Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Coughlins Demise

Despite his obvious affection for Tom Coughlin, Jaguars Owner Wayne Weaver knew it was time for a change. “There’s a point in this business where you have to say we need innovative new ideas, new fresh approaches and you have to move in different directions, and that’s really what it’s all about,” Weaver said during his announcement that Coughlin had been asked to “step down” as the Jaguars Head Coach.

The momentum for a change had been building for several weeks. Weaver could see that the team wasn’t going to make any great strides under Coughlin next year, and the fans weren’t enthused about another year of the Coughlin regime. So, he followed logic, and “his heart” and decided to do something else. It was a difficult decision for Weaver to make, considering his personal regard for Coughlin and the lack of any acrimony or animosity between the two men. “I’m made changes at the executive level before,” Weaver added, “but none as tough as this one.”

There was a feeling of inevitability at the press conference. No shock, no outcry of Why? Just an acceptance that Weaver was doing what just about everybody thought he had to do: make a change at the top. Coughlin’s removal clears the way for Weaver to take a hard look at what’s been going on in his organization. “What we have to do is re-energize our fan base and that starts with Wayne Weaver, our administrative staff and our ticketing operation. We have to do things differently than we’ve done before,” Weaver said in response to a question regarding the coach’s responsibility to sell tickets. And he’s right. The entire Jaguars operation has been so dominated by Coughlin that it will be somewhat of a culture shock to the employees who have done their job in the shadow of Coughlin’s gaze. How they react is up to Weaver. He has to set the tone and show the way.

Coughlin never was considered an embrace-able coach by any of the fans. Weaver’s attempt to push Coughlin into the community last year didn’t work. Coughlin’s reticence and his combative style didn’t connect. Weaver spent a lot of time talking to civic groups, preaching the Jaguars gospel, but it was the coach that people wanted to like. And he wouldn’t let them.

Coughlin is a funny, smart and engaging person, but his unwillingness to show that side of his personality was ultimately his downfall. He could have owned Jacksonville for as long as he liked. But like a character in a Greek tragedy, his accomplishments were overshadowed by his one flaw. And no matter who told him about it, what advice he was given, he couldn’t, or wouldn’t change. That might work in a variety of American businesses, but when you’re competing for the disposable entertainment dollar, it won’t fly.

I’ve been saying it for a while, but AP writer Eddie Pells concurred is his wrap-up of Coughlin’s tenure in Jacksonville. “A funny, articulate, compassionate man, Coughlin very rarely let his softer side show. He never connected personally with his players or Jacksonville’s fans, a reality that hurt him in the locker room and the community.”

Because of that, Coughlin’s legacy will be mixed when the Jaguars history is written. The autocratic architect of a franchise’s meteoric beginning, his unwillingness to compromise contributed to the team’s fall from grace and his own professional demise.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Weaver’s Call

I don’t know if Tom Coughlin will be back as the Jaguars Head Coach next season. I do believe that only Wayne Weaver has the answer to that question, and he might not know what the answer is yet. I also believe the decision to keep or not keep Coughlin will not be based on football. Weaver believes in Coughlin as a football coach. He believes “Tom Coughlin is the right man to return us to the Promised Land,” as he told me before the season. But Weaver is in business and in the business of making money. The Jaguars have between 23 and 26-thousand season ticket renewals due in March and according to one person inside the ticket office it would take a “bolt of lightning” to have a significant number of those people renew their tickets. Is that “bolt of lightning” firing the Head Coach? Perhaps. But that doesn’t solve all of the Jaguars problems with a snap of a finger.

This Jaguars team is similar, by Coughlin’s own admission, to the teams of 1995 and 1996. It’s young, with a few stars and has to play without mistakes and at its potential to win games. “Nobody knows this team as well as I do,” Coughlin said at his press conference on Wednesday. “And nobody knows what it takes to help this team win as well as I do. But I do know this; last year we were under .500, in Cleveland, out gained all over the field and won a game 12-10. Last Sunday, we were out gained again, and save for one play, we had the game won.”

There’s no question Coughlin knows football, and is most effective while coaching an under-talented team. He can make players over-achieve. When he had his most talented teams, particularly in 1999, he lamented his own inability to get the players “to play above the x’s and o’s.” He can do that with young players and guys scrapping to stay in the league. He hasn’t been able to do that with established stars and veterans.

So with the Jaguars rebuilding, and admitting that’s the stage they’re in, it would make sense that Coughlin would still be the right guy to coach this team. Except that they’ve heard his act this year and last and most have become numb to it. He hasn’t changed, and he doesn’t want to change. And it’s not that he has to change, but he has lost his effectiveness in getting players to “play above the x’s and o’s.” As I’ve written before, players don’t necessarily play for the coach but as one player told me after Sunday’s shocker against the Browns, “sometimes it feels like we’re playing against three teams out there. The opponent, the refs, and our own coaching staff. It ain’t easy.”

There is an avalanche of public sentiment going against Coughlin. On this website a wide majority of respondents to our front-page poll favor firing Coughlin as a solution to the Jaguars’ woes. Coughlin is aware of the way things are going, and knows he brought much of it on himself. He knows he hasn’t done a very good job of being embraceable by the fans. He has always thought that he should be judged by wins and losses and the rest will take care of itself. Perhaps that was the case twenty or thirty years ago, but there’s too much competition for the entertainment dollar these days. Fans want to win, and they want to feel good about it. Particularly in a town that has one major professional sports team.

If Weaver makes a move, it will be based on putting fans in the seats, not what the Jaguars record was this year or last. So changing from Coughlin to somebody else must mean putting a coach in that job that will lure fans back to the stadium, and potentially win games.

As my friend Vic always says when we leave the game together, “Winning is good, losing is bad. It’s that simple.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Porpoise Extinction

Guest Commentary by Kris Mulholland

This will go down as the saddest day in Gainesville’s history. Believe me, I know. I grew up in Gainesville. Gainesville has seen its share of miserable days. Emmitt Smith skipping his senior season. Steve Spurrier resigning. Sister Hazel releasing a second album. Dwayne Schintzius deciding to grow a mullet. Dwayne Schintzius deciding to play basketball. The whole Dwayne Schintzius era. All memories that most of Gainesville and Gator fans would just as soon forget or pretend never happened.

This is worse. Worse than Steve Spurrier resigning. Worse than Billy Donovan resigning (no….Billy Donovan has not left Gainesville for the NBA….yet!). Worse than Ed Zaunbrecher calling plays for the Florida football team.

The Purple Porpoise is closing.

The purple neon sign that shines so brightly onto University Avenue will be no more. On this day, Thursday, December 6th 2002, the walls of the Purple Porpoise will fall. It will be replaced, by something to be named the Ugly Gator. The Ugly freakin’ Gator? The only ugly anything I’ve seen on this campus now works for ABC Sports and was once the head coach of a certain SEC West school located in Auburn, Alabama. There is nothing “ugly” about the Purple Porpoise. Oh sure, the toilets are older than both you and I combined. Alright, let’s be honest, the toilet paper is probably older than you and I combined. The floor is old. The bar is old. The roof is old. It smells during the day and even worse at last call. The Purple Porpoise is not ugly. The Purple Porpoise is a legend.

It is the Wrigley Field at the University of Florida. The Soldier Field for the Gators. The Fenway Park for the students. The Sistine Chapel for Florida alumni. The Purple Porpoise is where students kneel to the beer gods, some willing and some by the law of gravity, and ask for one last passing grade.

Ask your older brother or sister. Ask your Aunt or your Uncle. They know. They all know the Porpoise. The Legend has grown over the years but will be no more as of 2am Friday morning.

Gator Ugly. Please. This obvious spoof on that great Hollywood classic movie Coyote Ugly will be replacing a legend. It will be the Babe Dahlgren to Lou Gehrig. The Ryan Minor to Cal Ripken, Jr. The (insert current/any future Florida football coach here) to (insert the head coach of your beloved 5-7 Washington Redskins here). The Damon Huard to Dan Marino. The Shemp to Curly. The Sammy Hagar to David Lee Roth. Alright, that’s a little overboard. But you get the picture. This is what Coyote…errr….Gator Ugly will become. The replacement. Grrrrr!!!

You might say that there have been athletes and coaches that have replaced legends and gone on to have successful careers. Look at Steve Young. Jimmy Johnson did alright for himself after taking over for Tom Landry. Gene Stallings won a national championship at Alabama after replacing Paul “Bear” Bryant. Well, he didn’t exactly replace Bryant. The Crimson Tide of course had to go through Ray Perkins, Bill Curry and a lot of Tide boxes with toilet paper rolling on top before they found Stallings. But we’re talking about the Porpoise here. The wait staff is right out of a swimsuit calendar. The wings are bigger than a Julius Peppers forearm (and with less steroids). One minute you’re in “football” heaven. The next you’re across the street at the Porpoise–in heaven.

There a couple of things that recent (1982 to now) Florida graduates consider a “must-do” while they’re in Gainesville. One is grab a Burrito at Burrito Bros. The 2nd is to grab a beer at the Porpoise. There is nothing better than walking out of the Porpoise with a beer in one hand, a ticket to the game in the other hand and looking up to see Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. What a beautiful sight. It just won’t be the same walking out of the stadium after a 63-0 pounding of Northern Illinois and seeing Gator Ugly.

The Purple Porpoise is the diamond in the rough. The gem among gems. The pick of the litter. Ask anybody. Former UF students. Current UF students. Future UF students. Many, many F’s have resulted from too many late Thursday nights (and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, etc.) at the Porpoise.

Flashback two years ago. Florida 48, Central Florida 14. Halftime.

You glimpse over to the east side of the stands, i.e. the student section. That’s all you see. Stands. It’s halftime against a team that had no chance in the first place. They came to get in and out as quickly as possible and leave with their six-figure paycheck in hand. Where is everybody you ask yourself. Silly question. The Porpoise. It was a rite of passage for UF students. Sure, you got an A on your Chemistry 101 final. But you didn’t truly graduate until you left Florida Field at halftime for an adult beverage of choice across the street at the Porpoise. Some students came back to the game. Some didn’t. Some couldn’t.

For one last glorious night, the bright purple neon light will illuminate University Avenue. Go out and enjoy it for one last time. Be careful. Be responsible. Be forgiving, for the Big, Bad Gator Ugly is moving in. Maybe Gator Ugly might not be such a bad spot after all. Remember, Babe Dahlgren was a career .261 hitter.

R.I.P.~ Purple Porpoise ~ April 2nd, 1982 – December 6th, 2002

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Florida vs. FSU

It was just a two second shot on the television, nothing you’d notice if you looked away from the screen. With the victory in hand and his performance the difference, FSU quarterback Chris Rix, standing on his own sideline, turned and embraced teammate Alonzo Jackson. He whispered something in his ear, smiled and the two teammates shared a laugh.

Jackson, the ‘Noles emotional leader on defense, is the player who, after the Notre Dame game, was very vocal in the locker room about replacing Rix at quarterback with Adrian McPherson. So vocal in fact, that when the media was waiting at the locker room door, Jackson’s voice could be clearly heard, blaming Rix for the loss.

“Some people should worry about themselves and not everybody else,” was Rix’s only replay.

Funny how winning can make everything right in sports. Rix played nearly the perfect game. He threw the ball away when he needed to. He avoided the rush when it was in his face. He ran the ball at the right times. And he fired the ball in the end zone when his team needed it the most. Except for a short time in the third quarter that included a silly shovel pass across the line of scrimmage, Rix looked like a poised, polished and complete quarterback. Something similar to the player he was projected to be coming out of high school.

A raging immaturity and a “I can do it alone” attitude contributed to his downfall. Head Coach Bobby Bowden knew that Rix had lost the confidence and the ear of his teammates after the Notre Dame game and had no choice but to replace him. “He handled his demotion very well,” said Bowden when he opened the competition for the quarterback job after McPherson’s sub-par performance against N.C. State. Of course, Bowden was never faced with making a decision at quarterback. He dismissed McPherson from the team on Monday after it was apparent McPherson had committed a felony. Rix promised he’d be more ready than every, and he was.

