from the everyday fan. If the players continue to create their own culture that’s apart from what made the game attractive in the first place, the games’ popularity will dwindle, and quickly.

It’s like in the movie “Any Given Sunday.” The players jump about during the game, scream things at each other, throw each other on the ground and talk about respect. The new quarterback isn’t interested in anything but being a star, and drawing the focus on himself. In the end it all works out, even the owner says she learned something from her coach, and the coach says he learned something from that braggart of a quarterback. That’s all a fantasy, or at least the real parts are from some of the worst teams you’ve ever seen.

Fans are sick of the me, me, me attitude of players. There’s nothing wrong with exhorting your team, or stirring the pot a little leading up to a competition but once the game starts, people want to see skil and desire, not how much you can run your mouth.

At the Olympics, many American athletes are taking the “in your face” way of competing to the arena. That might seem normal to us, as immune as we’ve become to rude behavior, but to the rest of the world it’s a shock. Gary Hall’s “we’ll smash them like guitars” comment only fired up the Australians, who strummed placidly from the gold medal stand. Australians seem to be content with the competition and showing themselves off to the world. American athletes have been trained in the “win at any cost” way of competing. There is no second place, as the t-shirt says, it’s only the first loser. Would we have thought that if Lance Armstrong hadn’t won the Tour de France? What if he had finished second? Would he have been a loser? Hardly.

In this era of instant gratification and information, the competition in everyday life is a natural progression. Let’s step back and look into the past. Were all the runners up losers? Did they not fulfull their goal of competing as best they could? The goal is always to win, but there is no shame in the competition itself. Separating the ideal of amatuer sport and the compeition it provides from the professional games is dangerous. If it’s ONLY about the money, is it worth it?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Spurrier “Genius”

Gainesville –
“We need to not be such loudmouths” was Steve Spurrier’s advice to his team when asked what they’d have to do to get better in the future. That’s one of my favorite things about Spurrier, his honesty. Whether assessing his team’s play, or a players’ ability, Spurrier is honest, sometimes brutally so. “We’ll give another guy a chance,” is Spurrier’s often heard way of making a personnel substitution.

There are a lot of things Spurrier does better than anybody, but his ability to figure out who can play and who can’t is unparalleled. He can do it, and sometimes coldly make a change to upgrade his team. He brought that kind of honesty from the pros, from his days as a player in the NFL and a coach in the USFL. Get the best guys in there no matter what.

He’s revolutionized the way football is played in the Southeastern Conference. He’s influenced offensive attacks on college campuses around the country. He calls it “pitch and catch,” but it’s much more than that. It’s a clear understanding of where everybody will be when a play is called. Ever see Spurrier lean over to a backup quarterback on the sideline and point out just where the open receiver will be, only to see that backup quarterback in the game on the next play throwing a touchdown pass to that open receiver? Last year he even was reading defenses while Doug Johnson was standing at the line of scrimmage. Who else does that?

Steve said one of his highest compliments came from Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. “You coach your football team just like a basketball coach,” Krzyzewski said. “You’re involved.” He’s right. All the way down to the visor throwing, neck-vein popping sideline gyrations, Spurrier is involved. That’s why so many guys want to play for him. They want to know the guy on the sidelines is giving it as much as they are. No question Spurrier is doing that.

He’s one of the most competitive guys you’ll ever meet. So much so, he’ll grind, even if he’s losing, until he comes out a winner. Even if it’s in his own mind. But remember, this is somebody who has never met with anything but success in his whole life. Even the thing that didn’t go right for him, playing professional football, he admits was probably his own fault. Now that’s honest.

I was standing outside the stadium after a game once, and an elderly gentleman walked by and starting chatting about the game. I said, “boy, Steve was into it tonight.” “Always been that way,” replied Graham Spurrier, Steve’s dad. “Ever since he was a boy, hated to lose, wouldn’t accept it no matter what it was.”

I like that about Steve. I don’t like passive acceptance. I like the active pursuit of being the best. He’s straightforward with his players. No gray area here. When two players got into a scuffle in New Orleans before a Sugar Bowl game, they were on the plane home before the media even heard about it. He scared Fred Taylor so bad the third time the former Gator running back got into trouble, Taylor stayed clear of “the dark side” for the rest of his college career.

I’ve spent time with Spurrier away from football and you find out quickly he doesn’t like to waste time. He wants to get things done. He doesn’t want to sit around a talk about trivial stuff.

A couple of years ago at a regular Tuesday press conference, Spurrier was asked about a big purple and black thing on the back of his hand. “Aw, my son Scotty put that tattoo on me and I just left it there for him,” was Steve’s explanation. That’s not what most people want to think about Steve. They’d rather he be the “evil genius” all the time. The object of their hate.

And he doesn’t mind that. Takes the heat off his players. The venomous things heard on the radio in opposing SEC cities would make a sailor blush. Spurrier lets it roll off his back as part of the game. I’ll bet most of them wouldn’t believe it if they were told he gave his number out to a defensive player when he returned as the head coach of Florida. You know, the number he wore while winning the Heisman Trophy? The accomplishment he refused to have acknowledged next to Danny Wuerffel’s at The Swamp. That would surprise some people.

He’s perhaps the best kind of personality to have in a coach: one his fans love and his opponents hate. Many times because he’s not their coach. Who did CBS track down at halftime and following the Tennessee game? Not Phil Fulmer, they wanted to hear what Spurrier had to say, even though his team was getting pushed around and they were losing at halftime.

Not to say he’s right all the time. He’s straight up when talking about most opponents, but whines a bit when Florida State is mentioned. (By the way, he NEVER calls them Florida State. It’s either “FSU” or the “semi’s”) I thought it was really wrong to call that flea-flicker in Athens when they were already whacking Georgia. But you know what? Gator fans loved it! Wanted him to do it again!

I’ve spent some social time with Spurrier, played some golf with him as well and he’s the same: no nonsense and willing to engage in “needling” and gamesmanship with the best of them. In fact, he is the best of them.

I did notice a little less joy last year and I think he did too. That’s why he addressed it right away this season. No sitting around crying over spilled milk for Spurrier.

“We’re going to have some fun,” he said. “Find that medium between serious and casual and we’ll play better. Especially at home.”

Several NFL teams have thrown all kinds of money and power in his face, trying to lure him to the professional game. Some owners are astonished he hasn’t jumped at one of the offers. “I guess I’m just a college coach,” he told me after turning down the Bucs latest offer. Maybe so, but if the right situation came up, I think he’d take the Jacksonville Jaguars job. It seems like the right and only fit for him in the NFL.

College or pro, Steve Spurrier will remain one of the most dynamic personalities in all of sports, not because he wants to be, but because of who he is. I hope he never changes.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Best Time of Year

Baltimore –
Let’s see, the NFL is in full swing, college football has had their share of dramatic games, Tiger Woods is the lead story every time he tees it up, the baseball races are close, hockey camps are opening, basketball coaches are making news, the US Open showed the future of tennis and, oh yeah, the Olympics start this week. Do you think there’s enough going on?

This might be my favorite time of the year. Some people don’t like the overlap but I think it’s great. In baseball clubhouses all over the country, the TV sets on Sunday are tuned to football. One of the first questions asked after things calm down in a winning NFL locker room is “Did Tiger win today?”

Sports are everywhere. Popping out of the sports section onto the front page. Moving into the news block of the evening news, and not just during the crime report. There are more cable sports stations, more sports talk radio stations. I’m sure some sociologist would say it’s got something to do with the “baby boomers” growing up. Or having grandchildren. Or slowing down. Or sitting in their recliners.

Whatever the reason, people are interested. They’re tracking the ups and downs of teams and players, the victories and their accomplishments. Some are living vicariously, others are being inspired to go do something themselves. Tiger Woods has brought new players to golf, but you don’t think he’s made every weekend hacker try to be a better player?

Computers are buzzing with fantasy football picks and trash talk. People are lamenting the failures of the home team, and cheering their successes. The information age has brought all kinds of information about sports right to everybody’s doorstep.

Where does corporate America go to find motivational speakers for their meetings? The sports world. What metaphors do political candidates use constantly? Ones from sports. It’s becoming the universal communications tool. A way to impart a moral and raise morale. For all of the things pointed out constantly that are wrong with sports, the competition factor is what makes the world go ‘round.

Could there be civility breaking out in sports? Woods takes his hat off at the end of a round to shake hands with a competitor. Bobby Bowden and George O’Leary spend a minute after a hard fought game in the middle of the field talking about the competition like old friends. Pete Sampras says Marat Safin can be the greatest player in the world after running the former champion off the court in straight sets. I’m not saying that overnight things are now wonderful. And Pollyanna hasn’t moved in next door. But it seems some of the players are beginning to understand the tolerance level of the fans and the corporations who pay the bills.

People don’t want to see temper tantrums. They don’t want to see felonious acts committed on the field and washed away as competition. They want to see effort. They want to see Todd Martin laying it all out in a five-set match at the US Open. They want to see Tiger try that 6-iron out of the fairway bunker over water going for the win. That’s what people want, and for the first time in a while, they’re getting a healthy dose of it.

But then again, the NBA hasn’t started yet.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Playoff$ Payoff

My friend Terry hates college football.
Makes fun of it.
Laughs when I try to talk about it.
Somehow works the word “BORING” loudly into the
conversation anytime the topic comes up.

Terry is from California, so maybe that explains part of his disdain for the college game. There’s no passion for college football in California. Sure, they’ll follow USC or UCLA when times are good, but nobody’s painting their face blue and gold or getting buried in a casket adorned with a Trojan helmet.

Terry’s pretty logical though, and can see the fallacy in “voting” for a winner. “Voting? Don’t they play the game on a field?” He’s right about that. There’s no logical reason to “vote” for a national champion in Division I college football. They play it off in every other sport and in every other football division. But in the biggest money maker and the one with the most exposure, the champion is left to some sportscasters and sportswriters who are well versed in one team and clueless about most others and coaches who have their Sports Information Directors vote so they don’t have to worry about it. Or worse, vote prospective opponents higher than they deserve so their own team can look better by beating a higher ranked team. The logical thing is to play it off. But logic plays just about no part in college football.

It’s about passion, blind loyalty, and money.

Sweating in the late summer, and pouring your guts out every Saturday should be rewarded with more than a vote. It’s a silly way to determine anything outside of an election and who gets kicked out of the fraternity house.

Believe it or not, there’s a faction in the NCAA that holds onto the vote because of its ambiguity. It sparks conversation they say, keeps the interest high. That’s baloney, self-serving and unfair to just about everybody. Try and tell Alabama fans how the vote will help them now that they’ve dropped from third to thirteenth in the poll after one week. The Tide followed the wishes of their fans and stopped scheduling Whatsamatta U for the first two games, and decided to go home and home with some recognizable opponents. The problem is, recognizable usually means potentially good, and that can hang an early loss on your record. Not good in these days of soft out of conference schedules and undefeated teams meeting in the so-called national championship game at the end of the year.

If you’re ranked out of the top seven at the beginning of the year, it’s virtually impossible to win the national championship. Too many teams in front of you, not playing each other, and all capable of running the table.

Why is there a poll before the season starts anyway? Did somebody go around and scout the teams to determine who had the best returning squad? Of course not. Everybody was sitting around, listening to everybody else, voting for their favorite coach, color or Heisman winner from 30 years ago. Nebraska yelled long and loud about being the best team at the end of last year. Loud and long enough to last until this summer when the “experts” voted the ‘Huskers #1. Why? Did Florida State look undeserving in their media guide? Did Bobby Bowden not smile right at the right reporter in order to get his vote?

The whole idea of “pre-season” polls is ridiculous. Votes are made based on ignorance and deceit, leaving traditionally powerful programs near the top no matter how good they are and a team without a ‘name’ no chance of playing for it all. Who decided Penn State was a good team, good enough to be ranked in the top 10 when the season started? Losses to Southern Cal and Toledo knocked the Nittany Lions out of the poll in the first two weeks.

