Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gerald R. Ford 38th President

I was watching the State funeral for President Gerald Ford and was surprised at how much his short presidency has influenced the US today. Ford was a dealmaker with his biggest aspiration being to one day be the Speaker of the House. Difficult to do for a Republican during a Democrat dominated era in congressional politics. Interestingly enough, his even-handedness made him the singular choice among Democrats and Republicans to replace Spiro Agnew as Vice-President.

His ascendancy to the Presidency seemed to be providential. The right man at the right time. “Cometh the hour, cometh the man” is how the saying goes. It’s hard to explain to somebody how big of a deal all of this was but I remember all of what happened in American politics during that era.

Every day brought a new revelation regarding the Nixon administration and even though partisan politics played a role, there was enough going on to shake any American to the core.

Ford brought a steady hand and was an honorable, decent guy. He pardoned Nixon and set out some guidelines for those who refused to serve in Vietnam to return to the US without penalty. Both of those decisions were meant to be part of the “healing” process in America and they worked.

What they also did was cost Ford the Presidency in 1976.

Jimmy Carter defeated him with the thrust of the campaign being Ford’s pardon of Nixon and his statement during a debate that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” That was a clear reference to the thought process of the people living in those countries but it was portrayed by the media as a President who’s out of touch and not quick enough on his feet. Either way, Ford was denied another four years and Jimmy Carter served as a one-term President.

I was in college while Ford was in office and as a Radio, TV and Film major was invited on a private tour of the White House media wing with a couple of fellow students in 1975. At the last minute, the President left the White House for an appearance at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. His original schedule had him not attending, but he changed his mind. Anyway, our host at the White House felt bad for us because the media wing was completely empty with the White House Press Corp scurrying out the door to follow President Ford. So our host gave us a “back lot” tour of the West Wing, which was very cool.

We got to stick out head in the Cabinet Room and I noticed that each of the big winged back chairs (the ones you see when they let the media in there for the first five minutes) had brass plates on the back with each Cabinet member’s name engraved on them. There was a velvet rope in front of the Oval Office but we got to stand there for a couple of minutes and look inside.

The President’s chair was turned to the side with a pen left on a tablet on the desk as if he had just walked out. I was impressed that it was actually “oval” and it had a beautiful carpet that matched the engraving in the ceiling.

I had forgotten what an influence Ford had on me as a young college student. I was plenty against the war, pro-change and some might call radical but Ford’s decency, his willingness to find middle ground and his ability to put the big picture in front of any personal gain showed me what leadership is about.

In retrospect, even his harshest critics have admitted that the Nixon pardon was the right thing to do to allow the country to move forward. Sometimes it takes a generation to distill history into the proper context. History will always judge Ford as the right man at the right time.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Aloha Rashean

Looking at Rashean Mathis’ short NFL career, it seems that, as he has said, he was destined to be here. Being elected to the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2006, Mathis joins another Jacksonville area athlete, Champ Bailey, as the starting corners for the AFC in this year’s game in Hawaii.

Mathis is tied for the league lead in interceptions with 7, has 17 official passes defended and played well on the big stage of the two Monday Night games against both Pittsburgh and New York. But it might be his consistency and his continued improvement that impressed the voters and the fans.

“My teammates are responsible for this,” Rashean told me on the phone shortly after his election was revealed. “No cornerback makes the Pro Bowl on his own. The guys up front have to do their job, they have to pressure the quarterback, the safeties have to be in position and I just have to make some plays.”

I covered Rashean in High School, but he dropped off my radar in college when he attended Bethune Cookman. Even though he led the nation in interceptions as a 4-year starter in Daytona, he was considered a “lower class” player by most observers.

Except those who scout for the NFL.

They seemed to see the things in Rashean that have put him in the Pro Bowl when he was in college. That’s why the Jaguars made him their second round pick bringing a resounding “who?” from their fans. But he has speed, skill and desire. That’s why as he improved, the Jaguars gave him more and more responsibility. He kept improving and went from safety to corner.

“I was just an athlete playing corner that first year,” Mathis is fond of saying. “I’ve started to learn how to play this position now.”

Rashean knew early on he could compete at the highest level. “At the Senior Bowl, I looked around and noticed that I could play with those guys and I figure these were the guys going into the NFL and said ‘yeah, I can play with them.”

Rashean is an unassuming guy, close to his mother and grandmother and pleasant to be around. Florida State fans will lament that his scholarship offer during his senior year was rescinded because of a broken leg. “Come over to Tallahassee and we’ll see how your leg responds,” is how his recruiter put it.

“Oh no,” Rashean’s Mom told him. “You’re going somewhere where they’re going to take care of you.” That’s how he ended up at B-CC with Alvin Wyatt.

Rashean is an unassuming guy, close to his mother and grandmother and pleasant to be around. His demeanor convinced me that he would be the perfect host for our weekly “End Zone” show on Monday nights. He’s turned out to be as good a guy as he is a player.

Part of my job is to fine-tune the on-air performance of the players who have hosted the show and Rashean has come as far as anybody has. He works on his language skills. He’s accepting of criticism and advice. Like what the coaches saw at every level he’s played football, I’m seeing him improve and continue to try and get better.

And that’s all anybody can ask.

Work at it, play as hard as you can, and see how you’re doing when it’s over. That might just get you to the Pro Bowl.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com


Ankle-gate took another turn on Saturday when the Jaguars announced that Quarterback Byron Leftwich would have surgery on his injured ankle and would return when his recovery was complete. Very unusual to make any kind of announcement on a Saturday and certainly not one a major as the quarterback was out indefinitely.

If you remember, the first we heard about the ankle was when Byron turned up on the injury report out of the blue. “You know when you wake up with a ‘crick’ in your neck,” Head Coach Jack Del Rio said when originally asked about it. “That’s the same thing here but with the ankle.”

He played against Houston and was fairly ineffective in a 27-7 loss. Did the ankle play a role? “It didn’t have anything to do with it,” Leftwich assured us after the game. “I don’t believe it was a factor,” Del Rio echoed in his Monday press conference. “Have you looked at the tape,” was the collective response from the assembled media.

To his credit, Del Rio came back on Wednesday and said the ankle was a factor and that Leftwich and David Garrard would split snaps in practice. Leftwich wasn’t happy and let everybody know through his body language and his locker room demeanor. “I was actually hurt in the Redskins game,” Leftwich revealed the next day. That was news to Del Rio who was clearly miffed when Leftwich changed his story.

On Thursday the media was in the locker room when Leftwich dropped his “I don’t know, but it’s not me” comment when asked about the starting QB situation. “Nobody’s said anything to me,” Garrard said. I asked to speak with Del Rio but was told he was “unavailable.” Very strange. So Garrard was named the starter and promptly played an efficient game against the Eagles and won.

“I’ve played on worse,” Byron kept up the patter and the pressure to get back in the lineup when asked about the ankle.

All of this was against the backdrop of rumors that Leftwich was taking pain pills just to get through practice and wasn’t telling anyone. Garrard started again, and won against Tennessee. Leftwich headed to Birmingham to see the famed Dr. James Andrews at the Andrews clinic, apparently hoping a second opinion on his ankle would force the Jaguars hand and have him back on the field soon. Andrews gave him the opposite diagnosis, saying he had to rest the ankle and get re-evaluated the following week.

And that surgery was an option.

Del Rio confirmed all of that in his weekly press conference, but when asked about it in the locker room, Leftwich gave a terse “I’m not talking about it” response.

Again, silly.

Then the announcement that Leftwich would have surgery this coming Tuesday. I know Byron’s ‘upset because he wanted to play all the time this year, be successful and signed a new contract extension. Without him in the lineup the Jaguars can make some decisions about the QB position into the future.

Is Leftwich done as a quarterback for the Jaguars after 08?

Is Garrard the guy of the future?

None of it has been clear and none is coming into focus any time soon.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Quarterbacks ‘R Us

It might be the most intriguing position in sports.

At quarterback you have to be athletic, smart, communicate well and have a thick skin. You’re the goat when the team loses and the hero when they win. And sometimes you’re the goat when they win but never the hero when they lose.

You’re legacy depends on wins and losses and championships. Stats are fine, but getting into the playoffs and making a name for yourself is what you’ll leave behind in the league.

And there are intangibles at the quarterback position that you can’t quantify.

He has to be a leader, either by what he does or by what he says. The team has to respond to him. For the third week in a row, David Garrard will be the starter for the Jaguars. He’s lost only once as a starter, including two straight wins this year. Garrard is mobile and strong-armed. He might not be as accurate as he’d like, but his production is undeniable.

And Garrard has the intangibles.

The team plays at a different tempo when he’s in the lineup. He’s quick to the line and the team responds to it. And take nothing away from Byron Leftwich. He’s productive and, when healthy, gets the job done.

He also has the intangibles a quarterback needs and the team responds to him, but in a different way. He’s more laid-back. He’s slower and has a different rhythm. So, is one better than another? Depends on whom you ask and who the opponent is.

Last year when Leftwich was hurt, Garrard filled in, helping the Jaguars to the playoffs. They were in a rhythm, Garrard’s rhythm. When Head Coach Jack Del Rio extracted Garrard from the lineup inserting Leftwich, it wasn’t that Leftwich couldn’t play; he disrupted the dynamic of the team. They were in Garrard’s rhythm and had been for about six weeks. Leftwich played OK against the Patriots but the team was out of sync and they were soundly beaten.

This week, Del Rio announced that Garrard would be the starter and qualified it by saying that Leftwich’s ankle was “85 or 90 percent” and that it might “need a clean out procedure” at some point. So it gives Del Rio a reason to keep Garrard in the lineup and follows his philosophy of putting the player in the lineup who give the Jaguars the best chance to win, regardless of position, salary or draft number.

It’s the right call.

The team is in rhythm, they’re winning and finally on Wednesday Leftwich got on message saying that he’d do “anything to help the team win.”

I know Byron wanted to have a big year so he could demand a contract extension but it’s a big, bad world out here among the working folk. Sometimes things don’t work exactly as you’d like. So keep your head up and keep working and something good will happen. Like you’ll be on a playoff team again.

And that ain’t half bad.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Florida/Georgia Issues

I spent part of last week in Gainesville and part in Athens putting together a show for the annual Florida/Georgia game in Jacksonville. Both are great college towns and both seemed to be content that the match up between these two SEC teams won’t be coming to their stadiums anytime soon. Georgia fans do feel like it’s a bit of a road game, while Florida fans see it as a chance to see the Gators close to home.

In the Vince Dooley era, it was much different and had a more contentious feel because Georgia won 15 of 20 games while he was the head coach. Gator fans grumbled that it should be a home and home series. I haven’t heard that much from the Bulldog faithful, but after now 15 of 17 wins by Florida, I’m sure it’s getting a bit tiresome.

At the same time, moving the game to Athens probably wouldn’t have changed the outcome of any of those games as evidenced by the 52-17 the Gators enjoyed there in 1995.

Dooley treated the annual Georgia/Florida game as a home contest, telling me “we just considered Jacksonville South Georgia and treated it that way.” Dooley and the ‘Dogs also recruited pretty heavily in South Georgia and in Jacksonville at the time so it helped to say you’d play close to home every year.

Steve Spurrier started his building of the Florida football team by concentrating on beating Georgia, a pivotal game on the SEC schedule and a starting point for the Gators to take some pride in the program. Florida won 11 of 12 games under Spurrier against Georgia, never letting the ‘Dogs get in the way of a run at the SEC title.

Urban Meyer is now 2-0 against Georgia, but neither game has been convincing or impressive. Last year Florida hung on for a 14-10 win and this year the defense proved to be the difference in the 21-14 victory.

I haven’t heard much about the “spread offense” that is good and even Meyer said after the Georgia game that he “hasn’t felt this way about an offense in six years as a head coach.”

Of course he feels that way. Soon he’ll figure out that he’s asking Chris Leak to do things that aren’t playing to his strengths and that defensive players in the SEC are just bigger, faster, stronger and better football players than at the two outposts he was stationed at before Gainesville. And Time Tebow isn’t going to be a magical fix for the spread either. He’s going to be a good college quarterback but not a dominating one in that offense in that conference.

Talk about Alex Smith all you want. Good player in the right situation on the right team in the right conference against the right opponents. He might not have made it through four years in that offense in the SEC considering the pounding he’d be taking every week.

This year’s Florida/Georgia contest was all about defense and most of it about the Gators defensive squad. They forced five turnovers in the game by Georgia and completely shut down the ‘Dogs offense and freshman quarterback Matthew Stafford in the first half. Head Coach mark Richt said he didn’t give Stafford a good enough plan, but the dropped passes and missed blocks didn’t help either. Stafford looked like a freshman at times, but he also made some excellent plays, only to be let down by his teammates.

As a coach you hope young players make enough positive plays in order to offset their mistakes. Stafford is moving in that direction. Georgia’s defeat was as much at their own hands as it was at the Gators’.

“That’s right,” Stafford told me post-game on Saturday night. “You can’t make mistakes like that and expect to win. And when you get chances, you have to take advantage of them. We didn’t do either.”

(By the way, Stafford is incredibly poised for a guy who just turned 18).

Georgia is going to be all right in the long run, but they’re taking their lumps right now. Florida has some high expectations, but getting out of the SEC should be their first priority. “We still have the SEC East to look at,” Meyer said after the game when asked about moving up in the polls (USC lost).

