Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Still A Game of Shadows

The Mitchell Report took a while to compile and $20 million of Major League Baseball’s money. So why then is every body in it denying the findings or just ignoring it completely? Probably because there is no real enforcement risk based on baseball’s current relationship with the players union.

The current collective bargaining agreement runs through 2011 and doesn’t allow MLB to really punish players for using illegal performance enhancing drugs.

Why hasn’t Donald Fehr, the players union representative, come out with a big statement either saying the problem is fixed, is still going on or never existed? Because he’s already positioning for the negotiating that will go on looking for the new agreement.

The baseball era just past was full of steroid and performance enhancing drug use and clearly some of the administrators of the game thought that was just fine. When the 1994 World Series was cancelled because of a players’ strike, the game was crippled. Cal Ripken Jr.’s march past Lou Gerhig’s record revived some fans interest in the game but it was the long ball, and the home run chase in 1998 that really brought the game back.

Now we know that Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and company were all using drugs to help hit those home runs. Somebody at the top of the game knew it. They might not have been there when guys were getting injections but they had some suspicions that the game was tainted.

And they did nothing.


Because people were flocking to the ballparks and watching the game on television. MLB had unprecedented growth to a $6 billion dollar game in 2007. People like the long ball and were paying money to see it. So in one-way or another, baseball turned a blind eye to what was going on.

I heard an interview with a player the other day that said he was aware of what was going on but that any illegal “actions” were performed outside of the ballpark. It’s not that there were a bunch of syringes sitting around the clubhouse, but that players were aware that if they needed some help, they could get it from one of their teammates pretty easily.

Storm Davis said the other day he wouldn’t have admitted it ten years ago but now says that he was well aware of performance enhancing drug use and it’s availability during his playing days.

Nobody wants to throw anybody else under the bus and even some say that the Mitchell Report is “incomplete.” But at the same time, nobody’s come out and said, “Yeah, I did it. I knew it was illegal and I did it because I thought I could make some more money.”

Andy Pettite admitted to taking HGH during a rehab but he didn’t exactly trumpet any willing “illegal” drug use.

I just think somebody either has to stand up and be counted in the Major League Baseball office or the commissioner and Donald Fehr should both resign. Players won’t be punished because of the collective bargaining agreement and there’s a bunch of muddling around going on instead of some explanations.

I guess it’s still a “game of shadows.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tim Tebow: The Legend Grows

I voted for Tim Tebow for the Heisman. In fact the final count followed my ballot: Tebow, Darren McFadden and Colt Brennan. It was a wide-open year but I thought Tim’s historic numbers put him at the top of the list.

He’s not going to play in the National Championship game and the Gators lost three times but in a year where there was no clear-cut favorite, the award’s focus shifted to individual achievement and that made Tebow the easy choice.

More often than not these days, his name and the word “legend” are used in the same sentence as he racks up one accolade after another. A National Championship ring, historic numbers at the position and now the Heisman Trophy.

His work ethic is also considered legendary, as well as his attitude and personality. All that stuff he said at the ceremony? That’s really him. Not rehearsed, not made up, he’s really that way. He’s very team oriented, he’s not all about “me.”

He’s normal.

And I know that makes a lot of people either angry or uncomfortable or apathetic. He says, “Yes sir” and “no ma’am” and please and thank you and all of the other things that any regular person would do.

I’ve always thought it was funny when people got accolades for doing the regular things that seem everyday. But that’s where we’ve gotten. Our expectations are lower, especially when it comes to athletes. Putting sentences together, being respectful of the people around you, showing up when you say you’ll be there, aren’t they all part of everyday life? But regrettably we see that kind of behavior and accept it, writing it off to “celebrity” status or perhaps “money.”

Tebow clearly has strong faith, thanking God at every opportunity. I know that drives some people crazy but there’s no denying it’s genuine. His father is a missionary and he was raised with strong faith.

I remember Muhammad Ali thanking Elijah Muhammad and Herbert Muhammad each time Howard Cosell would interview him after a match. He was about the first high profile athlete to do that and people were taken aback at first but it just became part of the landscape.

Maybe people who are uncomfortable with their own faith are the ones who are uncomfortable with Tim or any other athlete professing theirs. He has a pretty high profile and I’m sure he believes its part of his duty to use that stage to profess his faith.

He’s been on all of the morning talk shows and did very well, promoting his team, the university, and his friendship with Danny Wuerffel and Wuerffel’s charity in New Orleans.

He’s an academic All-America on top of all of it.

So the legend grows and you have to wonder where does he go from here? Win another Heisman? Maybe two more? There’s constant speculation that he’ll leave Florida after his junior year.

He wouldn’t be the perfect NFL quarterback right now, but if he continues to improve, and there’s no reason he won’t, he could be the top selection in the ’09 draft. If that’s the case, he’ll probably come out unless his family says stay in school.

There will be money there if he stays healthy and the endorsements would be massive. If he can play, what owner wouldn’t want him as the face of their team?

One thing’s for sure; Tim’s life will never be the same. No matter where he goes, he’ll always be, Tim Tebow, Heisman Trophy Winner.

Pretty good title to have behind your name.
Even if “Legend” is already there.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Keep It Real

I don’t know what happened in the Sean Taylor murder and perhaps we’ll never know, but it’s not just a random burglary and shooting. Taylor had his scrapes with the law and at one point was charged with brandishing a weapon during some alleged gang activity.

A week before the killing, there was a break in at his house and a knife was left on his bed. The murderer cut the phone lines to his house before they broke in, knocked down a locked bedroom door and fired two shots at Taylor, one fatal, hitting him in the leg.

Taylor’s girlfriend and his daughter weren’t involved, although both were there. Taylor grabbed a machete he kept by his bed, anticipating trouble. That, of course, didn’t help at all.

Police are pretty tight lipped but information will come out about what happened and how the shooter circumvented the security system and gained access to the house. Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post said that Taylor never “rejected a violent lifestyle,” and that appears to be true.

Many professional athletes come from neighborhoods riddled with violence, poor neighborhoods trouble seemingly at every turn. Some reject that, and others embrace it. Still others would like to get away from that life, only to be constantly lured back by the call of “keeping it real.”

I understand loyalty to the people who raised you and to the people who you grew up with, but it’s very difficult to comprehend athletes “keeping it real” when it’s illegal and puts their career and even lives at risk.

There’s a good article in Sports Illustrated about Michael Vick and his “friends” who all were part of his “Bad Newz” enterprise. The authors of the article theorize that most black athletes from poor neighborhoods are ill equipped to deal with the fame and money that comes their way as top-flight professional athletes. They don’t trust new people and consequently rely on their friends from “the neighborhood” to get things done, even if they’re not qualified.

Baron Davis, according to SI is a good example of somebody who still empowers his old neighborhood with educational initiatives and small business loans without succumbing to the entourage that Michael Vick and others carry around.

“I believe in helping the systems,” Davis said, “Not the individuals.”

The NFL tries to help rookies feel comfortable during their transition into professional sports with lectures and seminars about what you might call “life in the fast lane.” But after their rookie year it’s up to the team to continue those lessons and programs.

I have noticed that in NFL locker rooms there are posters about accountability, relationship abuse, firearms, gambling and off-field behavior. Whether any of the players takes the time to read them is anybody’s guess.

But the league is starting to understand that if there’s an issue that can be directly related to ticket sales and reputation it’s off-field behavior. “I don’t relate to the culture at the games anymore,” one Jaguars season ticket holder told me recently. “The players don’t seem to have any interest in relating to the fans and it turns me off.”

I know exactly what he was talking about but told him he’s got to be willing to move in the player’s direction and vise-versa. “You’re never going to be black or young again,” I explained, but the league is mainly a young, black man’s game.

The problem is the ticket buying public is mainly white and either middle aged or old. So the two sides are going to have to find some “middle ground,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell has instituted a personal conduct policy that is the first step in bringing the players in line with what could be called normal behavior.

Did you hear Joe Gibbs say he didn’t know that Taylor was in Miami? It’s no surprise because with the amount of money the players have at their disposal, leaving Sunday after the game and returning for practice Wednesday morning doesn’t mean just going home and cutting the grass. Chartered jets headed to Miami Beach or Vegas are a regular occurrence for a “getaway.”

So it’s a big issue and one that’s not going away.
The only way to fix it is to work on it.

From both sides.


Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Change For The Better

When I first heard of Fred Taylor, he was a prized recruit coming out of South Florida to the University of Florida. He really was just a kid. Raised by his grandmother in a house with dirt floors in a tough neighborhood, he was about as wide-eyed and impressionable as any freshman in college history. Not college football history, college history.

“I couldn’t breathe,” Fred told me after his first game at Florida Field. “Running out of that tunnel, I couldn’t believe how many people were there. I couldn’t catch my breath. I’ve never seen that many people in my whole life.”

We have a good laugh about that occasionally. Fred’s able to laugh at some of those things now. That wasn’t always the case. While at Florida he got himself into trouble a couple of times. Nothing really major, if I remember correctly. But I do remember that Steve Spurrier looked him in the eye one day and said, “You’ll be out of here the next time,” and Fred paid attention and straightened up.

He was a hot commodity coming out of college. A strong and fast tailback who had moves and power. At over six feet and 230lbs. many teams coveted Taylor. Tom Coughlin originally wanted Curtis Ennis out of Penn State but when he traded Rob Johnson to Buffalo for their first pick, the ninth overall, Taylor was the obvious selection.

“Hey Sam,” Fred said at his initial press conference as a rookie, flashing a smile that revealed several gold teeth. We did several interviews that year that I sent to other stations in the state and to a couple of the networks. He was a hot topic. But his grandmother didn’t like the way he looked with those gold teeth. I saw him in training camp the following year without the teeth and mentioned how he looked good. “My grandmother didn’t like those teeth,” Taylor admitted somewhat embarrassingly. “So I changed them out. No big deal.”

I didn’t think anything of it at the time but I should have known that a pattern was developing. Off the field, Fred was getting a reputation as a very “sociable” player part of a group of young players not afraid to have a good time. He made news when his agent, Tank Black, made off with $5 million of Fred’s signing bonus and Taylor admitted he wasn’t paying much attention. Reportedly, Jaguars Owner Wayne Weaver made it right and gave Fred a little fatherly advice.

When Taylor stepped out of line off the field, Head Coach Tom Coughlin also gave him some advice. “Keep this up,” Coughlin told Fred, “and you’ll be out of the league soon.”

“I admit I wasn’t taking care of myself. My nutrition, not getting enough rest and just wasn’t acting right. But I’ve changed that and I’m on the right path.” That was Fred just a few days ago, admitting that he’s had several revelations in his career.

“I also got married, had kids and that really changed my life.” He’s right about that. Taylor is close to his family and closer to his faith. “God is a good God,” Taylor said during the End Zone on Monday night. “He didn’t lose faith in me and neither did my teammates.”

You might have noticed that Taylor now wears a captains “C” on his jersey in games. “That’s an honor I bestowed on him a couple of weeks ago,” Head Coach Jack Del Rio said explaining his change in philosophy. “He’s earned it. He’s done things here on the field and in the organization that has shown he’s a leader.” Del Rio usually likes to name his captains game to game, but Taylor is an exception.

“I’m doing the same things as before. I’m not a rah-rah guy but I’m willing to show my teammates how to do things right,” he said when I asked him about the “C” after the win over San Diego. That’s a statement I never thought I’d hear from Fred.

“I didn’t think I’d still be in the league,” Taylor told me when I asked him if he thought he’d gain 10,000 yards in his career.

Taylor’s gone from a mumbler in interviews to an eloquent spokesman for himself and his teammates. He’s unbelievably popular, a testament to his likeability that seems to come through. I was disappointed when he didn’t stick around for 10 minutes to sign autographs but other than that he’s turned into quite a solid guy.

I’ve seen enough guys go the other way, from easy-going to unlikable. It’s nice to see somebody go in the other direction. Especially somebody who’s as easy to like as Fred.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Personal Responsibility

I guess you could write this column every day. Athlete does something stupid, gets caught, pays a penalty, claims he didn’t realize it was a mistake, apologizes and moves on. I guess that’s accepted in today’s world and even expected. But I think fans have had just about enough. I know they have here in Jacksonville.

Marcus Stroud isn’t a rookie and isn’t a stupid guy either, but his use of a substance that contained a banned element is stupid because that doesn’t have to happen.

“The resources are there,” Rashean Mathis told me last week. “Anything you have that you want to take, you can ask the doctors or the trainer or you can get something from them.”

What did Marcus take? Who knows! He’s not saying except to give it the tired, “Must have been something tainted in the supplement,” answer. So he lets down his teammates and everybody in the organization and won’t play for the next four weeks. That’s Tennessee and Indianapolis, both division games and San Diego and Buffalo, both conference games.

He’s out ¼ of his salary because of the suspension and will have the specter of cheating over his career for as long as it lasts. Maybe he was taking something for his ankle. Maybe he was trying to put on/lose weight. Whatever it was, it’s a stupid decision when it comes to being a professional athlete and the fans aren’t taking it so well.

People ask me every day, “Why, aren’t they smarter than that?” So what’s the answer? I’d like to say they are, but their actions seem to prove the contrary.

Justin Durant and Richard Collier were both arrested last Friday night after leaving a nightclub near Bay meadows and Rte. 1. Alcohol was involved in both cases begging the question, “Why not just get a ride home?” I’m sure anybody who’s been charged with DUI has said that to themselves, but you’d figure with the resources at the player’s disposal as far as money or free rides, it should make that decision easier.