Is Alabama’s willingness to travel cross-country for their first game and lose to somebody who’s potentially good worthy of a ten spot drop in the poll? Did the Crimson Tide leave some players on the West Coast? Did Keith Jackson not say “Whoa, Nellie” enough times?

Florida and Georgia put up lackluster performances at home against overmatched opponents, yet moved up in the voting, because there was a slot open in front of them. If nothing else, somebody ought to put a moratorium on pre-season polls. Start ’em on October 1st after everybody has played a few games.

One of two things has to happen before the voting goes away. The “old boy” network that makes up the conference commissioners and the bowl game directors has to get out of the game. They’re pulling the purse strings, deciding what conferences get the most money and keeping the bowls in the picture without including them in a playoff. Not all bowl directors are a part of it, but enough are happy with the status quo and the money they direct to keep the gravy train going. Either that, or the big schools, about thirty-five of them, have to break away and form a “super conference.” A group of teams willing to play each other all year long, and play it off in the end. That’ll bring enough money to the table to start turning heads and stop breaking hearts.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Easy Winner, Bobby Bowden

Every time I see him he calls me boy. He calls everybody “boy.”

“Hey boy, it’s good to see you,” is how Bobby Bowden greeted me Saturday night after his FSU Seminoles dismantled an overmatched BYU team. It’s a comfortable sound, hearing Bowden’s voice call after you like a long lost friend. Bowden probably knows most of the names, but it is his nature to be homey, comfortable and friendly.

Detractors (Gator fans) like to think it’s an act, a long involved syrupy act to cover up the ills and win over the media. Knowing Bowden for twenty years, I can tell you, it’s not an act. At a restaurant in Tallahassee, in his office on the FSU campus and in stadiums from Gainesville to Arizona, Bowden is the same. “Hey boy!” he says over and over to familiar faces, friends and family.

That’s not to say everything Bowden has done is right. I think he’s needed a more firm hand with discipline in recent years. He’s been asked about that, rather pointedly prior to the National Championship game last year, and he had a well thought out response. Part of it was about giving players a second chance, particularly those from single parent families who perhaps didn’t know any better. Part of it was his feeling of responsibility toward the players’ entire family, having been trusted with the safety and well being of a teenaged son. Having not been privy to the inside workings of the problem situations at FSU, I’ve relied on my confidence in Bowden to accept his decisions. I really don’t think the man can be devious.

Does he take advantage of the rules? Absolutely. Ask him about it and he’ll say emphatically, “change the rules!” “I’ll play by the rules, whatever they are.” Did his team get a break in 1993 when they dropped only one spot after losing to Notre Dame? Bowden says “probably, but we’re just following the system.”

Bowden has been working the system, whether it’s getting a break from the media because he’s generous and gracious with his time, or getting kids in school who are marginal because the system allows it. He thinks many parts of college football are flawed, but is sensible enough to know he’s not going to change them alone.

There have been National Championship chances gone by the boards with loses in bowl games or an errant field goal costing the Seminoles a shot. The pictures of Bowden in the instant following those disappointments are not of him stomping on his hat, or yelling at some assistant. Rather the resignation and understanding of the moment, a moment he has no control over, a moment ruled by teenagers trying their best, and perhaps coming up short. That’s a parental instinct taking over, something learned or inherited as a coach and something in this day of the “win or else” mentality in sports could be hard to understand for the uninitiated.

Bowden’s not one of my favorite coaches in the country, he’s one of my favorite people. I’ve asked him general questions about football, and extremely technical questions about his team, all met with an easy manner and a plain explanation.

If you think he’s removed himself from running his team, think again. He might not wear the headsets on the sidelines, but he’s in charge. Magically, those headsets appear and he’s making calls in crunch time.

The recruiting, the game planning, the game day coaching, talking to the media, greeting the boosters, they’re all part of Bowden’s repertoire, one with many moving parts, but with a constant positive outlook. I account much of that to Bowden’s faith. He doesn’t flaunt it, but you’ve seen him speak at a Billy Graham crusade. His even temperament follows a certain trust in a higher authority.

I’ve played golf with Bobby Bowden in the past. We rode together in the cart and talked and played for 5 hours. He played well. I think you can learn a lot about people playing golf with them. How they handle adversity, and good fortune, all the while trying to compete. You might not know if Bowden made birdie or bogey by watching him walk off a green.

Perhaps the most underrated part of Bowden’s coaching career is his adaptability. From his days as the “riverboat gambler,” Bowden showed his willingness to take a chance. Why? Because he had to. Bowden knew he didn’t have the horses to beat the big schools, so he had to scheme to compete with them. Remember Octoberfest? Bobby was part of that five game road trip that helped put FSU on the college football map.

Using a two quarterback system Bowden has won. He’s won coaching a Heisman Trophy winner. He’s won with defense, wild offense and a dominant kicker. Whatever he’s presented with, he’s used. At 70 years old, even Steve Spurrier said Bowden looks better and healthier than he has in a decade. I guess winning will do that to you. More than that, winning at life’s game keeps you young.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tiger Woods, Heavyweight Champ

It’s a pretty complex relationship, the one between sports fans and Tiger Woods. For a while, it was pretty easy to not like Tiger. A young phenom, who hit it long, Woods was kind of surly, kind of brash, and easy to dislike as he made the transition from amateur to professional.

His father said outrageous things and was the epitome of a stage parent. We were bombarded with video of Tiger when he was on the Mike Douglas show. Tiger was the youngest this and youngest that and his father was everywhere, reminding us about it at every turn. Woods talked about his “A” game, his “C” game, his penchant for fast food and video games.

People who didn’t know anything about sports, and had never even watched golf on television, let alone seen a golf course in person, knew Tiger liked to wear red on Sundays. His lucky color we were told.

Then there was the money. Millions thrown at him by corporations trying to jump on the Tiger train, grabbing a bit of this star.

Different ethic groups tried to claim him, but Tiger demurred, calling himself a “cablinasian.”

All of that was easy to distance yourself from as a sports fan, with one problem: he kept winning. A streak at the end of his rookie year showed him to be a force and a regular on tour. His Masters win in 1997 rewrote the record book.

Still a sports fan could call it a one time thing. The newest John Daly. Okay, we think he’s a player, but let him prove it over time.

Then came the well documented “finding” of the new swing, and the call to his swing coach from the back of the range.

“I got it,” we heard Tiger said.

“So what,” many sports fans groaned.

The streak of wins followed, the comeback at Pebble Beach, the challenge to Byron Nelson’s record.

“Now Nelson, he was a real player,” the old-timers said in the nineteenth hole. Even his victory at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the most dominating performance seen in modern golf, didn’t convince some.

“Perfect weather,” was the cry from the peanut gallery.

Although it did turn a few heads.

When David Duval shot 32 on the outward nine at St. Andrews there were whispers. “Now we’ll see what he’s made of,” and we did. As Duval opened the door on the tenth hole leaving a birdie putt one roll short, Woods stepped through it, making his putt and the march to history was on. Duval melted down, Woods kept up the parade, like royalty, marching in front for all to see.

But it wasn’t until he walked off the 18th hole at St. Andrews did we see a bit of Tiger we didn’t know about before. A small hand on the shoulder, the comment, “walk off like a champion, because you are a champion” to Duval awakened echoes of sports heroes of the past.

Was it Tiger changing, or was it us?

Perhaps a bit of both.

Woods, at 24, was now a real part of history and he seemed to know what that is and all that goes with it. Before, all we saw was the exultation of victory, the fist pumping and the uncommon celebrations. Perhaps his graciousness in losing the match play championship to Darren Clarke was a bit of a hint of things to come. Maybe his position as the best in the world is so unchallenged, he can concentrate on the little things “old school” champions possessed. Maybe it’s none of that.

Maybe it’s just growing up.

Something has changed though, in Tiger, and in us.

Watching closely through the first two rounds of the PGA Championship, we wanted to see how Woods would treat his playing partner, Jack Nicklaus, the one with the title Tiger wants: greatest to have every played. Woods deftly went about his business, posting a first round leading 66, all the while showing deference to Nicklaus. Not an easy two-step to pull off.

Even Nicklaus, heretofore rather spare with his praise of Woods, said Tiger was the total package. In his post-round interview, Jack said he didn’t know if he could keep up with Woods in his prime. Woods was on the two-shot during the interview, and very respectfully stood and listened, watching Nicklaus, listening to what he had to say. No rolling of the eyes, no big smiles, no guffaw’s, no false modesty. Just, perhaps learning. When asked, Tiger said the right things and shut up. No scene stealing, no melting into the background.

When faced with a final round challenge at the PGA Championship by a virtual unknown outside of golf, Bob May, Woods dug deep and matched May shot for shot, finally winning in a playoff. If you tuned in only for the final round it was like watching a world class athlete play your club pro who just came out from the shop after folding shirts. May is nothing of the kind, an accomplished player from Southern California who has been a force in Europe for the past three years. How do we know that?

Tiger told us. He knew all about May growing up. He told us “May was the man!” in Jr. golf circles when Tiger was young(er).

This is the kind of stuff sports fans have been waiting for. A winner on the playing field, and somebody who understands the responsibility of his stature. It’s what the heavyweight champion of the world used to be. There was so much more to wearing the belt as the biggest and best. Perhaps that’s what the founders of golf at the Old Course had in mind when they gave a belt, instead of a trophy to the Open Champion. Young Tom Morris retired that belt, winning it three consecutive times and taking it home.

Maybe we should find it and fit it around Tiger’s waist.

Right now, he deserves it.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com


I was having a conversation last night with my long time friend Andy. Andy used to work in Jacksonville 17 years ago and has traveled around since then. He’s one of my friends who I can go several months or even years without talking to, and pick up a conversation as if we spoke yesterday. He’s from New York, so not a lot turns his head. He’d come back with his family for a vacation and we were talking about how Jacksonville has changed since he left. He was overwhelmed. I mean could barely believe it. When he left, the town was just cresting past 200,00 residents. Now that number stands over 1 million. Two things have changed the landscape of North Florida: the Mayo Clinic and the NFL’s Jaguars.

It is pretty easy to document the Mayo Clinic’s influence. Prestigious diagnostic clinic picks Jacksonville for its first satellite. Patients are referred to this clinic and they and their families spend some time in North Florida, hopefully getting good news. Some of the nation’s top physicians are recruited to the Mayo Clinic and settle in the Jacksonville area.

The Jaguars influence is a little harder to define. It’s a mindset about Jacksonville that didn’t exist before. People from around the country know a little more about the city on the northern end of Florida, if not exactly how to get there.

Many have a general impression that NFL players are just thugs, living in a city during the season, taking advantage of the cushion local law enforcement might provide, raking down millions and moving on. The owner isn’t really local, he’s gotten a sweet deal from the city and is pulling down cash. That is the stereotype, and in some cases, even here, well deserved.

But I was standing on the practice field today and came across so many positive influences the team has provided they were hard to ignore.

Mark Brunell’s father, Dave, was at practice as he is occasionally. He moved to Jacksonville after it was apparent Mark had a long term future here. He’s a teacher and a coach. He’s influenced hundreds of local students already, including my own children. His local impact isn’t easy to define.

Aaron Beasley’s mother was watching practice from outside the fence this afternoon. She was a teenage mother to Aaron, and now has twin’s 3-years old. One has Down’s syndrome, and she had her in her arms today. Aaron’s mother lives in Jacksonville now, and Aaron is going to begin charity work, raising awareness and money regarding Down’s syndrome. Can you define his local impact?

Joel Smengee has been with the Jaguars from the beginning. He has a foundation that helps kids with facial disfigurement. His parents have moved here. His in-law’s now live in Jacksonville. Smengee and a couple of his teammates have started a business here, outside of football. His local impact could be immeasurable.

Ben Coleman was a Jaguar until this year, but his footprint has stayed behind, even though he’s playing in San Diego. I ran into Ben at a restaurant right before training camp started. He had 10 people at his table, and it was his treat. His ice cream shops provide not only a family atmosphere, but a place for young teens to congregate and stay out of trouble. Ben spent a lot of time here talking about “Family First” and a father’s responsibility. You don’t think that’s impact?