Vandy and South Carolina are up next with Spurrier coming to The Swamp on November 11th. Success there puts them in the title game the first weekend of December in Atlanta. If they want to get to the next level, Meyer is going to have to tweak his offense. This is the second week in a row the offense hasn’t scored in the second half.

And if they have National Championship hopes, he better have a couple of tricks up his sleeve.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators, Present and Future

Tebow vs. the Russian Army?


Tebow vs. a nuclear blast?


Don’t get me wrong, I like Tim Tebow. Nice kid, works hard, studies hard, respects the game and the people around him but to listen to Gator fans, he can walk on water. In their only loss of the season, Florida had their share of mistakes to go around, but it seems that Chris Leak is taking all of the heat. It goes with the position I suppose, but Leak is a solid guy and a solid player. He’s blamed for three turnovers at the end of the Auburn game, where only one, the bad pass, should be counted against him. But either way, Leak has done a magnificent job of not complaining, of putting up with Urban Meyer’s tepid support and even fans booing when he comes in the game in relief of Tebow’s stints. Sure, Tebow can run the ball and might in the future become a complete quarterback, but right now, Chris Leak gives Florida the best chance to win, week in and week out.

Admittedly, Tebow is a strong runner. When he takes the ball and heads toward the line of scrimmage, it gives the Gators an advantage of an extra man blocking and a very strong and determined guy running the football. I’m pretty convinced Chris Leak could do much of the same given the same blocking and the same opportunity (except for perhaps the real tough short yardage gains.) But something different happens to the offensive line when 15 is in the game. The block a little harder and longer. Perfect in certain situations, not perfect when trying to mix things up through out an entire game.

So lay off Chris Leak. They’ve done him a disservice in Gainesville by not publicly saying he’s the man from the moment a new coaching staff stepped on campus. Meyer and company have done a lot of good things for the Florida program, but their treatment of Leak hasn’t been one of them. Tebow might be the future and part of the present, but the BMOC should be Chris Leak. Leak vs. anybody in the SEC? I’ll take Leak.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

A TO from T.O.

You thought it was plausible. That’s why there was a firestorm of speculation and information when it was reported that Terrell Owens had attempted suicide. Owens is wired different, is a publicity hound, loves the spotlight and appears to have a screw loose. So, taking his own life? I can see that, you thought.

Or perhaps you thought it was a publicity stunt, which most people figured to begin with. Or, very darkly, you thought he was going to do away with himself because of some deep, dark secret that was going to be revealed.

But Owens said none of that is true. Just a mistake, a misunderstanding, a mixture of his supplements and some pain medication put him in an “unresponsive” state, and his publicist called 911. The police report said he admitted to trying to harm himself, but Owens said he was “out of it” and didn’t remember saying that.

“He was taken advantage of,” his publicist, somewhat oddly, said at a press conference in Dallas.

In this era of a 24-hour news cycle, we saw this one develop in front of our eyes. And only because it was Owens did it become big news. If it was Terry Glenn, very little would have been said. But Owens has his own PR machine, like it or not, and he was splattered all over television and the internet for a full 24 hours.

I didn’t buy into the sensationalism of it all, thinking it was, in fact, an allergic reaction, but also wondering if it was a suicide attempt, that getting him help, and not shoving a camera in his face, should have been the first priority. But that’s not what the news business is about these days, and Owens has figured it out.

Maybe he’s telling the truth, maybe he’s not, but either way, he knows exactly what to do once given the opportunity to get his face in front of the public in the most dramatic way. He wanted to hold a press conference in his front yard again, but the Cowboys told him no. So he showed up at the Cowboy facility and was a part of the process of explanation.

Head Coach Bill Parcells didn’t know anything, and told the media just that. But when Owens took the podium, he did so with his own personal support group, including his own publicist. By way of explanation, every NFL team, including the Cowboys, has a PR staff that churns out all kinds of information and publicizes the players every move. So for Owens to bring along his own publicist, is a little out of bounds. But obviously agreed to by the Cowboys.

But have you noticed that the Cowboys have gone from one crisis to another since Owens joined the team? Do you think Parcells will put up with that for long? He refers to Owens as “the player” for now, so can his patience running out be far behind.

Maybe Owens is bipolar. Maybe he’s just kooky or maybe he’s just wired differently from everyone else, leaving us to constantly wonder. But this latest escapade is evidence that no matter what he does, we’ll buy into it.

At least for a while.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Information Management

With some of the new rules the NFL has instituted limiting the access of the media to the teams, the flow of information has been somewhat restricted. As the league moves closer to its own network and their partners, it also is moving closer to an attempt to manage the news and information that comes out of each club.

Most of the changes will have no effect on fans, unless they’re interested in the unvarnished truth about injuries and other assorted things that could have an effect on the outcome of the game.

Reporters are not allowed at practice after the first thirty minutes. Most of that involves stretching and agility drills. That’s why Marcus Stroud’s ankle injury wasn’t revealed until the next day when he didn’t show up for practice at all. The injury is serious enough that Marcus had an MRI on Thursday and he probably won’t play on Sunday against Dallas. If that’s the case, it’ll be the first game Marcus has missed in his five years as a professional.

If you don’t see the kind of coverage of NFL teams on your local television stations league wide throughout the year, that’s because of the league’s new rule barring local photographers from the games. Teams have tried to tiptoe around the rule, allowing a “pool” camera (Channel 4 and Channel 12 are working together this year on this project) but the ability to get the video necessary to do the personality profiles and such is no longer there. Again, a small effect on fans in general, but another piece of information that’s being limited.

Pete Rozelle, the former commissioner, warned against the NFL becoming a “television studio league” but with the development of the NFL Network and the big money, Disney, Fox and GE have given the league to televise the games, the privileges of coverage from an electronic standpoint are going to those who write the biggest checks.

Outside of post-game press conferences, the Jaguars have split Jack Del Rio’s media time between electronic and print. There are a couple of silly justifications given for this. The writers don’t like the answers to their questions being used on TV, and Jack Del Rio doesn’t like his banter with the writers, particularly the beat writer for the local paper, to be recorded on videotape. Yet, the writers are given a transcript of the electronic press conference and the PR staff gathers quotes that are handed out to the media.

While all of this sounds like media whining and carping and its effect on fans is minimal for now, it’s a bad trend for the league. Players are already substantially removed from the fans based on the economics of the pay scale. They’re less and less a part of their communities and more and more a part of a larger “NFL” community.

As teams continue to ask for higher ticket prices and more commitment from local governments to build stadiums and give business breaks, the league should be finding ways to get closer to its fans, not farther away.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators Open

It was a big celebration in Gainesville on opening day with the return of the 1996 National Championship team and its coach Steve Spurrier. The air was full of anticipation as the Gators are ranked in the top 10 and thoughts of and SEC title and a run for the National Championship are on the minds of the Gator Nation.

And then they started the game.

Southern Mississippi always has some good athletes, just not enough of them to compete against the elite conference teams. But the Golden Eagles got to work right away, picking off an early Chris Leak pass and taking a 7-0 lead.

Not good.

Florida’s first half was a little tentative and not sharp, but eventually they wore down Southern Miss for a 34-7 win. Even Tim Tebow got in the game and scored a touchdown. But the team seemed tight and stilted, not able to fully display how much talent they have.

It could be that it’s just early in the year or it could be a reflection of the coach. Urban Meyer is a very buttoned up guy, sometimes so buttoned up that it seems he can’t move. And that carries over to his team.

Meyer is confident in his ideas and convictions, sure that what he thinks is right and how much of his “spread” offense will work in the SEC. I still think it looks like a square peg in a round hole when the Gator offense takes the field. Maybe that’ll change over time with different personnel and a different style of quarterback. But Chris Leak is a very solid player and a very coachable guy. If Meyer isn’t willing to take advantage of that, there’s a flaw in his thinking, not in how the players can play.

He did make some adjustments last year, hopefully he’ll have time to do the same this season. Deshawn Wynn’s injury doesn’t help much and even though they’re a heavy favorite, I wouldn’t bet the ranch on the Gators this week. Plus after seeing what Tennessee did to a previously ranked top-10 team, I wouldn’t be looking too far ahead either.

Florida’s got their work cut out for them this year. It’ll also reveal what kind of coach, and guy he is before too long.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tiger vs. The World

Much has been made about the inevitability of Tiger Woods win at the PGA championship. It was a pretty sure bet that he’d win after tying the course record on Saturday and moving to the top of the leaderboard. He’s unbeaten going into the final round of a major either as the leader or tied for the lead.

Inevitable, probably, but not only because of Woods’ greatness.

There are plenty of reasons to sprinkle around, and the timidity of his opponents should be somewhere near the top of the list. When is somebody going to put some real heat on Tiger in the final round? I thought Luke Donald might be the perfect foil on Sunday. A Chicago resident and a former student at Northwestern, he had a comfort factor none of the other competitors shared. He has plenty of game, as evidenced by his play in the first three rounds.

And he’s considered to be on the verge of greatness.

Nothing could solidify that more than staring down Tiger in the final round of a major in the same pairing. But instead of a challenge, Donald faded off the leaderboard as if he really didn’t want to be there. Tied with Tiger on the first tee, he was a whopping seven shots back when they got to the tenth. Seven shots! Between Tigers 40 foot bombs for birdies and Donald’s shaky play (and a couple of bad breaks); Woods only had to keep breathing on the back to take his 12th major title.

So who is Tiger’s competition?

Clearly nobody currently on Tour can handle him. He competes with history, and currently history rates Jack Nicklaus as the best ever. Nicklaus finished with 18 professional majors, and the universal acclaim as the best player ever. I saw Hogan and Snead play at the end of their careers, so I can’t say how Nicklaus’ career matched up to theirs. But I saw Jack in his prime and he controlled the game, much like Tiger does now. Nicklaus supposedly had a weak wedge game, but much like Woods is given credit for now, he dominated every phase of the game. He was the best driver, the best putter, and best long iron player and managed his game better than anybody.

I agree that the fields are deeper now than they were in Jack’s heyday. He had to beat maybe 10 guys in the field on a regular basis. Tiger has a deeper field, but doesn’t have the legendary foes that Nicklaus had to face. Jack had to beat Arnold, Watson, Player, Trevino and other Hall of Famers in order to collect his major championships. Tiger has the occasional Bob May to slay, but knows going in, it’s him versus the field.

Perhaps Woods has elevated his game to another plane that nobody can get to. I’ve often noted that he’s the best athlete out there and he’s the vanguard of what I think will be a whole generation of great athletes who choose golf, thanks to Tiger. There’s plenty of money in it, it’s glamorous and has a long career span. Really, if you were going to have a pick up basketball game and your talent pool to pick from was the PGA Tour, who’d be your first pick?

How about a touch football game? A 100-yard dash? Whatever, you’d take Tiger.

Add that athletic ability to the obvious mental capacity, the dedication to practice, the personal discipline of his fitness routine and a little bit of magic, and you have the best player out there.

By far.

I’ve admired Nicklaus’ ability to balance his life and his career. By the time he was 30, Jack and his wife Barbara had four children. But Nicklaus kept winning. Tiger has chosen to focus on his career, and solely his career for now. Nicklaus was the first player to take some weeks off, during the golf season but for most of his career, it was Jack vs. the other best players in the world every week there was a tournament. Tiger only faces other guys in the top five at the Majors and a couple of other tournaments during the year.

You can’t compare scorecards because of the equipment changes and advancements in agronomy, but it would be interesting to see the great players of the last 100 years face each other on a level playing field. You’d see a similar dedication and desire to win among them all. Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet, Bobby Jones, Snead, Nelson, Hogan and the rest didn’t worry about what else was going on, they worried about getting the ball in the hole.

I did hear somebody say that those players, including Nicklaus didn’t have to deal with the media attention Tiger faces today. I laughed at that, recalling what the final holes of championships used to look like with the crowd on the frog hair of the greens and the press right in their face. There was no media management in that era. The press was king and did what they wanted. I’d call that a wash.

Want to compare travel? Hogan played in the British Open once because it took a long boat ride to cross the Atlantic and it was plenty expensive. Nicklaus drove or flew commercial for most of his career. Arnold became a pilot and flew his own plane from tournament to tournament (and still does.) Tiger faces none of those challenges.

So while I think he’s a great player and among the greats of the game, a little perspective should come into the discussion before anointing anybody the “Greatest of All-time.” When Tiger gets to 18 major wins, and I believe he will, that’s when the real scrutiny and debate should begin.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Exhibitions Don’t Count

We’re now three weeks into training camp, four weeks for a couple of teams and we’ve now got at least one “preseason” game behind us. Hard to believe that it’ll be three more weeks of games and practices before anything happens that really counts in the standings.

Already, things have happened that matter though. Clinton Portis has a separated shoulder and is out for the rest of the exhibition season and might miss the Redskins’ opener. Rookie linebacker Chad Greenway injured his knee in his first action ever in a Vikings uniform Monday night and won’t play again until next year.

Every team will have some kind of injury in these glorified practices that will impact their season, one way or another. Some players getting injured give other players a chance to play; other player’s injuries dash the hopes of an entire season.

