Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Idle Threats

There was a chuckle and a bit of exasperation on the other end of the phone line from Jaguars Owner Wayne Weaver. “I never said that,” he answered when I asked him what that “moving the team stuff” was all about. “I’m not going anywhere,” he added, unsolicited. There had been a big uproar in recent weeks about the Jaguars disagreement with the city regarding revenue generated from advertising inside the stadium. It was reported that Weaver threatened to move the team if he didn’t get his way. Although the reports even said he admitted to saying that out of frustration with the negotiations, Weaver says he never made any threats. “I’m committed here, and we’re trying to work though this right now.”

Making his millions originally in the shoe business, Wayne Weaver has a sense of style, is passionate about whatever he’s doing, but first and foremost, he’s a businessman. He knows how to make money and understands the competitive aspect of business. He’s not afraid to be tough; some might even say rough around the edges when it comes to getting his way. From the outside he doesn’t seem to be ruthless, but I’ve been in a few deals with him and privy to others enough to know you don’t want to tangle with him unless you’ve got your facts straight and you’re right.

Weaver disagrees with the city’s and the Gator Bowl’s interpretation of the rights granted to the Jaguars for ownership of the signs inside the stadium. Who knows who’s contract is enforceable, but one thing’s for sure, Weaver believes he’s right and when he believes he’s right, he usually is.

In his quest for an NFL team in the early 90’s, he showed all sides of his personality. He organized a business plan that would meet the league’s specifications. He put together a group of people who could execute the plan. He schmoozed with the owners. He smiled for reporters. He had pen in hand ready to sign over millions to the league, and they turned their nose up and said, “give us a month.”

That’s when Wayne got hot.

Fiery hot.

The day after granting a team to Charlotte and telling the Jacksonville organization to cool their heels for a while, I was standing with Weaver outside of the NFL’s temporary offices in Chicago while he was waiting to meet with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

“What are you going to tell him,” I asked.

“That I came here to get a football team not to get jerked around,” Weaver responded with a clenched jaw and a squinty stare.

“We’re getting a football team,” Wayne’s brother Ron once told me during the whole process. “How do you know?” I asked, shaking my head. “Because my brother wants one, and when he figures out what he wants, he goes and gets it. Always has,” Ron said without it being a brag or a threat.

So somewhere in the meeting rooms between the Jaguars, the city and the Gator Bowl there have been some hotly contested negotiations about money. Having signed on to run the ACC Championship game, the Gator Bowl is looking for new revenue. Weaver’s trying to maximize his money and the city is trying to make everybody happy.

Did Weaver threaten to move? It wouldn’t surprise me if he blurted that out at some time. But did he mean it even if he said it? I don’t think so. Covering up around 10,000 seats in the stadium isn’t the move of a man who’s thinking about taking his toy elsewhere. The Jaguars could do a much better job of connecting with the fans and potential fans here in the city, but a move? No. At least not yet.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Donovan’s Scowl

Anytime there’s big time basketball in Gainesville these days, its worth going. Saturday’s Florida/Louisville match up had all the story lines you could want. The enigmatic Gators, unranked against the talent-laden, highly ranked, Rick Pitino-coached Louisville Cardinals. Pitino’s coaching of Louisville is akin to Steve Spurrier returning to the college football field as the coach of Florida State. His coaching career has been somewhat nomadic; not Larry Brown-esque, but he’s made a few stops. And he’s left a trail of successful assistants behind, including Billy Donovan. Donovan is now 0-6 vs. Pitino after his Gators fell 74-70, a stat he blew off immediately.

“In four of those we had no chance,” Donovan said, referring to his contest as the head coach of Marshall and his first couple of years at Florida. “It was like going up against them with you at point guard,” he added, referring to a local writer who doesn’t resemble a basketball player.

In the game against Louisville, the Gators gave themselves a lot of chances, but never closed things out. “We couldn’t get over the hump,” is how Donovan described it. But it seemed to be most of their own doing. They’d get within two, or even one, then throw the ball away, have a bad offensive position or do something stupid, like committing an intentional personal foul. “Our basketball IQ isn’t as high as it could be,” is how Donovan explained it after some thought.

There were a lot of dynamics working at the game that made Donovan’s post-game press conference a little strained. Losing to Miami the week before didn’t sit well with the Florida Head Coach although it was a case of a couple of players getting hot and the Gators not being able to respond. But Donovan was a little testy, and a little overly critical of his team. He referred to them as “they” a little too often, and besides the IQ comment, either was calling out his team in a subtle way or trying to lower expectations in Gainesville.

“We’re a good, solid basketball team,” is how he described his combination of youth and experience. “This team doesn’t have the talent of Donnell Harvey, Mike Miller and Kwami Brown. They work hard, they’re great kids, they have enthusiasm and they want to compete, but when they get in games like this, their talent doesn’t carry them, because they’re not overly talented.”

I thought that was a bit harsh, but pretty much right on the mark. Donovan continued his lecture, either directed at the media, the fans, the administration, the players, or some combination thereof. “There’s a perception around here that we have all world talent. You want to see all world talent? Go to Michigan, Illinois, North Carolina, and Kentucky, that’s where you’ll find it. We don’t have that. We have good, solid players who want to improve and we keep working on it.”

It’s less upbeat than I’ve seen Donovan over the years he’s been at Florida. Granted, I don’t go to every game, but he’s usually more upbeat, puts a positive spin on things, even when they’re bad. He could be a victim of his own early success, getting the Gators to the Championship game in 2000, and getting out in the early rounds of the NCAA’s ever since. But it seemed a little deeper than that. Perhaps he’s a little tired of the sniping that goes along with the Gator program, whether it’s football, or basketball.

Everybody’s an expert, and everybody’s a critic. “People compare this team to the 2000 team,” Donovan said without defining, “people.” “But they’re not close.”

So are we expected to sit back and watch the team not “get over the hump” because they’re not that good, or be happy with them playing hard and smart, no matter the outcome? Actually if they play hard and smart the outcome will be more positive than negative, even against big name teams, like Louisville. Anthony Roberson, David Lee and Matt Walsh were all-preseason somethings, but they are fitting or giving the leadership players of their stature should. Lee is a good player, but could be better, if only by demanding the ball more. His three point attempt at the end of the game was criticized by Donovan and a couple of his teammates, but in that situation with time running out and an open shot, I didn’t have a problem with it, except that it was an air ball.

Roberson needs to look for his shot more and Walsh needs to be a part of the team instead of appearing to try and win every possession himself. When he’s hot, he’ll beat anybody in the country, but when he’s not, which is more common, he’s got to get into the flow of the game with the rest of his team.

Freshman Al Horford can play, and Donovan’s confidence in him showed as he left him in down the stretch in the second half. Taurean Green is also poised for a freshman, and the rest of the first-year players look like they can contribute. “Sometimes you’re caught,” Donovan explained, “Do I play them a little and let them take time to develop experience, or do I throw them in there and live with the mistakes they’ll make as inexperienced players?”

It was a rhetorical question, but can easily be answered. Play who you think can help you win Billy no matter they’re class standing.

Hopefully that’ll make Billy a little happier.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Meyer’s Florida

At 40-years old it’s no surprise that Urban Meyer was the most sought after football coach in America. He has the right pedigree, having been an assistant at Ohio State and Notre Dame (among others) and a successful head coach at Bowling Green and Utah. But he also has the media savvy, the self deprecating humor and a presence that successful leaders need.

Meyer strode to the podium on Tuesday after being introduced as the new Florida football coach and took his time gathering his papers and his thoughts. He spoke clearly and directly, addressing the assembled media and the boosters in attendance. He didn’t flinch, he didn’t stumble. He deflected the hard questions and hit the easy ones out of the park.

The only surprise was his revelation regarding his admiration of Steve Spurrier. “If Florida was on TV, I was there watching,” the new Gator Head Coach explained. “I was a fan, and I know you’re not supposed to be, but I like how they took the field, how they played the game, how they left the field. They had a swagger if you want to call it that. Hopefully you saw some of that at the University of Utah.”

Wow was that just what the Gator nation wanted to hear! A return to running up the score, big numbers on offense and a swagger that fans were used to. It’s only funny because Spurrier himself the week before while accepting the South Carolina job said he learned “humility” while he was away from the college game, and vowed to have a little less swagger as the coach of the Gamecocks.

But Meyer is the right guy for the job.

Winning, and winning in the fashion that will satisfy the culture of Florida fans is a whole different story. But even though he was the flavor of the month in coaching circles, Meyer is the right kind of personality for the football program and the right kind of football coach for the community.

I happened to stand right behind where his wife and their three children were sitting at the press conference. His wife in an orange and white striped Gator blouse and his kids decked out in brand new orange and blue. Meyer apparently never thought twice about having a chance to work in Florida. “Why don’t you put your name into the hat at some of those schools in Florida,” Meyer’s wife apparently told him each time he was thinking about changing jobs.

Remember, this is a career that was at Ohio State, Notre Dame, Illinois State, Colorado State, Bowling Green and Utah. Not a lot of balmy days in any of those locations. “Yeah, right,” Meyer told his wife, “I don’t know anybody down there. I can’t just throw my name in the hat!”

Win enough games and you can. And knowing the President of the University doesn’t hurt either. Meyer asked Lou Holtz and Bob Stoops about taking the job at Florida, but perhaps the most influential person he talked to was Billy Donovan, the Gators basketball coach. “Coach Donovan spent hours on the phone with me,” the new football coach explained, “And he couldn’t say enough about the Gainesville community and how great a place it is to raise a family. That’s what I was looking for.” Good thing, since Meyer is exactly what the Gators were looking for as well.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

. . . From Utah?

Do you smell that?

It’s that “I-can’t-put-my-finger-on-it-but-something’s-not-right-with-this” smell surrounding the hiring of Urban Meyer as the Florida Gators Head Football Coach. Yes, it seems they out-bid Notre Dame for the hot, flavor of the month coach, but there’s something unseemly about it.


Or perhaps that’s just how it’s going to go from now on when it comes to hiring a head football coach at any major program. I don’t know anything about Urban Meyer except that he’s won everywhere he’s coached. He’s young enough to build a legacy at the University of Florida if he wins there and decides to stay and that he had an out in his Utah contract that would have allowed him to go to Notre Dame, Michigan or Ohio State without penalty. Florida wasn’t in that grouping, but when it came time to choose where he’d coach next, he picked the Gators.

Or did he just pick the money?

Somebody who puts three schools in his contract that he can leave for has a deep affinity for those schools that goes beyond just money and reputation. So when his self proclaimed “dream job” at Notre Dame was opened for him by firing Tyrone Willingham, it seemed like a slam dunk he’d be coaching the Irish next year. But after less than 48 hours of deliberations, Meyer picked Florida. “I heard people say it was your dream job. It still is,” Meyer said. “It just so happens I have three children at a (young) age and a situation that was well into effect before that one was even on the radar.”

So if Notre Dame had called, what decision would he have made?
“I don’t know,” Meyer said bluntly.

“He has a presence,” Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley said about Meyer. “When he walks into a room, people notice.”

Short term, winning at Florida will be easier. The Gators are already loaded with talent and even with the recruits who have said they’ll look around again who were committed to Florida (Zook told me they had “everybody”), next year’s freshman class only deepens the talent pool.