Jeff Lageman retired after the 1998 season. He still lives here, and plans on staying. In fact, his house on the St. Johns River was a fish camp in the early 1900’s so he says it has “good karma.” Lageman has an economics degree from Virginia, so he’s not locked into his celebrity here. But he’s stayed. He’s the Chairman of the local Channel 4 broadcast of the Children’s Miracle Network. I’ve seen him extend kindness to kids they’ll remember for life. His dedication to handicapped children is amazing to watch. Jeff’s having an impact.

Don Davey retired from the Jaguars two years ago. His knee wouldn’t let him play. Davey was a four time academic All-American at Wisconsin. He majored in Mechanical Engineering. I think he actually has more than one degree. I took him to Stanton Prep one afternoon to talk to the straight A students about continuing their work and Don told a story about how he wasn’t worthy to really talk to these students because he got one B in college. One. And he remembered everything about it, and how he disputed it with the professor. Don stayed in Jacksonville working in an engineering firm and doing charity work. He’s had an impact on me.

Kevin Hardy runs a local golf tournament with his name on it, with the money going to charity. But Hardy also just set his cousin up in a shoe store on the Southside. Members of his family have moved to Jacksonville to work in the store, filling what they think is a void in the local merchant population. They hope to have an impact.

I could go on about the golf tournaments hosted by Brunell and Tony Boselli. The Helping Hands foundation set up by Keenan McCardell. Keenan and Jimmy Smith’s summer football camp for kids. Jimmy’s appearances for a variety of charities. The speeches given by Carnell Lake about family responsibility or the enormous sums of money Tom Coughlin has raised in his charitable efforts, especially at his golf tournament benefiting the Jay Fund.

I’m sure I missed some, but I just thought you should know.

Some of these guys, they’re having an impact.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Summer Dog Days

These are the true dog days of summer. Football teams are in training camps, sweating the sweat they hope separates them from the other teams who are sweating equally in another city. Baseball teams have come to the conclusion that they’re contenders or they’re not. The haves are getting players from the have-nots.

Being from Baltimore, this is usually the time as a kid when I would have a passing interest in what the Colts were doing at Goucher College in between checking the box score of the latest Oriole game. The Colts are long gone, and the Orioles aren’t even a shell of their former self. Summer is no fun when your team isn’t in contention. Now I know what those Royals fans felt like for all those years.

For about a twenty-five year stretch starting in the mid-60’s the Baltimore Orioles rivaled the Yankees, the Canadiens and the Packers as the winningest franchises around. The Orioles won pennants, won World Series and when they weren’t winning, they were contending until the last week of the season. All that’s changed. And how.

But some parts of it are still the same. Go to Camden Yards and there are legions of knowledgeable fans in the ballpark, paying customers, now getting to know the new names, numbers and faces of the players wearing the Oriole uniform. It is the uniform people follow. The organization, the tradition, the pride of a team “belonging” to their city.

There was always an “Oriole Way.” In fact, they wrote a book about it. It came down to very simple things like how to hit the cutoff man, how to start the double play, how to execute a sacrifice bunt. All basic, but all the “right” way to do things. Players liked it. I know, now you’re saying “he’s old school.” But even players now like it. Look at B.J. Surhoff’s reaction to getting traded to the Atlanta Braves last week. Surhoff was going to a team in contention from a team without a chance. He didn’t pack his bags and go running. He cried. He bemoaned leaving Baltimore, the city, the people and the fans.

There is something special that bonds a player to a city like that, something akin to what happens in St. Louis. That’s why it was doubly appalling to hear Will Clark say how exciting it was in a Cardinal uniform after being traded there from the Orioles.

Baseball is different from other sports. You don’t have to be 7 feet tall or 300 pounds to play it. Everyday, normal looking guys excel at the game. The rituals of spring training, the excitement of opening day, the long season, the home stands and the road trips, the history of the game all separate baseball from everything else. It’s a marathon with its own rhythms. The season has its highs and lows. A team that wins six out of every ten games dominates the league. A batter who is successful just three out of every ten attempts is a star.

Fans come from all over to see a game. They already know the players. And they know just about everything about him. Batting average, slugging percentage, hometown, and minor league history, none of it gets past a baseball fan. Some make it to one game. Others are there, night after night, checking to see the small things that can make a difference.

So how did Baltimore fall from grace and into the pack of Brewers, Royals and Rangers? Ownership. An owner sets the tone for his franchise. When Peter Angelos bought the Orioles, he brought his own brand of brash leadership to the organization. Did I say leadership? Angelos’ self-styled ownership has taken the Orioles from a once proud position as an organization to the near laughingstock of all of baseball. Win now, or else has been his edict to all who have worked for him. That’s not how you win in baseball! Even George Steinbrenner finally figured out that your baseball people need to run your baseball team. The Yankees have nurtured players like Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams through their organization, making them the backbone of winning.

Angelos doesn’t understand any of this. I’m still checking the box score everyday; I’m still waiting for Cal to return to the lineup. I’m still wearing my Orioles hat and each day somehow is a little brighter after an Oriole win. But for the first time, I’ve thought twice about going to a game. Put money in Angelos’ pocket?

I’m sure I will at some time.

But I wish somebody would bring my Orioles back.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Part of The Game

There’s a big difference between being hurt and being injured. Hurt players deal with the pain, injured players go to the sidelines. The hurt factor in professional sports is 100%. Every player in every sport gets hurt. Some play through it, some don’t. Injured players don’t have any choice. The team doctors and the coaches take them out of the game.

Playing hurt varies from sport to sport, and even from position to position. Track athletes need a perfect set of circumstances to compete. Baseball pitchers are notorious for pulling themselves out after the slightest twinge. Jim Palmer, half-jokingly, once complained to Earl Weaver that the pressure on his brow from the bill of his cap was the worst part about being out there. Sandy Koufax and John Smoltz are the notable exceptions. Linebackers, offensive and defensive linemen play through all sorts of maladies. It’s almost a badge of courage to perform at something less than your best.

“I don’t understand injuries, I really don’t,” Tom Coughlin, Head Coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars said after Pro Bowl offensive lineman Leon Searcy was injured in practice.

“I understand they’re part of the game, but they don’t make any sense. There’s no rhyme or reason to them. They just happen.”

Coughlin’s right, they don’t make any sense. There’s not a chart that says X player will be OK if he performs this many sprints and takes this many reps in practice. They just happen, as if deemed by the gods.

Ever notice how players deal with another player’s injury during a game? If it’s serious they call for the training staff, walk around and survey the situation, get into a prayer circle and then go about their business. Because they have to. “That could be me,” is a thought that runs through a players mind, but they quickly dismiss the thought and move on. That guy’s gone, where’s his backup. Players don’t dwell on who’s not in the game; they concentrate on who is in the game. Mentally, injuries affect fans much more than they do players and coaches. Teams don’t sit around dealing with “what if?”

It is how players, coaches and teams react to injuries that set some apart from others. The St. Louis Rams lost their starting quarterback, Trent Green, to a knee injury in an exhibition game last year. One play and their big money, free agent quarterback acquisition was down for the season. Outsiders dismissed the Rams’ chances to compete inside their own division let alone throughout the league. Even the Rams’ players didn’t know where this team was going.

Luckily, Kurt Warner didn’t bat an eyelash. Warner came from nowhere, or worse from the Arena League to lead the team to a Super Bowl victory. And he was the MVP of the league and the game to boot. Without an injury to a starter, Warner never gets a chance.

Does that make any sense?

It does if you think there are guys out there with the talent to play at the highest levels but never get the chance. A bad relationship with a coach, a high draft pick in front of you, a bad play at the wrong time, or an injury that keeps your talent hidden, off display.

Coaches strut around saying they know where all the players are, they’ve scouted everybody, they’ve left no stone unturned. But the fact is, they don’t know where all the players are. They can’t possibly. There’s no measuring stick for desire, no way any coach can know how a player will perform under the most difficult of circumstances. So some player with a not so great 40 time, or the wrong height or weight for a certain position never gets the chance.

Warner basically walked in off the street and asked, “Can I play?” The Rams found out that he had the stuff, the magic to play at the highest level. How many other guys are out there stocking grocery shelves that could be playing professional sports? Many coaches would look down their noses and say, “none.” I contend there are a lot more than you would imagine.

Being close to a professional sports team teaches you that it’s not just the star players or even the starters who determine the team’s fate. It’s the entire roster, top to bottom. When one player goes down with an injury, another has to “step up” as the players like to say. Warner “stepped up” or rather “leapt up” at his chance to play.

The Miami Dolphins team of 1972 went undefeated by using their entire roster. The most glaring example was at quarterback where Earl Morrall “stepped up” when Bob Griese was injured. It was nothing new for Morrall; he did the same for the Colts whenever John Unitas couldn’t play.

The amount of money in the game available to players sometimes makes it difficult to see the difference between hurt and injured. A guaranteed contract also blurs the line. Those whose paycheck depends on their ability to play want to stay in the lineup for fear they’ll never return. Just ask Wally Pipp.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Coughlin The Crusader

It’s all part of the plan. The sunglasses, the calling off the fitness run, the ending practice a few minutes early. It wouldn’t surprise me if Tom Coughlin had all of these changes written down somewhere in a master plan he put together in 1994 when he took the Jaguars head coaching job: if not before. Tom Coughlin is the most organized person I’ve ever known. (Actually Dom Capers could be the most organized person I’ve ever met, but Coughlin won’t let me speak to him so I can ask him.)

He has his day mapped out, his week mapped out; his year mapped out, and expects the schedule to be followed. People who interfere with the schedule, who aren’t part of achieving the objective are usually given one chance to get with the program, or they’re out. He’s this way with everybody, his players, his friends, his coaches, even sometimes with his family. He’s looking for people to separate themselves from the pack. Show him something different, something that shows more commitment. I guess everybody is a bit of an overstatement; he actually doesn’t afford the media any chance to separate themselves. He throws the media into one basket; the one marked “something I have to do that takes time away from the important stuff” and doesn’t allow us to separate from one another. I’ve mentioned that to him more than once, and he disagrees.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Tom Coughlin. A lot. I know him professionally and we have a nice personal relationship as well. His work in the community is exemplary and there’s not much I fault him with during his tenure as the Jaguars head coach. It doesn’t mean we haven’t disagreed on occasion over the last six years. So much so in fact, that two times we’ve been nose to nose (mostly Coughlin yelling and me listening).

He is a fairly complex individual. The national media, and those observing from afar have tried to paint his personality with a broad brush. Tough disciplinarian, typical college coach trying to force his way on professional athletes. It wouldn’t be too hard to come up with that image, Patton with a coach’s whistle if you were just mildly paying attention. Coughlin believes in character; character that was once defined as “an integration of habits of conduct superimposed on temperament, the will exercised on disposition, though, emotion and action.” He believes in personal discipline and it’s application in everyday life. There’s a bit of Spartan philosophy mixed in as well; each man working himself as a part of the unit, protective of each other, loyal beyond doubt. If you know that about the man, everything else falls into place. He doesn’t understand people not doing their best. Not displaying their character as it is developed through practice is foreign to him.

His wife Judy tells a hilarious story about the airlines losing his luggage on a short trip to the Caribbean. Coughlin didn’t want to leave the room until the airline delivered his luggage. He was adamant. That’s their job, so they should do it right! Judy finally convinced him to buy a bathing suit at the gift shop so as to not waste part of the trip.

His success’ cannot be overstated as a head coach in the National Football League. There’s only one hurdle left: win the Super Bowl. Can Coughlin put his team in the proper mental state to get to the big game and perform? Looking back over the history of the game, the teams that have won it, many times got there by rallying behind their coach. Ditka, Parcells, even Dick Vermeil. Can Coughlin foster that relationship with his players? He has kept them at arms length in the past, an old school player-coach relationship. He started bringing doughnuts to the Friday workouts a couple of years ago. It shocked some of the players at the time, but brought many of them into his camp.