True, LeCharles Bentley’s injury happened on the first day of training camp in a non-contact drill, so injuries are a part of training camp. But even the players will tell you, the intensity picks up a little bit when you’re playing against guys in different uniforms and bad things can happen when you don’t expect it, especially in an exhibition game. (The NFL wants to call them preseason in order to give some gravity to the games instead of calling them exhibition games or what they actually are, a glorified practice.)

There is talk each year of changing it to three or two games before the real ones start, but the problem is money. You might have heard John Madden say the other night that he coached in the era of twelve regular season games and six preseason games. “You’d be in camp for two months,” Madden noted.

That only came to an end with the rise of the Players Union.

You might not know that NFL players only get paid during the regular season. They get one/seventeenth of their salary spread out over 17 weeks of the regular season. Before that they get a stipend, not much, to carry them through camp. In camp, they’re housed and fed, but not paid.

So the question is, can you eliminate two preseason games outright? The answer is, of course, no.

The teams in the NFL include the preseason games in the season ticket package, charging full price, and it’s a big moneymaker. How about dropping the number of preseason games to two and just adding two regular season games? You could do that, but then you’d have to figure out how to increase the players’ salaries by 1/8th (the equivalent of adding two games that count.)

Would the owners be willing to do that? Probably not.

So until the Players Union and the league can work out something that makes money or doesn’t cost money for both sides, We’ll have 16 regular season games and 4 “preseason” games. All with the possibility that a team and a town’s hopes, could be finished before any snap that counts.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Saban Vision

It was just a quick little blurb when I first saw it. President Bush in South Florida, having dinner at Joe’s Stone Crabs with a bunch of well-known Floridians. Nick Saban, Head Coach of the Miami Dolphins declined the invitation because he was “too busy with training camp.” It struck me as amusing, but not weird, that’s how coaches act and I’ve been conditioned to expect it.

Since that “blurb” everybody’s had their shots at Saban and have run his decision into the ground. Of course it’s weird and wrong, but I’m sure Saban can’t figure out what the fuss is all about. In fact, anybody in the coaching profession is probably totally perplexed with the reaction. Coaches coach, that’s what they do. The ones that are “so-called” successful think that out-working the competition puts them a little ahead of the rest of the world.

Dick Vermeil and Joe Gibbs were the first over the top workers. Sure you can go back to Vince Lombardi and a few others, but Vermeil is the first celebrated self-proclaimed “burnout” while Gibbs stepped away from the game when he realized he was missing his whole life. He even tells a famous story about himself going home early one night to tuck his son into bed and realizing his son had a goatee and was 220 lbs! His wife used to record dinner table conversations among his family and send them to Redskins Park hoping Gibbs would get a chance to listen to them.

Vermeil was famous for sleeping at his office in order to not waste the time driving back and forth to his house. We’ve seen that first hand in Jacksonville with Tom Coughlin. He’s a famous over-worker and several coaches left or turned down jobs with the Jaguars because of Coughlin’s famous over-working habits.

Right after September 11, 2001, Paul Tagliabue declared a moratorium on working one day that week, mandating that the league be shut down. Coughlin ignored Tagliabue’s directive and came to work anyway, his car the only one in the stadium parking lot.

So that kind of bizarre behavior doesn’t seem strange to me. Anti-social, tunnel vision, call it anything you want. It’s weird, but acceptable in that profession, even lauded. If a guy doesn’t work enough (see Steve Spurrier) he’s criticized for letting things get away from him.

Gibbs does have three Super Bowl rings, and Vermeil finally got his, but not before he realized life was passing him by. Saban’s team won it’s last six games last year and is the trendy pick to be a contender this year. But it doesn’t matter. Even if the Dolphins win the Super Bowl this season, Saban will always be known as the coach who picked two hours of film over two hours with the President of the United States.

I hope when he’s 80 and nobody remembers he was a coach he can remember the plays he researched. I hope they work.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Doping Woes

I was all set to pay homage to Floyd Landis, Tour de France winner. Bad hip and all, Landis did what seemed to be the improbable if not the impossible, losing eight minutes one day and getting almost all if it back the next. Then winning back the yellow jersey in the time trial and become the third American to win the Tour de France.

And now this: Landis is accused of doping to win stage 17.

His testosterone level in his “A” sample was too high according to the reports.

I say accused because testing always includes an “A” and a “B” sample for comparison purposes. Landis and his team, Phonak, say they’re completely surprised by the allegations and say they’re false. They’re waiting for the “B” test to prove his innocence, according to a statement on Phonak’s website.

An elevated testosterone level would indicate that he took something for recovery that would allow him to be stronger for the next stage. The timing would be right for extra testosterone for Landis, right after his “blow-up” and near miraculous recovery.

So there is one of four things going on.

  1. The test is wrong, just a mistake and he’ll be exonerated.
  2. He has an abnormally high level of testosterone (too high is a 4:1 ratio while normal males are at 1:1).
  3. The French press is on another witch-hunt.
  4. He cheated.

I’d have a tough time believing Landis cheated, but I also am the guy who thought Tyler Hamilton would be the last guy to try blood doping in order to win. But that’s just a little naive thought I suppose.

With the money involved, cheating is always part of the equation.

Of course, Lance Armstrong has been accused of doping and cheating and just about everything else ever since he returned from chemotherapy. And he’s the most tested athlete on the planet, with never a single positive result. If Armstrong cheated, it’s the best cover-up ever, and the biggest fraud perpetrated on sport in history.

But I don’t believe that and I don’t believe Landis is guilty either. He’s been around too long, he’s too smart and there’s too much at stake for him to take that chance. He knew from the beginning of the tour that he had a chance to win, with Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso in or out. He had great success in stage races at the beginning of the year and felt strong going into the Tour.

The thing that bothers me the most is the black-eye that cycling gets, again. The sport is great, it’s fun, it has a team aspect, uniforms, personalities and real competition. It’s been rife with drug use in the past but supposedly after 1998, that was cleaned up.

It’s fun to ride your bike and to see how you can ride and how your endurance stacks up on long ride. There’s nothing like seeing the countryside by bike, much different than a car and more expansive than walking. The sport is big in Europe, and in Belgium they’re crazy about it. But it doesn’t need a pro level of the sport to make riding your bike popular.

I like wearing the uniforms and kicking around on my bike, but if this proves to be true, they’re pushing the limits of me paying attention in the future. And I’m not alone. German public television is thinking about dropping their coverage if these allegations are proven and I can’t imagine OLN continuing to support cycling if everybody thinks it’s full of dopers.

Who’s going to buy advertising on that programming?

Part of the problem is the complicity over the years of dope testers, race organizers and competitors. The public needs to trust that everything’s on the up and up, or that it’s all dirty.

For that, we’re all waiting.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

World Cup Aftermath

It’s not going to change anybody’s mind about soccer. If you hated it going in, you still hate it. If you tolerated it, maybe you saw the pros and cons of it, and came away feeling about the same. And if you’re a fan, you thought it was part what’s good about the game and part what’s wrong about the game.

Italy won on penalty kicks, taking their fourth World Cup and playing to their strengths. I thought the referee did a pretty good job after the first five minutes, letting the play on the field get physical enough but not out of hand. If there’s one thing people who don’t like the game can point to it’s the acting that goes on after every play with contact. They don’t necessarily flop as much in England or in Germany, but most of the rest of Europe and all of South America have the flop as part of the culture of the game.

And Americans hate that.

Until the game is allowed to be “played” on the pitch instead of “acted” out there, it’ll always be a passing fancy among fans. Too subjective.

Every time Marcelo Balboa said “he really sold that one” it made me cringe, thinking “is selling the contact to the ref really a part of the competition?” Sure, players flop in the NBA, but with three officials on the court, a guy who’s acting soon gets a reputation and play goes on.

The ref in the World Cup final got the game under control and let just enough physical play dictate the flow of the game. The penalty in the box called against Italy was totally a phantom call, “sold” by the French and converted by Zinedine Zidane. The Italian goal on the corner kick was textbook and allowed the Italians to go back into their defensive posture, exactly what they did to get to the final.

France played the more aggressive game in the second half, and was nearly rewarded by a beautiful header by Zidane, but a spectacular save by the Italian goalkeeper kept the score tied. That’s when things started to go sideways for both teams, especially the French.

It was apparent that, barring something-strange happening, the outcome was going to penalty kicks. Totti was out of the game for Italy, replaced for a sub, even though he is one of their best free kickers. Theirry Henry came out of the game after regulation, one of the free kickers the French could have used. Then Zidane head butted Marco Materazzi for something he said about his sister and was red carded out of the game, denying the French of another of their best free-kickers.

Nobody wants to see a game determined by penalty kicks, but that’s all they’ve got right now, and the Italians finally won one, having gone 0-3 in World Cup play in games decided by pk’s.

When Zidane head butted Materazzi, I was amazed and still think it might be the strangest thing I’ve ever seen in big time sports. This is truly the world’s biggest stage. 1.5 Billion people were watching or about one of every six people on the planet. And many of those don’t know anything about the game or about Zidane’s career, which means that their only memory of Zidane will be as “the head butt guy.”

But that’s OK as well.

I’ve heard more “cooler talk” about the World Cup this week than at any other time thanks to Zidane’s actions. He apologized to the kids who might have been watching, but said “I would have rather taking a fist to the jaw than heard what was said about my family.” I don’t know, trash talk is a part of all sports these days, and Zidane should have had some retorts of his own. Or just let it go away.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tuscany – The Journey Home

It’s always good to come home after being out of the country. And at least this time I did get a “Welcome Back” from the Immigration (now Homeland Security) agent while clearing customs through Atlanta.

After the seven days in Tuscany, I headed to what’s called the “Amalfi Coast” south of Naples on the southwestern coast of Italy. Taking the Eurostar from Rome to Salerno (and don’t we wish we had that kind of train service in the States) it was just over two hours but you really thought you were in a different country when the doors opened in Salerno.

Southern Italy has a rhythm all of its own, with crowded, bustling streets and a heat and humidity index that’s akin to the southeastern US. If Tuscany is bucolic, the Campania region is just plain busy. Perhaps it was the season, but there were people everywhere.

The driving in Italy is something you have to get used to and along the coast it’s somewhere between a theme park ride and an adventure all rolled into one. Buses, trucks (big ones) cars and motor scooters all complete for a space on the asphalt, no matter how wide or skinny, no matter how curvy or blind it might be. Add to that the 500 or so foot drop at just about every turn, and you get the picture. Just plain scary.

You do get used, or immune to it, and it seems everybody understands the rules, if there are any. There’s no problem with road rage because everybody is cutting everybody off constantly with no seeming regard for safety or property. Add to the mix a bunch of aimless walkers all over the roads and it probably looks most like a video game.

But the coast is breathtaking.

Mythology says that the sirens at Sorrento seduced Ulysses, and you can see why the stories come from there. From a boat, the walls to the Mediterranean are sheer and imposing. The water is a true azure blue, and clear until the light runs out. My first thought was “why did these people move here?” But of course, people have been going to the Amalfi Coast for thousands of years.

The Romans made it part of their Empire and used it for a getaway (obviously arriving by boat).

Salerno is a working city, with a big port that takes in business from all over the world. Working north, Amalfi is over run by tourists and reminded me of beaches in the Northeast US. I half expected carnival barkers. But it is the gateway to Revello, a natural plateau rising over 1000 feet over the sea. Gorgeous, cool and quiet, some people think it’s the best place in Italy, and I can see why.

There are numerous small towns along the drive, some more discovered than others. Praiano is a small, expanding village while Poisitano is a hotspot for eating and shopping. The Island of Capri is all about see and be seen with high-end shops; restaurants and hotels perched high above the sea. The famed “Blue Grotto” is a free-for-all but worth the wait (and the 8.50 Euro somebody is collecting from a boat out front. I couldn’t figure out who they were.)

The rich and famous from all over the world come to Capri to “escape: but their pictures are everywhere, even with framed tabloid covers in the windows of the local restaurants.

The people along the coast were friendly and courteous, very unlike Rome or any other big city. I stayed at the Hotel Tritone (www.tritone.it) with sweeping views of the mountains and the Med with just a turn of your head. It was 690 steps from the hotel down to the beach (yes I walked and counted them) on a staircase that looked straight out of Lord of the Rings. I half expected Saran to be at the top. It’s a great place for a getaway because it’s so remote.

“The road is our friend,” Giuseppe, the manager told me. “It’s hard to get here so trouble doesn’t come out this far.” That’s one way to look at it and I’m sure if you live there, it seems like paradise.

Because it is.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Reports From Tuscany, Italy

TUSCANY, ITALY DAY 1 (The Journey & Arrival)

I was hoping it would be an adventure, and it certainly, inadvertently, started out as one. I lined up my ticket to Italy in March and for some reason I didn’t have a seat from Atlanta to Rome assigned. “No problem,” everybody with Delta assured me, from the agents in Jacksonville (who are always very helpful) to the people on the phone (usually not so helpful).

“They’ll issue it day-of when you get to Atlanta.” Fair enough, I thought.

When I arrived at JIA, two hours early, they still said, “No problem,” when I asked about my seat. Upon arriving in Atlanta, I realized it would, in fact, be a problem. Nobody at the desk would really talk to me.
“We’re working on it,” was about all I could get. When they called the flight and everybody got on, the gate agents still ignored me until I finally asked about going.
“Well, we don’t have a seat for you,” was the explanation.
“Wait,” I said, “I have a confirmed ticket on this flight.”
“Right, but we don’t have a seat for you,” was the terse response.