Meyer has the offensive philosophy Gator fans like. His Utah team beat UNLV last month by opening the game in the rain with a reverse-pass kickoff return for a touchdown. But Gator fans want a little more than just a guy who has won, throws the ball around and has some tricks up his sleeve. They want their coach to appreciate their suffering. They want a coach who hates Auburn, Georgia and Florida State as much as they do. That’s why Steve Spurrier was an instant hit in Gainesville. He was one of them from the start. He never hesitated to stick it to Florida opponents on and off the field. He had an open disdain for the schools who had kept the Gators out of the SEC Championship for their first 59 years in the conference. He wouldn’t even say “Florida State” rather referring to them only as “FSU” and “that school up the road in Tallahassee.” And he made them pay for it.

Meyer has to jump into that right away. If they’re paying him $14 million over 7 years, the expectations will be high. But Florida fans will be looking for the emotional attachment he develops with the school, the fans, the boosters and the rivalries. Meyer could be considered University President Bernie Machen’s boy. He hired him in Utah, and now he’s brought him to Gainesville. Even though Meyer admitted he’d been talking to Florida since the regular season ended, he knew Notre Dame’s job was open for three days prior to accepting the Gators’ top spot.

Maybe it says something about where Notre Dame is in the college football pecking order. While the Golden Dome has a certain cache’ among 40-somethings and up, it’s just another school to a younger generation. Players who will be freshmen this year were born in 1986. The Irish last won the National Championship in ’88. So in the game of coaching musical chairs, ND is left without a seat and the Gators get their man.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Where’s The Line

How is it that so many people seem so intent on killing the goose that lays the golden egg? As a league, the NBA has survived drugs and violence, a strike and general stupidity. But the latest incident in Detroit gives the league a big black eye that won’t go away for a while. NBA Commissioner David Stern suspended Ron Artest for the remainder of the season and his Pacers teammates Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal 30 and 25 games respectively for their role in Friday’s melee. All three went into the stands after fans and caused the biggest flap the league has seen since, well ever.

When Kermit Washington hit Rudy Tomjonovich in the face, that was between two players. It was indicative of the undercurrent in the league at the time. Not a place for the faint of heart. But this is completely different. Artest had become a flash point in the league with his ridiculous and childish behavior on the court and his laughable recent request for some personal time to promote his rap album. He became the poster child for everything that the league is that people can’t stand. Boorish behavior by outlandishly wealthy athletes isn’t anything new, but Artest was taking it to all new heights.

“I’m a little worn out coach; can I have a couple of days off to promote my upcoming rap album?”

When Pacers coach Rick Carlisle heard that, I’m sure his first reaction was that Artest was kidding. But when he realized he was serious, Carlisle reacted just like he should have. He benched Artest for two games. When Latrell Spreewell said he “couldn’t feed his family,” on the $7 million a year the Timberwolves were paying him, the reporters laughed; until they realized he was serious.

Where do these guys get these ideas?

That’s easy.

From junior high school, they’re pampered and coddled and told they’re the greatest in the world. And it continues as they get older. They surround themselves with people who tell them how great they are until they start to believe it. Nothing seems too outrageous to them. Even going into the stands to fight somebody who threw a cup of ice on them. The ground work had been laid for some sort of wild scene in the league involving Artest, but we thought it would be between Artest and another player, not some fans.

When Artest committed a hard (perhaps flagrant) foul against Ben Wallace, Wallace turned and shoved him, challenging him to some kind of fight. But Artest didn’t want any part of Wallace, and backed meekly off toward the scorers table. Who knows what was said over there, but whatever was going on lead to a cup of ice being thrown at Artest and the melee ensued.

Isn’t it ironic that Artest wanted no part of Wallace (who would have beaten him to a pulp) but was more than willing to attack some skinny guy five rows up? If two guys are playing in the park and one guy throws a cup of ice in another guy’s face, does that instantly lead to a big fight? And if so, when the guy who caught the face full of ice beats the other guy to the ground, what happens? He goes to jail is what happens, and that should be an option with Artest, O’Neal and Jackson and any other player who goes into the stands at any sporting contest.

Isn’t it ironic that Artest had his wits about him enough to back off from Wallace, but suddenly lost it when a fan was involved? Nobody has to draw the line for the players or the fans. The line is right there on the edge of the playing surface, no matter what sport is involved. Fans don’t belong in the game, and players don’t belong in the stands. The media promotes the notion that the fans are a big part of the game, that somehow they can have an effect on the outcome. But that’s from their seat in the stands. Players know the rules, and don’t try and pass off that “heat of the moment” argument.

No matter what the circumstances, if you’re life’s not threatened, stay out of the stands. All Artest had to do was point at the guy in the stands and security would have taken him away. But somewhere in his twisted thought process, Artest bought into his own thug fantasy. Maybe because he listens to rap music and recorded a rap album he fashioned himself as a tough guy. And maybe he is. But for now, he’s a tough guy without a job for the rest of the year and a reputation as a player who can’t be counted on as a teammate.

As the NBA teeters between sport and folly, Stern is trying to send a clear message. Hopefully the rest of the players are listening.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

At Spurrier’s Request

On the day Ron Zook was fired, it was obvious somebody needed to hear that the Florida head football coaching job was going to be open. Perhaps it was Steve Spurrier, perhaps it was Bernie Machen, the school’s president, perhaps it was the recruits or perhaps it was some big boosters. The timing seemed odd, but if the decision had been made to replace him (perhaps based on some of the team’s off-field shenanigans) if he had won out, beating Georgia and FSU in the process, it would have been very difficult to make a move on Zook at that point.

Once the announcement was made, the Gator Nation was clamoring for Steve Spurrier to return, and he didn’t disqualify himself as a candidate. In fact, he left the door open, and most of his friends and confidants thought he was going back to Gainesville. Then he took himself out of the running.

So what happened?

Perhaps Steve just thought about it and figured it didn’t have enough upside to it. Or maybe he really was in the “been there, done that” mentality. But more likely is something set Spurrier off in the wrong direction, so he just decided “no” was the right answer. Recently, Steve has said he was surprised when Machen didn’t remember meeting him. When asked, the UF president said he’d never met Spurrier, “but I’ve seen a picture of him once,” in an attempt at humor.

Knowing Steve the little that I do, he wouldn’t have liked that, at all. In fact, Spurrier and Machen had met at a basketball game, and their wives sat next to each other. “Maybe he wants to hire somebody he knows,” Spurrier said late last week, “’cause he doesn’t know who I am.” That’s Spurrier talk for “I’m not workin’ for that guy.”

Some people think that Steve didn’t want to go through the process, and I don’t blame him. But the process is part of the NCAA regulations these days, and it’s also the politically correct thing to do to cover your own back when questioned about who you interviewed, etc.. So if there was going to be a process, Jeremy Foley just needed to tell Steve to go through the motions and in mid-December when the I’s were dotted and the T’s were crossed, the job would be his. Maybe he never got around to having that talk with the “ole ball coach.”

But I think it was really a combination of things. There isn’t a tremendous upside for Spurrier to return to Florida. He’s a legend there already and save for winning another National Championship, his image could only be tarnished without reaching that ultimate goal. Spurrier will be 60 years old before next season starts, so his shelf-life at Florida was five years, max. That might not be long enough to get the job done the way he’d like to. He’s got other things he likes to do, and it’s not all golf either.

When Foley said “If coach isn’t into it a thousand percent, then he knows he’s not right for the job,” that was very telling. If there was even a small doubt in Steve’s mind, it wouldn’t have worked. That’s why if he takes a job coaching, it’ll be in the NFL. There’s no emotion attachment there, and this time around, he’ll know it. It amazed him that the professional players sometimes came to play and other times didn’t. He didn’t have the kind of control he wanted in Washington, which perhaps another owner would be willing to cede to him. Miami would seem like a good fit, because they’re going to need a head coach, except they’re a bad team all around right now. And they don’t have a quarterback that fits the Spurrier mold. But he might end up there with a general manager who can put some of the pieces in place for him to be successful. And besides, five years is just about the right time to coach in the NFL anyway.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Georgia’s Win

Thirteen of the last 14 years Florida fans have walked away from the stadium in Jacksonville as winners. “That’s all of your adult life,” I told one of my friends who was glum after Georgia won 31-24. I like it when Florida wins because a lot of my friends (and my daughter who’s a UF grad) are happy. But I also like it when Georgia wins because the ‘Dogs fans hang around and have fun in town. Florida fans always hang around win or lose, so it’s a big festive atmosphere for the whole weekend.

I would have liked it if the Gators had won on Saturday just because Head Coach Ron Zook deserves a solid send off. Getting fired is part of the job, but Florida hasn’t handled this thing very well over the last week. Still, Zook’s players couldn’t muster enough to beat Mississippi State, why would anybody expect them to all of the sudden become something different against Georgia. Emotion plays a big part in this game, but it can only carry you so far. For the Gators, it carried them to a close game, but Georgia was the better team and showed it in crunch time for the first time in the last three years.

David Green gets his first win against Florida and so does Head Coach Mark Richt. Richt walked into his post game press conference and said, “You know this is the first time I’ve walked down the hall in this place and didn’t have to figure out what I was going to say.”

Florida had too many penalties (10 for 77 yards), and Georgia took advantage of the Gator miscues. Plus, just as Florida was gaining the momentum in the 4th quarter, but Green hit Reggie Brown for 51-yards to move the ball into Gator territory and quiet those at the game in Orange and Blue. Gator players said after the game that emotion wasn’t a problem and they were disappointed that they couldn’t pull out this win for Zook.

Ciatrick Fason has turned out to be the real deal for Florida. His 17 carries for 139 yards kept the Gators in the game (he also caught five passes out of the backfield). But how he gained his yards was even more impressive. He constantly looks like he’s stopped, and somehow escapes to rip off big chunks of yardage. More and more it seems he will turn pro after this season. If he continues to develop at this rate, his value jumps out of the middle rounds and into the top two or three.

Florida now has games against Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Florida State remaining on their schedule. They have better athletes than Vandy, but South Carolina can do some damage if they don’t pay attention, and the FSU game is usually unpredictable. (Especially this year with the Seminoles as unpredictable as they’ve ever been.) As Jeremy Foley has said a couple of times, Florida still isn’t bowl eligible, but Peach Bowl and Outback Bowl officials were at today’s game scouting the Gators.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Zook Cooked

From the day he was hired, there was a thinly veiled threat hanging over Ron Zook’s head at Florida. It was always there, even at the press conference announcing his hiring. When Athletic Director Jeremy Foley made his initial remarks that day, the first questions didn’t have anything to do with Zook. They were all about why he didn’t hire Bob Stoops or Mike Shanahan. Foley said something to the effect that “this is the right guy, and he’ll prove it.” Not an overwhelming endorsement, but a vote of confidence; with that veiled threat.

And the threat constantly whispered to Zook, “You weren’t the first choice, you have to prove yourself. And if you don’t you’re out of here.” The threat never went away, even after big wins, and it magnified after losses. When he won, he didn’t win big enough. When he lost, it was the coach’s fault, not the player’s. “He can really recruit,” was the way Gator fans praised their coach. When he won, like against LSU and Georgia last year, it was because the players stepped up.

So Ron Zook was always in a lose-lose situation. He had to win, and win big to feed the monster that Gator fans have become. He also had the bad fortune of following Steve Spurrier at Florida’s helm. “I’m not the ball coach,” Zook said as he addressed the ‘I’m not Spurrier’ situation at his opening press conference. “I’m my own man.”

When Zook was hired, Frank Frangie had me on his show to talk about how Zook would fair as the Gators new head coach. “Gator fans need style points,” I told Frank that day. “They want to win games 47-3, not 24-21. Georgia fans are perfectly happy to win 10-9, but Florida fans won’t stand for it. They’re a little spoiled and want things just so.” Frank called me that night to say he thought I was a little harsh (Frank is a Florida grad and a long time friend of Zook) but he has since changed his mind. “You’re right,” he told me Sunday night. “It’s not the record, but how you win the games that Gator fans are interested in.”