Some people think he’s turned the discipline of the club over to the veterans. Not exactly. He’s challenged the veterans to handle the discipline. Big difference. It’s part of the plan. The question is; what part of the plan gets the team to the next step? The answer probably drives Coughlin crazy because he knows he doesn’t control it. The players do. Only the players as a group can create an atmosphere where nothing but ultimate success is acceptable. Coughlin has put them right where they should be, but he’s taken them as far as he can. They have to do the rest.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Brush Back

There’s a space right below the tip of a person’s nose and right above their chin that’s just about exactly the size of a baseball. That’s where Roger Clemens was throwing at Mike Piazza. Not exactly at Piazza, but rather where that part of Piazza’s face was when Clemens let go of the pitch. He expected Piazza to be gone by the time the ball got there. Was he throwing at him? Absolutely! Did he expect to hurt him? Probably not. Clemens’ only mistake was not checking on Piazza when he went down. But even that was more of a message. Clemens is not the dominating pitcher he once was, and needs to work inside to keep guys from loading up on him. Even his Yankee teammates called him a headhunter when he was with the Blue Jays.

A little warning, an old fashion message, a brush back. As old as the game itself, an inside pitch, especially around the head is always a reminder not to dig in to deep.

Over the past 10 years or so a few things have happened that have kept the brush back pitch at bay. Hitters have cried loud and hard about pitching inside. They say it puts them at risk. No kidding. That’s exactly why Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale worked the inside of the plate. Gain possession of the inside, and you’ve got the advantage. Some hitters have tried to combat the inside pitch by going to the plate with all sorts of armor. An ear flap, an elbow guard, a wrist pad, a back-of-the-hand pad, and a shin guard or some combination thereof can be seen on most major league hitters these days. What are they gladiators? If the ball’s approaching a bit inside, they just “turtle up” and it harmlessly glances off. Watch classic sports one day when they’re showing games from the 60’s and 70’s. Most hitters look like stick figures. Weight lifting was considered taboo in baseball at the time. Nobody at the plate is wearing anything but the league-mandated helmet, with no flap. They don’t ever wear batting gloves!

There’s also a theory of hitting that promotes moving toward the plate at the beginning of the swing. Some call it ‘diving’ into the pitch. That’s exactly what Piazza does. It’s his first move. In toward the plate, so a running fastball up and in hits him every time, probably just a few inches from being a strike.

After he wrote Ball Four Jim Bouton attempted a comeback in baseball, becoming a knuckleball pitcher. Ted Turner was a bit fascinated by it and took Bouton into the Braves’ minor league organization. In my first story ever as a broadcaster, I went to Savannah to see Bouton and talk about his return to baseball. He was still considered quite an outsider because of the content of his book, and I was surprised he agreed not only to talk with me, but also show some of his stuff at 40 years old by letting me take some swings against the knuckleball. I’ve played a bunch of baseball my whole life, and was excited at the opportunity.

Bouton was gracious at my arrival, showed me to a locker room to change into a uniform and said he’d see me on the field. William L. Grayson stadium was the home of the AA Savannah Braves, an old ballpark even then, providing the perfect backdrop for a story on an ex-Yankee’s return to the game.

On the mound in baseball “sleeves”, pants and no hat, Bouton asked if I was ready. I dug in and nodded. The first pitch was right at my head, a fastball with no movement. I dove for the dirt and without a glance to the mound, got back up and brushed myself off. Back in the batter’s box I took my stance, as the second pitch was a fastball, again right at my head, with no movement. Back in the dirt I went, brushed myself off and got back up. I knew exactly what was going on, but adhering to the “code” in baseball, I went on, without complaint. This went on for five straight pitches.

Finally I yelled to the mound.
“Hey Jim, you’re gonna need better control than that if you want to get to the majors.”
Bouton yelled back, “Look hairspray, part of batting is fear, fear of being hit by the ball.”
“Part of pitching is going to be fear,” I replied, “if I come out there and beat you upside the head with this bat!”

With that, the perfectly conditioned Bouton laughed and threw the ball over the plate. We got along famously afterwards, with Bouton saying he could tell I’d played a little baseball just by the way I put on my socks. But he had to test me, to see if I understood “the code.” Bouton and his knuckleball did make it back to the majors with the Braves. He pitched in five games for Atlanta with a 1-3 record and a 4.97 era in 1978.

Much of the press coverage of the Clemens/Piazza incident got off the track. All of the sports channels covered it, dealt with it and moved on. I was surfing the cable about four days later only to come across CNBA and (I never thought I’d write this name in a column) Geraldo Rivera conducting a debate on whether Clemens’ act contributed to the “violence” of the game. His panelists, sportscasters Warner Wolf and Len Berman, and a sportswriter from New Jersey had differing views, but all were perplexed at the uninformed Rivera’s questions about “how can this happen?”

Baseball in particular, and sports in general, has its own specific culture. It’s when people like Rivera, outside that culture, try to put their own values on what’s happening inside the sport that causes the media frenzy.

Stay out of it Geraldo. Go back to Capone’s vault and see if there are any baseballs inside.
But watch out for that high hard one.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Where’s McEnroe?

There are a lot of things wrong with tennis. In fact, it seems it has all of the bad things about sports rolled into one. Bratty competitors, overbearing parents, haughty administrators, boring events and too few really good players.

When was the last time you sat and watched a tennis match with more than just a passing interest? Pete Sampras is the best player in the game, and perhaps the best ever but brings nothing else to the court except his game. Right after he won his first U.S. Open, Sampras was in an event called the Dupont All-American Challenge at Amelia Island. I met with him before the event, talked with him for about an hour, did an on-camera interview and left their thinking, “nice guy but boy is he young!” And not just in years. He didn’t know anything about anything! Tennis players are dedicated, drafted even, so young into their sport they don’t have anytime to develop at people. Sampras knew tennis, and that’s about it. Perhaps he’s staying out of the limelight off the court for fear of showing off his lack of knowledge of anything else.

If you get a chance to attend a “up and comer” event, something akin to a satellite tour, you’ll see some tennis, but people watching becomes the main event. Players show up with their “teams” in tow. Trainers, psychologists, coaches and other hangers-on sometimes masquerading as parents. Wow, the parents! Screaming, preening, dealing, anything that might call more attention to themselves. I mean this is a sport where one player’s father was arrested on the grounds and went out and threw himself into traffic, while another has a restraining order against being at an event where his daughter is playing! That’s normal? What happened to “hit the ball hard honey and play your best?” That’s why this is perhaps my all-time favorite conversation in tennis:

“Hi Mom, I’m in the finals,” said Lindsay Davenport to her mother. “That’s wonderful honey, do you want me to come tomorrow?” replied her mother. “Nah, just watch it on television.”

At the time, Davenport was at the U.S. Open in New York. Her mother was in California.

The biggest talk these days in tennis is about Anna Kournikova. Young, blonde and beautiful, almost anybody who doesn’t know anything about tennis still knows who Anna is. Yet, when people see her play, they’re amazed that she’s actually talented! This is not a princess on the court trying to fake it. Kournikova can play some, but plays up this “image thing” to the point of distraction. So she can date two Russian NHL players at the same time. So what! Win something soon and we’ll pay more attention. Which leads me to my second favorite tennis conversation:

“Did you bear down a little harder to try and get off the court quickly in the second set?” I asked Lindsay Davenport after a third round match. Lindsay (Laughing), “Yeah, I was a little behind, and there’s NO WAY I was losing to HER!!”

The opponent was the aforementioned Kournikova. (Can you tell Davenport is my favorite player?)

I know you remember when John McEnroe was the dominant player in men’s tennis. And I know you thought he was a jerk. And he was, even he admits it now. But he cared, played hard and did everything he could to win. Things are so much different now. Tanking, (throwing a match) has reached the point of high art. Appearance fees, far flung events, and under the table deals are such a part of the game the public usually runs for cover except for the Grand Slam events.

There might be hope though. The people who run tennis have finally admitted a problem exists. They’re trying to change the way the ranking system is run. Trying to bring together the best players more often. Trying to make the players understand how they can effect the game in the future.

Andre Agassi has gotten involved in some of the decision making of the game. Perhaps he can bring some normalcy to the situation. Then again, he was married to Brooke Sheilds and is engaged to Steffi Graf. But that’s a whole other story.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

When Tiger Is On, Everybody Else Is In The Woods (Part II)

“It was just one of those weeks,” is how Tiger Woods explained his dominating victory in the United States Open at Pebble Beach.

Sure. Winning by 15 shots is just one of those weeks. And Secretariat’s win in the Belmont Stakes was just one of those races. Woods’ display was awesome. The length of John Daly and the putting touch of Ben Crenshaw. Except better than both. And throw in the nicest chipping feel around the greens, great bunker imaginations and an accurate and long iron game and you have something close to what Woods is now.

Rocco Mediate got close when he said, “If you were going to build a golfer in a lab, he’d come out as Tiger Woods.”

He also has Nicklaus-like powers of concentration. Scotty Bowman, the NHL coach, was a marker for the USGA following Tiger’s group during the tournament. Bowman knows a little about concentration and said Woods’ focus is on the shot and his caddie, he’s oblivious to everything else. That was apparent before his last full swing of the tournament. Just 123 yards from the 18th green with a FIFTEEN shot lead, Woods and his caddie are throwing grass into the air trying to figure out how a slight cross wind might affect his pitching wedge. With a FIFTEEN SHOT LEAD!

“Anything I say would be an understatement,” commented Ernie Els, one of the best players in the world.

“I’m not surprised,” said Tom Watson, the best player of his era. Where did all of this come from?

Simple. From Woods’ measure of success. His measuring stick has always been winning. Remember when Tiger said “second place sucks” and we all thought that was so cute? So young? So true! He’s got winning on his mind and nothing else. One tour pro, paired with Tiger during the US Open said it best: “he plays every shot like his life depends on it.”

Tiger is the first great athlete to choose golf as his sport. Centerfield for the Giants, wide receiver for the Jaguars, off-guard for the Knicks, they were all possible destinations for an athlete as gifted and focused as Woods. The money in the game now allowed him to choose golf without pressure to take his talents elsewhere.

And he works at it.
Day and night, night and day.

Early in the morning, working on his putting because he didn’t like the way the ball was rolling. Late at night because he didn’t like the shape of his iron shots. A three day trip to Las Vegas with his coach where they spent the entire time on the range playing Pebble Beach in their minds, working on the shape of every shot they thought Tiger might need on every hole at Pebble.

Who else did that?

Did you see Woods walk from the 17th tee to the bunker at 17 in the final round? With his left sleeve pulled up and the wind in his face, it was apparent Tiger has spent plenty of time in the gym in the last 4 years. And it’s not idle working out. It’s focused, like his game, on making him a better player. Better strength, better balance. Eye surgery? Better to see the greens with my dear. At 24, Tiger Woods has no distractions. No wife, no kids, nothing to get between him and greatness. The funny part is how the other players are reacting. They’re throwing their hands up and saying “you win!” Most are making their schedules around Tiger’s. When he’s in a tournament, they’re not. If they want to compete in his league, they’ll have to get up early, stay late, and be relentless.

David Duval spent the off season trying to get more “athletic, trying to feel more like an athlete.” Perhaps he knew what Tiger was up to because two years ago David said about Tiger, “If he learns to hit a wedge, he’ll win 6 out of every 10 times he plays.”

As Ernie Els said, that might be an understatement.

Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser has it figured out.

“Everybody said there will never be another Michael Jordan,” wrote Kornheiser. “There already is. He’s playing golf.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Plenty of Options

Apathy is the problem. Not overzealous fans, not an overdose winning at all cost, just apathy. People really don’t care. Too many other options, too many things on television, too many things competing for our attention. Ray Lewis weasels his way out of a murder charge by lying enough to the police and prosecution to have his charge reduced to a misdemeanor, pleads guilty, testifies for the prosecution and walks out of the courtroom.

There’s no public outcry, no protests, no calling for Lewis’ suspension. Just silence. Well, not even silence, instead the clicking of the remote and the sound of sneakers on the hardwood at the NBA Finals or ice shavings on the rink at the Stanley Cup. We’ve turned to something else. Put Lewis out of our minds and moved on. He’s a lowlife? No problem, just move onto the next game. He’ll disappear in time. And he’s just like the rest of those players anyway, isn’t he?