If you’re a regular reader you know of my problems with Delta so I half expected it. After about a half hour, they motioned me over to the desk and said, “We’re sending you to Rome, via Brussels and you’ll get there 3 hours late.” “You better tell my friend Bill (Dodge) who’s already on the plane,” I asked.

So I was headed to Belgium (again) with a $400 Delta voucher in my pocket. The flight from Atlanta to Brussels was an hour late, so I missed my connection to Rome and two hours later (five hours all told) I was in Italy.

Bill was nice enough to wait at the airport and people watch while I was making my excursion to Rome. My luggage actually made it (thanks to Alitalia) and even my bike. The shuttle train from the airport to the main train station in Rome was very utilitarian, and as usual, it took me a few minutes to get my bearings geographically, and emotionally as well. The Italians don’t put a big priority on organization or signs, so you have to get used to feeling your way around.

When I finally figured out where the train left from for Florence, we missed it by about 30 seconds, lugging our bike boxes along. We caught the next one; 30 minutes later and finally were settled. Nice train, non-stop to Florence.

My Italian is not good, but when I try to speak it, at least the locals help me along and compliment me when I get it right. The Florence train station was a zoo, as usual, but even more so with so many students in town. It seems to be more of a destination for studying (if you can get any done in a big party town like that).

The people running the bike tour, Ciclismo Classico sent a van to pick up Bill and me about 30 minutes later. He spoke zero, I mean zero English, but was very pleasant and helpful and agreed to drive us around Florence before we headed to our destination. We got to see the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio but, of course, thanks to Delta, didn’t get to see Michelangelo’s David, because the museum had just closed.

That’s twice I’ve been in Florence and missed one of the classical pieces of sculpture of modern times. At least I’ve seen it once and there are a few pictures around (everywhere!)

The drive to Fattoria Degli Usignoli (The Farm of the Nightingales) was full of switchbacks and pretty steep. (Perhaps a sign of things to come?) Once here I understood what all the fuss was about. It’s a farm on a hillside overlooking the valley where the main river runs through Tuscany. It was built by monks in the 14th century and converted to a farm and now a sprawling resort, Italian style. They have horses, pools, two restaurants and a beautiful view! In less than 24 hours I’ve seen two wedding receptions as well.

Since we were the first to arrive, we ate at the hotel restaurant, outside and since we’re in Italy, the food, of course, was fabulous.

We met Andreas and John Paolo, our guides for the next 6 days and watched the Italy/USA world cup game. We were, of course, the only Americans in the crowd, so we kind of kept quiet. But the Italians are very polite and afterwards several shook my hand since it was a 1-1 draw. “We were bad,” one patron, said, “you were worse,” he added.

Probably right, but It was funny that they were more mad at their own guys than blaming the ref or the Americans. I was beat so even though the bed in my apartment was like the floor, I slept like a rock.

I woke when successive calls from Bill and the front desk reminded me of: 1) where I was and 2) I had to move to a different room. I met Bill for breakfast on a terrace overlooking the valley. Very solid, strong coffee and other typical European morning fare. Packed up my stuff and moved it to a second room, this one overlooking the pool.

We walked up to put our bikes together and Andrea and John Paolo were already working on the rest of the group’s rides so we joined in, a little. They helped me put my bike together and checked it out, very different than the experience last year in Belgium. We met at 1 o’clock for lunch to meet with the rest of the group: a couple from California. A father and son from Minnesota, a family of four from Mississippi another family of three from the west coast, a guy from Boston and us.

Lunch was very nice, very Italian, and very Tuscan with salads, breads, some ham and the like. Andreas and John Paolo went over the rules, told us to get dressed and head to the bikes. I was pretty pumped to get on my bike after sitting there and talking about it. Once we got everybody ready, John Paolo went over the rules of the road once again, and we were off.

Well kind of off.

It’s a straight up climb out of the hotel that gets your attention real quick, especially with no warm up. Bill and I were cruising up front and agreed that the Italian idea of “rolling hills” and what Americans think are very different. We stopped a couple of times in the first 8 miles to get the group together and look at some of the historical buildings.

I did get to see a very old church with what’s considered the first Renaissance piece of art from about the 11th century. It’s called Massaccio’s Triptych nobody seems to know how it got there. With Tuscany being considered the birthplace of the Renaissance that was kind of fascinating.

From there we headed back up the hill and the group split off into those who wanted to go “long” or the short way back to the hotel. I picked long (surprise!) and headed up with John Paolo and three other guests. Soon it was just John Paolo and me going up the hill, about 7 miles at about 10%, (really). I thought about quitting a couple of times but slogged through, stopped once to get my heart rate down to a manageable level and made it to the top.

It was worth it going through the little village of Villambrosa with all of the people on a Sunday afternoon and the view was spectacular. We stopped at a natural flowing fountain to get some water, waiting in line while the locals filled up their bottles with their weekly visit. The descent was, as John Paolo described it, “technical” which means very curvy and very fast. It was pretty scary and when we stopped, I checked my back wheel and almost burnt my hand it had heated it up so much.

Two shorter climbs and we were back at the Fattoria, headed to dinner. The guides on this tour, Andrea and John Paolo are very attentive to small things like ordering the wines and setting up the dinners. They both have an even hand and seem to enjoy meeting the different people from the tour each week. The menu tonight had a local salad, two pastas and a beef filet. They explained why they picked certain wines and dishes and talk about the Tuscan eating style in an historical context.

We had some grappa and headed off for bed.


It seems like one night whenever I travel to Europe; my sleep system gets turned around. Last night was that night.

I wasn’t tired, and lay in bed for about two hours and “napped” for a little bit, but when I looked at the clock and it was 4 o’clock, I was wide-awake. I took a walk; I visited the reception desk, (which was closed) and watched the sun come up. It’s a weird feeling being up and around when everybody, and I mean everybody else is sleeping. Finally the breakfast room opened and I met most of the group for coffee and the route meeting.

Sam in Tuscany, Italy Off we went at 9 AM, with Andreas riding along this time. He’s a former racer and obviously a very strong rider. He was attentive but not obtrusive and we actually made it to Lorro Cuifenna in the late morning. We “regrouped” at Coffee Centrale (apparently there’s a coffee centrale in every town in Italy) and drank espresso.

It’s the only picture I wanted from the trip, so Bill took my picture sitting on a chair on the sidewalk drinking espresso. It even sounds silly when I write it!

Anyway, we rode the two miles, straight up to a small church in Gruppo, a very small village. The church was built in the 8th century and Andreas gave us a tour and explained the symbolism through out the main part. Pretty fascinating stuff.

It was a steep downhill going back, and Josh didn’t make the turn so he slammed into a fence and some earth barriers. Luckily he wasn’t hurt (he’s young!) but his rear wheel was destroyed. We headed to the restaurant “Vino de Vino” in the center of Lorro where the Head Chef “Antonio” took all of us into the small kitchen and gave us a demonstration on how to make pasta. He spoke zero English, so he had their waitress translate, which was amusing and entertaining by itself.

Antonio literally made the pasta from scratch; so more than an exhibition it was basically us watching him do what he does everyday. I remember interviewing David Letterman once and asking him about Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma” on his show and how amazed he looked. Letterman said “I’m amazed every night at the talent level of the people who sit in this chair. It’s amazing what they can do.”

I thought about that when Antonio was making the pasta, thinking he was truly gifted when it came to his craft.

We ate at Vino de Vino and it was, of course, fabulous. Back on our bikes after doing a report for Lex and Terry and it was funny to see the town deserted around 1:30 in the afternoon. I mean nobody was on the street. We headed down into the valley, going about 30 on the long straight-aways that had a mile downhill grade.

I was thinking we’d pay for this, and turns out, I was right!

We made a sharp right turn and headed nearly straight up out of the valley at an 8% then 10% then around a 15% grade. It was pretty taxing and I stopped once in the shade to recover. I was amused and disappointed to know that I stopped about 100 meters from the top!

I figured the rest of the ride would be uneventful, but it was a lot of climbing and then a significant downhill around curves at pretty high speeds. We were getting close to home when I took a wrong turn and headed back down into the valley, taking Bill and Guy with me. I was bombing down this road when I realized it wasn’t familiar at all! So I stopped with Bill, but we couldn’t yell loud enough for Guy, who was off the front.

We were lost, no question.

I called John Paolo and he asked where I was. “There’s a wall and a lot of trees,” I responded, which sounds pretty inane. “Get to somewhere where you know where you are and call me back,” JP responded. I could only laugh, knowing that the way out was straight back up.

“We’ve got to go back to Reggello and turn left,” I told Bill.
“UP THERE,” was his immediate response.

But Bill got back in the saddle and pedaled back up, only stopping once to recover and refuel. At the top he was rightfully proud of himself, and for that feat, I presented him with the “cappelinno,” the hat for the day. JP finally found us, but we were so close to home, I rode in and we had a lot of laughs recounting the day.

“How hard is it,” Bill asked JP in the middle of the road. “I can’t say,” John Paolo responded in his Italian accent. “It’s pretty easy in the van,” he added with a wink. I laughed myself silly when he said that and headed home.

Sam in Tuscany, Italy We met for the Italian lessons, which weren’t only about the language, but also about some of the Italian culture and a lot about the wines in Italy. I couldn’t get enough of it, but we had dinner reservations. The food again was perfect, a blend of Tuscan specialties, which I’ve found out is what I like. The wines were perfect, with Andreas and John Paolo explaining each course and how the wines blended in with the meal.

Andreas had hired a musician to entertain. Salvatore was talented and had a music machine with him. It turned into a karaoke for some of the staff, which made it much more amusing. Yes, they asked me to sing, and yes, I did some of the old standards as well as a few songs in Italian. Wrong keys, no monitors but plenty of fun nonetheless.

I think I’m actually tired tonight, so I’m hoping a few hours of sleep is in my near future.


Leaving the “Fattoria” for the first point-to-point ride of the trip it was billed as mostly downhill and a fun day. Turns out, better than advertised. It was the first time that most of the group stuck together, with some shortcuts on farm roads thrown in for variety.

Coming out of the hills of Reggello I was getting more comfortable on my bike at higher speeds but trying not to be over confident. I’m happy with my bike, but if I do a trip like this again, I will put a triple on in order to make some of the climbs easier to spin through.

We stopped at a real Italian bike shop. That means it’s serious business when it comes to the bikes. They’re not messing around. It’s about the bikes the riding the setup and how it all works. This shop was pretty big with all kinds of bikes everywhere. The funniest scene was the owner going over a kid’s bike with a mountain bike set up with the young boy’s father. They looked. They debated; they looked again, all the while with the son sitting on the bike. It didn’t look like a serious bike purchase, but it was clearly getting the attention of everybody involved.

As expected, they didn’t really have much in my size. For Italy that would be “Giagante.” Off to lunch, a picnic in a vineyard was our next destination. There were a couple of small climbs involved, and one pretty serious steep that needed plenty of focus and effort. The countryside was changing, riding in the valley and the vineyard turned out to be quite an experience.

Andreas had gone ahead and set up the lunch, under a round, thatched roof picnic area. We sat around like the Knights of the Roundtable while the owner of the house and the vineyard conducted a true wine tasting. The whole, throw the wine out over your shoulder and everything. They were great, and went great with lunch that was prepared.

Some of us headed over to the actual wine production facility for a tour. It was fascinating to see the different styles of making the wine, from wooden casks to glass lined refrigerators it’s quite a science. They even took us up to their private wine area, wine that is only made for guests, family and important clients. I liked everything about it, so I bought some wines. The only question is whether they’ll make it back to the States!

Some of us rode over the “Il Borro.” It’s a small, and I mean small, 15 full time residents, village that’s been completely restored by Salvatore Ferregamo. It sits on a hill (what a surprise!) but is connected by a bridge. At the bottom of the hill, a guy pulled up in a little tram. I noticed he was wearing a nametag that said “Phil.” So I asked, “Phil, can we ride our bikes up there?” “Sure,” he replied, and drove off.

The guys standing around were pretty amazed that I spoke to “Phil” in English and he responded right away. I figured that “Phil” was an American name, and probably was an American. Turns out, he works for Sara Lee and they had rented the whole place out for a senior managers meeting.

The ride to Arrezo was pretty good, with the last 10k or so on a pretty busy road into town. We did stop at the “Mona Lisa” bridge, where Da Vinci reportedly painted the Mona Lisa using the hillside across the river as the background. Of course, we had our pictures taken there.

Arezzo is a pretty bustling town, and our hotel was right in the middle. Hotel Vogue has only been open a few months and it’s very nice. The rooms are named after Italian artists. I might have thought more of it if I had gotten one of the other rooms. Mine was pretty straight forward, (they all had big plasmas). Bill’s was Michelangelo” and had a whole wall behind the bed set up as the shower. It was very avant garde. There was a lot of discussion about the other rooms and they sounded pretty neat.

We went on a walking tour of Arezzo, but the guide was condescending and boring as all get out. I really enjoyed learning a few things but she made it tough! It was our night to eat out on our own, so the group split up. Bill and I sat with Andreas and John Paulo in a café and watched the world go by for a while. Then we wandered around looking for a place to eat. Andreas found a place with a bunch of locals eating there, so we stopped in. What a surprise, the food was fabulous! Plenty of wine, lots of laughs later, we headed back.