It’s pretty obvious that Zook lost the confidence of even his most loyal fans after the loss to Mississippi State, but it’s not one loss that gets you fired. It’s cumulative. He wasn’t winning big enough; he wasn’t rubbing the opponents’ nose in it. Those 59 years of being the SEC’s doormat left Gator fans wanting revenge, vigilante style. Once the big boosters say they’re not contributing any more money until there’s a new head coach, soon there will be a new head coach.

Zook’s actions in the whole fraternity incident certainly played a role in his demise as well. If you’re a nut and winning, it can be written off to being “competitive.” If you’re a nut and losing, then well, you’re just a nut. Be assured, this wasn’t just a Jeremy Foley decision either. The administration from the President on down was involved. Florida views themselves as a sort of “Ivy League School of the South” these days, and there’s a certain amount of decorum they’re expecting.

Gator fans will have to ask themselves a pretty hard question very soon: What will make them happy? Everybody says “That guy from Utah” (Urban Meyer) but do the Gator faithful really want a guy from Utah as their head coach? Of course they say “That guy from Utah” right after they mumble something about Spurrier.


That’s what’s missing!

Spurrier’s not the head coach!

And he’s available!

So like the bat light over the big city, the Gator light is out over Gainesville, seeing if Spurrier will answer the call. He’s been out three years, it didn’t work in the NFL in Washington, he still has his place in Crescent Beach, and, well, he’s Spurrier! When it comes to picking their head coach, Gators are pretty myopic. It’s almost Crimson Tide-esque with anybody and Bear Bryant.

Maybe Urban Meyer is the right guy. They scored 63 points against UNLV and opened the game with a kickoff return reverse pitch for a touchdown. Either way, whoever the next coach at Florida is will be inheriting a very good and young team.

Steve, are you listening?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Yankees Go Home

While you can call it the greatest comeback in baseball history, which it was, you can also call it the greatest collapse in baseball history. The Yankees with a 3-0 league clammed up and stopped figuring out how to win while the Red Sox were focused on every pitch and every at bat trying to get to the next game. While you can excuse a little bit of a relaxed atmosphere among the Yankees after spanking Boston 19-8 and going up 3-0, it was an uneasy feeling even after the Sox won game 4 with a David Ortiz home run.

What did the Yankees do after that?

They seemed to jog off the field in anticipation of the next game. And what did they do after Ortiz singled in the winning run in the 14th inning the next night? They seemed to jog off the field in anticipation of the next game. And what did they do after losing game 6? You know the drill.

There wasn’t any sense of urgency, nobody in the Yankees clubhouse seemed to be seething with the competitive fire that’s necessary in the post-season. Where were the leaders? Starting with their captain, Derek Jeter, they seemed to forget how to win. The Yankees are super talented, chisled and well dressed. The Red Sox seemed to try to portray themselves at the opposite. They grew their beards, they messed up their helmets and wore their uniforms baggy. So what! The Sox were just as talented and it showed on the field. Even Joe Torre said after game 6, “We’re evenly matched, so now we’re tied. What else is there to say?”

But Torre failed to mention heart.

Did you see the Red Sox players hugging each other in the dugout? When was the last time Gary Sheffield hugged anybody? Alex Rodriguez is easy to root for. He’s talented and plays the game impecably. But with runners in scoring positon, Rodriguez was a .250 hitter. And with two outs he was down around .200. The Yankees needed a grinder in this series and they didn’t have one.

It’s now four years in a row that they’ve had enough talent to win the World Series, but haven’t come home with the hardware. Should we expect a George Steinbrenner meltdown? Probably not, but a real evaluation of the team’s psyche is in order. Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, Goose Gossage, even Reggie Jackson seemed to have that intangible that translated to their teammates when it came to crunch time. This version of the Yankees seemed to check their briefcase before going up to bat. What they should have been looking for was their heart.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

NFL Dilemma

Never one to give the media any credit, or a break, Ravens coach Brian Billick asked the media to “get all of the facts” before passing judgment, “although I know you won’t,” he added. Billick started his career in the NFL in the PR department so he thinks he knows how to manage the news he wants out on his team. The problem is, Billick hasn’t dealt with that many criminals in purple and black. He did have his Ray Lewis experience, but somehow, Lewis’ culpability in the Atlanta murder hasn’t taken the shine off his star in the league. Maybe he’s reformed, maybe he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the general lingering impression is that he got off.

It’s been widely reported that running back Jamal Lewis will accept a plea bargain this week that will carry 4-6 months in jail for possession of drugs with intent to distribute. Lewis allegedly committed this crime in the time after he was at Tennessee and before he joined the Ravens. The original charge carried with it a potential of a ten year prison sentence. With that hanging over his head, and the publicity a trial would bring, Lewis decided to accept the jail time and get it over with.

Somehow, in a twisted way, some people think that makes his crime OK.

But it doesn’t.

If in fact Lewis does plead guilty to the crime, he should face serious punishment from the NFL. He’s supposed to serve his time in the NFL’s off season. How does that make it any better? IF he had a regular job, would it be waiting for him when he returned? I don’t know the answer to that question, but the league’s punishment should send a strong message throughout the NFL. There’s talk of a four or six game suspension, but that’s just not enough.

I couldn’t help but think about that while watching the Kansas City/Baltimore game on Monday night. Here’s a guy who’s a major star in the league. One of only five players to gain more than 2,000 yards in a season. He’s celebrated as one of the examples of what a good football player should be: big, tough and fast. But how can the league allow him to continue to play this year as a convicted felon and hold him up as an example of who fans should pay to come see? Paul Tagliabue needs to sit him down until after he serves his time. I’m a believer in bringing guys back into society after they’ve served. Once that happens, let him be judged on his merits. But to allow him to play the season while waiting to go to jail would be ridiculous. Even Ravens fans couldn’t cheer with a straight face.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Ryder Cup, Tyger Cup

A team competition in a uniquely individual sport should reveal something about the players involved. The Ryder Cup certainly does that. Once again, the Europeans beat the American, this time handing the US their worst loss in the 77 year history of the event. All this with a distinct advantage in the rankings among their players and major championships galore on their resumes compared to low world rankings and exactly zero majors for the Europeans.

So what happened?

The Euros trounced the Americans, figuring out how to play as a team. For your basic amateur, team golf is the norm. Me and my partner against you and yours. When I’m out of the hole, I’m rooting for my partner to keep me in it. The Europeans do exactly that. When one guy is AWOL, the other grinds harder to keep him in it. The Americans don’t seem to be able to figure that out, instead sticking to the “I’ll play my game and that’ll be good enough” mentality.

I don’t know who came up with the Tiger Woods/Phil Mickelson pairing, but it was the American problem in microcosm. “History demanded it, the fans demanded it,” American captain Hal Sutton said of the match up. I have a hard time believing that Sutton forced this on either one of those guys. One of them had to make the suggestion that it would be a good pairing. But it didn’t work. Even their body language early in the opening match on Friday showed that it was an uncomfortable start. I hate to lay the whole thing at Tiger’s feet, but he is America’s best player (no matter the world rankings) and his demeanor sets the tone for the rest of the team.

He’s never seemed comfortable in the team format, except when he’s played with David Duval. (They won the World Cup together.) You never hear a “what do you think” or some idle chatter about conditions or the matches or whatever. He’s the guy everybody’s looking to for a cue, and it’s not happening. There’s a theory that Tiger doesn’t want the other players too comfortable with him because he wants that air of invincibility to stay around when he faces them on the American tour and in the majors. There’s another that Tiger is best when paired with a player clearly his junior in stature who will show Tiger the deference he’s accustomed to. But who knows? The litmus test is his record in team competition in the Ryder Cup, and it’s not good.

Tiger’s taking a beating in the media right now for his comments comparing his record to Jack Nicklaus’ in Ryder Cup play, and rightly so. Tiger has lost twice as many matches in team play than he’s won. Nicklaus, on the other hand, was 17-8-3. And nobody was more dominant or intimidating than Nicklaus in his heyday. So what’s the answer? You don’t sit Tiger Woods, do you? His succession of partners has gone from his best friend, Mark O’Meara, to his biggest rival, Phil Mickelson, with virtually the same results: losses. Justin Leonard, Tom Lehman, David Duval, David Toms, Davis Love, Chris Riley, Paul Azinger and Mark Calcavecchia have all be paired with Woods and all have come back with a loss or two.. He did win back to back matches with Davis in 2002, but lost with him this time around.

For the ’06 matches at the K Club in Ireland, the American captain, (Azinger, Larry Nelson) should first ask Tiger if he wants to play. As in, “Do you want to be a part of this team?” Azinger is feisty enough to do it, and Nelson has no relationship with Tiger so he won’t have a problem either. Then he should ask Tiger who he wants to play with. Let him pick his partners and tell him that they’re his partners. Finally, talk to the rest of the team and tell them to get over the whole Tiger thing. They’re professionals, so go make it happen.

Isn’t everybody else sick of losing to the Euros?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Chris Rix, Forgettable Legacy

If there was ever any question that quarterback in football is the most important position in any team sport, the case was closed on Friday night in the FSU/Miami game. Neither Chris Rix nor Brock Berlin were stellar but Berlin did just enough to not lose the game for his team. The same can’t be said for Chris Rix.

Two interceptions and two fumbles are in the box score for the senior quarterback for the Seminoles. OK throwing interceptions is part of any quarterback’s stats line and the occasional fumble is also part of the position where you handle the ball on every offensive play. But with the game on the line in overtime, and his team needing a big play, Chris Rix didn’t give them a play at all. Third down and in the shotgun, Rix fumbled the shotgun snap that was admittedly a little low and left. A freshman, even a sophomore and perhaps a junior quarterback could be possibly excused for not coming up with the ball. But a senior quarterback who’s already played three years as the starter has to know in that situation that the most important thing is to catch the ball from center and get the play going.

Simple as that. Whatever you do, don’t fumble.

But that’s the MO for Rix throughout his entire career. He’ll make the occasional spectacular play, and then the most routine thing gets away from him. His personal history has been well documented, from missing a major bowl game for not taking an exam to parking in handicapped spots on the FSU campus. His self-centeredness is the stuff of legend in Tallahassee. And while that’s kind of fun to chuckle about, how it carries over onto the football field is not anything to laugh about.

Rix seems to become so enamored with his own place in history, either by what he did on the last play or what he imagines he’ll do on the next one that he forgets to just get the job done. It’s not all about the glory; it’s about making the engine go. It’s about driving the car within the speed limit sometimes so you have enough gas to go full throttle at some other time.

Rix seems to always be thinking, “What can I do to win this game,” instead of “what do we have to do to win this game and how do I fit into that.”

Maybe it’s just Miami. He does seem to be a little afraid back there against the Hurricanes. It’s not that he throws off his back foot against them, because he does that against Florida and any other team with a little pass rush. He just sees guys coming from all angles against Miami and gets paralyzed in the process. He might have some big games against Wake Forest, but it’s the contests against Miami that he’ll be remembered for.

Some of the responsibility has to be put on Bobby Bowden’s shoulders. For some reason, he hasn’t been able to impart a certain kind of confidence to Rix without it turning into a full blown swagger. And Mickey Andrews seemed to be playing not to lose while they were up 10-3 rather than going all out for the win. A lead late in the game is not something to protect in college football. It’s something to build on.

And make an important kick once in a while. The field goal block in the 4th quarter was one of those little things that adds up in a game and lets it go to overtime.

But Chris Rix could have done something about it.

