Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Del Rio: Smarter, Tougher Jaguar

“A player’s coach,” is either the best thing a coach can be called or the worst. “Disciplinarian” and “Old School” fit into that same category. Obviously, somewhere in between is where you find success as a coach, especially in the NFL.

Jaguars Head Coach Jack Del Rio has been described as a “Players coach.” By players it’s been a big compliment. Otherwise it’s a derisive term for


Del Rio hates soft.

But when you look at how he handled the 2008 team, that’s what they were. Soft.

His “Hollywood” demeanor allowed the team to skate through the off-season, training camp and the preseason, with Jack figuring he had put together a collection of players who would be ready when the bell rang. But instead of jumping at the chance to prove themselves, the Jaguars danced around, said, “We’ll be all right,” and started sinking.

From the opening game loss to Tennessee through the final disappointment in Baltimore, the Jaguars didn’t do the little things, didn’t get that one big play that could change the game. They were a little soft.

And Jack recognizes that.

And that’s why he’s getting back to what he believes in. “Smart, tough football, with players who like to play the game and care for each other,” is how he put it in his year-end press conference. If Del Rio’s going down, he’s going down doing the things he believes in.

“You can’t assume that because something was one way last year that it’s going to be the same the next season. Good or bad,” Jack elaborated.

And that’s what he bought into after 2007.

It’s a good team. Motivated, tight and just missing a few pieces. So fill those holes and you have a championship caliber team. But it didn’t happen.

“It’s disappointing, embarrassing to have such high expectations and not fulfill your dreams. There’s too much work going into it to not have people around who want to get involved.”

Del Rio and the rest of the Jaguars staff and administration fell in love with a couple of free agents and some guys who might have been an inch taller and a tenth of a second quicker. But they weren’t better football players.

Jimmy Kennedy for Grady Jackson? Drayton Florence for Sammy Knight? Jerry Porter for Ernest Wilford? Every time the Jaguars made a change it flopped.

“We swung and missed on a couple of free agents this year,” Jack admitted. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t get back into the batters box,” he added, saying the team isn’t going to be shy when it comes to free agency.

I specifically asked Jack who was going to set the tone for the off-season and the coming year. “I am,” he quickly responded. “We’re going to have a tough off-season and I’m anxious to roll up my sleeves and get to work.”

It’s the exact answer any fan was looking for. The Head Coach shouldering the blame, taking charge and winning or losing based on what he believes in. And when it comes to Del Rio’s beliefs, he wants tough players who “buy in” to his philosophy.

“If you want to play football the way it’s supposed to be played come to Jacksonville,” Maurice Jones Drew said in the locker room as he cleaned out his things. “If you don’t, then go somewhere else. Plain and simple.”

And it is plain and simple. If the team is going to be reflection of the coach and who he is, Del Rio is going back to what worked for him as a player: practice, hard work and sacrifice.

“No doubt there will be some changes in our off season and the camp for next year. There will be some edges that weren’t there in the past. There’s something to a group of men sweating, working hard together, being sore, hating me, doing it together that breeds the kind of player, the kind of team I’m looking for,” Jack said before he left. “That’s what we’ll have.”

Del Rio was asked about players working out, out of town instead of coming to the stadium to do their off-season conditioning. “Anybody who wants to be a Jaguar will work out here in the off-season.”

“What about Fred Taylor and others who have worked out in South Florida?”

“Anybody who wants to be a Jaguar will work out here in the off-season. I think it’s important.”

Jack also said he wasn’t firing any assistants, a real departure from the past. “That’s not to say they’re not going to have other opportunities, but I like my staff.”

So look for a little bit different version of the Jaguars starting right now. A little tougher, a little less celebrity oriented and little harder working.

Losing will do that to you.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Shack Resigns: Remaining Jaguars Brain Trust Should Look in The Mirror First

Somebody had to pay for the Jaguars dismal season in 2008 and apparently when he looked around, owner Wayne Weaver decided James “Shack” Harris would be sacrificed.

You knew somebody would be asked to fall on their sword and you knew it wouldn’t be head coach Jack Del Rio after he signed a big-money extension last year. Gene Smith has been around since the inception of the franchise so he’s an insider and Weaver couldn’t fire himself so Harris got the boot.

They said all the right things and they called it a “resignation” but clearly Shack is the scapegoat for a bunch of flawed decision-making that runs through all four men at the top of the brain trust with the Jaguars: Weaver, Harris, Del Rio and Smith.

It was a strange management model from the beginning, six years ago. Weaver admitted when he bought the team that he wasn’t a “football guy” and pretty much let Tom Coughlin run the show when it came to picking players and coaching them on the field. But when he replaced Coughlin with Del Rio, Weaver was convinced that the job had grown too big for one person to be the General Manager and the Head Coach all at the same time and told me as much during his search for Coughlin’s replacement.

But Del Rio must have impressed Weaver in some way to allow him to have massive input into choosing the players because when Weaver hired Del Rio, and then Harris (after being turned down by Phil Savage who ended up with the Browns) publicly, he was pretty cagey when it came to defining their roles on draft day and in free-agency.

“I’ll break the tie,” Weaver joked at the announcement of Harris’ signing when asked what would happen if Shack and Jack disagreed on a player.

He also promoted Gene Smith at the time, (and promoted him again today, giving him Shack’s job) giving him a bigger role in the scouting and since he owned the team and was a smart guy and wasn’t a football neophyte any longer, Weaver became part of the process. So starting in 2003 those four began to rebuild the team.

Byron Leftwich, Reggie Williams, Matt Jones, Marcedes Lewis, Reggie Nelson and Derrick Harvey were their first round picks since then, none having established themselves among the elite at their positions in the league. In fact, you could say a couple of offensive linemen and Maurice Jones Drew are the best draft picks since this brain trust took over the decision-making.

And as we know, anytime you get more than two people making decisions, one emerges or at least has a little more influence than the others. Was that Harris early on? Maybe so, but since Del Rio fired Leftwich, he clearly ascended to the top of that food chain since Byron was Shack’s project.

“Tell me Harris is a slow talker and not a slow thinker,” one pretty well connected season ticket holder asked me in the last couple of years. I’ve always liked Shack and have picked his brain over the years regarding who was on the Hall of Fame Ballot. Listening to him talk about the pros and cons of each player gave me some insight into what he was looking for each year in the draft and free agency. It helped show me what he valued in a player. He’s big on production and isn’t tied to the stats as closely as other talent “evaluators.”

I don’t know if he had some other agendas when it came to picking certain players. Everybody figured that he liked Byron because he was a black quarterback, and reminded Harris of himself during his playing days. I don’t know if that’s true but it wouldn’t be the first time that happened and it wouldn’t be the first time somebody accused a decision-maker of having a different agenda only to be way out in left field.

The three guys left making the decisions need to take a long, hard look at themselves and how they come to the conclusions that they have.

The Jaguars don’t have a Pro Bowl player on their roster and really haven’t had a player who is lock, solid perennial guy who gets consideration for the Pro Bowl since Tony Boselli and maybe Jimmy Smith.

In their 14 years of existence is there a potential Hall of Famer somewhere on the Jaguars all-time roster?

Not right now.

They’ve passed on players like Ben Roethlisberger and Brady Quinn in the draft. They’ve won one playoff game in six years. They’ve had more assistant coaching changes under Del Rio than any franchise in the league, and that trend is likely to continue starting next Monday. And they proved to be pretty fragile when they added $23 million in free agents to an 11 win team, only to see things go south in a hurry.

Weaver has seen the Dolphins turn it around from a one-win team to a playoff contender. Del Rio and Smith don’t have any honeymoon time if they expect to last into the next decade.

As Jack says, “I’m going to re-evaluate everything we’re doing from top to bottom, including myself.”

Which is a good place to start.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

A Holiday Story

As we go into the holiday season, I just wanted to tell this story so perhaps when things get hectic over the next couple of weeks; perhaps we can take a deep breath and think about what’s really important.

As many of you know, I like to ride my bike. I have a lot of friends who are in the bike community and like to ride with them when I can. If not, I’ll be out by myself. Either way, it’s fun, and can be a good workout.

Last Saturday morning I got up early to catch the group ride out of Champion Cycling in Mandarin. The ride goes right by my neighborhood so even though it leaves at 7:15 from the shop, I usually leave around the same time and catch the “bunch” on the road. It was perfect when I left, a really beautiful golden sky as the sun came up.

What I didn’t know is the sun was catching the edge of a big front so when I got about two miles from my house, the bottom fell out. I ducked under a tree, put my stuff in a plastic bag and tried to wait it out, waiting for “the bunch.” But in about a minute I was soaked and no sign of the riders. So I figured I’d rather be soaked riding than standing there, so I headed back on the road trying to find the group. Of course, they took a detour and I never did find them, but since I was already soaked, I figured I’d put some miles in.

Almost two hours later after wind and rain and questioning my own sanity, I was pretty close to home when my back tire went flat. “Perfect,” I thought, as I fumbled for my phone looking for a ride. For some reason, I happened to look up and not 50 feet from me a guy was standing in front of his pickup truck in running shorts waving and asked, “Do you need help?”

