Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tebow’s Choice

More than anything I was glad that decision day finally came for Tim Tebow of Nease High School. Both he and his parents looked frazzled at the announcement in St. John’s County on Tuesday. Tebow picked Florida and the auditorium erupted with applause.

I couldn’t help but think what the reaction would have been if he had said “Southern Cal.” Would there have been groans and catcalls? Probably not but the reaction in Florida for a Florida kid to go to Florida was very positive.

There were about a half-dozen people there with Alabama hats on, and apparently Mike Shula made a big impression on Tebow and his father and that’s how the Crimson Tide stayed in the hunt for so long. And Pete Carroll was equally impressive according to Tebow’s father Bob.

“It was a tough decision, but it was his decision,” Bob told me after the announcement was made. “I finally told him in the parking lot, ‘It’s your decision and you’re going to have to make it.”

It must have been tough, especially on a kid like Tebow who never really has had to say “no” to anybody. “I didn’t have a wrong choice,” Tim said after some of the commotion settled down. “They were all great men with great programs, I just decided on Florida because that’s where I was most comfortable. They’re going to do some great things there.”

Nease football coach Craig Howard thought it would be Gators all along, noting that Tebow’s room has been adorned with Orange and Blue since he was a kid. “He’s the most competitive player I’ve ever been around,” Howard said from the stage at Nease. “You can see his arm and his legs, but you can’t see his heart. That’s what separates him.”

Is all of the hoopla wrong for a high school senior announcing where he’s going to attend college? Probably. But it’s the way things are done. I like to call it the “ESPNification” of sports. Kids Tebow’s age have never known a world without fulltime sports cable television, so it seems normal to him and his peers. ESPN has raised the level of exposure so to compete everybody has to go along.

I can tell you whether ESPN was there or not, if Tim was making an announcement during our news at Channel 4, we’d have been there live. He was Mr. Football in the state of Florida and led his team to the state championship. Those credentials are enough to warrant big coverage.

I hope he makes it, he’s nice, grounded and doesn’t seem too affected by all of the attention. At least his Dad got it right when he said, “I told him you’ve got to go prove yourself again to your teammates, your coaches. It’s a joyous day, but it’s only a beginning.”

Amen to that.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Risk-Reward Jaguars

Sometimes it’s meaningful, and other times it’s just for the pride factor.

Against the Colts, the Jaguars really didn’t have anything tangible to play for except pride.

The Colts are going to win the division, win or lose in Jacksonville, and the Jaguars are going to have to win a couple of games down the stretch against inferior teams to make the playoffs. Jacksonville will have to face the Colts in Indianapolis sometime in the playoffs if they want to get to the Super Bowl, so this game, in reality and on paper, was meaningless.

But, of course, the game isn’t played on paper.

The Jaguars wanted this game to put them on the map. They want somebody to notice that they’re 9-3 (now four) and a different team than they were a year ago. But the Colts poise and professionalism were too much. Peyton Manning throws it where he wants it every time, and has the time to do it. Marvin Harrison goes to the open spot and doesn’t drop the ball, and Edgerrin James runs methodically, getting those all important four to nine yard runs and allow his offense the flexibility to do a lot of different things.

So where were the turning points that separated the Colts from the Jaguars?

Turnovers were a key as Kyle Brady’s fumbles stopped drives and Garrard’s turnover cost them points with still a quarter to go. But go back to the end of the first half with the Jaguars down 14-3 having stopped Indy’s trick play out of a field goal formation. There were two minutes to play with the ball inside their own five. A couple of handoffs and a QB sneak play, and the Jaguars were punting back to the Colts.

I know they were trying to manage the game, control the clock and keep Manning off the field, but it was pretty obvious at that point that it didn’t matter whether Indy had an 80 yard or a 40 yard field, they were going to move the ball and score. So that’s where the mind set of the coaching staff has to change. Attack the situation at that point. Spread the ball out, go four wide and start moving it down field, or not.

To beat the Colts at this point, it’s going to take a team that’s methodical like Indy, and can, and it willing to throw the ball around. Take the eight to ten yard gains, keep getting first downs and keep frustrating the opponent. With David Garrard at quarterback, the Jaguars have that ability but didn’t seize the moment. Garrard gives them a lot of options, not the least of which is the ability to get the ball out of the pocket without setting his feet. He’s got a big arm and can use it, and his feet get him, and the team out of trouble when it seems that all is lost on a play.

Aggressiveness is always a risk-reward situation and the Jaguars are going to have to accept the risk with the rewards when they get into games against the Colts or other teams who can score, no matter how good your defense is. Perhaps they were lulled into a false confidence after holding Peyton Manning down to just 10 points in their first meeting. Either way, you only hope that the players and the coaching staff do a self-check after this game and move on.

It was a good effort, just not quite good enough.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Florida State Found

I just wrote a commentary called “Finding Florida State,” a little play on the “Finding Forrester” movie that concentrated on self-discovery. To put it nicely, Bobby Bowden’s self-discovery involved a little bit of the “evil eye” all week long.

In the twenty-five years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen Bowden as angry as he was last week. I know it was a little out of line, and it was particularly pointed because he thought the attacks against Florida State were personal toward his son, Jeff, the team’s offensive coordinator. But Bobby was mad, and he didn’t mind showing it this time around. He was surly with the media, and terse with his players. He was looking for that “something” that would make the difference between his team thinking they were just another team and thinking they were Florida State.

There weren’t a lot of niceties in Tallahassee during the week.

Apparently it worked.

When the Seminoles came out of the locker room, they looked like a different team. They looked like Florida State, not just another ACC team. The ‘Noles have built their reputation on a national scale, recruiting players from all over the country and garnering fans from Florida to California. Perhaps they were having a crisis of confidence, or maybe they just were too beat up and not good enough to compete in that three week stretch where they lost to N.C. State, Clemson and Florida.

They were losing offensive linemen to injury it seemed every series and they looked like they were feeling sorry for themselves. But they were transformed against the Hokies; even offensive play calling seemed to be hitting on all cylinders. Jeff Bowden was supposed to be run out of town but when he opened the game throwing the ball all over the place with a freshman quarterback, he looked like the “Riverboat Gambler” his father was when he was calling the plays in the ‘80’s.

Drew Weatherford showed poise, toughness and a strong arm all night throwing to receivers that were getting open. Where were those patterns three weeks ago? Perhaps they were there all the time, but Weatherford either didn’t have time to find them or the receivers were not running very precise routes. Virginia Tech has a fast, strong and physical defensive backfield, but the Seminoles didn’t seem to care about how good the Hokies were according to the stats. They just went out and played, and that looked like the difference.

Watching that game, I kept wondering, ‘how could not one of those FSU players be named to the All-conference first team? However; you look at it, whether Virginia Tech underestimated Florida State or the Seminoles got their act back together, the credit has to go to Bowden and the ‘Noles. They were a two-touchdown underdog! Two touchdowns?

One thing Frank Beamer said during the week really made sense. “They might be down, but they have good players and when you have good players you can get real good real fast.”

And that’s exactly what happened.

Leon Washington, Lorenzo Booker and the defense went back to playing like they were capable of. No tricks, no fancy stuff, just better blocking and tackling.

Now everybody likes Penn State to beat FSU in the Orange Bowl. Didn’t Penn State have all kinds of problems just a year ago? They’re better, but when you’re the best team in the Big Ten, how good are you, really? Hasn’t anybody learned? Don’t count Bobby Bowden and his team out until he says so.

And he hasn’t brought it up yet.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Finding Florida State

It’s Bobby’s fault.

No, it’s Jeff’s fault.

Wait a minute, it’s Mickey’s fault.

Actually let’s blame it on Chris Rix or even Jared Jones.

That’s the game that’s going on in Tallahassee: Who’s to blame? Perhaps the blaming should stop (it won’t) and the hand wringing could take a small break for a quick analysis of what’s going on with the FSU football team.

Start at the top if you like, with Bobby Bowden. He didn’t all of the sudden forget how to coach, or motivate or lead. He didn’t get stupid overnight. Bowden is still one of the best coaches in college football, seemingly ageless. Perhaps a little less patience with the media, but still a solid coach, leader and recruiter. Talk football with Bowden for about two minutes and it’s obvious he’s very involved, very much part of what’s going on when it comes to game planning, strategy the Seminoles mind-set.

If there’s one area that’s I’ve criticized in the past, it’s whether Bowden has the energy left to discipline a large group of young guys, particularly guys with the personality to play college football. Outside of that, Bowden has no downside, except that he’s created a situation where he’s nearly impossible to replace.

Bowden can call his own shots at FSU, stay or leave, coach or retire when he chooses and have a large hand in who his successor will be. Bowden isn’t the type who’s inclined to walk away when the going gets tough and will only leave with his legacy intact.

Bobby has come under a lot of criticism for putting his son Jeff in charge of the offense as the coordinator. The plays look fine and the sequences of plays aren’t the problem. The problem is execution and that’s where a coordinator takes the heat.

FSU likes to throw the ball downfield, and they’re still doing that. They like to try and hit the big running play, and that’s been hit or miss. Which brings the focus on the offensive line. The Seminoles will start their sixth different compliment of offensive linemen, having lost three starters since the beginning of the year. No team can be successful with that kind of change unless their skill players continue to be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat.

FSU has had a continuous flow of surprises at top positions, particularly at quarterback. The latest was Wyatt Sexton’s bout with Lyme disease that put him out of the lineup for the year. Drew Weatherford won the job, beating out Xavier Lee, and believe it or not could actually set all kinds of records this year for first-year quarterbacks in the league, eclipsing Phillip Rivers’ marks set at N.C. State.

Weatherford has taken a lot of heat, like Jeff Bowden, but as he said this week, when the plays work, they’re great, when they don’t, they’re not. It goes with the territory.

They could lose to Virginia Tech and possibly get beat in whatever bowl game they play in, finish the year 7-6 and out of the top 25. But they won’t panic and they won’t throw up their hands and walk away. They’ll get back to work; they’ll recruit harder, play better and return to the national picture with Bowden at the controls.

And that’s when he’ll walk away.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Urban Crisis

“Do you think we’ll still be running this offense five years from now?” one Gator fan asked me last week.
“If Urban Meyer is still your coach,” I answered.
The fan just rolled his eyes and walked away.

“Have you gotten on the ‘bash Urban’ bandwagon?” one Georgia fan asked me this week.

The point being, the honeymoon is over and there are a lot of football fans, Gators and others, wondering what’s going on in Gainesville. First, I don’t think Meyer had any idea what he was getting into when he accepted the job at Florida and joined the Southeastern conference. He complained this summer about going to too many Gator club meetings.

Wrong move.

He needs to embrace that, and rally the troops every summer. Some of my daughter’s (a UF grad) friends ran into Meyer backstage at a Jimmy Buffet concert this summer. “Hey Coach,” they ran up to him excitedly after recognizing him backstage. “We’re Gators!” they exclaimed. “Nice to meet you,” Meyer demurred. “No, we’re Gators!” they repeated, expecting some kind of communal response.


Just another sign that, at least in the beginning, Meyer didn’t get it.

It’s been funny to watch Meyer on the sidelines (same thing applies to Les Miles at LSU). Neither of them had any idea of the difference between where they were and where they are now, in the SEC. It’s LOUD in the SEC. You can’t wear those little earpieces or even just one-sided headsets. You need the big double cups to get by. You want to talk to somebody; you’ve got to get right in their ear.

It can be as loud as you want in Bowling Green and Salt Lake. Sorry, it’s not the SEC.

And that might apply to Urban Meyer’s attempt to run his spread offense at Florida. Either he’s trying to put round pegs in square holes, or the quality of athlete in the SEC isn’t going to allow that offense to work, or both.

It’s clear he’s got good players at Florida, left behind by Ron Zook and some recruited at the last second by Meyer himself. But Chris Leak is completely out of position as an option quarterback. But how do you bench one of your best players just because you’ve changed the offense? A good coach wouldn’t. He’d adapt his system to the personnel, and I was impressed that Meyer and his staff installed some more traditional formations and plays in the week off before the Georgia game.

But it’s just not enough, as evidenced by the South Carolina game.

I also think that running that offense at Bowling Green and at Utah might have been a bit easier because the best players in those regions play offense. In the SEC, there are plenty of good players to go around, on offense and defense. So some top-flight athletes end up on the defensive side of the ball, with the speed and smarts to stop the “spread.” Add top-flight coaches to the mix, and the “spread” might never have a chance in the conference. And it doesn’t have a downfield that Gator fans love.

The jury is still out, but they’re not going to deliberate long, that’s for sure.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Dick Stratton: 1927-2005

Long time Jacksonville television personality and social pioneer Dick Stratton died on Sunday 11/06/05 after a lengthy illness. He Was 78. Sam remembers his long-time friend and mentor below.

Dick Stratton: 1927-2005 Jacksonville’s First “Star”

Dick Stratton There’s a plaque on the wall in the press box of the stadium that reads:

“Dick’s career spanned thirty-five years as a television and radio sports pioneer and personality in Jacksonville. An innovator of the college football coach’s Sunday highlights show, he started the concept with Florida Head Coach Ray Graves (1969-1979). Stratton also stepped away from sports, hosting the first daytime talk show on television. He was Chairman of the Greater Jacksonville Open and President of the Gator Bowl in the same year, 1972. His unselfish dedication extended well beyond sports and made Jacksonville a better place to live.”

