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Now, everything they’ve learned about off-the-field preparation is obsolete.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