He obviously had just finished the Mandarin 10K also in the rain. “Where you headed,” I asked, a little warily. “North,” he said. “Can you drop me at Champion?” I wondered. “Phil’s place?” he said with a laugh and finished, “sure.”

So I threw my bike in the back and he drove me the couple miles up to Champion Cycling. He told me his name, said he rode out of the shop on a regular basis but lived in Arlington. Phil knew him, “Grey truck?” Phil asked. No big deal right? Nice guy did me a favor.

But on Tuesday night I was at Starbucks in Lakewood and happened to be on the phone when I pulled up as a guy pulled up next to me on a nice Harley Road King. As I continued my conversation, the guy got off his bike and walked over and knocked on my window. I rolled it down and motioned that I was still on the phone. He waved and backed away. But stayed right there. When I finished the conversation, I rolled the window down and said, “What’s up?”

He walked towards me; one hand supported by a cane, and said, “Hey, I know you!” “Thanks,” I said, “nice bike.”

“Yeah, I like it,” he answered. “I rode up here from St. Augustine,” he continued “and when I went to put gas in my tank I realized I left my wallet at home. Can you help me out with a couple of bucks to put gas in the bike?”

“Sure, let’s go across the street to the Shell and fill it up,” I offered.

I was somewhat stunned, not because somebody was asking me for money, because that happens all the time. But rather I couldn’t get the image of the guy helping me out on Saturday out of my mind.

“Gee, God,” I chuckled to myself, “this is kind of fast!” I’ve always believed in “Paying it Forward,” but I laughed at the quick, “payback.”

The guy mumbled something about high octane and I could see that he was uncomfortable with my offer, so I got out of the car and said, “Hungry?” He demurred, adding “Sam, it was hard enough asking you for money for gas.”

So I said, “Come on, let’s get a cup of coffee.”

He gladly followed and after ordering coffee, we sat and talked for about 20 minutes before I had to get to work. I put enough money on the table to fill the tank of his bike and buy a decent meal on his way home. “Is that enough,” I asked. He said, “Man that’s plenty,” so we shook hands, I wished him well and back to the station I went.

Still no big deal right?

Except last Saturday I was up early again for the morning ride, but it was freezing out, so I put it off for an hour before heading to the road. About halfway into it, I saw the front tire going flat, (different tire, different bike) so I pulled over to fix it. Of course, TSA took my CO2 cartridges out the last time I traveled with my bike, so I was stuck.

Again, I fumbled for my phone and again, a guy appeared not 50 feet away at the intersection, rolled down his window and said, “Do you need help?” I almost laughed out loud but couldn’t get the images of the last week out of my head of being helped and trying to help.

So I threw my bike in the back of his Pacifica, said hi to his teenage son in the back seat and accepted the ride, once again up to Phil’s place at Champion Cycling.

He went out of his way to drop me off and all I could do was again say thanks, shake his hand, wish him luck and tell him how kind his offer was.

And of course, all I could think about lucky I was to be in a place where people were so kind and generous and hope to be able to replay that again in the future.

So for the holidays, when things aren’t going exactly how you’d want them to, look around, there might be somebody who needs a little more help than you do.

I know I will!

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars Present and Future

With the post-season looking like something that’s on the other end of a wrong-side telescope, the Jaguars fans are looking at the current team and questioning how good they really are. Without a bunch of stars, (and if you look at the roster who’s really going to the Pro Bowl) the Jaguars have to play as a tight team to be a contender.

This year, guys who were supposed to take the next step just didn’t. So it makes sense to review the personnel decisions made since Jack Del Rio took over for Tom Coughlin.

Here’s the list of first round picks:

  • Byron Leftwich
  • Reggie Williams
  • Matt Jones
  • Marcedes Lewis
  • Reggie Nelson
  • Derrick Harvey.

Do any of those guys scare anybody?

Leftwich is gone, Williams is a possession receiver at best. Jones has been a better player this year but not a world-beater by any means. Lewis is solid but as a first rounder people were thinking Tony Gonzalez. Nelson is a good athlete and a ball hawk but either can’t cover or can’t figure out how to play the defense that’s called. You can’t judge Harvey yet, but an impact player he’s not.

So who’s making these decisions?

You could say Maurice Jones Drew is the best draft pick they’ve made in the past six years. No matter because it hasn’t been hit and miss it’s been mostly miss when it comes to the draft picks.

There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to building a team. Certainly Del Rio is a driving force in the decision-making. In fact, when he cut Leftwich, he moved to the front of the power structure as the lead decision maker.

James Harris is supposed to have an equal vote as the personnel director and Gene Smith as the lead scout has a lot of input. But there are assistant coaches, scouts, other personnel guys and even Wayne Weaver as part of the process on draft day so if you’re going to affix blame, you can point to the whole organization.

This year is a different story. While it might come down to talent, and the team doesn’t have a superstar to lean on, this team’s attitude from the beginning was a sense of entitlement.

“We went deep in the playoffs last year so we’ll be back this year,” was the over riding theme of training camp. And training camp wasn’t much. Not a lot of hitting, not a lot of stress on a team that Jack Del Rio thought would take the next step.

Maybe write this year off to experience. A learning process.

Del Rio now knows that he has to keep a firm hand on the wheel. The players should understand that nothing is given to you in this league.

Here’s the bottom line though: This team has to play as a team and it’s Del Rio’s job to get them together. If he can’t do that, it’ll be a long time before they contend again.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Change, And What That Really Means

I used to think I liked politics. And maybe I did from afar before talk radio and cable television revealed the raw nerve that’s always hanging out when it comes to getting elected. Maybe it’s always been this way, but we just didn’t know it. That why the word “political” has such a negative connotation anyway.

I’ve figured out it’s not politics that’s interesting to me but rather the result of the political process. In a word, leadership. And that’s where Barak Obama and the Democrats find themselves following the election.

It’s much different to be the party of dissent versus the party of leadership. To be a counter-puncher always reacting to what the other guy does is sometimes a comfortable place to be. At this point though, the Democrats have had plenty of pent up anger that they’ve directed at President Bush over the last eight years. But for those who wanted change, the question is, “Now what?”

Do they have a true socialist leaning agenda or will Obama force them to govern more from the center? If he truly wants to be a consensus builder as he said in his speech Tuesday night, he’ll have to be willing to compromise to get things done. The Republicans can play defense, having weathered the onslaught of seats in the Senate, holding onto just enough to avoid a veto-proof, filibuster-proof majority. While he was coy on some of his relationships and his “big-picture” thinking during the campaign, Obama will now have to reveal what he actually believes in and bring ideas to the table and sell them to the American people.

In 1960, America elected a young, telegenic leader who energized an entire generation with ideas like the Peace Corps and the space program. That’s the challenge for the new President. He called for a “new spirit of service” telling Americans that it’s work and sacrifice that will get the job done. “I hear your voices and I need your help,” is what he told the crowd at Grant Park.

It might be the same message he was promoting as a candidate but it’s not the message his followers were hearing. Many Obama supporters believe he’s going to fix everything and they won’t have to participate. That’s why he’s spent the last week or so lowering expectations, trying to get people to have a realistic idea of what is going to happen.

“It might not happen in a month, a year or even in one term,” is how he phrased it in Chicago on Tuesday night. But with control of the White House the House and the Senate, he can push his agenda forward without any delay. But only if he can get the people to buy into it. Democrats are already talking about re-implimenting the Fairness Doctrine that would essentially silence critics, especially on the radio. Even if they voted for Obama, will his followers absolutely support that?

Obama was a fantastic candidate: telegenic, lucid in his thoughts and tight with his message. He stayed on course during the campaign hammering on the economy and the action in Iraq and Afghanistan. He stayed away from abortion, immigration and other issues that are “no-win” strategies for any candidate. And he won. In a way, it reminds me of the ending of the Robert Redford movie “The Candidate” where he runs against the establishment and wins as a long shot. In the final scene he mouths to his campaign director the words “now what?” And that’s what American’s are now thinking: “Now what?”

As a candidate, Obama was able to talk in generalities about policy but as President, he’ll need to have specifics. I’m not worried about his lack of experience simply because there’s a whole Democrat machine standing at the ready, poised to take their places in Washington. And he’s smart and motivated. The important thing to look for will be whom he chooses as his top advisers. Who’s close to him? Who will he take his advice from?

He’s a smart and resilient politician, proven through a tough primary campaign against the Clintons and followed by a winning run for the Presidency against the Republicans and John McCain. Now he is the President for all Americans, a very different role than being the candidate for one party. If he wants to be that, he’s up to that challenge, but that’s the big question: Does he want to be that or is his view much more narrow? We don’t know because we don’t know much about the man or where he’ll take us. He talked about the “humility and determination to heal our divides,” which is just what it’ll take to get a lot of people with different ideas to get moving in the same direction.

Obama quoted Lincoln a lot on election night, noting that Lincoln was from Illinois and was elected President in a country during a far more divided time. “We have the enduring power of our ideals,” he said, calling on all Americans to unite behind our common goals instead of focusing on our differences.

“America can change,” he said. And he’s right. The encouraging thing is it doesn’t have to change much. It just needs the right leadership.