I remember being 22 and bulletproof and invisible and I’ve driven plenty of times when I shouldn’t have been behind the wheel, but at the time I didn’t have the resources in front of me that the players do. Nor the standing in the community or the support of a bunch of teammates. I often wonder why Brittany Spears doesn’t have a driver either!

Anyway, the Jaguars are playing with the emotions of the fans with their off-field actions and how they got beat by New Orleans. The rumors about the number of players at that nightclub in Baymeadows have spread around town and chip away at the credibility of the team and the players.

People really want to believe in professional athletes who represent their town, but they’re now to the point where bad behavior is kind of expected. Expected but not tolerated. The league and the Jaguars realize this and have taken the first steps to trying to fix that.

Wayne Weaver said he was “disgusted” with the players’ lack of discipline and knowing Wayne, he won’t put up with it. But who are the team “enforcers” on the Jaguars? Which guys in the locker room are the ones the other players are accountable to?

Jack Del Rio and James Harris have gotten rid of the middle year veteran players, perhaps because of money and the salary cap but it seems that those players are the ones who set the tone. Look at New England. The Patriots have a bunch of guys who don’t put up with anything and even said so when Randy Moss was on the horizon. That’s where the personal responsibility and accountability come into play. I don’t think it’s a goose that can lay golden eggs forever.

If the league and the Jaguars don’t get a firm handle on it, they’ll be fewer people watching on television and in person no matter how many blackouts there are.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

For A Year, It’s Ga/Fla

When Knowshown Moreno scored the Bulldogs first touchdown, his teammates flooded the end zone as directed by Head Coach Mark Richt. “Classless,” is how one Florida Gator described it. In a game that’s about showmanship and one-upmanship, it was right along with just about everything that’s gone on in the Florida/Georgia rivalry.

No Gator fans seemed to be hanging their heads when Steve Spurrier decided to “hang half a hundred on ‘em,” in Athens when reminded that nobody had ever scored fifty points as the opponent between the hedges. That time out at the end of the game and the flea-flicker pitch back evokes giggles from the Gator faithful every time it’s brought up.

So Georgia had a chance of it’s own to spit in the Gators eyes, and they took it. Then they backed it up. Although The Gators tied the game quickly and the game was competitive from the get-go, Florida was a bit surprised that the Bulldogs could hang with them.

The Gators are so used to running the score up and blowing people out that close games are foreign to their makeup. They beat Kentucky in a quasi-close game, downing an emotionally spent Wildcat team still trying to catch their breath after beating LSU the week before.

Florida should have known that the Georgia was gunning for them all along. They thought they could have easily won the game last year but made too many silly mistakes. The ‘Dogs had the week off leading up to the game, something that can’t be discounted. Usually it’s Florida with the bye week before coming to Jacksonville but this time the roles were reversed, with the outcome different as well.

For all of the emotion in the game, Georgia played the way they’re capable of while they exposed Florida’s defense as young and out of sync.

I’ve got a lot of respect for what Urban Meyer has accomplished in his time as a head coach and his disciplinary program at Florida is close to what I’d expect as an alumni. (I’d have suspended Tony Joiner.) But to watch him on the sidelines interacting with his players is a bit much to take. When a player is called for a penalty, Meyer dresses them down right there.

Keestan Moore’s mishandling of the ball brought Meyer’s full wrath down on him. I’ll be surprised if he plays again this year he’s so far under the doghouse. But what’s Urban supposed to expect when he rarely gives Moore carries in favor of Tim Tebow? Moore’s first fumble was just the result of a perfect hit.

Tebow’s shoulder injury is a direct result of overuse when it comes to the quarterback in the SEC. You can have all of the Bowling Green and Utah opponents pile on the QB you want. When you get to the SEC, it’s a whole different story. They pound on you with big, fast guys and eventually it takes it toll. Meyer doesn’t have to look any farther than the mirror when he wants to find out who’s responsible for the Gators current quandary.

“It’s OK, we’ll pound them the next couple of years,” a couple of Gators fans said leaving the game. Oh really? Yes, Florida is young and is expected to be better but don’t forget, the opponents are getting older and better as well. Matthew Stafford will be a junior with two years of starting behind him. He’s very talented and picked his spots against the Florida defense to gouge them for long gains and touchdowns.

That’s why this game is so great anyway. The unexpected happens and there’s a lot of grumbling for an entire year. Florida’s recent dominance has skewed the game a bit, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the game went back to a more even result over each ten-year period.

Spurrier changed the college game completely with his passing game and made beating Georgia his big priority each year, taking evil pleasure in beating the Bulldogs.

People close to Richt say he’s just sick and tired of losing to Florida and now has a good grasp on the magnitude of the rivalry. Meyer is getting a taste of that this year.

How can it be a rivalry anyway when one team dominates?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Teams, Clint And The Rockies

One of the attractive things about sports for me has always been what it reveals about people. Whether it’s a team sport like football or an individual effort like golf, playing it, and observing others playing has always been as much of a mind game for me than a physical challenge.

I still enjoy going to the gym, running, riding my bike and other forms of exercise but the real fun is in the playing, and competing when it comes to sports. I’ve encouraged my kids to get involved with sports, not from a “crazed sports-dad” perspective (although some who have observed me at my kids games over the years could accuse me of that) but rather to keep them active and occupied and learn some of the things about life that sports can supply.

“Sports doesn’t build character, it reveals it,” is a slogan that rings very true, especially when your “playing” days are over.

“I can tell the people who never played a team sport,” one of my children said to me when talking one night about a real life experience. “They have a different outlook on problem solving and how to get from the start to the end of a project.” They said this without malice or judgment, but rather as an observation of how different people manage their lives, personally and professionally.

I’ve had great success and pitiful failure on athletic fields. I’ve been exalted and embarrassed for things I’ve done in sports. But I’ve tried to take something positive from all of it each time.

For a few years in a row, my friends Lex and Terry and I attended several baseball fantasy camps. It’s called a fantasy camp because usually it’s the players’ fantasy to mingle with their childhood heroes. I doubled off Mickey Lolich the first time I faced him on the mound.

Hanging around the batting cage with Hall of Famers Al Kaline talking about the science of hitting could be considered a fantasy come true. But there is the playing of the games that’s also a part of the experience. Some guys are very serious, other couldn’t care less. They’re either there to make up for some deficit they perceive from their younger days or just looking for an escape to green grass and the chance to wear a uniform again.

I always enjoyed being on the team. The banter in the clubhouse, the observations in the dugout (not always about baseball) and the winning and losing as a group. I played for Darrell Evans one year at Tigers camp. He could have cared less about the baseball but was very engaging when it came to off the field activities.

Tom Pacoirek was always fun to play for. He knew what we were looking for and provided the right blend of fun and inside baseball knowledge that you can’t get in a five-minute conversation. Ralph Garr watched me backhand a ground ball behind third base and throw a guy out by five steps while telling me, “You’re not that good anymore!”) And then pulling me aside to tell me what a great play it was.

John Shoemaker worked on my balance in the field while a major league hitting coach whose name I can’t remember told me to drag the butt of the bat through the hitting area before rotating into the ball. (That really worked!)

In those camps, the one guy that really stuck out though was Clint Hurdle. Hurdle kicked around the majors for a while, after being tabbed as “The New Phenom” on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I remember the cover as a kid, and Clint broke it out on the first day of camp, giving himself some credibility while explaining that sometimes it doesn’t all work out that way.

Hurdle told me to quiet my body in the batters box, but also explained that I had to make the routine play in the field if we wanted a chance to win. He encouraged guys who looked like they never played the game as if they were major leaguers. He’d talk about the technical refinements of hitting or the stupid baseball blunders he’d witnessed in his time in baseball.

And the more you got to know him, the more you realized that he cared about the game, but he cared about you as well. He wanted your experience to be what you were looking for and created an atmosphere that you could succeed in.

He’d been a coach for a while when he started running the Braves camp but you always had that feeling that he’d soon be a major league manager. He understood the complex relationship between being intense and relaxed all at the same time that is necessary to be a baseball player. And it shows now on his Colorado Rockies team.

“Sometimes, I just try and stay out of the way,” Hurdle told some reporters the other day.

I’m glad I’m getting a chance to write this because I thought that the Rockies might get rid of Clint because he hadn’t won enough in his first few years in Denver. But they knew he didn’t have the talent he needed, but was creating an atmosphere of success. So they kept him around to continue the process.

The Rockies were out of it in mid-August, but their late season and now post-season run is unprecedented. I mean it’s never happened before in Major League history. And I think a lot of that is how Clint puts things in perspective.

After this run and the national publicity the Rockies and Hurdle will get, he should never have a problem getting a managing job in the majors again. Can you tell I’ll be rooting for the Rockies?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Off The Field (And The Media)

Sometimes I’m amused when somebody on the phone or calling into a radio show tells me that we’re not asking hard enough questions of our sports interview subjects. (I also get calls telling me to lay off.)

Covering professional and college sports means two completely different environments when dealing with players, coaches and the other media involved. College athletes are more eager, more honest and haven’t had the enthusiasm coached out of them when it comes to talking with the media. That means usually better answers but it might take some time getting that answer out of them.

The coaches are a little less wary of the media in college. Part of that comes from their tenure and from the knowledge that how they’re portrayed to the public can directly effect recruiting, fund raising and the whole perception of the program. The coaches in college are also less critical of their players, and rightly so.

There’s also a comfort level for college coaches among the media. You’d be amazed how many Florida grads/fans are in the media group covering the Gators. Same thing in Tallahassee for FSU. It’s usually a younger group and part of a pack mentality that exists among just about all media these days as well.

I’ve always thought that the key to getting good answers is asking good questions. Asking a coach or player to “talk about” anything is stupid. “Talk about your tight ends,” isn’t a question. “Are the tight ends fulfilling your expectations, blocking downfield and getting open regularly?” is a question. And that usually gets a decent answer.

Covering professional sports is a different animal. The players are coached to not give information to the media, the coaches are cynical and tight-lipped and the media horde is older, more cynical and skeptical (sometimes with good reason) and usually with an agenda.

Tuesday and Wednesday of this week were good examples in Gainesville and in Jacksonville. Tony Joiner’s arrest on a felony burglary charge was dealt with directly by Florida Coach Urban Meyer. Meyer said he was disappointed and admitted it was a distraction. “He won’t suit up as long as he has a felony charge against him,” Meyer said after practice.

There were some direct questions asked of the Gators head coach and he gave direct answers. Not a lot of beating around the bush or hemming and hawing. That’s not always the case, but in this instance, it seems like we’re getting the truth and the situation is being dealt with.

Wednesday in Jacksonville was a little different story. It was the first time the team met with the media since the Khalif Barnes incident came to light. Barnes had a well-publicized scrape with the law last year and last Wednesday left the scene of a one-car accident at 6:30 in the morning. Barnes said he was on his way to treatment at the stadium and fell asleep at the wheel. That could be a true story, or it could be false. And that’s the problem.

Jack Del Rio said he didn’t want to discuss it, that it had already been well reported and well documented. I asked him if it was customary for a player to be headed to treatment on a Saturday morning on the bye week and he said, “With Khalif’s injury he would have been required to report for treatment twice a day, every day, regardless of the day.” Then made it clear he wasn’t going to answer any more questions about it. Still, Cole Pepper asked, “In light of the recent moves by the commissioner’s office, would you suspect that Barnes might be suspended and unable to play this week?” Jack didn’t like that, but said, “I don’t think the commissioner’s office gets involved in citations but I also don’t think there is anything that would keep Khalif from being available to us this week. Now, does anybody want to talk about Kansas City?”

It’s a silly way to act, especially when it’s a developing story. Stop trying to manage the information. Just get it out there, no matter how good or bad it is and do the right thing. If he’s out of line, suspend him, fine him, or cut him. If Barnes has a problem, perhaps this is the situation that brings it to light and he can get some help before he hurts himself or someone else.

The public is getting very tired of misbehaving athletes and the slack they’ve been cut in the past. Barnes knows this, so does Del Rio and so do his teammates. Fred Taylor said it best, “If he’s gotten into trouble, he needs to use better judgment than that for himself and for his teammates. Bottom line.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Russell Crowe’s Rugby Adventure

I really didn’t know what to expect when I was invited to the press conference that Russell Crowe was holding at UNF. The Academy Award winning actor also holds a majority stake in the South Sydney Rabbitohs, a National Rugby League team in Australia.

When my friend Spinner first brought the idea of bringing Crowe’s “Bunnies” for an exhibition game here in Jacksonville in January I wasn’t sure what to think. Spinner has been the single driving force behind the Jacksonville Axemen and all things Rugby that have been going on in town in the last couple of years. He’s a big thinker but I thought this might be a little “big” even for his thoughts. It’d be like bringing the Yankees to Sydney for a little game against the Yomimuri Carp. That all changed when I walked into the press conference in the soccer locker room at UNF.

They know what they’re doing at UNF when it comes to putting on meetings and pressers. Crowe was sitting at a long table at the front of the room, alone, with South Sydney jerseys all draped neatly over the front. Behind him, the wall was decorated with more “Souths” paraphernalia. “RC” as he was referred to in the emails, was dressed in Rabbitohs gear, sweatshirt and hat and was speaking calmly and plainly about his team’s appearance in Jacksonville.

“I like the temperate climate,” Crowe said when asked what attracted him to Jacksonville as a place to play this game. “And the facilities are very nice here, plus it’s my preference that the fellas stay at the beach which will be like home.” “Plus, they already have a history with Rugby here, (UNF) they know the game,” he continued.

I’ve been to a lot of pressers with actors or musicians who were totally lost when asked any questions of substance. Crowe was the exact opposite. The more complete the question, the more thoughtful the answer.