I know that’s how Dick thought of himself. Tidy, neat, simple accomplishments. I know because he wrote those words in 2004 when I told him we needed a bio to put on the plaque. “That’s enough,” he told me. “The rest is just stuff.” But we know he was much more than ordinary, or simple. In fact, Dick was extraordinary. Full of energy, always upbeat, glad to see you with a firm handshake and a booming voice that let everybody know that you, and he were in the room.

He was, through his many parts, what we all aspire to be. He was good. He was kind. He was gentle. He was generous. He was loyal. He made you feel better about yourself.

As a professional he brought his best, and expected the same of you. As a friend he was unfailingly on your side. Cajoling, prodding, expecting you to be as good as you could be.

He always was larger than life. A celebrity in a time when it meant something to be a celebrity. In fact, you could call him Jacksonville’s first celebrity. And he took that seriously. Always a gentleman, neatly turned out with his hair and clothes classicly stylish. He could tell a story, and loved to be the storyteller.

When I first started in Jacksonville I was fortunate that Dick took a shine to me. He litteraly took me under his wing and introduced me around town. We spent hours together as he filled me in on who was who and how they got there. He regailed me with stories about Van Fletcher’s Green Derby, and the comings and goings and the shennanigans at the Roosevelt Hotel. He talked about the early days of sports broadcasting when he would hold up a still picture two days after the fact and consider it a “news flash.”

He talked often of his days as the host of the “Midday” show and his time with Virginia Atter-Keys. “Boy can she sing, she’s a songbird,” he would always add when talking about Virginia. His relationship with Virginia was typical of Dick. It didn’t end when he walked out of the door of the television station. It didn’t even end when their show went off the air. It stayed. If you were Dick’s friend, you were his friend for life.

Sometimes when we think of Dick, we think of him as the host, as the facilitator of other people’s notions. But Dick was full of ideas. He had ideas in his head constantly, roaming around like a composer has tunes trying to get out. We were fortunate that Dick had a canvas for his ideas, a way to express himself that always made those around him and the place he lived, better.

Being on television and being “a star” Dick was in demand. Always asked to host a luncheon or MC a dinner, having Dick Stratton at your get together made it an “event.” I never heard him say “no” to any request, big or small except for two reasons: His mother and His church. Dick was available as long as he didn’t have a commitment to his Mother, who he took care of and loved deeply. And he was committed to his church. He had strong faith, and often when we’d talk in recent times I’d ask him what was he doing and he’d usually say, “Reading the Bible. Job, pretty inspiring.”

I always found it facinating that a man who’d life was tied to the clock in television and who’s calendar was filled with commiitments to the minute, not days, read about patience and it’s virtues when looking for guidance.

Dick’s long time foil, Rex Edmonson, was, in many ways his counterpart in the print media. Rex years ago told me that he thought his career was complete one day at a luncheon where they honored him for his contributions. Rex was asked to the podium where he said, “I’ve reached just about all of my goals, I was introduced by the Mayor to Dawtry Towers and nodded to in public by Dick Stratton.” I told Dick that story a few years back and he said, “Rex said that? That crusty so and so.” And he paused for a few seconds and added. “That Rex, he’s a really good friend of mine. ”

Among his two most tangible achievments were when he was President of the Gator Bowl and Chairman of the GJO, the two crown jewel events of the time in town, both in the same year. Dick had a life-long committment to both events, reminding me early in my career how important they were to the city and the people who lived here. For many years after his presidency of the Gator Bowl he stayed close to the game, organizing the thousands of high school musicians who would fill the field at halftime. “You outta put that on TV,” he’d say to me, “That’s where the real action is.”

He reminded me that he helped put together the framework for the GJO sitting at the lunch counter at Silver’s Drug Store at the beach with John Tucker and other friends. John confirmed that to me once, saying “We had a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of energy and could probably put some money together but we were amatuers. Dick brought it all together and put a professional face on it. He made it happen.”

As we know, much of the culture of Jacksonville is woven around the sporting events we attend. Dick formed and molded the culture of the town around the events he was involved in. They were sporting contests, but Dick saw them as much more. They were events, celebrations. Thousands of people who have moved to North Florida in the last 20 years might not know who Dick Stratton is, but if they attend any event around here, Dick Stratton’s fingerprints are on it.

Many can say, “I’m better for having known him.” A few of us can say “I am able to be who I am because of him.”

Dick litterly invented the job of sportscaster. There was no template, no guideline, he figured it out as he went along. He started the coaches show with Florida Coach Ray Graves. Shot the film, brought it back to Channel 4 and slept on the couch in the lobby while it was being processed. Stayed up all night splicing the plays together for the live broadcast of the highlights the next day.

He was never prouder then when he would tell me “We never had a broken splice. Ever. Not once in all the shows we did.”

He and Graves would then travel back to Gainesville for the second showing of the show, locally in the Gators home town. He was funny, witty, with the perfect blend of bravado and kindnes to those who knew him. I do have this lasting image of how he could turn on the charm as his back would straighten while he smoothed out his tie and buttoned his coat.

Dick was proud of his friends and proud of the people he knew. A picture hung on his wall for the last 40 years, where ever he lived of Jack Dempsey, Joe DiMaggio and Dick. I asked about it and he nonchalantly told me, “Oh, we did a telethon together once.” It seemd huge to me, but I finally realized that in Jacksonville, with Dempsey, Dimaggio and Stratton smiling together, Dick was the celebrity in the picture.

I thought he was pulling my leg as a young reporter when he told me about his friendship with so many of the famous and influential people of the time. Until I saw Gary Player at the Masters in the early ’80’s and he immediately asked me how “Randy” was doing. Dick was especially pleased that Player had a “pet” nickname for him.

I’d call him up with a question and he’d say, “Call John Tucker and ask him or I’ll just call George Olsen and get the answer.” My head would spin. The calls would be made and the job would get done.

I’d hear this alot when I answered the phone, “It’s your Uncle Dick,” the voice on the other end would say whenever he was on the line. He’d call and critique my performance regularly, “You did good,” he’d add, mocking the language he so carefully crafted everyday. Then he’d add, “Don’t ever wear that tie again, it doesn’t look right.”

In the last five years, he ended our conversations the same way each time:
“I love ya Sam”
he’d always make sure I heard before he hung up.

Don’t worry Dick, we loved you too.

RIP: Dick Stratton: 1927-2005

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jacksonville’s Jaguars

No surprise that the Jaguars and the City resolved their differences in a fact-to-face meeting between Wayne Weaver and John Peyton. Once they got into the room together, Peyton knew he needed to figure out a way to get the deal done, and Weaver knew he had all of the legal cards on his side of the table but needed a public relations boost to help rebuild his image.

The last thing any NFL owner wants to be thought of is greedy in their own town. Sure, there’s a cost of doing business in any entertainment venture and every city that’s trying to improve the quality of life for their citizens knows that. But the owner of a franchise has to be thought of as benevolent. A businessman, but a benevolent corporate citizen, willing to do their part. Weaver and the Mayor both came out with what they wanted so the whole thing looks good.

I would like to know what Peyton told Weaver the city could do to help sell the 3,000 unsold club seats. The mayor’s office can use their corporate influence and maybe that’s the direction they’ll take. If they get together and behind this idea, it could be a very positive thing for the city and for the Jaguars.

Weaver does have a problem that came to light out of this whole situation. Despite his talk about moving the team (through an intermediary) and how the deal he was looking for was only worth less than a half million dollars a year, there was no corporate outcry, no coalition of corporate executives who told the mayor, publicly to get the deal done. Every time I mention that to anybody, they say, “Of course, Weaver has made everybody mad.” Or something of that nature.

The best thing Wayne could do is get all of the people he’s dealt with in the past, either made a deal with or rejected them and offer up a “new beginning.” Somewhere, the Jaguars went wrong when it comes to making partners in the corporate community in town. Either they were too tough, not loyal enough or overestimated the amount of money corporations in this town had to spend. Either way, nobody was rushing to the Jaguars’ side to defend them or let the city know how important the team is to the city’s future.

Selling out the club seats is important. Selling out the stadium for home games is important. Having the Jaguars and the City grow together is the most important thing of all.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jacksonville Vs. Jaguars

Thinking back to the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s when the NFL was talking about expansion and Jacksonville was doing everything it could to be noticed, a stadium lease and an agreement between the city and any NFL team was an afterthought. That idea went right to the forefront though when the people trying to get a team, Touchdown Jacksonville, and the city administration, led by Mayor Ed Austin called the whole effort off when they couldn’t agree on a lease.

There was a segment of the local population that was happy about the whole deal falling apart. They were the power brokers in town and didn’t want to see “their” town change. Finally, the city and TD Jax came to their senses and the deal got done. It allowed for a united front when it came time to present the city of Jacksonville as a potential NFL town to the league. The league saw the value in Jacksonville and awarded the city a franchise in 1993.

Corporate leaders were standing in line to help out. My employer, Channel Four and the Washington Post were front and center, offering just about anything they could to help get things going. It was an exciting time.

Fast forward to the present.

The team has been in action for 11 years and ticket sales have been average for about half of that time. The team has been average for about the same amount of time over those 11 years. And, admittedly, some of the luster has worn off. The honeymoon is over and it’s a business, albeit a big, glamorous business, but still a business. And they’re having a very public fight about parts of the lease agreement between the city and the Jaguars.

That’s part of the problem.

The fight shouldn’t be public, but both sides are acting like they need to win a PR campaign in order to justify their side of the story. It’s a business deal! It’s not some kind of charity, or social gathering, it’s a business. What are both sides doing talking to the media about it? Forget that part. The city is too immature to deal with the Jaguars directly. They know the Jaguars would eat their lunch if they had to make a deal with them without some outside help. I don’t have any problem with that.

They hired Dean Bonham as their representative, which is fine, but he doesn’t have a vested interest either way. He’s a hired gun for the city. He should be trying to get the city the best deal he can, and then get out of the way. He shouldn’t be going around telling people there’s a buyer for the team to move it to L.A. for $1 billion dollars. The Jaguars, on the other hand, have a bad reputation in the business community throughout the city. They’re considered tough and a bit ruthless as they’ve big-footed their way through various businesses in town leaving blood in their wake. Some people consider them a bit hotheaded as well.

So that’s not a good combination: immature vs. hotheaded.

The city needs to realize there’s a cost of doing business in the high stakes world of big time entertainment, in this case the NFL. The Jaguars should negotiate as hard as they can, and accept what the city can offer. The whole thing with the ribbon signage in the stadium seems simple: The Jaguars bought it and built it so they should own the rights to it.

I listened to a Jaguars radio show on Wednesday night with Bill Prescott, the Jaguars CFO as he outlined the Jaguars position. He makes sense, but I had to laugh at Brian Sexton and Jeff Lageman as they “interviewed” Prescott. The Jaguars pay them so it should have been billed as an hour of “The Jaguars side of the story.” Vic Ketchman, the other host of that show is also technically employed by the Jaguars and has always been disappointed in the fans turnout and the city’s administrations apathy.

One thing Wayne Weaver should be scratching his head about is the lack of corporate support and outcry defending his position and telling the city to get their act together. John Peyton should be worried about looking stupid (right after the Cecil Field fiasco) and some potential opponent promising that he’d do anything it takes to keep the Jaguars in town.

Either way, I wish they’d both go underground and get the job done.


Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Rashean Mathis, Star

When Jacksonville was awarded a franchise in the NFL I was as excited as anybody as a sports fan. As a journalist, the field was open and the possibilities were endless. A lot of that didn’t work out, and a lot of it did, the one constant being our Monday night show, “The End Zone.” Through the show, I’ve gotten to know the players on an individual basis, especially the five who have acted as the host of the show.

We asked Jeff Lageman to be the original host, literally when we ran into him in the mall. Lageman was determined to improve and be better on the air and worked at it. He had an agenda and followed it. Next was Keenan McCardell who, if Jimmy Smith is considered “smooth” Keenan was “cool.” Keenan protected his teammates, and followed what you might consider a stereotypical NFL player’s lifestyle, at least on the outside. He was immaculately dressed, always with the latest cell phone in his ear (first guy I ever saw with an earpiece), nice enough but kept his business to himself.

When Keenan moved on, we hired Donovin Darius who seemed like a natural choice. Interested in the technical side of broadcasting, Darius also had a great story to tell, raising his brother and sister while he was still in college. He’s a real paradox, as genuine as can be when it comes to his commitment to his team, his game and his family and the biggest phony you’ve ever met in so many other areas.

We moved on to Kyle Brady who was perfect. Out of that professional relationship, Kyle and I have become friends. We share many of the same interests and grew up in towns not far from each other (Kyle in southern PA, me in Baltimore). He and his wife have a young family and he didn’t want to give up his Monday nights, so he opted out. You won’t meet a nicer, better guy.

Our most recent host, Rashean Mathis was a gamble at the beginning. A young player, we didn’t know where his career was going but had a hunch he was going to be a star. Plus, I liked him.

I met Rashean in his second day of training camp. He walked into the interview room with his long dreads, wearing his hat on backwards, sunglasses, long shorts and oversized t-shirt. Right or wrong, that image gives you certain expectations based on your experience with other players in the same situation. But Rashean’s handshake was firm as he looked me in the eye and said, “Good morning, I understand you’ve asked to talk with me, I’m Rashean Mathis.”