Florida State appeared bigger, faster, and tougher than Florida at every position on the field. The surrounding “distractions” during the week had a galvanizing effect on the team, allowing them to circle the wagons and play perhaps their best game of the year (in a win). The Seminoles can now sit back and look at a season where they had a lot of coulda’s and shoulda’s but still with the satisfaction of an ACC Championship, a win over Florida, and a berth in a BCS bowl. Are those things enough to keep Bobby Bowden as the Seminoles Head Coach? Or enough to convince him he’s accomplished enough?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Button-Less Players

In the parity world of the National Football League, it’s nearly impossible to predict games anymore. Calling a game the “lock of the week” seems like an oxymoron. Different levels of play occur each week with very little consistency among teams. The Forty-Niners are playing at home against a Donovan McNabb-less Eagles squad and they get thrashed 38-17. Jacksonville beats Kansas City and Philadelphia, only to lose to the expansion Texans at home. The Packers are buzzing through the league about to clinch the division title, and lose two straight, including one to the lowly Vikings. Is there any fault in this kind of uncertainty or is this just the way it is?

Parity has come to the league through the salary cap and the draft, making the best teams just slightly better than the worst. “The margin for error is so small,” says Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell, “that you can’t make a mistake in the game or it will cost you.”

Coaching styles throughout the league vary, but all with the same results: inconsistency. Do the coaches not know the right buttons to push? Actually, we have reached the era of the “button-less player.”

There were always two kinds of players in professional sports. The smart, motivated and skilled player who hated to lose, and the not-so-smart, mildly skilled player who needed motivation. The former showed up every week ready to play. The latter was alternately hit over the head with a sledgehammer one-week and stroked with a velvet glove the next as coaches and teammates looked for that delicate balance necessary to motivate this group of players. Coaches spent years pouring over x’s and o’s as well as learning the psychology of getting players ready to play.

Now, everything they’ve learned about off-the-field preparation is obsolete.

There are still two groups of players in pro sports. Everybody who reaches that level is highly skilled. The group of smart and motivated players emerges as stars, dominating games, winning acclaim and notoriety. They’ve never needed motivation, and they don’t now. The other group fills out the rosters of professional teams, playing great one week, and disappearing the next with no rhyme or reason. Coaches or teammates can’t influence their performance.

They’re button-less.

Those players either motivate themselves, or not at all. They’re not fueled by fear of losing their livelihood. They’ve made it to the top, and they’ll stay there. “If not on this team, then somewhere else,” one player recently told me, “somebody will sign me.” Money is not an issue because their bonuses are already banked. They’ve made it among the elite, and their peer group treats them with honor and respect. “I get a paycheck once every 17-weeks win or lose,” Tony Siragusa said during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run, reflecting the attitude of many modern day players. The distractions surrounding the game and the players pull away from the single-focus needed to play the game at a high level. That leaves the games as an inconsistent product, with teams emerging at the end of a season. The “hot” teams are the ones where the “button-less” players get swept up in the emotion of vying for “the ring.” This isn’t to say that they have no heart, or desire to play or compete. Quite the contrary, they all have that in order to have reached that level. It’s just finding it regularly that’s the problem.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Augusta And Women

I’ve been covering the Masters since 1979. I was there when Fuzzy Zoeller made that putt on 11 to win the Green Jacket and I’ve been there to see Tiger Woods begin his historic run. And I was there when they had those little brass plates on the wall that said “Gentlemen Only” designating card rooms, smoking rooms and the locker room where men might gather and act in a manner that might offend some women. Those brass plates quietly disappeared about 10 years ago.

I’ve seen so much change at Augusta National that you’d barely recognize the place as the same spot I visited 25 years ago. Despite it’s history and tradition, just about everything at Augusta National is evaluated ever year by the membership, and even the golf course has undergone some subtle and not so subtle changes over the years. It might appear staid and conservative from the outside, but inside the gates, they’re always looking for a way to do things better.

There’s usually a lot of fanfare associated with any change at Augusta. Fanfare from the outside that is, because the membership doesn’t talk about any of the changes. In fact, the membership is pretty much asked not to talk about anything, leaving the public pronouncements to the chairman. People made a big deal about it when the PGA Tour players were allowed to bring their own caddies, and when Augusta admitted it’s first non-white member. And now, Martha Burk, the head of the women’s coalition, is making a big deal about there being no women members at Augusta. Her point is that the Masters is a public entity, and therefore women should be admitted.

I’ve never understood why people would want to shoehorn themselves into places just to say they were there. I don’t want to go to any parties I’m not invited to, and I don’t want to join any clubs where they don’t want me as a member. But Martha Burk wants a female member at Augusta, saying it’ll advance women’s causes and women’s rights everywhere.

Before all of this became public last summer, Augusta National was in the process of inviting women to be members. It probably would have happened as early as 2003. But now, William “Hootie” Johnson, the chairman at Augusta National, says it “definitely” won’t happen before this year’s tournament in April. Johnson says Augusta will invite woman members on their own timetable.

The membership of Augusta National is just that, a national membership. Many of the 300 members represent the top corporations in America, and the membership is spread out all over the country. While Johnson’s public stance has been heavy handed, he’s right: Augusta National is a private club and can invite anybody it wants to be a member.

The club produced results from a poll yesterday showing that more than 70% of Americans agree that a private club should be allowed to determine the makeup of its own membership. Burk calls the poll “amateurish.” The whole thing has been ugly with charges and rebuttals, threats and reactions. But Burk is way over the top. Her current threat to have protests and boycotts at the Masters this year sound like a yapping dog at the gate.

Women are patrons at the Masters every year. They make up a large portion of people watching the tournament. More than 1000 rounds were played by women at Augusta National last year. Despite her protestations, the club and the tournament are two different things. I’ve been to plenty of fraternity parties where women were present, and they were welcome and having a good time. But as far as I know, none of them demanded to join afterwards. Times change, people change, organizations change. And they removed those little brass plaques a long time ago.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Fred Taylor

Sitting in the office preparing for “The End Zone” at Sneakers Sports Grill last night, one of the managers, Colleen, told me about a young boy who was already in the audience. “He’s here as the guest of the Jaguars Boosters. He’s from “Make-a-Wish and has a terminal illness. Apparently he was supposed to go to the game yesterday but something got screwed up. He actually wanted to just meet Fred Taylor, and by chance, Fred’s coming tonight. Could you ask Fred if he could just stop by and say hi to him?”

(As a guide, I don’t ask the players to do anything special on the Monday night show. I try to make it easy for them, and if they can sign autographs afterwards, that’s great, if not, no problem.) But I thought this was an exception, and asked Fred, Donovin Darius and Marlon McCree if they wouldn’t mind this one detour. Luckily, we had three guys on this week that didn’t even flinch and said they’d be happy to. I sent the players out about ten minutes before show time to meet with the teenager in the game room.

When I walked to the set, all three were chatting with him, and Fred was sitting in a chair next to him with his arm around him. When I introduced the players to the rather large audience, Fred lingered with his newfound friend for a few seconds, and then came out to thunderous applause. We went on with the show, and all three stuck around to sign autographs for about 20 minutes afterwards.

I was sitting with a few of my friends who came to the show, and saw Fred lingering in the back room, joking around with some people I couldn’t see. I went to investigate, and found Fred with the young man, joking, play punching each other, laughing and grabbing like a couple of old friends. I went back to my seat, but kept an eye on Fred, who continued the meeting for about 45 more minutes, sitting, standing, whatever guys do when they’re standing around being guys. When it was finally time to go, the two new friends clearly didn’t want it to end, they hugged, then hugged again, and again, and finally punched each other, the universal “get out of here” sign. I didn’t hear any of the conversation, but saw every minute of the meeting. That was enough to see Fred make a kid’s dream come true.

I’ve known Fred since he was in High School in Belle Glade, so I’ve seen him go through a lot of his adult personal life and his professional career. It’s not often that we have a chance to see “real life” in action, but last night was one of those times. So, thanks Fred.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Florida/Georgia 2002

Confident of victory coming in, the Bulldog faithful showed up in Jacksonville in full force. This year’s Georgia/Florida game had the feel of one of the great ’80’s rivalries where just about anything could happen. But again this year, the favored team struggled and Florida put a new shine on their season with a 20-13 win.

If nothing else, the win takes the heat off Ron Zook, for now, as Gator fans went home happy with the win, and with the effort. “Oh boy don’t you have that right,” Zook told me after the game when I asked if it wasn’t especially gratifying to win a game in such scrappy fashion. The players agreed. “We didn’t have our best stuff, but we kept fighting and pushing and things worked out in the end,” Max Starks said in his post game comments.

Each Florida player was wearing a sticker on their warm-up suit that just said “Hammer.” Starks said it was started by an assistant coach who asked who was willing to bring their lunch pail to work each day and take a “blue-collar” mental approach to practice and games. “We all signed this sledge hammer,” Starks continued, “and promised to do what we could to get better every day. It worked.”

Shannon Snell predicted early in the week that the Gators would beat Georgia, and said the Dogs would lose another SEC game as well. “I stand by my prediction,” Snell said in the hallway after the game. “We did our part, now somebody else has to do theirs.” Of course, another loss by Georgia gives Florida the inside track in the SEC East, providing they win their final two conference games against Vanderbilt and South Carolina.

Neither team was particulary impressive, but Florida’s defense was the difference. Twice, Georgia had the ball on turnovers inside the Gators’ twenty yard line, and came away with only three points. “That just goes to show you how every play can make a difference,” Georgia Offensive Lineman John Stinchcomb sighed when answering post-game questions. The Bulldogs had a 2nd and goal from the 1 but an illegal procedure penalty pushed them back to the 6 and they had to settle for a field goal. “This one will hurt,” Stinchcomb continued, “but starting Monday, we have to look at the rest of the season.”

The Gators’ defense was physical, fast and swarming, not allowing the Georgia offense to hit a big play. Terrence Edwards had a chance at a big play in the ‘Dogs final drive, but dropped a wide open post pattern that could have gone for six. “We ran that play earlier in the game, and it was open, but Greene couldn’t get the ball to him, ” Mark Richt explained. “In that series, we ran it against a safety who hadn’t seen it before and it was open. If he catches it, he very well could have scored but I don’t want to say one play made the difference in the game.”

Richt is right. Georgia had plenty of opportunities but couldn’t find a rhythm, never converting a third down opportunity for the entire game. “That’s the money down,” Gator Defensive Back Guss Scott explained, “and we really got it done on third down tonight.” This win should buoy Florida and propel them to easy wins over Vandy and the Gamecocks. (FSU is a whole different animal, especially in Tallahassee.) The question is, what does it do to Georgia? It could easily devastate them, losing to their hated rival with their first significant SEC title in 20 years just out of reach.

The game seemed to come off without a hitch, thanks to the city of Jacksonville’s efforts. Downtown was packed, and a bit crazy, but seemed to be without major incident. “There are always going to be problems with a night game, ” Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley told me at halftime. “But there are problems with night games in Gainesville and Athens as well. The good thing here is most of these people are staying here tonight instead of having to drive four hours home.”

The stadium looked great, security was efficient without being overbearing and tailgating was just what it should be: big, loud and fun. Even though it wasn’t a particularly well played game, it was entertaining, both on and off the field. In other words, it was just what a great college football game should be.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Golden Age (Is Over)

Could Saturday’s loss to Ole Miss signal the end of the “Golden Age” of Florida football? And not just the University of Florida but at Florida State as well? This season it appears there’s Miami and then there’s everybody else. Florida and FSU, perennial contenders for the state championship and therefore the national championship, appear a step or two behind the Hurricanes.

Mississippi was a gimmie for the Gators every time they played them. Louisville would have been a blip on the radar screen for the Seminoles. But times have changed. Eli Manning can choose Ole Miss and think he’s going to have enough players around him to be successful. Louisville is emerging, like Central Florida, South Florida, Marshall and others, siphoning off talent that would have been headed to the big schools looking for a chance, just a chance to play.