Here are some other random thoughts about the election (since this is a sports site and I don’t expect to be writing about politics very often).

Now that we’ve elected a black man as President (I know he’s half white, half black) does that signal the end of racism in America? With Blacks being only 12% of the total population, Barak Obama needed an awful lot of white voters to cast their ballot for him in order to get elected. Does it mean racism is dead or has it been overblown by those who have made a living on the “politics of race?” Has the media given so much credence to those who have used race as a leverage to get what they want that it became part of the landscape that we accepted even though it wasn’t there at the purported level?

With so many blacks voting for the first time (even though first time voters comprised 11% of the total the same as in 2004) will they return to the process in the future if a black man is not a candidate? In my role as the “interactive reporter” during Channel 4’s coverage I heard from a lot of people on both sides of that issue. Many were happy that people had joined in the process and an equal number were angry saying, “where ya’ been?” I hope that those who sought change see that becoming part of the process is the thing that brings about that change.

And finally, I though John McCain’s concession speech was the most gracious and finest exit from a campaign I’ve ever seen. And that’s a double-edged sword. It was almost as if that’s the speech he expected to give all along. That would be disappointing, except that he certainly did his part to try to put the two sides together.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com


I haven’t liked just about anything about this year’s campaign. The negative tone, from both sides, fueled by the avalanche of information distributed by the media hasn’t done anybody any good.

The Democrats have been able to set the tone, putting the Republicans on the defensive from day one. Whether it’s been about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan or the economy, John McCain has been answering questions instead of trying to put forth his own agenda. Barak Obama has raised more money than any candidate in history, over $600 million. He’s spent it on advertising, setting the tone and pushing his middle class tax cuts and hooking McCain to George Bush.

Senator McCain is a bad candidate who could be a good President. Senator Obama is a good candidate who remains a mystery. There hasn’t been much scrutiny of his background as the media rides the wave of “change.”

Working in newsrooms all of my professional life, there’s no question that a liberal point of view is the dominant sentiment among those in the news business. It’s the kind of business that attracts young professionals who are “out to change the world.” It’s disappointing to see such a distinct point of view invade what is supposed to be a journalistic environment but it is a fact and it’s not going away.

Just know that every newscast has a point of view. No matter of everybody’s claim to “the truth” every bit of news comes from somebody’s point of view.

Do your homework. Figure out the issues that are important to you. Don’t be influenced by the PR machines that the campaigns have become. They’re all saying what you want to hear but none of it is close to the truth regarding what actually is going to happen.

I’m not impressed with either side. The Republican’s seem disorganized and while McCain is the standard bearer, nobody seems convinced that he’s the right guy. The Democrats have done a good job with their electoral strategy, and Obama has become the new version of a “Teflon man.” No matter what questions about his associations and views are asked, he and his advisers have been able to deflect those without much investigation.

Many people are voting “against” something instead of “for” one candidate.

But there is a clear choice in the election. The Democrats want to move the country in a more socialist direction, redistributing earnings through taxes. Republicans want to enable wage earners to keep more of their money and allow businesses to distribute money by hiring new employees and expanding the business.

Health care, the economy, national security and abortion are among the hot button issues for this election.

Whichever is your issue you can do one thing about it.


Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Values, Culture and Real Life

It was jarring and somewhat shocking when the official announcement was made Monday about Jaguars offensive lineman Richard Collier’s condition.

Collier’s family, his doctors and his agent revealed that he had been shot 14 times on September 2nd in Riverside.

The shooting left Collier paralyzed below the waist and after suffering an infection and pneumonia doctors had to amputate his left leg to save his life.

It’s an unbelievably tragic life and while Collier is still alive, he’s only here because of his physical condition, a result of being a professional athlete.

There’s not much information being handed out by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office regarding the investigation. I suppose that means they have a lot of information but are trying to make sure they have a solid case. Maybe the gun is missing. Either way, Collier’s life is forever changed and hopefully he can find a productive venue for his energies.

He’s a vibrant smart guy and the Jaguars would do very well to hire him in some capacity. The disturbing thing is what it says about our culture. Obviously there was some kind of dispute and the shooter decided the best way to fix it was to get a gun and shoot Collier. Somebody knows who did this, and I don’t know if it’s the “anti-snitch” culture or the reward isn’t big enough but it’s wrong that whomever did this is still walking the streets.

There’s not enough of an outcry from the churches and community leaders in town regarding this shooting. Maybe it’s because it happens all too often and this time it just happened to be somebody we all know. But either way, fixing this “culture” should be one of our top priorities. Some of it is through education; some of it has to be through peer pressure.

David Kossak, a local businessman, called me the other night saying he was willing to double the reward money being offered. I had gotten a bunch of calls and emails from people disappointed that the Jaguars players hadn’t put up more money. Of the total, players apparently contribute about $277 each. Of course, that’s not enough, especially when the lowest salary on the roster is over $250,000.

Collier was perhaps the most popular player on the team. A free-agent signee from Valdosta State, he had pushed Khalif Barnes for the starting left tackle spot and observers thought that he might take the starting job eventually. He was the biggest guy on the team, and as part of our story on the makeup of the team, Collier shared a laugh with Sean Woodland after practice during training camp. Sean asked him about being big and Richard just said, “I’ve always been big, biggest guy on every team.”

“Dennis Northcutt is the smallest guy on the team,” Sean continued. “If you were really hungry do you think you could eat him?”

Collier followed right in the spirit of the story and had a laugh saying, “Maybe a leg.”


But all too common.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

David Garrard: Star?

When he showed up at the End Zone, David Garrard had his family in tow (including in-laws) and was all smiles. And why not. The Jaguars had just beaten the Colts, thanks to a game winning drive engineered by Garrard. He has a new $60 million dollar contract, a beautiful wife and children and his health is good.

David was resplendent in a light grey-oatmeal suit, white suit and multi-colored white tie. His pocket square was perfect. In fact, a little too perfect. I’ve always liked David, so it’s kind of funny to see him change and try to get comfortable in his new role. He’s rich, he’s a starter and he’s considered a leader. So from back up to “the man,” Garrard is working is way through how to act.

He’s always been accessible. As the occasional starter, he was a quote machine, happy to oblige. He’s become a little “dodgy” in his current role, but generally cooperative. I’m sure now everybody wants a little piece of him, or a big piece.

He was willing to come on the End Zone, and believe me, a lot of players aren’t interested at all in giving up their Monday night to come by and talk football but Garrard stepped right up after the Jaguars first win. This might sound funny, but the advice he’s getting from his “stylist” is a little off. He’s got David wearing bow ties and chartreuse jackets, funny hats and occasionally an ascot.


When David was wearing that chartreuse jacket I told him, “Prince called, he wants his coat back.” David didn’t think that was funny. I guess I’m being nitpicky, (and I’d rather this than a New York Knicks jersey and a platinum rope” but Garrard has a chance to own this town.

Not just be the quarterback and make some money but to own this town big time.

He’s smart and is talented. He knows what he can do and maybe more importantly, what he can’t. He’ll find his way; he’ll figure it out.

On the field, he’s starting to settle into the player he was at the end of next year. For the first two games of the season, David looked like he was trying to hit a home run every time he dropped back into the pocket. He wasn’t the efficient player he was that got the Jaguars a playoff win last year. He looked like he was trying to be a star.

In the game against the colts, he was much more himself and perhaps that will be the start of a run for the Jaguars. If not for an efficient quarterback, the game doesn’t work for the Jaguars. Garrard can be that guy who gets the job done and uses the personnel around him to do just that.

One more story about David. As I mentioned, even though he’s blown me off a couple of times, I guess that comes with the territory. But after the End Zone, I had arranged for Garrard and his family to slip out the back door with an escort so as to not be accosted by the fans in attendance (yes, that happens).

Garrard was all ready to go and leaned over to me and said “I’ll feel bad if I don’t stick around and sign a few things.”

And that’s just what he did.

Garrard sat down at the autograph line and signed for all of the kids in attendance. He left after about 10 minutes, but he did stop and sign, something a lot of other players (see Reggie Hayward, et al) blow off.

Garrard’s easy to root for. I hope he figures it out, on, and off the field.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

NBC, China and The Games

I don’t know if I could have enjoyed the Olympics more than I did this year. Part of it was the mixture of taped and live events that television was able to bring to the east coast of the US because of the 12-hour time difference between here and Beijing. NBC did a masterful job of blending the competition in with the US’s efforts in nearly every competition.

Some, like swimming, we dominated in so it was easy for the network to focus on both objectives at once. Other sports, like say women’s pole vault has mostly non-US athletes involved (although we won silver in that event) but NBC was still able to bring the event to life with out over dramatizing the whole thing.

There are a lot of things I don’t like that NBC Sports does with their whole television philosophy but they had these Olympics figured out. I guess it’s not their job to point out that the host nation is one under communist rule and the people are oppressed but I think on a regular basis they did go a little overboard politically pointing out how wonderful China was.

I think it’s a fascinating culture with a rich history and according to all reports from friends who were there, the people were very friendly. Perhaps, much like people think of Americans when we travel, I’d like their people, it’s jus the government I disagree with. Nonetheless I got caught up in all kinds of sports from the standard swimming, gymnastics and basketball to table tennis, open water swimming and team handball.