FSU has good players. They’re a good team that will still be in the top ten and probably play in a major bowl at the end of the year. But they’ll still have lost to Miami. Again.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Hugh Douglas, Sign Of The Times

I had a private chuckle when the Jaguars released Hugh Douglas as they got their roster down to 65 players. Douglas tried to make a big splash when he arrived in Jacksonville last year, and failing that, left with a hardly a whimper. In the locker room on the day of his arrival, Douglas was trumpeted as the player the Jaguars needed to change directions on the defensive line. He was one of Jack Del Rio’s first coups, a veteran, name defensive player willing to commit to Del Rio’s new team.

Douglas was brash, and defiant in his first interview, chastising the media for asking about his knee (which was hurt) and his motivation (which turned out to be lacking.) But it was obvious Hugh Douglas was a big personality, and he wanted to be just that. He was “Big City” and he was going to bring that to this town. But if you’re going to be big city, you can’t play like little village, and Douglas barely qualified for a spot on the map based on his performance.

He was in a funk, not because he wasn’t playing well, (and he wasn’t) but because nobody was making a big deal about him. He complained that nobody knew him on the street and in the clubs here, that the lifestyle wasn’t what suited him. How that translates into poor performance on the field, I guess only Douglas knows, but the extra 20 lbs or so he was carrying around certainly didn’t help. So with the spare tire on his waist and the chip on his shoulder, Douglas took millions of dollars from the Jaguars and complained about it. He did produce 3 ½ sacks for his effort (or lack thereof).

I’m not sure where guys like Hugh Douglas get their personality from. He’s not going to the Hall of Fame. He was a very good player among some very good defensive players in Philadelphia. As media outlets discover parts of the country heretofore unknown to them (i.e. anything not NY, LA, Chicago, Miami or Dallas) players find it acceptable to go to those places, figuring they’ll drag the poor unwashed masses into the 21st century when it comes to “the high life.” But what happened to Douglas here is a good example of how things have changed.

The celebrity aspect of athletes is waning. Despite desperate efforts by MTV, the NBA and the NFL networks, people don’t really care what the players are doing outside of the field of play. We don’t care where they’re partying, what their “cribs” look like, what kind of car they drive or what clothes they’re wearing. Sure, players can have an impact in their communities by getting involved, setting good examples and doing charity work. But just hanging around showing off their “bling-bling” doesn’t cut it any more.

Douglas used to try and run the press conferences he was involved in, telling the media to physically “back off” or that they could “kiss my a__!” Eventually as his play diminished, he stopped talking to the media and we stopped asking. At training camp this year, Douglas met with the media, holding his thumb and forefinger about a half inch apart saying he had a “little bit more respect for the media” after his stint with NFL network as a reporter. That’s OK, I had a “little bit more respect for Hugh Douglas” after he actually did some work in the off season. His comment how people here were “learning the game” was so arrogant and off-base it was laughable.

Douglas cut and run (or what he calls running these days) when his skills were questioned this year, just like most cowards do. It won’t surprise anybody if he doesn’t get much of a reception in Philadelphia either.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Athens Games

Isn’t it funny how interest in the Olympics ebbs and flows every four years? The Sydney Games, arguably the best games ever to attend in person were not a bit hit on television here in the United States. The Athens games, considered a potential disaster, have been very popular on television in America, up 8% from four years ago.

Maybe the hype over Michael Phelps and his quest for eight medals has helped raise the numbers in the first week. Maybe it was the gymnastics, or the fact that NBC has been showing the games all over the place. Bravo, USA Network, CNBC and their own NBC, so people can tune in almost 24 hours a day, raising interest in the prime time show every night. Or maybe the opening ceremonies were so good, that it’s inspired people to keep tuning in. Whatever it has been, the games are a big success on television.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the Americans are all over the place when it comes to the competition. Besides Phelps, it seems that every event has an American in it with a chance to win, or at least medal. My friend Lex says the Olympics stopped being fun as soon as the Soviet Union broke up, since there was no more “us against them” mentality. That could be why the US is so competitive all over the place, since the other countries have a smaller pool of talent to draw from.

But still, the US has made a committment to being competitive in Olympic sports, creating the training center in Colorado and putting athletes in a position to succeed. Give George Steinbrenner some credit for that.


Steinbrenner was really upset in the ’80’s when it looked like we were going by the wayside when it came to the Olympics. So he prodded the USOC to do something about it, and in turn, the training center and success followed.

Still, it takes a special talent to be the best in the world, no matter what the competition. And to stand on that podium and hear the Star Spangled Banner must be a life altering experience. Nobody knows how that feels, unless you’ve been there, so that’s a pretty elite group.

NBC likes to show the medal ceremonies anytime an American wins gold, obviously their research shows that’s what viewers want. So we get to see these athletes stand on the podium in the prime of their careers, having shown they’re the best in the world while representing their country. I like it when they sing. Or even mouth the words. But how do they not cry!? Maybe they’re so caught up in the moment that it doesn’t occur to them to be emotional, but I’m sorry, I’d be crying like a baby standing there listening to the Anthem.

And the wreaths! They’re great! When the guys take them off and put them over their hearts when they’re playing the Anthem that’s enough to make any American spectators cry. The wreaths should be a permanent part of the Games, one little nod to Greece as the founding country.

So what if you don’t care about diving or fencing or track and field any other time every four years? Enjoy the games, you deserve it.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Hall Of Fame Mistake

This year’ Pro Football Hall of Fame class is strong with John Elway, Barry Sanders, Bob Brown and Carl Eller. Elway and Sanders made it into the Hall in their first year. The discussion was minimal about both during the selection process. Elway is one of the top five or so quarterbacks of all time in the league, capping his career with two Super Bowl Wins. Sanders retired early at age 31, but ten times he broke the 1,000 yard rushing mark in a season, and his impact on the game made it easy to vote for him.

Brown took a while to get into the Hall, and was brought to the full selection committee by the veterans committee. Eller got caught in a numbers game during his eligible time, but finally the dynamic of the committee changed enough to get him in. But this class is incomplete.

One of the finalists, the last six who are put in front of the committee for a yes or no vote was Bob Hayes. Past his eligibility as an active player, Hayes was also brought to the main committee by the Veterans committee. After being pulled out of the morass of players who have slipped through the cracks of the process, Hayes then survived three rounds of voting by the full 38 member committee to become a finalist. As the late Jack Buck once said before the final vote, “I’m here as a selector to put guys in the Hall, not keep them out.” I agree and was pretty irritated when Hayes didn’t make the final cut.

One of the selectors favorite sayings is, “It’s the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of the Very Good,” and he, along with a couple of other selectors kept Hayes out of the Hall. It’s a shame, because those guys have a bias against Hayes that’s unreasonable. Whether it’s his performance in the “Ice Bowl” where he was no factor in the -13 degree weather in Green Bay, or his off field problems after he retired, those guys don’t think Hayes is a Hall of Famer. But if you use their own criteria, the criteria they used to get Lawrence Taylor in the Hall, Hayes is a slam dunk. His yards per catch, his touchdowns per catch and his overall impact on the game, similar to Barry Sanders warrant election into the Hall.

Those guys who kept Hayes out, they know who they are, and perhaps they have that right. Perhaps they consider themselves guardians of the gates of immortality, and carry themselves, particularly during football season, as some kind of sages with no peer. They’re mistaken. Sometimes swimming against the tide to make a stand is important. But you’ve got to know when to pick your battles. This time they won the battle, but no matter how many battles they win in the future, they’ll never win the war. They don’t deserve it.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tour 2004 Team USA

There were a couple of dynamics working at the USA Basketball exhibition game against Puerto Rico Saturday. Team USA had been in town all week working out at UNF and staying at the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club. The morning practices had been open to the media (at least the last half hour) and the team members for the most part, had been incredibly cooperative. The guys who cover players like Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson on a regular basis had been shaking their heads all week at how laid back and forthcoming the players have been. Maybe that’s part of the deal when you agree to play for Team USA. You’re not an NBA superstar anymore, so talk to the media, and be nice. At one practice, assistant coach Greg Popovich stopped play and yelled, “Hey, forget that NBA stuff, this is the Olympics.

It’s a new theory, instead of pass and stand around, its pass and MOVE!” It is pretty funny to watch the coaching staff, Popovich, Roy Williams and Head Coach Larry Brown deal with the NBA superstars like they were college freshmen. Anyway, it’d had been a great week, and the Exhibition game was supposed to be the cap. But because they were late for a meeting, Brown suspended Iverson, James and Amare Stoudemire and didn’t let them play at all. Nobody knew that until the team arrived at the arena and the PA Announcer told everybody that the three had been suspended. Brown shot a nasty look at the press table, incredulous that the announcement would be made.

What did he expect?

The place was sold out, and people were paying top dollar to see Iverson and James play. They’ll play hundreds, maybe thousands more basketball games. They’ll be rock stars in their home towns and treated like gods when they play in Europe this coming week. But this was the one, the one chance for people in Jacksonville to see them play. It was their only appearance on US soil before heading to the Olympics. I’m big on discipline and following the rules, but there were plenty other punishments Larry Brown could have handed out to three NBA superstars to get his point across. Make’em run. Pay a fine. Humiliate them in front of the media. Don’t let them play against Montenegro for goodness sake. But put them in the game here in Jacksonville.

The only people punished were the fans in the stands, the ones who paid the money. The team, on the other hand, handled Puerto Rico with only two guards. They’re good when they run. When they run a half court game, they’re not a shooting team that can win against the other elite games on the International Stage. But when they run, they can win the Gold, no question.

The other thing going on was how Jacksonville handled the game. Having the team here was a big coup. Where else can they stay at the beach in a five star hotel, have a nice facility to work out in close by, and not be bothered. People in Jacksonville are pretty non plussed about celebrity athletes. They can walk around, have dinner, go to clubs, and people, generally, don’t make a big deal about it. Dean Smith and David Stern were among the visitors to Jacksonville to see the team. It was a big deal.

And the game should have been conducted as such.

Fanfare, celebration, an introduction fit for the magnitude of the game. Sure, it was an exhibition for everybody else, but it was THE game for Jacksonville. Where was the National Anthem? For both countries. I know there’s a tendency to overdo things in the NBA, but a little flourish, a little pizzazz couldn’t have hurt. And besides that, the concession lines were entirely too long. The Arena needs to make sure it’s a fan friendly experience, not a fan frustrating experience.

“I’m worried about our city,” my friend Dan told me at halftime. “If we can get this right, what are we going to do with the Super Bowl?” I haven’t worried about the Super Bowl because the NFL won’t let that fail, but the city’s run up hasn’t been impressive. We can do better, and we know it.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tour 2004

In the third week of the Tour de France, the focus should be on the riders, particularly this year as the top competitors have been waiting for the mountains to make their moves. But again, much of the press has been about what they call the “real” tour, the drug and doping that’s been part of cycling since anybody can remember.

Dave Kindred of the Sporting News wrote a scathing indictment of the Tour in the NFL preview issue, claiming that the final week of the tour is the time French authorities are waiting to raid the teams and expose the rampant drug use. Three-time Tour winner Greg Lemond has said that doping is a part of the business and his discussions with Lance Armstrong have never elicited a denial by the Texan. Lemond is right when he says that Armstrong’s performance is “either the greatest comeback or the greatest fraud in the history of sports.”

Fans of the Tour or even just fans of sport have a large investment in Armstrong, his team, and the rest of the competition of the Tour. Major international corporations including Nike, AMD and Subaru have millions of dollars invested in the Tour, and Armstrong personally. The riders are tested and retested everyday. Armstrong has proclaimed to be clean every day during the tour and reiterates his position in his books. Certainly his quest to become the greatest rider of all time by winning six Tours has spurred some jealousy among other riders, fans and the European press.