John Rocker’s an idiot. We all know that, yet there is a public fascination with his self-destruction. What moronic thing will he say next? Will he snap and hit somebody? It’s not that we’re indignant about what he said and think he should be punished. We’re apathetic. Let’s see where and how far he’ll fall into the abyss, laugh, and move on.

And that’s the problem. By accepting these guys back as athletes (which we do every time we buy a ticket) who bask in our adulation, we’re not necessarily giving our approval, but rather saying it doesn’t matter. We don’t care. Our lives are compartmentalized. We can separate the heroes from the thugs, even when they’re the same guy. Ray Lewis in an orange jump suit and in shackles looks like anybody in court. Somehow, when he dons that #56, we’ll think it’s a different guy, and that’s ridiculous.

Sociologists have been saying for years actions like Lewis’ and Rocker’s were on the horizon. We’re asking professional football players to have a violent personality on the field, but be child a care worker off it. We want the closer for our baseball team to be bulldog tough with a ferocious look on the mound, but to be self-effacing after the game.

Our expectations are unrealistic, brought on by a clash of generations and cultures. We want some sort of 1950’s “Father Knows Best” character to emerge off the field with an eye-bulging Arnold Schwarzenegger demeanor on it. To think professional athletes play for the love of the game or for the pursuit of excellence is shortsighted. The number of sportsmen in the game is small. The athletes are entertainers, performers who command large compensation for their services.

Perhaps we’re at a crossroads looking for a solution to the current ills of professional sport. Fans have to decide what is important: winning or the competition itself. I saw the movie Gladiator the other night and got a pretty creepy feeling seeing the ‘performers’ take center stage at the coliseum in Rome. Forty-thousand ‘fans’ cheering for which side? Actually neither, just the killing itself. Is that what we’re reverting to? Just observers, wholly immersed in the action while it’s going on, and apathetic afterward. We are seeing a general detachment between fans and athletes. If that chasm grows larger, the place sports has in society will disappear. And we all will have lost.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Shaq attack!

For two years now, the NBA has been looking for a star. Somebody they can hang their hat on, somebody, anybody who will fill some of the void left by Michael Jordan’s departure. Look no further. Shaq has arrived.

It has been hard for Shaquille O’Neal to find his footing in the league. From heralded rookie, to villainous traitor to budding star in a star town, O’Neal has gone about life just about how most other guys in their 20’s do: Grabbing everything and seeing what fits.

Coming out of LSU two years early, O’Neal was considered raw. Not polished enough for the NBA game. Turns out Shaq the athlete just needed to catch up with Shaq the basketball player. A player of enormous size isn’t supposed to have a soft touch, or quick feet, or good speed. O’Neal had it all, it just wasn’t in a package as a basketball player yet. In Orlando, they found out he could dominate games, and with a decent supporting cast, took the Magic to the NBA finals. He was young, the team was young and they were blasted out. Quickly.

Perhaps that exposure to the bright lights in the NBA finals gave O’Neal a taste of what he could be. Not only as a basketball player, but as a star. As a rapper, Shaq made a name for himself in the music world. As an actor, he showed a showmanship that spilled over onto the court. Hollywood was at his doorstep, and the Lakers were only too happy to oblige. Remember, at the time, Shaq was considered another good, big center. Somebody with amazing potential, but without much to show for it. Jerry West knew he’d be a good fit with the bright lights of LA and the Lakers shelled out the money to get him. The move cast O’Neal as a villain in most places besides Orlando. He just went for the money, they said. He’d be a good player if he’d leave that other stupid stuff alone and concentrate on the game, they added. Shaq doesn’t like the villain role. He likes being the good guy. The guy in the white hat. He didn’t like the things being said about him, and it affected his game.

Over the last two years, a new Shaq has emerged. Continually playful, self-effacing and immensely proud, O’Neal needed guidance on how to become a champion. Phil Jackson provided the vehicle to take the next step. He still wrapped his head in a towel like a turban for post-game interviews and had that goofy smile, but worked intensely on his game. Shaq still comes up with silly nicknames for himself, but Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon claims he shagged free-throws for O’Neal for two straight hours one day in a high school gym. What other big star pro athlete calls up a TV reporter in Orlando and says “Come on over, let’s go water skiing?” Do any other guys at that level say their name as a wrestler would be “Big Foot Tornado?”

I’ve talked with Shaq a few times, and unlike a lot of other pro athletes, he’s cordial, polite and funny. I asked him after a Magic game one night if he wanted to do an interview right then or after he showered. O’Neal stood up, patted me on the chest and said, “I’ll be right back.” His hand covered me from shoulder to shoulder and he was and is the largest person I’ve ever seen. He returned, and answered questions until everybody was done.

The NBA need look no further for their national superstar. Shaquille O’Neal isn’t going to get in any trouble. He’s not going to choke a coach, or turn up as the father of 7 children by 6 different mothers. He’s got an engaging personality, a self-effacing manner and a strong enough sense of self to make fun of himself in those “Baby Bob” commercials. Go ahead and give him the national endorsement contracts. Let him make all the “I love this game” commercials. The league needs a star. He’s currently shining in Los Angeles.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Go To A Game!

Isn’t it funny how sports fans can conjure up images in their minds of just about everything they’ve ever seen? From the mob scene at the plate after Bobby Thompson’s home run, to Joe Montana’s arms thrust into the air after the game winning TD pass against Cincinnati, to Michael Jordan’s final shot against Utah, it’s easy. Think of it, and it is there. For me the images in my mind gathered from television have a definite blur compared to the ones I’ve experienced in person. I can visualize all of the great shots and home runs and plays I’ve seen on television, but I can more clearly recall all of those great experiences I’ve witnessed in a much different way. The television confines the experience. It’s visual, and that’s it. Despite many people watching sporting events in bars or with friends, the majority of watching is done alone, in two dimensions. To be there in person is something very different.

All sports fans have certain mental snapshots in their collective memory. Bill Buckner letting the ball go between his legs in the ’86 series for example. Just say it, and everybody who follows sports can picture it. Say, “The Masters” to somebody, and they have images of Tiger Woods upper cutting on the eighteenth green, or Jacks Nicklaus following his putt on 17 on his way to a 6th green jacket. When somebody says “The Masters” to me, two experiences come to mind. I’ve always loved to stand behind the 11th tee during a practice round and watch for about an hour. Television could never portray the silence on the tee. The long chute between tee and fairway, lined by experienced trees always in play. The isolation and the intimacy on the tee are different from every other spot on the golf course. The smell of spring air, the players reaching into the coolers on the tee for a drink, the whispered conversation between caddies, the glances to the top of the pines, checking the wind. For years I also made it a point to stand behind Fred Couples on the 18th tee during his round at least twice during the tournament. Before length was de rigueur on tour, Couples was long. “Boom Boom” was his nickname. Three-wood is usually the club of choice for professionals at 18, but to stand there a couple days in a row and watch Freddie pull out the driver (wooden at the time) and hear the ripple go through the crowd was always fun. I can feel the wind on my left cheek, and easily watch the grass Couples just threw into the air go to the side of the tee. I can hear him murmur “I’m going to aim it at the right corner of the bunker and cut it up the fairway.” And I can remember the explosion of the swing, the crash against the ball, and the polite applause, punctured by the occasional “Go Freddie,” rich with colors, smells and ambient sounds. There’s nothing like being at a game. Any kind of game. From Little League to the Super Bowl, the soccer field on a Saturday afternoon to the state Final Four volleyball championships. It fills your senses. The more you learn, the more you know, and the more you know, the more you learn. Sitting at Camden Yards, my friend’s wife complained about how she was a bit bored with the game. My head was swimming at the time thinking about how the people in the game fit everything in, in between pitches. The sign from the bench. The catcher’s signals. The count on the batter. The fielder’s positioning, the silent instructions from the shortstop to the other infielders. The strategy of the next pitch. Put somebody on base, and things get even more involved. What do you think about when somebody says “baseball?” Mark McGwire hitting a home run? Pedro Martinez striking somebody out? For me it’s the expanse of the outfield at any major league park. The sound of a fastball sizziling toward the plate. Every ground ball looking routine.

Watching a football game on television can be frustrating. If you have a passing interest, no big deal. Check on the score, see what the stars are doing, give it passive attention. If you really want to know what is happening, you have to be there. Are they setting up the cornerback? Who’s dominating the line of scrimmage? Is the wind actually a factor? None of that can be seen on the iso of the quarterback, center, two guards and running backs.

There’s no way we can all attend the games we want to. Our memories will always be of certain television images. But that’s what binds us together as fans. We’ve all seen Joe Namath running of the field at the Orange Bowl with his finger in the air after Super Bowl III. We all can talk about it, based on what we all saw on television. The same images, seen by everybody. More and more games are tailoring their contests for television, and that’s fine. But there’s nothing like being at a game. Any game. Go see a game.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Golden Age

Maybe it’s over. Or maybe it’s just starting. Either way, you can feel the shift in sports. One age is ending and perhaps it will be considered a golden age of sport.

The retirements of Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Dan Marino, John Elway in the last two years mark a clear end to a dominant time in sports. A time dominated by players possessed with talent, and incredible will. An argument can be made that Jordan, Gretzky, Marino and Elway are the best of all time in their sports.

Looking back over the history of professional sports, there is an ebb and flow of interest, but a continuous growth of leagues, money and exposure.

Baseball has fought players’ strikes and scandal throughout its history, yet has survived intact. The game is so intertwined with the American story, President Roosevelt advised Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the Commissioner of the game, to continue playing through World War II despite most of the players being called off to duty. Despite setbacks, the game has grown. Even the Black Sox scandal and cancellation of the 1994 World Series couldn’t keep the game from plowing forward. As baseball fans followed the game from radio, to television, to cable and to satellite, more information flowed into homes about the players’ on, and off-field exploits. The game has always had a collection of “eccentrics” but never were they all exposed at the same time. There was some mystery to it.

Overall, the quality of baseball has gotten better. Weight training, fitness, off-season workouts, coaching have elevated the talent to levels never reached before. They’ve all gotten better. Pitchers, hitters, fielders alike. But the game lacks a national promotional vehicle. Only Ken Griffey, Jr. is a recognized ‘national’ star, doing commercials and promoting the game. Fans are a bit disconnected because they’re better informed. They know the lack of revenue sharing has upset the balance of competition.

Basketball flourished when the focus of the game was on the stars. Wilt, and Russell, then Dr. J, followed by Magic, Bird and Michael all continued to push the game deeper into the minds of sports fans. The game still has stars, but all seem hollow imitations of something more real. Despite David Stern’s assurance that the game is better than ever, the game is in real trouble. Television ratings are off by a half, not because Michael retired, but because people are fed up with the macho, chest-thumping.

Football’s unprecedented growth in the last 30-years is directly in line with its ties to television. Yet the exposure of the game has reached a saturation point, and the league knows it. When players are oblivious of their role in society as a whole, it’s the league’s responsibility to make that part of the package. The NFL is taking steps to enlighten players about their part in the future of the game.

I think we’ll see a split soon. A serious chasm between what we now call the hard-core and the casual fan. More casual fans will be put off by the games, the players and the message both send. Those same games, players and messages will be the thing the hard-care fan is attracted to. Hard-core fans are looking for production and championships. Casual fans are looking for heroes, and most think they won’t find them in the sports pages anymore.

With the retirement of the aforementioned stars, there’s a new generation of athletes taking over the limelight. All born in the late 70’s and early ’80’s, all products of the information age. No mythology left about any of them. Sports mercenaries by trade, not in a negative sense, but by training. That’s all they’ve ever seen, all they’ve ever known. Big money and stardom has been at their fingertips their whole lives. It’s all there, right on television, 24 hours a day. Cable TV and satellite broadcasts enable a viewer in Portland to be an Oriole fan and a fan in Baltimore to follow the TrailBlazers.