There were about 30 people there, journalists, photographers and dignitaries all to talk to, see and have their picture taken with one guy. Some questions were about his movie career, some were about his ownership of the team. Some were about the team itself, and even of his athletic career.

“If I had played Rugby league mate, I wouldn’t have had an acting career,” Crowe exclaimed as he pushed his nose to the side and pulled his ear out perpendicular to his head.

As I said, I didn’t know what to expect, but this was very un-Hollywood. No pretension, no primping, no preening. No rehearsed responses.

He answered questions until they were exhausted, then stood and chatted with everybody within earshot. If he was on a schedule, he didn’t let on. He didn’t have a whole bunch of handlers. Just a few security people around making sure somebody didn’t get out of hand.

That is one of the unique things about Jacksonville anyway. We don’t get too jacked up over celebrities. We like it here, they like it here, great, let’s get something to eat, is our attitude.

Spinner made a point to bring “RC” over and introduced me. He looked me in the eye with a firm handshake and repeated my name. He was more Arnold Palmer than John Travolta that’s for sure. And when he hung around and talked with Tom McManus and I for another 10 minutes, I was sold. If it was an act, it was a damn good one.

Somebody asked me afterwards if I was star struck, even for a second. I laughed and said, “No, not even for a second, but when he was standing next to me and answering a question Tom asked I was looking at him and it dawned on me ‘This guy was in Gladiator!” Not that I didn’t know that, but the whole time I was talking with him as just another guy, not the Oscar winner in the movies. That’s Palmer’s charm, and Crowe has some if that in him as well.

(By the way, he’s a bit bigger than you would think, nearly six feet and not skinny.)

During our conversation he told a couple funny stories, laughed at our comebacks and seemed to be enjoying himself. “We’ll let you go,” I said, sticking out my hand to say bye. “If you come back early for the game, let Spinner know and we’ll go have some fun,” I threw in just as “guy talk.”

“You’re on,” Crowe immediately responded with a laugh.

McManus and I walked out the back door and headed for the parking lot. About a half dozen UNF students were gathered outside, having heard that Russell Crowe was here.

“Is he coming out,” one called to me as I walked by.
“In about a minute,” I answered.
“Do you think he’ll talk to us?” she asked without desperation.
“If he sees you and doesn’t have to go anywhere, he’ll probably come over,” I said gauging Crowe’s mood inside.

And as if on cue, “RC” stepped out of the door of the building, walked to his car, saw the students and kept walking over to them. “Hi there,” he waved. He signed all of their autographs, took all of their pictures and asked as many questions as he answered.

When one student named a town in South Africa where she was from he said, “I know it. I’m not an American. I know geography.” It was a remark made in fun so standing in front of him I piped up, “What, Americans don’t know geography?” with a smile. “When I come back, want to have a test,” Crowe slyly said as he signed away. “You’re on,” I answered and thanked him for his time. “Cheers mate,” he responded with a wave. “See you in January,” he finished like he meant it.

The game is the weekend before the Super Bowl at UNF. The team will be here for about 10 days and there’s rumor that Crowe’s band might also make an appearance. Tickets are limited and can be purchased through the Jacksonville Axemen website.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Stop Picking Sides

I keep hearing stories about Byron Leftwich and whether it was the right thing to do to cut him and go with David Garrard. “Is Leftwich happy?” is the over riding theme. The answer is: “Who cares?”

I don’t have any beef with Byron and I didn’t have a huge opinion about whether he or Garrard should have been the starter all along. (But I did write in this column the week before the draft that the Jaguars shouldn’t take Leftwich. It’s in the archives.)

But he’s gone and somehow, his talent and ability to move the team, let alone stay on the field and avoid injury, is blown way out of proportion. “Now that he’s with the Falcons, he’ll be a star,” is how one fan put it to me while I was waiting in line last week at a restaurant.

Really? So he’s automatically changed? He’s more nimble? He has better mechanics?

He’s in the next phase of his career in a different city and a different conference. Bob Petrino is a big passing game guy so maybe the system in Atlanta will suit him. But if they think Joey Harrington isn’t mobile enough, Leftwich is a statue in comparison.

No question he didn’t like Jacksonville and he didn’t get along well with Jack Del Rio but did those things hold him back from being a superstar? I don’t think so. I always thought he was OK. “Stop telling me he’s Namath,” was my standard line. “There’s probably 10 guys in the league I’d rather have than him and I’d probably rather have him than 10 other guys in the league. He’s OK.”

But stop thinking about Leftwich and whether it was the right thing for the Jaguars or not. He’s gone and he’s not coming back. In fact, Jack Del Rio staked his career as the Jaguars head Coach on cutting Leftwich and putting Garrard in the game. If the Jaguars aren’t a playoff contender this year, Wayne Weaver will be scanning the lists of potential head coaches for 2008.

And James Harris will be gone as well.

I’ve often wondered how different Garrard would be if he was given the same opportunities as Leftwich, a first round pick. Would he have tried so hard last year that he couldn’t get out of his own way? I’m not sure but given a little rope, we’re going to find out. In the first two games, David’s played well but hasn’t been spectacular. That might or might not happen, but for now, the quarterback situation isn’t the issue.

There’s an undercurrent that also drifts through the fans attitude toward cutting Byron and keeping Garrard: David’s not black enough. I’ve heard a lot of ridiculous things but that’s about the most spectacularly ignorant thought process I can even conjure up.

Both Leftwich and Garrard were popular teammates, perhaps David a little more popular because he was the backup, which is pretty normal. Leftwich is a kid from D.C. and hasn’t changed. He’s a bit lazy with his speech and it cost him in endorsements. That and some unreasonable demands when he first came to town, looking for money that nobody had when he was first shopping himself around. It’s rumored that the Jaguars asked him to take some speech lessons, which he refused to do.

One teammate told me, “He’s a weird dude.” “How so,” I asked. “Who do you know wears sunglasses in the locker room at 7AM?” Ok, a little idiosyncratic, but I wouldn’t call that weird. Maybe it was a bit of a rough night. I’ve been told that Leftwich had a few of those on his resume as well. But of course, all of us have at one time or another.

So how can Garrard win the fans support, even those who thought he should be gone and the team should have stuck with Byron. Or even Quinn Gray.



That fixes everything.

Mark Brunell has iconic status in Jacksonville but he was somewhere in the middle of the quarterback pack even in his heyday. But in ’96 and ’99 the team won and #8 was at the helm.

I’ve heard it all when it comes to quarterbacks. He’s too short, his feet are too small, he’s not Christian enough, he’s too religious, he throws too hard and he’s scared and doesn’t want to get hit anymore. No matter what it is, everybody’s got an opinion. I’m sure it was the same in Miami when Marino was playing. Somebody had a beef with what he was doing. I know they moaned in Denver about Elway before he won two Super Bowls and even with his four titles all we ever heard about Terry Bradshaw was that he was stupid.

As for Garrard, let’s let him play. Let’s see what he is before we pass judgment. As Del Rio said when he made the change, “It’s a matter of style.” And Jack got it right. Let’s see what kind of style David brings to the table.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

To Buy or Not

There’s a lot of talk about blackouts and fan support for the Jaguars early this season. The team avoided a blackout in their opener against Tennessee, extending the deadline and selling just under 2,000 tickets in the last week.

What’s behind the blackouts anyway, I’m asked on a regular basis.

The league has their own rule that mandates that if a game isn’t sold out 72 hours in advance of kickoff then it can’t be shown on local television. It’s supposed to encourage people to buy tickets to see the game in person.

The self-imposed rule is an extension of a law congress passed in the early ‘70’s. Before that, no local games were shown on television but the lawmakers didn’t think that was fair and said if it’s sold out three days in advance, it should be on television. When that law went away two years later, the league kept it up, hoping congress would keep their nose out of the NFL’s business. And so far they have.

There are blackouts all over the league and have been for decades. Almost no games in Los Angeles were ever sold out, so they were blacked out. And in Tampa Bay, the average attendance was around 40,000 so for a dozen years or so, nobody saw the Bucs. Games are almost never on in Miami. But here in town it’s somewhat of a new phenomenon.

People, me included, bought tickets to the games when the franchise first arrived out of civic pride. We figured it was our duty to support the effort the city made to get a team here. There was a lot of buzz about the Jaguars and the visiting team as well. When the team went to the AFC Championship game in 1996, the buzz continued. But for some reason, the Jaguars never seemed to be able to capture that. When the novelty waned, the team could only count on wins to fill the stands, and as we know, it’s a cycle that teams go through in this salary cap era.

And when the games don’t sell out, a segment of the media chastises the locals for not “supporting the cause.” I think that’s really wrong. People don’t want to be bullied into buying tickets. They want to go because it’s fun and it’s the place to be. There’s a buzz. But the Jaguars for some reason have always managed to have that “buzz-kill” when it comes to the fun people want to have.

I hear too many similar stories about trying to buy tickets or bad encounters with team administrators on the phone to think that they’re all made up. I mentioned once that they should be more “pro-active” when it comes to selling tickets at training camp. On hearing that, one senior Jaguars official asked me if I wasn’t “too old to be still having my (menstrual cycle).”

A friend went to the stadium and bought club seats season tickets and was asked “Why now?” he said, “Because you cut Byron Leftwich.” “What’s your problem with Leftwich?” the ticket seller snorted at my friend.

When the announcement was made that Leftwich was being released and David Garrard was named the starter, there was a “buzz” around town. But if you wanted to buy tickets after hearing the news at 5:30 on Friday night, sorry, the ticket office was closed until next Tuesday, after Labor Day.

The next week the office was open on the weekend and in fact up until halftime but the “buzz” was gone for many people by Tuesday. If you wanted to buy season tickets but not club seats, there aren’t any of those left, a good friend of mine was told. “But we have the four packs,” he was reminded. Only to be told, “but one is just a three pack because the Indianapolis game is sold out.” “So I can buy a season ticket but I can’t go to the Indy game?” my friend asked. “Exactly,” was the curt answer? As I said, I hear too many of these stories to not think at least part of them are true.

I know plenty of people who aren’t going to a game because of the “criminal element” in the NFL. Others need some time after a Florida, FSU or Georgia game to recover. The Jaguars haven’t developed enough of their own fan base here in town yet in order to fill the stadium. They need some of the Gator, Seminole and Bulldog nation in the stands to fill the rest of the seats.

Maybe they’ll get there, maybe they won’t. But don’t tell us we must buy tickets just because. It’s a party, not a penalty.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Lambeau Experience

I’ve wanted to make the trip to Lambeau Field for a long time and it seemed a natural to take in the Jaguars/Packers game in August to accomplish that. I know it’s not the entire “experience” of the “frozen tundra” but it was special nonetheless.

I flew to Milwaukee and drove the two hours up to Green Bay. All interstate, it’s a pretty easy drive and I was a few hours early so traffic wasn’t much of a problem. I did stop on the way for a few minutes at a Holiday Inn and was pretty amazed to see a bunch of people milling around the lobby wearing their Packer green and gold. Obviously they were headed to the game.

Once in Green Bay I was surprised at the size of the town. Although it is an outpost along the shore of the lake, it’s not a one-horse town by any means. But it wasn’t hard to find the stadium. It looms in the distance as a true landmark. I was traveling with my friends Rob and Keith so as we got closer we were all pretty surprised at all of the fans hanging around the stadium and all of the homeowners near Lambeau who were parking cars in their front yard.

It was clean with wide parkways and neatly trimmed lawns, something you’d see out of a Rockwell painting if he’d ever attended an NFL game. We parked and looked for a place to get something to eat. The atmosphere around the game was much like Florida/Georgia at home with out the majority of people being over-served. But it was festive with bands playing and people really enjoying themselves. All of this for an exhibition game! We ate across the street, ordering the local fare, butter burgers and cheese curds.

Lambeau was renovated in 2000, so the structure itself is new-looking brick and glass. It seats over 70,000 but there’s no upper deck. It’s all in the lower bowl with great sight lines from every seat and the luxury boxes and press box perched above the seats. The vibe was excited and friendly with people milling everywhere, just about everybody in some kind of Packer jersey. If you weren’t wearing green and gold, you stood out like a sore thumb.

One end of the stadium has an expanded building, housing the Packer Hall of Fame. If you’re any kind of NFL fan, it’s great, starting with a 12-minute video chronicling the history of the team followed by memorabilia from Packer greats over the years. If you played in the NFL and were lucky enough to play for Green Bay you’re a hero forever in that town.

They also have an Atrium at the end of the stadium where they have a variety of eateries and drink carts adding to the overall experience. We ordered Bloody Mary’s’ and I saw the most complete condiment cart for Bloodies I’ve ever seen! You name it as a possible add-on for your drink it was there. You could have virtually a whole salad in with the vodka and the mix. They had some of the best horseradish ever on that cart as well.

We took in the view from a variety of seats around the stadium and even though we found three together in the club section the stadium was virtually full. One thing the club section had was a flip card roster for every seat, something the Jaguars could add to their repertoire.

Packer fans were, as expected, very knowledgeable and had high expectations. They weren’t disappointed by their first team (as opposed to the Jaguars fans at the game) and knew what they were looking for when the back-ups got in the game.

If you have a chance to ever go to a Packer game, go. It’s well worth the trip. Maybe my next one will be in December when they say the real “experience” happens.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Ed Seay 1938-2007

His friends from Jax Beach called him “Poogie” an endearing name from his childhood and high school days at Fletcher. Around the world he was know as Ed or Mr. Seay and as Arnold Palmer’s golf course design partner. Today, Ed Seay died after a long illness at his home here in town. He was 69 years old.