“Thanks for taking the time to talk with us,” I replied.

“My pleasure,” Rashean said.


It was the first time I’ve ever had that exchange with a professional athlete.

When we were done, I was talking to our sports photographer, Kevin Talley and said, “That’s the next host of the End Zone.” “No kidding, pretty impressive,” Kevin replied.

Little did we know that Rashean would work hard at becoming the best football player he could be and would be considered a linchpin in the Jaguars success on defense. He can cover. He can, and will tackle, and he wants to win. He’s a great athlete who now says he’s ready to play cornerback. “I was a safety in college so when I came into the league I was just an athlete playing corner. Now I’m a corner back,” Rashean told us this week after his big game against Pittsburgh.

“There are little things, techniques to playing corner that I’ve learned from my teammates and coaches that let me use my athletic ability to make key plays.” That might sound like boasting coming from some other players, but there’s an earnest quality to Rashean that makes it sound like fact. Because it is. But more than his ability on the field and his accomplishments as a player, I’ve been impressed by Rashean’s off-field demeanor. He’s a star, no doubt, with a new, big extended contract. Still his outlook seems the same.

He uses his Mom’s last name as his own, honoring her for raising him as a single parent. He’s close to his mother, his brother and the rest of his family. His pastor comes to the show on Monday nights. He’s friendly with the fans at the show, signing autographs and taking pictures until everybody’s happy. I told him we were going to have to hire a security guard for him if he keeps it up. He just laughed.

There might be hundreds of stories just like Rashean in professional sports that we don’t hear about. Eventually, his story will be a national sensation. Hometown, high school star, ignored by the big schools now making it big as a pro in his own back yard.

Everybody will be proud of him.

I know I already am.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Urban Challenge

After they beat Kentucky, I went on the air and talked about how the Gators were now Urban Meyer’s team. Not the remnants of the Steve Spurrier era, not a bunch of Ron Zook’s recruits but rather actually Urban Meyer’s team. The offense had the looks of confidence needed to run that spread option and the defense had a swagger that’s needed to win big games against SEC opponents.

Against Alabama, that all changed.


Perhaps they’re still Urban Meyer’s team but now the question is, “Is that a good thing?” If there’s been a little voice crawling around a lot of Gators’ fans heads, it’s been asking if the “spread option” is right for the SEC and the quality of player involved. As an assistant, Meyer developed this offense that took advantage of defenses that didn’t have speed on the edge and forced defenders to make decisions and exploited them.

It also was developed in a time before speed became the dominant factor on offense, before coaches figured out that you could throw the ball effectively with a good quarterback and a couple of receivers who could run and catch. It also was very effective at Bowling Green with the players plugged in to make it work and at Utah where even Meyer said he was lucky to have a “special player” like Alex Smith to run the offense.

Salt Lake isn’t Gainesville and Utah isn’t Florida and Wyoming isn’t Alabama. Or Auburn. Or Georgia. Or Tennessee. Or FSU.

If there’s another voice running around in Gators fans heads it’s asking if the offense suits the players on hand. One of the most impressive things about Don Shula’s career as a head coach is his ability to adapt to the personnel on the roster. When the Dolphins won in the early ‘70’s Bob Griese would throw the ball less than 15 times a game. Why should he? They had Csonka, Kiick and Morris to get the job done on the ground.

In the ‘90’s Dan Marino would throw the ball 15 times in the first quarter because the players on the field suited that kind of game and the game itself changed. So Shula changed with it, fitting his offense to the players available.

Not the other way around.

You can see how Meyer’s offense is supposed to work when Josh Portis steps in at quarterback and runs the ball. But he can’t throw it like Chris Leak, so he’s pretty predictable when he’s in the game. It’s a dilemma Meyer will have to solve, and soon. How is it that you’re Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback might not be the best QB on the team in the offense you want to run?

One loss isn’t a time to panic, but the Crimson Tide did expose a lot of Florida’s weaknesses in a short period of time. Don’t think everybody else isn’t paying attention.

Like Georgia. Like Auburn. Like LSU. Like FSU.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jack’s Woes

Coaching is an interesting profession. There are all kinds of people who become coaches and all kinds of different motivations to become a coach. The best are innovative about their game, like to teach, are very competitive, and understand the strengths and weaknesses of the people and players around them.

I almost laughed out loud when I heard Urban Meyer say, “I’m a negative person anyway,” when he was criticizing his team’s performance in their opener against Utah. Nearly by definition, coaches have to have an eye for the negative. Even when they win, they’re always looking to improve on the things they did wrong. Both Jack Del Rio and Tom Coughlin as coaches of the Jacksonville Jaguars have said, “It’s easier to correct when you win,” noting that they did plenty of things wrong despite winning.

Often times, coaches complain that the news around them is always negative. Nobody ever talks about the good things that are going on. While not really true, there is a tendency among the media to focus on the things a team can’t do rather than what they’re good at. It’s the nature of modern day sports coverage, and it follows the nature of the coaching profession. If a team wins 44-3, the coaches are going to try to figure out how they gave up that field goal and the media will dissect the score pointing out how it could have been better, or worse.

When Tom Coughlin was fired as the head coach of the Jaguars, one of his obvious failings was the perception of him in public. Coughlin’s friends know him as a smart and witty person, well versed in a variety of subjects. But his public face and his contentious relationship with the media portrayed him as a hard-line sourpuss.

When Jack Del Rio was named as the head coach of the Jaguars, fans and media alike hailed him as a “breath of fresh air,” after Coughlin. But Del Rio has chosen a very similar path to the one Coughlin followed. He immediately set up an adversarial relationship with the media, scolding them for “getting ahead of the story” when they asked about the future and being equally critical of their “dwelling on the past” when they asked about what had happened in previous games.

Del Rio should be complimented for never throwing any of his players under the bus, but at the same time, he’s never said anything significant either. His obvious disdain for the media, especially certain members attending his “press conferences” is beginning to color his public persona, much like the Coughlin scenario. “Handling” the media is very simple: give them something. Steve Spurrier has done it his entire career, creating a theme of the week and directing the news coverage that way. He deflects criticism from his players by taking it on himself. He has his favorites, and makes sure they get the story from him, even if he’s the “anonymous” source.

Bill Parcells is the master of manipulating the media by calling aside a couple of his favorites after the formal question and answer session and giving them some inside information. Del Rio, on the other hand, has isolated himself among numerous sycophants who call themselves media, but are actually on the Jaguars payroll. When asked a question about cuts in the preseason during a general media session, Del Rio’s response was “listen to my radio show.”


Jack admitted after his first season that his learning curve with the media needed to be worked on. And he started his second year answering questions as the “head coach.” No matter how silly the question, Del Rio dealt with it.

No more.

Del Rio has stopped being the public face of the team and has again brought a players mentality to his appearances in front of the media. His lack of cooperation this week was so evident it was amusing. Some scribes even were wishing for Coughlin to return.

There are two things that will insure you get hacked by the media: act like you’re smarter than they are and that you’re time is somehow more valuable than theirs. Del Rio does both. There’s no such thing as disagreeing with Jack. If you don’t see it his way, it’s not that you have a different opinion, you’re just wrong. His favorite thing to say about the league is that it’s a “bottom line business.”

So here’s the bottom line: In their last 15 games, the Jaguars are 7-8. His team got whipped and embarrassed at home last year with a playoff spot on the line against arguably their biggest rival. Their points per game this season is less than last year when they finished 29th in a 32-team league. Those stats don’t get you into the playoffs (as Del Rio predicted for year three). Start winning and all of that will go away. Del Rio will be insufferable in his dealings with the media. Stay mediocre and he’s assured he’ll be judged on one thing: the bottom line.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Meyer(ed) In Gainseville

It was electrifying. From the inaugural “Gator Walk” to the first run out of the tunnel through the alumni players, the hype was huge. The largest crowd to ever see a football game in the state, 90, 707 were in attendance to get the “Urban” experience. But when it finally started, when they actually kicked it off, it was as if a pin was inserted in the balloon of hype and deflated. It took Florida and Urban Meyer’s spread offense 12 minutes into the first quarter to make their initial first down.

“It wasn’t what I expected,” numerous Gator fans said to me as they walked the concourse at Florida Field. “It’ll take a few weeks to get the kinks worked out,” others offered in passing. Meyer wasn’t as gracious after the game. The new Florida Head Coach was very critical of his own team’s play, saying Chris Leak and the rest of the offense have a lot of work to do. Meyer admitted that he’s normally a negative person, so perhaps it’s not as bad as he originally thought but it’s certainly not the panacea Gator fans were looking for.

Leak completed 26-of-34 passes for 320 yards and three touchdowns, broke Steve Spurrier’s school record for consecutive completions (17) and led the No. 10 Gators to a 32-14 victory over Wyoming. But Meyer wanted more from his junior quarterback.

“In case you’re wondering what the offense should look like, that wasn’t it,” Meyer said, sounding a little like the Ol’ Ball Coach. “We have got a lot of work to do. Chris Leak and the offense have a long way to go.”

I suppose that’s to be expected when a new, complicated offense is installed at any major football program. It had it’s glaring errors, from muffed snaps to blitzes that came free and demolished Leak in the backfield. But you could see that, over time, this king of offense presents all kinds of problems for defenses. Perhaps Wyoming was more aware of what an Urban Meyer offense could do based on the two years he was a conference foe at Utah. But the pressure the offense puts on the defense, particularly at the edges, creates all kinds of problems that aren’t easily solved.

The opening game also showcased freshman quarterback Josh Portis, giving Gator fans a glimpse of the future with a running threat handling the ball on every play. Leak is the Gators QB, but under Meyer, his lack of speed is a liability. That’s why you’ll see Portis in every game.

“Chad Jackson is the best receiver around here in a long time,” one observer of Gator football noted in the third quarter. “He’ll be the best NFL receiver to come out of here since (Carlos) Alvarez.” That certainly looks to be the case. Jackson made three touchdown catches and ran for a fourth to be the main scoring threat for Florida. But his third catch was something special, an over the wrong shoulder one-handed grab that left most in the press box at a loss for words. Which is hard to do. “We just have great chemistry together,” Leak explained when asked how he found Jackson so often.

The Gator defense was quick on the line, quicker than they’ve been in a few years. The defensive backs are the best collecting that’s ever been at Florida according to the coaching staff. Even if they did drop a couple of sure interceptions.

The special teams were any thing but special, resembling the out of whack units they were last season. Coaching can fix that, if they’ll focus on it.

Perhaps Wyoming was the perfect opponent for the opener this year. Good, but not too good. Enough to give Gators fans pause in their rush to the national championship. Enough to give Gator players a reason to go back to work and enough to give the coaches plenty of fodder to get the players back to work. Louisiana Tech won’t be quite as big of a challenge but it’s good that they’re on the schedule. Tennessee is in town in town weeks, and that’s when it really counts.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Owen’s Folly

Generally, this whole professional sports business has changed. It hasn’t happened overnight, but rather an evolution over the last 25 years or so. Call it a revolution if you will. Sure, there have always been selfish, self-centered pros, but it’s at a whole new level. If there was ever any question in the past, it’s in the open now: it’s all about the money. And while he’s not the only offender, Terrell Owens is the perfect poster boy for what we might see in the future. No questioning his talent. Last year’s performance in the Super Bowl validated his ability to play, and play well in big games. Especially after his injury. But Owens has brought to the public the thing that sits right beneath the surface of any professional athlete: it’s about me.

Certainly there are exceptions, but whether they’re parading in front of the media or just quietly doing their job, professional athletes are just that, professionals earning a paycheck. Owens can’t help himself, obviously. He wants the spotlight on him full time, good or bad. He’ll do (front yard workouts) and say (calling out his quarterback) anything that he thinks might make it more about him. The higher the profile in today’s world of “The Insider” the more money there is to be made.

Dennis Rodman brought it to basketball. Early on it was a very finely choreographed act, but Rodman started to believe it and blew himself up. Owens is just the next step in that evolution.

Football has always been different, mainly because of the team aspect and the violence involved. Guys like Owens have existed in the past, but as soon as they took one step in that direction, players on their own team took care of it. Whether it was in the locker room or on the practice field, Owens would have paid a price for his words and his actions that would have hurt and perhaps landed him on IR. In this politically correct world though, that won’t happen.

Even though Brian Dawkins and a couple of his Eagles’ teammates have expressed “concern” about the distraction, nobody’s hammering on this guy in order to get things straight on their team. And believe me, throughout the course of training camp and practices, they have their chances. Owens needs a good “beat down” as some of his peers have suggested, but because they’re “professionals” he’ll skip along without having to worry about looking over his shoulder.


Because his teammates know that somewhere along the line, he might be able to make them some money. If not on the field perhaps in his dealings with management. Owens started his latest circus in the off-season saying he wanted to renegotiate his contract. It’s widely reported that it’s worth $49 million over 7 years. He did get a roster bonus that was all swallowed up by last year’s salary cap. He’s no financial liability to the Eagles at all. Cut him and they don’t have to have any of his “dead money” on their roster. And that’s the crux of the financial fight, not only by Owens but also by his agent Drew Rosenhaus.