It will work it self out. Why? Because the leagues have survived by fixing things to appeal to the fans. Despite their statements to the contrary, every league subtly adjusts their product to stay alive. Some will need more than a tweaking, but they’re not going away.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Cal Being Cal

It was a confusing scene I had just witnessed on television. There’s Cal Ripken, one of the most revered baseball players ever coming back to first base in Minnesota after a single for his 3,000 hit. He hugged Eddie Murray, his long-time teammate and friend, a fellow 3,000 hit club member, acknowledged the crowd, and then turned toward the visiting dugout to see his teammates rushing out to congratulate him. Nothing strange about that, except the first guy out of the dugout with open arms and a big smile was Albert Belle. Albert Belle? Here you have Cal and the anti-Cal celebrating together and I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Then Cal shakes Belle’s hand and embraces him! Wait a minute! Isn’t Belle supposed to be a jerk? Isn’t Cal supposed to be one of the best guys to ever play the game? What’s he doing hugging Albert Belle? I can’t stand Albert Belle. Never liked him when his name was Joey, and everything he’s done since then has sent my opinion of him down somewhere between rookie ball and the independent leagues. When the Orioles signed him, they might as well have put pinstripes on their uniforms. How un-Oriole can you get? Who’s next I thought, Dick Allen? Alex Johnson? Who likes Albert Belle anyway? Somehow, Cal Ripken sees something in Albert Belle he likes, and it made me think twice. Just Cal being Cal, choosing to see the best in people, and perhaps bringing out the best in them, which should be good enough for anybody.

“Everybody thinks of me in terms of The Streak,” Ripken has said several times, “but that’s not how I think of myself.” Problem is, Cal has never said how he thinks of himself, and so we’re left with his stats and his actions to put some kind of definition to his career.

Noted writer Thomas Boswell wrote a profile of Ripken last week in The Washington Post, outlining Ripken’s achievements against some of the top players at his position in the game. Boswell covers the Orioles, and has seen Ripken play perhaps more than anyone other than his teammates. Here are some of his points: Of the 7 players with 3,000th hit and 400 home runs, only two played the important defensive positions on the field, “up the middle,” at shortstop, second, catcher or centerfield; Ripken and Willie Mays.

The rap on Cal has always been range, but because of superb positioning, good anticipation, great footwork and a complete knowledge of the competition, his range has actually been phenomenal. The current top three at shortstop, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are All-Star players. Ripken’s glove work dwarfs their accomplishments. To back that up, Boswell poses these numbers: Ripken has lead the league in assists seven times, in 1984 he had 583 assists, the American League record. Last season, Jeter Rodriguez and Garciaparra had 391, 382 and 357 assists, respectively. Ripken averaged 497 assists over an 11-year period. That’s an edge of 100 a year over Jeter.

The double play also gauges a shortstop’s ability to play his position, and again, Cal’s numbers loom large over today’s top stars. Ripken averaged 113 double plays for 10 years, Rodriguez had 104 last season, but Garciaparra turned a paltry 72 in ‘99 and Jeter 87. All this at 6’4”, 220, and doing it all day, every day.

Offensively Ripken holds almost all records for a shortstop, and perhaps other shortstops in the future will break those records in this offensively inflated era of baseball. His 3,000 hits and 400 homers stand as a testament to his offensive prowess. Lasts year he hit .340 and slugged .584, pretty good for a guy needing back surgery at 38 year old.

I’ve always liked Cal’s response when asked about his 2,632-concecutive games played. “Because I can, and therefore I should,” he has said in much more eloquent ways. In his autobiography, Ripken explains how a day off here or there wouldn’t have made him any more effective, and how he and his father agreed it would be disrespectful of the game to not play. When you have that talent, desire and ability, you owe it to those gifts to put them on display everyday. Otherwise, you’re cheating.

He single-handedly saved the game from itself in 1994, signing autographs and continuing The Streak. Through his various batting stance adjustments, he showed his willingness to try new things, to be coached. I used to bristle at people’s criticism of his playing everyday, but now I know, it was just Cal being Cal, something we could all learn a little from.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

… and all was right with the world (Arnold Palmer)

I received an e-mail the other day from somebody asking how I could possibly still be covering sports with the number of “bad characters” involved in the games these days. I thought about it for a while, and started to catalogue what I’d been covering for the past several months. Shootings, stabbings, court proceedings, lies, tirades and general mayhem have been everyday occurrences in the sports world. That’s no fun, and I was beginning to agree with my e-mail correspondent. That’s when Arnold Palmer happened.

I probably can’t overstate the effect Arnold Palmer has had on his sport, and the people who cover him. He’s one of the most scrutinized athletes of the century, yet he’s unfailingly polite, strong in his convictions, and successful by any measure .

Invited to a “grounds inspection” by Palmer Course Design at the new Golf Club at Northampton in Yulee, Florida, I headed there one morning, through the stoplight (yes, the one) in Yulee turned right at the next dirt road, and headed back into the woods. A couple of dusty miles later I came to a clearing, where about 15 people were standing in a circle, chatting, and the one in the middle was unmistakably Arnold Palmer. In a pink golf shirt, khakis and boat shoes, Palmer had just returned from looking over the shaping and routing of the golf course. He was early, as is his custom, and was ready to go. The Citation X was at the Fernandina Airport and he (what else!) had a tee time. While everybody else was scurrying about, as is the case with all real leaders, Palmer was the most comfortable person there. The organizers were worried Arnold might leave before the official time of the event. The guests and the media hadn’t arrived yet. I was a few minutes early (very rare) and had a chance to stand and chat with Arnold for about 5 minutes or so before conducting an interview. At the opening of Mill Cove a few years ago, Arnold invited my father to sit with him at lunch, and when I reminded him of that, and sent my Dad’s regards, Palmer graciously said he remembered that day, and asked me to remember him to my father! We talked about our mutual love of flying, and he quizzed me about what I was going to say in my upcoming speech at the Rampagers’ Change of Command. I chuckled to myself after a couple of minutes. Hey! You’re standing here chatting with Arnold Palmer like there’s no one else in the world! He’s just that comfortable. While reminding his long time partner Ed Seay about the tee time at Bay Hill, Palmer attended to all of his duties of the day, spoke to everyone as if he’d known them for years, told Ed to invite me to play golf at Bay Hill with him soon, and quietly, left. Not a minute too early, not a minute too late.

How is it that one of the most famous athletes of the century has the time for everybody, but never seemed bothered or rushed? What can the modern day player possibly say to excuse his boorish behavior after watching Arnold Palmer conduct himself with the grace of an international diplomat? The answer is nothing. I always find it funny to watch other players from golf and other sports, straighten their posture, change their vocabulary and check their attitudes at the door when Arnold enters a room. It can’t be brushed off with an “old school” reference. It can’t be called “classic.” It’s just what’s right in any situation.

I’ve been fortunate to have lots of professional encounters with Arnold Palmer. All are memorable, and two are good examples of the example he sets.

As a young reporter in Jacksonville, I asked the Tournament Director of the TPC, John Tucker if he thought Arnold Palmer might come on our air live for the six o’clock news. Neither Palmer nor Jack Nicklaus nor Gary Player had ever appeared live on the news in town, I explained. Tucker pointed to Arnold on the practice tee at the Stadium Course and said, “Go down there and tell Arnold I told you he would go live with you tonight at six o’clock.” After a bit of prodding, I ventured to the tee where Palmer was hitting irons, his caddie, assistant, pilot and others in attendance. During a lull in the conversation, I spoke up, “Mr. Palmer, my name is Sam Kouvaris from Channel 4 here in town and John Tucker told me that you’d go live with me on the six o’clock news tonight if I came down here and asked you politely,” I stuttered. Palmer continued hitting practice shots and without looking up said, “He did, did he?” “Yes sir,” I stammered. Palmer stopped, looked up, smiled and said, “Do you know where I’m staying?” “Yes sir,” I managed to answer. “Be there early and we’ll do it,” and with that shook my hand and went back to practicing. Why would perhaps the most famous athlete in the world agree to such a thing without a single hesitation? A long lost reason: Loyalty. He knew that John Tucker, his long time friend, would not steer him wrong. I arrived early (as instructed, again, rare) and was treated to a couple of the most entertaining hours of my young career. The live shot went off without a hitch and I left there saying to myself, “Come on! I just had beers with ARNOLD PALMER!”

A couple of years later, the Sr. TPC was being held at the Valley Course at the Players Club. Palmer was in the field, and they planned the grand opening of The Plantation at Ponte Vedra, with his appearance in town. I was asked to write the biographies of several players in the official program that year, one of them being Arnold Palmer’s. I was at the Plantation for the opening with several hundred others, and met Arnold on the bridge to the 12th tee. I had the program with me, and thought I might get him to sign the article I had written. Palmer took the program from me, and insisted on reading the entire thing while everybody else was waiting. Afterwards, he again shook my hand, said thanks, and signed it. Again, more than I expected, always renewing my faith in what can be right with professional sports.

Maybe Arnold Palmer’s explosion on the American scene, his values and place in history can never be repeated. Perhaps the confluence of sports, television and personality were a once in history happening, but there’s no reason we can’t continue to learn from his example.

A PGA Tour pro once said, “We should take 50 cents of every dollar we make, and give it to Arnold Palmer.” That might be a little low. He propelled two tours, the PGA Tour and the Sr. PGA Tour, into the public psyche as legitimate sporting events. He was more gracious in defeat than in victory. And more than once he made me think . . . all is right with the world.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Final Four Fantastic

Nothing is quite like the Final Four, and Indianapolis is almost the perfect setting for it. They love their basketball in Indiana. I mean really love it. Did you know that 16 of the 17 largest high school basketball gyms in the country are in the state of Indiana? You can feel how they love basketball there. Much like football is revered here, basketball is worshiped there. There might be an empty field somewhere in the state without a hoop hanging on one end, but I didn’t see it. I used to think it was kind of hokey how they felt about hoops. Not anymore. They’re into it, they study it. It’s not casual, it’s serious. They know the schoolboys, they know the moves, they know basketball.

Moving around Indianapolis, you can sense how the Final Four feels at home there. The police, the security guards, the waiters and waitresses, and everybody else it seems are perfectly comfortable talking hoops. The setup in Indy is equally comfortable. Big hotels downtown, all within walking distance to the RCA Dome provide a backdrop for fun. The shopping and the different restaurants and bars provide the outlet for the fans to spend their dollars. Indianapolis civic leaders really did quite a job re-creating the downtown area. The Circle Center mall pulls the whole downtown together, and is the focal point needed. Other cities (Jacksonville) could take a cue from Indy. Even though the game was in a dome, something nobody seems to like, the RCA Dome was set up very well for the games. It didn’t seem cavernous like the Super Dome. Hopefully Minneapolis will have the same feel next year.

The crowd at the Final 4 is different than other major events. It’s taller. No kidding. It seems everybody at the game has played the game at one time or another. There are actual fans at the game as well. It’s not all corporate America. The schools are represented, and there’s a real feel of excitement. Michigan State fans were the biggest group there. Faces painted green, wearing Spartan heads everywhere. What is their deal with Florida anyway? The Citrus Bowl? Steve Spurrier was looking for guys to play in the game, and the Spartans acted like it was the last game ever played when they won. Same thing in the National Championship game. Their fans took some perverse pleasure in running down the Gators, the state, and everything about the south in general. Maybe there’s not enough to do in Lansing. Or maybe it’s just jealousy.

Michigan State played the better game, was the better team and deserved to win the National Title. They had three seniors who played critical roles. Who has three seniors even on the team anymore? They hit the outside shot, pushed the ball up the floor against the press and had more composure in the clutch. They seemed on a mission all year, and fulfilled that with the ring. Morris Peterson was the best player on the floor. Florida’s young players seemed overmatched, including Mike Miller. Billy Donovan couldn’t hit the shots for them. He had them in the right situations and they couldn’t come through. Whether they return to the game next year is immaterial. What counts is he’s building the program with some excitement. Wow, Gator fans are actually looking forward to next year! In basketball no less!