One television crew tried to gain access to Armstrong’s hotel room last week during the tour, apparently trying to go through his stuff, looking for doping evidence. In 1998, French authorities blew up the Tour, raiding the teams and exposing evidence of drug use throughout the entire tour.

Allegedly, the testing procedures have rid the Tour of drug use, but Kindred contends that the drug use has just become more sophisticated, avoiding detection by current testing procedures. It would be incredibly disappointing to find out that Armstrong, and his comrades are doing incredible things, and it’s all fake.

But there is another side to the equation. Could it be that Armstrong and his coach, Chris Carmichael have discovered another training method that’s just better than what’s been done before? Armstrong has a completely different approach to the Tour, planning each stage, preparing his body to adapt to each climb, time trial or sprint. They work on things like weight to power ratio, pedal cadence and heart rate and carbohydrate and protein intake.

Armstrong has also assembled the strongest team in the history of the Tour, with each man knowing his role and accepting that their job is to help Lance win. In exchange for this, Armstrong distributes his winnings among the team, not accepting any of the prize money. A small nod to the work the Postal team does over the three weeks of the Tour.

I admit, I’m a fan, and have great admiration for anybody who tests their limits and finds how good he can be. But I’m not naive and know the whole thing could come crashing down. I just hope not.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tour 2004

I was asked the other day why I was such a big fan of the Tour de France. The answer was easy. It doesn’t have anything to do with Lance Armstrong or the U.S. Postal team. I’ve fervently followed the Tour for more than two decades. It’s a competition that is among the most pure in sport (at least now it’s supposed to be since they’ve “cleaned up” the blood doping problem.) It reveals weaknesses and strengths just the same. It doesn’t discriminate. There’s still a certain amount of sportsmanship involved, and professional etiquette.

The preparations are arduous, but exactly how can you prepare for more than 2,000miles on your bike over less than three weeks? To just finish the Tour, you have to be complete in body and mind, willing to test your physical limits as well as your mental toughness. You know you’re going to suffer. You know your mind is going to say STOP before you make the first pedal stroke on a particularly difficult mountain stage. You know your legs are going to hurt, and not feel better for a while. And you know you’ll be emotionally exhausted almost every day. On top of those tests, this most grueling of all individual sports involves a team aspect as well. Each team with a leader, each leader with the goal of wearing the yellow jersey. Each teammate has to be physically ready to ride and as important, have no personal ambitions whatsoever.

How do you approach a race knowing that you’ll spend the next 2,000 miles on your bike, wearing yourself out, trying to help somebody else win! It makes no sense, yet dozens of “domestiques” line up each year just to say they were part of the Tour de France. As well as a physical and mental struggle, the Tour is also dangerous, with numerous broken bones, dislocated joints, and even a few deaths part of the Tour’s history.

Greg LeMond upset the international cycling community when he won the Tour, and came back to do so twice more after being accidentally hit with a shotgun spray fired by a friend on a hunting trip. LeMond wasn’t supposed to be able to win the tour. He’s an American, for goodness sake! This was at a time when only Frenchmen, Belgians and the occasional Italian and Spaniard had won the race. It wasn’t supposed to be part of the American psyche, the American culture to allow an athlete to develop into a world class cyclist. But Lemond won and might have kept winning had Miguel Indurain not come along.

Lance Armstrong was never supposed to win the Tour de France. In fact, he wasn’t ever supposed to finish it. He was too big, too muscular and not able to stay with the best climbers in the world during the Tour’s mountain stages. After recovering from cancer, Armstrong came back to cycling lighter but with the same power, enabling him to climb like never before. His approach, like every other cyclist in the Tour, is very scientific. So much so, that his training is worked on down to the heartbeat. Work at this intensity, for this amount of time and you’ll be world class. And even though it’s scientific, there’s something else to it that’s not easily explained by numbers and calculations. There’s will, there’s heart, there’s something intangible about the guy who gets to the top of the mountain first.

And that’s why I’m such a fan of the Tour de France.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Coming Home

I’ve been on vacation for the past couple of weeks with my family. We spent some time in Ireland and Greece, seeing the countryside, looking at the Olympic sites in Athens and visiting Ikaria, the island where my father’s family is from. Leaving the country always gives people a different perspective upon returning. In fact, it used to be an American tradition to live outside of the States just to get a different view of the world. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams all spent years abroad while remaining resolutely in favor of life in America.

Sports wise, my trip coincided with the first couple weeks of Euro 2004, the quadrennial match up of the top European soccer teams in a World Cup format. Anytime a team competes under the banner of it’s national flag there’s going to be a swell of support. But soccer, or as everybody else calls it, football, brings out a passion that can’t be found anywhere else. Both England and Greece were in the tournament, and both advanced out of pool play to the quarterfinals. When that happened, you’d have thought they declared a national holiday in Greece. They took to the streets and partied until dawn. (Not unlike they do on most days, but this time they at least seemed to have a reason!)

It’s very rare that we have a chance to all root for the same team, under the Stars and Stripes, perhaps the last time was the 1980 Olympic Hockey Team. So it was fun to watch the news coverage and read the reams and reams of newspaper coverage about a 90 minute game. Every shopkeeper, every clerk, every taxi driver, in fact, everybody was up for a conversation about their team in both England and Greece. I felt a tinge of jealousy when it came to their communal fan spirit. It’d be nice to have something like that here again. Anytime we have a big event, fans are split. Our national teams aren’t competitive in many of the “international’ sports, and soccer is still developing. I say that because our best athletes are not choosing soccer because there’s not enough money in it. What if our national team in the last World Cup had Michael Jordan at center midfield, Deion Sanders on one wing, Barry Sanders on the other, Cal Ripken as the stopper and Kevin Garnett in goal? Think they would have been any good? That’s what other countries have, their best athletes play on their national soccer team. Even with 280 million people in this country, when your best soccer players are not your best athletes, you’re going to get beat on the international stage.

I was able to just sit and listen on many occasions to people’s opinions about the United States. Everybody has an opinion, and it seems that they want to give it to you, well, ‘cause you’re “a Yank.” Just like with anything, some people love us, some people hate us. The one thread that ran through all of the people who wanted to tell me how bad America is was their lack of information. I was amazed at how ill-informed so many people were about everyday life in the States. The communication system abroad is not like ours. You can be in a remote spot, and have satellite television, but only get a couple of channels. Between that and the radio, your knowledge of anywhere outside your village is pretty narrow. So I sat politely many times, listening to what’s wrong with America, only to pose the question at the end, ‘Have you every been to the States?” I’d always get the same answer, “No, but.” And I’d stop them right there. “You should visit,” I’d say, “You’d find many things about America that you’d like.” And with that, the conversation usually turned to something else. But after I gave that answer a few times, I realized that in a small way, I was using that old line “Our diversity is our greatest strength.” And it’s an old line, because it’s true. If you were to come to America from say, Greece, you’d find it so vast and varied that you couldn’t help but find somewhere and some people you liked.

I know I’m not breaking any new ground here, but the view of our country from that distance is very different. Every other country has it’s own infighting, but not quite as out in the open as here. (Except for England where everything is plastered on the front of the tabloids.) My son got a bit frustrated with one of the people who were running down America and blurted out, “Look, I support my country and until yours is perfect, leave mine alone.” Pretty good for a 13-year old I thought. You may not support the war in Iraq, or you might not like what’s happening with Medicare, and there’s a lot of other things people don’t agree on here in the States, but I promise you, we’ve got the best thing going.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Duval’s Return

I spent a few hours over a couple of days with David Duval last week. I was glad to see him since he’s faded out of the picture over the last few months. Duval was married in March and moved to Denver with his new wife and their three children. Denver, you might ask? Not exactly the place to work on your game in the off season. But Duval isn’t worried too much about his game, or appears not too worried, and that’s OK.

Having known David for the better part of twenty years, (here’s where I drop into my “sage old grizzled veteran role”) I’ve watched his development as a player, and also as a person. From junior golfer at Timiquana and the Plantation, to collegiate star at Georgia Tech, to a hiccup joining the PGA Tour, to bonafide Tour star, David was singularly focused on a goal: see how good he could be. Not to become the best player in the world, but to see how good he could be. Turns out, that quest did lead him to a number one ranking and a major championship at The Open. But David is a smart guy, a very smart guy, and the win at the Open, while gratifying as a payoff for hard work, was not satisfying as an end all-be all achievement. And it affected his motivation. What other mountains were there to climb? Throw in an emotional breakup with his long time girlfriend and a variety of injuries that changed his swing, and all of the sudden, David couldn’t break an egg.

For so many athletes, they keep pounding away, trying to find the answers, only to become more and more frustrated. But most do that because that’s all they know. Duval is much different. Golf is just one of the things he knows and exploring the other parts of his life is as important to him as anything he could achieve in golf. Those couple of days I spent with David were enlghtening for me and for a lot of us who’ve known him for a long time (there I go again.) He’s as happy as I’ve ever seen him. He’s content, he’s centered. That arms length, aloofness he displayed in public has been replaced by a genuine warmth, complete with a straight look in the eye and a smile.

Duval’s travails in life have been well documented, and they shaped his personality. So it would make sense that two very positive things, marriage and kids, would also shape his personality. When I asked him the standard newlywed question “How’s married life treating you?” He grinned ear to ear and said, “Awesome!”

His step-children, two boys and a girl from 13 down to 8 years old, are attached to him as if he’s been around their whole lives. He talks to his kids with that combination of love, tenderness and authority that can’t be taught. I know he’s only been married for a couple of months, but he and his wife certainly seem like a match.

I didn’t ask him when he’d play again, but just about everybody else did. He didn’t really have an answer, except something vague about when he’s ready. Which is perfect. Money is not a problem, and even though his sponsors, (Nike, Oakley et al) are running a little thin on patience, Duval isn’t about to step back into professional golf until he’s ready. He looks healthy, more healthy than he has when he’s on a strict diet and exercise regime. He’s committed to the U.S. Open, but it’s doubtful he’ll play there. Even the (British) Open Championship might not get him back. David and his father, Senior PGA Tour player Bob Duval, are scheduled to play in Johnny Miller’s Father-Son Tournament in August and it could be until then before David returns to competition. Don’t be surprised if he returns to the Tour at the International, outside his current home, Denver, also in August. But don’t worry about David. He’s just fine. In fact, he’s better than that.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Smarty Jones

Growing up in Baltimore, I was exposed to horse racing as part of the sporting culture. They gave the results on the radio and showed the highlights on television. Pimlico and Bowie were as familiar as Memorial Stadium as a sporting venues. I’ve been to the races and enjoyed them, but that doesn’t explain my fascination with thoroughbreds.

I’ve stood in the last turn for race after race, just to see the field come through and drive for the finish line. And not just to see it, but to hear it and fell it, the thundering of the pack, the charge of the herd as they turn for home. You can see a lot of things, and not experience anything like it.

A friend asked me a couple of weeks ago, “which horse is going to win the Kentucky Derby?” “I can’t remember his name,” I answered, “but whichever one won the Arkansas Derby.” That colt was Smarty Jones or perhaps more correctly that colt is Smarty Jones.

There’s an affection for winning thoroughbreds that’s reserved for them and nothing else. Maybe it’s the majestic way they carry themselves. Maybe it’s the all out effort they seem to give in a race. Or maybe it’s just how their coats shine, or rather, glisten after a race. I did think it was silly when ESPN named Secretariat one of the top fifty athletes of the last century. Racehorses are born to run and trainers, good trainers anyway, get the best out of them.