Owens’ deal isn’t guaranteed, in fact, no contracts in the NFL are guaranteed and Rosenhaus wants to change that. The only guaranteed money is in the signing bonus up front. The rest is pay for play. It’s not that way in the NBA or Major League Baseball. You sign in either of those sports and you get paid the full amount. In the NFL, the money you get is from the signing bonus and you earn the rest year by year. Rosenhaus thinks that’s unfair and wants to change that, using Owens as a tool.

Sure, Owens should be paid the going rate for players of his caliber, and his bonus should have been in line with what the other top players at his position have gotten in the past. But who ever made the rule that a professional sports career should pay you enough that you never have to work again? “I’m looking out for my family,” is the funniest and most hypocritical thing any of these guys ever say. Aren’t we all?

When the players start invoking that way of thinking it gets the fans wondering about their own financial situation. And when they do that, it’ll eventually come around to whether the fan will buy tickets knowing that money’s going to the player in question. Are they really going to spend that money, taking it away from their “family” to give it to this guy? That’s the question no professional sports organization wants to have asked. So in a quiet chorus the NFL is, in one way or another, saying in unison: Shut up T.O.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Baseball’s New (and Old) Problem

I suppose you can’t come to any other conclusion than Rafael Palmeiro is lying. He sat in front of a congressional committee on March 17th, waved his finger and said, “I have never used steroids.” When Major League Baseball suspended him for 10 days last week, he altered that statement adding, “I have never intentionally used steroids.” So he gave himself an out, giving rise to the theory that he took a supplement that had a steroid product in it, unwittingly.

But then it was reported that he tested positive for Winstrol, and that whole theory went out the window. You don’t get Winstrol by accident in your system. It’s either done through a pill or through an injection. Maybe his doctor, not associated with the team gave him the pill to help rehabbing an injury, but that’s not an excuse either.

As a pro athlete in these very sensitive times regarding steroids, if you sat in front of congress and waved your finger, you better know everything that you’re putting in your body.

It’s a real shame too, because Palmeiro was looked on as a sympathetic figure after the congressional hearings. He didn’t look like a steroid guy, so it was plausible that he had been named as a user because of some kind of grudge. But that all goes out the window now. Congress has asked for the documents regarding his failed drug test and if the test was before March 17th, they’re thinking about charging him with perjury, for lying under oath.

Mark McGwire came off poorly during those hearings because he kept protecting himself. Palmeiro, on the other hand, seemed to be the guy baseball was counting on to drag them out of this morass. A bona fide major league hitter with Hall of Fame numbers who didn’t look like he was about to bust out of his uniform. Now the question is reminiscent of the Watergate hearings and the question asked often, “What did baseball know and when did they know it?”

There are reports that baseball knew as early as May that Raffy had failed his drug test and tested positive for steroids. But, they held off the announcement until after the All-Star break and until after Palmeiro broke the 3,000 hit mark. (He’s the fourth player in history to hit 500 home runs and have 3,000 hits.) If that’s all true, baseball will have another black eye, and the game will take another step backwards. Not in places like Boston or New York or St. Louis, but in the non-major league cities where daily contact with the majors only comes through news reports. And those reports in recent years have been more about baseball’s problems than it’s glories.

Bud Selig has never been a strong leader for MLB, but now, more than ever, he needs to turn the reigns of this problem over to an outside agency. People are losing faith that baseball is capable of policing itself when it comes to drug testing. Hire the World Anti-Doping Agency or somebody like it to run the testing. Get out of that business and make the punishment swift and meaningful. We can hope can’t we?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Weaver’s Moves

You can’t really go by whatever anybody says in professional sports anymore. Everybody’s got an agenda. They’re saying one thing to influence another, playing both sides against the middle. That goes for players, coaches scouts and owners. Even though they constantly criticize the media as negative and meddling, they’re all trying to use the media to get their particular point across.

That’s why I wouldn’t put too much stock in what Jaguars Owner Wayne Weaver says, or has said about the lease with the city and the prospect of moving the team.

His actions have always lead to the truth about what’s going on with the team, not necessarily his words. Which is fine. He’s got a business to run, and he’s going to do it the way he sees fit. Weaver’s letter to the city was very specific in outlining how the team had lost money in two of the last three years. All along Weaver knew that the math was tough for a town the size of Jacksonville. The population base is small compared to most other NFL markets, making ticket sales an issue.

When the team is winning, it’s not as much of a problem, and of course, the team really hasn’t won in four years. The language he used in the letter to the city relates directly to the lease specifications that might, and I emphasize might, allow the Jaguars to break the lease with the city and move out of town. The letter itself is under dispute, neither side agreeing on who even asked to have a letter in the first place.

It’s not surprising that Weaver wants a better deal than the city is offering. The biggest mistake anybody can make is to forget that Weaver is first and foremost, a businessman. He’s tough, and some have even called him ruthless. He is pleasant, and is a nice guy, but when there’s money at stake, he’s all business, right out of “The Art of War.” So capturing the high ground is important to him, allowing him to maximize his profits. And he’s entitled to that, so long as he’s putting the best team on the field that he possibly can.

I don’t consider Weaver’s letter a threat, but merely another step in the negotiating process. But don’t think the team will ever leave either. Even though the lease between the Jaguars and the city is pretty airtight, a buyout of $100 million or so doesn’t seem so bad for a product that’s valued over a half –billion dollars. That would seem like a small price to pay for a city like Los Angeles to get an NFL team back to Southern California.

One thing Weaver has failed to do is create a community feel for his team. Their business dealings in the first six or seven years of the franchise turned a lot of local business leaders off. They’re negotiating style was “We’re the Jaguars and ‘you’re not,” leaving even the winners of the negotiations to become partners with the team leaving the bargaining table feeling like they had blood on their hands. Same thing with their relationship with fans over the first six or seven years. Long term contracts, high priced tickets and overpriced concessions had fans leaving the stadium feeling like they’d had been to a business venture rather than a football game.

Things have gotten better, but three things need to happen: First, they need to win. The team was competitive last year, but fell apart in a couple of crucial situations, leaving them short of the playoffs. Second, they need to stop the public talk about the lease and get serious in the negotiations. Stop using the media trying to sway public opinion one way or another. I agree with Weaver when he says he’s not going to get into the “What if?” game. And third, Weaver himself needs to be part of the team’s promotional package. The fans like him and can put a face on the team that Byron Leftwich, Fred Taylor and Jack Del Rio can’t.

And finally consider this. Weaver paid about $120 million cash for the team. He didn’t share in the television revenue as a full partner for the first three years so you could say his price was higher, but the cash outlay for Weaver and his investment group was around $120 million. The Jaguars are now valued at over $550 million, with a line of purchasers standing at the gate with their checkbooks ready. That’s a pretty good return on your investment in just 12 years, if you’re a businessman.

And don’t forget, Wayne’s all about business.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jack’s Farewell

To us, it’s the British Open. To the rest of the world, it’s just known as The Open Championship. The golf championship of the world as put on by the Royal and Ancient Golf club, commonly known as “the R&A.” I had a chance to attend the Open this year both as a reporter and as a guest of the R&A.

This 134th renewal of The Open had special significance on several fronts. First, it was back at St. Andrews, the home of the R&A and on The Old Course, known as the birthplace of golf. It also marked the final appearance as a professional player by Jack Nicklaus. Nicklaus is a three-time Open champion, having won twice on the Old Course, in 1970 and again in 1978.

Nicklaus often said a “real” Open champion is one that wins at St. Andrews, something Bobby Jones once told him. So when Jack said he wasn’t going to play any more competitive golf, Peter Dawson, who runs the R&A, asked him if he’d return to Scotland to play in the Open one more time if they played the Championship at St. Andrews. Nicklaus said yes, and the plans were put in motion.

They switched years between St. Andrews and Hoylake, putting the Championship on the Old Course in 2005, the final year Nicklaus would be eligible to play as a former champion at 65 years old. The R&A says the pairings are done in a blind draw, but it looked a bit fishy when Jack was paired with his long-time rival and 5-time Open champ Tom Watson, as well as young Luke Donald.

Donald and Nicklaus both have a promotional deal with the Royal Bank of Scotland. Mmmm. The Royal Bank even issued two million five-pound notes with Nicklaus’ picture on the back. He’s the only living person besides the Queen and the Queen Mother to ever have his picture on Scottish currency. So to the Scots, Britons and golf fans everywhere, this was a big deal.

Nicklaus is the best player of all time. His record is unmatched, and no matter what anybody does after him, including Tiger, his impact on the game, on and off the course can’t be matched. He played like nobody before him, displaying power and touch. He won all over the world, but managed to stay close to his family. Money never seemed to matter; it was the titles that Nicklaus was after. History was his only competition.

But while he’s the best player ever, he’s not the best loved. His methodical, business-like style throughout his career turned some fans to other players. His battles with Palmer, Trevino and Watson were titanic in proportion, but many people had trouble warming to Jack. His biggest shortcoming when it came to the crowds was that he wasn’t Arnold.

He didn’t emote, either on or off the course, which, of course, was part of his greatness. That’s changed a bit as he’s gotten older, but he was always steely eyed and seemed to have ice water in his veins when it came to hitting a big shot at the right time.

None of that meant anything this week as his every step at St. Andrews was recorded and reviewed by spectators and television viewers. Tiger lead after the first and second rounds playing nearly flawless golf, but it was every shot and step of Nicklaus’ rounds that were the centerpiece of the BBC’s coverage. BBC announcer Peter Aliss always refers to Nicklaus a “the great man.” There was no question this week that he was just that.

An opening 75, three over par was serviceable, but Jack wasn’t happy. While it seemed everybody wanted to be in place Friday afternoon to see Nicklaus’ final stroll down 18 at The Old Course, Jack didn’t see it that way. He’s often joked that he’s now a ceremonial player, but it was pretty evident that he wasn’t going to make it a trip down memory lane this week.

To him, it was a competition, and as such, he was going to try and win. Sixty-five or not, Nicklaus saw it as a chance to compete, and he did just that. His Friday tee time gave him a chance to pretty much know what the cut number was going to be after 36 holes. Something under par in round two, and he’d probably be around for the weekend. So when he birdied number one after a driver and 7-iron to 6 feet, the crowd went nuts. He hung around even par in his second round coming to 17, the famous “Road Hole” at St. Andrews. He was still three over, with the cut looking to be around even, or one over, so everybody figured this would be it, a memorable walk through the final two holes, including the huge amphitheatre that makes up the first and 18th holes at the Old Course.

Everybody except Jack of course.

“I figured if I made a couple of birdies coming in, I’d have a chance (to play on the weekend), Nicklaus said in his post-round interview. But alas, a bogey at 17 sealed this as his final round as a competitor at the Open Championship, so even he accepted the ceremonial walk down at to the cheers of the thousands assembled.

His stop on the Swilcan Bridge was classic Nicklaus.

He climbed to the top and put his leg up on the wall of the bridge in very deliberate fashion. As with just about everything, there’s a plan with Jack, but he didn’t linger alone, quickly inviting his son Steve as well as Watson, Donald and their caddies on the bridge for a photo. A final shot with just he and his son, and he was off.

After all, there was more golf to be played.

His drive was just short of the “Valley of Sin” that guards the 18th green. His second shot, a putt actually, went about 10 feet past. And, allowed to be the final player in his group to finish, in typical Nicklaus fashion, he made the putt for birdie. I had a spot at Forgan House, just to the right of the 18th green, a chance to see history happen with the other thousands there just for that purpose. The applause was thunderous and long as Nicklaus made the putt and waved to the crowds. It wasn’t emotional until he grabbed Tom Watson and wouldn’t let him go. They walked off the 18th arm-in-arm, nearly all the way to the clubhouse. Then his whole family came down the steps for hugs and kisses and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Talented Skilled (And Spoiled)

I’ve always had a pet peeve about rude and spoiled people. It’s spilled over into my professional assessment of the people I cover, and usually colors my opinion about what they’re like. Not they’re accomplishments, or their talent or skill, but what they’re like, how they got where they are and what they’ll be like when their talent and skill erodes and the next big thing takes their place. That’s why the latest tantrums thrown by Tony Stewart and Kenny Rogers particularly frost me.

Stewart thought the woman in front of him coming through the tunnel at Daytona was going too slow, so he reportedly honked his horn at her and flashed his lights. When they emerged from the tunnel, Stewart reportedly swerved around her car, when, according to Stewart, the woman gave him the finger as he went by. Instead of acknowledging his part in this little dust up and moving on, Stewart stopped the car, jumped out and “went to find out what her problem was,” according to the driver of Joe Gibbs’ #20 on the NASCAR circuit.


Of course.


Absolutely, and either stupid or cowardly, depending on whose point of view you have. I can’t help but wonder what Stewart’s reaction would have been if it had been the typical male NASCAR fan driving that car in front of him. First, if Stewart had gotten out of the car, the guy driving would have been out and waiting on him. Second, there wouldn’t have been a lot of words exchanged. Stewart, who’s not a big guy to begin win, would have either been running or on the ground.


There had to be some talk in the infield at Daytona this week about what Stewart’s fate would have been had the situation been different. Stewart’s situation was recounted as a second-hand story. Kenny Rogers’ little tantrum was, as they say in the news business these days, “caught on tape.”