Ed joined with Arnold in 1971 and formed the Palmer Course Design Company in 1972. He has been involved in the design of over 300 golf courses all over the world. From Japan, China, Russia, Europe, Ireland, his ideas have been involved with some of the world’s most famous courses, including the K Club, which recently hosted the Ryder Cup and Tralee, Old Tabby Links in South Carolina and Aviara in California.

After I had a chance to play Old Tabby Links a while back, I mentioned to Ed that I had been there and that it was fabulous. “Why didn’t you call me?” was his typical response, looking for a way to make my day there even more enjoyable. “Nice work there Ed,” I said. “You liked it? Oh, yeah, that’s pretty good there,” he finished, obviously happy with his work there.

Ed sent me to a course called “The Oasis” about an hour outside of Las Vegas a few years back. “They’re not running the place right,” he lamented. “But you won’t see a more spectacular place.” And of course he was right. I drove to the middle of nowhere to get to “The Oasis” but the memories of that day still linger.

Locally, Ed crafted Sawgrass Country Club, the Plantation and Marsh Landing in Ponte Vedra. Ed served as a Past President of the American Society of Golf Course architects and was honored with their lifetime achievement award two years ago. He also was a member of the American Society of Landscape architects.

Although Palmer resides in Orlando and Pennsylvania, his design company was, until about 1 year ago, always here in town, on Ponte Vedra Blvd across the street from the Lodge.

Having spent hours and hours both personally and professionally with Ed, I can tell you he was gracious, generous, sometimes hilariously profane and loyal to a fault. Ed was dedicated to his family, friends, Arnold, whom he always called “Boss,” the Florida Gators and the United States Marine Corps. He was an expert at liar’s poker. His holiday parties are the stuff of legend.

To say the least, Ed cut a large swath wherever he went, and he made sure you were part of the “inside” crowd. His office in Ponte Vedra was like a museum, but it was also a comfortable and welcoming place to just spend a few hours in conversation, or should I say listening to Ed. There might have even been a cocktail or two shared there among friends.

I could go on and on, and I’m sure outlets like the Golf Channel will have long retrospectives on Ed’s life and career. But I’ll echo the words of Erik Larsen, the Exec. VP of PCD who said, “He’s one of the greatest people I’ve ever known.”

Ed is survived by his wife Lynn, his son Mason and Daughter Tracy and two grandchildren. The funeral is Saturday at 10AM at Christ church in Ponte Vedra with a reception following at PVIC.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

300; 3,000; 500

I was driving the other day flipping through the stations when I came across Jim Rome talking with Bob Costas. Obviously much of the conversation centered on Barry Bonds with Rome giving Costas a chance to rebut some things Jon Miller had said the week before.

“I like Jon,” Costas said, “but he does work for the Giants so perhaps in this case he should recuse himself.”

Rome spent two segments with Bob, giving him a forum to get into the whole situation with Bonds, the Giants fans, steroids, Bonds’ denials (or not) and baseball’s position on the whole thing. Costas was able to distill much of every fan’s feelings down to their essence: Bonds cheated.

But it was a very solid argument, noting that Bonds was a great player through his career up until 1998-99 when his alleged performance enhancing drug use started. But that his numbers since then are somewhat artificial and that perhaps his “cheating” has allowed him to extend his career to this point.

Whether it’s on his nationally syndicated radio show or his current “Costas Now” on HBO, Bob has always had a long-form outlet for his ideas and opinions, and they’re usually well thought out and insightful. In this case, he filleted both Miller and Bonds (who had called Costas a “midget who never played the game”), leaving anybody with a logical thought with a very convincing argument.

As Bonds “takes” (Costas’ characterization) instead of breaks Hank Aaron’s home run record it comes at the same time as Alex Rodriguez hits a milestone at 500 home runs and Tom Glavine wins his 300th game. Is it just the time we’re living in that allows us to see such monumental feats in baseball? Is it how the game is played now? Are the players just better?

It’s actually all of those things.

The careers are longer, the players are better trained, some naturally, and in fact, it’s the time we live in. I’m sure you’ve seen the stat regarding the time frame for 300 game winners. Eleven before 1925, a couple in the next 57 years and eight since 1982. There won’t be a bunch in the near future based on the players currently in the game.

The three real milestones in baseball are 300 wins, 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. Of the three, 300 wins only comes from a long career, solid performances and playing on some good teams. Three thousand hits means you played a long time and stayed healthy. You had to be a solid player but a long career is part of 3,000 hits. Twenty years, 150 hits a year and you’re there.

Five hundred home runs are all you. Nobody’s got to make great defensive plays, and you have to have that pop in your bat that gets the ball over the fence.

At 32 years old, ARod is at 500 and could easily eclipse wherever Bonds sets the bar at some point in his career. Eight hundred? Absolutely attainable if he stays healthy and wants to get there.

I did the play-by-play for the Florida High School association baseball championships for about six years and I remember doing the title game when ARod’s team played in it. He pitched and played short. (Same with Chipper Jones). You could see he was a special player right away and he’s fulfilled that potential five-fold.

Without the steroid era, that’s one of the things I like about baseball, the stats hold up from decade to decade, century to century. The players, the fields, the agronomy, the bats, the balls, they’ve all gotten better, but it’s all relative. The numbers match and they matter.

Just think about this one fact that continues to amaze me.

Despite all of the changes, one constant is 90-feet between bases. Ninety feet from home to first. And every play seems to be bang-bang. If it’s 91, everybody’s out. If it’s 89, everybody’s safe. But it’s not. It’s 90 and perfect.

Hopefully we’ll figure out where to put Bonds in the context of his numbers versus the history of the game. For me, I’ll stay a baseball fan, Barry or not.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

It’s in His (Sergio’s) Blood

I was sitting at an outdoor restaurant in Athens, Greece when a woman walked by and heard me speaking my limited Greek to the waiter. She noted that I was an American and asked where I was from. “Jacksonville,” I said as she laughed. “No, not in the States, I mean where are you from here,” she explained. “My family is from Ikaria, but I’m half Greek. The other half’s Irish,” I said. “Me too,” she said with a smile. “So you’re incredibly sentimental with a short fuse,” and laughed. “Pretty much,” I said, laughing as she walked away.

My fuse is a bit longer than it used to be, in fact, I don’t much get upset any longer, I just remember.

I tell that story because I believe there’s a bit of truth to the different personalities you can find in different parts of the world. I’m pretty proud of my heritage, and I know it shapes who I am and always will. Kind of a round about way to talk about Sergio Garcia and the British Open Championship.

I was watching some of the post-round wrap up and just laughed out loud when several of the Golf Channel announcers chastised Garcia for his comments after his runner up finish. “I’m playing against a bunch of guys out there. Probably more than the field,” Sergio said referring to his own ‘bad luck.’ The announcers intoned that Garcia had some growing up to do and that we got a look into the “window of his soul” with those comments.

Tim Rosaforte is an American, but has traveled the world covering golf. Brandel Chamblee is a former PGA Tour player and Peter Oosterhuis is English, so for them to comment on a Spaniard’s comments moments after he lost the Open, should have had a bit of perspective, but none of them figured it out.

If you or I drive down the street and our car starts smoking and stops, we figure, “Well, I should have changed the oil,” or something like that. At least my American sensibilities tell me that’s how I should act. A Spaniard, (or an Italian, or a Greek or many other Europeans) have a completely different reaction. If their car stops on the side of the road, they jump out, hit the fender and say, “My car, it hates me!” And that’s how Sergio was reacting.

He was looking for that one break, that one good bounce that he thought he had earned through his stellar play over the first three rounds. It’s no reflection on anything but his sensibilities. That’s how Sergio thinks. That’s how Seve thought as well. There’s a fire there, a belief that there’s a little bit of magic going on in the world, not just a bunch of plodding strikes of the ball. It can help you, or it can hurt you, but you can’t harness it.

If you think that’s a bunch of bull, that’s ok, and if you think it’s a lack of accountability for your actions, that’s ok too. But when Sergio hits the ball at the hole and the next time it hits the stick and goes in, just chuckle a little bit and give thanks for the little bit of magic that was involved. And when Sergio gets a couple of those breaks and he believes they’re going in his favor, he’ll win. A lot.

All congrats to Padraig Harrington as well. He took the breaks he got, the little bounces toward the hole instead of into the rough and he made himself a champion.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Vick’s In Trouble

Michael Vick is in trouble. After months of investigation, the federal government handed down an indictment charging Vick and several others with running and engaging in a dog-fighting venture. Vick has claimed innocence all along, saying he owned the house where this activity was going on, but it was his relatives taking advantage of his generosity.

The Feds say differently.

They say Vick was not only involved, but he was a ring leader, even so much as buying t-shirts and headbands for his “crew” that said “Bad Newz Kennels” and wearing them to the fights.

How did they get this information?

Obviously they spent a lot of time with a search warrant at the house in Virginia but they also found some of the other people who were involved with the fighting and told them they’d be going to jail if they didn’t give up some information. So the information is very specific.

Sixty-six dogs were found when the feds raided the house originally, 55 of them pit bulls. They were chained to car axles and kept from eating to make them more agitated. Witnesses say the losing dogs were killed, if they didn’t die in the ring, with a vote being taken whether they should be electrocuted, shot or beaten to death.

What kinds of people do this stuff?

I’ve heard the arguments that it’s part of the culture, that they’re just following tradition. That’s ridiculous. It’s against the law and everybody knows it. Dogs don’t have a mind of their own and using them to fight is wrong.

That’s where Michael Vick is in trouble. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, maybe a strip club where a fight breaks out, you can beg off and even if you’re convicted of a crime, people really don’t care. But cruelty to animals and abuse is an unforgivable offense in the court of public opinion.

Plus, this is the federal government involved. It’s not some county prosecutor trying to make a name for himself. These are the guys who sent Martha Stewart to jail. If they can get past her army of lawyers, they can put Vick in jail, and they will.

That leaves NFL commissioner Roger Godell with a bit of a dilemma. With his actions against Chris Henry and Adam Jones, Godell has set a precedent of “no tolerance” when it comes to running afoul of the law. I don’t know how he can look at Vick, under a federal indictment, any differently.

Again, this is the feds we’re talking about and they’re not going to make a case, and make it so public without feeling like they have plenty of evidence.

Being a somewhat public figure, I asked my boss if they’d suspend me if I were under a federal indictment. Probably not, they said, but they’d take me off the air. Vick is the face of the Falcons, and in many respects (including the cover of Madden) the face of the league. Can they allow him to play with the indictment hanging over his head? The Players Association will have something to say about this but I don’t think Vick can play for now.

And if things go wrong, we might have seen the last of Michael Vick in the NFL.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Cheatin’ Ain’t Right

“If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” Somehow that phrase became acceptable in competitive sports with rule makers, athletes and even fans turning a blind eye to those who were trying to get around the rules.

“I knew he was cheatin”, Richard Petty said on Thursday at Daytona referring to David Pearson. “’Cause I was cheatin’ trying to keep up with him.”

Everybody laughed at the King’s comments but it struck me as strange. I don’t want to know that Richard Petty was cheating. I want to think of him as a great, dominating driver of his era. Getting around the rules though, was part of the game. That was the culture of NASCAR and it hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years.

This year the sport’s governing body has tried to crack down on cheating, trying to bring a higher level of credibility to the sport. Jeff Gordon and Jimmy Johnson, two of the sport’s biggest stars, have incurred big fines and suspensions because their cars didn’t conform to standards.

Is that attitude around everywhere else?

For most sports it’s not the equipment that can be tinkered with, it’s the athletes themselves. And that’s where the line is blurred.

Putting jet fuel in a car to make it go faster is one thing. Putting jet fuel ‘in your body to go faster is something else. But at the highest levels, where the money is the greatest, athletes and competitors seem to be willing to try anything, even if it might kill them, to get an advantage.

Cycling has a culture of cheating that has nearly wrecked the sport. Cyclists used to ingest just enough strychnine, a poison that also apparently made them go faster, before races even though the wrong amount would kill them. Cycling is paying a big price, right now, for looking the other way for decades while their competitors put all kinds of things in their bodies looking for an advantage.

I guess we have to remember that top-flight athletes are also young and generally think they’re invincible and immortal. Baseball and football players jumped on the “cheating” bandwagon within the last three decades, taking anabolic steroids to give them that slight advantage or that one more year in the league. Have you seen pictures of either game from the ‘70’s? The players look like Baseball players can also tinker with the equipment, corking bats to make the ball jump off a little farther.

But where does the blame lie, if there is any blame at all?

NASCAR signed a big-money television deal a few years ago and knew they’d have to clean up the sport if they were going to withstand the spotlight that would inevitably come with increased exposure.

Football instituted a steroid policy in the ‘90’s, knowing fans would turn away if the game was only played by a bunch of juiced up freaks.

Baseball finally created a drug abuse policy when long-held records started to fall and people started to ask the simple question: Why?

8 So how do we break out of this culture of cheating? If the governing bodies won’t come up with a strict enough testing policy, it’s up to the fans, the paying public to demand it. Not by writing letters to the editor or calling sports talk radio but by not supporting it. Don’t buy tickets, don’t buy merchandise and don’t watch it on television. The powers that be get the message very quickly.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

NBA Draft Review

For the first time in recent memory, the NBA Draft had some interest, some intrigue and people actually talking about the league even though the games were over. They had this strange triangulation of storylines that drew attention to the draft before it happened instead of afterwards. The top two players were a given as Greg Oden and Kevin Durant were locks to be taken one and two.