I do like it that they put all kinds of sports on all kinds of networks. My son made a chart for me so that just about any time of day I could tune in to see some kind of competition.

That’s one of the other things I really enjoyed about watching these games. It’s the first time I was able to sit down with my son and see him enjoy all kinds of competition, learning about different sports and awakening his curiosity about not only the sports, but also the culture of the people who excelled at them. Who knew that the national sport of Hungary was water polo?

As Bob Costas said in his final commentary, the Olympics are big for any city that hosts them but this one was huge for the host country as well. China, in many regards, can be described as a third world country with first world weapons. But their expanding economy and now this two-week exposure to the world could bring the people of the country, one fifth of the world’s population, onto center stage. If a communist country can have a job classification of “capitalist,” you’d figure they’d know how to capitalize on this time on the world stage.

I do know that I never have really wanted to visit China, despite my insatiable wanderlust, but after seeing the Olympics, I’d like to go there. It sure will be interesting to see how people view China in the future when it comes to tourism. It hasn’t been a big destination in the past but that sure will change. And now that 1.3 billion people have seen the world through the eyes of the Olympics, will they want to go visit these foreign lands for themselves? How many Chinese have you seen touring around the world? That could be the next thing that happens.

I also think that any rational person, after seeing these games, the expense China incurred, the number of volunteers involved and the organization, must consider China a player on the world stage in just about any situation. In any conflict, either in the boardroom or on a battlefield, they’ll be a formidable foe.

Based on their performance in these Olympics, they’re going to be a force in sports on the international stage for a long time.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Michael Phelps And The USA

I was in entryway for the media at the stadium following the Jaguars game when I came across about 20 people crowded around a small TV set. I knew what they were there for: Michael Phelps was going for his eighth gold medal, swimming in the IM relay with his American teammates.

The small crowd was pretty quite, intently watching the walkout and the introductions. When the camera panned to Phelps there were a couple of “there he is” comments but this was a group of people who cover sports for a living. A pretty jaded crowd, not much impressed by anything or anybody. Especially a swimmer.

But something different was going on here.

These folks weren’t just observing, they were, for the moment, fans.

It was really interesting to watch the race with these people. In the press box, since everybody started carrying computers, it’s a pretty quite place. The windows are closed and you only hear the silence interrupted by the dispassionate announcements of down and distance.

The stadium entryway is usually a busy place with people coming and going before and after the game. But for these couple of minutes, time stood still. Nobody moved.

The opening backstroke 100 had the Americans near the front. The breaststroke had the world record holder swimming for Japan so you knew the US would be behind when Phelps jumped in the water for the butterfly. And you figured, at least hoped, that he’d swim his normal leg: controlled for the first 50 meters then put on his big surge at the finish.

And that’s what happened.

A quick glance at the crowd showed a few heads bobbing with each stroke Phelps made and I caught the occasional “come on” murmured under somebody’s breath. When Jay Lezak jumped in the water with a half body length lead, somebody up front said, “Come on Jay, don’t blow it.”

Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t just some uninterested bystander. I was pretty intent and involved and even when Lezak turned for home I said something like, “Come on Jay, Swim!” By that point everybody was into it, exhorting Lezak to “hang on” and “finish strong.” And when he touched and that “carpet” rolled out on the water with the stars and stripes and “USA” behind the number one on the water something funny happened: Everybody clapped.

For a moment there were no naysayers, no critics. Nobody finding fault in the victory, nobody was trying to somehow downgrade the accomplishment. “We” won and Phelps got his eighth gold. It’s that kind of communal moment that we don’t often have in the States.

Since we don’t have a national team in any of the international sports the people follow, it’s not often that we all are in front of the television watching one thing and rooting for victory.

I was in Costa Rica once when their national soccer team had qualified for the World Cup and was playing in the first round. Sitting at a bar on the beach, the bartender didn’t acknowledge me when I sat down, instead keeping his gaze on the television. “Can I get a beer” I asked politely. “Come around and get it yourself,” the bartender said nicely, never taking his eyes off the TV.

We don’t get that much here.

The ’80 hockey club is about the closest to everybody being on the same page as we’ve ever been in the last 50 years. It’ one of the things I like about the Olympics. Not every four years, but occasionally, something or somebody will catch our attention and bring us all together.

Phelps was able to do that.

A kid from Baltimore who’s built like the perfect swimmer has also had the perfect temperament for dealing with the schedule, the media demands and the execution of his skill.

I saw him on the air on NBC in a split-screen between Beijing and Detroit with Mark Spitz. Spitz was tremendously gracious (apparently for the first time) and Phelps couldn’t have said more perfect stuff. Maybe it’s the times, maybe he’s just the right guy but for those two minutes everything seems just right.

And we won.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Fred Taylor, Back Again!

Since he was at Belle Glade in high school, Fred Taylor has always dreamed of playing in the Super Bowl. But last year was the first time he ever went. “I went in support of Plax”(Plaxico Burress of the Giants), Fred revealed on Tuesdays. “Sat there through the whole game, it was the toughest thing I’ve ever done.”

Taylor had been invited before “after my rookie year, to see the Titans. I couldn’t do it. I thought about scalping the tickets but I gave them back.”

It wasn’t an un-emotional time at the game for Fred either. “I had a tear in my eye a couple of times. They say you can’t really know what it’s like to play in the game and that’s exactly right. Until you make your first catch, or your first run and see those flashbulbs going off, you can’t really know.”

It’s something he wants as part of his career: a trip to the big game. “Desperate?” Fred asked when the question was posed about his emotions regarding getting to the game. “I don’t think desperate is the right word. Hungry maybe. I’m hungry to experience that.”

Taylor has been through just about all of the ups and downs a NFL Player can endure. He’s had near misses for the Super Bowl, droughts of no playoff appearances, serious and nagging injuries but he’s kept his spirits up. Admittedly changed since getting married and becoming a father, Taylor knows his life is charmed.

“I’m still a young kid. I play a kid’s game. You have to go out there and have fun. I’m just a bit more mature. I try to have that young man’s mindset at times. I know how to crossover. I know how to flip that switch. I’m a pro. That is the one thing you can say about me. I know when to say yes and when to say no. I’m not going to kiss any butt, but I am going to try and make the right decision because it benefits more than me. I have a family to take care of.”

He refuses to think of a career without a Super Bowl ring and doesn’t miss a chance to look at a championship ring when he sees one. “I saw Joe Theismann’s last night. That’s plenty of motivation.”

Thanks to last year’s run the Jaguars and Taylor know they’re no longer a “dark horse.” They’ll be the favorite most of the year and teams they beat last season will gear up for them. Fred hopes that he can show enough leadership to get guys focused on this year and not last.

“Hopefully all of us can get on the same page and realize that last year was last year. We are going to be targeted by a lot of teams, a lot of teams that we beat last year. They are going to come after us. It’s no secret. I think at this point we are further ahead than we were last year offensively. Defensively, Coach (Gregg) Williams, he does so many different things as far as disguising and putting pressure on opposing offenses. I really do like our chances. I think we can put some good things together.”

I asked Fred if this team just needs a mental adjustment or a little luck to get where they want to be.

“You have to believe. I believe in our team first of all whether it’s a backup guy…it doesn’t matter who’s in there. Going into each game if you have your slated starters in there your confidence is extra high. You have to have faith in the guys behind those starters as well. I believe we can compete with any team in this league. You shouldn’t think any other way or otherwise you are in the wrong business.”

As a veteran player, Taylor knows his time is short in the league. It’s pretty unbelievable he’s played this long as a running back to begin with. He’s taking better care of himself and has the enthusiasm that’s needed to compete in the league.

“Certain things that I have to do, I will buckle down and try and get the job done. Things that I can have fun and mess around with, I take advantage and do it when I can. I get enough mess with the young guys on the team. Somebody called me A.C. Green the other day. It’s a lot of fun. Last year I had so much fun, the most fun I had had in my whole career. This year I expect to be the same way. I pray that we get two games further than we made last year. From there, the sky’s the limit.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Don Shula Still Coaching

The last time I saw Don Shula was at the Super Bowl here in Jacksonville. Dan Marino was eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and as a shoo-in; Shula was in town to lend support.

I was standing in a group of four reporters talking to the winningest head coach in the history of the league when the guy standing next to me started to ask Shula a question in a foreign language. I didn’t recognize it immediately but knew it was something Eastern European. When Shula nodded his head and started to answer, in the foreign language, he stopped and smiled at the reporter next to me, the beat guy from Miami and said, “You didn’t know I speak Hungarian did you? You don’t know everything about me,” he continued with a laugh.

I’ve been around Shula a lot in his career and he’s always been very direct, fairly measured and straight forward dealing with the media. Tolerant is probably the best word. But this exchange showed me a little something different, a bit of relaxation and enjoyment.

I saw the same Don Shula this week here in town as he opened his 25th steakhouse that bears his name. “How are you,” the coach said as he offered a handshake in a side banquet room. “Hi Coach, Sam Kouvaris,” I said, re-introducing myself. “Of course Sam,” Shula responded strengthening his grip on my hand.