Rogers had missed a start for the Texas Rangers because of a tantrum he’d thrown the week before in the dugout. He smashed a few coolers in the dugout and broke a bone on his right (non-pitching) hand. So when he came out of the clubhouse for warm-ups the next time he was at the ballpark, naturally the cameras from all television stations in Dallas as well at the networks were trained on him. It’s their job. As in the producer told the photographer, “Get some pictures of Rogers when he comes out on the field and we’ll show them on the early news.”

No big deal.

Unless you’re rude, and spoiled, like Rogers.

I’m not sure if he was embarrassed, or there’s something truly wrong with him. But his attack on the photographers at the ballpark was unprovoked and way over the line. I’ve seen guys grab the lens of a camera, but never throw it on the ground, kick it and cuss the photographer. What’s the excuse or reason? Don’t give me this “he has anger issues” argument. What’s Rogers have to be angry about when he gets to the ballpark? And do you think he ever considered that those guys were just doing their job, much like he is when he comes to the ballpark every fifth day?

I couldn’t help but wonder, (again) what Rogers might have done if the photog was somewhere near his size. I can tell you there were more than a few discussions in the sports department about what Rogers’ fate might have been if it had been a couple of the guys I work with. All are hoping for that chance some day.

Bud Selig’s suspension of 20 games was not nearly enough, and the $50,000 fine isn’t much to a guy like Rogers who’s making $3.4 million this year. And it’s not like he’s a young rookie who doesn’t know any better. Rogers will be 41 this year and has had a long and relatively successful and lucrative career. And then they’ve allowed him to be selected to the all-star team? Is there any wonder that people don’t have any passion for the players or the teams any more?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

A Baseball Town?

When the city announced that the ACC baseball championship would be contested at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville in 2005, there was a small amount of excitement in town. Not a lot, but not a collective yawn either. Nice event, nothing spectacular.


The ACC championship drew over 66,000 fans over the five days, and could have easily been more if there had been a night game on Saturday to determine who was going to the finals. As it was, the tournament had every thing you hope an event in your town has. Good weather, competitive games, a great venue and happy fans.

In all, eleven teams came to town with a chance to win the conference championship. Three play-in games on Tuesday put Wake Forest in the main draw, a double elimination tournament beginning on Wednesday with the top seven teams from the regular season. (The conference will cut the tournament down to eight teams next year with no play-in games)

There were all kinds of games in the tournament. Low scoring, high scoring, tight finishes and blowouts. In the end, Georgia Tech was named the winner, beating Virginia 4-3 in the title game on Sunday afternoon.

But the real winner was Jacksonville.

It’ll be hard for the conference to move the game anywhere else. The attendance eclipsed the previous record by the time they had played games on Friday. Florida State got beat by Tech on Saturday afternoon, but if they had been able to force a second game Saturday night, you can add over 12,000 more to the final total.

Although it’s a two-year contract with a third year option for the ACC, no doubt they’re looking to keep the game in Jacksonville for a while. But there are a couple of other options, including a very attractive one at Fenway Park. Apparently because Boston College joins the fray next year, Fenway would like to host the tournament with the Eagles as the home team. That would be tough to pass up, no matter how nice things were here in Jacksonville. And with its roots in the Carolinas, the conference probably wants to put the tournament in its home state every once in a while. So while Jacksonville is the preferred venue, it’ll take some lobbying and some guarantees to keep the tournament here.

What it proves is that Jacksonville is more than just a one-horse (football) town. Anytime there’s been a well promoted, worthwhile event here, people have turned out. The ACC Championship isn’t supposed to be a big time event, but it attracted fans from all over the conference and all over the city. If it’s not here permanently, don’t worry, it’ll be back.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

T.O. K.O.

“There are a lot of things I think about every day,” said Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeff Lurie, “but that’s not one of them.”

Lurie was responding to a question about a possible renegotiation of Terrell Owens’ contract. “It’s not an issue,” the Eagles owner continued. “It’s a non-issue.”

That’s about as straight forward as you can be. The guy with the money telling the guy who wants more that he can’t have it. “He’s getting destructive advice from his agent,” Lurie told a reporter in his office in Philadelphia.

And the saga continues.

Owens had rehabilitated his image somewhat in his first season with Philadelphia. He produced at a high level. He worked hard to come back from an injury. And his remarkable comeback and performance in the Super Bowl nearly earned the Eagles a world championship. He seemed like a bright, dedicated if somewhat self-centered elite athlete.

All this was after spewing venom in San Francisco, especially at quarterback Jeff Garcia.

Owens forced a trade out of the Garnet and Gold, so they sent him to Baltimore. But that’s not where he wanted to play. So the Ravens accommodated him and shipped him to Philadelphia. All was supposed to be great. Owens playing with Donovan McNabb, where he wants to play and making $49 million over the next seven years. His new contract was worked by the Eagles, and Owens promised Head Coach Any Reid that he was happy with the money and wouldn’t make any off-season waves.

But he lied.

Despite the rehab, it turned out that Owens is actually the epitome of the self-centered, me first professional athlete. In point of fact, he’s probably right that as the elite receiver in the league, he’s not paid what that receiver should get. But he signed the contract. He’s the one who promised Andy Reid.

But he was faking.

It seems the real Owens just can’t help himself. He needs more, more and more. Money that is. As Lurie said “At this level of money, it’s no longer about the money. It should be about winning championships.” At least McNabb acknowledged that when the said, “We’re going to be good whether T.O. is here or not. He should stop the squabbling and get back here.”

His promotion with ABC for Desperate Housewives was supposed to cast him as a sympathetic and smart figure. And it was the talk of the NFL He walked right up to the edge of full accepted stardom, but couldn’t make that final step. That step that puts somebody, something, or in this case, some team before you.

But he couldn’t do it.

And the shame of it al

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Belgium On My Bike

I learned a long time ago that I have eclectic tastes in just about everything. Music, art and even sports. As big a fan as I am of baseball, football, basketball and other traditional sports, I also follow English Soccer and Pro Cycling will an equal fervor. So I’ve always had it in my head to go see some cycling races in Europe and ride my bike over some of the storied routes of what are called “The Classics.” So when my long-time friend and bike guru Phil Foreman of Champion Cycling in Mandarin invited me along for a trip to Belgium this spring, I jumped at the chance.

I know something about Belgium, like where it is and how to get there. Some of the history, especially the country’s role in the two World Wars of the 20th century. And how they aren’t exactly Switzerland, but based on the countries surrounding it (France, Germany, the Netherlands and the North Sea) and as the capital of the European Union, they know how to make alliances and get along. I also didn’t know that cycling is their passion, their hobby, their existence way beyond just being a sport. Brussels is just like any other big city in Europe, a mixture of old and new architecture, two million inhabitants and snarling traffic. I was much more interested in the countryside where they contested the one-day races Tour of Flanders and the much hated and respected Paris-Roubaix.

An overnight flight put me in Belgium on a Thursday morning, dreary and overcast, but to be expected. It is northern Europe in the spring after all. Phil and the other guys in the group arrived a day early for an overnight excursion to Amsterdam, so I had some time to get acclimated to the time change (seven hours ahead of EST), the language barrier (Flemish), the money exchange (1 to 1.3 dollars to Euros!) before they made it back.

To no one’s surprise, Delta hadn’t delivered their luggage, now 36 hours later (you know what Delta stands for, Don’t Expect Luggage to Arrive) so our 1st day warm-up ride was postponed ‘till the morning. It was dark when we finished putting together our bikes, but we were just in time for a minor Belgian pub crawl to sample the local beers.

Beer is to Belgians what wine is to the French. They’re very serious about their beer, serving each beer in an especially logoed glass with a formality that would seem quaint to beer drinking North Americans. Beer wasn’t the only thing we learned about that night. If cycling and beer drinking are among the top pastimes in Belgium, smoking runs a close third. It actually might outdistance the other two combined if you consider the population as a whole. No matter where you were (except in church) everybody, and I mean everybody was lighting up. The restaurants and pubs were so full of smoke you had to step outside every once in a while to get a breath of fresh air. We started picking our watering holes based on the amount of smoke pouring out the front door. The situation did spawn the best line of the trip when Phil asked “anybody got any Nicorette gum? I’ve got to kick this habit before I get home!”

Phil, John Vance, Walter Campbell and Ron Howland from Jacksonville along with Alex Arato from Long Island turned out to be the perfect traveling partners for this trip. All good, strong riders, all very knowledgeable about the pro cycling scene in Europe and all kind enough to look after me even though they could easily have been “off the front.” And, perhaps most importantly, they knew the “non-cycling experience” was just as important as the cycling. In other words, they all can drink some beer.

It didn’t slow us down the next morning when we went off on about a 20 mile spinning jaunt out of the town of Aalst. Back to the town square for lunch (and boy did we get some looks) then off for an “organized” ride from the hotel at 2pm. We rode with CSC Assistant Team Director Scott Sunderland, a recently retired professional rider. An Australian who’s lived in Belgium for the last 18 years, Scott was the highlight of the trip. He’s accomplished just about everything you’d want in a professional cycling career so he didn’t have anything to prove. That attitude allowed him to ride with us, chat about riding, the pro circuit and the personalities involved. He couldn’t have been nicer, more helpful or more customer service oriented.

And that came in handy.

The final five miles of our ride that afternoon involved two steep cobblestone climbs, “The Muur” and “The Bossberg,” both legendary in Belgian cycling. As I struggled up the Bossberg at the back of the pack, I huffed to Scott, “I’ve got 10 years at 80 pounds on all of these guys.” Scott replied “No worries mate, it’s not a race,” as he calmly pedaled his way to the top. It was just the right thing to say at the right time, a knack Scott showed for the duration of the trip, each time we rode with him. That afternoon’s ride was a preview of what was to come. Every ride was full of surprises, changes in the weather and a blend of cruising descents and lung-busting, thigh-searing climbs.

Saturday’s ride was as a part of the Cyclosportif Tour de Flanders. It’s like the amateur ride in advance of the professional competition on Sunday. Outside of a golf Pro-Am, it’s the only thing I can think of that allows recreational athletes to compete on the same playing field as the best in the world will compete on the next day. We chose the 140 km course that included 16 climbs, 13 of which were cobblestones and under 10 feet wide. “You’d have to ride it to believe it,” is the best description I’ve heard about that experience.

It’s hard to describe what it’s like to ride the nearly 90 miles with 22,000 other registered riders. The climbs varied from 10 to 22 percent making it a physical and mental challenge as the day went on. I started dreading the descents, not wanting to give up that much altitude, knowing there’d be a climb around the corner to make me pay for this leisurely cruise! I walked the last hundred yards of two climbs, including the 22% Koppenberg where the guy in front of me fell and I had to stop. I unclipped my left pedal, only to fall to the right against the retaining fence, wiping out three sections of metal railing!

We joked that night that if we saw cows on the course the next day, we’d know where they came from! It was about the hardest single-day physical challenge I’ve ever encountered. I was glad everybody else agreed that it was tough, so tough in fact that if we knew how hard it was going to be, we might have said, “No thanks!”

I was anxious to watch the best in the world ride the same course the next day. Their ability brings you right back to earth. If you ever think you’re a good rider, just go watch how professional cyclists ride and climb. It’ll humble you right away.

That night after dinner, five of us headed off to the town square in Bruges to see what was going on on a Saturday night in Belgium. After a couple of “Leffe’s” a big group of young people came rolling out of the pub next to ours, with two guys in the front in a heated argument. They eventually separated themselves from the pack, and squared in the center of the small plaza. It looked pretty serious as they danced around and eyed each other, until one guy reached out a slapped the other to the ground.


That’s right, and the guy went to the deck and stumbled to get up. We just stood there laughing at the slap and the subsequent kicking display. Some young girls tried to break it up, but they were quickly brushed aside. We laughed that if this was in the US, some bouncer would have already taken care of this, and whatever was left over would be picked up by the sweeping local police. “Anybody can start a fight,” I told the group. “Finishing it is the key.”

You’ve got to be dedicated to be a cycling fan. They show up early, brave the weather, stand five deep throughout the course to see the “Whoosh” of the leaders and the peleton go by. We were part of that scene on Sunday at the Tour of Flanders. On the side of the mountain known as “The Muur” our group fanned out to find a good vantage point to see the climb and the leaders as they went by. Phil and I found a spot near the top, with a TV screen across the course and the beer tent behind us. We watched the leaders cruise by with much better looks than we had the day before, and waited for the peleton and Lance Armstrong as well.

Lance had apparently done a lot of work for teammate George Hincappe earlier in the race and looked pained as he ascended the second to last climb. Once they were by, we retired to the beer tent to watch the rest of the race unfold on television. And we weren’t alone. There were about a half million fans on the side of the mountain that day, and after the race went by, they were all looking for a place to see the finish. After about 10 minutes in front of the TV, I looked around to see the fans were about 15 deep behind me. The whole place went nuts when a Belgian, Tom Boonen won the race in a solo breakaway.

Generally, Belgians are pretty reserved, but overhearing Phil and I speaking English on the way down, the guy walking in front of us asked where we were from. “Florida,” I responded. “Oh, I’ve been to Florida,” he quickly answered. “Disneyworld?” I asked. “Yes, and many other places in Florida on holiday for three weeks last year,” he proudly said. Turns out the guy was about as nice as can be, so we spent about an hour talking to him and his young son before making our way to the rallying point.

Surprise, surprise, the rallying point was bar in the middle of town.