I spent some time around Oden at the National C/championship game in Atlanta this year and he’s solid. A very good player who has the potential to be great, it would have been tough to pass on a 7 footer who could be the lynchpin to a championship team for the next ten years. Durant might have better skills right now and might be the bigger impact player right away but he’ll need some guys around him. People have compared him to Michael Jordan and that’s not a stretch. But remember, Jordan had Pippen, Kerry, Horry and others hitting big shots as well.

There was the possibility of a couple of big trades that focused the attention on the draft but none of them actually happened. Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett stayed in the same places. Ray Allen was traded and so was Jason Richardson but they weren’t the big blockbusters that had been talked about.

Then there was the Gator factor.

The 1976 Indiana team had three players picked in the top eleven. Could the Florida Gators exceed that? There was lots of speculation about Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah, where would they end up and would they find teams where their game fit? Al Horford has the most NBA-ready game and everybody expected him to be picked in the top five.

And that’s how it happened.

Horford went to Atlanta with the third overall pick. The Hawks made the safe selection. Horford developed more of a half court game last year and showed that he can continue to get better.

Brewer went 7th to the Timberwolves. His game is all over the place but there’s just too much athletic talent to ignore. He’s long, fast and fearless. Plays great defense, developed an outside shot and will hustle. He can play three different positions for the Timberwolves, but I think it’ll be fascinating to see Brewer and Garnett in the game at the same time.

Noah was the player people had the most questions about. Without a solid half court offensive game, he’d need to go to the right team using the right system to be successful in the NBA. Phoenix seemed to be the perfect fit with their transition style of play. But Chicago snapped him up at #9, giving the Bulls another solid young player.

Noah could be an 8-point, 12-rebound, 4-blocks per game player and have a long career doing just that. But if he develops more on the offensive end, he’ll be a superstar. He runs the floor and has a passion that you don’t see from a lot of players. I don’t think he’ll be able to get his shot off against the big men in the league right now, but he’ll work at it and it’ll be fun to watch.

Chris Richard and Taurean Green both were picked in the second round giving Florida five players selected. Only Lee Humphrey among the Gators who got significant playing time in the title game didn’t get drafted. But he’ll get some serious looks from teams this summer as a free agent because of his three-point shooting ability. The Nuggets even said he’s a good fit for them based on what he can do from the outside.

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Rick Murray: Real Courage

Comparatively, I didn’t know Rick Murray for very long. We met in the parking lot of a church in Palm Valley leaving Bruce Edwards’ funeral. Bruce was Tom Watson and Greg Norman’s caddie for years and I knew him starting in the early ‘80’s. He moved to Ponte Vedra and was diagnosed with ALS, and his funeral brought people from all over the country.

Rick stopped me on my way to my car. I say stopped me, but he actually just spoke from the side of his van, sitting in his wheelchair as I admired some of the “Go Navy” stickers on the van. “I have ALS,” Rick told me at our first meeting.

Outside of being in a wheelchair, he didn’t look very infirm. A Naval Flight Officer, Rick had been active in all kinds of sports, especially tennis and cycling. So seeing him in a wheelchair, he looked like a guy who was convalesing from something like a broken leg and he’d be back on his feet in no time. But the prognosis was not good. Three years to live, max. Little did I know that he had already exceeded that expectation and planned to “live” a lot more. We had a nice conversation, he introduced me to his wife Sherry, and we went on our way.

Somewhere in the not so distant future from that meeting, I had donated a visit to “The End Zone” to a charity auction, and Rick bought it. When they called to redeem the prize, I told them all about it, but they said, “Rick’s not getting about too well and was wondering if you’d just go by and have lunch with him.” “Sure,” I said, and we set it up.

Turns out Rick and Sherry didn’t live far from me in Mandarin so I went by with the instructions to, “Just come around back,” which I did. When I got a look at Rick I was a little stunned. He’s stuck in his bed with a contraption hooked to his head that kept him breathing. “Fourteen times a minute,” he explained to me.

He couldn’t shake hands anymore so I tapped him on the palm and sat down. For the next couple of hours we talked about sports, flying, sports, women, sports, people, sports, reality and sports. Rick knew what he was talking about. Could quote stats and dates with the best of them and was really sharp. I hadn’t dealt with anybody in his condition before so it was a hard juxtaposition to see somebody with such a fragile body have such a strong mind. I knew I had met somebody I could talk with who had an objective view of things but was never afraid to let you know where he stood.

Our conversations over the next couple of years were varied both in topic and duration. Sometimes we’d just watch a game, others we’d solve the world’s problems. Once when I was there I could tell he was a little down and I asked him “What’s up with you?” He kind of motioned to himself as if to say “all this” so I stood at the foot of his bed and looked him right in the eye.

“Do you understand how important you are to so many people? Do you know what an inspiration you are to everybody you meet? Look, I draw inspiration from you every day so don’t you dare start to get down,” I said, as sternly as I could.

“I’m slippin’,” Rick said softly and after a short pause followed that up with “but thanks” and a small smile. I tapped him on the palm, kissed him on the head and walked out of the room, crying of course.

Each time I’d see Rick after that he’d say, “I’m getting’ worse,” but that’s about all we’d say about his condition. It became more and more difficult for him to speak, a sign that ALS patients are sliding down a slippery slope. I had to lean in closer each time to hear him, and after a while, it was more non-verbal communication than anything else.

And then last week he was gone.

I had really torn feelings about that, knowing how much he had suffered but also knowing how much he loved living. “Persistence wins again,” was one of his favorite sayings and that really stuck in my mind.

I could go on and on about him writing a book, about his Harley passion, about the cycling trips after his diagnosis but suffice to say when I hear the word “courage” the next time, I’ll be thinking of Rick.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Magical Change of Heart

Right up front, I’ll say Billy Donovan is a good guy. Admittedly a good guy who made a mistake, but a good guy nonetheless. Donovan’s reversal after agreeing to be the Orlando Magic’s head coach is a colossal public relations mistake and is so un-Billy that it’s hard to get your mind around it.

Donovan is a very buttoned up guy. He’s thoughtful and honest and loyal and about as thorough a person as you’ll ever meet. How he didn’t think this through to the end is beyond me. Maybe he was being pressured by the Magic and was caught up in the whole idea of being courted. Maybe the money turned his head a bit. But he made a mistake.

He realized that being the Head Coach at a big time Division one school is a lot better job, for him at least, then being another NBA coach on the sidelines. Who did he want to be? Phil Jackson or Dean Smith? Even though his friends advised him to seriously consider the job with Orlando, his friends were all guys who had lost jobs in the NBA. Rick Pitino and Jeff Van Gundy are his two confidants when it comes to coaching and both have been put out on the street by NBA teams. Somewhere in Billy’s mind, he didn’t want to be that guy. He didn’t want to be the college coach who gave it a shot at the NBA and was eventually fired.

And he would have been because they all are.

He’s lost some of his luster, some of his credibility and some of his sainthood among sports fans in general. But he has tried to correct it. The bad thing is how many other lives his two-day sojourn had an effect on. From the fans, players and management of the Magic to the coaches, players and administration at Florida, everybody’s been on a roller coaster for the past week. They didn’t know where they were living, who was going to pay them and in some instances, if they had a job at all. Donovan knows that and that’s one of the reasons he’s called Magic officials again on Tuesday to apologize saying he was “so sorry and didn’t mean to cause any harm.”

The Magic are doing the right thing, making Donovan break the contract. They hired him; they wanted him and by some reports, still want him as their coach. But he’s shown no inclination to change his mind, again, so a legal deal has to be worked out. Reportedly, Billy will have to agree to a five-year non-compete in order to depart from the contract with the Magic without any financial compensation.

There might be a little money changing hands, but I don’t think it’ll be substantial. There should be a little “wiping this egg off my face money” paid to the Magic, who come out holding the bag in this deal.

There’s a theory that if the press conferences were reversed last Friday, that Billy wouldn’t have felt the heartstring pull of Gainesville so late in the day. The Magic wanted to have the big splash of the first press conference, so Gainesville was in the afternoon.

You could see Billy was emotional and that he struggled with the decision but his call to Jeremy on Saturday saying he had had a change of heart must have been a huge shock to the Florida AD. The Gators say they’re riding this thing out until Magic and Donovan make a deal. That’s smart, and shortly thereafter, they’ll sign Billy to an extension and put the thing to rest.



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Billy’s Magic

“I told Jeremy Foley at the end of the season that I wasn’t really interested in another college job but that the NBA intrigued me. If the right situation came up in the league, I’d explore it.” And with that, Billy Donovan explained why he made the jump from the Gators to the Magic.

It’s not a huge jump geographically, and that played a part. Donovan’s family likes the Florida lifestyle (there’s even a thought that Billy might commute to Orlando from Gainesville) and he has a real familiarity with the Magic. “I’ve had a chance to see the Magic on television a lot living in this state. I want to build on what Brian Hill has started,” is how Donovan talked about his first steps as the Magic head coach.

I’ve always thought that the Magic job would be the one in the NBA that might interest Billy. Certainly the $5.5 million a year, 6-year deal didn’t hurt, but apparently Billy’s talks with the Magic’s management and ownership showed him a commitment to win, and that’s why he called it a “special opportunity.”

The Magic don’t have a first round pick this year, (it went to Detroit in a trade) but they apparently are willing to spend money on free agency, they have a nucleus that got to the playoffs this year (at 40-42) and they have Dwight Howard. Howard is a star, no question and is a Billy Donovan type of player. He hustles, he goes after loose balls and he runs the floor. I’m sure that played into Donovan’s decision.

I don’t think there was any deception or intrigue going on here. It’s not Billy’s nature. He didn’t do anything out the back door, but he didn’t announce his intentions at every turn either. But that’s just business.

He is leaving Florida in a bit of a pinch at this point in the year. The recruiting season is over but so is the “coach moving” season. Everybody’s in place for next year, leaving the Gators in an awkward position when looking for a coach. John Peppery would be a natural, but he’s just been hired by Arkansas. Anthony Grant could be considered, even though he’s been at VCU for only a year. Remember, Donovan was only at Marshall for two years before Foley plucked him from the Herd to coach the Gators.

The Florida job is a very good job at this point, so I’m sure the number of applicants will be large, and Foley always has a short list, just in case. Apparently there’s a new rule in the NCAA that will allow this year’s recruits to go elsewhere if they don’t want to play for the next coach at Florida, so Foley has to move quickly.

The Gators had reported last week that Donovan signing an extension was imminent. They were working on a 7-year deal that would pay Donovan about half of what he’ll be making in the NBA. But it didn’t get signed, probably because Billy was waiting to see what jobs in the NBA might be open, and he knew that the Magic position was a possibility. It might even be that the Magic made their move knowing that Donovan would be interested.

Orlando General Manager Otis Smith knew that his job was on the line so he made the move and hired the one guy who could excite Magic fans and give him a chance to win.

Don’t fault Donovan for keeping his options open. If this didn’t come along, he’d have signed with Florida and been comfortable there. But at 42-years old, Billy wanted to challenge himself, to see if he could make that jump.

No college coach, save for Larry Brown, has ever been successful in the NBA, but Donovan could be the exception. He’s smart, a hard worker, and loyal to his players. It’ll be fun to see him try and implement his system and bring his energy to the pros. They’ll play tough defense and run and he’ll give them a chance to shine on offense. I think it’ll be fun.

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Summer Starts

For most Americans, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer. School’s either out or just about done, the weather has turned and everybody seems to exhale and look forward to the slower rhythm of summer.

The two races, the Indy 500 and the 600 miles NASCAR race in Charlotte are two of the biggest spectacles in all of sport. This summer, sports fans have some things to look forward to and some decisions to make.

Hard to believe but the NHL season is still going on. The Stanley Cup finals between Anaheim and Ottawa have drawn a collective yawn from more sports fans. Actually the NHL and Gary Bettman would be thrilled with a yawn because it would mean that people noticed that the games were still going on.

Two months into the baseball season the story has been as much about how the Yankees are not contending as it has about the Red Sox or Brewers playing well. As an Oriole fan, I’ve kept a cursory eye on the Birds, but they still don’t have any pitching and at 11 ½ games behind Boston, and under .500, it’s about what I expected.

As Barry Bonds edges closer to Hand Aaron’s all time home run record, are we going to pay attention? Are we going to celebrate the breaking of the most recognizable records in sports or will we just ignore it?

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig hasn’t said what he’s going to do. Henry Aaron says he won’t be there. Bonds is a polarizing figure with most fans saying he cheated with steroids to get where he is while others say that doesn’t matter. The fact that Bonds is well known as a not nice guy only adds to his stature as talk show fodder.

I’ve never been a Bonds fan, I think he cheated and I don’t care if he hits a million home runs. Aaron is the home run champ. It’ll be interesting when Bonds’ career is over and he’s eligible for the Hall of Fame, will the writers keep him out like they did with Mark McGwire because of the controversy surrounding steroids?


Golf has the US Open in front of it, but the anticipation of a rival for Tiger Woods in Phil Mickelson will be the story. Mickelson’s win at The Players and his work with Butch Harmon has golf fans waiting for that day when Phil and Tiger are in the final group of a major.

Tennis? Anybody seen tennis lately?

Roger Federer has dominated for so long and unless he’s playing Rafael Nadal nobody notices. Their final in Europe two weeks ago was relegated to the Tennis Channel. Nobody gets that and consequently, nobody cares.

The NBA will finish sometime in June. A San Antonio/Detroit final would be competitive, but nobody’s sitting around waiting for that match up.