Shula meets thousands of people so I didn’t expect him to know me by name, so it’s always nice when somebody gives you that smile of recognition, even if they have no idea what your name is.

As is the case in these situations, Shula’s PR help was nearby and my producer/photographer, Kevin Talley was right there as well. But in an instant I looked around and noticed that it was just the coach and me. The PR guy left and Kevin headed to the car to get something. That’s when I could tell Shula was a changed person since his coaching days. He asked me how I’d been, if I’d been busy what I thought the Jaguars might be up to. His conversation was easy and relaxed, and seemed genuine.

I got a chance to tell Shula the “Hungarian” story, and he laughed. Told him about growing up in Baltimore and how my Dad was a big fan. Asked him about a couple of things early in his career as a player and as a coach and had a chance to tell him that I was a big fan as a kid.

“Where you from in Baltimore,” the coach asked as a BS check I’m sure. “Woodlawn,” I answered. “You know that Super Bowl loss cost me the job in Baltimore,” Shula volunteered referring to Super Bowl III and the famous loss to the Jets and Joe Namath. “But then I ended up in Miami and that seemed to work out OK,” he said with a quick laugh.

We did the actual interview and Shula continued to be quick with the laughs and the jokes, the hand gestures and the one-liners. “Porterhouse,” he responded, “Medium well,” when asked what he usually ordered at his own restaurant.

He has a stock answer for the standard quarterback question he’s always asked: Unitas, Griese or Marino. “I was fortunate to coach John Unitas and he’s the best I ever saw at running a game and getting the best out of everybody around him.

Griese was a great field general. Liked to set things up. I once sent in a play-action pass on the goal line. Quarterbacks loved that because it means a touchdown pass. Griese changed it and gave it to Csonka for the TD. I asked him about it as he came off and he said, ‘It was open.’

Marino was the opposite. Dan hated to run the ball. Defensive coaches around the league would have thanked me if I made him run the ball all the time. He had that great arm and that quick release and could fit the ball into so many small spaces”.

Shula was especially forthcoming about just about everything. “You know I had Csonka, Mercury Morris and Jim Kiick and I used those guys in the right situations that they could be successful in. It was the first of the substitutions but it worked.“ He’s proud of what he’s accomplished, and rightfully so.

“Coaching is about putting people in the right situation where they can be successful. Whether it was Griese or Marino, I always tried to give them the best chance to win.” With a record 347 wins, it worked. Instead of trying to impose his “system” on his players or his teams.

At 77 years old he looks great and is still sharp. “I do a lot of cruising with my wife Mary Anne,” he explained when I asked him about his current lifestyle. “How’s Nutrisystem,” I asked since he’s become a pitchman for the weight loss company. “It works,” but I’ve been on a couple of cruises since then and maybe put a few pounds back on but it works.”

I was really happy for Shula. He still wants to be relevant but wants to enjoy life and the body of work he’s left behind. I thanked him for his time and has been my practice, I also thanked him for the positive impact he had on my life as a kid growing up in Baltimore.

“You know that Jets loss cost me that job in Baltimore,” Shula said again.
“Well coach, it seemed to work out,” I said with a laugh.

And it still is.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Federer & Nadal: Tennis’ Past & Future?

Maybe it’s become a niche sport. Outside of the Grand Slam tournaments does anybody pay attention to tennis anymore?

It seems not.

John McEnroe even thanked Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for what they did for tennis playing their epic, 5-set Wimbledon final on Sunday.

But did it matter?

I certainly hope so.

Despite the numerous disparaging remarks regarding the game of tennis itself, the match was an athletic achievement that is nearly unmatched. Just two weeks ago, fans were lauding Tiger Woods’ effort in the US Open playoff and ratcheted that up another notch when news of his knee problems broke. That was a stunning individual achievement up against adversity and pain. Yes, there was an opponent, but the real opponent for Tiger was the golf course, not Rocco.

In the Wimbledon final, both players had to play offense and defense. They had to endure delays, highs and lows to their own play and they had to weather streaky play by their opponent.

“Maybe the best match I’ve ever seen,” former Wimbledon champ Tony Trabert told me on the phone Sunday night.

“They hit shots that were just unbelievable. Match point against him and Federer just fires one down the line, six inches inside the sideline and six inches inside the baseline. Incredible! Great confidence and execution.”

Trabert won three legs of the Grand Slam and served as the top tennis analyst for CBS and in Australia for more than 30 years. He’s seen a lot of tennis. So to say it’s one of the best ever, that’s something.

When the game went to the “Open Era” in 1968, it changed the competitions, allowing everybody to play. Before that, only “amateurs” were allowed in the big tournaments. McEnroe alluded to that when he talked about his conversation with Bjorn Borg earlier in the day Sunday.

“There’s much more emphasis on the Grand Slam tournament now,” the former Wimbledon champ said. “How many would Rod Laver have won if he had been able to play in all of them? Now it’s open and everybody’s interested.”

The game changed again when steel and wooden rackets were put away in favor of carbon and other materials. The ball was faster and the game became very power-oriented. So much so that finesse was taken out of tennis and replaced with a bunch of bangers. There were some exceptions, Pete Sampras being one, but mostly everybody moved to the baseline and just fired away. That’s because the technology was better than the players.

I think tennis players are underrated when it comes to their athletic ability and specifically their fitness but as athletes they lagged behind the technology that their equipment exhibited. It allowed average, one-dimensional players to be competitive.

In the wooden racket era, top athletes dominated. Trabert, Pancho Gonzalez, Arthur Ashe all used their athletic ability to create and win.

And that’s where tennis is back to.

Federer and Nadal were able to play such a thrilling, close match because for the first time their athletic ability has caught up to the technology. Maybe Nadal even more than Federer, but both certainly qualify. They’re both great tennis players but perhaps they’re even better athletes.

Ivan Lendl probably qualifies as one great athlete who was playing tennis in the last twenty years. Maybe Mal Washington, Patrick Rafter and certainly Boris Becker.

McEnroe would probably admit that he was a tennis player first and an athlete second, at least until later in his career.

But this is a new level for tennis.

Much like in golf where great athletes will choose the sport because of the money making potential as professionals, same thing with tennis.

Federer, and now Nadal are just the beginning.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tiger’s Open (Or Was It Rocco’s)

I was rooting for Rocco. Nothing against Tiger, in fact, I think this win solidifies his spot as the best ever. All that’s left is for him to pass Jack Nicklaus with 18 professional majors and to call him “the best” would be indisputable.

But still, I was hoping Rocco could pull it off.

“He had to birdie 18, again, to tie me, and he did it. That’s why he’s so tough to beat,” Rocco explained in an emotional post-round statement.

You can’t say this was a walkover by any means. Rocco fought and fought and fought and by the time they got to 18 he had a one shot lead. The lead you knew he needed because Tiger was going to birdie the par 5, the last hole, and the one he birdied or eagled all week long. When he hit his drive in the fairway, you knew he’d at least hit it on and two putt for birdie.

But Rocco also “has his name on his bag,” as Fuzzy Zoeller used to say about guys you’ve never heard of, noting that they’re professionals as well.

“Rocco can make birdie and win,” I thought before he hit his drive into the bunker.

The usually reliable driver got him in trouble on 18, not giving him a real chance to go for it in two and win with a two putt. But he still had about a 15 footer to win it. “I might never have this chance again, so this putt is not going to be short,” is how he described his thought process to Roger Maltbie while he was walking to the playoff.

But somehow, you knew that Tiger would prevail.

Which got me wondering if his opponents, Rocco, Bob May and others somewhere in their minds aren’t thinking the same things.

The thing about Tiger that spooks these guys is the fact that he makes so few mistakes. When he needed to hit the ball in the fairway and knock his second shot on the green on 18, he did it. He didn’t over-try, or do anything differently. He just did his job.

“I figured if I did my job then what happens, happens,” he explained after making a 12 footer on Sunday to tie Rocco for the lead at 18.

Which is another difference between Tiger and the current crop of players on the PGA Tour. He’s confident in his own talent and just figures if he goes about his business, he’ll be fine. And what happens, happens. But the rest of them are scurrying all over the place trying to “elevate” their games and it just doesn’t work. That’s why I think it’ll take a whole new set of players, guys like Anthony Kim, to supplant Tiger (if ever).

Tiger has shown the kind of money that can be made in golf, and the level of fame that is also available. So the top athletes of the next generation will be considering golf as an option.

But for now, Tiger has shown that he’s capable of the focus and the execution to win under any circumstances.

Plus he’s the best putter, period. He’ll make it from anywhere, and you should expect him to make everything. Because he probably will.

But like a lot of people, I was still rooting for Rocco. I know him a bit and despite the “everyman” storyline they were following, Rocco is much more than that. When he lived in Ponte Vedra (right off the second fairway of the stadium course) he invited me over. Gave me his cell phone and his home number. Introduced me to his wife. In other words, was just normal.

An upper tier player with 8 wins on tour, Rocco just didn’t accept the “star” lifestyle. He lived in a nice house and enjoyed the perks that go along with the status of being a PGA Tour player, but he just was who he was.

