Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguar Outlook

In the middle of the locker room, Jaguars Linebacker Kevin Hardy stood, with the help of crutches, surveying the landscape. As he looked around, the sight was different than anything he’d seen in the past, and is different than anything the locker room will look like in the future. There are remnants of the Jaguars past, Mark Brunell, Seth Payne and Jimmy Smith, and there are glimmers of the Jaguars future in Marlon McCree, Danny Clark and others. Hardy is a free-agent, and after a 7 week rehab on his knee, he’ll be fielding offers from other teams. The Jaguars won’t be in that market.

“It would be tough,” is how Head Coach Tom Coughlin characterized the Jaguars chances to re-sign Hardy.

Getting many veterans back is going to be very tough for the Jaguars from top to bottom. Some estimates have the Jaguars being able to keep fifteen players off the 2001 team and the rest will have to be minimum salary contributors (rookie and first year players). So who are these fifteen?

On offense, Mark Brunell, Jimmy Smith and Fred Taylor have cap friendly salaries that will have them on the roster next year. Keenan McCardell’s cap number is about $4 million, and will only return if the Jaguars agree to a long-term restructuring of his contract with some guaranteed money. Sean Dawkins isn’t affordable, Kyle Brady won’t be back because of his cost and Zach Weigert’s a question mark because of his salary.

Stacey Mack is a free-agent who should attract some attention after his late season performance. Elvis Joseph is a coaches’ favorite and comes at the right price. Maurice Williams returns, so does Brad Meester. The Jaguars will weigh Todd Fordham, Jeff Smith and Patrick Washington’s production against their cost.

As for Tony Boselli, his status could be a very hard decision for the Jaguars. His cap number is around $7 million and in recent years hasn’t shown an ability to stay healthy. His work ethic is unquestioned, his ability unmatched, and his leadership a key factor in success for the Jaguars. But can he stay on the field? He’s a Coughlin type of player, in fact he’s the Coughlin type of player and no doubt he’ll be on the roster next year. But at least once this off-season, the Jaguars will look at Boselli as a number, instead of a player, for the first time in his career

On defense, Tony Brackens is back, as is Marcus Stroud. Paul Spicer won’t cost too much. Renaldo Wynn is a free-agent and the Jaguars will have to decide between Seth Payne and Gary Walker. They can’t keep both, and might have a tough time fitting either under the cap.

T.J. Slaughter and Danny Clark will be two of the starting linebackers but who’s the middle linebacker? Marlon McCree and Donovin Darius will be in the defensive backfield. Have Kiwaukee Thomas and Jason Craft played well enough to allow the Jaguars to cut loose Aaron Beasley and Fernando Bryant? Bryant’s production is down, and Beasley’s cap number is too high. (Beasley should market himself as a free-safety at this point in his career. He has the size to stop the run and the cover skills to play on third down against a third wide receiver.)

So there you have it. Next year’s Jaguars team will have a few remaining veterans and a lot of young players. Some, like Joseph, Thomas and Craft, have gotten plenty of playing time. Others, names unknown as draft picks and rookie free-agents have yet to see the field in the NFL. Coughlin, his coaches and personnel department will be tested this year. They’ll have to do a better job of gathering players who can make their team and contribute right away.

Chris Hanson is the best find of the year, but the Jaguars spent a 5th round pick on a punter who didn’t make the team. Could that pick have been used better at another position?

The Jaguars lost 6th round pick Chad Ward to the 49ers this week off their practice squad. Another draft pick currently not on Jaguars roster. Add Anthony Denman to that list, and the trend of the team’s draft picks is not what they were hoping for. From Cordell Taylor, a second round cornerback bust, to R.Jay Soward, a first round washout, the Jaguars haven’t been able to stock their team sufficiently from their own draft classes whether it’s with special teamers or starters on offense or defense. They won’t be able to hide the 2002 class. How well the Jaguars do on the field will be a direct result of how they do in the war room in April.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com


Christmas is a time for family and friends, kids and relatives. Christmas sports traditions have evolved into the Blue/Gray game, a bowl game and Michael Jordan playing in an NBA Game. Of course, NBC wasn’t aware Jordan would be back this year, so he and the Wizards have the day off.

I’ve always liked Christmas. With two sisters and a brother growing up, it was a big deal around my house, and with three children of my own now, it’s a fun holiday. The gift giving is fine, but it’s the spirit of the season that important. I know it sounds hokey, but doesn’t everybody seem a little bit nicer on Christmas?

More than any other holiday, Christmas should give us a chance to reflect and renew, a chance to count our blessings and to reach out to those less fortunate. September 11th has brought a new meaning to Christmas for many people and I hope in this holiday season you’ll hold your kids a little bit tighter and linger with friends a little bit longer.

The sports world will be there tomorrow. I checked the schedule. Jordan and the Wizards are playing at Charlotte.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

A-Rod’s Millions

There’s been a large outcry from sports fans this week about the $252-million contract Alex Rodriguez signed with the Texas Rangers. Over the next ten years, if he chooses, A-Rod will be the highest paid player in baseball.

It’s in his contract.

He has to be or he can leave.

People are screaming about this because they’re dealing from the wrong premise. Baseball, or any other sport played at the professional level these days is not the sport we played, or watched as kids.

Pro sports aren’t part of the backdrop of society anymore. They’re what defines communities, defines fans, and in many cases define the cultural fabric of our country. It’s a rare exception that an athlete is identified with one team, one city throughout his career. Free agency has taken care of that.

In the off-season of any sport, athletes are headed off to better tax havens, warmer climates and the good life. How many Ravens hang around Baltimore in the summer? Where are the Pirates in the winter? Pittsburgh? Are the Browns sitting around in the Flats in Cleveland on New Year’s Eve?

There’s no slipping into the corner tavern and bumping into your favorite player. I worked in a bar in Washington, D.C. while I was in college and it would have been unusual if a night went by when I was behind the bar that a player from the Redskins didn’t walk in. Not anymore.

They’re entertainers, they’re stars, and they’re paid accordingly. The games have gone from just that, games, to a big show. Have you seen the opening of an NBA game lately? They’d gotten so outrageous with smoke, lasers and loud music that the league had to put limits on what teams could do. It’s a big show, and that’s what the fans are paying for. And don’t lament how nobody can afford to go to a baseball game. How many Garth Brooks fans have actually seen him in person? Most can’t afford it.

Rodriguez’s $25-million a year is about right for a top flight entertainer these days. Robert DeNiro, Meg Ryan, Elton John, they’re all in that range. Nobody’s yammering about their salaries. We accept they have talents we don’t have. So does A-Rod. And that’s why the owners are paying that kind of money.

Baseball’s problem is the escalation of salaries over the long haul. When will it stop? Only when the owners can’t pay that kind of money. It’s not the superstars who are tilting the books. It’s how they drag up the utility infielder to a salary structure that doesn’t allow all clubs to be in the bidding. At some point, the league will realize that the competitive balance in the league is so out of whack, tilted toward the big market teams, that some clubs like Kansas City, Montreal, Tampa Bay and Milwaukee fold their tents and go away. Not relocate. Just fold because they can’t compete.

Lately at owners’ meetings you hear the word “contraction.” That means they’re thinking about it. Considering getting rid of teams for the first time since 1900.

Don’t think it can’t happen.

U.S. Steel?



On the way out.

Fewer teams will mean fewer jobs, less power for the Players Union, better talent on a smaller number of teams, and the owners can control the salaries. If they want to.

The common theory is that anything a guy makes is what’s he’s worth, because somebody is willing to pay it. Clearly, Texas billionaire Tom Hicks can afford to pay Rodriguez $25-million a year. He’ll probably make money over the long haul on the deal between ticket sales, promotions, broadcast rights and the overall value of the team.

The problem is, will he have anybody to play? A 162-game schedule between the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, Rangers, Braves, Mets, Angels and Dodgers could get a little boring.

Don’t blame A-Rod. By all accounts he’s the perfect player to get the perfect deal: Can do it all on the field offensively and defensively, knows the history of the game and respects it, great in the clubhouse and is a model citizen off the field.

I hope he wins the Triple Crown. Somebody we’ll pay to watch perform. He’s an entertainer.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com


So who thought the BCS was a good idea from the beginning anyway? From the minds of, as my friend Cole Pepper says, “money grubbing fat cats” comes an idea that’s flawed from the start and has gotten worse as it’s gone along.

Yes, I hate the BCS.

It hasn’t achieved any goal, and what was the goal anyway? To determine a “true” national champion for college football? That’s a noble idea that has an easy answer: have a playoff. Not something a bunch of writers and coaches have a say in, but a playoff where teams meet each other on the playing field.

The old system had some order, and when there was a question, they just split the National Championship, giving two teams the right to say they were the best. Under the new system, one team calls themselves the National Champion while two or three sit and brood about not getting a chance to at least play for the title. If the traditional Bowl alignments were in place this year, Illinois and Oregon would meet in the Rose Bowl, LSU and Maryland in the Sugar, Nebraska and Florida in the Fiesta and Colorado would have a chance to beat somebody in the Orange Bowl. Maybe Tennessee. Play those games and then come up with a National Champion. Or even better, play those games and then pick the top two teams to play one more for all of the marbles.

(On a complete tangent, how good of a representation is it of a team after they have more than a month off and then have to play in the biggest game of their season? Are they really the same team that went 11-0?)

No offense to Nebraska. They followed the rules and are in the Rose Bowl. Good for them. They didn’t make the rules; they’re just playing by them. Much like Florida State last year, Bobby Bowden said the Seminoles were in the National Championship game because that’s how the polls worked. Sure, Miami should have played Oklahoma, but the BCS brain trust had the ‘Noles in the game and Miami out in the cold.

This year both Colorado and Oregon have a legitimate gripe. The Ducks lost one game early and Colorado beat Nebraska and won the conference championship. Sure next year, they’ll change the rule and say unless you win your conference championship, you’re not eligible. But that’s a year too late. And the worst thing is the guys who invented this thing keep going around telling everybody that they knew this was a possibility and that it’s working, like we’re complete idiots.

Here’s the easy fix: a 16 team playoff that involves the conference champions and at-large teams, the bowls are a part of it, everybody makes money and a real national champion is crowned. There are a lot of reasons that won’t happen, not the least of which is how the money would have to be shared across the board. Do you think Roy Kramer wants the SEC to share all of that loot with Appalachian State? That’s how it works in basketball, and the football guys don’t want any part of that.

The conference commitments and the network contracts run through 2006, meaning they’ll tamper with the rules over the next couple of years, but this is the system we’re stuck with. The Bowls can’t really be happy with this system. All of the attention is on one game with the rest as just window dressing. A little controversy spices things up, a lot of controversy means something’s wrong.

Admit it, and fix it.


Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Groundhog Day

It took me a while, but I finally have figured it out: it’s Groundhog Day. You know, the movie where Bill Murray wakes up every day and it’s the same day over and over. He knows it, but nobody else does. The Jaguars version involves the other team though.

The Jaguars might be the team going through the same thing over and over, but it’s the other team that seems to know what the outcome is going to be. They don’t panic, they don’t even flinch, knowing that no matter what lead there is or how much time is left, somehow, the Jaguars will give them the opportunity to win the game. You can almost hear the opposing coach’s halftime speech. “Don’t worry that we’re down, they’ll give it to us eventually.”

Of the eight losses this year, six of them have happened with a lead in the second half. Last night was no exception. Up 21-7 and with momentum, the Jaguars gave up long plays to Brett Favre, turned the ball over, had a few key penalties and gave the Packers just enough field position to let Green Bay tie the score and eventually win it with under two minutes to play.

Regrettably, the team has forgotten how to win. “That’s the plan,” Head Coach Tom Coughlin said after the game. “Get into position in the fourth quarter and find a way to win. Instead, we find a way to lose.” That’s a huge statement by the Head Coach, admitting that his team can’t find their way through the darkness. They don’t have a margin of error. The Jaguars have to play a nearly perfect game to win, and they don’t have enough talent through the roster to do that. A missed block here, a blown defensive assignment there and all of the sudden it’s the fourth quarter, the other team has the ball, and eventually the lead.

In the movie, when Bill Murray realized what was going on, he tried to take advantage of it. But until he became a better person, the end result was always the same. The Jaguars are in the same situation, they just have to play better or the end result will always be the same.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gift List

As you’re out at the malls and at your local shops on the busiest shopping days of the year, don’t forget some of the more notables on your list. What do you get a just un-retired NBA superstar who’s playing with a bunch of dolts? Or an NFL coach whose stars can’t stay healthy, and who, in his own words, can’t get the ones who are on the field to “play above the x’s and o’s?” Some people are easy to buy for; for some others, you have to be pretty creative.

For Michael Jordan, see if you can find a giant bag of patience, and check in a specialty shop for a huge dose of sense of humor. It’s pretty obvious with the supporting cast he has on the Wizards; he’ll need both as the NBA season goes along.

Getting gifts for Tom Coughlin is easy. Grab every medical supply available, and while you’re there, see if the pharmacist can write a prescription for a little luck, the good kind. His team has had plenty of the other already. And while you’re at it, see if the pharmacist has any extra sense of humor samples around you can slip in Coughlin’s stocking. I know Tom has one; it’s just not on display enough. A little extra can’t hurt.

It’s hard to tell what Wayne Weaver would want. His Jaguar investment has more than tripled in just seven years. His wish list includes an appearance in the Super Bowl. That one will have to wait a few years.

Shop around for a match up between JU and Edward Waters on the basketball court. I think you find that in the “when hell freezes over” section.