The rest of our group was already camped at a corner table, so we just jumped into the festivities. The group at the next table had one guy who spoke English (kind of) so we exchanged banter with them about the race. “Where are you from,” the guy asked me. Again in answered, “Florida.” “You’re Americans?” he said with an incredulous look on his face. “Sure. Why?” I asked. “I live about 200 miles from here and I’ve been coming here to this race for 20 years and I’ve never seen an American here. Are you here for the race?” “Of course, and we rode this yesterday,” I added as an aside. “Really! You rode this? Buy these men a beer!” our new found friend shouted to the waiter in both English and Flemish.

We spent plenty of time there, and the guy thanked me twice for being an American and for the sacrifice our country has made over the years for his. That seemed to be the general thought process as well. Maybe it’s just the Parisians that have a problem with Americans because in the countryside of Northern France and throughout Belgium, we were treated well.

We rode out of Bruges on Monday and Tuesday, the highlight being Monday’s ride with Scott. We were in his backyard basically, so he took us through a bunch of farm roads and saw plenty of that part of the country. We headed to the famed “Koppenberg” where the cobbled climb in matched by an equally as steep cobbled descent. It was cold and wet and about halfway up my bike completely flipped out from under me and I went down hard. Nothing really hurt by my pride, and Scott advised all of us to walk down the descent because it was so slick. Christian decided to give it a whirl and carefully navigated his way down. Pretty impressive. Scott took us to the Discovery Team’s hotel and we spent some time talking with Discovery’s “director sportif” Dirk De Mol.

Wednesday we were back at the start of the mid-week race, Ghent-Wevelghem a so-called “mini classic.” It was freezing, so I headed into the town of Denzie to see the start. The stage where the sign in happens was a quarter the size of the one at Bruges but the announcers/hosts were keeping things light and moving. One guy did the entertaining while the other did all of the interviews. He spoke to six different riders in six languages, none of them English.

Our group headed to the Koppenberg to watch the race as it comes over that climb twice. Only about 40 riders were left by the time the peleton got there. Apparently a big crash had taken a lot of guys out and the rest abandoned, saving their strength for the weekend and Paris-Roubaix.

There are a lot of sights in Belgium, but one of the most stunning is seeing men urinate in public just about everywhere. You might think I’m exaggerating but I’m talking about up against buildings, in bushes while scores of people are promenading by. It’s a little bit of culture shock to say the least. Occasionally we’d see a four-sided outdoor urinal, unenclosed. I theorized that if they could get the guys to use that at least, it’d be a step in the right direction. No American modesty there!

Thursday was one of the toughest riding days any of us had ever experienced. It was chilly but the ride from Ghent to our next stop, Tournai, was 65 miles dead into a 40 mph headwind. It was brutal. Why we didn’t drive to Tournai and ride to Ghent, downwind, I don’t know. Not enough advance planning I guess. We were slogging across this one stretch between towns that was wide open for as far as you could see. Walter dubbed it “The Killing Field,” it was so tough. I felt like I was going across Antarctica or something. I passed out in my room in Tournai for two hours when we got there.

Tournai is a neat town and very French, being right on the border. In Brussels they speak Flemish and some English. As we worked our way west, they spoke more Flemish and less English. And when we got to Tournai, they spoke no Flemish, no English and all French. I took French in High School, so I knew enough to be dangerous and get along.

Friday broke cold and rainy, but we were headed to the famed cobbles of Paris-Roubaix so the excitement and anticipation was pretty thick. We stopped a few kilometers from the start of section 20 of the cobbles (there are 26 sections). The beginning of our ride was a continual climb so I, of course, was dropped immediately, but hung on the back, just in sight of the group.

Scott was along for this ride and had given us just a quick “Cobbles 101” course before we headed out. Stay relaxed, don’t grip the handlebars too tight, ride the crown when you can and KEEP PEDALING, were the main points.

You can talk all you want about the cobbles, but nothing prepares you for riding them the first time. They’re wet, slick, muddy and rough doesn’t describe the ride. The pros go through the cobbled sections at about 26 mph. I was doing somewhere between 12 and 15, so instead of hitting every third one, I was getting the full effect. Your helmet is banging on your glasses, your hands go numb, your bike is fishtailing all over the place and the seat is bouncing so hard you’re convinced your bike will break apart at any second.

And that’s just the first hundred yards or so.

I was following Alex on a particularly muddy and slick section when his front wheel went to the right and his back wheel dropped off the crown to the left and he had no choice but to go down. I was trying to maneuver around him, but I was sure I was going to run right over him! I jinked right, then further right, heard Scott yelling in my head “Keep Pedaling” and just about made it around Alex when he stuck his hand out for balance and I ran right over it! I was absolutely mortified, but Alex yelled “I’m fine, keep going,” in a rather sporting fashion so I did just that. “You OK?” I yelled back. “Keep going,” was his only reply.

Luckily Alex wasn’t seriously injured by the fall or by his hand getting run over. It was kind of funny to see the tire tracks later on his glove though. He might have cracked a rib in the fall and was done riding for the day shortly thereafter.

We got through 15 sections before it really started raining and getting cold, so we made a direct move to Tournai, all of us except for Christian that is. He kept on, heading for more cobbles and Roubaix. When we finally say him that night he had finished but looked like a Zombie. “I was thinking about that hot shower for the last 20 K,” is what he told us the next day.

We returned to the cobbles on Saturday, but not before it started snowing while we were sitting at breakfast. There was some talk about calling the day’s ride off but that was quickly quashed by thoughts of coming all this way and not finishing the job. It was downright freezing when we left, around 28 degrees Fahrenheit and didn’t feel like it got above freezing the rest of the day. More cobbles lead to the town of Roubaix and the Velodrome. WE tooled around the Velodrome a couple of times but up high the white paint on the track was pretty slick. My back wheel slipped down making an “Ack, Ack, Ack” noise before it caught the pavement. I heard the same sound as Phil fell at that same spot. Luckily without injury, but with a little paint on his handlebars, a small memento from the trip.

We opted out of chasing the race the next day and instead; six of us joined John the Englishman and his friends at the Pave’ Gourmand restaurant in a small town for lunch along the course. We had met John and his friends at the hotel in Tournai and kind of invited ourselves along for the day. He and his friends were very gracious, adding us to their reservation. Our table of 15 had our own TV in the corner. It was a fabulous meal, and great company. After the main course, we walked outside, saw the race come through, and then headed back to our table for coffee and dessert.

The drive back to Aalst was uneventful and we packed up our bikes for the flight home.

Despite five calls to confirm taking our bikes on an international flight was free, Delta (typical) stuck us for $90 each coming back home.

It was a great adventure and as Walter told us “the group makes the trip.” He’s right, that group made the adventure fun and hopefully we’ll get together and do this again soon. Preferably somewhere warm. And flat.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

One Of Funk’s Punks

I try not to root for any particular player or team when I’m covering an event. I always like to see the home team win. It makes the fans happy, most of my friends are happy and certainly it makes a reporter’s job easier. Players and coaches are much more willing to talk after a win. At a golf tournament I like to see good play, good shots, an aggressive approach and somebody win instead of everybody else losing. And I do root for certain players. You get to know some of the guys when you hang around long enough, and you can’t help but hope they play well.

This brings us to Fred Funk.

He’s an easy guy to like and being a Maryland guy, I’ve always followed his career closely. I tried that with former PGA Tour player George Burns and that was a disaster. Burns was just gruff, rude and mean spirited, almost the exact opposite of Funk. Growing up in Tacoma Park, near the Maryland campus, Fred graduated from Maryland and became the golf coach there as well. So he’s no silver spoon guy. To the contrary, he even was a circulation manager for a newspaper for a while. A regular guy, with a regular job who just happened to be a very good golfer.

He was playing so well, he was encouraged to try the PGA Tour, and qualified as a Tour member in 1989. Like a lot of guys, he picked Ponte Vedra as his home to be near the practice facility at the TPC as Sawgrass. Funk might play more events than anybody else on the PGA Tour, so he really could live anywhere. Within the last year he was ready to move to Orlando, but at the last second changed his mind. So living in the area and also being a Maryland grad, it’s pretty natural that we’d have a connection.

I always check his scores in the agate type, and usually seek him out when I’m at a Tour event, if only to say hi. Last week he was his usual accommodating self leading up to the Players Championship, again making it easy to wish him well as the tournament drew near. A 65 in the first round showed that the golf course was not favoring the long hitters like a regular tour stop, and showed that Funk had his putter working, glaringly the weakest part of the game. Between the weather delays and the wind on Monday it was hard to predict who would emerge as the winner, and for the longest time, there really wasn’t a favorite. Until Funk birdied 12 and 13 to pull ahead of the field and declare himself as a contender.

At that point he had a two shot lead and almost anywhere else, the tournament is over. But that’s when he made it interesting. “I don’t make anything easy on myself,” Funk said after the final round. Three putt bogies on 14, 15 and 17. You could see the tournament slipping away from the fan favorite. “I said to myself in the middle of the fairway on 16, ‘How many more chances are you going to get?” That’s when he made his final birdie of the tournament, the insurance that he would eventually need.

How he played 18 was textbook in his approach if you want to win. Risky, but textbook none the less. Fade the ball down the left side of the fairway with your drive: Smooth a six iron from 170 that “I caught it on the toe,” according to Funk. Bunker shot to 5 ½ feet, and one putt for par. “I just wanted to put a good stroke on it,” Fred said right before the celebrating began. “I didn’t want to walk off 18, make or miss, thinking I didn’t hit a very good putt. My caddie reminded me it wasn’t over, but I said ‘It is for me!’ I had finally made something.”

When Fred was standing over that putt on 18, it was as quiet as I’ve ever heard it on the final hole at the Players Championship. There have been important putts there before. You only have to go back to last year’s finish when Adam Scott needed that 12 footer to avoid a playoff. But this was different. You could almost hear the silent prayers from the stands trying to will the ball in the hole. I was far enough away that I was able to say out loud “Let yourself do it Fred.” One of the guys I work with was standing next to me, and when I said that he gave me a startled look. I guess it was something out of character for me, but I really wanted him to make it. “So did everybody else,” a guy told me at the gas station later. I laughed, but got his point. Funk’s popularity cuts across all kinds of lines through the gallery. Everybody can relate to his game and his story. Now that story is a little richer. The right guy won.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Time To Move On

It’s not unexpected, this “better than it should be” run that comes to a sudden end. But when you’re in a bit over your head, you know it from the beginning. Eventually, that pretty girl that took a liking to you is going to dump you out on the street, and without a lot of sentimentality. She was too good for you anyway, and you knew it. But there was something in the back of your mind that said you just might be up to the task. Oh, she’s high maintenance alright. The instant you have any kind of a relationship with her, everybody’s a critic. What does she see in you? It won’t last anyway! She’s just using him! And it’s all true, except you’re having your fun in the meantime and soaking it all in.

Perhaps that’s a little overly dramatic, but Florida’s run to and in the NCAA tournament had all of the trappings of a relationship you knew was going to end, you just didn’t know when.

Two months ago, Gators fans and detractors were wondering if they were going to make the NCAA tournament at all. Florida was getting beat by teams they weren’t supposed to get beat by out of conference and just making the Big Dance seemed to be on a remote horizon. They didn’t play defense or rebound very well, and even their head coach said they didn’t “play smart.” Fast forward to the end of the regular season and Florida overcomes a 17 point deficit to beat South Carolina in Columbia. They’re scoring, they’re playing defense, they’re rebounding and in turn, they’re winning. Without much offense, they beat Kentucky in their final regular season game, and then run through the SEC Tournament, beating Kentucky again, this time in the finals to win the tournament for the first time ever. They get a four seed in the NCAA Tournament and instantly become “the team nobody wants to play.”

In other words, the head cheerleader is now dating the third stringer who has suddenly become a starter! But you knew it would end, just not how it did.

The Gators were supposed to get beat by North Carolina in the Sweet 16. Instead, their season ended in the second round, again, this time losing to Villanova. Granted Villanova was also a “team nobody wants to play” but Florida seemed to forget everything that put them on that late season run, all at the same time. They didn’t rebound, they didn’t play defense, and once again, their offense disappeared. Florida’s leading scorer, Anthony Roberson had five points. One basket and two free throws. Matt Walsh had 12, but none in the first half.

Something has happened to those guys in NCAA Tournament play. It seems they haven’t scored a meaningful point in the Tournament since they came to Florida. With two fouls, Billy Donovan took Roberson out of the game midway through the first half. And the Gators went on their best run, pulling within one at 44-43. But all the effort just to get there took its toll as Florida didn’t score a basket for the next seven minutes and eventually lost, 76-65. Donovan called it “a better feeling than last year. We went down fighting.”

But it’s still a second round loss, a quicker exit than should be expected around Gainesville. David Lee is the only senior on the team, but he might not be the only player leaving. Roberson and Walsh have made some noises about turning professional, but where are they going to play? A six foot point guard has to fill it up night after night, and Roberson hasn’t done that in his career at Florida. There are a million six foot guys who can handle the ball and are streaky shooters. Walsh doesn’t have a position and would have to elevate his game to get to be Larry Bird-lite.

So would you rather them leave so you can get on with it, or stick around another year to see if they can get past “second round-itis?” Are they part of the problem or are they part of the solution?