I saw him this year at Bay Hill and he immediately stopped practicing and walked over to say hi. Actually we embraced like old friends and talked about how long we’d known each other.

He explained that he was healthy and expected to play a lot on Tour this year. He was working with Jimmy Ballard on a whole new swing and what was interesting to me was how Rocco was listening and reacting to the “coaching.” He was really trying and it was working.

Just normal.

If he had won, it wouldn’t have changed him, and the fact that he didn’t win won’t change him either. He’ll be known as the guy who extended Tiger to the max and a lot of people will know Rocco and more about him.

Which is good.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jim McKay Encounter: Long Ago

I met Jim McKay once, when I was in college. I had a late class but ran over to the theater he was speaking at promoting his book “My Wide World” on college campuses.

My first impression was that he was tiny! I got there after he was finished speaking but I was determined to hear something that he had to say so I hung around the exit to the stage and he walked out with the promoter, an on-campus administrator I happened to know.

McKay had a little bit of a beard if I remember correctly, and he couldn’t have been nicer. We shook hands, and he asked me if I had heard his presentation. I said I did not, I was in class but I wanted to get over here just to say hi at least. McKay said “Oh,” when I told him I wasn’t at the speech, but was very interested in hearing about the fact that I was majoring in communications.

I went to Clemson as a freshman as a pre-med major, and actually did quite well. But when they called us together after my first semester to tell us they were phasing out the pre-med program, I needed a change.

Political Science made a short appearance but after taking Introduction to Broadcasting 101, my professor suggested I look into majoring in that discipline. Citing that Clemson lacked a Broadcasting department, he gave me a list of seven schools where I could gain my degree. Luckily, Maryland was one of those and I transferred to get my degree in Radio, Television and Film, the Terp’s equivalent to Telecommunications.

I was already planning to transfer, and McKay encouraged my move, saying that the field was wide open and it was going to even get better. Remember, this was a time that was before cable, before ESPN, FOX and CNN. There were only the three networks, but McKay had an inkling that was going to change.

We spoke for just a couple of minutes, and I thanked him for making it seem so interesting to go around the world and experience different sports. I think I might have even mentioned barrel jumping and he laughed. We shook hands again, he wished me luck and he was off. But I remember how pleasant he was, and how encouraging he was about a career choice that seemed to be at the top of everybody’s list.

Obviously I’ve been thinking about McKay since he death on Saturday and I’ve read and heard what a lot of the different national “voices” have been saying. I do know he was a very good writer. He was plainspoken and occasionally Spartan, which is always best. A lot of “voices” want to wax eloquently about somebody else who waxed eloquently. But that seems kind of cheap to me.

McKay was a real guy. I met his son, Sean McManus the President of CBS News and Sports once here in Jacksonville and commented that his Dad had a very positive effect on my career. “He did that a lot,” was McManus’ response. Which was correct.

But what I realized in the last couple of days is that McKay fueled my wanderlust. As much as Chuck Thompson, the voice of the Orioles made it seem fun to me, McKay opened my eyes to a true “Wide World.” Since I was a kid I’ve been as interested in barrel jumping as I have in NFL football. Sure, I understand the difference, but perhaps because of McKay and his globetrotting I understand the similarities. The dedication, the sacrifice and the sheer joy of the competition, no matter on what scale.

McKay also represents another layer of professionals who are now gone, who shaped my interest in what I decided I’d put my life into. McKay was a little smarter than the average bear, a little more interesting than the everyday play-by-play guy, a little more well read and well traveled than just about anybody else in the room. He spent his retirement at home, with his family, knowing he had done it all.


But he didn’t flaunt it.

He was it.

We should all be so lucky.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Big Brown: Bust?

Just like everybody else, I follow horse racing as a casual fan, focusing on the Triple Crown. I do follow some of the other races during the year, the Florida and Arkansas Derby, the Travers Stakes and the Breeders Cup. I watch the races and read a bunch about the different competitions. I’ve been to the track to see races in person, a must when it comes to that sport. The horses are so impressive and for the most part, the people involved are totally committed to the sport and the animals involved.

We’ve been talking about the next “Super Horse” for a while, from Spectacular Bid to Smarty Jones with 30 years gone by without another Triple Crown winner. It’s the longest stretch in history without a winner of all three races. I thought Afleet Alex was that horse in 2005, but he just didn’t run in the Kentucky Derby but went on to win the Preakness and the Belmont. Three races in five weeks seem like a lot, and it is when it comes to 3-year-old thoroughbreds.

I’ve heard that the sport has changed in the past couple of decades with breeding turned toward speed instead of endurance. That might explain some of the failures in the Belmont at 1 and a half miles but Saturday’s race with Big Brown was different.

Big Brown looked like a super horse in the Derby and the Preakness. Whenever Kent Desmoreaux asked him to run, he took off like he was turbocharged. When he broke from the gate at the Belmont though, he didn’t look right from the start. Big Brown has a beautiful stride and great gait but it wasn’t on display in New York. He looked uncoordinated during the whole trip. Even though he had a smooth ride and was sitting in the right spot at third coming to the final turn, he was already laboring.

It didn’t have anything to do with the distance; something was going on with the horse. There had been a lot of talk about Big Brown taking Winstrol, a steroid about once a month. It’s legal for horses in most states. Big Brown’s last injection was on April 15th, two weeks before the derby. Who knows if that had a negative effect on his run after it was out of his system but he just didn’t run?

“When I came to the final turn and asked him to go, I just didn’t have any horse,” Desmoreaux said immediately after the race. When he went to let him out, nothing happened. In fact he went backwards.

The weird thing is, Big Brown looked the part. He looked different than the other thoroughbreds. He looked big and strong, kind of like Secretariat. But he didn’t run like a Super Horse. He just didn’t run.

Have you ever gone for a run and just felt completely uncoordinated the whole time? It looked like that from the start. I don’t think Desmoreaux had anything to do with the ride. In fact, I thought he was masterful; especially when he pulled Big Brown up once the cause was lost.

Maybe the answer is to spread the races out since the breeding habits have changed. Maybe a standardized drug program is the right way to go. But whatever it is, the sport needs a fix up.

Affirmed, and even Alydar seemed like Super Horses and maybe they were bred to win the Triple Crown but there’s nothing like them out there now.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Players, Bigger, Better

Everybody’s got an opinion about The Players. It’s always been that way for some reason. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer always downplayed its significance. Both wanted their tournaments to be the next “big” thing and didn’t like how then Commissioner Deane Beman was going about promoting the “TPC.”

Nicklaus once said he didn’t think it was right to have to “hit a 4-iron into the hood of a car,” when asked about the Stadium course. Lee Trevino once said, “it’s hard to read dirt,” during one of his numerous complaining conferences about the golf course. “Somebody’s making birdies out there,” was the usual response when the negative comments were brought up.

Since the tournament was moved to the Stadium Course, the winning score has always been under par. Not so at Sawgrass country club when twice the winner was at one over. They’ve moved the championship several times on the calendar. It started the first week of March and eventually settled on the third week. The first week was just too windy and unpredictable when it came to the weather. Even though it was far enough away from the Masters, it just wasn’t the right spot either in the month or geographically.

It moved around the country before settling on north Florida. Ft. Lauderdale, Texas and Atlanta all hosted the “Tournament Players Championship” the flagship tournament of the PGA Tour. But it wasn’t until it moved to its permanent home that it really started to take a beating. That’s because it was something different than just a regular Tour stop.

Beman had bigger plans. He wanted it to be a Major. “Don’t call it the TPC anymore,” one Tour staffer told me about 20 years ago. “Dan Jenkins says TPC sounds like something teenagers snort and Deane doesn’t like that,” was the reason given. I just shrugged my shoulders and complied. Their tournament, they can call it what they want.

As the Tour got further into golf course building and designing and running the tournament, The Players Championship came under more and more criticism. Some of it was valid; some of it was just about animosity aimed at Beman. So he retired and Tim Finchem stepped in. Finchem has presided over the Tiger era, so it has been hard for him to do anything wrong. The Tour has seen unprecedented growth and their flagship tournament has gone along with it.

Two years ago they made another big leap, moved the tournament to May, changing the name (again) changing the golf course, building a new clubhouse and upping the prize money. All in one year. Having been around this thing for more than 25 years it was obvious the Tour was taking the next step. And not a small one. Massive electronic scoreboards, actually giant televisions were placed on every hole. Information about every golfer on every shot was easily accessible. You never had to leave your spot. And the corporate hospitality tents started to multiply and become more lavish. They started popping up everywhere. Not just along 18 and on 17. They were on nine. Next to sixteen. The Benefactor Pavilion behind the 17th tee looked like a cruise ship had parked there.

It was becoming real stadium golf. With a bunch of skyboxes. Ever been to a skybox for a football game? It’s a lot of socializing mixed in with watching the game. Some live, some on TV. And that’s what watching this tournament as become as well. There was some thought that the crowds weren’t as big in 2008, maybe because Tiger wasn’t there.

Not true.

Look at who was on the fairways and greens. Mainly people who didn’t have access to some chalet somewhere. Or those who were making their way to one. There’s so much corporate hospitality that everybody’s in a skybox, in the air-conditioning, having a cool cocktail watching the golf, some live, some on TV. With 22 hours of coverage over the 4 days, you saw just about everything that was significant, no matter where or when it happened.