Two of the other guides from Ciclismo Classico came through town (and brought our bike boxes) so we went out with them while they ate. Lots of people walking around late, but we headed back to the hotel. The ride tomorrow has a couple of climbs that are apparently serious!


I wasn’t sure how this day was going to go to start with. The “Hotel Vogue” in Arezzo was very nice and brand new and the rooms were all named after famous Italian artists. They had grand showers and towering high ceilings but somehow, my room didn’t match many of my “teammates.”

It was on the busy street with pretty standard amenities, except for the bed(s). They were typical European “twins” meaning small people will sleep fine in one. But, as Andrea described me “Il Giagante” had to stay in one position or he’d fall out.

And his feet hung over the foot.

But the place was very nice, the staff accommodating and the breakfast was outstanding. Plus it was very convenient, right in the middle of town.

When I walked out the front door after eating, I still wasn’t sure about the day because I had a flat. Andreas recognized it immediately and went to work. I’ve seen tire changing, and comparably, this was a work of art. It rivaled the moves Phil from Champion used in the freezing cold and rain of Belgium last year when one of our fellow riders was bumbling around.

Andreas grabbed this thing and replaced the tube; with all of the quick checks you’re taught to do, in about a minute! We were off through the roundabouts and the old gates of the city and into some real Italian farmland countryside in no time. Fields of sunflowers and I don’t know what else were on both sides of us for most of the first hour of the ride. It was flat, so I got on the front and spun along with Bill and Dan through what looked like a painting.

Our first stop was the hilltop town of Monte San Savino where it was “market day” in the town square. It was a little climb up to the town but it was bustling with action when we got there. Just about everybody in our group was along as we strolled through the street market looking for bargains. I looked for some shoes, but got some laughs when I asked about my size. Bill and I did buy some traveling photographer/fishing vests. They were 8 Euros each (not much) and Andreas encouraged me to ask for the “sconto” (discount). When I turned to the merchant and said “Sconto?” he immediately blurted out “due? quindiche” ( two for fifteen) so I laughed and paid him with the 1 Euro discount!

Andreas took us into a butcher shop that’s apparently famous for their fresh meat. He bought a bunch of “porchetta” that was absolutely amazing and passed it around as we shopped. He offered it to several merchants and even the police but they said they didn’t eat pork without bread. That kind of surprised all of us, even Andreas. Too bad, more for us!

Back on our bikes and off to Lucignano another hilltop town that was very cool. The climb was pretty straightforward but sunny and hot and it got my attention. I was climbing better but I’ll never be a good climber by any stretch of the imagination. Dan was sitting on my wheel for over a mile and I finally asked him if he was going to be there all day. He’s a bit competitive (a former college runner, he’s strong but new to cycling) and I was probably a bit cranky so I told him he could get in front for a while. We finished together, but it was a foreshadowing of a later climb, that’s for sure.

Bill wasn’t far behind as we joked that he was “riding into form.” You actually have to use your Phil Leggett voice for that phrase to get the whole effect. There was something about that town I really liked. I’m not much for vibes but maybe I should be. As we passed through the massive stone gate, it was just very cool to see how the town was laid out in a spiral with spectacular views of the countryside.

We actually went into a supermarket to look around for something different (I actually drank a Fanta Orange for the first time in about 20 years) and had our mandatory espresso.

We set off with Andreas to the next town for lunch. The four of us tooled along easily and stopped in Foiana della Chiana, a town like something you’d see in North Carolina. Tree lined streets, very easy living, and common touch feeling. Andreas picked one of his regular spots for lunch, right on the main road. We were the only people in there, and the waitress was a hoot. Several tattoo’s, loud but engaging, and, once again, absolutely no English whatsoever.

We ordered pasta and the plate she brought was enormous. I, of course, ate the whole thing. Andreas reminded me “It’s Italy” and allowed me to wipe my plate with my bread to finish it off, as my Greek ancestry yearns for. (Probably another thing the Italians stole from the Greeks!) The ride from Foiana to Cortona was flat for the most part, and a good thing based on the size of the lunch.

I stopped by the roadside to chat with Lex and Terry, which brightened my mood as well. The fields were mostly in full bloom as we could see Cortona on a hill in the distance. I was taking video with Bill’s camera as we rode along and out of one field on our left a pheasant just walked right in front of me! Luckily he saw me at the last second and flew off to our right. I happened to get it on video and it’s pretty amazing.

The twists and turns in this valley gave us a bunch of views of farmhouses and plenty of chances to get lost but Gian Paolo was always there at the tricky intersections to point us the right way. Of course, he chuckled a bit as he pointed the way to Cortona and noted “Up there” as I asked exactly which way we were going. This climb was billed as 4K at 6% and it was all of that and more.

Again, Dan sat on my wheel, so I just told him I was going to go 1 mph until he got in front. It was a silly little game, but something to make the hot and steeper than 6% climb to go by a little faster. I did see a blind turn up and ahead, so I jumped out of my saddle, clicked in a couple of gears and put about 200 yards between me and Dan. Now I know why Lance and those guys scout the route beforehand. I made that move and faced the steepest and hottest part of the ride immediately. “You’re an idiot,” I screamed in my head, but laughed as well at my impetuous attempt at “strategy.”

I won’t do that again.

I did stay in front all the way to the top, but on the final switchback, my phone rang. Gian Paolo wanted to tell me that one of those coolers in the van had leaked and gotten my luggage wet. I really appreciated the thought, but I was dragging pretty badly at that point and probably heard every third word or so. Alora (kind of “and so” to start a sentence) was the thing that stuck in my head.

I parked my bike and sat in the main square in my biking kit, waiting for Bill. The waiter indulged my improving but still not good Italian as I ordered, water, then a beer then an espresso. After about an hour (they shot “Under the Tuscan Sun in Cortona” and I swear I saw Diane Lane walk through the Piazza) I went back to the hotel only to find Bill showered and ready to sit in the café. So back to the piazza we went, joined by several others including Andreas and Gian Paolo.

They ordered me a “panache” which was beer and sprite. “The perfect cyclists drink on a hot day,” is how it was described. It sounded dreadful, as did the “radler” which is beer and lemonade but it was actually quite good and refreshing.

An Englishwoman who had moved to Italy more than 25 years ago because, “I was tired of living in England” conducted our walking tour. She was very knowledgeable and pleasant, handing out tidbits about Cortona, the Cortonese, their history and habits. The views from up there were just great all over the city as it has sweeping vistas of the valleys below. It even looks at Lake Trasimeno where Hannibal defeated the Romans around 100 BC (I think).

Our dinner was a pizza feast, and I confirmed (to myself) that again, I was going to put on a few pounds on a cycling trip despite the miles I was putting in. The pizza was great, Tuscan specialties. We finished with some “limongello” which everybody tells me you can’t buy in the States.

It was a very memorable day


Knowing it was going to be the final day of riding, I was looking forward to some fairly upbeat pedaling. I skipped breakfast, opting for a little more sleep instead. (I did have breakfast at the Hotel San Michele the next morning before our departure and it was very nice, including real scrambled eggs, very complete.)

As I was about to walk out of the room, Gianpaolo called to ask if I had taken my front wheel up to my room. That might sound strange, but when I rode into the garage the previous afternoon, there were about 5 bikes sitting there without the front wheel on. I figured it was a safety measure, so I took mine with me. “Sam, do you have your wheel,” Gian Paolo asked with a bit of hopefulness in his voice. “Sure,” I answered, which was followed by a sigh and a cajoling expletive, in English, wondering why in the world I would take the front wheel. I explained and Gianpaolo said, “Sure, they were on top of the van!” with the words “you idiot” implied I’m sure.

We got a good laugh at the time, but apparently he and Andreas were scurrying around for a while, looking for my wheel. I made a quick Internet stop on the way out of town, so Bill and I were the last to leave. No matter. The first 5k or so were straight downhill along the switchbacks we had climbed the previous afternoon. I had gotten more comfortable on my bike at higher speeds and with a little coaching from both Gian Paolo and Andreas, I was a bit more “technical” over 35 mph.

Bill cruises downhill, so we didn’t have any difficulty hooking up with the main group in no time. We took Dan off with us and had a good discussion riding three abreast through the countryside. The roads were very lightly traveled, so it was a nice cruise. We changed that though, dropping into a line and riding over 25 mph for quite a while. That ended at Castiglione della Trasimeno, a castle on the hill overlooking Lake Trasimeno. It was pretty neat, but it was obvious we wanted to do some riding and Andreas was more than happy to oblige. We zipped back down the hill and started the trek around the lake. As we turned west the wind kicked up in our faces and stayed pretty steady for the next 15 miles.

We took turns at the front with Andreas still doing most of the work. We stopped for lunch at Café de Moro a funky truck stop looking place half way around the lake. Turns out it really is a truck stop with all kinds of people going in. They serve pretty much one thing: fabulous giant pizza crust with all kinds of toppings and fillings on the side.

The guy cooking the crust had a dough ball of about 30 pounds in front of him with these giant round stone pizza cookers he kept shoving into the oven. There was no line (queue) so everybody was just jostling for position around the place where you order. If you didn’t know what you wanted, they just went past you and on to the next person, kind of like the Varsity in Atlanta. It was hilarious and delicious and I, of course, ate too much.

I mean way too much and when I got on my bike, I knew I was going to pay for it. Luckily, the climbs were minimal for the first 10 miles or so.

As we went around the bend of the lake the sun came out and the wind abated, so no tailwind all the way home! It was very different on that side of the lake. Much more tourist oriented, many beaches, camping sites and a couple of small towns oriented around the lake. “Only the Germans swim in there,” one Italian told me with a laugh.

I was in line with five others, when we got to a carnival looking town with boat rides and a park next to the lake. (Bill was walking toward the soda stand when his cleat hit a piece of very slippery marble and went to the ground. His leg got caught against the curb and twisted his knee and ankle in a very awkward way. It was bad enough for him to get into the van and eventually head to the hospital for x-rays. They put a supporting cast on the sides and Bill continued, without riding, with a limp. He actually was a trooper knowing it could be fractured according to the pictures. The hospital was empty because he went during the Italy World Cup game so nobody had time to be sick.)

I headed out with 5 other riders, sans Bill, at a pretty good clip with my stomach still as full as could be. Eventually, I got to thinking about spending a few minutes with my self. “Amphiloskepsis,” is what the Greeks call it and the Italians talk a lot about as well using the standard word, “meditation” so I dropped off the back and just took in the sights and smells heading toward Cortona. It was pretty fantastic even if it was hot and I was gradually gaining elevation along the way.

I took a bunch of pictures and some videos as well and got lost in my own thoughts.

OK, enough of that.

I got to a town and made a couple of turns asking the police (carabiniere) for directions. Andreas came back looking for me, which I really appreciated, and I told him about wanting to spend some time pedaling alone. He gave me a very Italian smile of understanding and didn’t say a word. Very nice, very perceptive.

On the start of the serious climb back to town, Josh was on the corner waiting, so we headed up together at a pretty good clip. On one of the serious turns we saw a couple of other riders coming up from another direction. We exchanged a few words in Italian both commenting on how steep and long it was. At the top the town was bustling (with tourists since the Italians were watching the game) so I showered and went to the garage to help Andreas break down the bikes and put Bill’s and mine in our boxes.

A wine tasting followed and I bought some Brunella to send home.

We met for our farewell dinner just above the main piazza on a beautiful Tuscan night. I’m sure we were all a bit sad it was ending as we exchanged the “Golden Rooster” awards with each other. (Certificates awarded from one rider to another by names drawn out of a hat) I was asked to say a few words on behalf of the group for Andreas and Gian Paolo.

I’ve become even more sentimental as I’ve gotten older, so I choked out a couple of sentences about how much we enjoyed it and how difficult it must be to entertain a bunch of people from America, a land of many cultures and show us the rich culture of Tuscany and Italy. I do remember finishing by saying, “Andreas and Gian Paolo, we thank you for not only sharing with us the Italian mind, but also showing us the Italian heart,” and I sat down.

To, I think, everybody’s surprise, Andreas stood up and began to speak, saying that it was the first time he had ever spoken to a group at the end in 25 years of hosting trips.

“I often wonder if what I’m doing makes a difference,” he began. “I’m a musician, but playing drums is that really making something? I owned a bike shop. But putting metal together and making bikes, is that really creating something? But today, I was sitting with Bill and he said something that touched me. He said this has been the time of his life. So maybe I am making a difference.”

And with that we were quiet and raised a glass to the trip and our experience.

As this trip was billed as a “Taste of Tuscany” it was all of that and more. It fulfilled my desire not only to ride and occasionally be challenged, but also to see some of the history of the region, to explore some of the churches and artwork and to hear the history of the people. It’s all wrapped up in the foods and the wines that are part of the culture and everyday life in that part of Italy and we got to experience it firsthand as opposed to from a tour bus or even a car.

I didn’t have any real complaints on the quick evaluation form they ask you to fill out after the last day of riding. The beds in the hotels were average, but the hotels themselves were very nice. I’d like to see one day added to the middle of the trip with an optional ride in the morning and some shopping and exploring time in the afternoon. Perhaps a second night in Arezzo would help.