Somebody early on saw that Secretariat could run, and the trainers helped make him a champion. Yes, there was something special about that horse, but you can’t compare horses to people. But you can compare horses to horses, and Smarty Jones looks like Secretariat to me. No, he’s not a big chestnut like Secretariat, but he has that look that Big Red had when he takes the track. I’m in charge, you all can do whatever you like, but when I decide the race is over, it’s over.

Not in 129 years had any 3-year old won the Preakness by 11 ½ lengths until Smarty Jones did it last Saturday. And how he did it was pretty remarkable. He just stalked the leader, and when it was time to go, he took the rail and disappeared, winning handily. Kind of looked like Secretariat in the Belmont. And how he looked afterwards had an eerily similar look about it. Like Secretariat in 1973.

So when the Belmont comes around, I’ll be watching. And I’ll be rooting for Smarty Jones. Not because thoroughbred racing needs a Triple Crown winner but because I like Smarty Jones. He reminds me of greatness.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Tea Men

While I don’t spend much time dwelling on past accomplishments, occasionally it is fun to look back and share some memories with people you’ve known for a while. I did that on Saturday night with a few remnants of the Jacksonville Tea Men.

The Tea Men were in the North American Soccer League (NASL), a transplanted team from New England. They hung around for a few years in that league and in other smaller leagues as well. The Tea Men’s name came from New England with the team, not only a regional moniker, but also relating to the team’s ownership, the Lipton Tea company. When the Tea Men moved to Jacksonville, I was working in Charleston, S.C. and saw a score come over the wire, “Jacksonville Tea Men 2, Tulsa Drillers 1.” “Look at that,” I laughed in the middle of the Channel 2 newsroom, “they moved the team and kept that stupid name.” Little did I know I’d be the play-by-play voice of that team with the stupid name only six weeks later.

When I took the job at Channel 4 in Jacksonville, the station was televising the games and installed me to do the games right away. I made friends with a lot of people on and around the team. I was probably closer in age to most of the players, but traveled with the coaching and training staff, so I got to know them fairly well. We ate and drank together often, with the standing rule that if the bar bill wasn’t bigger than the food bill, we’ hadn’t done our job. And usually we succeeded.

Noel Cantwell was the Head Coach, a world class soccer and cricket player who was a big personality and a big man. He taught me how all bets were won on the first tee one morning in San Diego when he took my money with a laugh with a bogus handicap over 18 holes at Coronado. Noel is currently serving as a scout for the English National Team. Dennis Viollet was the assistant, known as the Michael Jordan of English soccer, he held many records for Manchester United and still does. Viollet survived the Man U plane crash and was a legend. “You can’t score if you don’t shoot lads,” was his oft-spoken advice to the team.

I once stood in goal during the indoor season and let him fire penalty kicks at me. The velocity and force of the shots knocked me into the goal a couple of times. Dennis died a few years ago of complications of a brain tumor. A very nice man, who stayed in town, coached locally for a while and is still missed by all who knew him.

This finally brings me back to last Saturday night. I shared the broadcast booth with Arthur Smith, who was listed as the player personnel director of the Tea Men when they came here. He was a long time friend of both Noel and Dennis, knew players from all over Europe and the UK and fit in perfectly with this whole group. Arthur and I hit it off famously and as broadcast partners, we spent a lot of time traveling together. I learned most of what I know about the game from Arthur, most of it coming in the years since the Tea Men folded. We’ve stayed friends and socialize often.

He’s had his share of serious health problems but always has a positive outlook and a strength that’s inspiring. So when we heard that a couple of the former players were going to be in town at the same time, we decided to make some calls and see how many guys we could get together. (Jolly) Jack Carmichael, a defenseman on the Tea Men was going to be visiting from England, and coincidentally, Alan Green, a star striker from the team was also going to be coming to the States. Alan had been my closest friend among the players, and we had stayed in touch until he moved back to England a few years ago.

When I walked into the restaurant (Leo’s in Lakewood) I saw Arthur, Alan, and Jack at the table along with former players Nino Zec, Dusan, and Ringo Cantillo. Only Dennis Witt among the players who stayed local didn’t show. They were with a variety of wives, and friends and clearly enjoying themselves. I’ve run into Nino a bunch over the years. He’s in the floor installation business, but also coaches a team in the men’s soccer league here in town. He’s still passionate about the game and his thick Slavic accent remains despite more than two decades in the U.S…

Dusan was a late add to the team in the early ‘80’s but has made a home here. He’s told me he was headed back to Yugoslavia in a couple of weeks to visit family and hoped to see the U.S. basketball team play an exhibition game while he was there and the American’s were on their way to the Olympics in Athens. Ringo lives in Mandarin and has all along. He and his wife have two grown children and are grandparents. His son was recently named the wrestler of the year in North Florida from University Christian. He’s the same. He’s a nice guy and always has been. Very earnest, very tuned into personal responsibility.

We talked a lot about parenting and laughed about his now being the second youngest player to sign a professional soccer contract in this country behind Freddy Adu. Ringo was 16 when he turned pro, Freddy’s only 14. Alan is doing social work in his home town of Worchester. He works with abused and abandoned kids each day. “Tough work mate,” Alan explained through a grin. “Could make you a little loony if you didn’t really care,” he explained.

Jack is “in the car business” in England. A vague reference to some kind of work he’s doing for a big car dealer/distributor in Peterborough. It was fun to watch these guys catch up after twenty years. They talked about old times some, but nobody was about to break into Springsteen’s “Glory Days.”

“You all look the same, only older,” I countered to Jack when he made fun of my thinning hair on top.

All in all, it was a nice trip down memory lane, made memorable itself by a comment Jack late into the night. “I’m so glad these guys showed up,” Jolly explained. “We’re different nationalities, but we’re all here together. We’re still teammates.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Pat Tillman RIP

He never wanted any kind of special treatment. He refused interview requests, refused coverage of his enlistment or graduation from Ranger school. He turned down the networks and told the Army he just wanted a chance to be a soldier and try to become a Ranger. Pat Tillman didn’t want any fanfare. He just wanted to serve his country.

Tillman died in a firefight in Eastern Afghanistan on Thursday. He was 27. The news swept through the sports world like a swift kick in the stomach. Most of the media didn’t even know Tillman was in Afghanistan. Or that he had be deployed in Iraq in March of 2003. Tillman was the guy who turned down the $3.6 million to take an $18,000 enlistment in the Army. But while the media focused on the money he walked away from, Tillman focused on his sense of duty.

“Pat was clear-eyed ad made level headed decisions,” former Arizona Cardinals Head Coach Dave McGinnis said yesterday. “He left football for a higher calling.”

Tillman’s friends said he was greatly affected by the events on September 11th and that those events spurred his decision to enlist. While he didn’t want any fanfare, the associated coverage surrounding his death has re-focused many people’s minds on the Americans and Allies killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tillman is a hero, not because he walked away from the money and the glory of professional sports, but because he was willing to sacrifice, and make the ultimate sacrifice, defending and preserving freedom.

Just like the thousands of other men and women in uniform and in harm’s way right now. They have taken the fight to the terrorists front door, redefining the battlefield away from downtown Manhattan and the Pentagon Tillman has put an identifiable face on the sorrow and suffering many American families have felt since the War on Terror began in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was proud of Pat Tillman when he enlisted, and I’m proud and thankful for him today. The Cardinals are planning to honor his memory by naming a plaza after him at their new stadium. America can honor his memory by finishing the job that took his life.

Maybe Tillman’s death will show many of the players and coaches in professional sports, especially football, how silly they look when they compare their jobs to combat. “I’m going to war with these guys,” is a phrase used by a lot of athletes in locker rooms across the league. Comparing a game to an actual battle is ludicrous. It also should give coaches something to think about when it comes to refusing to let their players talk with the media. Wait a minute. Eighteen-year olds are being interviewed on the battlefield in between firefights on live television while certain players and coaches are “off-limits” after games?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Palmers’ Masters Legacy

Sometimes when people ask me about my job and whether I still like it, I have a pretty stock answer that really rings true in my head. “Are you kidding,” I’ll say, “I’ve flown with the Blue Angels and have had beers with Arnold Palmer, what’s not to like?”

And that’s true.

I’ve used Palmer as that standard of excellence, for all others to be compared to. And a lot of people have done that. Becaue it’s so easy. Arnold has always made it easy. He’s the only athlete I’ve ever met who makes you feel like he’s got all the time in the world and you’re his only concern of the day when he’s talking to you. He has more grace in the end of his little finger than most athletes acquire in a lifetime.

“Everybody out here should turn around and hand Arnold 50 cents on every dollar he makes,” said Curtis Strange, perhaps the only smart thing Curtis has ever said.

Palmer’s final apperance at the Masters as a competitor was a parade, and a celebration of his 50 years at Augusta. Palmer won the Masters four times, but his connection with the tournament and Augusta National is much more than that. It’s the place where Palmer became a star. It’s where he made his connection with everybody, golfer and non-golfer alike. Frank Chirkinian was the producer of CBS’s coverage of the Masters and recognized immediately that the camera loved Arnold. His charisma came right through the lens. Because it was, and is, real. A blue-collar guy winning in a white collar game.

But it was more than that.

Palmer is unfailingly polite, a characteristic he says his father instilled in him. Last week Palmer was in Ponte Vedra at his design company offices for the day. I was invited to do an interview with Palmer, but it turned out to be much more than that. Arnold asked me to stick around for lunch, and his favorite desert (strawberry vannila fudge sundaes) and just some chat time. He was affable as ever and during our interview told a great story about his latest (19th) hole in one, just three days earlier on 17 with 7-wood on his home course Bay Hill.

I asked him if there was one shot that remained in his memory of the thousands he’s hit in the Masters, one that might have been the best shot he’d ever hit there. “In 1960, I hit the Eisenhower tree on 17 with my drive and it fell straight down. I hit four-iron there on the green, made the putt and went on to win,” Arnold recalled like it was yesterday. We laughed, and turned the cameras off. He stepped aside and paused, and said without a smile “I could have told you about a bunch of bad ones I hit there. Like that 6 on 18 in 1961.”

Here we were 45 years later, and Palmer was still seething about the tournament that got away. The competitive fire still raging inside. And that’s what I’ve always liked about Arnold. He wants to win and makes no bones about it.

I was watching his final round on television last Friday and his interview afterwards. Palmer cried. And we all cried with him. “I guess I’m just a sentimental sop,” Arnold said when asked about his feelings. (I thought Bill Macatee and Peter Kostis were horrible by the way). But true to form, Arnold thanked the fans for their support over the years at Augusta. No Arnold, thank you.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Final Four Thoughts

Having picked Uconn to win it all, I thought it was funny that I found myself rooting for Georgie Tech to at least give them a game. But the Huskies were clearly the best team, and the predictions about the Final Four were right: The real championship game involved Duke on Saturday. They didn’t make a lot of headlines during the regular season, mainly because they were injured but once they got everybody back healthy, the Huskies validated how a lot of people felt about them.

Emeka Okafor, “Mr. Perfect” as dubbed by his teammates, was a force that was almost Walton/Alcindor-like in the championship game. He moves like David Robinson, but doesn’t have the outside jumper Robinson has. But with his size and work ethic on the court, he’ll be a great addition to any NBA team. In fact, the Magic could really use him to start rebuilding.

One thing about NCAA basketball that is starting to grate on me is how much attention is lavished on the coaches. Jim Calhoun is a good coach, no doubt because he’s taken Uconn to two National Championships. Maybe it’s just Billy Packer, but stop sucking up to these guys like nobody’s business. They’re coaches. They recruit and motivate and install a system but the players play. The players win and lose games.