There’s been a lot of talk about team “chemistry” this year, something that seemed to disappear during the loss to Villanova. And this is where Billy Donovan comes in. He’ll have to figure out what to do with these guys if they stay which might be a bigger task than replacing them if they leave. Freshmen Taurean Green, Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer all got quality minutes this year and showed they could play. Chris Richard was a contributor as was Adrian Moss.

It’ll play out in the next couple of weeks as Donovan gets some answers and zeros in on the recruits he needs. They need another big scorer and if they get that, Donovan will tell Walsh and Roberson to move on. And he probably should. The only constant in college basketball these days is change and for Florida it would be a change for the better.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators Get It Right …

As the ball bounced around the rim on Kentucky’s last shot, you couldn’t help but wonder how if it went in it, whether it would change either team’s season. For the Wildcats, the ball in the basket means a win, some momentum, the continuation of a streak against Florida, but perhaps more importantly, almost a lock on a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. For the Gators, it meant confidence, momentum, a lock on going to the tournament, a decent seeding and momentum in the SEC Tournament this weekend in Atlanta.

Florida’s been a strange team, but playing their best basketball right now. And they’re not a run and gun fire away team any longer. They’re looking for the high percentage shot and they’re playing great defense. After the win over Georgia, I said on the air that they scored 50 against the Bulldogs but if they “did that on Sunday “against Kentucky, they’d lose by 30.

Actually, they’d have only lost by two.

The difference is Billy Donovan knows what kind of team he has, and he’s convinced them that that’s what they are. I know that sounds confusing, but hot shot high school players pick schools where they’re going to shine. Anthony Roberson, David Lee and Matt Walsh didn’t come to Florida to run a half court offense and play great defense. But with those three, Al Horford and the combination of any of the other guards and forwards, the Gators are a tough, half court team that can play defense. That’s how they held the Wildcats to just 52 points. Donovan recognized that early in the year, perhaps as early as the Louisville game at home. He knew his team was young, but the Cardinals showed him that his current crop can’t run the floor for 40 minutes and keep up with great offensive teams. The only way they do that is if Walsh is hitting his threes and Roberson is over fifty percent from the floor. That was happening too infrequently, this team got smarter, and Donovan convinced them that’s how they were going to win.

Playing hard is something that has become a hallmark of any Donovan coached team. They’ll hustle, jump on loose balls and throw themselves all over the court. That can take a toll on the offensive end, especially if you’re constantly trying to run coast to coast and find the 3 on 2 breakaways on every possession.

So is Florida going to win the National Championship?


Are they going to win the SEC Tournament?


Playing as the number two seed, they get the bye and will have to play three games in three days instead of four in four days as a lower seed.

Who can they beat in Atlanta?


Who can they lose to?


So the paradox continues.

They can’t be a slow starter no matter who they play in the second round on Friday. David Lee as the lose senior and Roberson and Walsh as the team leaders and juniors have been in this situation enough to know that going 1000 mph from the opening tip is the key to winning any tournament games.

They kind of remind me of that old golf saying: “I’d like to play my normal game. Just once.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Baseball, Steroids And You

It’s not hard to discount anything and everything Jose Canseco says. He’s been a self promoter and a characiture for most of his career. In a nutshell, he’s not smart. But he has admitted to using steroids during his career in Major League Baseball, and has implicated most of the big names in baseball in the process.

His book about steroid use explains how, and why, top-notch athletes use performance enhancing drugs to make good athletes better and as Canseco writes, “great players legendary.” It’s not hard to look back at Canseco early in his career and see a very different body style than the one he had as his carrer ended. He was tall and muscular, but was almost wiry. He stole 40 bases and hit 40 home runs in the same season. He ran balls down in the outfield, and legged out doubles with his speed. But as his career progressed, Canseco became a heavily muscled bomber, somewhat injury prone, but more prone to outlandish behavior and prodigous home run blasts.

In other words, the poster boy for steroid use.

Whether he actually injected Mark McGwire with steroids in a bathroom stall in Oakland as he claims in his book is not very relevant. McGwire clearly enhanced his body style and his performace with some kind of substance. He’s admitted to using androstinedione, not a steroid per se, but rather a drug that allows an athlete to work out harder and more often with less recovery time.

McGwire went from a strong, tall home run hitter to a strong, tall, huge home run hitter. No doubt he spent a lot of time in the gym, and no doubt he used drugs to get big. Did Canseco inject him? Did he use illegal drugs? Who cares? Either way he did it with help, and that help put him in the record books with 70 home runs.

As a fan, just think about the players you know in your mind who went from regular looking pro athletes to sculpted Adonis looking mashers. Barry Bonds, Brady Anderson, Ron Gant, McGwire, Canseco, Sammy Sosa, Ken Caminiti, Roger Clemens, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, all guys who are substially bigger than when their careers started. So were they all on steroids? Did they just get bigger with age and hard work? We’ll never know. Unless of course, more players like Giambi come clean.

Canseco might be a cartoon character, and desperate for money, but at least a portion of his claims are true. Baseball players went outside the game trying to break the bank. And most did. But at what cost? Whether there’s an asterisk or not next to the records, the last ten years will always be known as the time in baseball when the players used drugs to inflate the numbers.

And how about the latest allegations?

Did MLB know this was going on, only to turn a blind eye in order to bring some new excitement to the game?

Boy, I hope not.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Weaver’s Take?

Make no mistake about it: despite all of the talk, positive and negative about Jacksonville hosting the Super Bowl, there are only 32 opinions that count, those of the NFL owners. They vote on where to put the game, they decide what kind of business deal it needs to be and they decide if a city can handle it. Not the sportwriters, not the broadcasters and not the fans. It’s the owners.

So at least one of them, Jaguars Owner Wayne Weaver is confident the game will return. “I had a conversation with Commissioner Tagliabue in my suite mid-way during the game. He was very pleased with the execution of the Super Bowl activities, the events. Clearly Jim Steeg and the NFL events people did a superb job. So, as I said, with few exceptions we have very little that we would differently. I can tell you, I can find very few things to find any fault with.”

Weaver is convinced the Super Bowl will have a long time residual effect on the city. The Jaguars owner has been a big proponent of downtown Jacksonville for a while, and it has been rumored that he’s tried to broker a deal to bring another luxury hotel to the Northbank. He knows downtown needs another hotel.

“Clearly we do. As you look at the RFPs on the Southside Generating Plant, one of the things that struck me as I walked through the NFL Experience and looked at that site, I’m just thinking ‘Wow, some CEO is going to walk through here and say what a great site.’ It’s so big so it could be multi-used, hotel, condos, office. It’s a 44-acre site there. I think there is still room on our southbank and the shipyard property that we could have a small 150-, 250-room luxury hotel. All of those things are going take place over the next ten years. I’m confident of that.”

So I asked him if that was a project he’d be willing to take on.

“I clearly have a big vision for our downtown and I think the exposure that we’re getting, that we got this past week, is going to allow us, and shame on us if we don’t have a big enough vision and a strategy to go out and make sure those kind of things happen because the key to our downtown is our riverfront on the north and south bank and how well we develop that over the next several years.”

Nice answer. Not exactly answering the question, not saying yes and not saying no.

(how confident are you that Jacksonville will be awarded another Super Bowl?)

“I think that we do have an opportunity to get another Super Bowl. As I explained last week in a press conference, the NFL is using it more as a business model today, but I would think 2011, 2012 would be a realistic time to think that we might get in a rotation to host another Super Bowl.”

(can you base that on comments you received from Commissioner Tagliabue and other owners or is that your optimism?)

“I think it’s pure optimism on my part, but I certainly think my optimism is based on what all the owners said to me. It was a majority that were here sometime during the latter part of the week and they were all very complimentary on the execution of Super Bowl here in Jacksonville.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

What Do You Like?

Make no mistake about it: despite all of the talk, positive and negative about Jacksonville hosting the Super Bowl, there are only 32 opinions that count, those of the NFL owners. They vote on where to put the game, they decide what kind of business deal it needs to be and they deside if a city can handle it. Not the sportwriters, not the broadcasters and not the fans. It’s the owners.

So at least one of them, Jaguars Owner Wayne Weaver is confident the game will return. “I had a conversation with Commissioner Tagliabue in my suite mid-way during the game. He was very pleased with the execution of the Super Bowl activities, the events. Clearly Jim Steeg and the NFL events people did a superb job. So, as I said, with few exceptions we have very little that we would differently. I can tell you, I can find very few things to find any fault with.”

Weaver is convinced the Super Bowl will have a long time residual effect on the city. The Jaguars owner has been a big proponent of downtown Jacksonville for a while, and it has been rumored that he’s tried to broker a deal to bring another luxury hotel to the Northbank. He knows downtown needs another hotel.

“Clearly we do. As you look at the RFPs on the Southside Generating Plant, one of the things that struck me as I walked through the NFL Experience and looked at that site, I’m just thinking ‘Wow, some CEO is going to walk through here and say what a great site.’ It’s so big so it could be multi-used, hotel, condos, office. It’s a 44-acre site there. I think there is still room on our southbank and the shipyard property that we could have a small 150-, 250-room luxury hotel. All of those things are going take place over the next ten years. I’m confident of that.”

So I asked him if that was a project he’d be willing to take on.

“I clearly have a big vision for our downtown and I think the exposure that we’re getting, that we got this past week, is going to allow us, and shame on us if we don’t have a big enough vision and a strategy to go out and make sure those kind of things happen because the key to our downtown is our riverfront on the north and south bank and how well we develop that over the next several years.”

Nice answer. Not exactly answering the question, not saying yes and not saying no.

(how confident are you that Jacksonville will be awarded another Super Bowl?)

“I think that we do have an opportunity to get another Super Bowl. As I explained last week in a press conference, the NFL is using it more as a business model today, but I would think 2011, 2012 would be a realistic time to think that we might get in a rotation to host another Super Bowl.”

(can you base that on comments you received from Commissioner Tagliabue and other owners or is that your optimism?)

“I think it’s pure optimism on my part, but I certainly think my optimism is based on what all the owners said to me. It was a majority that were here sometime during the latter part of the week and they were all very complimentary on the execution of Super Bowl here in Jacksonville.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Saga Continues

It is just amazing how the Super Bowl venue is getting nearly as much press as the game itself! One of the reasons is fear of the unknown, the other is that it is a totally new concept for the big game. If you haven’t been to a bunch of Super Bowls, you don’t know that the pre-game festivities are spread all over the host city and the surrounding area. In Miami you travel from Palm Beach to the Keys to cover the game. In Houston, the only time you went to the stadium was for the game. Everything else was 30 miles away. Atlanta had a concentration of events in the downtown area, but you had to head out to Buckhead and points north for any entertainment. Tampa created an entertainment zone, but you had to get there. And in San Diego, the pre-game events were spread all over Southern California.

Jacksonville’s Super Bowl is packed into a two-mile radius around the Stadium. The cruise ships, the main hotels and the entertainment zone are all rolled into one. Once visitors get to their rooms, they won’t have to get in a car again. Food, drinks, concerts and other entertainment will all be right along the river, mainly on Bay St. which will be closed to vehicular traffic beginning on Thursday. The NFL experience is a water taxi ride away across the river. If it works, the NFL will begin to ask other cities to move everything closer so that it’s a real three day celebration of the league.

Former Times-Union writer and current cbs.sportsline columnist weighs in on Jacksonville as a host Super Bowl city.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Super Update

I really didn’t think I was that tough on Tony Kornheiser. After his scathing column ripping Jacksonville as a host city for the Super Bowl, we called him up and asked if he’d like to explain himself on the six o’clock news. At first he declined, and then agreed to appear via telephone. We read a couple of quotes from the column, introduced him, and asked him a pretty simple question:

“When was the last time you were in Jacksonville?” Little did I know that question would set off a firestorm of commentary and controversy locally and in some case, across the country. Come to find out, Tony’s never actually been to Jacksonville. He’s been through it and “I usually stop for the free orange juice,” was the full extent of his experience.

(By the way, where’s that? I’ve never seen a free orange juice stand on 95, but maybe I’ve just missed it.)

I’m not sure why, but the whole thing started to go downhill from there, with Kornheiser making fun of my Maryland roots and calling on his “we kid because we love” get out of jail free line. I actually was just looking for his motivation for writing the column. Does he do this every year the week before the Super Bowl? Did he rip Houston, Miami, Tampa, Atlanta, San Diego and others just to get a rise out of the population? I never really got an answer and I’m still trying to figure it out. On his radio show the next day in D.C. he called me a “pompous, blowhard, gasbag,” not exactly addressing the question. I did find out that not only has he never been here, he’s not coming for the game either!

Maybe there’s something about Jacksonville that just grates on people. They went nuts in Charlotte in ’93 when the NFL awarded a franchise to Jacksonville alongside “the Queen city.” “Don’t worry Charlotte, you’re not Jacksonville,” one columnist opined in the morning paper (of course he’s still right, they have a long way to go.)

Jacksonville has talked a big game for the last twenty years, and then backed it up with action. A rebuilt downtown sports complex now has an NFL Franchise, a Dodgers affiliate and the NCAA Tournament as tenants. The ACC football and baseball championships will be played in town. And, of course, the Super Bowl rolls through on February 6th. The Players Championship and the Bausch and Lomb tennis championships have been in town since the ‘70’s.