As a point of disclosure, I paid full price for this trip, over $3,400 and as far as value goes, it’s better than average. Not outstanding, it is a bit steep for the time involved. The guides were outstanding, couldn’t have been better for what I was looking for and a sharp contrast to my trip to Belgium last year. (In fact, I’m wondering how that guy stays in business if these people are his competition.)

I’d go on another trip with Ciclismo Classico in the future, especially if Andreas and Gianpaolo are along.

If you’d like to learn more you can log onto their website at www.ciclismoclassico.com

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

World Cup Disappointment

It was appointment television for me. I could have recorded it, but instead I wanted to see it live. The U.S. National team had high expectations going into the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Then they actually played a game that counted.

The opener against the Czech Republic was about everything that American’s hate in a sporting event. No scoring by the home team, getting hammered by the opponent and showing very little fight in the process.

Landon Donovan?

DeMarcus Beasley?

Where were those “stars” of American soccer when their country needed them?

I heard all kinds of reasons for why the Czechs won 3-0. The Americans were flat, the Czechs were more ready. They were bigger and tougher. Baloney. What, did we not know we were going to play on June 12th? (It’s about the only time a writer or broadcaster can use the word “we”.)

Anyway, I found myself in front of the television at noon anticipating our breakout game against the Czech Republic on the big stage.

And then nothing.

I was yelling at the television right at the sixth minute when the Czechs took a 1-0 lead on what looked like a non-hustle play by the American defense. They lost track of the Czech forward, and nobody contested the cross closely enough. Having followed professional soccer since the early ‘80’s when I was the voice of the NASL’s Jacksonville Team Men, it was tough to watch this game in comparison to the others I’ve seen the Americans play, even when they were just a bunch of college kids it seemed like there was more effort involved.

It feels like people in the States want to care about soccer on the world stage. The MLS has a mild following, but with some of the top American players on English and European teams, there’s some talent on the US squad. It just didn’t show up today against the Czechs.

It was right there in front of them, facing a highly ranked national team (the Czechs are ranked #2 in the world, the US fifth) on national television at noon on the east coast. How could the team be flat? How could they not have energy? This is what the American sporting interest wants from a team wearing the red, white and blue: effort and energy. Yes we want to win, but even when it was curling in Torino during the Winter Games, all we wanted was effort and energy. Look like you’re trying. Instead, on the big stage, the “stars” laid an egg in the worst possible manner. With high expectations come crashing lows, and that’s where the US is right now.

Our team disappointed us, made us look bad and validated everybody’s thoughts about soccer in the US, especially those outside of the country. We were awful and lost in Europe, again. In fact, our national team has never won in Europe. I know our top athletes aren’t choosing soccer. What would it be like if Dwayne Wade was our striker? Or Tim Duncan our goalkeeper? Or if we had Derek Jeter at midfield and Ray Lewis as our sweeper? It would be a very different story, but right now, it is what it is.

And it’s not good.

Maybe they’ll prove us different against Italy on Saturday but after watching their game this afternoon, Ghana is no pushover either.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Miami Project

I spent the weekend in Atlantic City at the Roger King Invitational golf tournament. King is the premier syndicater in commercial television, handling shows like Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune and Oprah. He’s a big supporter of the Miami Project for the Cure for Paralysis and the Buonoconti Fund and the proceeds from his tournament go directly to the fund.

The Washington Post Company, the parent company of my station, Channel 4, is also a patron of the Miami Project and a sponsor of the golf tournament. So, our General Manager invited me to go along for the banquet and the dinner. The banquet had a very extensive silent auction with some fun sports memorabilia, some jewelry and some exotic spirits. The Trump organization, through the Taj Mahal on the boardwalk was also a big supporter, and also donated a check for $250,000 at the banquet.

The golf was nice on a links course that really felt like Ireland with the winning team finishing at 20 under (not us!). Anyway they raised a lot of money, over a half-million dollars and had a bunch of celebrities involved from Bob Griese (who played with us and was more personable that he’s been when I’ve been around him in the past) to Bob Beamon and Gerry Cooney (whose team won!). Cooney was a hoot by the way, as funny as anybody and really just enjoyable to be around. I don’t know if it’s an act but if so it’s a pretty good one.

I saw my friend Scott Clark, a sportscaster in New York and spent some time with Garo Yepremian and his family (very nice people). Leonard “Truck” Robinson was there and I spent a few minutes with him talking about playing at Raines High School. He told me he was a much bigger baseball player than basketball but he made a good living at basketball as a pro. He’s living in Phoenix now.

But the most impressive part of the weekend was to hear, watch and experience the commitment Nick Buonoconti has to his son and to the Miami Project. Mark Buonoconti was a linebacker at the Citadel when he dislocated his neck 21 years ago and lost the use of all of his limbs. His father, Nick, the Hall of Fame linebacker, made a commitment that night to raise money to look for a cure for paralysis.

And I mean a commitment.

Buonoconti was, and is convinced that all it will take is money to find a cure for paralysis. Not research, not desire, but money will fuel all of those things and find a cure.

And he might be right.

After raising millions of dollars, the Miami Project is past the research phase and onto clinical trials of different “cures” for paralysis. They’ve been able to restore movement in paralyzed lab rats in nearly 75% of the tests. And they think they can implement those treatments directly to humans. That very exciting for the people involved and their families and if it happens it’s because of one dad’s love for his son.

I mean the bond and commitment between Nick and Mark Buonoconti is the most impressive thing I saw all weekend. I hope it happens for a lot of reasons, but also to validate the commitment they’ve made to find a cure. It’ll show that love and hope can get things done. I know that’s hokey sounding but they’re the driving force behind this search for a cure

Right now they’re working on about 60 “cures” at the Miami Project and believe that they’re going to get it done soon. “I’m sick and tired of seeing my son in a wheelchair,” Nick said from the podium on Saturday night. “I want him to stand up and put his arms around me and give me a hug.”

“I’m sick of it too,” Mark said from his wheelchair when asked to speak on stage. That was followed by Mark thanking his parents for allowing him to become the person he has (while being stuck in a wheelchair!)

Pretty powerful stuff.

If you’d like to learn more about the Miami Project, their website is

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jimmy Smith: Original Jaguar

You can look at Jimmy Smith’s career and follow the success of the Jaguars along with it. When he was great, the team was great, when he was down, the team tended to be down as well. There was a time when Jimmy Smith was the best receiver in the game. His five straight Pro Bowl appearances from 1997-2001 were in the prime of his career. He went to the Pro Bowl the year before as the guest of Keenan McCardell but left Hawaii after a day saying he’d only return when he made the team.

Smith retired on Thursday after 15 years in the league, 11 with the Jaguars holding most of the team’s receiving records.

He made spectacular catches, and he made routine ones. He was blazing fast and made himself a great player.

A second round pick out of Jackson State, Smith had a bit of a chip on his shoulder after not sticking with the Cowboys (he was out a year with an appendix problem) and the Eagles not showing much interest either. He was signed by the Jaguars and played mostly special teams but eventually moved into the starting lineup. When he was on, he was great. Over 12,000 yards, 862 catches and 67 touchdowns. He was a great route runner and his speed demanded respect.

“Jimmy Smith is not one of the most acclaimed receivers in the league,” Jaguars Personnel director James Harris said at the retirement announcement today, “but he is one of the most respected.” Harris said defensive backs always named Smith among the hardest receivers to cover. For most of his career, he drew double coverage and opened up the rest of the offense.

No doubt his skills diminished in the last couple of years. His drops were more noticeable and in more crucial situations. His drop on third down against New England in the playoffs ended a drive the Jaguars desperately needed. He didn’t like that at all. Apparently, he talked with Jack Del Rio about retirement right after last season, but was talked out of it. Even McCardell called him on Wednesday night to tell him to keep playing. But Smith said he was done, ready to call it a career and move on with the next phase of his life.

The timing was a bit strange that’s for sure. Instead of before the draft or before the free-agent signing period, Smith’s announcement came right before mini-camp fueling speculation that his retirement could have been somewhat forced. Jimmy’s history of substance abuse is well documented, suspended for four games at the beginning of the season in 2001 for his second violation of the league’s policy. There were constant reports last year that he had failed another test, but his appeal was granted when the lab committed some procedural errors on the second sample. So he was able to play. If he had failed another test, Smith would have been ineligible to participate in the team’s mini-camp this weekend and his absence would have been noticed.

When asked if his retirement had anything to do with drugs or substance abuse, Smith said, “I’m 37 years old and it’s time for me to retire.” The follow up “Is that a no?” was meekly answered, “Yes.” Not a ringing repudiation.

I can’t imagining not taking that opportunity on live television in front of everybody to look at the reporter and say, “No, an emphatic no. I’m clean. I’ve made some mistakes in the past, but they’ve got nothing to do with today.” That would have ended all of the talk. But he didn’t say that, leaving the door open to fuel the talk about drug use and Smith’s past.

I sat in Jimmy’s living room on live television with his wife Sandra, (who by the way is a fabulous person) and his kids and had him look me in the eye and deny he had any involvement in drugs. He was lying directly to me and continued to do so until he got caught. The whole “pulled over for a traffic violation” video was screened on local television with Smith being taken to the Sheriff’s office and charged with DUI. He lied to me, he lied to radio and print reporters as well.

I know that’s symptomatic of an addict, but it became part of Smith’s legacy, part of his life’s story. He was inconsistent in his dealings with the media, sometimes being brutally honest and always accessible to nowhere to be found after the 1999 AFC Championship game loss to the Titans. He stood us up on the End Zone a couple of times, but when he made an appearance, he was about the best guest you could have.

So he leaves the Jaguars with an up and down history, mostly up on the field with his greatness outshining his failings. If it were all about statistics, Jimmy would be a solid candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But it’s not just about stats so truly history will judge his place among the greats of the game.

As far as the team goes, Head Coach Jack Del Rio says they won’t go out and find anybody new for Jimmy’s spot. They have plenty of receivers on the roster that can do the job according to Del Rio. Some with different skills that Smith. I’m not sure who that is, unless they think Cortez Hankton or Reggie Williams is ready to emerge as a #1 receiver.

As a fan and as a guy, I’ve always liked Jimmy and enjoyed seeing him succeed. And that part of me wants him to walk away from the game unscathed and leave his problems behind. At 37 he has become a young man again, with young children to raise. As a journalist, I have that voice calling to me saying something in the retirement just seemed a little off.

I hope I’m wrong.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Hey Barry, You’re No Babe

I haven’t been a Barry Bonds fan from the beginning. I thought he was a great player, and continue to think that, but I’ve never been a fan. His years with the Pirates were punctuated with the occasional tirade, the most celebrated was one directed at then Manager Jim Leyland.

Bonds didn’t like PR department’s ability to allow journalists to do their job, and photojournalists to take Bonds’ picture during spring training. Bonds went into a profanity laced diatribe aimed at the PR director, who was backed up by Leyland. So Bonds turned his venom on the Manager, who didn’t back down. And Leyland proved to be right and Bonds proved to be a bad guy. He says the Pirates never made an offer to keep him, and he’s probably right. A city like Pittsburgh isn’t going to put up with a sulking star, so Barry was out, off to San Francisco.

It’s one thing to have a bad relationship with the fans and the media, but when your teammates are willing to throw you under the bus at the drop of a hat, then you’re the problem. Bonds had his own corner of the locker room created, taking up three lockers with lounge chairs and a big screen TV. And the TV’s were tiled so only Bonds and his “visitors” could see them.

I’ve been on enough teams and have been around enough athletes to know that some have a reputation that precedes them. And people buy into it and it’s self-perpetuating. But if you’re around them long enough, you know what kind of person they are, what their values are (if they have any) and if it’s an act, or the real thing. Baseball especially with its long hours and extended season of 162 games feeds off the chemistry of a team. Teammates know who you are, and none of Bonds’ teammates have ever backed him up. They all hate him too.

So in his insulated world, Bonds is existing as a baseball player with a constant shadow. Actually two shadows. One is his personality that turns off just about everybody, the other is the shadow of steroid use as a performance enhancing drug that helped him get bigger, faster and stronger. At this point, it doesn’t matter if Bonds did steroids or if he admits to it or denies it. The question will always be there and it will always taint any milestone he reaches.

Major League Baseball decided not to do any kind of celebration for passing Babe Ruth’s mark, rather calling it a “milestone” and putting specially marked balls into play to authenticate the actual home run ball. “We’re not going to have a celebration for passing into second place,” was their thinking. You can be sure it would have been different if Bonds didn’t have a shadow or two following him all over the place.

You might remember he derided Babe Ruth about a year ago saying nobody would remember Ruth once he passed him. Wrong again Barry. Ruth was no saint but his mark was an enduring standard only broached by one player, who did it through hard work and long seasons.

There are no shadows following Henry Aaron around. If Bonds ever gets to 755 baseball will be obligated to have some sort of celebration. Which might finally answer the question: What if you were to throw a big party and nobody came? Is it still a party?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Houston, You Have A Problem

It’s hard to believe that Charley Casserly has enough sway and enough juice inside the organization to make the kind of moves he has over the last year, but he must. From getting rid of Dom Capers to switching tracks at the top of the draft, Casserly has his imprint on the Texans franchise. The problem is, the franchise isn’t very good, and it’s not going to get any better.