Maybe it is just Packer. He’s starting to drive me crazy. I didn’t have a problem with his opinion regarding St. Joes and their number one seeding. He was right. They couldn’t have played in The ACC, The Big Ten or The SEC and had the kind of run they had during the regular season. But he constantly hits you over the head with a lot of “I’m smarter than you” talk.

The only guy with more of that attitude is Jay Bilas. Wow is that guy off the charts with his idea of self-worth. Look up condecending in the dictionary and his picture is right there. As my friends would say, “Typical Duke guy.”

I like Brad Daugherty. Straightforward, doesn’t take himself too seriously and even though he had a very solid college career he doesn’t sit there just waiting to tell everybody how he would have done it or how he would have made that play. Dick Vitale is really a character. Predictable, but fun, and knows what the game is about. He’s become part of the fokelore of college basketball, but in a non-offensive way. College kids like him and long-time fans get a chuckle out of him.

I heard people already predicting next year’s top teams on the radio today. Kansas is supposed to be loaded, Duke has just about everybody but Duhon coming back, and Georgia Tech will be tough again. But who really knows? Some freshmen will back out of their commitments, others will go to the NBA and some of the established players expected to return, won’t. But boy was college basketball fun to watch this year.

Hopefully Bill Donovan will get his team in order and be competitive again and my alma mater, Maryland contends again with all of those young players. That would really be something. For me, at least!
Commentary by Sam Kouvaris.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Driving At Daytona

I’ve been trying to do a story on driving at Daytona International Speedway for a couple of years now. The Richard Petty Driving Experience (RPDE) runs an operation there, as well as 21 other tracks around the country. It’s been suggested to me more than a few times, “Why don’t you just do the ride along?” “Look,” I’d answer, “if I’m going to get on the track at Daytona, I’m driving.” So, I contacted the RPDE p.r. department last year and finally settled on a date, April 16th of this year.

The sun was shining and the wind was down when I arrived at the track, “a beautiful day to drive” is how my ride described it. I’ll admit, I had no idea what to expect. I was a little uncomfortable with the idea of driving at Daytona. I wasn’t afraid, but I wondered if I would be once I got behind the wheel. I heard a coach once describe that feeling of “getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.” So I thought about that and settled into the routine set up by the Petty instructors. Those guys were great. There were 31 “drivers” in my class. The only requirements are you have to be at least 16 and have a valid driver’s license. You also have to know how to drive a “stick.” My class was varied, with some returnees, some thrill seekers, some NASCAR fans, and others who were given the driving experience as a gift. So a lot of the class was on a “0” birthday. Twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty and seventy. One driver was 74 years old. “Just wanted to see what it was like,” she explained.

Arriving at the media center, the instructors helped everybody get into an official RPDE drivers uniform and laid out the plan for the day. It started with a video, featuring “The King” himself, going over what to expect and what some of the basic rules were. Then the instructors followed that with a review of some of the technical parts of the day, and then split us into four “teams.” We headed out the door in groups of eight to get a basic overview of the car we’d be driving. I’d wondered if the cars were fake versions of Cup cars, but they’re the real deal. Climb through the window, put the steering wheel on, locate the fire extinguishing system and figure out how the switches on the left dash get the car started. My “team” then climbed into a 10-passenger van for a trip around the track. Out on pit road, James, a RPDE driver and instructor, floored it and headed for Turn One. When you haven’t driven on a high-banked track, that’s a weird experience when it first happens. The van just goes sideways and you’re going around looking “down” at people and cars on the infield. It’s like being on a carnival ride. James was an expert on the track, and it showed as he maneuvered the van in and out of the turns, talking about the line and how to drive the 2 1/½ile tri-oval. “Make you’re instructor do this,” James told us as he showed the hand signal for “back off.” (Waving his right hand in front of the rear view mirror.) “You should get waved off at least twice while you’re out here,” he continued as he talked about the sight picture you should get by keeping your instructor’s car about 5-car lengths in front of you. From there it was on to some pictures and a final drivers meeting. The lead instructor of the day, Dave Williams, (who actually runs the Orlando operation) was funny and cordial, treating us like real drivers and getting our competitive juices flowing. “Rev it at 2,000 rpm, and shift at 4, 000,” Williams explained, “and don’t spin the tires. If you do, it’ll be a stop and go penalty.” That’s a term familiar to NASCAR fans but Williams followed it up with, “We’ll tell you to stop, and you’ll go home. Our version of stop and go.”

I was about two-thirds down the list so I got to see a lot of the “drivers” go on the track, following their instructors around Daytona. It’s true, the anticipation was revving up my own motor and I was getting more comfortable with the idea of getting behind the wheel.

They finally called my name, and I was off to the staging area where I was fitted with a helmet and a head restraint system (it’s just like a parachute harness that hooks to your helmet. It’s a good idea that they have you completely ready before you get into the car so you can start to get “comfortable” with being “uncomfortable” wearing the equipment.

I can’t stress enough how much fun the guys at RPDE made the day. When it was my turn, another staff worker greeting me with a big smile and yelled, “ARE YOU READY?” Walking out to my car (The Aarons 312 machine) I reminded myself to “go for it” as I have many times when I’ve gotten to do these kinds of things because of my job. As expected, climbing in was an adventure, but the briefing was a big help. Another RPDE staffer helped me strap in the four-point harness, fire the engine and yelled, “When I tap the roof, GO GET THAT GUY!” At this point, I’m completely stoked these guys have me so fired up. So just like in the real thing, I’m sitting there running the RPM’s up, listening to the exhaust, waiting to go. My instructor (it turned out to be James) pulled five car lengths in front of me and I heard the “bang, bang” on the roof and “Go get ‘em” from outside the car. I pushed the gas pedal in and slowly let out the clutch and the car began to sputter and cough. “Don’t kill it you idiot,” I heard the voice inside my head scream as I pushed the gas pedal down. Meanwhile, James is pulling away from me, so I slid it into second gear and picked up speed. James was still pulling away. Into third as pit road was going by, and James was disappearing. So I jammed it into fourth and shoved the gas pedal down. “Roar,” is what I heard from the engine, as I closed the gap on my instructor. No sooner than I figured out the “sight picture” we were ON THE TRACK! We stayed low coming out of pit road, letting two cars on the track go by as we got up to speed and that voice in my head was screaming, “YOU’RE DRIVING AT DAYTONA! HOW COOL IS THIS?”

It’s an eight lap session, with your warm up and cool down laps counting, but your instructor is trying to give you the best experience possible. Before I knew it, we’re coming out of turn two and heading down the back straightaway. James is still accelerating in front of me, and I’m pushing the throttle down staying five car-lengths behind him. That’s when I remembered that he told me to make my instructor wave me off a couple of times in the first lap. So I jammed the accelerator down and tucked up behind the car in front of me, and sure enough, he waved me off. I saw turn three looming in the near distance and realized that “WE’RE TURNING LEFT THERE!” I never could figure out what those white stripes were on the track around Daytona, but behind the wheel, it’s obvious. They’re sight lines for the drivers as they get into position on different parts of the track. So as James put his right tires just inside the white stripe going into turn three, I figured my car would follow his if I just didn’t mess things up.

It might seem that the cars just follow the banking at Daytona, but I can tell you, if you don’t drive thru the turns, you’re going into the wall. Particularly coming out of turn four. The centrifugal force wants to run your car up the track, so you constantly have to adjust the line. Doing this without backing out of the throttle is un-natural, but I’ve heard the Earnhardt’s say that so often that it rang true in my head as I was doing it myself. Through the tri-oval and back into turn one, James was pushing the speed up incrementally, but we were definitely going faster. With each lap I was getting more comfortable, even telling myself to relax and made James wave me off a couple more times. I started to look around, seeing different things on the track and realizing there were constant adjustments needed to “find the line.” Driving was a full time job. But I did look around, even noticing the stands and where Dale was killed in turn four.

On my fifth lap coming out of turn four, I caught a glimpse of the two cars in front of us heading into turn one. Right away I thought, “We can catch those guys.” So I tucked up under James’ car again, and he waved me off, again. But he knew exactly what I was thinking because he picked it up again heading through the tri-oval and into turn one. Those guys in front of us kept appearing and disappearing out of my peripheral vision but I could see we were gaining on them. So as we rolled out of turn two, there they were, right in front of us, easily get-able. Just as they had described, the two cars in front of us drifted ever-so slightly down on the track, and James and I slipped to the outside. “Whoosh,” I heard as we went by them on the back stretch. That was really a highlight. We averaged about 150 mph, not fast by NASCAR standards, but enough to get my attention. I went as fast as James would let me, and thought later that I probably could have gone 30 mph faster, but it would take faster reactions in the turns and setting the car up right as you entered the high banking.

So it was great. “Put that among the coolest things I’ve ever done,” is how I think I described it when I got out of the car.

It costs around $500 and worth every penny. If you ever thought you’d like to do it. Go. And go FAST!

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Scott Wins Players

I spent about an hour with the engraver from Waterford crystal standing next to the 18th green yesterday at The Players Championship. A friendly Irishman, he joked that if Paddy Harrington won, “we’d need a bigger trophy.” “A-d-a-m-S-c-o-t-t, short and sweet,’ and we both laughed. “When do you think I can start,” he asked. “When he hits his second shot on 18 in the middle of the green,” I answered. The TPC at Sawgrass is fraught with peril through the final three holes, where the championship can be easily lost, or won, with one swing of the club. “It’s brutal,” is how Scott described it standing outside the media center.

His second shot on 16 wasn’t a good sign when he pulled it left into the rough. Though he made a nice chip and an easy par, left isn’t good on 17 or 18. So when he hit his pitching wedge in the middle of green on 17, left of where he was aiming, there was a little jitter in the crowd. Padriag Harrington went to the practice tee to warm up, even though Scott had a two shot lead. Harrington knows left is not good on 18. But when Scott smartly drove a 2-iron down the right side of the fairway on the final hole, the engraver started. Then stopped when Scott’s 6-iron second shot landed in the water, left of the green, never touching earth. “Not a good swing,” is how Scott described it, “just one of those things that happens around here.”

Just one of those things? Only when you’re 23 can you think that way. “A chip and a putt to win,” is how Scott recounted his thought process. Now that’s putting a positive spin on things. I just hit it in the water on the final hole of a big championship and am about to go down in history as the biggest choke in the history of the tournament, but “just a chip and a putt to win” is running through my mind.

Scott freely admits that he’s had fellow Aussie Greg Norman as his hero throughout his golfing life. Perhaps it was fate that he bumped into Norman in the practice area on Wednesday and asked for help with his chipping. The 1994 champion spent an hour trying to get Scott to accelerate through the ball on short shots. Apparently it worked, with Scott giving Norman credit for the variety of up and downs he made throughout the week.

“I wasn’t thinking about it, but I definitely used the new technique,” Scott said when I asked him about the lesson and his chip on 18. “It was the only shot I was kind of nervous over, but I said to myself, ‘just a chip and a putt to win.’ “There’s no way I would have been able to make that kind of chip with my old technique. Once it got up there, I didn’t let myself think of anything else but making that putt.” Maybe Scott didn’t think of anything else, but everybody else certainly was. Where does the playoff start?, was the thought on everybody’s lips. But Scott calmly made the putt, and the place exploded. “You should make that putt every time on perfect greens like these,” he explained. And that’s why he’s who he is. At 23 and already a two time winner on tour and 6-time champion around the world, everybody says he’s got the game to compete at the top. But it was those thoughts, those positive thoughts, those mental adjustments that showed who he is.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Blame It On Drejer

Don’t the Gators wish they could blame it on Christian Drejer. They got to the NCAA tournament with a solid late run, especially in the SEC tournament, and fell flat on their face, again, in the first round. This time the opponent was Manhattan, a popular upset pick, but it didn’t look like Florida out there on the floor no matter who was sitting on the other bench.

