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.