FSU has been able to reload for the last 10 years, adding the missing pieces to an already strong core. Every year they contend for the National Championship, and have gotten the benefit of the doubt in the polls, allowing them to play for the title it seems almost every year. But the ‘Noles have come to earth with the rest of the teams in Division I. Bobby Bowden’s heyday seems to be behind him. You might have your pick of the best players across the country, but the second best isn’t coming to your school anymore to sit on the bench or have a chance to play in the future. If the top quarterback is going to Tallahassee, the next guy, maybe Dave Ragone, is going somewhere, like Louisville, where he can play. Florida’s dominance in the SEC has ended. Every team the Gators have played this year in the conference thinks they can beat Florida. Tennessee gave it away, Kentucky gave Florida a run at home, and Ole Miss finished the job. The mystique is gone.

The 85-scholarship rule is in effect and is causing the top teams to have the same depth problems they have everywhere else. School presidents and athletic directors were looking for a way to limit the expenses in major college football, and along with it they’ve brought parity to the game, much like the NFL.

Florida benefited from the Spurrier aura in recruiting, and in game-day play, but even Steve couldn’t fight the coming restrictions on what players he’d be able to get and keep. Early departures have kept teams from being dominant, and have allowed freshman to have an immediate impact. The Gators don’t have the same swagger they’ve had in the past, but they don’t have the same talent either.

Miami is the current exception. They promoted from within for a head coach to keep some continuity and they’ve been able to create their own culture on their football team. Big time High School players from the Miami area, and there are plenty of them, want to stay home and play for the ‘Canes. Any kid in the state of Florida who is attracted to the bright lights and big city atmosphere is thinking about Miami. The Hurricanes are plucking the top quarterbacks from around the country to direct the offense, and don’t look to slow down anytime soon.

Recruiting against the three teams in the state used to be very difficult. You couldn’t say much about the other schools that would deter a player from going there. But now, the whispers about Bobby Bowden’s effectiveness and impending retirement seem to carry more weight. Without Spurrier running the offense, there’s more validity to negative recruiting against the Gators. There’s no reason the Gators and Seminoles won’t be top-flight competitors, but the Golden Age is over.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Ryder Cup 2002

There seemed to be a collective yawn coming from our side of the Atlantic after Europe wrested the Ryder Cup from the Americans on Sunday. Yes, it was exciting, and some people tuned in live in the morning to catch all of the action, but there sure wasn’t the fervor that’s existed around the cup since the mid-’80’s. Maybe it’s the fact that it was postponed a year, perhaps it’s because we were just trying to be good sportsmen, but that feeling that it was important wasn’t there.

We’re rooting for our guys, we want them to play well, but we just don’t want it as bad as the Europeans. And that’s reflected in our players as well. All are well off, multi-millionaires playing for their country once a year, arriving in their private jets, toting along family members, caddies, assorted outfits and all of the latest technology people can give them. Even the desire to win is there, and there in bunches, but it’s just not as important as it is to the Europeans.

Winning or losing the Ryder Cup can define a player’s or a coach’s career in European golf. Sam Torrance will now always be known as the genius captain who sent out his big guns first and swayed the momentum in favor of his team. (Conversely, I suppose, Curtis Strange will always be known as the foolhardy captain who left his best players, Mickelson and Woods, essentially on the bench.)

Just about all of the guys on the European side make their living playing golf in America. And none, save for Colin Montgomerie, have much bad to say about being over here. There’s not that snotty Faldo attitude to dislike, or the swagger of a Ballesteros to fume at. What’s not to like about Darren Clarke? Who is Nicholas Fasth? So it seems the popularity of the Ryder Cup has reached it’s zenith and come back to earth. If the popularity of the competition was actually based on one side’s dislike for the other, then the whole premise that Samuel Ryder put his name on the cup for was lost.

The players put together these matches originally, with Ryder adding the cup after two competitions. It was a gentlemanly way to square off, head-to-head using home course advantage on either side of the Atlantic. The Brits vs. the Americans, with all of Europe only being invited in the late ’70’s. The matches were scheduled every two years because of the travel originally involved. (Now both teams make the transatlantic trip via the Concorde. Three hours, three and a half, tops.)

America’s best player, Tiger Woods, half-jokingly said last week that he’d rather win the World Golf championship event than the Ryder Cup. “I can think of a million reasons (the amount of the winners check) I’d rather win here,” Tiger said. And in this era of golf’s Tiger mania, if Tiger says it’s not important, than it most not be that important. Now, if all of the sudden Tiger jumps up and says “The Ryder Cup is the most important thing in the world to me,” then it’ll jump back up in stature. And we know that’s not going to happen.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Bob Hayes

When Bob Hayes became ill last year, I went to see him in the hospital at Shands Jacksonville, slipping in the back door and wandering up to his room. He did not look well, perhaps a simplistic statement about somebody who is in the hospital, but he looked sick. He called me by name as I walked into the doorway and motioned me to a chair next to the bed. “I’m tired,” the man once known as ‘The World’s Fastest Man,’ said in a low voice.

We talked a little bit about football, watched some television and just passed the time. It was just the two of us, and as I left, Hayes said, “I need some prayers.”

Hayes had a conflicted life, the highest highs and the lowest lows. The only man to win an Olympic Gold Medal and a Super Bowl ring, Hayes was never able to capitalize on his success, having succumbed to the fast lifestyle available to someone of his notoriety in the 60’s and 70’s. He continued to battle life’s temptations until he became ill last year.

From the streets of Jacksonville to a high school without a track, Hayes took his speed to FAMU and to US Track and Field. The Dallas Cowboys saw raw talent there, and helped transform Hayes into an unmatched weapon in professional football. He changed the way defenses played the game. They invented the zone defense trying to keep Hayes from running wild every Sunday. He still holds several Cowboys records. He was inducted into the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor last year. So why, I’m often asked, isn’t Bob Hayes in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

When he was eligible as a modern day player, Hayes was denied selection because of his off-field problems. The social conscience of the time wouldn’t allow the selection committee to consider Hayes for the Hall. Paul Hornung wasn’t selected until his final year of eligibility, no doubt because of his suspension for gambling. That reasoning for the lack of consideration is no longer valid. The Committee selected Lawrence Taylor for induction with many well-documented off-field transgressions (I voted no on Taylor) saying they were not allowed to be considered according to the selection by laws.

Some committee members at the time were biased against Hayes, a track man in a football world. And some considered his alleged lack of willingness to perform in the NFL Championship Game, the “Ice Bowl” in Green Bay, enough of an indictment to keep him out of the Hall. Whatever the reason, or reasons, Hayes was not selected during his eligibility as a modern day player. He would only be eligible as a senior candidate at this point.

The seniors committee meets every August to go through the list of former players, coaches and contributors who might have “slipped through the cracks.” Former Coach George Allen is the latest person to be inducted under these criteria. So, if the seniors committee did not select Hayes last month, he can be considered again in August of 2003. His death will have no bearing on his consideration. The committee has shown no sentimentality in the past.

The dynamic of the full selection committee has also changed dramatically in the last five years as well. It’s more focused on performance of a player than ever before. The average age, through retirement, expansion and franchise relocation, has gotten younger. If Hayes were brought before this committee in the future, his chances for induction would be greater than before. One of the comments in favor of Lynn Swann two years ago cited a mental highlight reel of the NFL in the 70’s and early 80’s that couldn’t run without Swann in it. The same can be said for Hayes in a earlier era.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

John Unitas

Growing up in Baltimore in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s you were a Colts fan. There wasn’t a lot of choice in the matter. Everybody followed the Colts. Even if you moved to Baltimore from out of town, you might have kept your allegiance to some other team, but you did it quietly. On the outside, you were a Colts fan.

I didn’t know any other football teams really. The Redskins and Eagles were teams we beat all the time. The Browns were occasionally good. The Giants had been in decline, and the Packers were the team we hated the most. We talked about the Colts; our parents, teachers, friends and even our priests talk about the Colts. Of course, it didn’t hurt that they were among the best teams in the league at that time, and had some of the best players to ever play the game wearing the blue and white.

And they had Johnny Unitas.

There were the Colts, the guys who played on Sunday and wore the Colts uniforms, and then there was Unitas, the guy who, in our minds invented football. If football players are larger than life, Unitas was some kind of sports deity. Being cut by the Steelers and acquired by the Colts through a sixty-cent phone call, Unitas was perfect for Baltimore. Maybe it’s because it’s a port town, and maybe because it’s always been working class and full of immigrants and ethnic neighborhoods, Baltimore has always seemed to be full of people who tried harder. It’s always had that second-city identity, and Unitas was embraced as one of us. He wasn’t the biggest or fastest, but he usually was the smartest guy on the field. In an era where the quarterback called the plays, Unitas had a knack for always calling the right one.

In 1998, the NFL had a 40th anniversary celebration at the Super Bowl of the 1958 NFL Championship game between the Colts and the New York Giants known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” All of the big names from that game were there. Except Unitas. He said he had a previous engagement, but actually he was angry with the NFL and their medical benefits coverage for players of his era. Still, he was the topic of conversation among Lenny Moore, Art Donovan, Frank Gifford, Sam Huff and the others. “Unitas just picked us apart,” Huff said when asked about the Colts’ drives at the end of regulation and in overtime. “He was the best,” the Hall of Fame linebacker added.

In a crowded room of reporters I asked if they were anticipating the match up again in 1959 title game. “Nah,” Huff dismissed the notion with a wave of his hand, “they still had Unitas and we didn’t. He was the difference. We knew it would be the same.”

Unitas defined what a quarterback was supposed to be: talented without being showy, smart without being a know-it-all and confident without being cocky. He wasn’t just in the game; he was part of the game. He knew where everybody was supposed to be on the field at all times. All 21 other players. Some of his teammates, and many of his competitors thought Unitas to be too cocky. He scoffed at that idea saying, “Conceit is when you’re bragging. Confidence is when you know you can get the job done. And you let those other guys in the huddle know they can get the job done too. Without them, I’m nothing.”

He was probably right about the 1970 Super Bowl where Don Shula (then the Colts Head Coach) put him in too late to do anything. The Jets, 16-7, upset the Colts, the first win for the AFL. Asked if he would have made a difference if he had started Unitas offhandedly said, “it wouldn’t have taken that long.”

In the shifting American culture of the late 50’s through the early 70’s, Unitas was “old school” before anybody heard of “old school.” The sloped shoulders, the single bar helmet and the trademark black high tops. Running around in my front yard we were always, Tarkenton, Jurgensen or even Dr. Frank Ryan. Nobody was Unitas. He was too revered. It never was even a question. We were not worthy. Nobody wore 19. That was Johnny U’s number. Period. You just didn’t wear 19. Sure, when you were playing catch you could emulate that two handed, shoulder-shifting, seven-step drop with a perfect over-the-top delivery, but never in the street game. You’d be ridiculed. “What? You trying to be Unitas or something?”

Intensely private, Unitas stayed out of the spotlight after his retirement, even when he went back to work out of football after some failed investments. He worked with a friend of my father in the import/export business for a while. It was hard to believe that you could call a business and they’d put you through to Johnny U. “Unitas,” is how he answered the phone when my Dad put in a call after some prodding from his friend. “Uh, uh, uh,” were the first three things my Dad said until Unitas interrupted him and said in a calm and very friendly manner, “I get this a lot. Just relax and tell me how I can help you.” Once composed, my Dad and John Unitas had a pleasant, short conversation.

We should have known something about the Irsays when they allowed Unitas to finish his career with San Diego. Unitas did go over 40,000 yards passing in a Chargers uniform, the first quarterback to do so. And he taught Dan Fouts how to be a quarterback.

He wanted his stats deleted from the Colts record book once they moved to Indianapolis. If they weren’t from Baltimore, they couldn’t possibly be the Colts. (I’ve always been somewhat chagrined that there was no loud cry for a new team in Baltimore when Irsay moved the Mayflower vans out under the cover of darkness in 1984. When Modell moved the Browns, you’d have thought a national crime was committed, but when the Colts were stolen, there wasn’t a peep outside of Baltimore.)

So it always seemed strange to me when Unitas adopted the Ravens when they moved to town. But there he was, standing on the sidelines during most home games, just lending his aura, his connection to tradition, to the newest immigrants in Baltimore.

I saw John Unitas last year at the Jaguars/Ravens game. Waiting for an elevator, the doors opened, and standing there in a khaki windbreaker and a young p.r. intern at his side was Johnny U. I stood there for a second, and when we made eye contact it gave me that “are you getting on” look. I really didn’t want to bother him, but somehow I did want him to know what a positive influence he’d been on my life. So I just said, “Hi,” and mentioned that I grew up in Baltimore and had been a Colts fan in his playing days. “Yeah, those were great times,” he said, as I’m sure he’d said a million times before. But he said it with that trademark self-deprecating smile as the doors opened and we walked toward the field.