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

TPC Success

Ponte Vedra – Despite the weather delay, the final round of the Players championship provided just what everybody wanted: a dramatic finish, good television ratings, large crowds and a popular champion. The fact that it was Hal Sutton and Tiger Woods didn’t seem to make that much difference. The fact that Tiger Woods was in the final twosome did. It’s hard to believe Sutton could shoot just 71 in the final round with a one shot lead, and still win when Woods was his closest competitor.

That’s why the Stadium Course at Sawgrass is nearly an equal star to the players. Demanding, tough, penal but leveling is how most players described it. The course doesn’t reward a player with one great part of his game, it rewards the player with the whole game. Sutton had it, especially in the last round missing just one fairway, 16, and that was just barely. His driving was accurate, his iron play precise and his putting nothing short of brilliant. More importantly though, the game in his mind was working like that of a champion.

Sutton talked all week about not trying to force the issue, don’t try to use the accelerator all the time when the brake is what you need. That’s easy stuff to say, but actually putting it into practice in the heat of the battle with the best player in the world as your competition, that’s championship character in action. I asked Hal if he would have been able to do that 5, 10 or even 17 years ago when he first won the TPC, he said no, he’s a much better and smarter player than he was then. His personal and professional travails are well known, and unlike Fulton Allem, Sutton was unwilling to go into his problems and count them among the things that make him the player, and person he is today. His solid play over the last two holes showed grit and determination, and a willingness to trust himself to get the job done.

Following his victory, Hal praised Tiger but added, “He’s not bigger than the game.” If you read between the lines, Sutton was sending a message to his fellow PGA Tour players. Stop trying to play Tiger’s game is the message. Play your own game, trust yourself and good things might happen. Too many players are melting at Tiger’s feet, much like they did with Nicklaus, Palmer, Hogan, Snead and Nelson. Why is it such a big deal that Jack Fleck beat Hogan at the Open? Because everybody else was falling all over themselves trying to get out of Hogan’s way. That’s how too many players are reacting to Woods. In some ways, it’s understandable. Tiger is so good, so dominating and so able to will himself to success, it destroys the confidence of his competitors. His eagle on 16 Monday is the kind of thing that’s not supposed to happen in golf. It seems only Tiger can make it happen when he wills it to happen. Again, he’s an example of a great athlete who is playing golf, the first of what I think is many more to come.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

I miss Payne Stewart!

Orlando – It was warm, balmy even as I was standing on the practice tee at Bay Hill this week. It’s a trip I make every year, a chance to catch up with friends on the PGA tour and do some advance work prior to the Players Championship. Bay Hill is loose, a comfortable stop on tour, hosted perfectly by Arnold Palmer. The players were cordial, jovial even as they prepared for the longest golf course they’ll play this year on the PGA tour.

I love going to Bay Hill each year.
I just loved it a little less this year.

I missed Payne Stewart.

Last year on Wednesday of the tournament, I saw Payne on the practice tee. He greeted me heartily, with a quicker smile than usual. I’d known Payne since the early ‘80’s and noticed the change in his personality over the years. From a brash, self-confident star on the PGA tour, to a maturing father with two major championships on his resume’, Stewart no question had become a kinder person. We walked across the tee together, and he threw his arm around me and asked “How ya doin’ Sammy?” We laughed and I had a good feeling about the length of our friendship. We’re about the same age, with children about the same age, both doing just what we wanted to do, with some success. I saw Payne 4 or 5 times after that, but never in that relaxed setting of Bay Hill, but even in those heavy congested media-blitzes that occasionally followed him around, he’d give a knowing smile when he caught my eye that said, “Catch you later.”

For Payne there is no later, but he lives on in the actions and words of a lot of guys I know around his age on the PGA Tour, and among the media who cover sports and knew him. The explosive growth of the Tour has mirrored the same in the sports world, and the amount of media around it. The last 15 years have been phenomenal, with people chasing dollars, and stories, sometimes without time for reflection. Stewart’s death gave a lot of guys a real jolt. He’s Payne Stewart, US Open champion, master of his domain, he can’t die! But he did, and maybe we all learned from it.

I mentioned how I missed Payne at Bay Hill to a friend of mine in the press corp. He said at Pebble Beach this year, early one morning, he went to the wall that overlooks the Pacific near the 18th green and just sat there for a while, because he missed Payne. This isn’t supposed to happen between the media and the people they cover. It’s supposed to be a detached observation. But it’s not.

I miss Payne Stewart.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

A Little Tired of Rocking The Boat

Florida – You’ve heard the sayings, spring is a time for rebirth, a time when all baseball teams seem to have a shot, and they’re all in contention. So why are we still talking about John Rocker? His comments, suspension, and subsequent return to the Braves has blotted out all of the good things this time of the year baseball is supposed to bring us. Enough already. I’m now convinced Rocker is getting almost exactly what he wanted. A rep, a larger than life image. His comments to Sports Illustrated were part of this great “persona” John Rocker was trying to expand. The next step past Al Hrobosky, the Mad Hungarian. Crazy, over the edge, dangerous. Boy, are we all scared now. What we know now is Rocker is disconnected with the real world. The fantasy life professional sports can force on any athlete without the brain power to understand it is not the real world has overtaken Rocker’s sensibilities. There is now way anybody with his background actually believes the things he said.

John Rocker’s right to say anything is protected by the First Amendment. No question about that. Our right to ignore him and think he is an idiot is also clear. Baseball’s right to fine and suspend him has nothing to do with the First Amendment. Baseball is not a government agency. It’s a private entity, with rules and by-laws. The same as if a movie star made the same comments. They have that right, but the studio also has the right to not put them in another picture. Imagine your local anchorman saying those things. He has that right, but would be doing it on the street corner and not on the evening news. John Rocker’s right to say those things has been protected, and the fans right to express their thoughts about him is also protected. Rocker might need protection, and a set of ear plugs this season. Thirty-eight saves and a ninety-eight mph fastball, left-handed,aren’tt going to get him out of this personal bases-loaded situation.

The bigger question is: Who cares? Are we so dependent on what famous people say and do to fulfill our own lives that guys like John Rocker can actually have an effect on us? That’s where we’ve gone astray. The more talent you display on a field of play, the more your opinions count. If Kelly Lightenberg were the Braves closer last year, we would have never heard of John Rocker. PGA Tour star David Duval laughs each time he’s asked a question not relating to golf. When he’s ranked #1 in the world, David says his opinion counts. As soon as he’s #2, the questions stop. Are you really going to vote for somebody because an athlete says to? Wear their shoes, sport their clothes, model your game on the field or court after somebody who has had tremendous success, but run the rest of your life yourself.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Who Wants to Suspend a Millionaire?

Jacksonville – Grab a lifeline. Call a friend.
Go for 50-50, then give us your final answer: Who wants to suspend a millionaire? Maybe Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman have seen the popular TV show and answered the question with a firm, I do. Both men were faced with decisions last week that will define their games in the minds of fans, and both seemed up to the challenge.

Darryl Strawberry is an addict. How else could he continually throw his life away with no regard for anyone else, let alone himself? Cocaine is an insidious drug whose lure never abates. Still, because he has never had to pay a serious enough price, hasn’t experienced enough pain, Strawberry goes back on his word, his promises and risks everything again, because he’s gotten away with it before. He’s always found a technicality, an easy way back into the game of baseball because of its silly acceptance of a player’s disregard for the law. Hopefully Selig’s ruling will end Strawberry’s career. At 38 years old, Strawberry is the most celebrated career .259 hitter ever. As the NL rookie of the year in 1983, his potential seemed limitless but his inability to discipline himself away from the things that made him feel good and toward the things that made him be good. It bothers us as fans to see a player who has all the skills, throw it away on selfishness. He gets to play baseball and does this! Perhaps we’ve felt sorry for Strawberry in the past, and even pitied him, but now he deserves neither. Banishment from baseball is fitting. Let’s hope it’s Bud Selig’s final answer.

Gary Bettman’s move on Marty McSorley was also right, but for different reasons. Fighting, and violence for that matter, is part of professional hockey. Right or wrong (a whole different argument) they are a current part of the game. To have any understanding of this, you must see a game in person, and up close. It’s amazing there’s not an all out brawl every time the players skate down the ice.

Checking in the corners, grabbing, clutching, pushing each other to the ice are all things that happen on each sequence, with the understanding that they’re just “part of the game.” A fight occurs when somebody steps over that line and feels like they have to defend themselves. “Sticks down, gloves off, play,” is how part of the game has been described.

Sticks down!

Two men going at it with their fists are tolerated. Hockey even treats that situation with a bit of honor. But use a weapon, and there’s no honor in thuggery. McSorley says he snapped, and immediately apologized, saying he disgraced himself, his team and the game itself.

He’s right.

As a lifelong “enforcer” McSorley has made his living beating on people, protecting his teammates (including Wayne Gretzky) throughout his career. This time though, his actions were a disgrace and this penalty might end his career after 17 years. In fact, if he applies for reinstatement, the league is set to suspend him for nearly 20 more games next year. If there’s one thing that “old timers” regret about the change in the game over the last 30 years, it’s the lack of self-defense. Guys used to take care of themselves, now there’s somebody on the bench sent in to clean up for them.

A stick check to Paul Karia’s face, ending his season in 1998, and a vicious back check on Mike Modano are two examples of going over the line in hockey. The suspensions handed out were not nearly severe enough. The statement made by Bettman in the McSorley case is not a 50-50 proposition. It’s a lifeline for the sport.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Cult of Personality?

Daytona ­ I was scared this past week.
I’m not usually somebody who’s afraid but I had plenty of fear last week when I heard two words: Geoffrey Bodine. Covering Speedweeks at Daytona I spent time with Geoffrey Bodine on both Tuesday and Thursday. He was gracious with his time, thoughtful with his answers and friendly not only to me, but also to everybody who walked by. Signing autographs, Bodine had a quick smile along with a studied countenance when dealing with the public. I saw Bodine after the Twin 125 race on Thursday. He knew his new team didn’t have enough car to get into the race on Sunday. Yet, he stood with his crew and his car during the post-race inspection giving encouragement, suggestions and answering questions from the media as a past champion of the Daytona 500.

On Friday when I heard of the crash at the track during the truck race I asked, “who’s involved.” That’s when I heard the words that scared me: “Geoffrey Bodine.” Now why should I have that feeling of fear in my stomach just because a guy I interviewed a couple of times last week was in a wreck doing what he’s paid to do? I don’t know the answer, but I was afraid. Afraid something terrible had happened to a driver I was secretly rooting for to do well, if only because of his panache in the garage area. I’ve talked with Geoffrey Bodine plenty of times during my 22 years of covering NASCAR. I know he wasn’t a NASCAR insider, and I also know he doesn’t know me from Adam. I also know I took another step in my education about the passion fans have for NASCAR.

A few years ago I was covering an autograph appearance by Harry Gant at a local mall. Neil Bonnett had been killed that day at Daytona and we were doing a follow-up story. The line was long to get Gant’s autograph, and a woman in line asked me what I was doing there. “I’m here to ask Harry about Neil Bonnett.” I replied. “Why, what’s going on with Neil?” she asked. Realizing she didn’t know, I whispered to her, “Neil was killed today in a wreck in Daytona.” With that, the woman trembled, fell to her knees and began sobbing uncontrollably. Her husband helped her off to the side and consoled her, and I apologized profusely to anyone who would listen. Perhaps Bonnett was a relative or a close friend. “It’s not your fault,” the husband calmly told me. “Neil’s been her favorite driver since he started,” he explained. That incident was another part of my continuing education.

Why is it fans of NASCAR become so attached to the drivers? Because they’re what fans identify with. Everybody at a race has an allegiance to Ford, Chevy or Pontiac. And they support the sponsors above their competitors. But it’s the drivers that make the sport. If Cal Ripken was traded, I’d be interested in seeing what he did on his new team, but I’d still be an Orioles fan. It’s not that way in NASCAR. When a driver changes cars (teams) he takes his fans with him. Nobody’s a fan of a car! Fans like a driver’s styles, his personality, his way of handling the car on the track. And they dislike other drivers with the same passion. Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon polarize NASCAR fans more than any other drivers. “Anybody but Earnhardt,” and “Anybody but Gordon” are familiar rallying cries at tracks.