I know a lot of people are waiting for football season, but the way the NFL works, it never really ends. After this week, the teams, including the Jaguars, will be back on the field three days a week, practicing and ramping up for training camp. It’s just 8 weeks away.

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Major Players?

Good weather, a perfect golf course, a somewhat dramatic ending and a star as the champion. The Players, 2007 had all of the ingredients of a very significant sporting event. A big-time golf tournament. So the question still is getting asked: Is it a Major?

The latest answer?

It doesn’t matter.

The Players move to May gives it a stand-alone quality that it didn’t have when it was scheduled 2 weeks before the Masters. It was a tune-up for Augusta and the players, at least the top players, were focused on the first “major” of the year. Winning The Players would be nice; a nice exemption a lot of money but The Masters is what they were pointing at to have their games in shape.

Now, The Players fills a spot in the schedule between Augusta and the US Open where, if truth be told, Jack Nicklaus hoped his Memorial Tournament would eventually reach Major status. But the tour has done everything right when it comes to running this tournament. They accommodate the fans, the media and the players with the best of everything. Any new innovation that comes along, The Players incorporates it into the tournament, making it possibly the best run sporting event in the world.

A major?

It has a quality of it’s own. Remember that the Western Open was once considered “a major.” When Bobby Jones won his Grand Slam, the Majors were the US Open and Amateur and the British Open and Amateur. The Masters wasn’t around; the PGA was for club pros. So achieving “major” status means it’s a significant week on tour, and is a tournament that the players especially want to win.

Tom Kite considered it a major when he won in 1989, saying it was a big week and the best field in golf. Current winners like Tiger Woods and Adam Scott, and this year’s contender, Sean O’Hair grew up in golf knowing that The Players was an important event. Not just a regular tour stop but a tournament to focus on.

What the tournament needs is a succession of winners who are stars on tour. That’s why it was important for Phil Mickelson to win this year. The move to may, a redone golf course and extended television coverage, the tournament needed a bona fide star to win it. No disrespect to Sean O’Hair, or Stephen Ames or Craig Perks, but if a tournament wants to raise it’s status and become more high profile, the list of winners has to be the dominant players of the era.

The tournament needs some drama at the finish to take the next step. Phil winning was great, but it would have only been surpassed by a shootout between Phil, Tiger, Sergio, Ernie and a couple of other big stars. Then it becomes memorable for the way a guy got to the championship instead of some competitors falling by the wayside.

There are some national media members who deride The Players and Ponte Vedra as a tour stop on steroids. It is a regular tour stop, times ten. And part of the PGA Tour week in and week out is the atmosphere surrounding the events. They’re not the Masters or the British Open. They’re not the US Open; they’re PGA Tour stops that include corporate hospitality and a party, fun atmosphere. That’s part of it. It that means never becoming a so-called “major” it doesn’t matter. The tournament stands by itself.

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Take Brady Quinn?

Sitting there at the stadium, I was debating the pros and cons of what the Jaguars should do with their first round pick with a couple of other members of the local media. The team was on the clock and Brady Quinn had fallen to the 17th spot and was there for the taking.

“How many games does Reggie Nelson win for you this year,” I asked to no one in particular. “None,” was the collective answer. “And how many does Brady Quinn win for you this year? None,” I answered my own question.

“So, all things considered, and if you’re Jack (Del Rio) you have to know you’re on the hot seat. You take Quinn, you clear up the quarterback situation, you buy yourself another year, and you probably buy yourself another year or two to win,” I said with logic following my thought process. That’s when the Jaguars traded out of the 17th spot, picked up two more draft picks and took Denver’s position at 21.

“They still can get Quinn there,” we observed, “and probably Nelson too” The only player the Jaguars couldn’t get any longer who was on their radar was Jarvis Moss. That’s whom Denver wanted and moved up to get him. Nobody was going to jump in front of them at 21 to take Nelson, and it didn’t look like teams were that anxious to do that to get the Notre Dame quarterback either. So when their pick rolled around again, both Nelson and Quinn were still there.

“We had already made up our mind,” Jack Del Rio said later. “We don’t want to be making any decisions while we’re on the clock. Reggie was a combination of the best player available and he filled a need for us.”

But what about Brady Quinn?

“We decided that we weren’t going to take a quarterback at that spot and we’re excited about Reggie Nelson,” Jack said quickly in coach-speak.

Even though they had Nelson and Quinn rated nearly equally on the board, Nelson was the pick, despite the things that Quinn brought to the table outside of his ability as a quarterback. There is a reason he lasted until the second half of the first round. He was the “buzz” pick, the hype guy in this draft. Some teams rated him among the top three players available this year; others didn’t even have him in the first round.

Clearly the Jaguars were among the latter.

The questions about Quinn started with his accuracy, his ability to win big games and his decision-making process as a quarterback. If you’re not convinced he’s the guy for the future, then you pass on him and move on. But don’t expect to get a free pass because of it.

“I was really angry,” one fan told me on Saturday night. “I’m a Gator,” she explained, “and I like Reggie Nelson, but Brady Quinn! Come on! We get rid of Byron, we get a likable guy at quarterback, we have a player for the future and he’s better than what we have,” she went on to explain, voicing the opinion of a majority of fans in one sentence.

So the Jaguars passed on a golden PR opportunity, twice, in order to take a safety that might fill a need but doesn’t excite anybody. He’s not apiece to the puzzle that changes anybody’s opinions about a team that went 8-8 last year.

I was fascinated by the ESPN panel’s “Yeah, but,” assessment of last year’s Jaguars team. “Boy they have a great defense,” they kept saying “but they’re the ‘Yeah But” team. “They beat Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Dallas, “Yeah But Houston beat them twice.”

So that’s what everybody thinks about the Jaguars, and rightfully so. They need to hope that fans don’t translate that into this year as in, “They took Reggie Nelson. Yeah, but they passed on Brady Quinn.”

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Gators Times Two (Plus 1)

“I’m telling you, that’s inspiring,” is what I told Billy Donovan as we walked out of the Georgia Dome Monday night. Billy looked at me and chuckled but then realized I was serious. “I really appreciated you saying that,” he said as we continued to chat about how different and special this team has been. […]

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Florida Vs. Ohio State II

“We’re just a mediocre team that wins a lot of games,” Chris Richard said with a sly smile after Florida moved into the National Championship game with a ten-point win over UCLA. Richard was responding to the question I asked him about playing defense, something the Gators didn’t get much credit for while playing through the NCAA tournament.

“We take that personally,” Chris said. “Everybody was talking about UCLA’s defense but we think we play pretty good defense too.” Walter Hodge, Taurean Green and Corey Brewer all echoed the same sentiments. So that’s what Billy Donovan used to motivate his team against the Bruins! They were playing hard but things weren’t going their way early in the game.

“It was a defensive kind of game,” Brewer told me outside the locker room. “What was it 6-2 ten minutes into it?” While the defense was strong, Florida wasn’t hitting the shots they were getting, but the lead by six at halftime anyway. “It’s my job to hit those open jumpers,” Lee Humphrey explained. “We’re going to create chances and when I get them, I have to knock those down. I got plenty of good looks in the first half but they just didn’t go. I started making them in the second half.”

It was interesting to see the Gators take over the game in the span of about five minutes in the beginning of the second half. They played their inside/out game, getting the ball into the post to either Joakim Noah or Al Horford who were instantly double-teamed. As soon as that happened, the guards would go to the open spot on the perimeter and the ball would come back out to them, leaving an open look at a 3-pointer. Once Humphrey and Green found their range, the game was over.

Plus, Brewer was feeling it from the outside and when that happens, he’s unstoppable. “I was comfortable and got into the flow early,” Brewer said.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the game was Richard who was called on early when Horford had some foul trouble. But that wasn’t his only role because occasionally he was in the game with Noah and Horford giving the Gators a rather imposing front line.

“I’m a senior and I want to go out with another championship,” Chris told me outside the locker room. “I just wanted to play hard and contribute.” That attitude has the Gators in the title game again with Richard getting put backs and slams and key rebounds epitomizing what the Gators are all about.

“We like it when our teammates play well,” Humphrey explained. “We like to see each other score and have success.” That’s such a simple phrase but so different from just about everything that’s going on in sports these days that it could easily be laughed off as just talk, but with this team, it’s true.

In a twist that just doesn’t happen, Florida will play Ohio State for the title, this time in basketball. The Buckeyes beat Georgetown with a steady game both inside and out. Greg Oden virtually didn’t play in the first half because of foul trouble, but it didn’t seem to matter. The Buckeyes get into the flow without him and have enough perimeter shooters with Lewis and Conley to run with anybody.

I like the Gators on Monday night but it won’t be a walk.

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Gators Back in Final Four

It is the same result but a very different way of getting there. The Florida Gators are back in the Final Four but their trip to Atlanta in 2007 is very different than their trip to Indianapolis in 2006. What they’re hoping for is the same finish, a national title next Monday.

This time around though, Florida has come from behind in each game and looks vulnerable. It has a very different feel to it. It’s not a magical ride, but rather a grind as Florida feels the heat as the defending champion.

“Keep hating,” Joakim Noah shouted at the end of the win over Oregon in the regional semi-final in St. Louis. “We win, we eat,” Noah screamed to the approval of the Gator fans in attendance.

Florida is playing the “hated” card to perfection.

“It was a lot harder this year because night in and night out, we got people’s best shot. We’ve had to adjust and it’s just been really tough,” Corey Brewer said. “It’s been really rewarding because we’ve got the same five guys back and basically the same team. We just love playing with each other, and it feels so good to get back to the Final Four.”

Remember, this is a team that decided to come back together foregoing professional basketball and the millions of dollars that entails to play together again, to enjoy college and to try and win a championship, again. Getting to the Final Four could be enough, but this group has tasted the title and wants it again.

They routed UCLA in the title game last year and they draw the Bruins in the semi-finals this year. UCLA is a very formidable opponent, again particularly when you look at the match-ups on the perimeter and how they’ll try to defend Noah and Al Horford inside. The Bruins can also run so it’s a tough match for Florida.

I’ve said this all along and it was evident again against Oregon. When Florida plays the way they’re supposed to, they’re nearly unbeatable. While Horford carried them in the regional semi’s, it was Lee Humphrey and Taurean Green carrying the load in the finals. Humphrey had seven three pointers and 23 points, enroute to becoming the all time three point scorer in Florida history. Green was hot early, forcing the Duck’s defense to cover the 3-point line and keeping the lane from being clogged.

It’s hard not to like this Florida team. Billy Donovan has done a masterful job of keeping them grounded all year long and they’re still saying the right things when it comes to what their goals are. They don’t have that bright eyed “Wow this is neat” exuberance of last year, but it’s been replaced with a steely determination. They’ll need it this week against UCLA.

They’ll be the late game Saturday night in Atlanta.

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Gators in Sweet 16

So far the first two games have been about perfect for the Florida Gators. Jackson State was a perfect first game opponent. The Gators couldn’t figure it out early. Not only that, they had that nervous edge where they couldn’t quite score and had that look of doubt on their faces.

And that’s good.

“You need to have that edge, that nervousness in every game,” Joakim Noah said before the Gators left for New Orleans. “We know that 10 or 15 minutes and you’re off, it can all be over. We don’t want to go home.”

Florida beat Jackson State easily in the second half running away and scoring 112 points. That’s because they played like they’re supposed to in the second half. It’s pretty easy when it comes to Florida basketball these days. When they play like they’re supposed to, they’re nearly unbeatable. When they don’t, just about anybody can beat them.

Same thing against Purdue in the second round game. They couldn’t quite deal with the defensive pressure. They were on edge and couldn’t hit anything early in the game. But once they started playing like they’re supposed to, they went through Purdue without any problem.

“I’m going to let them enjoy it,” Billy Donovan said from New Orleans. “It’s because they wouldn’t be enjoying it if the outcome were different.”

I really don’t know what to make of this Florida team. I don’t know if the opponents have figured something out about them, or if other teams got better, but this isn’t the same run as last year. Certainly, teams are defending Lee Humphrey on the perimeter and making Taurean Green take the shots from the outside. Billy Donovan has responded by putting Al Horford, Noah and Chris Richard in the game at the same time.

Florida’s out-rebounding everybody but their scoring touch has been off in the first half. They shot 65% against Purdue in the second half and it allowed them to move into the Sweet 16. Perhaps more importantly they didn’t turn the ball over in the last ten minutes of the game.

Next up is Butler, another team Florida should beat. Maybe they’ll like the rims in St. Louis better.

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Gator Hoops Update

It’s no secret that I root for the Florida Basketball team. Billy Donovan is one of my favorite people in sports and I’ve never made any secret of that. So when they lost three of their last four, I watched with interest to see what Billy might reveal about his approach to this “rough patch.”

“I’ve said all along that this is the toughest eight game stretch we’ve faced since I’ve been here at Florida,”

Donovan said after the loss to Tennessee. “At Vanderbilt, at LSU, at Tennessee, all tough environments and we’ haven’t responded as well as we would have liked.”

So did he run them? Did he scream his guts out at practice? Probably not. Billy probably appealed to their pride, their sense of history, there sense of self. Donovan doesn’t treat everybody or every situation the same. He’s smart and he’s sharp and most importantly, he’s honest.

He never called out any of his players. Al Horford was the only one playing anywhere near what he was capable of. Joakim Noah looked like he was operating at around 80%, Lee Humphrey was off, Taurean Green wasn’t running the show and Corey Brewer was trying to do too much. That’s the strange thing about this Florida team. It’s a real team without any real “go-to” guy or any singular star. So when they’re disjointed, they look terrible and just about anybody can beat them. But when they’re playing like a team and running the offense the way they’ve been taught, they’re nearly unbeatable.