Grab a little Florida State for the Gator Bowl and you’ll be done with them. See if some sort of weird ending to the BCS Rankings is still available. The line will be long, but if you’re a Gator fan, it’ll be worth the wait.

Drop in the hardware store on your way home and see if they have any “shut up you won the game” for Steve Spurrier. And while you’re there, check for some “better sportsmanship lessons” for current, future, and recent FSU players. Bobby Bowden used to hand that out for free, but I think he’s all out, or he forgot where he left it.

Grab a bunch of those “No Whining” hats. About 90% of the players in the NBA need one of those.

And that extra bag of toughness you bought for your friends in the NHL? Sprinkle that around to some of the other sports, the hockey players have enough.

If you have any money left, and you can find some somewhere, get a little style and pr savvy for Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. Maybe you can take some from Paul Tagliabue. He has more than enough. In fact, a little too much. And see if they have any “dominant team” in the fragrance section. The Commissioner and the NFL could use a little spritz of that around the ears.

Tiger seems to have everything. A little “cordiality while dealing with fans” would be a nice gift. It’s small, and it’s something he needs and doesn’t know it!

Sometimes you have to buy people something they need, but don’t necessarily want. For many NFL Players, that item is personal accountability. It’s not hard to find, and it won’t be expensive, but getting them to take it will be a whole other story.

That should be about it.

If you have a minute, pick up something for Billy Donovan. Anything will do.

Whatever it is, he’ll get the best out of it and make it a winner.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Happy Thanksgiving

Holidays are always a time of reflection and Thanksgiving is a good time for that, the essence of the day itself created around giving thanks for all of the blessings we have. Following the attacks of September 11th and the subsequent military action in Afghanistan, sports have new perspective in America, and they should.

I heard a reporter saying, “Since September 11th, these games don’t mean anything in the overall scheme of things.” Another reporter laughed and said, “These games didn’t mean anything before September 11th, we just made them more important.”

There was a big rush to patriotism, the networks even showing the National Anthem being played. That’s faded a bit, which is a shame, because even as we celebrate today, American’s are on the front line of this battle, protecting our freedom and our way of life. I know I’m thankful for those people, thankful for the chance to talk and laugh about sports. Thankful for the people and personalities that make this job never seem like a job. Thankful for my family’s tolerance of my weird hours. And thankful for the sports fans in this town who’s passion make every day an adventure.

Hey, I’m even thankful for a 3-6 team!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Florida/Florida State

I don’t know if Rex Grossman will win the Heisman Trophy, but he was the best player on the field Saturday night in Gainesville. The Florida quarterback did not throw for 300 yards, but directed the Gators offense with the precision to break the will of Florida State and did the things necessary to give his team a win.

FSU’s game plan was executed perfectly on defense, making Florida go through long drives to score points. The Gators, and especially Grossman, were willing to take whatever was there, move the ball downfield, and go for the end zone when they were close. That’s the sign of a mature team, a mature coach and a mature quarterback.

While FSU’s defensive plan was on the mark, the offense couldn’t hold up their end. Quarterback Chris Rix couldn’t match Grossman’s accuracy and field generalship, missing receivers on key plays and failing to convert for first downs. That left the Seminole defense on the field too long, and let the Gators dictate the game. Not to say that Rix won’t be good; he’s big, strong, fast and is learning, but he was not Grossman’s equal, and it was the difference in the game.

There were some things open for the FSU quarterback, but he didn’t take them, especially the 12-15 yard patterns. The Seminole wide receivers are young, and it showed in their performance. Missing Anquan Boldin for the entire season has hurt FSU on offense, not only with his physical talent at wide receiver, but as a player who was on the field last year, and could provide some leadership for a very young Seminole football team.

As for Grossman’s Heisman chances, no Sophomore has ever won the Heisman, although a few have finished second, the most notable, Herschel Walker and the most recent, Marshall Faulk. The voters are biased against a Gator Quarterback, unless he can’t be denied, a la Danny Wuerffel. “The system,” is what they credit for any Gator Quarterback success, rather than his particular talent. If Florida had gone undefeated and won the National Championship, and Grossman had performed this way, he might have taken the hardware home. But with the loss on national cable television and Eric Crouch and Ken Dorsey headed to undefeated seasons, Grossman’s chances seem diminished. Still, the voting is done before the first Saturday in December, so voters will have to make up their minds early.

Maryland’s dramatic win against N.C. State gives the Terps the ACC title outright, the first team to win the title alone since FSU joined the conference. It puts the Terps in the BCS as the ACC Champion, headed to either the Sugar or the Orange Bowl. Florida State most likely will be invited to the Gator Bowl, no matter what happens against Georgia Tech. Gator Bowl officials are concerned about fans’ willingness to fly after the attacks of September 11th and are looking for a team who’s fans can arrive by car. It will not have the economic impact of a long week of visiting fans, but the Seminoles seem like the logical ACC choice.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Parity Stinks

Is anybody else sick of parity in the NFL? I know I am. Everybody’s calling it a “crazy” year in the league but it’s not crazy it’s just mediocre.


When Dallas beat Washington on Monday Night Football a couple of weeks ago, everybody thought it might be the Cowboys’ only win of the year. Instead, they’re just a game and a half out of first in the NFC East, with two wins.

A couple of weeks ago I was doing the weekly picks on the Lex and Terry Radio Network and went 11-2. Thinking I had it figured out, I expected the same next week, only to have 4 right, including “out on a limb picks” like Cleveland over Baltimore and the Redskins winning their fist game. At least I thought they were out on a limb.

It’s apparent the draft and the salary cap have caught up to just about everybody, making it a league full of possible 8-8 teams.

Does anybody really like that? I mean even the league can’t like the fact that instead of everybody looking like they’re good, everybody looks like they’re average. Why are players like Lonnie Marts and Tom McManus out of the league? Not because they can’t play, but because as veterans, their minimum salary is too high to warrant keeping them because of their knowledge weighed against a rookie’s potential, and cheap price. The middle year veteran player has been squeezed out of the league, leaving teams with a dozen or so high priced “playmakers” and the rest of the roster filled out with minimum salary rookies and free agents.

So what wins with that formula in the NFL?


Plain and simple, you’ve got to spend your left over money after you pay your stars on muscle. You can’t afford to have extra skill players around. If you don’t pay the price now, it will catch you in a year or so and you’ll have to dismantle, like the Buffalo Bills or the Redskins. You’ve got to have muscle among your middle and late round draft picks, and you can’t miss on many of them. Guys picked after the 3rd round have to come in a play a role on your team.

I subscribe to the dominant team theory. If the Rams are on television, I’ll watch that game because right now they’re the closest thing to a dominant team in the league. Plus they have fun; they throw it around, on-side kick at any time, and don’t mind what people think.

Over the years Green Bay, Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, Oakland and others have been dominant teams. Fans like that. They want to see somebody climb to the top of the mountain and claim it as their own for a while. It gives other teams something to shoot for. Right now, everybody’s looking at 9-7, and that will get some team in the playoffs every year.


Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Coughlin’s Challenge

This is a critical time for the Jaguars as a franchise, for the players on the 2001 team, for this year’s record, and for Head Coach Tom Coughlin. Not just the matter of playing games against Buffalo, Baltimore and Tennessee, but the franchise’s psyche hangs in the balance.

The absence of Tony Boselli from the lineup demands a new leader emerge. Someone the other players can rally around, someone who will provide the will and the fortitude to help carry his teammates through difficult times. Without that leadership, the team will wander from game to game, looking for success from series to series. If they find it, they’ll build on it, if they don’t, they’ll unravel fast.

From the franchise’s inception, leadership has come from the top. Tom Coughlin has set the tone, provided the environment and demanded performance from his players. From year to year, he has modified his message depending on the make up of that season’s team. He hired Bob Petrino as Offensive Coordinator after realizing his team needed a Head Coach in the true sense of the position: a coach who watches over the whole operation, a coach who can evaluate the morale of the team, a coach who can provide leadership.

At this time though, perhaps Coughlin’s leadership isn’t the thing that can carry the team through the season to success. Even though he modifies his message, it doesn’t mean he’s “gone soft.” Coughlin admits he yells at the players when he thinks it is necessary, not just yelling for yelling’s sake. With the same group of core veterans at the top of the roster for the past 5 years, the team stands on the precipice of falling into mediocrity that only the emergence of young players who have an impact can stave off. And those young players have to buy into Coughlin’s values, his style and his beliefs. If they don’t have confidence in his way, the team will flounder. His dressing down of Stacy Mack on the sidelines in Seattle and refusal to put Mack back into the game, even though it was apparent Mack would give them a better chance to win, has many players privately wondering about Coughlin and his message.

Leadership for this team is going to have to come from within, not from any coach. While Coughlin’s style might have some players wondering, he is smart and knows what’s going on. He has the confidence of the owner, Wayne Weaver, and operates without fear of losing his job. In his first six years as Head Coach, Coughlin has figured out all kinds of ways to win, and he can do it again.

Weaver is concerned about ticket sales and potential blackouts, and he has to know that Coughlin currently doesn’t sell any tickets to Jaguars games. He’s disconnected with the fans that evaluate him only on wins and losses. Any entertainment industry, dependant on the public’s disposable income, has to have a total package to continue to attract interest. The NFL’s parity mission has most teams hovering around .500, meaning it has to be fun to go to games, win or lose. The coach has to attract fans to the stadium with his personality, his style of play, and the fans belief that he’s giving them the best chance to win. To this point, Coughlin and Weaver have been willing to be evaluated on wins and losses. To keep the stadium full, they might have to go at least one-step further.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Irish And Hozer

I was sitting at my desk on Sunday night when I heard the familiar sweet “ding-dong” from my computer, notifying me I had a new email message. It happens all the time, and five or six times a day, I go through the mailbox to cull out the junk and things that are actually sent to me. I checked it right away and immediately started laughing and crying at the same time. The sender was KTMill, one of my friends in the Navy, the one who I did some stories with when he was stationed at Cecil Field, the one who’s kids went to school with mine, the one who I thought was dead.

Cmdr. Kevin Miller’s current assignment is at the Pentagon, located just inside the helipad, just a few yards away from where the direct attack happened. He was there, watching the attack on New York, thinking, “we’re next.” And he was right.

Sitting at his desk, he sensed, as much as heard or felt the shudder of the building and the rush of hot air through the office. Knowing just what had happened, he evacuated with what he hoped was the rest of his staff. It wasn’t long until he learned that a third of that staff was gone in an instant, an act of war on men and women in uniform and civilians serving their country. Kevin, or “Hozer” as he is known in the Navy, is an FA-18 pilot, a member of the Navy pilot Hall of Fame in Pensacola with more than 1,000 carrier landings. He’s the kind of guy we’re not counting on to restore our way of life.

On the front line of that battle is my friend Pat Rainey. Cmdr. Rainey is the Operations Officer on the USS Roosevelt. They shipped out on September 19th. It was a planned deployment, but now with a different purpose. I picked up the phone today and it was Pat, “Irish” as he’s known in the Navy, on the other end. “Hey Sam, Irish here,” he said in his usual pleasant demeanor. “Hey Pat!” I exclaimed, “Where are you?” I foolishly asked. “We’ve got a new plan,” he said, “we’re not talking about where we are.”

I felt pretty stupid, but quickly realized these are the new rules, the new way of life. We chatted for a few minutes before the line went dead, but not before I promised to hold up my end of the bargain here in exchange for the work he’ll be doing in the months ahead.

On the morning of September 11th, Pat and his wife Kim were on a small vacation, enjoying a few days together before Pat shipped out for six months. Pat has made Captain, so this deployment will be his final one as Commander; he gets “pinned” early next year.

I was up early and was following the events very closely. I got Pat on the phone before 10, knowing he and Kim would still be sleeping after a late night out. “Hello,” he answered in his best ‘I’m not really asleep” voice. “Pat, it’s Sam,” I said calmly. “Hey Bone, what’s up,” Pat responded, paying me a high compliment by using the “call sign” the Navy gave me during some tactical jet, back seat training I went through a few years ago.

“Look, Irish, some terrorists have attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,” I explained in as straightforward a manner as I could. I was trying not to be alarmist, knowing a military professional who’s about to be at the “tip of the sword” would want the facts, not something hysterical. To compound matters, Kim is a flight attendant, spending most of her time in the air. “You’re kidding right Bone?” Pat said as I’ve heard him say a hundred times before about things I was kidding about. “No, turn on the TV,” I told him.

Amid the fumbling for the remote control I heard the distinctive “thump” of the television coming on, then silence, then “Oh my God!” in an even tone. “Let me get my bearings and I’ll call you right back,” Irish said before he clicked off.

Over the next few hours, I talked with Pat about a half dozen times, as he got his life in order, drove to Norfolk and back twice, trying to coordinate things that were already difficult. His daughter in Houston didn’t get a chance to see him before he left as planned. His wife now sends him off, knowing full well he’s in harm’s way.

It’s guys like Kevin and Pat that give me strength, give me confidence that we’re following the right path and doing the right thing. They also give me confidence in one other important thing:

We’ll win.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Security Conscious

I laughed a little yesterday. I cried a lot, but I laughed a little. Something my daughter said to me in the car made me laugh, and I noticed it right away. It was the first time I’d laughed in nearly a week. Little by little, we’re getting our lives back. Not back to what they were, but back under our control.