It’s the driver that counts. His name is emblazoned on hats and t-shirts, across the back windows of pick-up trucks and the windshield of cars. Fans dress like, talk like, and walk like their favorite driver. You don’t think Earnhardt drives a black car by accident do you? It’s a signal to his fans. We’re the intimidators, fear us! Jeff Gordon calls his team the Rainbow Warriors and the fans follow suit.

I don’t buy the non-fan theory about people only going to races to see the wrecks. Good driving, solid work in the garage and strategy on the track all make the competition exciting. Wrecks are spectacular, and even more so when followed by the words “how did he survive that!” Nobody sits and waits for a wreck, but they also don’t want to see a parade around the track either. Action is what made the sport and that’s what will keep its popularity growing. I’m glad Geoffrey Bodine wasn’t seriously hurt.
I won’t be afraid.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

When Tiger is on, most players are in the Woods

Good for Tiger
Good for Phil
.. and good for the game of golf.

Tiger Woods’ streak of winning consecutive golf tournaments is over. (Did you notice it went from winning 2 in a row, according to Tiger, to 6 in a row when the media decided that last year’s 4 straight also counted?) The streak brought a lot of attention to golf that it might not have gotten otherwise, and it brought to light how good players can be when they have their “A” game. Not just Tiger, but any of the top players in the world. Tiger is at a different level. No question about his ability, and he’s the best player in the world. But you can’t discount the talent, determination and ability of about 15 or so of the other top names in the game. Count David Duval, Davis Love, Fred Couples, Jose-Maria Olazabal, Ernie Els and even still Greg Norman plus a handful of other players in that top group.

For most players, a week where they have their “A” game going, means getting into contention, and maybe winning. For this group, it means dominating the competition, no matter who else is in the field, Tiger included. Look at Duval’s win at the Mercedes last year or Olazabal’s win at the World Series of Golf or Norman’s performance during his victory at the Players Championship. When these guys get going, nobody comes close. Tiger is at the top of the top, and has showed an ability to be in contention whenever he just makes the cut (which is why all tournaments should adopt the US open rule of all players within 10 shots of the lead make the cut after 36 holes). He’s great. The best of the best, but not enough credit is being given to the other top players out there.

In the final round of the Buick at San Diego, Woods admitted he wasn’t playing well, but still remained in contention. Why? He has a complete game. Dominating length. Solid short game, and confident putting.

“It’s disappointing the fact that I didn’t win,” Tiger said afterwards, ”but the positive thing is, you saw how poorly I played, to not hit the ball as good as I would like and not putt well the first couple of days, just to hang in there, chip and putt and just grind away at it and give myself a chance–I’m very proud of myself for that.”

When one part of his game deserts him, the others can pick up the slack. Not many other players can recover the way Tiger did yesterday, but the handful of top players can, and have done it. With Woods and Phil Mickelson tied after 13 holes, it was Woods who uncharacteristically made mistakes down the stretch while Mickelson hit the shot of the tournament, a 9 iron from 116 yards to 3 feet to set up a go-ahead birdie.

“Competing against the best player in the world and coming out on top means a lot to me,” Mickelson said. “The two things that I’m going to get from today are, one, the confidence that I can play against the best and I can win and, two, the next time I get a six- or seven-shot lead, I need to get tougher and try to make it eight, nine or 10.”

Woods is making other players better. Tougher competitors, stronger athletes. Duval’s off-season regimen was designed not to make him thinner, but to make him feel more athletic. He wants to have that churning in his stomach, the wobbly legs and the slight shake in his hands and know it’s from the pressure of competition, not from the fact that he’s out of gas. Rocco Mediate’s commitment to fitness is to allow him to compete against the likes of Tiger. Norman was the first player to emphasize physical fitness on the tour. Steve Elkington, Nick Price and others followed. Woods has sharpened the focus on the game, on what it takes to be truly great these days in the realm of big money, high-stakes, and global-spotlight professional sports. He’s the first, but he’s certainly not the last. Tiger is the beginning of a whole generation of good athletes who will choose golf or some other non-traditional national sport. Given a different upbringing, don’t you think Woods could be playing wide receiver in the NFL, or centerfield for some Major League Baseball team, or even one of the top mid-fielders on the US national Soccer team? He’s an athlete who chose golf, not a golfer who all of the sudden decided to be an athlete. Golf’s prize money has something to do with that. If it still was an afterthought in the sporting public’s mind with $20,000 purses, Woods might have been calling signals in this year’s Super Bowl. But the amount of money in the game is allowing top athletes to choose it as their sport. What Tiger’s doing now might seem unusual, but in 20 years’ we’ll see him as the vanguard of things to come.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

A Real Fantasy

Orlando: — My arm hurts. My back aches. My shoulder is killing me. And I feel great.

Atlanta Braves fantasy camp last weekend in Orlando was just that, a fantasy, and a good one at that. With my friends Lex and Terry, Dream Weeks coordinator Norm Amster invited us to the Braves camp at the Disney Wide World of Sports complex.

Check in Wednesday night, a skill session and assessment on Thursday morning, a game in the afternoon, doubleheaders on Friday and Saturday, and a chance to play in the big stadium, home of the Braves in spring training on Sunday.

It’s a fantasy.

Get up every morning, go to the ballpark, sit at your locker, dress like a major leaguer, and go play baseball.


That’s it, nothing more but taking ground balls, working on your stance in the tunnels, in front of the mirror, playing catch and thinking, what if.

Our team was managed by former major leaguer Darrell Evans, who has a very pragmatic approach to hitting. See the ball, hit the ball. Use your top hand. Don’t over think it. Drive the ball at the guys who don’t field very well. Not up the middle where all the good fielders are, but around the corners on the infield and the outfield as well.

About half of our team had never played baseball before! Honest. And they played like it. But not one disparaging word was said about it. Plenty of effort, lots of hustle, and more fun than most anybody on the team has had in 20, (OK 30) years. The camp is about guys who used to play, and are looking for a chance to immerse themselves in it once again.

It’s also about 82 year-old Joe Phillips who was attending his first camp just to “see what was going on.”

It’s about Patty Canakaris, who played a little softball in her youth, but never had played baseball before. On the last day, in her last at bat, she singled down the right field line. The ball was promptly retrieved, and Patty has it as a life-long souvenir.

It’s about Joe Medlin and his brother, inseparable for the 5 days, playing on the same team, eating lunch together, and acting like brothers.

It’s about Bobby Conner, who said while he was playing he felt young again, but immediately after, just felt old.

Fantasy camps have been around since the early 80’s, starting with the Dodgers, and have spread through out the majors to nearly every team. Why is it baseball as a sport is able to pull this off? Nobody is flocking to football, basketball or hockey camps. They have their die-hards, but nothing like baseball. It gets in your blood and won’t go away.

Most guys played some kind of baseball when they were young. It’s a game that normal-sized people can play. And everybody has a memory, maybe just one of something they did on the field that made them a baseball player. Most are at camp trying to recapture that.

The smell of the leather, the feel of the grass, the sound of the wooden crack of the bat. Even when your arm hurts. And your back aches, and your shoulder is killing you.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The “Much Better Than Average But Not The Best Ever” Bowl

Atlanta: In our instant gratification society, we’re caught up in the science of the new. If it’s new, it must be better. Wrong. Enough already about Super bowl XXXIV being the best ever. Compelling, exciting, going down to the last play? No question.

Best ever?
Not close.

How can a game that had 2 missed field goals, a botched snap, a blocked field goal and a team in the red zone 5 straight times and come out without a touchdown be considered the best ever?

The final 18 minutes or so were very exciting. The Titans showed just how they like to play football. Physical, tough, grind it out, last man-standing football.
Not pretty, but effective.
They have heart.
The Ram’s have talent, heart, imagination
and a fun story.

But none of that makes it the best Super Bowl ever.

What about Super Bowl III, or even the “Blunder Bowl” Super Bowl V? Namath’s win over the Colts has its place in history, and Jim O’Brien’s kick to win the world championship for Baltimore had an exciting ending. Neither of those is new, so I guess they don’t qualify.

How about the Steelers/Cowboys 35-31 game where Jackie Smith dropped the winning pass in the end zone? Scott Norwood’s missed kick apparently doesn’t qualify because it was a miss. Try telling that to Giants fans.

Two years ago, John Elway’s first win was hailed as the best Super Bowl ever. Solid play from both the Broncos and Packers, two star quarterbacks performing on the big stage, a big offensive play to take the lead and a big defensive play to preserve it. That still qualifies as a candidate as the best Super Bowl ever.

If you want to include just NFL championship games, the ‘58 game between the Giants and Colts virtually has no peer. John Unitas marching the team down field for the tying score in regulation. Then doing the same in overtime.

Don’t be romanced by the last play, game ending on the one-yard line argument. That’s just where the Rams expected the game to end. That’s the play they gave Steve McNair and the Titans. It was up to Mike Jones and the safety to make the tackle, and Jones was up to the task. It was nice to see players making a play to decide a game instead of some player’s mistake putting one team over the top.

This game had too many mistakes, to many missed executions to be called the best ever. Very exciting, very compelling, but too many observers are caught up in the ‘if it’s happening now, it must be better’ syndrome.

Fun game to watch, a better-than-expected game than most predicted, but save the words ‘great’ and ‘best’ for the ones that deserve it.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Not Tonight, I’ve Got The Blues

Jacksonville – Cry. Pout. Sulk. Cuss. Throw something.
It’s all right, because that’s how just about everybody else feels. And it’s normal.

I know you keep telling yourself, it was just a football game. And it’s silly to feel this way. But it’s not. Analyze it, go over it again, be mad with the players, coaches, refs, the media, whatever it takes to put it away and still accept the Jaguars are your team.

The Jaguars loss to the Titans Sunday could have been easier to swallow if they had just played sort of like they played during the regular season. Or even half as well as against Miami. To lose is one thing. To give it away is another. And that’s what makes it hurt all the worse.

Sometimes people who don’t count themselves as “sports fans” can’t understand what all the fuss is about. Now, living in Jacksonville, they must know. The money, time, and passion invested in the team came to an abrupt end Sunday, leaving an emptiness fans here have never experienced. But it’s OK. Communal pain is what brings the passion to a fever pitch the next time.

Now you know why Denver, their fans, players and media have such animosity for Jacksonville and the Jaguars. We did to them in ‘96 what Tennessee did to us. Only worse. The Jaguars were an expansion team! And a decided underdog. Just a formality on their way to the Super Bowl. You don’t think when the Jaguars visited Denver in the playoffs the next year, the way the Broncos dismantled Jacksonville, and kept on doing it was an accident do you? Cleveland’s passion for their Browns’ was steeled through years of getting close but never taking that last step. John Elway in the late ‘80’s, then Art Modell in the ‘90’s.

It seems like ancient history now, but when the Colts left Baltimore in ’84, they left behind 30 years of history. An entire generation of sports fans, abandoned, left alone to deal with the pain of being shut out in the NFL title game, being on the losing end of the greatest upset in NFL history, now with no team to cheer for, and not even anyone around to be mad at.

Tom Coughlin’s comments on Monday were right on the money. “Don’t ask me to evaluate now,” said the Head Coach, “Because today it’s ‘Fire everybody’.

Isn’t that how you felt?
Fire ‘em all, and start over.
That feeling is now subsiding.
Some guys can stay, and some have to go. But it’s your team to root for. Not just the players who wear the uniform now, but also the team as a whole.

It’s the people you tail gate with, the experience of sitting in the rain at the game, of complaining about warm beer and cold hot dogs. That’s what makes you a fan, and it gives you the right to sulk. To cuss. To cry if you want to.

Then sneak the sports section after declaring yourself done with them, and scan the agate type for who might be available. Then check the dates on free-agency. And the upcoming college draft. Then dream of summer camp, and the season opener, and your chance to be a fan again.