I thought about that two-handed, shoulder shifting, seven step drop with the perfect overhand delivery as he stepped onto the field.

“What? You trying to be Unitas or something,” I heard my boyhood friends shouting in my memory.


Shouldn’t we all?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Wolfson Park

I let a girl take advantage of me at Wolfson Park once. Actually, she pretty much did whatever she wanted, and I just stood there, without any say in the matter. After about 3 minutes, she was finished with me, kind of chuckled, and sent me away. She had struck me out. That’s right, a girl struck me out. Not just any girl actually. As a pitcher for the “Silver Bullets” a traveling promotional all-girls baseball team, this pitcher spent some time in baseball’s minor leagues before retiring. But she struck me out along the way. Twice.

At Wolfson Park.

That was just one of the memories that floated by this weekend for me during the final regular season games at the 47 year old baseball stadium. There’s been a lot of baseball played there, and some softball too. Since the Bragans took over ownership of the minor league franchise in Jacksonville, they’ve made Wolfson Park a friendly place. Not just for minor league games, but for all kinds of ball playing. There have been celebrity softball games, home run hitting contests, Senior Men’s baseball match ups and the games with the “Silver Bullets.” I hit off Bob Feller at Wolfson Park. And two of the three fights I’ve been in in my adult life were right in Wofson’s dugouts.

But the best thing about the ballpark is it was just that, a ballpark. You knew baseball was played there. You could feel it; you could smell it when you walked through the front door. That musty, well-worn, rosin bag, glove oil, popcorn, hot dog, hamburgers-on-the-grill smell that only a ballpark can create.

And it was friendly. Between the early “Hey boy!” calls from Peter Bragan Sr. as he greeted fans who stopped by his seat on the way to theirs, to the earnest “Thanks for comin'” from Peter Jr. (Pedro) as he shook hands by the stadium’s exit, there was a lot of fun to be had at the ball park. My kids learned about professional sports there. Unlike the football stadium where the action seems sterile and removed, at Wolfson Park it was right in your lap. The on deck circle was an arms length away and foul balls were on you in a hurry.

Wolfson Park used to be known as a pitchers park. With a brick outfield wall a mile away, fly balls were gobbled up easily and the wind kept everything in play. But once Pedro put up “Bragan’s Blue Monster” the double-decked, sign-filled, outfield wall inside the bricks, it became a hitter’s paradise. It also made it more fun for the fans. Not just because the wall created all sorts of caroms and knocked enough of the wind down to let balls fly out of there, but it also moved the entire field back 15 feet, leaving a measly 45 feet between home plate and the back fence. Sitting in the front row gave you the feel of being in the batters box. Once, while sitting up front, I was caught on tape eating a salad at a game. A salad! I encouraged Pedro to add salads to the menu a few years ago for “something lighter” I think were the words I used. Boy did I catch grief for that!

Although many future stars and even Hall of Famers have played at Wolfson Park, it’s not a magical place. It more friendly than anything, and the Bragan’s have made it a priority to keep it a friendly, family place. From the candy on Mr. Bragan’s desk to the untold memorabilia in Pedro’s office, there’s not a spot you’d feel unwelcome in at Wolfson Park. And because of that, we’ll remember Wolfson Park.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Baseball Strike

Even though they set a strike date of August 30th, Major League Baseball players continue to tell just about everybody privately that they’re not going on strike. Certainly the owners are hearing this, and in turn have hardened their position at the bargaining table, trying to effect sweeping reform on the economics of the game.

The players are hearing the public loud and clear; a strike or any kind of work stoppage, and we’re gone. So what’s the truth? That’s always been tough to ferret out when it comes to the players and the owners in baseball. For nearly 100 years the owners kept the players under their thumb, lied consistently about how much money they were making, and laughed all the way to the bank. With the advent of free agency, the players have tipped the scales, grabbing cash and not relenting when the owners cried poverty. And why should they?

The owners devious tactics made them millions on the backs of the players, and for the last 25 years, the players have been getting what you could call pay back. Three times in the ’80’s the owners were found guilty of collusion, trying to hold down salaries by not competing for the top players. There’s plenty of distrust on both sides to go around, enough dislike as well to make a work stoppage a real possibility.

The players have moved toward the owners in some areas, and even made a pre-emptive announcement about steroid testing. Although diluted, the announcement was clearly a public relations move, trying to show that they are willing to listen to public demands.

The strike of 1994 alienated fans by wiping out the end of the season and the World Series. Cal Ripken’s drive to break Lou Gehrig’s record started to bring them back, especially with Ripken’s willingness to stay for hours after each game to greet fans and sign autographs. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s attack on Roger Maris’ home run record recaptured the imagination of fans and seemed to put any labor problems well in the past. Barry Bonds isn’t an embraceable hero, despite his on-field exploits, and he hasn’t charmed the public. In fact, there’s not much that’s embraceable about baseball at all, except the game itself. And if the players and owners can’t come to their senses and make a deal, even the game will seem hollow if they ever return.

I read that Vin Scully requires the producer of Dodgers’ broadcasts to show kids in the stands at every game, whether they watching or ignoring the game. At least they’re there, is Scully’s thinking. But they’re taken by their parents, usually their dads as part of the parent/child bonding process. No kids go to the games by themselves. Baseball doesn’t have a young fan base. After a work stoppage, they’ll have no base at all.

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Jaguars Toughness

After the first week of camp, the Jaguars have a distinctly different feel than in previous years. This team has a little less braggadocio and a little more chippiness than in the past. Without established stars at so many positions, some young players have developed their own personalities and that’s spilled over to the rest of the team.

Damon Gibson is a perfect example. The smallest player on the squad, he’s virtually assured of a roster position because of his punt returning abilities. But without Jimmy Smith in camp, and with Keenan McCardell gone, Gibson has a chance to get plenty of reps at wideout and he’s making the most of them. Gibson’s scuffle in the opening practice with the Saints underscored the team’s willingness to throw away the protocol that used to be enforced and subtly demand some respect, no matter where you are on the depth chart.

At first it was generally considered that the Jaguars needed to start hitting somebody else when a few scuffles broke out in camp. But it seems that it’s the new personality of the Jaguars; short on big talkers, long on doers. Wali Ranier has brought that same attitude to the linebacking corps. Although Rainer, Danny Clark and T.J. Slaughter are penciled in as the starters, it seems like a wide-open competition the way Rainer approaches every practice.

“When people play us,” the veteran said this week, “they’ll leave here saying the Jaguars are a tough team.”

Toughness has always been an issue with the Jaguars, having gotten an early reputation as a “finesse” team. Even though they seemed to have tough guys on the roster, it never manifested itself on the field instilling any kind of fear among other teams. Titans Coach Jeff Fisher has played on that, calling on his team to “take it to the Jaguars” and they’ve been successful at it.

Rainer brings that no-nonsense toughness to the middle, much like T.J. Slaughter and Donovin Darius have in the past. Add Marco Coleman’s professional approach (“I’m just here to play football”) and in the course of a year, the Jaguars have changed their personality.

It’s also good that the responsibility for the team’s personality is no longer dependant on a couple of high salaried players. I never wanted to meet Leon Searcy in a dark alley, unless he was on my side, but he was about the only guy who ever instilled fear in an opponent. The Jaguars have a few of those players now, with more following suit. If it follows through to the regular season, Rainer is right; When teams leave here, they’ll know they were in a game.

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British Open

There are a lot of things to take from this year’s British Open (The Open Championship to the rest of the world). First, they play some pretty good golf around the world, not just on the PGA Tour. There’s no question, as a whole, the best golf is played in America where the money is better, the golf course conditioning is better and three of the four professional major championships are held. But The Open Championship brings more elements into play.

The weather, for certain, is a factor. Played along the coast (usually) in the UK, one day it can be 50 and raining, the next 68 and sunny. Saturday and Sunday this year are perfect examples.

The courses are different, allowing the game to be played as it was intended, along the ground if necessary. No forced carries, just lots of risk and reward. Muirfield was just over 7,000 yards long, yet the score that got four players into a playoff was just six under. How does that happen? Through good planning and a solid setup, the Royal and Ancient created a scenario that rewarded solid ball striking, good chipping and bold putting. The greens weren’t overly fast, yet if you missed on the wrong side of the hole it was difficult to two putt. A wayward drive was penalized whether it traveled 275 or 350 yards. The penalty was the same for not hitting it in the fairway. Subsequently, guys who were playing well were rewarded, regardless of how long they were.

Augusta, USGA, were you watching?

Extending the “hazard line” makes a lot of sense. Saturday’s weather equalized the field. Guys who were hitting it solid survived, guys who weren’t paid the price. I thought it was funny how the players all just shrugged their shoulders and said “that’s just the British Open.” They would have howled if that happened at a regular tour event. And the R&A was right to continue play. The course wasn’t holding water, and the ball was staying on the green so why stop playing?

The fact that Tiger Woods shot 81 was shocking because he’s never done that before. At one point, he was on track to shoot the highest score of the day. Tiger? The one with the perfect swing and the mental toughness and focus to overcome anything? It just proves it can happen to anybody, no matter how together they are and how tight their game is. When it goes, especially when the weather is bad, it goes.

Woods is a tremendous player, the best in the world, and a contender for the best of all-time but he’s neither infallible nor invincible. He’s also the most commercially successful golfer of this era, and his game is tailored to the way courses are currently built. Would he be as dominant if all courses were set up like Muirfield? Tiger might win as often, but there would also be more contenders.

Ernie Els victory has to give him some confidence. Even though he’s won four times this year all around the world, have you ever heard somebody who seems to fight demons so often? It’s like he has a little devil standing on his shoulder saying, “you can’t do it,” followed by an angel on the other saying, “it’s OK Ernie.” They guy is a fabulous player who was doubting he would ever win (meaning beat Tiger) in a major again. David Duval also said he found hope and confidence playing at The Open Championship. If that’s the case, it should be a fun finish to the year.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Baseball Strike

Just the mere talk about a baseball strike raises the ire of most sports fans. The average salary is more than 2 million a year, they say, and they’re going on strike? “I’m not doing it for me,” said Nomar Garciaparra, “I’m doing it for that little leaguer who will get here and say ‘I wish I played in that era.” I laughed out loud when I heard that one. Both sides have inordinate greed and selfishness, only to be outdone by their hatred for each other.

Since 1972, baseball owner and the players union have never resolved a labor disagreement without a work stoppage. When free-agency became a reality, it truly freed the players from what had been years of indentured servitude. When you were drafted by a team, you belonged to that team until they said you didn’t. The “reserve clause” was invoked by owners at the end of players’ contracts to keep them in the organization. When challenged, the reserve clause was struck down by the courts, and quickly. Players then bargained as a union for the terms of free-agency and salary arbitration and the incredible rising salary became a part of everyday baseball life.

“It’s not free-agency,” George Steinbrenner once told me, “It’s that damn arbitration that’s killing us. Second-rate second basemen don’t deserve that kind of money.” George was right, in theory, assuming that all owners were dealing from the same deck, operating on level ground. Which we know is not the case.

Steinbrenner’s local television package dwarfs anything else in baseball, and enables the Yankees to pick and choose players as they please. (see Mondesi, Raul and Weaver, Jeff in the Baseball Guide) The Yankees raiding other teams talent is nothing new. The Kansas City A’s served as an in-season farm team for the Bronx Bombers for years. Sharing their wealth for the good of the game is what the Yankees (Steinbrenner) have to be convinced of.

Although we’ve seen recently that money isn’t the final answer, just check out the Orioles recent record compared to their monstrous team salary. But without a lot of cash, you’re just not going to compete year after year. When the current contract runs out, there will be talk of a salary cap, which the players won’t agree to, and revenue sharing, which the owners won’t go for. And that’s why they’ll strike or be locked out, depending on which side you want to listen to.