Our whole concept of “normal” has to change. More awareness, more diligence regarding our personal security. Because of our spot on the globe, we’ve enjoyed a society and lifestyle that no other country on earth has experienced. We don’t walk around wondering who the enemy might be, or what harm might come to us, or the people around us. This amazes people from other countries. Because world wars and terrorist acts have happened in their backyard, Europeans, Africans, Asians and Middle Easterners are all much more security conscious than Americans. They come here and marvel at the freedoms we not only give our own citizens but what we allow visitors as well.

We’ve always known we were vulnerable to attack. Not by conventional weapons of war, but to suicide fanatics willing to harm innocent bystanders. We just didn’t believe people would be willing to be so barbaric, so evil in their thinking and actions. Now we know. We know what the Israelis, the Germans, the English and others have known for some time. We’re vulnerable and now we’re a target.

If you’ve ever traveled in Europe, you know a public military presence is part of every day life. I’ve been in a German airport where soldiers were spaced every twenty feet or so with sub-machine guns. Checking into a flight in Frankfurt, I was pulled out of line and taken to a back room. It seems I fit the profile of troublemakers according to the Germans.

While traveling in Europe, I had grown a beard, acquired a Greek fisherman’s cap and was wearing a leather jacket and khakis. The German security was very firm, polite, but no-nonsense as they patted me down, questioned me under armed guard and ran a high-tech metal detector over my body. When they let me onto the aircraft, they then made me get off, and identify my luggage that they had spread out on the tarmac. Was it racial profiling? Absolutely. I fit the stereotype. I was similarly questioned when I returned to the States. Did I mind? No, in fact, I was pretty pleased at the tightened security, knowing they were making it difficult for the actual “evil-doers.” It wasn’t as convenient, but that’s a small price to pay. Without suspending everybody’s civil liberties, we’re going to have to be more mindful of who’s around. If you look the part, you can expect to be questioned.

We’re going to have to get used to that as Americans. Going to sporting events will be a little less easy. Last year at the Super Bowl, security officials used a face recognition program for fans entering at each gate. Metal detectors were stationed at every entrance. It might become part of the regular fan experience. And that’s OK.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

A Tough Call

Unprecedented action takes unprecedented decision making. There is no history to rely on, nothing that has happened in the past to compare. While we have the thought that a return to “normalcy” is important, it is our very resilience that can make us vulnerable again.

Our enemy in this war is evil, but he is also smart. He has studied us, studied our culture, and our reactions. He knows we have a nearly maniacal drive to show that our way of life can’t be disrupted, that we won’t be deterred from our freedom. And we won’t be. But a rush to judgement because of our desire to return to normal would be rash. In fact, our whole idea of normal has to change. If we go back to our day to day lives without an altered sense of what is normal, then those people who were victims of this atrocity will have died in vain. It’s naďve to think that the government can ensure our security. We cannot live in a closed society of fear, but we must understand the risks. That’s why our security is our personal responsibility. An awareness of our surroundings is paramount to our safety.

The arguments regarding whether the sports world should pick up this weekend are equally powerful. One side says it’s important to let our enemies know that they can’t disrupt our way of life through the symbolic playing of games. That the games will provide a much needed distraction for a grieving American public. Another side says it’s time to mourn. That a weekend without sports would give people a true time to reflect, to spend time with their families, to deal with their grief on their own level. That putting airliners back in the sky with large stadiums full of 60,000 fans would be too inviting of a target for a cunning, evil enemy. And there’s a third argument. And it’s that the very fact that there are differing opinions and different actions taken is the essence of our freedom.

Instead of receding, this tragedy is getting larger. The numbers are becoming faces and families with the grim reality that it will probably get worse before it gets better. That’s why I don’t think they should play games this weekend. While the games would be symbols of freedom, it would be asking too much of our athletes to bear that burden. Is it fair to ask them to play games within sight of the wreckage where bodies are being extracted? Will we be able to attend as fans, to cheer without guilt, to conjure up a dislike for the opponent?

My biggest fear is that it is not over. But perhaps a larger cloud that hangs over this discussion is that those who say “play” will call those who say “don’t play”, wimps. And those who say “don’t play” will call those who say “play” lunatics. If that what it degenerates to, then the enemy has won.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators After Marshall

Sometimes it’s hard to gauge how good a top-flight college team is based on their early season games. Florida is particularly difficult to get a handle on because Head Coach Steve Spurrier can change his mind on a whim and shut his team down or run the score up at will.

Against Marshall, it was obvious Spurrier didn’t want to run it up against his former defensive coordinator Bobby Pruett but at the same time, Steve wanted to get his starters plenty of work in front of more than 85,000. Against overmatched teams, Florida occasionally gets a lead and loses interest. The number of athletes Florida can put on the field, especially when it comes to pure speed overmatched Marshall, despite their reputation as a solid opening opponent.

Still, Florida is the number one ranked team in the country, but are they the best? Hard to tell.

Spurrier was complimentary of Rex Grossman and Brock Berlin, and gave the game ball to receivers coach Dwayne Dixon because he thought the receivers played well. “It was a good pitch and catch game for us,” said the Head Ball Coach.

Steve has said he’d like to see his team run the ball better, and while he thought they accomplished that, it was clear he was more interested in getting the ball in the end zone than something as hackneyed as “establishing the run.” “We just don’t,” Spurrier started before his voice trailed off, “I don’t know, those running teams, it’s just hard to score a lot of points if you’re running it all the time.” Pretty obvious Steve wants to see the ball in the air and subsequently in the end zone.

Seeing Florida in person, they look pretty impressive. Standing on the sideline, the Gators look a little bigger across the offensive line and as fast as ever in the skill positions. They could run it if they wanted with Ernest Graham and Robert Gillespie carrying the load, but that’s not what Spurrier wants to do. The schedule favors Florida as well, getting Tennessee and Florida State at home.

They’ll have to stay healthy, and pay attention on the road, especially at South Carolina. If all that comes together, from what they showed against the Thundering Herd, the Rose Bowl is not that big of a reach for the Orange and Blue.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Smart Football

My friend Michelle is the quintessential football fan. She loves the game. Loves the action, the hitting, and the strategy. I’ve seen her scream at the television, jump up from her desk and run around the office, flailing her hands in the air. I’ve seen her close her eyes and cover her face during a big play. Like she’s watching a scary movie. She told me she turned the Jaguars game off the other night, she was so disgusted. But the only time she cheered was when Chris Weinke was sacked. Not because it was a good Jaguars defensive play mind you, but because Weinke went to FSU. Michelle is a Gator fan, if you didn’t know that already.

Football, both college and professional, needs fans like Michelle. People with a passion for the game who don’t play it. I wonder how the recent spate of deaths on the practice field will affect those peoples’ loyalty to the game.

When Korey Stringer died on the Viking’s practice field, pushing himself past the point of no return, it opened the door for many questions regarding the football mentality. Do the players and coaches expect too much from each other? From themselves? Do the fans buy into that mentality? You’re a wimp if you give up. Push through it, try harder, get up and finish.

I’m old enough to have played football in an era when water was for sissies. Coaches denied us any rest, any break and no water was provided. It was supposed to make you stronger. Tougher in the fourth quarter.

So what happened?

How come players are dropping now with all of the advancements in exercise physiology and off-season training when before we were ignorant of the risks?

There are several theories, all of which I think play a part in the risk factors. Florida State Head Coach Bobby Bowden thinks lifestyle has something to do with it.

“Kids are in air conditioning all the time now. They’re in the dorms, watching television, playing video games, going to the library and even in the weight room, all in air conditioning,” says the chief Seminole. “Then they go out in the heat and can’t take it. I give ‘em four breaks in practice now and that’s the way I’ll coach from now on.”

Bowden is right about the acclimation factor. The Jaguars’ studies show that it takes an athlete five days to begin the process of getting used to the heat.

“We see it all the time,” says Jacksonville Head Coach Tom Coughlin, “the first five days are critical. After that, they (the players) start to settle in.”

Nutrition also is a factor. On the professional level, exactly what the players eat and drink is monitored at every meal. They’re caloric intake, the amount of fluids they lose and replace is measured for each athlete. It’s less specific as you go down the ladder of organized football. High school players eat what they want, and fast food is usually the training table of choice. Not exactly the nutritional preparation for three-a-days in the hot sun.

Supplements are part of the hidden culture of the game, and a contributing factor to the unknown. Players will try just about anything to get an edge. Supplements are not classified as food, and therefore not regulated. Some can help a player through a tough weightlifting session, but the side effects are a mystery. Some guys sweat more some sweat less. Thermogenic supplements raise an athlete’s metabolism and his heart beats at an immeasurable rate. Some faster than others. Some are fine others are unsafe. Nobody really knows. I’ve taken supplements as an adult and have seen the results in just an everyday workout routine. Imagine a young competitive athlete looking for an edge.

Problem is, nobody really knows.

As fans, we tend to view football players in a different light than other athletes. We see them as gladiators, warriors, somehow in a different class. That’s why guys want to be players, to join that elite class. There’s nothing wrong with a desire for achievement. In fact, ambition is an essential part of the path to greatness. We just need a better model in the future. One exercise induced, heat related death is too many. Stricter testing, better screening and smarter training techniques are in order.

Everybody should enjoy football.

Nobody should have to die for it.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com


I’ve been thinking about the similarities between the Americans who brought home two of the biggest sporting prizes from Europe in the last two weeks. David Duval captured the Claret Jug as the “Champion Golfer of 2001” as they say in the presentation ceremony at The Open Championship, and Lance Armstrong’s wore the yellow jersey for the third year in a row as the Tour de France winner.

A Texan and a Floridian, Armstrong and Duval would seem as different as, well, cycling and golf. One’s a former cancer patient left for dead, the other spent time helping his brother, the cancer patient, who did die.

One is in a sport known as grueling and exhausting, the other’s sport is considered gentlemanly and a good walk. Yet, Armstrong and Duval share the most basic characteristics of championship athletes, desire, self-confidence and a willingness to work.

Sitting in lazy-boy undergoing chemotherapy treatment, Armstrong dreamt of nothing but getting back to cycling. Of winning the Tour de France. Following his treatments, weak and sick, he would jump on his bike for 40 miles or so. His recovery is nearly unprecedented. Testicular cancer had spread to his lungs and brain, and doctors gave him virtually no chance to recover. Armstrong gave himself a chance though, believing he would not only recover, but also compete again.

Duval had been left for dead, figuratively, several times. After a stellar college career, he didn’t make it in his first attempt on the PGA Tour and was written off. Once there, he didn’t win immediately, and was again considered a failure. His near misses at the Masters left him among the public’s list of those who couldn’t cut it when it counted. But Duval never wavered in one thing, his belief in himself. Like Armstrong, he ignored the naysayers, the critics, and the fans that said it couldn’t be done. Both men retreated within themselves, finding their own path, counting on their own resolve, keeping a small circle of friends and advisors while they continued to work.

I heard a famous actor say the other day that he doesn’t read any reviews of his work. “You just want them to say good things, and when they don’t, you’re mad. So what’s the point?” Media coverage of Armstrong and Duval’s every move included some sort of assessment of their personalities, their training techniques and their futures. And you know what? They didn’t read or watch them. Or if they did, they laughed and ignored them.

In a culture of celebrity celebration, two achievers shunned the spotlight and went about their work. Not looking for adulation, or acceptance, but rather looking for success, and finding it within themselves. Armstrong said after his victory that he thinks of current chemotherapy patients when riding and it inspires him. Duval said during the final round of the Open he couldn’t get it out of his head that it’s just “a silly game.”

It’s as if both have reached some higher state of awareness about themselves, their abilities and what they are. I know the next time I’m looking for inspiration; I won’t have to look far.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Fix

The fix is not in.

The talk about Dale Jr.’s win and Cal’s home run being pre-planned is silly. I guess next you’re going to tell me that the rest of the guys in the Tour de France are laying back so Lance Armstrong can win. Soon, people are going to go through past sports feats and figure out what looks fishy. Are you thinking about Jackie Smith’s dropped pass as some part of a great plot to keep the Steelers winning? Bill Buckner’s miss a conspiracy to keep the Red Sox from winning the World Series?

Come on.

The sports world is full of cynics, people who aren’t going to believe that great feats can be performed. That sacrifices will be made for the team, and that good things can happen through hard work. Why won’t they believe that? Because they’re not willing to do those things themselves. They’re afraid, afraid of failure and “what people might say.”

That’s when cowards become cynics.

As Teddy Roosevelt said, “they are among those who neither enjoy much, nor suffer much, for they live in that gray twilight that knows not victory, nor defeat.” They’ve never been in the arena.

How many owners and sponsors in NASCAR do you think would approve of a race being fixed for one car?

Exactly zero.

Take the drivers out of it, the crew chiefs, and the fact that NASCAR has a shady reputation about the outcome of some races. There’s too much money at stake these days. What would Miller think about letting the Bud car win?

I don’t think there was any great conspiracy to let Lil’ E win. I do think he had the best car, and drivers weren’t willing to gang up on him or go through any great blocking scheme to keep him from going to the front. Somebody could have put him into the wall, but they didn’t at 180 mph.

The idea that Chan Ho Park grooved a pitch for Cal Ripken at the All Star game is really silly. The night before, they were throwing nice little meatballs over the plate, trying to let players hit home runs in the Home Run Derby. Some went 25 pitches without hitting one over the fence. And if Park was grooving one, why did he throw it at 92 mph?

Those two events are the very reason we watch sports. The essence of what keeps our interest from season to season, from sport to sport. Good things can happen in sports.