So with this as a background I watched the Kentucky game in Gainesville on Sunday. Would the Gators remain unfocused and just another contender or would they recapture some of what made them champions last season? You could tell from the opening tip that Noah was a different player than he’s been in the last two weeks.

Donovan admitted that he wanted the team to enjoy winning the SEC regular season championship, something they hadn’t done before. So he let them cut the nets down and savor the title. But he also said later that the team seemed to relax after that and played like a team with nothing on the line.

Against Kentucky, Noah was big when he needed to be, hustled, cajoled his teammates and generally ran the show from the outset. Green acted like he had plenty to play for. Humphrey was still off but hit enough shots to make a difference. Most importantly, he kept shooting. Corey Brewer was still his wild self, but made enough spectacular plays to offset his crazy play. And Horford was his steady self.

Not surprisingly, the Gators took a 43-all tie at halftime and ran it up to as much as a 13 point lead in the second half enroute to an 85-72 win. Noah and Green had 17 points, Noah and Horford had 10 rebounds each. But it was the energy and the enthusiasm that was the difference.

Somewhere in that mix was Billy Donovan.

Florida now has some momentum for the SEC Tournament in Atlanta this week and some regained respect when it comes to the seedings for the NCAA Tournament. I still think Florida will get a #1 seed if they get to the championship game in Atlanta. They have quality wins, they won the regular season conference championship and they had a little “rough patch.”

Last year was last year but they did lose three straight before winning their final 11 and the NCAA title. Unless they lay an egg in Atlanta, the Gators should be the top seed somewhere.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jam Session

I played high school basketball and for the past couple of years have renewed my interest in the game on Sunday mornings at the JCA. (Although I haven’t played in a couple of months)

The Jacksonville Jam are in their first year of existence as a professional basketball organization. They’re in the ABA, a far-flung league that gives guys hope that there is a future for them somewhere up the chain of basketball leagues. Part of the Jam’s promotional program is to employ an “11th man” a quasi-celebrity to join in the warm-up, sit on the bench and get a little game time as well.

I was the 11th man last Friday as the Jam played the Atlanta Vision. The Jam are in the playoffs, the Vision are a schedule filling team. So I figured to get some playing time, and even have a chance to score.

“The guys will embrace you,” the team’s PR person told me as I was doing the news live at 5 and 6 from the UNF Arena. And he was right.

“I’m Tony,” one of the post players said to me as they walked on the floor for warm-ups.

I joined the team in the locker room just in time to hear Coach Steve Tucker give his pregame instructions. “I’ve said all along a team will come out of the shadows, why not this one!” Tucker asked the Jam as they huddled in one alcove. He was clearly challenging his team to make a statement tonight.

The actual time on the floor starts just like any other basketball experience: the lay-up drill. The first thing I noticed was that I wasn’t one of the “bigs.” At 6’3” I’m used to being an inside player, somebody who’s asked to bang the boards, set picks and start the break. But in this lay-up line, I was somewhere between small and little.

I made a few lay-ups, missed a few, missed most of the warm-up jumpers but stayed in the drill until the end when an assistant called me over to say, “You’re starting.” I thought that was kind of funny but then he laid it out for me.

“We’re going to win the tip and run “T-Flat.” You go to the baseline with the other four guys while the point brings the ball up. He’ll beat his man and drive the lane; you flash out to the wing and spot up. He’ll feed you the ball and you hit the jumper. Then get back on defense.”

Sounded simple enough.

The Jam do a good job of putting on a show. They have “Jam Idol” before each game, letting fans show their vocal talent and the winners get to sing God Bless America and the National Anthem. They’ve converted one of the racquetball courts into a kid’s playground and another into a merchandise mall. The opening sequence has an NBA feel with music and loud introductions. I was the last starter introduced, slapping low fives with the mascots and joining the team at center court.

“A fast start,” Coach Tucker exhorted his team.

“Get back and play defense after we run the play,” he told me on my way to the floor. “They’ll try and isolate you but after we get the ball back, we’ll call time-out and get you out of there.” I thought I’d get a few trips down the floor but I was now told I’d be out after one possession. I’m not sorry to say I was a little disappointed.

As predicted, we won the tip and headed down the floor on offense.

“Down here Sam,” ABA All-Star Jerry Williams said as he pointed me to the baseline. It all seemed perfectly scripted. And I had practiced the wing jumper in the warm-ups so I felt ready. Sure enough, the point guard beat his man and was driving to the basket. I flashed to the wing and was wide open. And that’s when the guy with the ball pulled up and shot his own 15-foot jumper.

“Wait a minute,” I wanted to scream, but the ball was coming in the other direction already. I picked up the guy who wasn’t being guarded (I found out later he played on the And 1 tour all last year) and luckily, he didn’t get the ball. I was in a good position for the defensive rebound until some 6’10” guy (a teammate called “Spiderman”) swooped in to grab the ball. I was tipped out of bounds and that’s when the timeout was called and I went to the bench.

I sat there for a while watching as the Jam went to work. Inside, outside, three pointers, the talent on the floor was impressive. You could see that each player had skill but all had a little hole in their game. Or they couldn’t quite integrate into a team concept.

Tucker paced the sideline yelling offensive sets “Two game,” “Name,” “Stack,” and many others. Intense doesn’t begin to describe his demeanor. When the Jam had a 42-point lead, I thought I might see the floor. But it wasn’t until a minute remained in the half that I got back in. Two offensive possessions resulted in some time clock burning followed by a defensive double-team in the corner that lead to an errant three pointer at the end of the half.

Tucker’s speech in the locker room was clear and to the point: Send a message to the rest of the league and keep piling on the points. Atlanta had beaten Wilmington just a week earlier, the same Wilmington squad that had beaten the Jam just two nights earlier on the road.

“The worst thing you can do is play them even this half,” Tucker told his team. “Pour it on these guys because they won’t stop playing and send a message to Syracuse and other cities, we’re for real.” That’s when I knew I wouldn’t be playing again but rejoined the team on the bench to watch the 3rd quarter unfold.

Tucker was right; the Vision didn’t quit and quickly chipped into the Jam’s halftime lead.

“When we get back in there,” Williams told his fellow starters, “We need to bring the hammer.” And they did winning 141-95.

And I never touched the ball.

It was fun though, getting a first hand look at the team and the talent. Tucker is serious and the players are accountable to him and each other. They’re plenty talented, but like I said they all have a hole, however small, in their game. I can’t imagine how good the guys in the NBA must be!

I’ll stick to the Sunday morning game.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

I Miss Dale

I’m a little sad today.

After spending the whole day at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday for the Gatorade Duel 150 qualifying races, I realized my real, visceral passion for NASCAR is gone.

I certainly looked for it.

Thought about it all day.

But I just couldn’t find it.

Even sitting in Victory Lane, twice, seeing Tony Stewart and the Home Depot crew and Jeff Gordon and the Dupont crew celebrate their victories, I just didn’t have it. I walked through the garages. I went to see some fans. I was in the pits looking at the crews work at the cars go by. There is no sensation like standing a the end of pit road going into turn one and have the cars coming at you and going by at over 185 mph. But I just didn’t love it like I used to (sounds like a country song).

So why?

I was always attracted to NASCAR as a sport because of the personalities. The drivers, the crew chiefs, the owners, all self-made men interested in their sport. They were interested in racin’. They liked to drive fast. They wanted to beat the other guys.

Every time.

They weren’t happy with second or fifth or a top ten, they wanted to win and they would do just about anything to get there.

Cale, Richard, Dale, Donnie, Bobby, all of them knew each other, knew their strengths and weaknesses, could speak about each other personally and it was real. It seems rather homogenized now. Very corporate. Victory Lane is orchestrated with the “partners” getting their shots while everybody stands around to watch.

Maybe it’s become routine for Gordon and Stewart but even the “Wooo” from their crews while having their picture taken was muted. Stewart and Gordon’s exit from their cars seemed staged. Their answers were very stock, very carefully crafted. Don’t get me wrong, they’re both great drivers and their interviews are full of sound bites we can use for weeks at a time. But there was no excitement to it.

Could NASCAR be losing a part of its core fan base? A quick tour through the infield reveals a lot of expensive RV’s and not a lot of tents and pick up trucks. Fans are more sophisticated, for sure, but NASCAR was built on fans that loved the cars, the drivers, the speed and the track. The smell of burnt rubber and a blown engine. It’s still there in small doses, but the days of the old infield are gone.

I miss Dale.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Hall of Fame Vote

I’d have written this earlier but I’ve been tied up answering and deleting all of the hate email that has filled up my mailbox since the Pro Football Hall of Fame vote was announced. There are confidentiality rules that come with the honor of being one of 40 selectors on the committee so there’s only so much I can say. But I can tell you this: It was a long, sometimes contentious, very conscientious, well thought out meeting on Saturday where we reviewed the 17 finalists who had made it to the final list.

From 7:30 until 2:15 with a couple of short breaks, we met in a room at the Miami Beach Convention Center and meticulously went over the credentials, careers and achievements of all 17 eligible for discussion.

The order of discussion is rotated every year by position, so they guys who are on the table at 8AM aren’t forgotten by 2PM. The list is whittled down to 10 (11 this year because of a tie) and then down to 6 as the candidates compete against each other for one of the final six spots. Once the final six are chosen, each gets an up or down vote.

I’ve been on the committee for 12 years and have come to the conclusion that if a player makes the final six, he should get in. Some of the other members of the committee deride that attitude and one in his national column called it an “ill-advised” plea to put all six, no matter who they are, in the Hall. But I happen to agree with that philosophy now, even if I didn’t before.

Not voting for a player who gets to the final six is either an act of personal vendetta or arrogance. Especially if he’s a player recommended by the Senior Committee. If a player is brought to the full commit from the Senior meeting in August, he’s been closely inspected and more scrutinized than anybody else on the ballot.

Seniors are pulled out of the morass of hundreds of players who some how “slipped through the cracks” (some of my fellow committee members hate that expression.) But it’s true, they either got caught up in a numbers game or the social pressures of the time when they were eligible (see Bob Hayes) didn’t allow their induction. So if a guy makes it to the final six, it means that a vast majority of your fellow committee members think that he’s Hall of Fame worthy.

So you’re the only smart one among the bunch? You’re the one who’s going to keep him out although some of the top people in your profession sitting in that room, listening to the same arguments think he should get in? I have to say that it doesn’t surprise me that some of the people on the committee have that attitude because that’s how they conduct themselves on a regular basis. But I have a lot of respect for the process and if a guy gets to the final six, he’s getting my vote.

I didn’t want to vote for Michael Irvin but he made the final six so I gave him a “yes” even though in my personal “Hall” he’s not a Hall of Famer.

The reduction to 11 didn’t surprise me even though just retired Commissioner Paul Tagliabue didn’t make the first cut. We spent 57 minutes talking about Tagliabue. Some of it was heated, with his proponents pointing out the legacy he left and the growth of the league while his detractors brought up examples of just the opposite. I think Tagliabue will eventually get into the Hall. He was part numbers game part incomplete career in terms of not getting more consideration.

When the vote got down from 11 to 6, I could have easily made a case for the five who didn’t make the final cut. They all have Hall of Fame credentials. I am surprised by the lack of support for Gary Zimmerman. As his presenter pointed out, he was the only player of the 17 on the ballot to be a two-time all-decade performer in the league. The best in two different decades but not in the Hall of Fame? Could have also been a numbers game with the plethora of offensive linemen on the ballot.

Again, I was disappointed that Art Monk didn’t get to the final six. Some of his detractors in the past publicly said they were changing their vote, so I thought he might have enough support this year. But it might have been a numbers game as well. Or it could be a backlash against the non-stop email campaign from Monk’s supporters among fans who harangue me and the other voters for not having already put Monk in the Hall. I guess they’re not different than the Cowboy fans who wrote after Rayfield Wright and Troy Aikman were in the same class that I had some kind of anti-Cowboy bias.

Bob Kuchenberg belongs in the Hall, but there is a sentiment that Jim Langer and Larry Little are already in and that’s enough offensive linemen from that Dolphins team. That’s baloney; he’s a Hall of Famer.

Putting Roger Wehrli in was long overdue. As one of my fellow selectors said it was a “sophisticated pick.”

As a member of the committee, I don’t have a say in the process, but we were able to give our opinions to several of the Hall’s Board of Trustees. As a group, the selectors would like to see the initial process of paring down the list changed and we’d like to see the class bigger, especially with the addition of another Senior Candidate. Don’t be surprised if next year, the class could grow to seven.

Other than that, I can tell you it’s a serious process with a lot of work done by members of the committee. Make fun of the process, call the whole thing silly if you like but I can tell you first-hand, in that room, it’s serious business.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Super Bowl XLI

“I thought these were supposed to be the two best teams,” one fan joked at the end of the first quarter. A kickoff runback, three fumbles and an interception.

The Bears took the lead on Devin Hester’s opening kickoff run back for a touchdown and lead 14-6 after a good catch by Musin Muhammad from Rex Grossman. In between, Peyton Manning eluded a sack and hit a wide-open Reggie Wayne for a touchdown on a blown coverage although the holder botched the conversion.

Even though the Bears had the lead, you didn’t think they were in control, nor did it seem that Indy had any grasp of the game either.

And it was raining. Harder and harder.

But the Colts seemed to accept the fact that the game was going to be played in these conditions and they were going to just have to find a way to get it done. The Bears continued to try and run the ball and why not? The Colts were the worst team against the run in the regular season, but they’ve become a very stout defense in the playoffs.