Attendance figures can be pushed all over the place, but it’s pretty apparent that not as many people are going to major league ballparks. If they stop the season, and call off the World Series, like they did in 1994, the casual fan will walk away from the game and not come back. Ever. Sure, they’ll have a passing interest in the pennant races, and probably watch the playoffs and the World Series, but they’re not going back to the ball park. There are too many other options to spend their money on. Baseball doesn’t own the consciousness of the sporting public anymore. It’s part of the sports landscape. If they stop playing, that part is going to look pretty barren.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com


I was at Wimbledon on Friday, seats at Centre Court and the whole bit. Wimbledon is very different than just about any sporting event there is. A cross between the Super Bowl and the Masters. The Super Bowl atmosphere, with people everywhere and a lot of excitement, the Masters feel because of the reverance afforded the event by the spectators and the competitors.

Getting there is pretty easy, just a subway (tube)ride from the center of London and a 15 minute walk to the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. It’s huge! There are two main stadiums, one holding center court, the other houses court one, and there are plans for another to house court 2. What a difference between the center court and court one and everywhere else they play. The two show courts house thousands of spectators, while courts two and three can hold a couple of hundred, max. The rest are like any courts you’d see at a country club. Just lined up side by side with players on every one.

They’ve got plenty of atmosphere at Wimbledon. There’s a long line down the left hand side of the street as you approach the club, and I mean long. Like a mile long, with everybody camping out trying to get one of the daily tickets available. The All-England club reserves some tickets fo rthe general public every day, a really good idea. There’s another line on the right for people waiting to get in in the afternoon when tickets are returned. There are signs all over the club saying to turn your tickets back in when you leave. They collect them, then re-sell them to people standing in the second line after about 4pm. The money goes to charity, another good idea.

I saw three matches at center court, including Greg Rudseski beat Andy Roddick. The English are very vocal in the support of their own, and it was apparent, Rudzeski was feeding off that. Roddick is a good player, but not very patient. Perhaps because he’s just 19 years old. I can see where you can spend all! day there, but if you don’t want to, it’s on the BBC for most of the day.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

World Cup 2002 Recap

With the US out of the World Cup, my interest is still there, but certainly not at the pitch it was. The contrasting style of play between countries makes any international match up with something on the line fascinating, but without the Americans involved, I’ll be a casual observer.

The US team’s drive into the quarterfinals might have signaled the arrival of this country on the international soccer stage. The MLS should get some credit for that, giving our best players a chance to compete on a regular basis instead of waiting around for the national team to be formed and go off and play some “friendlies.” The top talent is distributed all around the world, playing in the English Premier league and in places like Spain and Germany. In fact, America’s best player, Claudio Reyna, is considering not playing for the US when the World Cup rolls around the next time. Too much traveling, to tough on his family are they main reasons. Reyna is an English Premier Division player who basically commutes to the US national team games.

Even though they lost to the Germans 1-0, the US perhaps played the best game ever in international competition by a team representing this country. And they played like Americans. They didn’t try to emulate the English, or the South Americans, or some kind of European style of play. They created their own style, and American style of play. Aggressive, passionate, and not intimidated, the US didn’t back down to the Germans, and used their speed and experience to stay in the game.

The German goal was superb, just what you’d expect: a header from a 6’3” guy flying through the box. That’s what the Germans are known for, and they executed it. Most observers think the Americans actually outplayed Germany, but that’s what makes the Germans a world power. Even when they’re not at their best, they can still win. The US will be known as a counter attacking team with speed, a reflection of the talent being groomed in this country and refined abroad and in the MLS. And that’s good. Out top athletes are still not choosing soccer, but those who are, are able to compete on the international stage. As one expert put it, “If the Americans decide they’re going to be good in this sport, there’s nothing the rest of the world can do about it.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

US Soccer World Cup 2002

I’m not too worried about whether the United States wins or loses in the World Cup. Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled that we (about the only time anybody in sports can use the word “we” is when referring to their own national team) beat Portugal. Nobody thought the US had a chance against the 5th ranked team in the world and easily the best team in the group. I was thrilled, and would like to see us get through to the next round. But the World Cup for the US isn’t about winning, it’s about being on a world stage where sport is the focus. And it’s a sport we’re still novices at.

We compete globally in a few things, mostly individual sports. Lance Armstrong rules the world of cycling. Tiger Woods is the best golfer on the planet. People pay to see Michael Johnson run. They play baseball and basketball around the world but we invented baseball and basketball, exported them, and beat everybody. Even as a kid I thought it was funny that we called it the “World Series” but didn’t play anybody from Japan or Latin America. But soccer is the world’s sport, played everywhere because in essence, all you need is a ball. And if you don’t have a ball, something you can kick will do.

I was on a beach in Central America once where about 40 kids were playing soccer, 20 to a side. The goals were two reeds stuck in the sand, the ball an unidentifiable sphere. Could have been a soccer ball. Could have been a basketball or volleyball. Who knows? But the playing of the game was the thing. Shorts no shoes, no shirts and a ball. Everybody was enthralled.

Soccer has never grabbed the sporting attention of America. Despite the predictions that the last 1 1/2 generations would spawn the next Pele in America, it hasn’t happened. Those 6 and 7 year olds on the soccer fields 20 years ago didn’t become big soccer fans. Perhaps the game doesn’t have enough scoring, isn’t physical enough, or one of twenty reasons it isn’t popular in America. But that doesn’t matter. It is popular everywhere else. It’s known as “the beautiful game.”

Watching it at the highest level, the skills of the players are fantastic. And to watch players wearing our country’s colors compete is great. Just getting to the World Cup is a feat for the US. Consider this: if Michael Jordan grows up in America, he has several sports to choose from. He picks basketball, and becomes the best player ever. If Michael Jordan grows up just about anywhere else, he’s a soccer player. Any great athlete in any other country first has to decide between soccer and every other sport. And most choose soccer.

Imagine if the best athletes in this country chose soccer over other sports. Cal Ripken, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan in midfield, Deion and Barry Sanders as strikers. Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Herschel Walker controlling our turf. With somebody quick, fast and great hands like Kevin Garnett in goal. How good would we be then? But there are other options here in America, other options that have two things going for them: more money and most girls don’t think soccer is cool. I know you’re laughing about that right now. But when was the last time you heard about a glamorous couple in the US made up of a supermodel and a soccer player? Everywhere else, that’s the norm.

David Beckham, England’s premier player, is married to Posh Spice. They’re the glam couple of the UK. Here, the soccer players are considered the nerds, the guys who couldn’t make the football team. Not true, but that’s the perception. And the money. We were all aghast over A-Rod’s $25 million a year with the Rangers. That’s about the going rate for soccer players around the world.

Argentina used two substitutes in today’s match with England whose combined salaries are $88 million! Here in the US, there’s also a chasm between the soccer fans and the non-fans. Both share the blame. The fans, especially the ones who have been with the game a long time, look down their noses at the non-fans like they’re the unwashed masses. Heathens. Mongrels. They don’t try to bring anybody new to the game. If fact, their noses are so far up in the air, they don’t see anybody else. And the non-fans are just as bad. They constantly deride the game as a non-sport. A sport for sissies.

Hey, just relax both of you. If they can race NASCAR at Indy, a little soccer here isn’t going to hurt anybody.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Ali’s Return

In this month of TV ratings or “sweeps” with all of the choices on television, I was surfing the channels the other night and stopped on a PBS documentary about Muhammad Ali. Yet another contest that Ali wins hands down. The champ vs. any made-for-TV movie.

This documentary focused on Ali’s ring record and his part of social reform in the U.S. in the ‘60’s. Although his current struggle against Parkinson’s syndrome still keeps him in the limelight, Ali is part of America’s past. Our sporting past and what we are today.

I started wondering what current athlete might be able to approach the impact, out of his sport, that Ali had on American culture. I’m aware it was a different time, but regrettably, the answer is nobody. And worse, nobody seems to be even trying. Ali, and many athletes of his era knew the kind of impact they could have on society, what kind of role model they might be, and the influence they had on young people. Is any of that happening today?

In very few instances.

Most fans are disenfranchised from professional athletes. The money gap starts the division, but the lack of the common touch widens the gulf. I had breakfast with Ali once. Just the two of us and one other guy in a deserted restaurant in Charleston, S.C. At the time, he was arguably the most famous person on the planet, but you wouldn’t have known it by our conversation. In fact, you wouldn’t have even known he was a boxer or an athlete listening to him talk. Is there anybody out there now you can say that about? I’m still thinking about that.

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1000 Super Bowl Days

It’s now under a thousand days before the Super Bowl is played here in Jacksonville. There’s a little bit of anticipation about the game, but any real enthusiasm has been kept pretty well under wraps. I’ve covered the game since the early ‘80’s and have seen successful host cities, and not so successful host cities. In fact, San Diego, the site of this year’s game, qualifies in both categories.

When they first held the game there in ’88, it was a scary place to be. Dangerous downtown, terrible traffic, not much nightlife unless you were invited to one of the NFL or their clients premier parties. When the game returned ten years later, San Diego had completely changed. Great downtown hotels, a gaslight district with restaurants and nightlife, a light rail system and a vibrant feel about a city by the water.

Sound familiar?

In these next thousand days, the charge for Jacksonville’s Super Bowl organizers is to be San Diego the second time around. To transform our downtown from a scary place to be, to an inviting area where people will be entertained and feel safe. Forget comparisons to Miami and Tampa and New Orleans. They’ve got meeting space and convention centers and are destinations year-round. San Diego is where Jacksonville should look. They figured out their problems and fixed them before the game returned.

The promise of the organizing committee to the NFL was that the celebration would be centered on a 2-mile radius near the stadium. You might think that can’t be done. But I’ve seen it at other major events and it can happen here. Boarded up storefronts become temporary souvenir shops and casual beer drinking establishments. Giant tents can be erected, inviting all kinds of vendors to be a part of the Super Bowl experience. Public transportation should be the major focus for getting people from out of town, all over our town. The next Mayor of Jacksonville should try and keep politics out of the Super Bow decision-making and fulfill his role as “best friend of the city.” That’s the only way it’ll work.

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Baseball Managers

I was doing my regular appearance on the Lex and Terry Morning show today when new Colorado Rockies manager Clint Hurdle called in. Hurdle is a former Major League player who was once called the “Next Phenom” by Sports Illustrated magazine on their cover. He was a solid player who now talks mostly about his own limitations during his career.

When the Rockies fired Buddy Bell, they hired Hurdle who was on their staff as the hitting coach. Lex and Terry and I have gotten to know Hurdle over the last 5 years as the Commissioner of the Fantasy Camp we attend each February. Clint has been the “perfect manager in waiting” and now has gotten his shot.

If you look around the league, the successful managers these days are the ones who aren’t seeking the spotlight, but rather creating an atmosphere for success. Outside of Joe Torre, none were great players but all had careers where they saw the ups and downs of many seasons, and came to understand the rhythms of the game. That’s why Hurdle is the perfect manager, and an example of a guy many fans have never heard of who becomes successful leading a Major League baseball team.

Anybody can make pitching changes, and put pinch hitters in the game. A good manager has to accept failure nearly as often as success. If he wins six out of every ten games, they’ll hail him as a hero. A baseball manager doesn’t have to dress in flashy clothes, he wears a uniform every night. He doesn’t have to suffer for a week between losses, because they’ll play again tomorrow. And he doesn’t have to baby-sit much. By the time players make it to the majors, they’re grown men. Or at least they’re supposed to be.

Not many great players have made good managers. The theory is that they don’t understand how less-talented players can’t perform at a higher level. I don’t know if Clint Hurdle will be a great manager. I do know he’s the right pedigree. Part thoroughbred, part quarter horse, part workhorse.

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Post Mini Camp 2002

As expected, the mini-camp just completed was a get acquainted session for the players and coaches of the 2002 Jaguars. Just over half of the players were brand new, 46 of the 89 on the field had never been there before. A chance for the coaches to let the players know what’s expected, and a chance for the players to size up what it’s going to take to make the team and stick in the NFL.

Also as expected, the focus quickly was on three of the Jaguars draft picks: #1 John Henderson, wearing #98, was “impressive in the one-on-one pass rush drill,” according to Head Coach Tom Coughlin. Henderson is “high-cut” in the vernacular of NFL personnel directors, not a fireplug that you might expect of a defensive tackle. The guy is so big, fast and strong though he might re-define the position. At 6’7”, 307 lbs paired with Marcus Stroud in the middle, the Jaguars hope they’ve found just the tandem they want.