Let the cynics howl.

Then tell them to get back on the couch.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Return to Daytona

“Seven, eleven and three-quarters,” a fan shouted to me through the rain few years ago before the infield was open at Daytona International Speedway.

“What?” was my bewildered response from the parking lot outside the tunnel entrance in turn four.

“Seven, eleven and three-quarters,” (which actually sounded like “sevem levem, tree quarters”), the fan repeated.

“Every time we come to the tunnel, the man says, ‘too high’ we just laugh and say ‘put a stick on it,’” the loyal fan continued.

The vintage ‘70’s Chevy pick up had an odd looking iron podium welded to the truck bed.

“Custom built this platform,” he added. “Looks too high, but before he put the stick on it, (measures it) we jump out, let the air out of the tires just enough, and it’s seven, eleven and three quarters.”

“Just need the right number of beer in the back, about twenty cases is right,” he said as he surveyed the truck bed.

“Want a cold one?” (I promise this is a true story)

One of my favorite sights, and one of the most amazing in all of sports, is the one as you emerge from the tunnel and into the infield at Daytona International Speedway. I’m always anticipating that moment, emerging from the dark, quiet of the tunnel into the sun-splashed infield, full of sights and sounds made by partiers and fans strewn inside the 2.5 mile track. I really like taking people there for the first time, and seeing their eyes wide open, mouths agape, speechless at the reverie enjoyed hours, and sometimes days before the race. Vehicles of every shape and size, most customized to fit through though the eight foot height limit imposed by the tunnel, are painted NASCAR colors with every number represented.

People of every shape and size are there as well. T-shirts, or no shirts are the standard infield uniform for guys, bikini tops for women. The excitement is high, fueled by anticipation and beer.

I spent most of the day at the track Saturday before the Pepsi 400 that night. Taking my nephew and my son to the infield for the first time on race day was particularly fun. But it was a bit more subdued than in the past. “The Man in Black,” was missing.

Sure, there were flags everywhere, most topped with the familiar “3” on a black background. Lots of “thumbs up,” or “three fingers” exchanged between Dale Earnhardt fans still wearing black hats. I know this because I wore my Dale hat to the race for the first time. It was a little strange but I learned a lot too. For the first time since Earnhardt died, fans returned to the track. Many were there to pay tribute to Dale, but all were there for the same reason: to see a race.

There were memorials to Earnhardt and reminders everywhere. Wearing my “3” hat when Dale was alive would have aligned me with 100% of NASCAR fans: those who rooted for Dale, and those who rooted against him. Now, it puts me among the “old school” of racing fans.

“We’re sold out of those, gone yesterday,” one concessionaire told me when I asked for a Dale Jr. hat for my nephew.

“Used to be that we couldn’t keep the 3’s in stock, but now the 8’s go flying out of here.”

“Lots of switching going on.”


Not yet.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Seattle All Star

When they play the All star game in Seattle next week, it will have a definite Mariner feel to it. Four Mariners were named to the starting lineup, selected by the fans through paper ballots and Internet voting. While fans in other cities are crying about ballot box stuffing, which player would you take out of the lineup?

Ichiro got more votes than anybody, the first rookie to lead the balloting, and rightfully so based on the year he’s having. Brett Boone is putting up numbers that, well, are all-star numbers. John Olerud is hitting .317 and Edgar Martinez is a lifetime .320 hitter.

Who gets in and who gets jerked around has become part of the All-Star ritual. The restrictions on the rosters ensure that somebody having a big year is going to stay home. And if you said the wrong thing to the wrong manager, the one running the show when you’ve had you’re big year, most likely you’re looking at a 3 day vacation instead of Home Run Derby.

Cal Ripken was elected to the game as a starter, while Tony Gwynn was not. Both have announced their retirement at the end of the year and deserve a big day in the sun on the national stage. The commissioner’s office should figure out how to give Gwynn a start in this game, even if they have to change the rules.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

20 Years

You might have seen on Channel 4 this week that I’m celebrating my 20th year at WJXT. It also marks the 20th year Tom Wills, Deborah Gianoulis, George Winterling and I have been the anchors at Channel 4, the longest running four person anchor team in television history.

There are many people to thank starting with my family for the sacrifices they’ve made, the management at the station and Post-Newsweek for creating an environment where we can flourish, and Tom, Deborah, and George for their professionalism and friendship over the years.

They’ve been running a couple of highlight clips of my career over the past 20 years on the air, and when I see them, there’s no wonder I think I have the best job in the world. Covering all kinds of fantastic competitions, from the Super Bowl to the World Series, The Masters and seemingly every other major sporting event in America, what’s not to like?

There have been exciting times, like when the city was awarded the Jaguars and the Super Bowl, the national championship seasons of the Gators and Seminoles, the great basketball runs by both schools and many others. And there have been difficult times as well, bringing news about sports figures who have lost their way, or tragically, lost their lives either in or outside of competition.

I’ve learned a lot from the people I’ve reported on and there is a common thread that runs through all of the successful people I’ve covered. They all have a desire to find out just how good they can be. They’re never really satisfied with their final effort, figuring out just how much better they could have been by tweaking this and refining that. They don’t compete against some rules in a book or against the other team, but rather against a standard of excellence they knows exists. They know what’s good and what’s not, and they don’t need somebody to tell them when they haven’t performed at their best.

And they’re passionate.

Passionate about what they do, about life, and about their own achievements. When you’re around people like that all the time, it inspires you. I know it inspires me every day to perform a little bit better, to try a little harder, to not come up with an excuse for why not, but rather to figure out a way to make things happen.

I’ve been honored to have breakfast with Muhammad Ali, lunch with Richard Petty, beers with Arnold Palmer and spend time with a whole myriad of other famous stars in and out of the sports world. I even had a chance to sing with Huey Lewis once at a post-concert party!

What has always impressed me isn’t their money, or fame, but when they’re nice. Without being schmaltzy, it’s true. And with most of the really successful, that’s the case. They’re talent is usually only outweighed by their kindness and understanding.

Outside of sports, easily the most exciting and interesting things I’ve done at Channel 4 are the stories on fighter pilots and other Navy aviators. To have the chance to fly with the Blue Angels, then go through enough training to be “back seat” rated in the FA-18, getting a trap and a launch off an aircraft carrier are things I can never match. Being a Navy town, Jacksonville has given me a chance to get to know the pilots, the surface warriors at Mayport and the submariners at King’s Bay. Any time I think I’m working hard, I only have to remember the things they’re asked to do, and it makes my job look like a snap. Commander Pat Rainey asking me to be the keynote speaker at his change of command ceremony remains one of the highlights of the last 20 years.

Most importantly, thanks to all of you. Doing this job in a vacuum would be no fun. Getting to share your joys and disappointments is a rare privilege, and I’m glad you’ve let me along for the ride.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

World Sport

I’ve been in London and Paris for the past week with my family, going through the regular tourist routine, seeing the sights. I spent every frequent flyer mile I’ve ever earned and if you have children, you know, as they get older the vacations better get exciting or they won’t want to go.

Anyway, the last time I was in Europe, I was surprised how little sports in the United States gets any play in the media. It’s still the same. The CNN Worldsport report is the best link to the sports world,and the occasionally available copy of USA Today or the International Herald Tribune (which devotes about a page and a half to sports) can keep you mildly updated about what’s going on at home.

If you think they’re wild about soccer in the rest of the world, you’re wrong. They’re absolutely bonkers about it. That’s what every newspaper (nine in London alone) trumpets in the headlines, that’s what every sportscast on television, regardless of the language, leads with.

A match between Bahrain and Bosnia? No problem, it’s the lead story, in Paris nonetheless. I like soccer; I like the rhythm of the game, and can see how they call it “The Beautiful Game”. But a steady diet of soccer is like rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner: eventually you’d like something else.

They do cover Formula One racing, cricket,(really) some tennis and golf, and even Cal Ripken’s retirement announcement got some play. But morning, noon and night, “football” is the “sport du jour”

The Europeans have an odd mix of thought regarding sports and sports celebrities. The tabloid papers will print anything and go to any extreme to get a suggestive picture, or some kind of dirt involving the sports stars. This seems to have numbed the sporting public into a “so what?” attitude. They’ll peruse the sports pages (usually beginning from the back page of the paper), chuckle at the foibles and move on.

There’s also a style of writing that has an assumption that you as the reader already know what’s going on and how it happened. You can’t find a recap of just about any game; they just jump into analysis, most screaming at the top of their lungs.

One of the problems is knowing what’s the truth and what people are making up. They’re not beyond that, so if you can’t cull out the truth, you’re behind the times.

I like to travel, to see how we fit in with the rest of the world, but give me some football.
Or baseball.
Or bass fishing.
Or something.
Soccer can wait.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com


My Dad throws like a catcher. Kind of a short stroke, not much follow through. I have been on the receiving end of his throws many times. Mostly baseballs, but footballs too, the occasional Frisbee or nerf ball, all thrown with that short stroke.

I’m lucky to have been on the receiving end of those throws.

After school and my paper route, I’d while away the time in the front yard, playing curb ball, throwing at the six short bushy pines that guarded the front of the house (Raymond Berry and Jimmy Orr were the two on the ends, John Mackey in the middle, Lenny Moore stood right next to the stairs, and other unidentifiable Colts filled out the rest).

Like a million other young boys, I was waiting for my Dad to come home from work. He’d drive up; the catcher’s mitt would already be laid out near where his car door would open.

I’d fire my best fastball and hear the occasional, “you’ve got to back up, you’re hurting my hand!” Which, of course, would make me throw all that much harder.

My Dad, in IBM issue white shirt and tie, dark pants and wingtips, caught my first curveball, saw my first failed attempt at a knuckler, and laughed at my imitations of Jim Palmer, Luis Tiant and Juan Marachal.

“Let me go see what you’re mother’s doing,” usually signaled the end of our session, but never before an encouraging “I think you’re going to win the Heisman,” or “you’ll take over when Brooks retires” was mentioned as he bounced up the front steps.

The youngest son of immigrant parents, my father and his brother were the only siblings born in the United States. My Grandfather stowed away numerous times on ships out of Greece before finding a suitable place to bring his family. Known as “Gleeka” (The Sweet One), he finally settled on Baltimore leaving behind a hard life in the Greek islands. By trade, he was a housepainter, a steeplejack, but actually, he spent his time making wine from wildflowers, growing figs and grapes in the small backyard of his row house in downtown Baltimore, playing double pinochle at the coffee house, and watching over the neighborhood, making sure other Greek immigrants had a place to stay and enough to eat while they got on their feet.

My father learned a lot of lessons from his dad early on. They didn’t speak English in the house, and everybody in the neighborhood was Greek. “Two eggs and a bacon,” was the extent of my grandfather’s English, although he never had any trouble communicating. When my father came home from school with a vocabulary test in the first grade, he had no idea what the words meant. “What should I do?” my grade school Dad asked. Rather than march to the school and demand he be taught in Greek or some other silly solution, my Grandfather (Popou in Greek) logically responded, “Learn English fast.” Understanding the power of an education, my father kept his nose to the grindstone (mostly) eventually graduating from Johns Hopkins using the GI bill.

I saw some of these things as a kid, but most I know from stories my Dad has told me. He’s the best storyteller I know. With a bent toward hyperbole, he takes poetic license, as all good storytellers do, but never deviates from the truth. Many times I’ve heard stories about my grandfather fighting the Turks and the Nazi’s. About the first time he met my mother (on an ice skating rink) and about the day I was born.

No matter how many times he tells me that one, it’s always with the same emotion, the same passion. How he and another guy were in the waiting room (long before they allowed husbands in delivery) and decided when their kids were born to go across the street to the “House of Welsh” to have a drink. But when the doctor called the other man to the corner of the room to say his son had died at birth, those plans faded away. And how he decided to name me after himself, (my mother’s idea) and not after his father (his dad’s idea.) And how it was one of the four best days of his life (I have two sisters and a brother.) I never really understood that story until I had children of my own, and now the passion and emotion he tells it with makes complete sense to me.

My father has never been rich, yet he says he’s the wealthiest man in the world. “I have four great children who have never given me a day’s trouble,” is his answer when asked how successful he’s been.

I had a friend who once said to me “you Greeks have the weirdest combination of machismo and sensitivity in the whole world.” That about describes my Dad perfectly. He’s ready to fight if necessary, but is much more interested in compromise. I’ve seen my Dad cry, but not often, and I’ve seen him pretty angry, but not often.

I’m lucky to have witnessed so much of this with my father. Some of my friends never knew their Dads; other’s lost them when they were young. I’ve had a relationship with my Dad as a kid, and as an adult. His business advice has been sage, his personal words wise. Like most men of his generation, he doesn’t like the modern-day ball player, and doesn’t see much on television that appeals to him, except on The History Channel. I told him the best invention ever for him was the remote. “Now if I don’t like it,” he beams, “I just change it.”

“As I got older, somehow my father got smarter,” my Dad used to tell me through a laugh.

You know what Dad?

I think you’re a genius.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Petty, Petty?

Eventually, we’ll know why Richard Petty decided this week to speak out regarding the Dale Earnhardt situation, but for now, it makes no sense at all. Petty chastised NASCAR fans for holding on to Earnhardt’s memory, saying it’s time to move on.

“He didn’t win that many races,” the man they call The King said, “and he wasn’t that dominant of a driver.” Petty won 200 races during his career as a driver, Earnhardt 76.