For now. Mario Williams is a good player. He’s probably worthy of a first round pick, and maybe even the top pick. But not versus Reggie Bush. Bush is a once-every-ten-years player. Williams comes along every year with some kind of comparisons to Julius Peppers and Lawrence Taylor. But Bush with his versatility and explosiveness gives you a home run hitter that has to be recognized every time you snap the ball.

Let alone the ticket selling potential and the “buzz” factor.

Bush apparently was trying to milk the Texans for an extra $6 million or so leading up to the draft during the negotiations. Casserly balked at the number and moved to Williams, perhaps because of his “signability.”

“We thought there were two number one’s in this draft, Reggie Bush and Mario Williams. We couldn’t make a deal with Reggie so we signed Mario,” is how the Texans General Manager explained it. If I were a Texans season ticket holder, I’d be pretty angry. Angry enough to try and sell my tickets, or burn them in front of Reliant Stadium when I knew that Owner Bob McNair was watching.

Everybody in Houston apparently wanted the Texans to draft Vince Young from Texas. But Casserly said the team “assessed the situation and decided that we didn’t need a quarterback so we moved in another direction.”

So David Carr is their quarterback and they decide that Mario Williams is worthy of the top pick. Surely they will take an offensive lineman at the top of the second round! But no! Instead they go defense again, taking DeMeco Ryans, a linebacker. Can he block? Carr certainly hopes so.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators: National Champs

It could be more exciting, but I doubt it. The first half of the Championship game had everything you could ask for in a basketball game. Up and down play, physical match ups, unparalleled intensity and a packed, enthusiastic house. The only thing it didn’t have was good shooting. UCLA hit 29% while Florida was a 44%. The Gators were tough on defense though, contesting every shot and making it especially difficult near the basket.

In the first half, Joakim Noah had 5 blocks, the most in one Championship game for any player. And it wasn’t just Noah. Al Horford, Chris Richard and especially Adrian Moss were big for big men in the first half. Moss, the somewhat forgotten senior on this young team lead the Gators with 9 points in the first half. He added 5 rebounds and the Gators lead 36-25 at the half.

The second half started much like the National Semi-final with the Gators hitting threes and increasing their lead. Lee Humphrey and Corey Brewer hit back-to-back threes to give Florida an 18-point lead at the 17-minute mark. They maintained that lead at the 15-minute mark after a monster slam by Noah. It looked like a walk, but he stepped forward and back and forward again with his left foot and hammered it home right-handed. Al Horford and Chris Richard worked a double-team pass underneath with a thunderous two hand dunk to give the Gators a 20-point advantage.

At the nine-minute mark, Florida lead by 17 after UCLA’s second three pointer of the night. The Gators are running some clock on each possession and UCLA is pressing all over the floor, trying to create turnovers. Another three cut the lead to 14, but Noah followed with a slam and the Gators were up by 16 with just over 8 minutes to play. They’ll trade baskets with UCLA at this point, but the Bruins are finding their shooting touch. The Gators held things together despite some frenetic play by the Bruins. They took some wild shots but were patient enough to run some clock when they needed to.

Al Horford hit two free throws to give the Gators a 14-point lead, and Lee Humphrey backed that up with a three pointer putting the lead at 15 with a minute and a half to go. The Gators beat the press and finished it off with a dunk by Noah to lead by 17 with one-minute left to play. Florida finished it off by being aggressive and “going to the rim” as Billy Donovan told them and won their first National Championship by a 72-57 margin.

I got a chance to stand on the court as the team celebrated and cut down the nets. It was fun to see such sheer joy among the players, young men playing a game, and among the coaches and administrators, older men trying to shape lives. Florida was never the media darling or the people’s choice in this tournament. They were always the upstarts, the team that was playing over their head and about to get beat.

When did you think, “Hey, we can beat these guys,” I asked Chris Richard in the post-game locker room. “At the tip,” he quickly answered. “Everybody was talking about UCLA and their athletes and their defense and we wanted to show everybody that we were the best defensive team in the country. We gave them a little bit too much respect, but we jumped on them early and never let up.”

“Right when the game started,” Al Horford chimed in. “We knew they were a good team, but we executed what we wanted to do and there wasn’t anything they could do about it.”

“It’s never been about the other team,” Joakim Noah added. “It’s about playing basketball, possession by possession and doing the little things right. When we play our game, it doesn’t matter who the opponent is, we’re not going to get beat. The Gator boys are hot!”

Billy Donovan met us outside the locker room and echoed his team’s comments. “I wanted them to want to play. Not to look at the clock and wish the time away, because then you stop competing. I told them, ‘we want to play like we don’t want this to end. Stay aggressive, go to the rim. Like we say, ‘lay-ups, dunks and Lee Hump!”

Florida’s second half line reflected that aggressive attitude: Nine dunks, one lay-up, four threes and six free throws.

“It’s not so much that I wanted them to “earn it” although I did use that word, I wanted them to go out there and be what they could be. It’s not about the National Championship. That comes after the game. It’s about this challenge, this opponent, and this game. A lot of people were saying ‘how’s Florida going to score, what are they going to do,’ after seeing UCLA on Saturday, but not a lot of people were talking about what we could do. We wanted to show them who we were tonight, and I think we did that.”

I got a huge kick out of Florida winning this title, partly because it makes my friends and family happy and partly because of my affection for Billy. Knowing the kind of work any successful college basketball coach puts in, and knowing the kind of guy Billy is, it was fun to watch him and everybody else associated with the program enjoy it so much. Plus, in a tournament, it happens right in front of you, not through some disembodied vote.

So congrats to the Gators, National Champs!

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Billy Donovan’s World

“It’s not about me,” is how Florida Head Coach Billy Donovan began his answer. One of the hundreds of scribes covering the Final Four in Indianapolis wanted to know just what it would mean to him to win the National Championship. “That’s something I want to make very clear,” Donovan continued. “It’s not about me, it’s about the players, the University, the fans, it’s about the process. I’m just a part of it.”

You might know that Billy Donovan is one of my favorite people in all of sports. He might be at the top of the list. He does all of the things I think are right about sports at any level, particularly at the collegiate level. He’s passionate about what he does; he follows the rules, and stretches them to his advantage. He’s not too worried about what everybody else is thinking about him or his program. And he cares deeply about his family, his players and the people he works with.

Donovan is not universally liked in his profession or among the media. Some claim he’s a cheat. Others say he’s on the fringe of breaking the rules at all times. I don’t think he’s either of those. I think he just went out and figured out how to do things differently and a little better. He out-worked a lot of coaches and they didn’t like that. They wanted to sit back and keep the pecking order the same. You know, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, etc, etc. But Donovan didn’t buy into that, instead going around the country targeting guys who would fit into his program at Florida, regardless of who else wanted them.

He endured a lot of criticism and ire of other coaches when he signed Mike Miller out of South Dakota. Miller to Florida? Donovan must have cheated to get him. Actually, Billy was there before everybody else, 12:01 on the first day he could talk to a player, arranging to meet him and his family in the middle of the night. During a “no contact” period, Donovan would stand across the street from a player’s school, just to wave at him as he left class. That’s what it takes to separate you from the pack. \That’s what it takes to build a program.

“Coach (Rick) Pitino advised me not to take the Florida job when I was at Marshall,” Donovan explained. “Too much work and maybe not enough understanding of what it’s going to take to built a program.” Pitino might have been right, but he underestimated both Donovan’s ability and resolve, and Athletic Director Jeremy Foley’s awareness of what it would take.

By necessity, Donovan deals with the underside of college basketball when it comes to recruiting, keeping in touch with the people “on the ground” when it comes to the pipeline of the best players in the country. But notice there aren’t a lot of “projects” on the Florida roster, either as players or as people. Not that Donovan hasn’t had those in the past. But he’s looking for guys who are willful and of course, talented.

“I want us to do well, but I’m as concerned about how these players develop as people, as husbands, fathers, coaches, whatever they become. I want them to enjoy each other, practicing together, being part of a team. But their development as people is more important. I want them to look back on their time at the University of Florida and think that it was a positive part of their life where they learned a few lessons and I helped them along.”

How many coaches are going to give that soliloquy when asked about the impact of a “National Championship.”?

As a basketball coach, Donovan is trying to build a program. One where the alumni players come back and support what he’s doing. In his first ten years, he hasn’t had many players he’d want to come back. But this team, the 2006 squad, he loves. And rightfully so. Even if they never win it, they’ll be the foundation Donovan builds his program on, being contenders each year and sending guys out into the world ready for what it might throw at them.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators In Indy

Having seen Florida play a couple of times during the regular season, when they showed up in Jacksonville for the first and second round I wondered, “what’d they do with the Gators?” They played OK during the regular season, starting with seventeen straight wins but going 7-6 in the next thirteen games to become an afterthought when it came to the post season.

But along the way, the Gators became a team, defined by that philosophy, especially with their potential stars rejecting individual accolades. They played better and closer in the SEC tournament and became a big media darling in the tournament. Beating South Alabama was a given, and getting past UW-Milwaukee was a test of resolve based on the Panthers senior-laden team. All of the sudden, they were a team to be reckoned with and Georgetown and Villanova posed no threat to the Gators’ run to the Final Four.

Now they’re the favorite.

Seriously, when was the last time a team starting four sophomores and a junior was a favorite in the Final Four?

I’ve been here in Indianapolis for a couple of days and have been impressed with the Gators demeanor since arriving on Thursday afternoon. “People say we’re a youthful team,” Joakim Noah noted when asked about team play. “But we’ve been through a lot together. We’re not young as a team any more. We might be young in years, but not as a team.”

As I’ve said before, he’s the most improved athlete in one year I’ve seen in my entire reporting career. But he also is one of the most settled “young” athletes I’ve been around. He’s rejected his rock star status in favor of creating a “team” concept. He accepts his duties to work with the media and be a team leader, but says all of the attention “doesn’t help us win basketball games.”

His answers are polite and thoughtful and set the tone for the rest of the team. In fact, this team is fun to cover. They make it easy with their genuine answers and willingness to be a part of the process. A lot of credit for that goes to Noah who doesn’t separate himself from his teammates and never utters the word “me.” The rest of the credit goes to Billy Donovan for creating an atmosphere where Noah and the rest of the team can flourish.

Nobody’s talking about Florida here except as the team that George Mason has to beat to continue their Cinderella run. The Gators are the villains, not an unfamiliar role for them, but with all of the attention on Mason, Florida’s not the central focus they could be. In fact, if Mason weren’t here, the Gators would be the Cinderella story.

But I think the carriage will turn into a pumpkin before midnight tonight for the Patriots. Florida’s play against Villanova, especially on defense showed they can defend the three-point line without giving up a lot of easy drives to the basket.

One thing’s for sure; they won’t be awed by the situation.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

No Basketball Jones Here

Good stuff for the past five days in Jacksonville for the NCAA first and second round games. Hard to imagine a better setting for four days of basketball and some R and R for fans. If you’re on the NCAA site selection committee, there are not too many better places for a visit in early March.

Mike Sullivan from the city and Joel Lamp from JU did very good work in setting up and organizing the Arena, the games, and all of the logistics. Except for one electrical snafu where part of press row lost power on Thursday, things seemed flawless surrounding the entire event. So good in fact, that they’re going to bid for the first and second round in 2009 or 2010. The bid goes in front of the committee in April with the announcement coming in July.

The NCAA has very specific rules about what happens at each venue. When I walked into the Veterans Memorial Arena it was a somewhat surreal experience. I kept thinking I was somewhere else but I was in my hometown at the NCAA’s! Sounds hokey I know, but it’s pretty amazing to think that Jacksonville was able to host the first and second round of the tournament without some kind of over bearing effort that taxed everybody and everything in town. It was just another thing that happened.

Unthinkable as little as five years ago.

Florida’s appearance here after winning the SEC tournament certainly added to the excitement, but the tournament was sold out even before the Gators were selected to play here. There was enough excitement and enough buzz around the event to sell it out just as an event. Fans came from all over the country, following their teams and in some cases just looking for a new place to see the NCAA’s.

A friend of mine was visiting from Long Island and came down on Southwest. If you’ve flown Southwest, you know they’re a little goofy and one of the flight attendants asked how many people on the flight were headed to “the basketball.” About 25 people raised their hands and none were headed to see a particular team. Just coming to town to see “the basketball.”

The crowds impressed me. Not necessarily the size, because you see empty seats all over the country, especially at first round games. But by the conversations and the enthusiasm I saw at every turn around the arena. People were into it. They didn’t know UW-Milwaukee from the University of Mars, but they were interested in what the Panthers could do. Of course I also saw every Gator fan, regular or otherwise inside the Arena at the two games. Some I see at basketball games in Gainesville. Others couldn’t name two players on the team outside of Joakim Noah. But that’s OK. I never mind band-wagoner’s. The more the merrier.

Florida fans’ obsession with football actually is an obsession with winning. And Billy Donovan has brought winning to the court in Gainesville. The Gators are headed to Minneapolis for the Sweet 16 and perhaps beyond. They’re good enough to keep winning, but they’re young and things can go awry with a young team quickly. Either way, it was fun when the Gators were here.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

They Made A Deal

As much as the NFL owners are portrayed as a fraternity of like-minded, chummy associates, when it comes to money, their relationship is about business. That was very apparent in the final day of the meeting/negotiating session in Dallas as the owners were trying to hash out revenue sharing among themselves and a deal with the players union.