The sports credentials are easy to find. In fact, the culture of the city is woven through the sports calendar. Around the golf, tennis, boating, cycling and other 12-month outdoor sports people participate in, they find time to support the things that come to town. And for some reason that really gets under some people’s skin. Jacksonville has never claimed to be Miami, Tampa, Orlando, Atlanta, D.C. or any other city it’s not.

In fact, Jacksonville has never wanted to be any of those.

The people here are comfortable with who they are and where they’re going, and maybe that’s the thing that bothers so many people. It’s not the greatest place for clubs, restaurants, nightlife and shopping. But as far as lifestyle, the people who live here like it.

The “dis” fest will continue, except for Mike Bianchi from the Orlando Sentinel. A former Jacksonville columnist, his take is below:

Super tally: Orlando dallies; Jacksonville does
  Published January 28, 2005

This is a very bad time to be a sports columnist in Orlando.

I feel like I’m standing outside the big columnist party, nose pressed against the glass, watching the other scribes laughing and joking and having a blast at Jacksonville’s expense.

“How did Jacksonville get the Super Bowl?” lampooned Tony Kornheiser, a columnist for the Washington Post and co-host of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, earlier this week. “What, Tuscaloosa was booked? . . . Who in Jacksonville has a photo of Paul Tagliabue with a goat?”

Kornheiser claims Jacksonville does not have the sophistication to host a Super Bowl, which seems sort of odd coming from a guy who wears a turban on TV and yells a lot.

But, hey, Kornheiser can ridicule Jacksonville with impunity for one very good reason: He doesn’t write in Orlando.

In Orlando, we don’t put down Jacksonville; we look up to Jacksonville. We don’t disparage our northern neighbors; we envy them. We don’t call Jacksonville names; we just call Jacksonville, “Daddy.”

Here’s all you need to know: As Jacksonville gets ready for its Super Bowl next weekend, guess what big sports happening will be in Orlando this weekend? It’s called “The Super Bowl of Motorsports,” but actually it’s just a glorified name for a tractor pull. Jacksonville gets the real Super Bowl; we get the Monster Truck Super Bowl.

Wooo-Weee, Merle, did you see that ol’ boy flip his F-250 with the posi-traction rear end? He’s so dumb he couldn’t find his behind with both hands and a coon dog.

“The Monster Trucks are extremely popular here,” confirmed Allen Johnson, director of the Orlando Centroplex. “We’re expecting about 60,000 at the Citrus Bowl.”

Need we say more?

This is why the rip-Jacksonville reindeer games will proceed without any notable input from this Orlando columnist. Let the writers from New York and Boston take shots at Jacksonville if they must, but not me. I used to live in Jacksonville; I know how hard that city worked and how much money it spent to become a sports town.

Would Orlando be a better spot for the Super Bowl? Of course, it would. We have a zillion hotels, an internationally renowned airport and infinitely more entertainment options. But Jacksonville has something more important: Vision.

Ignore the insults, Jacksonville. Be proud of where you came from and what you’ve become. Stand tall. You are a Super city, no matter what the knuckleheads say or write.

Jacksonville shouldn’t be laughed at by the nation’s media, it should be lauded. Jacksonville is what all sports writers say they love: The ultimate underdog story. It’s the Rocky and Rudy of sports cities. It is the little town that could. And did.

Orlando dreams; Jacksonville does.

Orlando wanted an NFL team at one time; Jacksonville went out and got one.

Orlando wants a new downtown arena; Jacksonville just built one.

Orlando wants a minor-league baseball park downtown; you should see the one Jacksonville just built.

Orlando put in a half-hearted bid to get the Atlantic Coast Conference football championship; Jacksonville put in a serious bid and got the game.

“Jacksonville makes Tampa look like Paris!” Kornheiser wrote.

Unfortunately, as a sports town, Jacksonville makes Orlando look like Peoria.

Heck, we can’t even make fun of Jacksonville’s reputed love affair with Waffle House and Hooters. According to the Waffle House customer service hotline, Orlando and Jacksonville each has seven Waffle Houses. And are you ready for this? According to the Hooters Web site, Jacksonville has just four Hooters locations; Orlando has six.

So now you know why I’m going to leave the roasting of Jacksonville to other columnists. I have more important things to write about. Now if you’ll excuse me.

Hey, Merle, did you see that wheelie?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Rippin’ Jacksonville

Last year I was at the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame selection meeting the Saturday before the Super Bowl when ESPN.com’s Len Pasquarelli offered “I might skip next year’s Super Bowl. I hate Jacksonville.” Furman Bisher, the long time Atlanta writer waved him off, saying he was way off base. But Pasquarelli persisted and I finally told him that I agreed with him, he shouldn’t come to the game because “that means one less uninformed hack meandering in the city.”

I’ve said all along they’d be ripping us, mainly because they don’t know what they’re talking about, but add Tony Kornheiser to the list of “uninformed hacks” about to make their way to town. Here’s his column of Wednesday the 26th.

Sam’s response to this article is below it.

What’s That Smell? Jacksonville
  By Tony Kornheiser
Wednesday, January 26, 2005; Page D01

Right after Chad Lewis caught that touchdown pass with about four minutes to go, the touchdown that cemented the victory and ensured the Philadelphia Eagles would be in the Super Bowl, some guy in the stands joyfully held up a sign that said, “We’re Going To Jacksonville.”

And I thought: What on earth is second prize? You have to build there?

How did Jacksonville get the Super Bowl? What, Tuscaloosa was booked?

If going to Jacksonville for a week is the reward New England and Philadelphia get for being the best teams in the NFL this year, Peyton Manning ought to be happy he didn’t get there. Imagine how Manning would have felt, having to play all year in Indianapolis, and then landing in Jacksonville? Which gods would he have offended to get that killer quinella?

The NFL must see itself as handing out some sort of charity when it awards the Super Bowl to any place other than New Orleans, Miami and Southern California. Because, believe me, nobody wants the game to be anywhere but there. So when the NFL insists on putting it in outposts like Detroit, Houston or Minneapolis, people ask, “Are you guys nuts?” But when you pick Jacksonville, people are agape and say, “Who in Jacksonville has a photo of Tagliabue with a goat?”

At least these other places are big cities, with some history and a longtime affiliation with the NFL, as opposed to Jacksonville, which has now been in the league for about 15 minutes. Detroit is where American cars are made, and where Motown music originated. Minneapolis-St. Paul is the home of 3M and General Mills. Houston is the home of NASA, and, thanks to Enron, the gold standard in white-collar corporate crime. Jacksonville is what? (I’m just taking a shot here, Tony, a dump? No. Cut that out. It’s a ‘Ville! The only good ‘Ville is a Coupe de Ville.)

Have you ever been to Tampa? It’s heaven, if you like Waffle Houses.

Jacksonville makes Tampa look like Paris!

Jacksonville has this one great thing, the TPC course with the island green on No. 17. (Which is actually in Ponte Vedra.) And the rest of it can be described with this phrase, “Welcome to Hooters.”

People in Jacksonville will be very upset with this piece. They will say it’s a cheap shot by an effete Northerner who didn’t want to be the 28th person on his own paper to write about how great and smart and handsome Tom Brady is. (Which is true, but come on, we kid because we love.) They will yell and scream that their city is hardly a backwater — it’s the 14th largest city by population in the country! Yes, and that’s because it’s the largest city by area by far. It’s an octopus. It’s 840 square miles! It takes in almost all of northeast Florida. If Jacksonville annexes all of southern Georgia, it could maybe crack the population top 10.

The NFL will tell you Jacksonville is a warm-weather site because it’s in Florida. But Jacksonville is barely in Florida. It gets cold in Jacksonville. Yesterday morning, the low was 31 degrees. That’s below freezing, boys and girls. That’s cold enough that you need to keep the space heater turned on in the double-wide. And Jacksonville is 20 miles from the beach. Jacksonville is one of the smallest and most remote stops in the NFL. Green Bay is smaller and more remote. But Green Bay has Lombardi, Starr, Favre and the frozen tundra. Jacksonville has a Dairy Queen.

Jacksonville may be in Florida technically. But this isn’t South Beach, gang. It isn’t the home of Gloria Estefan, Enrique Iglesias and Luther Campbell. Jacksonville is where Pat Boone was born (sometime around the Martin Van Buren presidency), and where the Southern hair band .38 Special got together. Somehow it doesn’t sound like hip-hop. It’s more like I-Hop.

My friend Tony Reali, “Stat Boy” on the “PTI” show, flew to Jacksonville a few months ago to emcee some dopey trivia contest. And when he walked off the plane, he got a whiff of something that almost brought him to his knees — it was Jacksonville — and he made the not uncommon observation, “This place smells.”

“I am from Staten Island, and I have lived in New Jersey,” Reali explained. “I know bad smells. This was right below Secaucus.”

Not as bad as Staten Island?

“Nothing approaches Staten Island,” Reali said with conviction.

The next day, while appearing on a national radio show with Dan Le Batard of the Miami Herald, Reali announced, “Jacksonville stinks,” and asked Le Batard if it smelled that bad in Miami.

My friend Mike Freeman, who used to work here at The Post and now writes a column in Jacksonville, heard the show and went wild. He called Reali “Stat Jerk” and “Stat Punk,” and chided him for slandering fair Jacksonville (named for Andrew Jackson, who, by the way, never actually set foot in it — he was probably waiting on the beach). In his column Freeman said Reali’s salvo was probably the first of many that would be fired at Jacksonville now that it was getting ready to host the Super Bowl.

Get used to it, brothers and sisters, Freeman wrote, this is what they’re all going to do.

Brady, table for five. Brady, table for five. Welcome to Applebee’s. Eatin’ good. In the neighborhood.


What we’ve been trying to to is confirm Kornheiser’s last visit to Jacksonville, because it’s pretty obvious, he’s never been here. I’ve never seen him any way. What do you expect from a guy who takes cues, willingly, from a guy called “stat boy?” He and other’s like him who are taking their shots are so full of self importance it’s actually amusing. Or maybe just sad. Because they’re afraid, afraid of what we are becoming. A force and a player on the national scene, leaving them behind.

Call it “sunshine envy.” I know, I lived in DC and this time of year sunshine is as rare as a sellout at a Wizards game. Picking is easy. Kornheiser went for every hackneyed stereotype ever thought up about the South, Jacksonville and anything else this side of the mason dixon line.

My Mom always told me you can find nice places in every city, and we know that about our town. You have to let it reveal itself to you, you can’t just shoehorn yourself in here. So perhaps he’ll be right at home here because he’ll be miserable, something he’s obviously familiar with.

Look, we don’t have to apologize or defend ourselves. We know who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going. So come to town, do your job and go home. Back to your beltway traffic back to your bickering politicians and back to as you called them your “effete northerner” friends.

Or better yet.

Stay home.

That’ll be one less uninformed hack wandering around our town. And besides Tony, how can you write an entire column about Jacksonville and not once mention Skynyrd?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Super Preps

Just drive around town, and it’s evident, something’s coming to Jacksonville. You could imagine a big convention is in town. Or it’s some kind of massive city spruce up project, lines on the streets, potholes fixed and shrubs planted. But the world is coming to visit for a week and the place has to look good.

And it does.

The Super Bowl has an impact on a city in many ways, some obvious and some subtle. Sure, a couple of hundred thousand people will be in town for three or four days, spending money and rendering opinions about everything from the river to the weather to who’s actually going to win the game. It’s a complete NFL run production. They have the town dialed in: from parties to the participating teams’ hotels, the league has a handle on just about every detail you can think of.

They’ve got an entire entertainment area set up downtown for the locals and the visitors to mingle. They’re transforming burnt out warehouses into bars and gathering areas. The Commissioner’s party is at Cecil Commerce Center. The Media party is at the 17th hole at TPC. Playboy is at River City Brewing and Maxim is having the party everybody wants to go to.

And it’s all happening in our back yard.

People keep asking me “Are we ready?” The answer is yes, and if anything isn’t ready, fear not. The NFL will fix it. They have unlimited resourses and they’ll paint it or rebuild it or pave it or put some sod over it in order to make it right.

The Super Bowl Host Committee has been way ahead of the game, gathering money and people to make the game feel at home in a new venue. It’s a new concept for the NFL. The Super Bowl is a big celebration that envelopes an entire region. This year, the league is hosting the whole thing within a two mile area. They usually don’t do that. In Miami it’s spread out over three counties. In New Orleans, people are all over the place. In Jacksonville, once you get to town, you won’t need a car. Everything will be within walking distance or a shuttle will take you there.

The logistics of the Super Bowl are amazing. The league has teams of people just in charge of making sure people are transported around the host city without a hitch. Lanes are blocked off just to accommodate the shuttle buses. So prepare to be enveloped by the game and the things that surround it.

And prepare to embrace it.

It could be the only time it’s ever here.

So we can think it’s either a big pain or a big party. It won’t take twice as long to get around, it’ll probably take four times as long.

Media from around the world will be here, and many of they writers and broadcasters will rip us. Rip us as people, as hosts and as a city. But that’s OK. Last year the Los Angeles Times NFL beat writer filed a story from Houston with the dateline “Yahooville.” I laughed when I read that thinking that Houston is the 4th largest metropolitan area in the U.S. and he thinks it’s Yahooville? What’s he going to think about Jacksonville?

So I’m going to put on my most hospitable face and enjoy the week.

I’m still going to live here when they all leave, and I already know what a great place this is. If they want to discover that, great. If not, that’s fine too.