#2 Mike Pearson, wearing #72, “because I didn’t want to get involved in all that,” was Pearson’s response when I asked why he wasn’t wearing his college number, 71. “Boselli was a cornerstone type of player, I’m just trying to keep my mouth shut, listen and learn,” he added when I pushed him a little bit with a “but he’s in Texas,” comment.

Coughlin thought Pearson “learned some things he can use,” during the 5 practices over three days. He’ll be ready to play left tackle (not Brunell’s blind side) by the season opener. It’s the middle of the line that has to be sorted out. Zach Weigert, Brad Meester and John Wade will be fighting for two positions: left guard and center. Meester was a center in college and is a natural there and if he can transition to the middle, that’s where he’ll end up, with Weigert at left guard and Wade fighting for one of the backup jobs.

The #4 pick quarterback David Garrard found himself under the microscope from the outset. First, Brunell said, “he’s not the backup, he’s one of the backups,” when asked about Garrard on Friday. Mark made it very clear to the rookie who’s in charge; asking the rookie “you got a little excited with the microphone in front of your face didn’t you?” Brunell was referring to Garrard’s assertion after being picked by the Jaguars on the second day that he would push Mark for the starting job. “He apologized, he’s a great kid, he’ll learn,” is how the Jaguars starter finished up the discussion of one of the backups.

Coughlin gave Garrard more snaps as the camp went along and then declared he was pleased with his progress. “But nobody’s blitzed him yet,” added the Head Coach. Coughlin knows he’s stuck in a little bit of a Catch-22. He knows Garrard will only get better if he gets a lot of snaps, but the team would benefit with a veteran backup behind Brunell. So he gave the politically correct answer. “If there’s a player who can help our club and we can afford him, we’ll make a move,” is how Coughlin wiggled out of it. He’ll have a decision to make sometime near training camp. There will be some cap money available after they release Keenan McCardell and Hardy Nickerson. So does he want to be one play away from a rookie being the starting quarterback? “I’m glad we don’t have a game tomorrow,” the Jaguars Head Coach noted after five practices. It’s the right kind of team for Coughlin, young, eager and impressionable. Whether a team like that can win is another question.

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Post Draft 2002

There’s been so much focus on who’s not on the Jaguars, now that the draft is over its time to look at who is on the team. The names are actually ones you know, but the question is whether they can play or not.

Todd Fordham, Brad Meester, John Wade, Maurice Williams, Zach Weigert, Chris Naoele and now Mike Pearson will compete for spots on the offensive line. They played last year without Tony Boselli and they weren’t happy with Jeff Smith at center, so if, as always, they stay healthy, they’ll be better up front.

Kyle Brady is back and if Pete Mitchell can still catch a pass, they’ll be more productive at tight end. Mark Brunell and Jimmy Smith are still among the best in the game, and Fred Taylor will at least start the season on the field, and with a little luck, will return to elite status.

Keenan’s spot is the big question mark on offense. They’ve signed replacements, but none have shown Keenan’s abilities.

There are a lot of questions on defense, starting right up front with the last two number one draft picks in the middle. John Henderson and Marcus Stroud will have to be real players or teams will run all over the Jaguars. There will be no more hiding in the shadows for the linebackers or defensive backs either. Guys like Danny Clark, Edward Thomas, Eric Westmoreland, Jason Craft and Kiwaukee Thomas have to show they’re bona fide NFL players or they’ll be special teamers at best for the rest of their careers.

Will we learn anything at this mini-cap this weekend? Not really, except what 307 lbs looks like on a 6’7” frame wearing shorts and a helmet. The mini-camp is closed to the public.

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Augusta 2002

I don’t know if my annual trip to Augusta would be considered a pilgrimage or a reunion because it feels like a little bit of both. Even the drive through eastern Georgia each spring is nostalgic. Going through towns, like Statesboro, Sardis and Waynesboro, depending on the route we take, seeing how they’ve changed over the past year and gauging the type of spring they’ve had on how far along the azalea’s and dogwoods are in bloom. The landscape can be breathtaking, and even though it’s only a short drive from home, Jacksonville’s seaside, beach town feel in comparison makes it seem a million miles away.

Augusta is a town identified by the medical college but world famous as the home of the Masters. Augusta National is located on Washington Road, a street something like Beach Boulevard near University. Inside the gates might be one of the most beautiful, pastoral settings in the world, but outside is a collection of fast food restaurants, ticket buyers (the sellers are very, very discreet), and street vendors selling everything from black velvet art to unofficial Masters gear. While the Masters has always been a big event, it’s grown in the last ten years to something huge, enveloping the entire town.

The people here are great, polite even when they’re telling you to get lost. They’ve raised the bar on tailgating too. When was the last time you saw people spread out their blanket and cooler and lawn chairs while waiting on line for a seat in a restaurant?

Of golf’s four major championships, the Masters is the only one played on the same golf course every year, so the course itself, Augusta National, is the star. They’ve had to change it over the years to keep up with technology and the ability of the players. Jack Nicklaus’ domination here in the ’60’s had the members make a few changes to the course and Tiger Woods’ assault on the Masters record book gave rise to a re-vamping and lengthening of seven of the 18 holes. These changes were widely publicized and celebrated. Nothing like the quiet changes of the past where you’d walk out of the door of the pro shop headed to the first tee straight ahead, only to have to make a left and march 40 yards up hill to find the new tee box.

The weather will play a role in how the scoring goes this week, but the course changes will make it more difficult. Unlike the other majors where they’ve taken the driver out of the players’ hands, the extra 300 yards they’ve added at Augusta will force players to hit driver and hit it precisely. It probably takes another fifteen guys out of the mix of possible winners, but the long bomber that wins here, will also have played his irons very well and putted better than anybody else. That’s why it’s hard to overlook Tiger, Duval, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els as the favorites, and difficult to see players like O’Meara or Olazabal contending again. They’re great technicians, great scramblers. But just not long enough. But Augusta is full of surprises and surprise winners. That’s part of what they call the “charm.” I told you they were polite.

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Irish’s Return

As the picture of six of New York’s finest slowly parading the tattered American Flag to mid-court before Monday night’s national championship game crossed the television screen I elbowed Irish, sitting next to me at the bar and said, “ Hey look, there’s the flag.” Irish, of course, is my close friend Pat Rainey, Commander, soon to be Captain in the U.S. Navy who has just returned from a record setting six months plus deployment aboard the Aircraft Carrier Theodore Roosevelt.

The always-pleasant Irish stared intently at the screen and quickly traveled in his mind a half a world away, to somewhere in the Arabian Sea before he turned to me and said, “You know, it still smells like soot.” It seems the famous Old Glory from the World Trade Center had been delivered to the Roosevelt to be flown as a symbol of just what they were there for. As the Operations Officer (OPSO) on board, Pat was there when the flag arrived from the States and was unpacked. It flew on the Roosevelt, at Camp Rhino and other spots where Americans, like my friend Pat, were fighting the war on terror.

It got me wondering how weird it must be for Pat to sit and watch a sporting event where the guy sitting next to him, in this case me, thinks the outcome is important, only because he hasn’t seen the real important stuff, like, well fighting for freedom. But then again, that’s what the men and women who are on the front lines know they’re there for: so that all of us can continue to live the lives we have and to have the freedom we enjoy. Stuff we take for granted like going to ball games and rooting on our favorite teams. I’m standing there feeling patriotic as they walk the flag out and they guy standing next to me is recalling what the flag smells like? How different have our lives been the last six months?

When we were driving around catching up, Pat was amazed and very gratified to see all of the American Flags on the backs of cars. His daily run took him down a street were each house flew the Flag, which he said really brought home, right in front of him, the reason he’s been doing the work he’s been doing the last six months. He noticed right away that the flags on the Maryland uniforms Monday night were bigger than the one’s on Indiana’s. (Yet another reason, I told him, to root for the Terps).

I woke Pat from a sound sleep with a phone call on the morning of September 11th, telling him to turn on his television, knowing his life was about to be changed dramatically and I wouldn’t be seeing him for a while. And through the exchange of emails and a couple of phone calls during the deployment, I could tell he was busy and focused on what he was doing. We’d laugh occasionally about how different things were for the two of us; I’m going to ball games, he’s going to Afghanistan. Security concerns kept our correspondence light and mainly about what was going on here. That was fine with me, filling him in on the everyday things, portraying a sense of normalcy here at home.

We’ve crowned a college football champion, played the World Series and the Super Bowl and finished the college basketball season since September 11th, hopefully with a little better understanding of how those things, big as they are, fit into the scheme of things and the bigger picture..

So I guess the whole point of this commentary is to say thanks. Thanks to Pat and those like him who didn’t see the Diamondbacks or Hurricanes or Patriots win because they were off making sure we could see the Diamondbacks, Hurricanes, Patriots and yes, the Terrapins win.

So thanks Pat, I’m glad guys like you were there, and I’m glad you’re home

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Weaver Fan Forum

I had a chance to spend a few minutes with Wayne Weaver yesterday. He wanted to talk about the upcoming Fan Forum at the stadium. An event where he and other Jaguars executives (I wonder if Tom Coughlin will be there) will meet with Jaguars fans at the Stadium to hear about what’s right and what’s wrong with the Jaguars game experience.

Weaver seems genuinely committed to listening to what the fans have to say, and implementing some of their ideas. He said he’d lower prices, freeze some seat prices, and offer “branded” food at the Stadium as well as other small things that need to be fixed.

“This is something new for you guys,” I commented to Weaver. “You’ve been cloistered at the Stadium for seven years and now you’re everywhere.”

“I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t tell you it was too easy early for us,” was Weaver’s answer. ” We saw a drop off in attendance a few years ago but that had to do with wins and losses. This drop off isn’t about wins, it’s about what it’s like to come to a Jaguars game.”

Weaver can certainly turn on the charm, but you wonder sometimes if his ideas actually trickle down through his organization and get implemented the way he wants them to. One thing’s for sure; Weaver has his hand on the controls right now. The team and the whole organization are on his radar screen. He’s a businessman who likes research and consultants and focus groups. They’ve told him what’s wrong, and he’s trying to figure out how to change things and not cost himself a fortune.

He’s not giving any guarantees about the football team, but does think they can be competitive. “I’m not waiting until 2003. We’ll have a good competitive team this year.”

When I asked him about the restructuring of Tony Brackens’ and Kyle Brady’s contracts, he said, “In the past we restructured everybody, now we’re selective. We’re restructuring guys who are long term players for this team.”

When I asked about other players Weaver demurred, “We have some tough decisions in front of us, but I can’t talk about them.” It’s pretty obvious Keenan McCardell and Hardy Nickerson will be released after June 1st in order to save cap money over the next two years. They’re obviously not long term players for the Jaguars. And Weaver reiterated that Mark Brunell and Fred Taylor are not available to other teams in a trade. “They’re not on the block,” is how the Jaguars owner put it.

What all this means is they’re putting on a show of effort to be responsive to the fans about their concerns. Whether they’ll do anything about it we’ll find out soon enough.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

NCAA Tourney

I remember watching the NCAA selection show one year when JU was going to get a bid. They drew Temple in the first round in Dayton. Not bad I thought, until then-coach Bob Wenzel came on the news and complained loud and hard about being the 8th seed. He talked about how hard the 8-9 game was and how unfair the committee had been to the Dolphins. And he was right. But the Sun Belt Conference got no respect and the committee was making it tough on JU. Just an early example of how things can either go your way or not in the bracket.

This year’s 65-team field isn’t the best 65 teams in the country, but rather a cross section of representatives from different regions and conferences. Three-quarters of the teams are from east of the Mississippi. Duke seems to have the easiest road to the final four, with Alabama looking like their only obstacle to get to Atlanta.

Cincinnati’s road looks hardest. Nine of the 16 teams in the West probably have a legitimate shot at winning that region. It’s also where the most unfair seeding happened, with Gonzaga being placed at #6.

How is that important?