Dominant? Win or not, every person at a NASCAR race was aware of Earnhardt’s position. Half were happy when he went to the front, the other half booed. Dominant in terms of winning every week, perhaps not, but in terms of fan interest and his overall effect on a race, there was nobody like him in racing since, well, Richard Petty.


The King’s comments seem like sour grapes when put in the context of Petty, the driver, vs. Earnhardt, the driver. Petty was universally loved, but nobody was passionate about him or his racing. He was one of the boys, the one with the best equipment, the one with a chance to win every week. You knew Richard would be a factor, but you also knew he was just racing the Allisons, Yarborough, Pearson and Parsons. A few teams were capable of winning, the rest were just there to fill out the field. It wasn’t a free-for-all, big money proposition every time he took the track.

Dale, on the other hand, drove the passion for the sport to a higher level by the sheer force of his personality. People liked Richard because he won, because he was identifiable and because he was easy going. People liked Dale for the opposite of all that. He won, and did it with an aggressive style. He was identifiable, but only when he wanted to be. He was anything but easy going, creating a competitive tension in every situation.

Petty is trying to protect NASCAR in some way, deflecting the criticism the sport’s governing body is taking regarding their handling of the whole Earnhardt situation. It’s very weird though because it’s completely out of character for Richard. Every time I’ve talked to him, even in private, he’s never been anything but gracious and complimentary.

What happened? It almost seems as if somebody else wrote his comments. The words, the grammar, even the way the sentences are put together seem very un-Petty like.

They’re in a word, petty.

Richard hasn’t denied the comments, so I guess he stands by them.

There are pretty much four things you can walk into any bar in America, especially in the South and get a fight started by commenting on them. You don’t say bad things about a man’s mother, his religion, Elvis, or Dale Earnhardt. Maybe Richard was just looking for a fight.

For me, and awful lot of people I know, I’m holding onto Dale’s memory. I’m gauging other drivers against him. Their ability, their will to win, their kindness, their passion for being the best. Petty used to be the measuring stick, his 200 wins un-attainable in the regulated world of modern day NASCAR. Earnhardt is now the benchmark. Perhaps Petty and NASCAR don’t like that.

Sorry, they’ll just have to get used to it.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Charley Pell

I wanted to wait a few days before writing about Charley Pell. Sometimes when people die, everybody’s coming out of the woodwork to say something about that person, good or bad.

I first met Charley in 1978 in a back stairwell in Charleston, South Carolina. He was just getting his feet wet as the Head Coach at Clemson, I was a new reporter. I waited for him after a Tiger booster club speech. He had seen me before the meeting, and knew I’d been waiting.

“You’re a hell of a man,” Pell said as he slapped me on the shoulder. At the time it seemed to me like something he said a lot. But it wasn’t offensive. There was a certain appeal to Pell, he had charisma in a very “old school” way.

He was one of the original throwbacks. A man’s man. He even smoked like that, with a determination that he was going to get the best out of this cigarette, consequences be damned. He talked about his players as “that ‘ole boy” naming their “momma’s and daddy’s” and referred to their hometowns and their high school coaches like old friends. When he spoke, he always acted as if he was letting you in on a secret.

I don’t know if I broke the story or not, but I was one of the first to report Charley was headed to Florida. His friends confirmed it for me, saying Pell thought it was the quickest way back to Alabama. Not a lot is ever made about Pell’s similarity to Bear Bryant, but everything about him said “The Bear.”

He referred to himself in conversation as “we.” He had a self-depreciating style and created a very tight inner circle. He never thought of himself as smart, so he made up for it with dedication, hard work and loyalty. If you were inside, you were set, if you were outside, somehow you were always the enemy. Charley followed Bear’s rules, but they changed the rules along the way, and it got him, and the Gators into trouble.

I helped Charley in some of his early private business ventures, and we played golf a few times while he lived here in town. I went to see him in the hospital the night he tried to kill himself, only to be turned away because security recognized me as media, and not somebody who knew Charley and wanted to help.

As the years passed, I was saddened by the fact that nobody would let Pell do what he wanted to do: coach. Charley was really wrong in how he went about things at Florida, but in a way, he didn’t see it as wrong. It was just how things were done. He was just 20 years too late, because they changed the rules.

Pell’s accusers never saw it as wrong to effectively end his career, and in a way, his life as he wanted it. It was a feeding frenzy when the NCAA sanctions came out. Both in Gainesville and Birmingham, where the sanctions were announced, the media had its hands on a juicy story and wasn’t letting go. For many reporters, it was their first post-Watergate experience, and they were going to prove themselves worthy of it.

Charley’s legacy as a coach is one of success and shame, the person who laid the groundwork for the current Gator success, but branded them as a renegade program for years. He galvanized the alumni, raised money, got the football team out of debt and created an esprit de corps among Gator fans never seen before. He banished the old “wait ‘till next year” philosophy, trading it for winning now. If he seems like much more of a sympathetic figure now, he should be. He wasn’t defiant in the end, admitting wrong doing, but saying taking all of the blame was his biggest mistake.

When he was alive, there was never any public forgiveness, no public acknowledgement of the positive things he accomplished, the people’s lives he touched. Now that he’s gone, I don’t think it’s too late.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com


I’m with Wayne Weaver on this one. The NFL owners should have blown the whole thing up and started over. Even Weaver’s idea of 16 teams in each conference playing one game against everybody else and one game against the other conference sounded intriguing.

Wild, but intriguing.

Instead, the owners opted for the “old” rivalries, ones that have been around, in some cases, since the league started. With the league’s current parity and the salary cap, rivalries aren’t a real part of the game for very long anyway. Everybody’s going to be average, with one or two road wins determining what teams get into the playoffs.

I brought this up to my friend Tom, the Redskins fan, who scoffed at the idea of leaving Washington in the East and moving Dallas to the West, where they belong.

“You guys won’t want to play the Cowboys. For a while, they’re going to stink,” I explained. “And that’s just how we like it,” Tom quickly responded with glee.

There are some divisions that make perfect sense. The new AFC North has Cleveland, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. They can all lament about bad weather, how they get a bad rap, how they play real football, blah, blah, blah.

The NFC South has a real regional flair. Tampa Bay, Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina. I like that division. They can all drive to each other’s towns and say how much better they are then each other (behind their backs of course).

The rest seem fine except for the AFC South, where the Jaguars have been placed. Tennessee is a real rival, on the field and geographically. Houston could turn out to be a glamour team. New owner, Dom Capers as their coach, expensive stadium, large television market. As an expansion team, they have to go somewhere, and it’s a non-stop plane ride from Jacksonville.

Indianapolis? I mean Indy? What are they doing in a division with Jacksonville? Indianapolis has as much in common with Nashville, Houston and Jacksonville as, well as just about nothing. Domed stadium, not really Midwest, not really Northeast, it’s not a good fit for the division in any way. The only factor for Indy’s placement was the Irsays’ refusal to be in the same division with the Ravens, saying they didn’t want to have a trip to Baltimore every year. Talk about weenies. They moved out of Baltimore, Baltimore didn’t throw them out. If they wanted a real rivalry, they’d have demanded to be in a division with the Ravens.

New rivalries will develop quickly and fans will get to see all kinds of teams come through their towns every year. The preseason games will spice up the schedules and everybody will make money. They had a chance though. A chance to really excite a lot of people, but instead, stayed the course.

Occasionally, I wish they would stray off course.

Just a little.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Owners Profits

It must be the biggest secret since we cracked the Nazi code in WWII. NFL owners and administrators were aghast when their profit and loss statements were made public, a product of Al Davis’ suit against the league. “We’re not making that kind of money,” they collectively screamed from offices mostly paid for by the cities they’re in and the fans who support them. “It’s a complicated accounting process,” they yelled.

Of course it is.

When you have money being thrown at you from so many different directions, you need a fleet of full-time accountants to keep track of it. From club seats to concession, parking, sky suites and television money, not to speak of the average ticket going above $50 dollars, the accounting takes a while.

Actually, there’s nothing the matter with making money. The NFL is not a charitable endeavor. The owners didn’t get involved as owners to lose money, and they shouldn’t. They should make money. They’re taking the risk, they’re running the operation, they’re coming up with the short and long range plans, so making money is part of the equation.

When the Jaguars were just a twinkle in Wayne Weaver’s eye, he knew they wouldn’t turn an actual profit until eight years of operation. Certainly they started in debt, as any $140 million outlay will do to most people, but they’ve been recouping the initial cost at a breakneck pace and will move into the black.

The difference between owners who have a profit and owners who are losing money could be creative accounting, or it could be good business acumen vs. bad. In most cases it’s a better stadium deal, more club seats and more sky boxes. The way the NFL counts their money, the club seats and sky boxes only count for the owner who operates in that stadium. They don’t count in the overall picture. The more club seats and sky suites, the more money directly to the bottom line. The better the stadium deal, the better opportunity to make money.

Paying players less money is not part of the deal. A little know byproduct of the salary cap is the salary floor. The percentage of revenue that’s allocated to the players has a maximum, this year totaling just under $64 million. The owners have to pay a minimum to their 53 players on the roster, about 3 percentage points less than the maximum. This keeps some rogue owner from stripping his team to the bare bones and hoarding the money. It’s supposed to keep some parity in the league and keep it competitive.

The television money guarantees that every team can make money. Before even one seat is sold, one beer poured, one T-shirt sold or one car parked, each team gets over $70 million from the television contract. Take the players salaries out of that and factor in an operating cost, and you can see where the league is set up to make money. Sweetheart stadium deals, higher concession prices and lucrative parking contracts will have an effect on every owners bottom line.

The fans are willing to pay for a quality product, if they believe the owner is trying to win. In fact, in it’s current cycle, the NFL almost ensures that if a team is just slightly better than .500, they look competitive. Doubling the cost of a sky suite in 5 years puts a burden on corporations, but they can make a decision on their client entertainment budget and their tax write off status. The owners are pushing the envelope with the everyday fan though.

As the seat prices go up, and the concession prices squeeze their last disposable dollar, fans will only ask; How much is enough?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com


Stories about how Moms have influenced careers, made great athletes what they are, and pushed through adversity are plentiful. That’s the story about my Mom too. We didn’t grow up poor, but we weren’t close to rich either. (I never heard any discussions about money when I was a kid, but I did think liver was steak until I was 18.)

My Mother is the toughest, kindest person I know, all at the same time. The oldest of four children, her Father died when she was 17. The charge of helping out with her sister and brothers fell to her. She’s raised four children, prodded and cajoled and put all of us through college, saved three people from drowning once at a North Carolina beach while on vacation, stayed married to my Father for 49 years, and beat cancer. All while working with Special Ed kids, helping out charities and being the best cook on earth.

Pretty good huh?

Of course, she’s my Mom, so I think she’s perfect. Well, most of the time I think she’s perfect.

Who else in your life knows most of your secrets, even if you haven’t told them? Who else lets you make mistakes hoping you’ll learn from them, and praying you won’t get hurt while it happens? Who else made things easy for you, and you didn’t even know it. You just thought you were brilliant.

And your Mom let you feel that way. Because she’s your Mom.

My Mom has the most famous Mom-isms of all time. Ones you’ve heard. “We’re not air conditioning the entire neighborhood,” she’s said to me a million times as she closed the door behind me.

“Go outside and play. Don’t come back ’till it’s dark,” I heard daily after I finished my paper route.

“No bouncing the ball in the house. Do it in the basement if you can’t go outside,” was a regular staple during basketball season.

My favorite of all time though is, “when you have children of your own, I hope they jump on your couch, a lot.” I usually heard that one while practicing some trampoline routine in the living room.

Most of the Mom-isms came from the kitchen while I was somewhere else in the house. How did she know what I was doing? Eyes in the back of her head? Probably. (although when I was nine I looked and didn’t find any.)

My Mom, like a lot of moms, spent a good part of her time finding my various uniforms and driving me around. Some sports practice, a band practice, a speech competition, and even my first date to the Jr. High dance.

“Buckle up,” was a common refrain well before seat belts were even part of our collective consciousness.

When I was in High School, my Mom never discouraged me from anything I wanted to do. In college, she told me to finish. When I did she said “eventually you’ll end this Bohemian lifestyle (I was a bartender) and get on with your life.” (Bohemian? Who uses Bohemian in a sentence not including the words “Queen” or “Rhapsody?”)

I drove a school bus for a while at my Mom’s suggestion while trying to get into broadcasting. “Stay active, something good will happen,” was her sage advice, “and don’t mope, count your blessings!”

I’ve looked to her for inspiration during my career, drawing it from some of our most general conversations. “You’re most creative when nothing’s going on,” she told me one night when I had no idea what I’d put in the 11 o’clock news.

She’s kept me close to my faith, reminding me it’s a foundation for life. She’s kept an oral history of our family going, explaining who my Aunt Annie Brannan was and what kind of job my Uncle Will had (he was a carnival barker. Really).

I tell groups I speak to that all of the good things about me, I got from my Mom, the rest I acquired myself. That usually gets a laugh, but I know it’s the truth.

I’ve always thought my mother has beauty that rivals anybody. Not just anybody’s mom, but anybody.

I’ve never had any problem telling my Mom I love her. It’s always been easy. But on this Mother’s Day I wanted to say something I haven’t said enough.


Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Fight Game!

Boxing has always been considered shady. Promoters are depicted in the movies wearing heavy pinstriped suits, black shirts, white ties and fedoras. The reason they’re portrayed that way, is because it’s not that far from the truth.

Boxing is shady. Even at the highest levels there’s infighting, back-biting, double-dealing and outright theft.