And that’s what the PGA Tour is about.

It’s a corporate entertainment venue. It’s a once a year appointment for sponsors and guest to get away from the office in a whole different environment. Go to any Tour stop and you see that on a smaller scale. At The Players, its super sized. And going to get bigger.

With Ron Cross leaving to join Augusta National, the new executive director of The Players will be charged with expanding the tournament on a national and global scale. Getting “Golf Dubai” and “Lufthansa” to use the Players as a hospitality destination will be more of the goal than getting “Bono’s” to buy a skybox. There still will be tickets to buy for the general public. And for now they’ll still be available at Publix.

But this tournament isn’t the GJO anymore. It’s not even the TPC. It’s the PGA Tour’s showcase event and the PGA Tour is an international organization. Even if they’re in our backyard, their market is the entire globe. And they’re going to take advantage of that. It’s different, and I think better.

The focus will be on Ponte Vedra and Jacksonville for the whole week. People from around the world will want to come visit and play that golf course. More luxury hotels and good restaurants. Better shopping and a real spot on the map. No, this isn’t the tournament with the “Swingers Tent,” on A1A. It’s bigger. And better.

Get used to it.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Derby Wake Up

Obviously, I don’t know anything about thoroughbreds anymore. I had this amazing string of calling the winner of the Kentucky Derby of about 12 years starting with Unbridled and running through about 2002. Since then I haven’t been close.

I had the field covered in 2005 except for Giacamo who came in as a 50-1 winner. This year Tom McManus asked me on 1010 XL who I liked and I said, “anybody but the 3-1 favorite Big Brown. I’ll take the field.” Of course, Big Brown won going away.

His trainer had predicted it amid snickers in the barn from his competitors. But he backed it up winning by 4 ½ lengths and could be a contender for the Triple Crown. He looked like the class of the field and the race that give the winners fits, the Belmont Stakes, seems suited to his closing kick at 1-½ miles.

The race was marred by the breakdown of Eight Belles, the only filly in the race who had finished second. On the warm down, she broke both front ankles and had to be “euthanized” right there on the track. Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post wrote on Saturday night that horses breaking down and being killed on the track is happening at the rate of about 2 a day in the United States alone.

What’s going on there? Is it just better reporting? Maybe this has always happened but it just wasn’t reported. Or maybe the colts are just being bred so finely that they just can’t handle the stress of the pounding on their bodies. Whatever it is, it isn’t good.

One of the sport’s most celebrated champions, Barbaro, brought the brutality of the whole thing to light. Injured at the start of the Preakness he was saved by the jockey and the on-track vet. After months of rehab they finally put him “to sleep” ending a sad chapter in horse racing’s annals.

If you’ve ever seen a racehorse, a thoroughbred in person, you know they don’t look like a regular horse. Perfectly muscled and developed, the rippled physique looks like it’s been carved out of a stone. Much like our awareness of human performance and the drugs that have augmented many athletes abilities, is that a part of the “sport of kings?” I do know that there are plenty of drugs that are illegal for racehorses to take. Most, I thought, are anti-inflammatory.

Is there compassion among the trainers and owners? It certainly seems that the bond between the horses and the people around them is something different than anything else. Like in “The Godfather” putting the horse’s head in the film director’s bed was the nastiest thing they could do. He called the horse, “my pride and joy.” They are beautiful things to look at but are we killing them through drugs, training and breeding? Two-a-day seems like a lot to be scraping off the track and going onto the next race.

Is the sport big enough outside of the Triple Crown for anybody to care? Obviously tracks have been in trouble and are closing and the sport is mainly fueled by off track betting these days. But is their enough to make anybody stand up and ask the questions? Hopefully there are answers and not just more questions.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Back To Augusta

I heard somebody describe the Masters as “more Member-Guest than Major,” and that’s pretty close to the truth. Especially Monday through Wednesday. I walked into the press building last week to see many, no all of the same, familiar faces.

Martha Wallace, in her familiar spot behind the counter looked up at me and said, “Hi Sam, great to see you again!” That might not seem extraordinary but remember, this is a Major championship, one of the big sporting events in the world every year. There are a thousand or more media types running around the grounds at Augusta National.

And Martha greets most of them by name. I did feel a little special though when she said, “Sam this is your 31st year!” “I’m well aware of that Martha,” I said with a laugh, feigning an age wince. “You worked at WCBD in Charleston from 1978 to 1981as the Sports Director there before you went to Jacksonville,” Martha said, reciting my record on her computer screen. “If I ever want to know something about myself I’m calling Augusta,” was my answer in a serious voice. Martha lowered hers and whispered, “We’re better than the government.”

And I believe it.

I do know that if you have the right credentials and follow the rules, it’s one of the easiest events to navigate. Conversely, if you don’t have what you need, you’re not getting in. And break the rules and you’re out as well. Politely, but the people at the Masters run things they way they see fit, and if you don’t want to go along, no problem, there’s a tournament next week.

And that’s one of the things I like the most about working there.

They make every accommodation for you if you’re trying to get your job done. They cater to their “patrons” to help them enjoy the experience. You can still get a sandwich and a beer for less than five dollars. And of course the place is immaculate. So much so that I’ve noticed over the years that smokers carry their cigarette butts with them instead of throwing them on the ground. The wrappers are still green on all of things sold at Augusta and the commercial names on anything are covered up.

The tournament has changed over the years. The golf course is different, the clubhouse rules have changed (Women were not allowed on the second floor until about 8 years ago), the press building is now state of the art and the practice rounds tickets are now done by lottery.

Starting next year, the tournament will begin to allow children in for free with a paying adult. Tournament Chairman Billy Payne made that announcement along with several others instituting a whole different focus for Augusta National. I’ve always been impressed with Payne and continue to be so. His vision for the tournament and the club is far reaching.

His focus this year is on brining more young people into the game. That’s why he encouraged such frivolity at the Par 3 contest. That’s why the Par 3 is now televised. “We want young people to see that you can play a thousand yard golf course in under two hours and have fun doing it,” the Chairman said at his Wednesday press conference. It’s a brilliant initiative and worthy of the “visionary” status that most people give Payne.

The tournament continues to be run flawlessly and this year they were plagued with some tough weather on Sunday that drove the scores up. That’s ‘going to happen. But I’m a bit concerned about the “mystique” that is the Masters and the roars from the back nine that separate Augusta from everywhere else, including the other three majors.

They’re gone.

The course is so difficult now that nobody’s going to shoot 31 on the back and charge to the front a la Palmer, Nicklaus and others. That’s one of the things that makes the Masters what it is and I hope they bring that back.

Trevor Immelman is a nice champion but playing it safe and shooting 75 in the final round doesn’t excite anybody. Will Immelman emerge as the next great International player? Who knows? Gary Player’s voice mail apparently settled him enough on Sunday to get him through the tough times. Player told him to keep his head a little more still while putting and to grind it out through adversity, because it will come.

Immelman took advantage of that advice and wins the Green Jacket. It’d be nice if he’d validate the win by backing it up with some solid play, and wins throughout the rest of the year.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Beach Boys Encounter

“Man, I have that same shirt,” Mike Love said to me as we were introduced and he pulled on my sleeve. “Really?” I responded. “No really man, I have that exact same shirt,” he offered again. “Well I was hoping you’d wear it tonight,” I told him, ” I was told it was a Beach Boys concert!” Luckily, Love laughed and I felt better about my half smart-aleck remark.

I had gotten an email from Paul Witkowski, the PR director of the Symphony that was pretty simple: “Hey Sam, wanna sing with the Beach Boys?” That sounded intriguing so I replied, “sure.” Paul and I have tried to cook up something with the symphony for a while. I’ve done some things with them in the past and we’re always looking to add to that total, especially a chance to sing.

A couple of days and a couple of emails later I found out the “singing” with the Beach Boys was a little less than I expected. I’d get a chance to sing along on “Barbara Ann,” you know the “Ba ba ba, Barbara Ann” part. Fair enough, I thought. The Beach Boys are an American icon in their own right and their music is a big part of our historical sound track. My personal one too. I think I had an 8-Track of their songs. Anyway, to stand on the stage with them in any form or fashion sounded like one of those experiences you never thought you have a chance to do.

I got there early (stop laughing) and grabbed a seat in the back for the first set. I wanted to see what the set up was in the Theatre. Four guys across the front, a drummer and bassist behind and the Symphony tucked behind them, behind plexiglass. That’s a pretty standard thing in this kind of “cross-media” performance. Voices and guitars could get lost in the full force of violins, trumpets, xylophones and tubas.

The vocals sounded good, perhaps surprising me a little bit. Love is 63-years old and his son stands next to him, singing and playing guitar. Bruce Johnston is the front keyboard player and he’s about the same age as Love. The other guys are fill-ins. Brian Wilson didn’t make this gig. They do make constant jokes about their age, but it is remarkable to think that some of their hits were written and recorded in 1963 yet they’re still timeless, still being performed and have some of the best vocal harmonies ever.