In the second round, they’ll face Arizona, a game that should be somewhere closer to the Final Four instead of the second round. Florida will have a tough time. Playing Creighton in Chicago, and then facing Illinois in the United Center, right in the Illini’s backyard. If they get by that, either Stanford or Kansas will be waiting.

Georgia’s road could be a little smoother with Texas Tech, NC State and U Conn looming on the horizon. There will be upsets but I’ll stick with the four teams who should have been the #1 seeds: Maryland, Duke, Kansas and Oklahoma to get to the Four.

Duke and Kansas will be there, I’m taking Oklahoma because they’re hot, and Maryland, because I went there. I think that’s the same kind of logic the committee used anyway. I’ve only got one suggestion that people come up with every year. Put everybody in the tournament. That’s right, all 200+ teams get a chance. I know the conference championship tournaments give teams a shot, but just extend the NCAA’ s by two rounds, give a few teams a bye to even the number of teams out and let it be a free-for-all. The ultimate outcome won’t change. Parts of the current tournament format are unfair, but one thing never changes; to win it all, you have to beat everybody who’s put in front of you. Do that, and you deserve to be called a champion.

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Cole Field House

I laughed out loud when I heard University of Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams talk about his fondest memory at Cole Field House. “Sitting in section Q and taking two exams to get out of here,” is how Williams said he’d remember the 47-year home to Maryland basketball.

Yesterday, the Terps finished the regular season unbeaten at home, beating Virginia in the last college basketball game to be played there. They also beat Virginia in the opener the Field House in 1955. Williams made me laugh because that’s exactly what I remember about the place. As a junior, I think I had 5 exams there, and 3 more as a senior. It’s a multi-purpose building with offices and classrooms, a short cut through part of campus. Where students gather, many not realizing the history inside.

It’s where Texas Western took the first all-black starting five and won the NCAA championship beating Kentucky in the final. A watershed game in the history of college basketball. And it’s where JU made their only appearance in the championship game, losing to UCLA.

It has history, just no luxury boxes. But unlike many modern day arenas, there’s not a bad seat in the house. And the place could absolutely rock, with the sound bouncing all over the big barn-like interior. Elvis played there, but he wasn’t any bigger star than former coach Lefty Drisell. When he walked onto the court, they played “Hail to the Chief.” Even the designation, “field house” is old school. They can all say they’ll miss it, but they don’t have to. They’ll still give exams there.

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XIX Winter Olympics

I was watching the Closing Ceremonies the other night from the Salt Lake Olympic Winter Games, trying to figure out why I like the games so much. The XIX Winter Games had special appeal because they were held in the United States. It was a chance to wave the flag and host people from all over the world, from countries that are our allies, and from countries that hate us. It was seventeen days when we saw competition at it’s highest level. Yes, there is a payoff for Olympic Gold, Silver or Bronze, but only if you actually win a medal. And winning a medal takes an all-out performance. Nobody gets paid in advance.

The Olympic culture of competition only allows for each athlete giving his or her best. Anything less gets you beat, leaves you off the podium, and out of the potential payoff. We don’t always see that in the highest profile competitions we see everyday in professional sports.

There’s no such thing as “tanking” in the Olympics. This is the one chance every four years to get the job done, so nobody mails it in. That’s why the highs are so high, and the lows are devastating. But through it all, the athletes were as amazing outside of the competition as they were in it. They were humble in victory and gracious in defeat. They cried when the flag was raised and the National Anthem played. They took their hats off in honor of other countries’ anthems and reveled in each other’s success.

I guess that’s why I like the games so much; they’re real.

Jacques Rogge will be the man who saves the Olympic movement. The current President of the International Olympic Committee, a former Olympian himself, understands many things his predecessor didn’t have a clue about. Rogge is media savvy and handles himself like a polished politician. He understands how the U.S. fits in to the Olympic movement. Americans will always be a big presence in both the Winter and Summer Games, and the USOC hopes to win the bid for the 2012 games, possibly in New York City.

Rogge doesn’t dismiss the US as a splinter under his finger, but rather embraces American wealth as an aspect that can promote the games. At the same time, he hopes to move the Games around the world, to South America and Africa incorporating new venues into the regular rotation between Europe, Asia and North America.

The IOC President has to know how the games affect the athletes as well as the economies of the host cities. Rogge has his finger in both pots. “Light the fire within,” was the theme of the Salt Lake Games but Rogge’s comments at the opening ceremonies perhaps summed up the Games’ spirit. “When you finish first you are the winner,” Rogge said, “but to understand the principles of fair play and competition makes you a champion.” Rogge later repeated that statement when he was asked to comment on the doping allegations in cross-country skiing.

It’s not old school to think playing within the rules is OK. I’ve never seen two games played with more grit and passion than the two final games of the hockey tournament where the Americans were involved. The US/Russia game and the US/Canada game involved three teams of big-time professional hockey players with nothing on the line but national pride. Have you ever seen guys play harder? Every minute was like the last seconds of a tied overtime in game seven in the Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s what fans are looking for, that’s what people will buy tickets to see. If the NHL can capture that, they’ll explode much like the NBA and the NFL have in the last twenty years. If the NBA, Major League Baseball and the NFL don’t pay attention to it, the public will look elsewhere.

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Daytona 500 2002

The 44th running of the Daytona 500 had all of the elements that have made NASCAR racing the premier motor sports attraction in the United States. It had the blend of racing, rubbin’, cautions, a rare red flag, lead changes, personality and goofiness that draws people to NASCAR racing.

I was walking through the infield during the beginning of the race, and heard a loud cheer. I figured that Dale Junior had taken the lead but to my surprise, it was because Tony Stewart was out of the race. It was a cheer akin to when Dale Earnhardt would take the lead. Stewart is talented with a good car and a great owner, but is not a popular driver. He’s unpopular in fact, to the point that fans are happy when he’s out of the race. Kind of like Jeff Gordon, only that’s subsided a bit.

People don’t want to see Gordon win, but like how he competes on the racetrack. His competitive nature pushed Kevin Harvick off the track and started a fourteen-car pileup that took many of the contenders out of the race. Gordon received payback a few laps later, as Sterling Marlin rubbed him off the track with a bump on the rear fender. Gordon said he was just trying to protect his track position, much like in the Harvick incident.

The rules at Daytona mandate that the drivers hold their positions, keep their foot to the floor, and don’t yield an inch. Gordon said he was just trying to keep his position, and following the rules. “I wasn’t going under the yellow line, that’s for sure,” said Gordon in the post-race interview. “It was just racin’, no hard feelings,” according to Marlin.

When the race was red flagged in lap 195, Marlin was in the lead, but had damaged the front of his car in his altercation with Gordon. During the stop, Marlin inexplicably jumped out of his car and ran around to the right side,, pulling on the fender. The NASCAR official in the pace car jumped out and yelled something to Marlin like, “Hey, get back in the car!” Marlin ran back to the drivers’ side and got in but it was too late. NASCAR assessed him a penalty, putting him in the back of the lead laps “longest line” and his chances to win were dashed.

Gordon was put in the back as well, with NASCAR officials saying he pitted too early during a caution. Thankfully, no one was injured in the race, despite 9 cautions and multiple wrecks. “I think we need to go faster,” 2001 Champion Michael Waltrip said. “It strings us out more, but I don’t make the rules, just dabble in the rules. Make the restrictor plate bigger and we’ll race more.”

Ward Burton knew luck was on his side, “we didn’t have the best car, we only lead the last couple of laps.” It’s Dodge’s first win at Daytona since 1974, and only their third win ever in the Great American Race.

There’s something about the 19th starting position as well. Michael Waltrip and Burton both started from the 19th position in their winning year. Waltrip and Burton join Dale Earnhardt as first time winners at Daytona, three of the last five years. But it’s not all-good news. Only once since 1980 has the winner of the Daytona 500 gone on to win the NASCAR season championship. That was Jeff Gordon in 1997.

Give me more races like this one. Nobody gets hurt, everybody’s talking about the race and the finish and how to make it better. I don’t care who wins, just give me some racing.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Olympic Broadcasts

We’re a couple of days into the Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake. The opening ceremonies were a beautiful international celebration, reflective of the history of the American West, and at the same time respectful of what’s going on in the United States right now. The competition has been tight with some medals won or lost by hundredths or even thousandths of a second. But the broadcasts have been horrible!

When NBC did an end run on the rest of the networks and locked up the Olympics until further notice, they gave themselves carte blanche over the creativity of the broadcast of the games. They’ll do it the way they want, without worrying about whether they’ll get the games back or not.

Almost every broadcast is basically taped highlights shown as “plausibly live” with the ups and downs of the competitions condensed into 12 minutes that are edited together like a sitcom. A highlight here, a highlight there, and then the climax. Give me something live and if it’s on tape, just tell me.

And the announcers! Who are these whiny, thin voiced shills? Save for Bob Costas and a couple of other recognizable faces, where did they get these people? NBC has a full stable of professional broadcasters, how about using them.

I like seeing Jim McKay and Costas is his usually prepared self. But who picked out Bob’s wardrobe? I understand the no-tie thing, but how about something that matches every once in a while.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Super Bowl XXXVI

All of the little sayings turned out to be true. Third time’s a charm, defense wins championships, and they didn’t become sayings because they’re not true. In their third trip to the Super Bowl, the New England Patriots became champions, relying on the defense to get the job done. It’s not the biggest upset in Super Bowl history, but it’s up there. The Rams were considered unbeatable with an unstoppable offense and an improved defense.

Going in, the Patriots knew they had to accomplish several things to give themselves a chance to win. They had to create turnovers and turn them into points. They had to keep the Rams from getting the big play. They had to force the Rams to kick field goals when necessary, they had to control field position and they needed solid special teams play. They knew they had to do it, and they went out and did it.

It’s hard to tell if the Rams were a little off or if it was because of what the Patriots were doing. Either way, when Adam Vinitieri trotted onto the field with seven seconds to play, there was no doubt he was going to make the kick. By the way, when are coaches going to figure out that a soft defense that keeps the ball in front of you gets you beat? No time outs and just over a minute to play, the Patriots dinked the ball downfield, just enough to get in position for the winning kick. Pressure the quarterback and if you get beat, you get beat. The Rams will stay together for at least one more year, and perhaps it’s fitting that a team named the Patriots reigns as Super Bowl Champion this year.

With commercials costing “just south” of $2 million each to air on the Super Bowl broadcast, I thought they might have been a bit more creative. The Budweiser spots were pretty good. I especially liked the “Mini-Fridge” one at the beginning and the Clydesdales bowing to New York City was a nice touch. The promotion of halftime with football player looking guys dressed in frilly costumes didn’t go anywhere. The Dockers ad comparing the pants to a “little black dress” was mildly amusing. All in all, they were OK, but nothing to rave about.

Security at the Super bowl was very tight. The Secret Service was in charge of the area around the Superdome, and they were on top of everything. Uniformed, armed (M-16’s) guards were at every checkpoint. To get to any destination, even the media compound, you had to pass through several metal detectors, have your bags searched, have your credentials checked, get new credentials, get “wanded” and even patted down at least once. Every guard was cordial and professional but you had to add about an extra hour if you were going anywhere near the Dome.

At the Morial Convention Center, the site for just about every event outside of the game, the security was equally as tight. The league changed the credential procedure, and even issued two different credentials; one for the week and one for the game. Running the Super Bowl is a massive operation and the NFL knows what they’re doing. New Orleans was hosting their ninth Super Bowl, more than any other city. Even the Big Easy has changed how they do things over the years. The Convention Center is a new addition as a host site. More than 1.2 million square feet of contiguous meeting space, it housed everything from Paul Tagliabue’s state of the game address to the NFL Experience. Without a spot like that, any city has to be very creative when hosting the game.

Jacksonville’s Host Committee for Super Bowl XXXIX chose a new leader during their meeting in New Orleans. Mike Kelley, who worked on the Super Bowl in Tampa last year, will now serve as the host committee’s chief operating officer. Mike Weinstein is leaving that job in July in order to run for mayor. Kelley says that the similarities between Tampa and Jacksonville’s geography give him a head start. He plans to incorporate all parts of North Florida and South Georgia, including the beaches, to host a variety of events. The host committee received several lessons in security and planning while at the game in New Orleans.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Super Bowl Preview

In an odd twist, all three times the Patriots have made it to the Super Bowl; the game has been played in New Orleans. New England wasn’t competitive against the Bears or the Packers in their other two appearances and is already a 14-½ point underdog to the Rams.