I can remember Muhammad Ali telling me he was really hoping his next fight would actually happen. I looked at him like he was crazy! He said, “No, really, I hope it does.” And this was a fight scheduled against Leon Spinks! A heavyweight title fight! Not some run of the mill fight, a chance for Ali to regain the title. Big money, big publicity, and Ali is actually worried about the fight happening. “Too many cooks in the kitchen,” the soon-to-be-champ-again said.

There is a lot of money at stake in a heavyweight championship bout, and everybody wants a piece of it. There are a lot of hangers-on. An “entourage” is how a fighter’s camp is described. Some have legitimate jobs, others are looking for the bucks that might spill over the top. That’s why when a fighter ascends to the Heavyweight Championship, he’s judged on how he handles it while he’s there, not necessarily how he got there.

There’s much more to being the Heavyweight Champ than just being the toughest guy in the ring. It is a moniker that denotes greatness. Social status, political influence. A model of athletic ability, toughness, and guile. At least that what you hope the Heavyweight Champ carries with him.

This is the division of the greats: John L. Sullivan, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Jack Dempsey, Ali, Larry Holmes and yes, Mike Tyson. It is also the division of one-fight wonders like Primo Carnera, Pinklon Thomas, Buster Douglas. Michael Moorer.

I’m always curious how a guy will react when he wins the championship. The greats act like it is a pre-ordained mission in life. They’re supposed to be the Heavyweight Champion of the World. Others, like Moorer, have no idea how to act. When Moorer won the title, he grabbed the three belts in the next day press conference, stood up and shouted “now I’m the @#%&*’ing man!” (He subsequently was smacked down by a gracious George Forman)

Louis fought just about everybody, spawning the “Bum of the Month” name for his opponents. Marciano is the only champ to retire undefeated. Ali showed how a black man in American could be a force for social change. Holmes (the Holmes who was the legitimate champ, not the current blockhead who keeps fighting for some unknown reason) showed how to grind away to keep the title. Tyson brought true fear and violence to the ring and early on had a reverence for the game itself and its history.

I was trying to fit Lennox Lewis into a category but couldn’t come up with one. A natural heavyweight, Lewis is a big man, 6’5″ and fighting most effectively at 235 lbs. He has a cautionary manner in the ring and a big right hand. Both make him dangerous. He’s smart and his British accent puts a touch of style on his personality. Thoughtful and genuinely pleasant, Lewis was the perfect heavyweight champ. That’s what’s so disappointing about his recent fifth round knockout loss to Hasim Rahman. It’s not that he got beat, but rather how casually he too the role as Heavyweight Champion of the World!

I guess beating Evander Holyfield, David Tua, Michael Grant and others with ease makes you feel invincible. Showing up a mere 12 days before the fight in South Africa, Lewis showed a disrespect for the sport itself and now must pay a big price. The loss probably cost him $100 million, but perhaps as, or more importantly, history will no longer judge Lewis on his reign as Heavyweight Champ, but rather he’ll be defined by the two knockout losses he’s suffered. (Oliver McCall KO’d Lewis in the second round in 1994)

How could he do that?

How could he throw away his place in history with such utter disregard? Believe it or not the fighter in the last 20 years who had the best chance to really fulfill the role of Heavyweight Champ is Tyson. Training with Cus D’Mato and Jimmy Jacobs, Tyson constantly reviewed tapes of old championship fights and eventually amassed the largest library of fight films in the world. He respected the game and it’s history. He learned from the mistakes of the past. Then he fell off the edge of the world, into an abyss of the dark side of the game.

I saw Rahman on late night television the other night and he seemed like a good guy. Not the presence you want in the Heavyweight Champ, but perhaps we can’t have that anymore. His only sin is he’s not Ali, or Marciano or Louis.

Too bad.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jordan Abducted!

Whatever alien power that has stolen Michael Jordan should return him. Now. Anytime I’ve ever talked to Jordan, he’s been the model of what an athlete should be. A Jordan post-game press gathering was more conversation than interview. Jordan was gracious and patient, his answers in complete sentences (a rare commodity these days) well thought out and smart.

That’s why aliens must have kidnapped the real Jordan.

The real Jordan is too smart to consider a comeback in the NBA.

The real Jordan is perhaps still stretched out just beyond the free throw line, hitting the winning shot against Utah in the NBA Finals. Arm extended, wrist turned down, the follow through saying “that’s good.” I can see it in my mind. Whoever this Jordan impersonator is obviously doesn’t remember that. It was one of the great moments in any kind of championship history.

The real Jordan wouldn’t tarnish that by saying at 38-years-old he might return to the NBA because of the “challenge.”


To do what?

The real Jordan already has six championships, the respect of the entire sporting world, an Olympic Gold Medal, the mantle as the best basketball player ever, and was named Athlete of the Century.

What kind of challenge would the real Jordan want?

He’d want to be a front office wiz. Somebody who put together a team, molded them and found a coach who could teach them the things he knows. And win a championship. Trying doing that with the Washington Wizards. Now that’s a challenge!

The real Jordan knows that at 38, he’ll still be a dominant basketball player, but players like Iverson, Carter and Kobe are dominant players too. He knows that he’d be more susceptible to injury. He’d see Mario Lemieux come back after 3 ½ years off the ice and know that Mario’s team was already good and just got better. Championship caliber better. Not NBA every-body-gets-into-the-playoffs-better, but rather Stanley Cup contenders better.

The real Jordan sees the tough defensive play he used to display in his mind and smiles. He recalls the warrior mentality he brought to the game. He knows that if he were to say he might come back, it would cast a shadow over the NBA Playoffs. The league is just emerging from the real Jordan’s very long shadow, and he knows he would diminish the league as it is with talk of a comeback. He understands how one player cannot carry the entire league forever, that something else about the game has to be attractive or it will just go away.

The real Jordan knows it’s time for him to compete in business and on the golf course, not on the hard court.

That’s why aliens must have taken him somewhere.

They have the real Barkley too.

They can keep Charles.

Just send the real Michael back.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Guatemala Fantasy

I grew up a city kid. Concrete sidewalks, asphalt streets, a few ball fields around, but mostly houses, apartments, cars and buses. We did have a big field next to the house where they eventually built apartments. I made a lot of mischief there, all kid stuff.

There was a stream running through my neighborhood. Or maybe you’d call it a brook, or a trickle, because that’s what it did. Tadpoles were the staple of the trickle.

I never saw a fish.

Some kids grow up with a cane pole and a cork in their hands. My hands were full of baseball bats, my afternoon newspaper route and Nancy Alvarez’s phone number (who lived five houses away and occupied my mind until I was 13).

My parents grew up city kids as well. My dad took me fishing a couple of times. We lived in Florida for a year and went to the Indian River. Once on vacation at my Aunt Linda’s in Houston, my Uncle Tony took us on a charter boat in the Gulf. (Actually my Uncle Tony went to the second deck of the boat, climbed under a bench and fell asleep while the deck was pitching three feet. Something about his Greek heritage.) We caught a bunch of fish off the oil rigs, I remember.

Fishing was not part of my life. I’ve tried to make up for that over the years. I love to bass fish, flounder fish, fish in the intracoastal. fish off –shore, it’s all appealing to me. Occasionally I’ll take what sounds like an exotic trip, just to fish. Sometimes out of state, sometimes, out of the country. Which brings me to the last five days in Guatemala.

My long time friend Denny, who is the best fisherman I know, invited me on this trip last fall. It certainly sounded exotic, and a little scary.


Yes, Guatemala, where perhaps the best big game fishing in the world is now located. A two hour flight from Miami to Guatemala City and an hour and half van ride to the Pacific Coast put us at the Fins ‘n Feathers fishing lodge. If you’re wondering what Guatemala is like, my friend Chester said as we turned down another dirt road in the dark, “if I hadn’t been here before, this is when I’d start to get scared.”

Armed guards opening the gates gave me a perplexing feeling: I think I’m glad they’re here, but why? Inside those gates was a self-contained oasis of fishing nirvana.

Two bedroom cottages (with great AC) surrounding a common open air eating area, bar, swimming pool, and recreation area, all 50 feet from the boats moored in the marina. Up at six, on the water by seven, and heading out into the Pacific looking for sailfish and marlin.

Last year on this trip, Denny and three friends set the world record for catch and release of sailfish , capturing 76 in one day! I know guys who have fished their whole lives and haven’t seen 76 sailfish.

There were sixteen guys on this trip, all friends of Denny’s, so the compatibility factor was high. Even guys you didn’t know, you figured if they were friends of Denny’s they knew the drill. (no jerks allowed) My roommate Rick and I laughed so hard so many times about things we didn’t know we had in common I can’t even begin to count them.

Drawing for teams, with a small wager involved each day made it a little more sporting, but just being there was a hoot. I probably ate too much, drank too much and was too loud more than once, which means I was probably enjoying myself.

Between the four boats and the sixteen “anglers” (using the term loosely) we brought in about 90 sailfish and untold numbers of Dorado (dolphin). The Dorado is one of the most beautiful fish in the ocean. Brilliant gold, blue and green, fast and aggressive, a Dorado flashing underwater, the sun glinting off its sides brings a gasp of “wow” from most fishermen. The sails were all released, no worse for wear, and a few of the Dorado ended up as lunch or dinner or snacks, or all three.

I kept saying in my mind, “what am I doing in Guatemala?” I found the answer when I hooked a 100+ lb. sailfish Monday morning. Straining to hold onto the rod, feeling the power on the other end and seeing the line out 50 yards or more with a fish dancing on the water isn’t something a city kid dreams about.

But he will now.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tiger’s Greatness

The guy is phenomenal. Tiger Woods’ performance at the Masters was thrilling, strong willed and gutsy. It didn’t have the magic of his other major championship victories, but it had grit and was a show to remember. Is it a Grand Slam? No. Call it the Major Slam or the Quad Slam, whatever you want, but call it magnificent.

Holding all four major championship trophies at the same time is a monumental feat. Something other players have thought about, most notably Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Neither was able to accomplish it, but both had it on their minds. Palmer in 1960, Nicklaus in 1971. The problem was, other players got in the way. Nobody has done that to Tiger Woods. Jerry Kelly couldn’t do it at the Players Championship. Bob May couldn’t do it at the PGA and neither David Duval nor Phil Mickelson could do it at this year’s Masters.

Duval and Mickelson haven’t won major championships. It could be just their bad fortune to be at the top of their games when Woods is in the prime of his. Duval is a special story. It’s not as if he hasn’t won. He’s not afraid to “go low” as evidenced by his 59 at the Hope two years ago. His fitness regimen is unparalleled. In fact, when you see a tournament in person, Duval and Tiger standout as athletes. Everybody else looks like a golfer. David seems to be carved from steel, Tiger looks more like A-Rod or Jeter than Hogan or Snead. Duval has played well enough to win four green jackets, but fate or misfortune, or a three-putt at 16 has gotten in the way.

Nobody is owed a Green Jacket. Nobody is owed a major championship. Just ask Greg Norman. Duval has prepared himself like nobody else, except Tiger. It would be unfair to characterize him as Ali’s Frazier or Affirmed’s Alydar. Only a look back at his career from the future could cast him in that role.

Mickelson’s problem could be very different. His inconsistency in decision-making and shot execution under pressure could be because he’s still a golfer, not an athlete. He doesn’t seem to approach it as a battle, a mano-a-mano competition. It seems to still be a country club game to Mickelson. A commitment to fitness might be part of the recipe for future major championship success.

While there’s no denying Woods’ genius, I would like to see a serious challenge mounted consistently by the competition. Woods is always the player who doesn’t make mistakes, who comes up with the special shot. Can’t anybody else pull a little magic out of their bag? Nicklaus bristles a bit when there’s a comparison made between his play and Tiger Wood’s current domination of the game. Nicklaus points out that during his prime, if he made a mistake, there was another player with major championship credentials ready to step in. He had to contend with Palmer and Player then Trevino and eventually Watson. He’s right about that. Woods’ accomplishments against the all-time records validate his greatness, but there’s nobody in today’s game who can put heat on him with credentials to back it up.

Mickelson and Duval haven’t won a major. Ernie Els, Justin Leonard, Tom Lehman, and Davis Love, major winners all, seem to disappear at the wrong moment. But I’m not going to fret about whether Tiger’s dominance is good for the game. I’m going to revel in it. Witnessing history happens all the time. But in this case, we just know it’s happening.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Brunell Signs

“The days of free-spending free-agency are over. The salary cap is beginning to work.” With those words, Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver echoed the sentiments of his fellow NFL owners; the lottery is over. Weaver and quarterback Mark Brunell agreed at the “11th hour and 57th minute” on a four year, $30 million deal with an $8 million signing bonus.

“It’s fair to both sides,” Brunell said by phone from a weekend camping trip in Clay County with his children. “We both achieved our goals. They kept their quarterback and I’m staying in Jacksonville. I wanted to remain a Jaguar.”

After presenting initial ideas ranging to over $100 million and $20 million in a signing bonus, Brunell and his agent Leigh Steinberg realized Weaver was not going to go for those numbers. Both Bret Favre and Drew Bledsoe received announced contracts for more than $100 million.

“Those are phony numbers,” according to Weaver. “They’ll never see that kind of money.”

Both sides had agreed early on that $30 million over 4 years was the fair market value for Brunell. Taking less than what his fellow quarterbacks announced they received is something Brunell had to get over, and eventually did, with the potential of a trade to Kansas City, Seattle or Detroit helping convince him.