“Because we’re playing better,” Tony Dungy deadpanned during the week. That and the return of Bob Sanders to the defensive backfield.

When the Jaguars ran for 375 yards against the Colts in December, Sanders wasn’t in the game. Adam Vinatieri hit a 29-yard field goal after a nice drive to bring Indy to within 5 at 14-9.

Manning seems to have settled down after his first quarter interception and the Colts offense looks like the Colts offense of the regular season not the one that struggled against Baltimore and into the post-season. But the key is they’re running the football. Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai are all over the place running and catching and the Bears seem content to give them that. Marvin Harrison is making some catches, although none for big yardage.

Another controlled drive lead to a Colts touchdown by Rhodes and a 16-14 halftime lead for Indianapolis. Chicago is in the game despite having virtually no offense in the second quarter. Take away the opening kickoff return and this game looks like all Colts.

They’ll get the ball in the second half and they take it right down and score on 13 plays getting another Vinatieri FG. But they converted three long third downs and look to be wearing the Chicago defense out.

On Lex and Terry I picked the Colts, mainly because I didn’t think the Bears with Rex Grossman could score enough points. I didn’t give the Colts defense enough credit but Grossman is living up to the downside of his billing. He’s fumbled a couple of snaps and tripped over his own feet once going back to throw. He has to be efficient and smart, but Manning is doing that instead of trying to hit the home run. It seems that he knows that if he doesn’t make any stupid mistakes, the Colts can get the job done. A different feeling for him, letting his defense create field position and play a bit of a clock management game.

The Colts get another field goal but so do the Bears. It’s now 22-17 and Chicago, despite no offense, is still in the game. Grossman’s pass to the sideline was intercepted by Kelvin Hayden a backup, and returned 56 yards for a touchdown. That looks like it’ll seal it for the Colts barring something weird happening.

As soon as Grossman let go of the ball everybody wondered “Why?” It was an easy pick and the runback was only in question as to whether he stepped out or not.

Colts win and the stats are dominating. Twenty-four first downs to eleven, and a few of those for the Bears came in the last drive.

Manning is the MVP, although they could have easily given it to the offensive line or both running backs.

Despite the rain and the early sloppy play, the game went as expected. Indy scored and Chicago couldn’t match it. Manning wins the big game by playing out of character, just taking what the defense will give him.

A nice win for Tony Dungy too, showing that you can coach without being a raving maniac. Leadership isn’t all about screaming and hollering after all.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Miami’s Nice-Super Bowl Preview

It’s a very different Super Bowl week for a lot of reasons. The two teams, Indianapolis and Chicago are just 200 miles from each other in the Midwest. While the Bears have a national following, one player, Peyton Manning, defines the Colts.

Can he win the big one?

Can he take the Colts to the Super Bowl?

There’s no controversy, there are no “Bad Boys” on either team (figuratively of course. Tank Johnson would qualify in a literal sense).

It seems that there are 300,000 people headed to Miami and South Beach for the weekend just to be a part of the atmosphere. The last time the game was in Miami was 1999. Miami has become “hot” since then with TV shows and nightlife that glorifies the party scene. It’s the place where many NFL players head right after their games on Sunday to get in a party on Sunday night and through Monday before they have to get back to work on Wednesday. Some charter jets, others (from the Jaguars and the Bucs) jump on Southwest to Ft. Lauderdale to get there ASAP.

There also seems to be a pent up demand from corporate America to get something going at this Super Bowl. Right after September 11th, most corporations cut back on their entertainment spending, drying up a lot of the big dollars that they spent on clients to send them to big events like the Super Bowl. Add that to the fact that the game has been in Houston (ho-hum), Jacksonville (too little) and Detroit (too chilly) and all of the sudden folks are coming out of the woodwork to get to Miami and be part of the scene.

One columnist in Miami wrote it best when the headline on his Tuesday article said, “Today, the circus comes to town.” It really is a traveling circus, and the people who come to the Super Bowl are attracted to what Miami has to offer. Nightlife, strip clubs, cocktails and restaurants. The promise that you might see a celebrity or get invited to somebody’s party is a strong attraction for the Super bowl set.


Who needs tickets?

The game is an ancillary part of the week. The Maxim, Playboy, SI and ESPN parties are the big tickets people are trying to scam.

I think this is my 25th Super Bowl, and the whole thing has changed. In fact, it seems to change every year. Sometimes for the better, sometimes, not so much. This year the league has designated certain parts of South Florida as official “Super Bowl Zones.” But make no mistake about it. If it’s not happening in South Beach, it might as well not be happening at all.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Dinner with Jim Furyk

I’m a member of a small business group that meets once a month to discuss trends and happenings in Jacksonville. We get together for dinner and usually have a speaker from a charity, a business or a portion of government. And sometimes we step away from our “mission” to have some fun. This was one of those months as one of our members brought Jim Furyk as our guest for the evening.

Furyk is currently the #2 player in the world and just returned from Hawaii when he played the opening two events of the year on the PGA Tour. Our group is pretty informal, with everybody sitting around the table chatting up the speaker while dinner is served. Furyk fit in perfectly with the group with his easy-going manner and his honest, forthright storytelling.

While attendance at our monthly meeting us usually solid and sometimes spotty, this one was packed. Most of the members are golfers, and a chance to hear a former US Open Champion and one of the top players in the world talk about the game, his fellow competitors and life on tour.

Furyk’s an interesting guy because he has a story. Raised in Pennsylvania, his father became an assistant golf pro the year he was born. Furyk always had a passion for the game, but his father pushed him toward other sports instead. “If it had a ball or a glove, I was involved with it,” Furyk said while recapping his youth.

He played football and baseball, but was mainly interested in golf, as early as 8 years old. “My Dad said I wasn’t old enough to play yet, so I asked him to give me an age. He said 12, so when I turned 12, I held him to it and made him let me play.”

Furyk was passionate about the game, in the summer. That’s when he’d play all day during the week at the local muni, taking lessons from his father, “Standing in the kitchen,” at night and on the weekends. He played football early in high school and baseball a little longer until golf took over. “I played in 8 tournaments one summer in high school and won 6 of them, so I figured golf was the sport,” he explained.

Furyk was competitive and a winner in Pennsylvania, but that’s not considered a hotbed of golf. “So I started to play in some junior tournaments around the country and Arizona was the best college situation for me, so that’s where I ended up,” Jim said matter of factly.

“Of course I was interested in getting far away from Pennsylvania at the time,” he added with a laugh.

He might be #2 in the world now, but Furyk has played on just about every mini-tour and shared a social life with other players of his era on the road. So he knows those guys, and they know him. He didn’t hide at a country club or just show up at the US Amateur. Furyk played, and made himself an elite player.

“If there’s one thing about my job that I don’t like, and I’m not really complaining, it’s the travel,” he said when I asked him about “life on tour.” His earnings are in the millions, but Jim isn’t all about luxury. He flies commercially when it makes sense (Hawaii and Europe) and uses the PGA Tour’s personal trainer as opposed to importing his own.

In other words, he’s normal. He’s a pro’s pro, a big sports fan, plays golf with friends and honest with the people he deals with. He’s easy to root for.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators Swamp Buckeyes

It was supposed to be a coronation. It seems like the entire state of Ohio had transplanted itself to Arizona to witness Ohio State’s crowning as the National Champion. Florida was only the cannon fodder for the game.

The Buckeyes were supposed to be having a rematch with Michigan according to everybody who was supposedly in the know. The Gators got into the game on their strength of schedule and how they played in the SEC title game against Arkansas.

But Ohio State was the story.

Heisman Trophy winner at Quarterback, they were on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the caption: “The Best: Period.” I thought that was unbelievably arrogant, and clearly the Buckeye nation took that to heart acting in Arizona as if their football team had been transformed into some kind of deity.

“Florida ninety-nine, O-hi-o zip,” Kenneth Tookes of First Coast High and the Gators told me on Friday during media day. Kyle Jackson of Fletcher High said the same thing, laughing it up on camera. “Can you play with these guys?” I asked Jackson off camera. “We’ll be alright if we do our thing. They can’t run with us. They’re like LSU but not as good.”

That was the first hint that the Gators knew something was up. I watched the Ohio State/Michigan game with three friends and came away unimpressed. None of the three are from the South so when I said, “Florida or any other top SEC school would beat either one of those teams,” they thought it was just regional prejudice.

But I really believed it.

I even said “Michigan would be 7-4 if they played in the SEC,” on the air and got plenty of hate mail because of it.

I did flinch when Ted Ginn Jr. took the opening kick back for a touchdown but figured if the Gators could answer right away, they’d get their feet under them. Florida’s opening drive resulted in a touchdown and I told my colleague Tom, “This is the team that gave up 39 points to Michigan. They won’t stop Florida all night.” Tom, a big Gator fan, just smiled. You know that nervous smile that says, “I hope you’re right!”

My seat was in the corner of the end zone looking down on the field like watching coaching tape. I was amazed that Ohio State kept trying to run a zone against Florida’s five wide formations. There was no way they could cover that and if Chris Leak were on, Florida’s skill guys would run wild.

Turns out, Leak was much more than on, he was sharp and made great decisions, taking what the defense was giving and just grinding the ball down field and demoralizing Ohio State. You could see it in their body language. The Buckeyes had rolled through their schedule undefeated and did it the same way every week. But now that what had worked during the regular season wasn’t working; they didn’t have anywhere to go.

They were stunned and in didn’t have a Plan B.

Florida, on the other hand, was just rolling. It seemed that they could do no wrong and their speed was dominating. Troy Smith couldn’t believe that guys like Ray McDonald and Jarvis Moss could run him down in the backfield. Nobody in the Big 10 can do that.

The difference is, everybody in the SEC can.

So Florida’s speed advantage wasn’t just at the skill positions, it was all over the field. Defensive linemen were faster than the offensive guys trying to block them, faster than the backs trying to elude them. You did have the sense that the Buckeyes would eventually get something going, but it never materialized. Their fans sat in a stunned silence.

“We were embarrassed,” one told me on the plane. “This will take a while to get over.”

A lot will be made of Urban Meyer winning the National Championship in just his second year but perhaps more should be made of the Gators return to national prominence, probably a year early.

“I’m happy about the National Championship,” Tom told me after the game, “but I’d rather beat Tennessee, Georgia and FSU every year.”

And that’s how it is.

The competition at home is just as, if not fiercer than on the road. Which is why Gators are smiling today.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Five Days in Glendale

I’ve been in Arizona for the past four days covering the run-up to the National Championship game between Florida and Ohio State. With the game set for Monday night, the fans have started flowing into the “Valley of the Sun” this weekend.

I’ve been to Phoenix a few times, but this is the first when the distinct difference between the suburbs has been so delineated. I’m actually staying in a place called Paradise Valley. Not Phoenix, not Scottsdale, not Tempe and not Glendale. And don’t mess that up or the locals will get on you.

Scottsdale is kind of “upscale” but a strip mall with cactus in front of it is still a strip mall. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice, but there really aren’t any landmarks to outline your trip or to use for reference. It’s all by roads and luckily they’re laid out North/South and East/West.

Our live location is at the stadium where they’ll play the game in Glendale. They’re very proud of what’s going on in Glendale, especially with all of the new construction. “We have a very active city manager,” one of the smiling “Glendale Ambassadors” told me. “He’s constantly selling Glendale and the City Council has faith in him and goes along with it.”

They built the Glendale arena for the Phoenix Coyotes of the NHL and they’ve now completed a $680 million football stadium to house an active and extensive bowl game schedule as well as the Arizona Cardinals. It’s a palace, no question with a retractable roof and a retractable field. They move the field out side into this big concrete pad in order for it to get some sun and they’ll put the water on it. The roof goes back in 20 minutes; it takes the field 1 hour and 15 minutes to roll out side.

It’s an engineering marvel, and it’s in the middle of nowhere.

It sits like a spaceship in the middle of the desert and they’re using it to attract businesses, restaurants, hotels and the like out to Glendale. There’s a huge “lifestyle” center next to the stadium with movie theaters, restaurants and shops. Where the people come from, I’m not sure, but they drive in like bees to a hive. It’s kind of like that scene in “Close Encounters.” The ship is there and the people just flock to it.

One thing they have is plenty of land. As far as you can see, they can expand. It’s just a matter of getting water to where ever they are.

I’m staying at the Camelback Inn, and old destination spa that’s on 125 acres hard against one of the “mountains” in the Paradise Valley/Scottsdale area. All the buildings are adobe style; one story and the rooms are called “casitas.” Each room has a sundeck and feels very remote from anything else.

President Eisenhower, Bing Crosby, Arthur Godfrey and other stars of that era used the Camelback Inn as a base in the Southwest. There’s plenty of golf around and the higher you go into the hills the more spectacular the homes.

The Camelback has a running route mapped out through the neighborhoods next door and up into the hills. For a flatlander like me, it was tough to negotiate those hills during a 40 minute run! Perhaps you can call it a run, it was more like a plodding march. I came up behind a couple walking up one of the hills and said, “I might not pass you.” They laughed, but I was serious!

I can also tell you that as warm as it gets during the day have no bearing on how cold it gets at night. It’s’ been in the 70’s during the day and easily in the mid to low 30’s at night. I can see where you’d like it here and a lot of people from the mid-west are picking Arizona over Florida for retirement.

The Phoenix area has the largest Ohio State Alumni club in the country. Most Gator fans I’ve seen say they’re outnumbered, for now. The Buckeyes have been here for 4 of the last 6 years and know the drill. In fact, most of the concession stands are over run with Ohio State gear, with some Orange and Blue sprinkled in.