At one point over the two-day session, Jim Irsay of the Indianapolis Colts said, “We need the ghost of Wellington Mara to appear.” Mara, the long time owner of the New York Giants who died last year, is generally credited with giving the NFL life when he agreed to revenue sharing with the other owners instead of piling up the big bucks as an owner in the largest market in America.

Because of the worth of the teams, more than half of the owners have bought their clubs in the last 15 years. That means they don’t know anything about the labor problems of the league in the ‘80’s or the competition they faced from the AFL in the ‘60’s, followed by the USFL two decades later. The Raiders Al Davis was convinced that a rival league would have spawned had the NFL not made a deal with the players. “It would have been out there,” Davis said after the proposal was approved 30-2. “A ten team league would have been easy to put together to rival ours. It would have been anarchy. I know, I’ve lived it.”

Apparently a blending of a couple ideas was approved by the ownership with the top 15 high revenue teams contributing money to a pool that would be distributed over the other 17 teams in the league. “There are a lot of people giving a lot of money away,” is how Pittsburgh’s Dan Rooney characterized it. It was a true compromise with plenty of give and take.

Guys like Jerry Jones of Dallas and Daniel Snyder of Washington got on board, accepting the idea that some money made in the future because of the size of their market could be shared for the good of the league. “We got moving,” Jones said, “when some of the smaller revenue teams realized that some of the concerns they had just weren’t going to be addressed.”


Wouldn’t you like to have been a fly on the wall in that meeting when Jones, Snyder and some of the other big market guys just stood up and told those other owners that what they wanted just wasn’t going to happen? When was the last time anybody told an NFL owner no about anything? It’s the bazillionaires telling the skillionaires that they can’t have what they want.

It is a deal that keeps the league going in the direction it’s going: up. Even though they’re in business together, what’s a few million among friends?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

It’s The Goose, Stupid!

It seems almost unheard of that the NFL could some how screw things up, but from the rhetoric surrounding the labor talks, we know that anything is possible. The owner and the players are apparently far apart on the issues and that in itself, even if they ever make a deal, seems ludicrous. I’m well aware of what kind of public face negotiations take on, but how can either side look at what they’ve got and say somehow it’s bad? There are millions if not billions of dollars to go around.

The owners have a lucrative television deal and many partnerships with cities with sweetheart deals allowing them long-term, favorable leases on stadiums.

The players have free agency; the owners have a salary cap.

The owners have year-to-year contracts; the players have up-front bonus money.

Everybody’s making money, with the owners raking it in (not to mention the increase in the value of the teams) and the players peddling their skill to the highest bidder.

If there’s one thing that could be fixed in the league, it’s the nature of the have’s and have-nots on the rosters. Because of the salary cap, veteran players are squeezed out if they’re not top-flight starters in favor of cheaper rookies and younger players. But that’s beside the point. Figuring out how the revenue can be distributed among the players and the owners can’t be that hard.

The 32 owners are a notorious bunch of businessmen, all getting to be where they are by being shrewd and tough. Most of them have other businesses with football as an ancillary part of their conglomerate. The players need a union to work for them, to protect them as a whole, but there’s got to be a point where the players say to the union leadership, “Get this done!”

That might come sooner rather than later.

If there’s no agreement this weekend, there will be a massive dumping of high dollar players, and there will be very few teams with the available money to sign them. Some guys, in the prime of their careers, will find themselves on the street. That’s the worse case scenario for the players and for the league.

I know a lot of teams use the salary cap excuse to get rid of players who still have value but are too expensive, but this is a different situation. Without an agreement, the league will look very different for one year. Teams will sign star players to a one-year deal hoping to get to the Super Bowl. After that, the big market teams will dominate and the league will never be the same.

And nobody wants that.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Changing Daytona

From the Super Bowl to the Daytona 500 is a big jump, but since the NFL moved their big game back a week, the two biggest events in football and auto racing now follow each other just two weeks apart. Detroit was miserable and everybody knows it. They got a free pass from most of the media because they knew it was going to be miserable and the people tried hard.

You can basically hold the Super Bowl anywhere because most of the parties are indoors and in plush places. Those people in Detroit do have a lot of nerve picking on Jacksonville though. But when you get down to it, the people who attend the Super Bowl don’t want free concerts and an outdoor party atmosphere. They want late-night parties, strip clubs, casinos and cocktails that last deep into the night. If they could hold the game in Las Vegas, they’d think it was perfect.

Daytona is a whole different story though.

It’s people from everywhere, from all over the world and from every economic category you can think of. They’ve dubbed it “Speedweeks” in Daytona, bracketing the few weeks between the 24 Hours of Daytona and the Daytona 500 as one huge event. It’s now three weeks of races, preliminaries, hype and parties. They might call it a celebration of speed, but it’s really a fix for anybody who loves the smell of burning rubber and gasoline and gets a shot of adrenaline every time somebody zips by at more than 100 mph.

And likes to be seen at the place to be seen.

I’ve never been a big fan of the actual racing but have grown to appreciate it and admire all that goes into it. I like hanging around the garage area and seeing the meticulous details that are ironed out before a car hits the track. I have driven at Daytona, getting the car up to over 160 and that was a thrill, so I can appreciate somebody who’s just wild about the sport. And there are plenty of those.

It’s certainly more corporate than it used to be. From the fans to the drivers it’s a little more rehearsed, more refined if you will. Tents are still pitched in the infield between turns three and four at Daytona but they’re far outnumbered by the luxury buses and campers that are parked throughout the infield for the week leading up to The Great American Race. The days of catching a minute with the drivers in the garage area are gone, replaced by scheduled press conferences. Fans are still drinking plenty of beer and brown liquor at the track, but now white wine seems to be as popular.

And there are as many ladies rooms as bathrooms for guys. There used to be one in the infield, and it was always empty.

It’s not quite as fun as it once was, with the driver’s personalities driving the sport and the fan loyalty to a particular driver starting plenty of fights among friends.

When Jimmy Johnson won the 500 on Sunday, there was a collective shrug among the 200,000 plus fans at the track. No hooting and hollering and partying well into the night. Johnson’s proclamations in Victory Lane included all of the right people and no controversy, despite being found to be a cheat earlier in the week. His answers were nice neat and sound bite length, and I didn’t see a drip of chew anywhere.

It’s another shift in the personality of the sport.

From Richard and Cale, to Dale and Darrell and then Jeff, it’s now all guys who were trained to be drivers from birth. But it’s bigger than ever and includes just about everybody and there’s plenty of money to go around.

As long as NASCAR stays “cool” they’ll continue to grow. If not, we’ll all just have to become Tony Stewart fans.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Detroit’s XL

You could only chuckle when the reports about Detroit hosting the Super Bowl started coming in. The game was awarded to the Motor City as a nod to the car manufacturers, William Clay Ford the owner of the Lions, Roger Penske and as a reward for building a new stadium.

Detroit’s like any other “Old World” city. Industry has come and gone, jobs have come and gone, people are trying to move out and the town is dark and gray in the winter. Unless you’re in the car business, nobody’s moving to Detroit. But like any of the established cities in the US, there are nice places to be found.

Gross Pointe, Bloomfield Hills, Troy, they’re all suburbs, just like suburbs anywhere else: nice neighborhoods, good places to live and raise kids. There are hockey leagues everywhere and they celebrate their cold weather as part of the culture. In fact, people are proud of their ability to endure, to overcome the things that are part of living in a place that has snow, sleet, and cold temperatures.

Detroit is the hometown of sportswriter Mitch Albom (he also wrote Tuesdays With Morrie) who wrote a touchy-feely piece about warmth of character of the people of Detroit. His point was that there’s some nobility in working two jobs to make ends meet. He compared his town to Orlando and Disney World saying that’s a fabricated world and Detroit is real.

And I don’t disagree with any of that.

If you’re living in Detroit either you have to or you want to. There’s no in between. Either you can’t leave or you really want to stay. That’s not the case is most of the cities hosting the Super Bowl, including Jacksonville. Nobody has to live in Jacksonville. They’re not tied to the company store, the job at the mill or the mine. People live there because the living is easy and nice. And there’s plenty of “warmth of character” among the people who live there as well.

I’m over all of the shots the media took at Jacksonville last year. I’ve always said you have to let the city reveal itself to you instead of it slapping you in the face as soon as you get there. But I’m still a little frosted about the continued snide comments from poorly dressed, over-fed, ill-informed, self-important hacks who spent four days there and all of the sudden became experts.

One writer wrote the 16 reasons the Super Bowl is ok in Detroit. Reasons #2 and #14 were “It’s not Jacksonville.”

Detroit is getting nice reviews for their “hospitality” and the people have been nice. Kind of standoffish, but nice. Motown does have casinos, something most people I’ve talked to didn’t know. But the people who are visiting have figured that out right away. Maybe that’s why Detroit is getting a little bit of a pass. That, and everybody knew the weather was going to be a factor (bad).

So Jacksonville suffered from; 1) nobody knew what to expect, 2) no casinos, 3) not enough hotel rooms and 4) no strip joints. At least that’s what seems to be the general consensus of those who are in Detroit this week. It is Detroit after all.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Hall Of Fame Choices

As a voter for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I get a chance each year to hear the pros and cons debated about each of the eligible players the day before the Super Bowl. There are 39 electors on the Hall of Fame committee, writers and broadcasters representing the 32 NFL cities, the Pro Football Writers of America and some at-large voters as well.

The debate is usually spirited, with some biases at work that still have me shaking my heard.

This year the fifteen finalists don’t include any “contributors” to the game and that seems strange. Neither Art Modell, George Young nor Ralph Wilson made it to the final ballot. All three have been there before. Which makes me belive that there might have been a coordinated effort among some of the voters to not bring any of the contributors to the committee this year.

There’s been a long standing debate regarding whether the contributors should fight for the limited number of spots available for the Hall with the players and coaches involved in the game. The total number of electees in any one year can only be six, and if you throw a contributor or two in there, all of the sudden, the players are getting squeezed out.

I agree that the contributors should have their own separate category, but the Hall’s Board of Directors doesn’t see it that way and therefore, they’ll continue to be on the general ballott. With only six eligible spots, this year is going to be tough. It’ll be an elimination ballott in my mind instead of a who’s deserving vote.

When the Seniors committee brings a player to the final 15, I think it’s amazing that somebody would vote one of those down. Two members of the Seniors committee meet with the Hall’s administration and two members of the Hall in August to go through the thousands of players who’s careers ended more than 25 years ago. They’re looking for the guys who “slipped through the cracks.”

In my 11 years on the committee, only two senior candidates, Jerry Kramer and Bob Hayes didn’t get elected. If a guy is grabbed out of that morass of players and makes it through the voting process to the final up or down, who among the committee members thinks they’re just smarter than everybody else and votes no? Not me, I can assure you.

Kramer was subjected to the “I’m not putting anymore Packers in” syndrome. Hayes’ chance was mortally wounded when a prominent writer.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Season

“The season?” Mike Peterson asked in response to a question about his reflections of the year. “The season was great, 12-4 but we didn’t get it done tonight. I’m not into making excuses. If I’m on the field, I’m supposed to make tackles. I didn’t. We lost.”

That was the general theme in a quiet but not somber Jaguars losing locker room after their 28-3 defeat at the hands of the New England Patriots. “They’re a good team, and when you make mistakes, a good team makes you pay for it,” Rashean Mathis said in front of his locker. “We’ll learn from this.”

That’s what the entire game looked like. The Patriots looked like they knew how to play in the post-season and they were going to teach the Jaguars what it meant. New England wasn’t dominating. They controlled the field position for the entire first half, yet only lead 7-3. But they never looked out of control. When the Jaguars went three and out in the first series of the third quarter, the Patriots promptly took the ball 81 yards for a touchdown.

When the Jaguars didn’t make a crisp tackle, Ben Watson ran 67 yards for a TD. And when Byron Leftwich threw a predictable pass in the flat, Assante Samuel picked it off and ran it back for another six points.

“The difference is one or two plays,” Deon Grant said as his teammates dressed around him. “Some of the guys have been in games like this before and knew we had to play perfect football. When you don’t, you get beat.”

Nine-year veteran Terry Cousin agreed. “You want to be what the Patriots are. Efficient, in control, and mistake free. When you’re not, it’s hard to overcome turnovers. You’ve got to make those catches, convert those third downs, make those tackles and get them off the field.”

For all of the talk about Byron Leftwich’s “rust,” that’s not what got the Jaguars beat. Leftwich was indecisive and not as accurate as usual, but he was OK. It was things like Jimmy Smith’s drop on third down that forced a punt. The three missed tackles on Watson’s TD. The ball bouncing right back to the Patriots each time they fumbled it. Alvin Pearman coughing it up on a big hit, even though he had two hands around the ball.

Teams that win championship type games don’t have those things happen to them. They’re the one’s making the play, forcing the turnovers and taking advantage of it. But the Jaguars aren’t there yet. They didn’t have the maturity of the Patriots even if they could match them in talent. Taking that next step doesn’t must mean getting to the playoffs, it means playing like a team that looks like they belong there.

“It is what it is,” Jack Del Rio and other coaches are fond of saying. So the Jaguars 12-4 record during the regular season proved to be no real training ground for the post-season. It got them there, but they weren’t ready yet to be prime time players.