“Jacksonville is my home and I wanted to stay here. My parents live here, my church is here, I wanted to stay,” Brunell added.

Weaver seemed genuinely surprised at the number of assembled media for the 4 pm announcement. “I don’t know why you’re all here. We’re doing what I said all along, we’ve signed Mark Brunell to a new contract,” is how the Jaguars owner opened the press conference.

Neither side is completely happy, and neither side thinks they lost. In other words, it’s exactly what is supposed to happen in a negotiation. Brunell doesn’t think this is his last contract either. “I hope to have the chance to go through this again,” he said.

Both Brunell and Weaver expect his teammates t understand the business nature of this deal, and the strain it put on the franchise during the early weeks of free agency. What is still in question is how the fans will react to Brunell when he takes the field this fall. Fan sentiment ran strongly against Brunell, with the perception being that his delay in signing a deal cost the team a chance to keep players like Leon Searcy and Mike Logan.

Brunell said, “in situations like this, some people understand, some don’t. You just have to move on.”

“I think the fans want Mark Brunell as their quarterback,” Weaver added. “If we get to the Super Bowl, Mark Brunell is the quarterback who will take us there.”

Putting a competitive team on the field right away is the first concern for the Jaguars administration. Weaver mentioned Jeff Smith and Todd Forham, both free agents, several times, and said the team will attempt to offer them deals so they’ll return. Both can be solid linemen, know the system, played together last year, and will be key to any success the Jaguars might have.

Although he wouldn’t say how much the Jaguars now had under the cap, Weaver did note, “it’ll be enough to sign the minimum of 51 players.” The team immediately moved on one player, signing Jamie Martin to a one-year deal to backup Brunell. Martin is an insurance policy in case Jonathan Quinn doesn’t perform well in NFL Europe.

Weaver is right when he says the salary cap is working. Over 100 veteran players were cut by the deadline last month, and only a few have signed deals near their previous market value. “Teams know they can’t sign these long-term, big-money deals and defer their problems. We’re the poster child for that,” the Jaguars owner added.

He also said he was against the idea of a “Larry Bird” exemption in the NFL where teams could keep some veteran players on the roster and have them not count against the cap. Weaver said, “I think that’s a bad rule. All teams are learning to deal with the salary cap the way it is.”

In the end, the Jaguars owner was able to keep the “$100 million” label away from any of his players, holding the line against that number with his biggest star. In that vein, he won in this round of negotiations. Only time will tell if signing Brunell, and not trading him translates into more actual on field wins in the future.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Terps Fever

It’s the first time, ever that the University of Maryland has their basketball team in the Final Four. Not “since whenever” or “post-whatever” but ever, as in forever.

The Maryland basketball team is big news in Baltimore and Washington. The head coach is a star and the players celebrities. The football team is a sidelight (regrettably). The basketball team gets the headlines.

I wouldn’t call Maryland graduates “long suffering” because we’ve had plenty of highlights over the years. We just never have gotten to the Final Four. (By the way, I’m waiving the “we” rule as a journalist for this column only, unless of course, “we” win the National Championship. I suppose the only time you can refer to a team as “we” when you’re writing about it, is if you are a graduate of that school and you don’t live in the region, and your team is in the Final Four or playing for the football National Championship, or both. Gator alums can use “we” but only if they move out of the South.)

It’s an approach-avoidance thing to be a Maryland basketball fan. Anytime we ever got too pumped up, we were heartbroken. So, outside of Cole Field House, we kept our loyalty at arms length. We’d moan to each other about how terrible we could be, how stupid the coach was, including Lefty, (ever see Carolina use the four corners and drop into a zone so effectively against anybody else?) and when would we ever win a big game and go to the Final Four?

To outsiders, we were an enigma. Fans of a team that never got to the mountaintop. Heck, we were always stuck at base camp.

“Hey, the Terps are on Channel 20 tonight against N.C. State, want to watch?”

“No, I’ve seen that game. We lead by 15, Norm Sloan drops back into a zone and we lose. Happens every time.”

No zone busting shooter ever wore the red and black (and gold and white, all colors of the Maryland state flag.)

It was a ritual at the fraternity house (Pi Kappa Alpha) when I was a student at the University of Maryland. The basketball team was good, perhaps one of the top five teams in the country, and everybody wanted a ticket to Cole. The brothers would gather in the chapter room and hand in their student ID to the Sergeant-at-Arms. The “basketball committee” would then plan the strategy for getting tickets to the Terps game the next night. About five of the brothers would take turns going through the line and getting the free tickets handed out to the students. When the allotment was secured, they’d come back to the house, usually very late and very loud and decide who got to go to the game and if they were allowed to take a date.

It was serious business.

These were Lefty’s Terps, the “UCLA of the East.” The ACC had Dean Smith and Sloan as coaches and star players, many of them playing for Maryland.

Tom McMillan, Len Elmore, Brad Davis, and John Lucas were all on the same Maryland team. A team that didn’t even get a chance to go to the NCAA tournament. Only sixteen teams were in the tournament then, and only the conference tournament champions were eligible. Tickets to the ACC tournament were impossible to get because that’s where the basketball was best. Maryland lost to the Wolfpack in triple overtime, in what some call the best college basketball game ever. N.C. State went to the NCAA tournament, the Terps came home. We even turned down an NIT bid one year.

Now it’s a trip to the Final Four, and of course, Maryland’s first round opponent is the hated Duke. Three times this season the Terps had Duke on the ropes, but only once, on the road in Durham, did Maryland prevail.

I’ll probably scream at the television a few times Saturday night, threaten to revoke all of their scholarships and hopefully be happy at the end.

Getting to the Final Four is nice, but it’s not enough.

You see, just like any fan, I want to win it all.

For the first time, ever.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Golf, Vodka and Soda

Some people say golf isn’t even a sport. A game they say, played by non-athletes who can do nothing else but hit a ball in a hole. I can see part of that. I’ve always contended that if you took a person who has inherent athletic skills, good hand-eye coordination and a desire to learn, you could make them a scratch player if that was all they worked on for a year or so.

Golf has become such a different kind of endeavor in the last 20 years. As the money grew, the players became more serious about the game, kept their bodies in better shape and practiced harder. The biggest complaint from the over-40 set in professional golf in the last two decades hasn’t been about anything on the course. They don’t like the locker room any more. Too many agents, too many briefcases, and too many pagers, not enough scotch, beer and card games. They were looking forward to the Senior Tour so they could have a cocktail with somebody, anybody, without a bunch of arched eyebrows scouring their bellies.

There are famous stories about Tom Weiskopf showing up on the first tee on Friday wearing the same clothes he wore on Thursday. Apparently something he learned from Raymond Floyd. If that happened these days, the player would be hustled off the course for some kind of counseling and put in a rehab, immediately.

Nobody on tour is acting like that anymore. It’s not even the middle of March and eight players have already won more than $1 million. Joe Durant is the only two-time winner on tour.


Joe Durant, one of the hundred or so players capable of winning each week.

Used to be only about ten guys could actually win, and that number was smaller if Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were playing. They just scared guys off the leader board. Tiger Woods did that for a short time, but not anymore. Players like Phil Mickelson and Hal Sutton are looking for the action.

The new golf balls are making everybody longer and giving them the idea that they can compete. Players are practicing harder and longer. “Hell, even Stadler is hitting balls on the range,” Fuzzy Zoeller told me at Bay Hill this week, “Stad never hit balls!”

Over the next two weeks in North Florida, the greatest golfers of all time will put their games on display. Not some kind of All-star, old-timers exhibition, but rather real competition.

The Players Championship should have every great current player in the world on the golf course for the first round of competition on Thursday. Every one of the top 50 players in the world is committed to playing. On Sunday, the best player of the week will be identified.

The Stadium Course at Sawgrass is set up so that if any part of a players’ game is deficient, it will cost him. He won’t win. The winner will have driven it straight, hit crisp iron shots, displayed a deft short game, and putted beautifully.

Tiger, Hal, Freddie, Phil, Duval, all of the best will be there.

On Monday, two of the most significant players in the history of the game will play at the King and the Bear at the World Golf Village. Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus will play in a Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match over their new collaborative course in St. Augustine. Not put on an exhibition, like when they opened the course, but play a match. Real competition. Palmer at 71, recently shot his age in a tournament, and Nicklaus is still a force on the Senior Tour in his 60’s. They both want to win, and both hate to lose, especially to each other.

Where else are you going to see that?

Following that, Palmer and Nicklaus will pair up as a team to compete in the Legends of Golf at the King and the Bear. Every great player not on the PGA Tour who can still bend over and tee it up will compete.

Right here in our backyard.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Tournament

Sixty-five teams and only one champion.
Sixty-four teams end their season losing; yet all think of it as a success.
We made the tournament!
We’re part of the dance!

The NCAA tournament rewards teams who have had successful regular seasons and have won their conference tournaments. They’re in the money. Upwards of $250,000 for each round, with the schools, and in most cases, the coaches sharing in the wealth. The more you win, the more money you make. Most coaches have tournament incentives built into their contracts. Bonuses for getting their team to the tournament, and more money for advancing through each round.

You ever wonder why coaches jump up and down and complain about seeding? The wrong seed in a bracket can make a million dollar difference to the school and in turn, take money out of the coaches’ pocket.

The players of course, get nothing.

Isn’t there something wrong with that? The players are doing the work, getting the glory, and many times the blame, but none of the money. A college education for free is the payoff for many, and for only a few, a shot at professional basketball. Pay the players something; give them some incentive as well.

Why only sixty-five teams anyway? Why not let everybody in? It would only mean two more rounds. Two hundred fifty six teams in the tournament, everybody with a chance to win the title. Then there’s no politicking, no Dick Vitale saying who should and shouldn’t get in, no committees to select and decide between the haves and the have-nots.

Expand the tournament all the way out. Let every team in. But of course, that would mean sharing the money, splitting it up even further. It might even put less emphasis on the regular season, and render the conference tournaments meaningless. But, there’s still money in all of that, and the tournaments could help determine the seeding in what would really be a “Big Dance.” That’s what college basketball is about anyway. Getting the team ready for the stretch drive, the playoffs, the conference tournaments and March Madness.

Is there a reason the “power leagues” get a majority of the berths and the others stand on the outside looking in? Of course, the best basketball is played in the big conferences. Going 80 in ACC play is just fine. Around .500 in the SEC? No problem. But who’s to say the sixth place team in the Big Ten is better than the second place team in the TAAC?

There will be upsets in the tournament but certain factors are true. No sixteenth seed has ever won a tournament game. Two came close last year, but lost by one point. A team seeded fourth or higher has the best chance, statistically, of getting to the Final Four.

The tournament is great fun. Every game is televised so it will all unfold right in front of us. It seems every office will have a bracket pool, legal or not. Even if you’re not a basketball fan. Don’t miss it.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Cap

For all of the talk about “getting it done” last week and how everybody chipped in, things are not all rosy at Jaguars headquarters. Owner Wayne Weaver said all the right things, quarterback Mark Brunell and his agent Leigh Steinberg were both quoted about how they were glad they could help the Jaguars get under the cap, but it all rang hollow.

Weaver didn’t like how the negotiations went and Brunell is sticking to the business side of the football relationship, trying to get as much money as possible, even apparently, at the cost of winning. It all depends on your perspective as to where to place the blame, if there is any. Brunell stuck it to the team by not agreeing to a new deal, but on the other hand, he didn’t put them in their salary cap “circumstance.” Kevin Hardy didn’t agree to an extension, further causing the Jaguars to trim their roster of contributing players.

Weaver, Head Coach Tom Coughlin and capoligist Michael Huyghue were all willing to go, as they say, “outside of the model” for high-priced talent, trying to get to the Super Bowl. “The Super Bowl is a powerful intoxicant,” is how Weaver put it, “but we won’t make those same mistakes again.” When asked this week if the Jaguars would have a different salary cap situation in the future, Weaver uttered a terse, “you bet.”

Since the inception of the salary cap in the early ‘90’s, some teams have fallen into the cap quagmire quicker than others. The 49ers and the Cowboys were loaded with salaries and kept paying, knowing it would cost them in the future. They won championships and now are every day teams, trying to figure out how to get out of their own way.

The cap helps sprinkle talent around the league, and that’s it. Players like John Randle, Marcus Robertson and Leon Searcy are now free-agents, released by teams desperate to get under the salary cap. They’re still productive players, still stars in fact, but the cap makes teams decide which stars they’ll keep and which ones they’ll cut.

Searcy said last week, “I’m important too,” when asked what the Jaguars might do. He’s right. The Jaguars had to decide between an All-Pro type lineman who is a great “locker room guy” and their Pro Bowl quarterback. The quarterback won out in the short term, holding the team hostage with his demands for more money.

When the 49ers recently signed defensive lineman Bryant Young to a long term deal, Bill Walsh said, “this will cost us untold numbers of productive players in the future.” If that’s the attitude around the league, why keep the cap? Certainly the NFL could come up with another way to restrict the movement of some players and give others the freedom to seek their own deals. The NBA created the “Larry Bird rule” allowing teams to keep the stars on their rosters while paying them accordingly, and have enough money left under their cap to put a good team around them.

The NFL, with its higher incidence of injury, needs to look over the cap. If a player is eating up a big percentage of a team’s cap and gets hurt, their season is over. They can’t sign somebody else, they don’t have the money.

Tweak it, massage it, figure out a way players can stay in towns and with teams for their entire careers if they want to. Doesn’t it seem funny with all the different dates and rules that the league created the salary cap, and they immediately started to look for ways to get around it?