“They just competed harder than we did,” Florida Head Coach Billy Donovan said in his post-game press conference. “I thought we were getting on a roll,” David Lee echoed, “but obviously I was wrong about that.” And Matt Walsh added, “I don’t see how guys can get to this level, to this tournament and not play all out.”

So who are they talking about? Obviously there was something missing in Florida’s effort, and both Lee and Walsh, along with Donovan were able to identify it. Who knows? Maybe you could say it was Anthony Roberson, or Bonnell Colas or Adrian Moss. But watching the game, none of those players looked like they were dogging it. But they also didn’t seem to grasp how you have to elevate your game in order to play in the tournament. Getting there is one thing, but making an impact is something else. The Gators haven’t made an impact in four years, losing in the first or the second round each time. Don’t underestimate the getting to the tournament part. It’s a big accomplishment to go back year after year. But twice, against Creighton and this year against Manhattan, they’ve been the fifth seed and have been upset by a number 12.

Getting beat by somebody who’s hot, who has a hot shooter, or hit a lucky runner at the buzzer is one thing. But getting beat to lose balls, having a short front line outrebound your frontcourt by nearly 3-1, is unacceptable. The phrase about competiting is just a euphemisim for chemistry and heart. And you can’t teach or recruit that. That has to come from within. The Gators tend to look around for somebody else to get the rebound or take the big shot when they’re faced with a challenge. That’s supposed to happen to the 12th seeded team, not the one who got to the title game of the SEC Tournament. But that’s been Florida’s M-O and unless things change drastictly in the off-season, they’ll be labeled as “soft” until they go out and change it. And as an athlete, or a coach, perhaps no label is more damming than that. “You’re soft,” is like saying, “you’re gutless.”

One thing Florida does have going for them is Billy Donovan himself. He won’t stand for it, and will find out who wants to play and who doesn’t. Maybe he’ll change his recruiting focus, looking for a couple more big bodies, but either way, you can expect Donovan to challenge himself and his players to make sure what happened in Raleigh doesn’t stick to them for long.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Junior Wins Daytona

There’s not much sentimentality in sports. Guys retire, they’re celebrated for a day, or possibly have a farewell tour in their last season, and they’re gone. Replaced by the next group, the next generation, the younger, faster, bigger stronger evolution of whatever game is being played. NASCAR might be the least sentimental of all, drivers retire, or die, and the sport keeps plowing along, growing in popularity, garnering new fans and creating a niche for itself as one of the premier sports in America. But even with the celebration going on as Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his first Daytona 500 , I’m sure more than one fan had a sentimental thought remembering six years ago when his father drove into victory lane at Daytona for the first time as the 500 champion.

When Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona, a big segment of fans changed their designation from “rabid” to “casual.” He wanted to win and wasn’t interested in second or third or “a good run.” The other drivers knew it, and it made them compete hard against “The Man in Black.” Fans were polarized by Earnhardt, either they loved him or loathed him, even creating the ABE faction among themselves (Anybody But Earnhardt).

Dale Sr.’s presence is still felt at every NASCAR track, with his memorabilia for sale and the number “3” still popular among the buying public. No where is his presence bigger though than at Daytona. As the track’s winningest driver, Earnhardt looms over the field every time they take the track. So his son feels it as well. The pressure to continue his father’s legacy has been enormous. But right now, he’s succeeding in doing it.

It took Dale Sr. twenty tries to win the Daytona 500; Dale Jr. did it on his fifth attempt. Junior said earlier in the week, “A lot of guys have great careers and never win the Daytona 500 or the points championship. I hope I’m not one of them.”

Running with the best equipment and a solid race team, Earnhardt always has a good car at the super speedways. But he knows what to do with them. He gets to the front and figures out how to stay there.

On a day that the “Great American Race” live up to its billing as perhaps the greatest spectacle in American sports, Dale Jr. provided the finishing touch fans were looking for. He’s become NASCAR’s most popular driver, and is backing it up by getting to victory lane. Winning a championship is next on his “to do” list.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Hayes Not In The Hall

I was stunned, but not overly surprised when Bob Hayes didn’t make it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year. As a member of the selection committee, I was in the room and part of the discussion about Hayes’ credentials when his name was presented in front of the full committee. The Senior Committee selected Hayes and offensive lineman Bob Brown as the two senior candidates this year, culling them out of a long list of deserving candidates who’s career’s ended more than 25 years ago.

“Some guys just slip through the cracks, “ is how committee member Paul Zimmerman explained it to me years ago.

The voting procedure doesn’t allow just a blanket vote on everybody’s who’s eligible. As the rules are now, a maximum of six can be elected into the Hall each year (it used to be seven). So if there are a bunch of offensive linemen, or a couple of slam dunks, like John Elway and Barry Sanders this year, some guys get pushed to the side. Eventually, their eligibility runs out, and they have to come out of what has been described as a “morass” of old-timers.

Hayes had never made it to the final selection phase before, so his credentials had never been discussed in front of the whole committee until Saturday, 29 years after he played his last game. In the league for 11 years, Hays averaged 19.9 yards per catch and still holds the Cowboy record for most touchdowns at 71. He scored a touchdown about one of ever five times he touched the ball. Pretty impressive numbers, but not enough for some of the selectors.

“I just don’t think he has the numbers to be in the Hall,” one selector told me after the vote. “There are 25 other guys who are more deserving in that senior mix.”

A real analysis of his stats shows that Hayes had some spectacular years, and some ordinary ones and no production in the post season. “He wasn’t brilliant all the time, like the great ones are,” another selector told me. “He didn’t make one big catch in one big game, and that’s the difference for me.” Perhaps true, but didn’t he change the game? Didn’t he cause defensive coordinators to invent the zone defense?

One voter put it this way: “It’s been said that you can’t write the history of the NFL without Bob Hayes in it. And that’s true, but that alone doesn’t qualify you for the Hall of Fame.” I disagree, and said so at the meeting, rather vociferously. I agree that Hayes’ career numbers don’t jump out when you dissect them, but as a career, it’s hard to ignore 71 TD’s and nearly 20 yards a catch. Plus if you “change the game” then you do deserve a spot among the immortals. Hayes’ nomination was the most discussed in the meeting and even though there were some negatives, I thought the tone was generally positive.

The voting procedure starts after all of the candidates are discussed. The 39 voters are asked to vote for their top 10 out of the original 15, eliminating five of the candidates. When Hayes made that cut, I thought the arguments for getting him in had had an effect. Next we’re asked to cut down to six, which was, and always is the hardest part of the voting. Guys have gotten out of the main pool, into the final list and past the first cut are great players, all with credentials worthy of consideration. Now we have to eliminate four of them before the final vote.

When Hayes made it to the final six I thought he was definitely in. Jack Buck once told me, “I came here to put guys in the Hall, not keep them out.” And I agree. If a player has gone through that process and there has been that much support for him among the other electors, why should I keep him out? So with a rare exception, I vote yes for the guys who make it to the finals. Once the final six are announced, we’re asked to vote yes or no on each candidate. With 39 selectors, it takes 8 “no” votes to keep somebody out of the Hall. So apparently the negative feelings about Hayes’ career and his post season numbers were strong enough to sway at least 8 votes to the no side.

I do think the vote was very close, but it won’t put Hayes any closer to the Hall. He has to come out of the senior committee again, and there’s no reason the committee should bring him before the same committee members just to have the same 8 guys vote no again. “It’ll be 5 or 10 years before Hayes is back before the committee,” I told Zimmerman in the hallway after the vote was announced. “At least,” he sighed.

Bob Hayes was wronged in that room, I really believe that. If you’ve got the support of so many committee members that you make it to the final six, it takes some kind of grudge or quirk of personality (as in I know things that you don’t) that allow you to vote “no.” That’s strange to me, but it’s the dynamic of the committee. And until that changes, until most of the committee will think of Hayes as an historical figure, his chances of getting in the Hall are slim. The committee does change, but some what at a glacier pace. The average age is 57 years old, so it’ll be a few years before Bob gets another chance.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Super City

Now that the Super Bowl is just a year away from being in Jacksonville, people are scared. Really scared. It’s actually coming here? How are we going to handle that? It’s almost the same attitude that most everybody had in 1993 when Wayne Weaver and company were pursuing an NFL team. Never happen. Too small, too backwoods can’t pull it off. But it happened in ’93 and it’s happening just twelve months from now.

The sports world is coming to Jacksonville. They’ll slam us. They’ll call Jacksonville every name from South Georgia to Nowhere Ville. They’ll make fun of barbeque, the river, downtown, the roads and everything else they can think of. This just puts us in the same category as every other Super Bowl city.

I’ve covered about twenty Super Bowls. I’ve been on the Hall of Fame Selection committee for ten years. The committee is a collection of the writers, broadcasters (not many) and columnists from around the country and around the league. It’s a group of recognizable names who influence millions of sports fans by putting words on a page or speaking to a television and radio audience. And you know what? They complain about everything and everywhere. San Diego, Tampa, Atlanta, Phoenix, etc, etc, I’ve never heard ‘em be happy about anywhere. The traffic’s bad, the food stinks, the people are rude and nothing’s right. They’re about as provincial as a group can be. If it doesn’t work exactly as they expect it too, then it’s no good.

One thing going for us is low expectations. Everybody expects the Jacksonville Super Bowl to be a disaster. No hotel rooms, no restaurants, no bars, no nothing. So, much like everybody else who comes to town, just about everybody will be surprised about what kind of place Jacksonville actually is. It seems everybody I know who’s ever lived here and moved somewhere else, moves back. Former Jaguars who move on to other teams keep their houses here. You don’t have to look far to see retired NFL players setting up shop in town, starting a business or living at the beach. But that’s for us to know, and for everybody else to find out.

“I hate Jacksonville,” one prominent sportswriter told me at last year’s HOF meeting. “I just might skip that one,” he added. “That’d be perfect,” I chided him, “one less uninformed opinion being sent out to the public.”

Longtime Atlanta journalist Furman Bisher overheard our give and take and chimed in, “Jacksonville is my favorite place to go. What are you stupid?”
“There’s nothing to do there,” the detractor screamed.
“Obviously, you know the wrong people,” Bisher responded, and dismissed the conversation as ridiculous.

Houston is hosting this year’s game, just two years after getting NFL football back. It was part of the deal to up Bob McNair’s price by $50 million to buy the franchise. Really. Part of the negotiations. McNair said he wasn’t going over $650 million, the league said their bottom number was $700 million and they couldn’t go any lower.

“I need some more value,” McNair told the league.
“How ‘bout a Super Bowl,” they answered.
“OK,” said McNair, and the deal was done.

Jacksonville’s pursuit of the game was much different, starting with then-Mayor Jake Godbold’s dream that hosting a Super Bowl would be the city’s entrée into the league. In the city was invited every year in the early to mid ‘80’s to make a pitch for the game. We didn’t get it, but the contacts made and the awareness of the town helped get the franchise in ’93. One Super Bowl pitch even yielded the Jackson’s tour at the old Gator Bowl. The former Patriot’s owner Billy Sullivan owned the rights to the tour and was looking for places to put it. He and Godbold were friends, so they struck a deal in the lobby of the hotel and voila, Michael and brothers played three dates to open their tour.

So watch for how Houston is depicted this week. Some will be kind, others brutal. And expect the same a year from now.