Fourteen and a half?

That’s not as big a statement on the competitiveness of either team as it is a statement about the Super Bowl itself. Too many times, the game has been a blowout. The finality of it being the last game lends itself to risk taking that often backfires leading to a lopsided score. This game might be different though. St. Louis might be that good.

The Rams knew all along if they got the top seed in the playoffs, they’d never have to play outdoors, including in the Super Bowl. Much like the St. Louis and Cincinnati baseball teams of the 80’s, this Rams team was built for artificial turf. It gives them an advantage like no other team. The speed of their players and the timing of their offense are perfectly matched to what’s affectionately called “fuzzy concrete.”

There might be a player equal to Marshall Faulk in talent in the league, but none gets the most out if it like Faulk. Kurt Warner was right when he said he couldn’t believe he won the MVP wondering how anybody didn’t vote for Marshall Faulk.

New England got a little help in getting to the Super Bowl and although they are a good team with a solid defense, they haven’t seen anything like the Rams. In fact, nobody has.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Expansion Draft

Imagine this conversation at the Jaguars offices:
Wayne Weaver: “Alright, who are we putting on the expansion draft list?”

Rick Reprish (Personnel Director): “It needs to be somebody who’s actually taken off our hands. Somebody who can play.”

Paul Vance (new capologist): “It needs to be somebody who clears a lot of cap room for us.”

Tom Coughlin: “Okay, I guess it’s Boselli!”

You hope it wasn’t that simple, but the decision itself screams simplemindedness.

Actually, there are two scenarios that could be playing themselves out. The first is what Jaguars fans originally thought: The team put Boselli on the expansion draft list as one of several high priced players knowing Boselli wouldn’t be picked. After the Texans take one of the other inflated salaries off their hands, i.e. Tony Brackens, the Jaguars recall Boselli from the list. That way they have him back and they were able to protect another player on the roster from the expansion.

But as more information is leaking out, it’s clear the scenario where the team is willing to risk losing Boselli as a cap casualty seems to be closer to reality. He’ll save them $6 million or so next year, moving them a long way toward getting out of the salary cap jail they’ve put themselves in.

From the team’s standpoint, Boselli is a number and left-tackles don’t win Super Bowls. He missed almost all of last year, hasn’t shown the ability to stay healthy for about three seasons and his future effectiveness could be in question. But he is the team leader; one of the best locker room guys, a real tough performer, their first ever draft pick and the player Tom Coughlin called the “cornerstone” of the franchise. So if you remove the cornerstone, doesn’t the entire thing it’s built on collapse?

It already seems to be crumbling as Quarterback Mark Brunell said putting Boselli on the list was “ridiculous.” Coughlin wouldn’t comment when reached at the Senior Bowl in Mobile (the league has asked clubs to refrain from comment or making the list public until 1pm Friday), although Boselli’s agent said he thought the Jaguars Head Coach wasn’t happy about the move and it was “eating him up.”

So does that mean it wasn’t Coughlin’s call? There have been many rumblings about Weaver wanting a bigger hand in personnel. He reportedly also wants a General Manager to take over some of Coughlin’s duties off the field. Is this the pre-cursor to that? Certainly there are other ways they can get out from under their cap problems. Perhaps not as fast, but with some grace and panache, something the team has had a shortage of in the past as well.

Brunell agreed to less money in his new contract just last year, saying he wanted to stay a Jaguar, and playing with Boselli, his best friend seemed to be a factor. With Boselli potentially gone, it seems to signal that Brunell could be next. Several teams, most notably the Detroit Lions were interested in Brunell last year, with the Lions restating their interest in recent months. Steve Spurrier is familiar with Brunell and would no doubt love him as the Redskins quarterback. And what about Houston? If Boselli ends up there, could the Texans put together a parcel of draft picks that would entice the Jaguars to trade Brunell to Houston? Dom Capers is a long time admirer of Brunell, and the feeling is mutual.

Two other things come to mind.

First, isn’t this all a year too late? Couldn’t they have made some of these cuts (including Brunell) before this year and already be on the road to recovery? By delaying the pain for a season, the self-inflicted wounds will be much deeper.

Could the Jaguars make two more fan un-friendly decisions than to not pursue Spurrier and then attempt to get rid of arguably their best and most beloved player?

Second, would Capers want to help the Jaguars out of their cap hole, knowing he has to play them twice a year as a division opponent? Capers will have to weigh the Jaguars potential future success against his own team’s benefit from Tony Boselli and possibly Mark Brunell on the roster.

Accepting that the Jaguars were going to be a different team next year was already part of any Jaguars fans reality. A reality without some of the established veteran stars is something fans understand. But a reality without Boselli seems to break the trust the fans have in the management of the team. Internet chat rooms and sports talk radio can be full of the complaints about Weaver, Coughlin and everything else. The real opinions will be heard when attendance figures are announced next season.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Sweetness and Swagger

Full of hubris and humility, swagger and sweetness, Steve Spurrier owned the room yesterday in his first remarks as Head Coach of the Washington Redskins. If you wanted to like him going in, you loved him when you left. If you didn’t care for his style beforehand, you were gagging halfway through. It was classic Spurrier.

In other words, he was completely himself. Addressed the Redskins owner as “Mr. Snyder” although the owner is 19 years his junior, pled his case to the veteran players right there from the podium saying “soldiers don’t practice with live bullets” and convinced Bruce Smith to return right on the spot. He was disarming to his critics, and even slipped in a few jabs at FSU and Tennessee.

“These are not FSU colors,” Spurrier intoned in a mock announcement when asked about the burgundy and gold team colors of the Redskins. “This is burgundy and gold, and that’s not their colors.”

He really got a laugh when he deflected a question about his non-stop tweaking of his opponents. “I think that’s blown way up,” is how he started. “You tell a little cornball joke about the Citrus Bowl being the winter home of the Vols and everybody gets mad.”

He jumped right into it, drawing Redskins fans closer and closer by becoming one of them. “We’ve got the best fans and the biggest stadium,” Spurrier said in his opening remarks, “and I hope it’s the loudest one in the league.”


And he hadn’t even been there 10 minutes.

Gator fans loved Spurrier because they believed he was one of them. And he was, and always will be. But they’ll now have to share him with Redskins fans, because he’s genuine when he talks about “we” and “us.”

Growing up in east Tennessee, Steve admitted he was a Redskins fan growing up. Until 1966 (coincidentally the year he won the Heisman Trophy) the Redskins were the team of the South. They were on televisions throughout the region every Sunday. Geographically they were the most Southern team in the league, before the Falcons, Dolphins, Bucs, Titans, Jaguars, Saints and others. He followed the Redskins as a kid, and now he’s their Head Coach. He’ll take the blame for losing and share the praise when they win. He said all the right things. He was ready he was prepared. He knew when to say “I don’t know” and he called on one of the most hallowed names in Redskins history, Joe Gibbs. “When my time is over here, I hope to leave like Joe Gibbs. Not many coaches get to go out on their own terms.” You could just hear Redskins fans fainting all over the District. You want to be like Gibbs? The three Super Bowl winning Gibbs? How much more perfect can you be?

Those who question whether Spurrier can adapt his style to professional football need only to have seen yesterday’s performance. Steve’s not some dumb, football only coach. He’ll figure out a way to win and perhaps more importantly, he’ll figure out a way to get along with “Mr. Snyder.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Coaching Carousel

It’s been a week since Steve Spurrier resigned at Florida and the domino effect is still taking place. Ron Zook has replaced Spurrier, but the rest of the jobs that were real possibilities last week are still possibilities. The Vikings have a coach, the Chargers still do not. The front-runner for Steve’s services is Carolina. He has connections to the state, sees it as a big challenge and his friend Ken Heroc, a former personnel guy from Atlanta would sign on as GM of the Panthers.

Washington seems to be out of the picture. The Redskins are supposed to name Bobby Beathard as their General Manager this week. That would push Marty Schottenheimer out of the picture and Beathard would hand pick his head coach.

The Glazers want Bill Parcells as their head coach in Tampa Bay. If the Bucs lose this weekend in Philadelphia, look for Tony Dungy to be fired and Parcells to take over the underachieving Bucs.

Spurrier said yesterday that he’s already talked with one NFL team and has two more meetings set up. Is one of those with Jacksonville? And if not, why not? There’s not a single person who has talked to me this week about Spurrier who hasn’t wondered about the possibility of him coaching the Jaguars. It seems like such a no-brainer, but Wayne Weaver has been acting as if he’s oblivious to all of the talk.

Tom Coughlin was the right guy at the right time to build the Jaguars and with the talk of a contract extension; Weaver seems to think Coughlin is also the guy for the future. He must know something the rest of us don’t. Spurrier would create a new excitement for a new era of Jaguars football. He’d win games and sell tickets. And if Spurrier’s looking for a challenge, the Jaguars are certainly going to be that. It all makes too much sense. If there’s a change, we’ll have the latest on the Internet when you log on to samsportsline.com

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

More Zook

It was only uncomfortable a couple of times in the large meeting room yesterday under the stadium where the University of Florida makes their big athletic program announcements. New Head Football Coach Ron Zook was at the end of answering questions and was rambling on, telling a story about how he was hired in Pittsburgh. He was clearly enjoying himself, but Florida officials were fidgeting in the corner, the Sports Information Staff scrambling to try and let Zook and the assembled media know that this meeting was about over.

It was pretty typical Zook though, not orthodox, not some coach speak answer but in this case a guy telling a bunch of other guys a story. He was not polished yesterday, but got his message across. It was pretty good insight into how he’ll be as a coach: excitable, upbeat, passionate, and prepared. He’ll go through some growing pains, learning how to be a head coach. He might say the wrong thing a couple of times, and might step on some toes, but he’ll get it figured out.

As Athletic Director Jeremy Foley outlined his odyssey searching for a new coach, Zook stood in the corner, head down, arms folded, listening to how two coaches in front of him turned down the job. It seemed to reinforce Zook’s determination to show the doubters that he can be the next leader of the Gator Nation.

Eleven times during his remarks, Zook said, “I’m not Steve Spurrier.” Fans are hoping not to echo that sentiment eleven times next year after each game saying “he’s not Steve Spurrier.” He won over a lot of doubting Gators yesterday, and the team seemed genuinely and pleasantly surprised exiting their first full meeting with the new coach. He said all the right things and now, with all that ceremony out of the way, comes the hard part.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com


Finding the right coach to lead the Gator Nation was a tough enough job to begin with. Having to do the searching in public made the process a whole lot harder. What if Jeremy Foley had just kept everything to himself and then popped up yesterday and said “It’s Ron Zook.” Gator fans would have said, “What about Bob Stoops, what about Mike Shanahan?” But having been publicly turned down by both of those guys, Foley had to go to Plan B or Plan C and reach a little farther down that “short list” of replacements he keeps on his desk.

The initial reaction has been lukewarm which seems a little unfair to both Zook and Foley. Jeremy’s track record for hiring coaches is nearly flawless. Zook has no track record as a head coach, and perhaps that’s what bothers many Gator fans. Or is he not “high profile” enough? Or they didn’t like his defensive scheme when he was the coordinator at Florida the last time around. Either way, Zook will always have to be the guy who replaced Spurrier, and he’ll have to be the guy who’s not Spurrier as well.

Would fans rather have Tyrone Willingham? How about Mike Belotti? After Stoops and then Shanahan, anybody would be a wild card pick. Foley went for the card he knew, instead of searching around and ending up with the unknown. I knew Zook fairly well when he was here in the ‘90’s and nobody will bring more passion and emotion to the job. He’s a terrific recruiter. And just observing him from afar since he went to the NFL, he seems more settled, more technically adept, more ready to be a head coach. I don’t know how he’ll do, but nobody was really sure about Spurrier in 1990 either. Honest. They wondered whether he was serious enough for the job. Zook isn’t going to have much of a honeymoon, maybe just a kiss on the cheek. And his new partners are going to expect results.


Zook will be introduced in Gainesville today, and we’ll have his comments on the Internet on Samsportsline.com.