John Unitas, Tom Matte, Art Donovan, they’re all Colts. Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris are Steelers.

Dan Marino is a Dolphin.

Will there be any career long Jaguars? Under the current cap structure, I wouldn’t load up on Brunell jerseys in the near future.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Special E and NASCAR

I found out this week I was a bigger Dale Earnhardt fan than a NASCAR fan. I guess a lot of people found out the same thing. I was talking about it with my long time friend and co-worker Kevin on Tuesday (Kevin is one of the biggest Dale fans anywhere). He’s always said Dale and I shared the same personality. I usually took it as a compliment, laughed and didn’t think about it. This week, Kevin really zeroed in on it, saying two similar aspects were very apparent. One, people who knew Dale, liked him. People who didn’t know him, didn’t know what to make of him. Two, he had a willingness to act like a jerk, as a last resort, to get the job done. When all else failed, he’d take over and bang his way through to the front.

He seemed to validate that attitude for a lot of people. His success showed that it was OK to believe you were right. Somewhat Machiavellian, but effective, as long as nobody got hurt.

So what is NASCAR going to do with people like me now that Dale’s gone? They can’t just invent another Earnhardt. Dale, Jr. is a young driver with a good car, but he’s a completely different personality than his father. Many fans will just transfer their allegiance from the “3” to the “8.” Others won’t be able to do that. Dale Jr. is 26 years old; his father was 49 when he died. NASCAR’s fan base is closer to 49 than it is to 26. So they have to make the sport itself the attraction.

Since it’s inception, NASCAR has been a sport built on personalities. Petty, Yarborough, Roberts, Allison. All personalities who reminded people of themselves. Dale Earnhardt might have been the last of those individual personalities. Willing to speak his mind, Dale never worried about sponsor relations, political correctness or what people thought. He had his fans, and he had his detractors. He was what he was.

Most other drivers have fallen lockstep into the corporate world of niceness. They’re homogenized so as to not make anybody mad. There’s nothing the matter with that with all the money at stake, but it’s not going to draw fans to the sport in the traditional way. The competition itself has to be the reason to watch.

With constant changes in the rules, NASCAR is trying to keep that balance between safety and competitiveness. Keeping the drivers alive should now be the clear focus of the NASCAR officials in a very public way. Nine deaths in the last ten years are starting to make even the diehards wonder.

I’ll be watching the races on Sundays. I used to check who won if I was out. I now realize I was just checking to see if Dale had won. Now I don’t know what I’ll be checking for. Maybe NASCAR will have an answer for that.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com


As the two cars he owned flashed past the checkered flag in the 43rd Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt’s life had already ended. Racing inches apart in a pack of cars in turn 4, Earnhardt’s Chevy was touched by Sterling Marlin, dropped down to the bottom of the track then shot up into the outside retaining wall at about 180 mph, hitting it head on.

Had anything else happened, another car touched him on the way up, Kenny Schrader hit him earlier, anything, and Dale Earnhardt might be alive. But Earnhardt’s neck took the brunt of the impact and he died instantly. When Schrader looked into the 3 car in the infield and immediately called for emergency personnel, you knew it was really bad. And when NASCAR officials and others associated with the track were mum about his condition, we feared the worst.

But when the announcement came, just before seven o’clock, there was a real sense of disbelief.

Earnhardt? Dead? Impossible!

He’s the guy who always walks away! He’s the Intimidator! But it is true and perhaps NASCAR’s greatest driver and certainly their biggest star is now gone.

The only thing that overshadows his death is his life itself. His career is nearly unmatched. Seven Winston Cup titles, 76 NASCAR victories, 34 wins at Daytona in all kinds of races, two-time American Driver of the Year. By any measure, his career stats put him among the best ever. But it was his style, his attitude that separated Earnhardt from the field, and fans loved him, or hated him for it.

As he sat in his car prior to this year’s Bud Shootout at Daytona, a reporter asked Earnhardt if he had a strategy for the race. “Get to the front,” he said slyly with a smile. “And then,” the reporter continued. “Stay there,” Earnhardt replied. That was it in a nutshell. Get to the front and stay there. Don’t be content with second if you can be first or even tenth if you can be ninth. Earnhardt brought an attitude to the track that he was going to win. Period. Anything else is less than acceptable. His fans loved it. They knew he’d do just about anything to be the winner, even bend the rules a little bit. If it meant shoving somebody out of the way, or putting them in the wall, he’d do it. Yet, Earnhardt was never accused of being a dirty driver, just aggressive. He was considered one of the safest drivers during his best years in the early ‘90’s. His style polarized the fans. There were those for Earnhardt, and then the A.B.E’s. Anybody But Earnhardt.

People “connected” with Earnhardt. He was a son of the South, and made no excuses for it. He made NASCAR fans proud to be NASCAR fans. You couldn’t go five feet at a race and not see something with the famous “3” on it.

It would be hard to overstate the loss NASCAR has suffered with Earnhardt’s death. The most famous driver, still at the top of his game, gone. Killed on the biggest stage in the sport at the beginning of what NASCAR had hoped to be their biggest year ever. For all the talk about restrictor plates, aerodynamic packages, new sponsors and the new television contract, there is no getting around the risk inherent in the sport. We’re just reminded of that too often.

The safety of the drivers, the safety of the fans and the competitive nature of the racing are NASCAR’s biggest concerns. Finding the right balance between the three is a delicate juggling act. Yes, the Daytona 500 was as competitive as ever, but at what price? Were the drivers involved in the wreck on lap 174 just lucky to walk away? One accident, nineteen cars.

Last year’s three NASCAR deaths and now Earnhardt’s have all been attributed to trauma to the base of the driver’s skull. Would wearing the HANS device, designed to keep the head in place during an accident, have saved those drivers? His voice cracking, the trauma surgeon at Daytona speculated he didn’t think so yesterday at the track.

Dale’s death will make NASCAR take an even closer look at driver safety, especially on the high-speed, super speedways.

When a NASCAR driver is killed, the sport usually takes care of itself. It’s a part of the game, they tell themselves. Because the popularity is so personality driven, the fans take it hard. Drivers spend hours with the sponsors, fans and media to fulfill one of the primary functions of NASCAR itself: promote the product. Even though there are “teams” in NASCAR, the only faces recognizable are the ones behind the wheel. Earnhardt’s was the most recognizable face. He was the face of NASCAR.

As a reporter, I covered Earnhardt’s entire career. From his first appearance in 1979 to his final race at Daytona. I liked Dale. I was even an Earnhardt fan. He could be short with the media, but usually only after a failure in a race that didn’t make sense to him. His approach to the sport appealed to me. He was meticulous in his preparation and interested in one thing: winning. After his victory at Daytona in 1998 I have never seen a competitor that happy. No post-game locker room celebrations at the Super Bowl or the World Series matched the mixture of joy, relief and accomplishment Earnhardt displayed that evening. Like most fans, I checked on Dale’s position at every race. At Daytona I noted who’s leading and: Where’s Dale? He was my favorite driver. And one of my favorite people in all of sports.

And I’ll miss him.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Bright Lights, Big NASCAR

I was walking through the NASCAR Winston Cup Garage when a familiar voice called out, “hey boy, where you been?” I turned and saw Cale Yarborough headed in my direction, big smile on his face and his hand extended.

The year was 1981. I had been working in Charleston, S.C. for three years and moved to Jacksonville in the spring. This was before everybody was wired with cable, and way before satellite television was all the rage. Cale lived in Sardis, S.C., northwest of Charleston and had a huge antenna on his garage so he could get Charleston television. Turns out, he watched my station for news all the time.

“I moved to Jacksonville,” I answered.
“Well, it’s great to see you,” Cale said as he patted me on the back.

Boy, have things changed. It seems like a million years ago, but NASCAR has moved into the big time. NASCAR used to be the easiest sport to cover. The garage area was uncluttered, just a few writers and very few television cameras. No fans, no sponsors. The drivers were eager to talk, eager to give their sponsors publicity.

NASCAR didn’t get a lot of coverage in the mainstream media, so they created their own. Magazines, newsletters, their own radio network, all devoted to NASCAR, fulltime. There wasn’t a lot of money in the sport, and actually only a few teams had a chance to win. They had the money to do the testing, to buy the best parts and to have the right guys on their team.

I can remember sitting in the garage with Dale Earnhardt and saying “what’d you learn out there today.” “I learned we don’t have enough car to win,” Dale snapped back, and then smiled. All of that has changed.

Since cable television discovered NASCAR and began showing every race, the sport has exploded. The garage is packed now, dozens of writers and television crews with fans and sponsors granted access by NASCAR as well. Because they never needed it in the past, NASCAR never developed a public relations arm. The drivers sought you out.

Now, with drivers running in the other direction every time they see a reporter with a notepad or microphone (unless it has a network insignia on it), the relationship between the competitors and the media is beginning to be like every other sport: a bit frosty. Each team is beginning to hire their own pr staff, ensuring their driver and his sponsors will get airtime.

From a regional sport to the big time, NASCAR has made the transition with purpose. They’ve prepared to take the national stage bit by bit. Going to Indianapolis, promoting their own Daytona 500 as the “Super Bowl of Racing,” even holding their year-end banquet in New York, they’ve taken cautious steps before stepping into the spotlight across the country.

The new television contract, the extended season and just the sheer amount of money in racing now will demand they be prepared to take the good with the bad while under the natural scrutiny the exposure will bring. Up until now, the sport has been clean. The only scandals involved on-track incidents. No talk about the drivers’ personal lives. No investigations into what they’re up to off the track. Nobody but their loyal fans cared. Not anymore.

NASCAR is huge. Are they ready?

I think so.

They take care of their core fans, catering to them at the track and on television. You can buy just about anything and everything with Dale Earnhardt’s picture on it, or the number “3”. Want to listen to Dale talk with his pit crew, his car owner and his spotter? No problem. Here’s a pair of headsets with the frequency of every driver on the track. Need to know the rpm’s in the turns? Right on your screen, the in car telemetry tells you.

They’ll be made fun of, for sure. The way they talk, the billboard advertising on the cars and drivers. But aren’t they just taking the first steps where other sports will follow? Golfers have sponsorship worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even baseball and football uniforms have the first sign of manufacturers logos on them.

New fans being exposed to the sport for the first time will learn the drivers, their numbers and their owners and crew chiefs. They’ll know something about the personalities as well. NASCAR has taken a piece of the network television pie.

They’re sitting at the table with the other “major” sports.
Will they be served the main course?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Xtreme Reaction

First of all, everybody should relax. You’d think they were going to take John Unitas out of the Hall of Fame. The reaction to the launch of the XFL rivals the outcry of when baseball went on strike. The critics have been hot, the supporters a bit tepid.

It’s not the Lindbergh crossing, it’s not a man on the moon, it’s minor league football. Yes, it was heavy on television production, heavy on scantily clad women, heavy on yelling, tight shots and hand-held cameras but it’s not as if they’re invading the planet.

There is a market for spring football in the U.S.. The USFL showed that, and would have been successful if Donald Trump hadn’t killed it off by insisting on a move to the fall to go head-to-head with the NFL. The XFL is the latest incarnation of spring football. This time it’s WWF style. Well choreographed, well scripted and regrettably, not very well played. Some good camera angles, some television innovations that the NFL will eventually adopt to make their league more “fan friendly.”

If you tuned in to the XFL for football, you were disappointed. In fact, you tuned in for all of the wrong reasons. The pre-promotion promised something different, even something better. We did get something different, but certainly nothing better than what we know as professional football.

The quality of play was just above what we might see at any college stadium on a Saturday afternoon, but light years away from the level of competition in the NFL. But that’s not what the XFL is trying to do. They’re not trying to rival the NFL. Paying up to $50,000 in salary to the players is not going to attract any player capable of playing in the fall, or in Europe, or even in the Arena League. Players are in the XFL trying to get noticed. They’ve been rejected as potential players in the NFL, but want another chance. Some might prove the scouts wrong, but most will get their thrills, playing in what they’ll call a “professional” league, and be done with it.

When the USFL was launched, there was a large outcry that it would hurt the game. Stealing players from the NFL was somehow un-American. Spring football was stupid. Nobody will watch and certainly nobody would buy a ticket. That was before they played the games. Once they started, the quality of play wasn’t bad. Future NFL stars like Reggie White, Gary Clark, Jim Kelly and Steve Young were sprinkled throughout the USFL rosters. After a few weeks, it was clear, some teams were pretty good, and others were absolutely awful.

Which team in the XFL is the Washington Federals? Which is the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars? Are any?

The league can sustain itself on hype and flash for only so long. Actual football fans won’t be back if the games are similar to the Las Vegas/New York national debut. But that’s not who the XFL is trying to attract anyway. They’re looking for the wrestling fan to add another night to his or her routine. Monday Nitro, Thursday Thunder and now Saturday XFL.

The television ratings for the debut were phenomenal, but only early on. As the game raged on, the viewing public went elsewhere. Did they just tune out? Did they go somewhere else? Those are the questions researchers will be asking to see if the game attracted an entire new audience or just the passing fancy of the traditional sports fan. It was a huge entertainment package with football in the background. Is there anything the matter with that? No, but perhaps they should call it “Fressling” or “Wrasselball” instead.

Just remember, this is a league owned by the television networks and a promoter. It’s not a league that sprouted up and the television networks decided to cover it. There’s a big difference.

The product won’t satisfy people who want to see competition.

Those looking for something else will be just fine.