Showing their ability to still sing those harmonies, they borrowed “California Dreamin'” from the Mammas and the Pappas in the first set. Love and Johnston have a running show about each song in the run-up, pretty well choreographed, complete with sounds of creaking bones. Sometimes Johnston’s actions and attempts at audience involvement seem a little forced but it’s all about the fun and the songs anyway. Love does provide some background about the songs, (“Only song written about a car”, or “this song is actually very patriotic. It’s about cheerleaders.”)

At the break I ran into Paul who took me backstage to introduce me to the stage manager so I could help give a car away and understand how I fit into the whole singing with the Beach Boys thing. Problem was, nobody knows what the guys on stage are going to do. That whole laid-back California thing isn’t an act. We were looking for answers when Love happened to walk by so Paul introduced me and asked how it was going to work. After the short exchange, Love, who’s bigger than you’d think and wears about 8 rings, said “Just stand over there off-stage next to Bruce and we’ll figure it out.”

Then he went on to ask if I thought the Omni bar would be showing the UCLA game that night. “My nephew plays for the Bruins you know,” he added. I assured him that it’d be available and we chatted about the team and their chances. Then he drifted off, saying we should listen to the Symphony’s version of “In My Room.” “It’s really pretty,” he added.

So I hung around, looking at the set list and figured out it’d be about 40 minutes before they got to “Barbara Ann” the third to the last song of the night. I made it over to stage left, right by Johnston’s keyboard, under 10 feet off stage. “Help Me Rhonda” got the crowd going and Barbara Ann was just two away.

Except they skipped the song in between and went right into, “Ba ba ba, Ba Barbara Ann.”

That’s when Johnston walked off stage toward me and I figured this was it. Except he walked past me like I was invisible, circled around the curtain and the plexiglass and headed for a young, blonde violinist in the Symphony. This kind of thing has happened to me before so, although disappointed, I took it in stride.

That’s when I looked up to see Love motioning me on stage and pointing at Johnston’s microphone. I figured I’d take my chance and jumped on stage.

They were at the part in the song right after the “So I thought I’d take a chance on Barbara Ann.”

So I joined in with “Barbara Ann, take my hand, Barbara Ann, you got me rockin and a rolling rockin and a rollin Barbara Ann” in the best falsetto I could muster.

I guess it took Mike Love by surprise and I can’t figure out if he was shocked I was actually doing it or I was singing his part! Either way he was laughing, feigning shock and pointing at me.

In the next verse Johnston showed up with the violinist so I backed off and “exited stage left!”

It was great fun, I think one of those once in a lifetime experiences, I actually could hear myself, got to meet Mike Love and sang in front of the Symphony.

And I guess I have at least one cool shirt.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

John Daly’s Ok?

I know it’s become very popular to just bash John Daly. Say he’s tormented, he’s full of demons, and he’s a drunk and a disgrace to the game. You could make a case for all of those based on his actions, but as much as I think he’s responsible for a lot of his own problems, jumping on the “Daly’s a loser” bandwagon is just flat out wrong.

I’ve spent some time with Daly in professional situations and he’s been up front, professional, polite, sober and on time. It’s very vogue to call him a “functioning alcoholic” but that’s a very clinical term and the fact is, we just don’t know. I’ve been around plenty of people in my personal life and in my career that were loaded but still getting the job done.

And I knew it.

There are signs, and if you’re paying attention, they’re pretty easy to detect. I understand that alcoholism is an insidious and tragic problem and some people have a very difficult time beating it. But stop making the blanket statement that “Daly’s an alcoholic.”

We don’t know.

We know that he likes to have a good time. That in public he occasionally drinks too much. That he likes to drink. And gamble. That he’s been drunk. And he’s lost millions at the tables. By society standards, he’s out there, a failure. A two-time major winner, no question Daly has talent. And he has squandered it to the point where we can now ask: What might have been?

When he first burst on the scene Pat Summerall and Frank Chirkinian both told me that he’d win a half dozen Masters or so. “It’s the perfect golf course for him,” was the consensus. Shortly thereafter he was drinking with a few friends of mine at the Freebird Café in Jax Beach and the next thing you know he was tearing up his hotel room at the Marriott at Sawgrass.

“The boy’s got issues,” Fuzzy Zoeller whispered to me after he was summoned in the middle of the night to get Daly straight. Since then Daly has won, and lost on the PGA Tour. Remember the great sand shot he hit at 18 in San Diego to seal the win? Also remember the 3-foot comebacker he missed to lose in a playoff to Tiger at a WGC event? He smacked a ball while it was moving in a major championship. He turned toward the audience once during a clinic and hit a driver over their heads from about 15-yards away.

He’s been on both sides of the spectrum. He has problems, no doubt. But on one level he could be a regular guy who likes having a good time and goes over the edge occasionally. Anytime he does that it’s pretty public and he pays a price. When he was drinking in the Hooter’s tent in Tampa on Sunday during the tournament he was vilified by much of the media. The CBSSportsline writer, Steve Elling, (who I’ve never heard of) absolutely destroyed Daly for his actions and said he was disgracing the game.

What a sanctimonious position! Elling got his information secondhand (he admitted he wasn’t there) and even recounted a conversation between a fan and Daly about drinking a beer together. What’s that got to do with anything? One of the highlights of my career was beers with Arnold Palmer on a Wednesday night before the Players Championship. And Arnie had an early tee time the next day.

Butch Harmon’s announcement that he was “firing” Daly as a client was ludicrous. I know Harmon is from a storied golf family and he has a lot of respect for the game and is in turn respected for it. But that was just grandstanding. Harmon could have easily just said to Daly, “Hey John, this isn’t working so let’s call it a day.” Instead he made a bunch of public pronouncements about how Daly’s top priority was “getting drunk” instead of golf. Even Daly said he just wished that Harmon would have called him and called it off. We all know that Harmon is a publicity hound, just ask Tiger, right before he fired him as his swing coach.

When Daly missed his Pro-Am tee time at the Arnold Palmer Invitational the reaction was “told you so!” It’s not like he turned up on the first tee wearing yesterday’s clothes, stumbling to the ball and carrying a beer. He says he got the wrong tee time when he called the tournament office the day before, receiving his Thursday time instead of his Pro-Am time. He knows he should have done more investigating than one phone call but that was his story.

Pretty believable.

Somewhere in there is the truth but I really think we don’t know what it is. I hope John can get his life together and keep it there. A lot of people have tried to help John but haven’t been successful. Remember, professional golf is full of country club, silver spoon types who have a big holier than thou attitude. Daly’s always been an outsider and remains so.

We’ll see where this goes but for now, I’m withholding judgment.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Man and Myth

Before you get all over me, let me say I like Brett Favre.

He’s in my top 7 or 8 quarterbacks of all time that if you said he was going to be my starter, I’d be happy. And he’s going to the Hall of Fame as one of the all-time greats. And yes, I’m voting for him (just like everybody else.)

I do have one “but” and it’s not a big one but I do think it’s important to point out that he’s not flawless and certainly had his ups and downs in his professional career.

I first saw him play in ’89 against FSU while he was still at Southern Mississippi. He pretty much single-handedly won the game in the Gator bowl throwing it all over the place, running all over the place, making off-balance throws and getting the job done. And that’s ultimately what quarterbacks are judged on, wins and losses, getting the job done.

He was drafted by the Falcons and sat on their bench one year until Ron Wolf became the General Manager of the Packers and traded for him with about his first official act as GM. “We don’t really care who we get in the first round of the draft,” Wolf said at the time, “we’ve already got Brett Favre.”

It was a great trade for the Packers and another in a line of boneheaded moves for the Falcons. Favre turned out to be one of the pieces of the puzzle along with Reggie White and others that lead the Pack back to greatness. Along the way, Favre earned a reputation as a fearless gunslinger, a quarterback who would throw it into small spaces and as a very tough guy. He virtually never missed a game. He had a drug problem, he played on a Monday Night right after his dad died.

Over his career he went nearly 16 consecutive seasons without missing a start! He set all kinds of career records this year and got his team to the NFC Championship game. And maybe that had something to do with his retirement announcement. So quick, and actually a voice mail to a reporter.

He got his team to the NFC Championship game, took the game to overtime, at home, and threw an interception that gave the Giants a chance to win the game. Of course New York did just that and went on to win the Super Bowl. Favre’s interception can’t be pointed to as the single reason and Packers got beat but you can look at it as a microcosm of his career. He was able to take his team to great heights. He was entertaining to watch, made great throws, strong-armed and strong willed stuff. But occasionally that wildness and that streak of confidence in his personality cost his team games.

Plain and simple. You can easily say he won more games than he lost with his style because he did. But in some crucial situations, Favre’s gambling ways kept the Packers from winning. Again, I’m not bashing Favre and I’d take him on my team, but I’m just trying to separate man from myth.

He was and is very popular with many influential media types. Sports Illustrated, ESPN and others used his storyline to promote games. He’s a likeable guy, accessible and quotable. And he’s a three-time league MVP. So nobody ever questions his game.

The retirement question has been hanging around for several years for Favre with him hinting that he’d make a decision once he was back home. This time the decision was made and nobody with the Packers seemed to try and talk him out of it. They’re moving on. It’ll be interesting to see if the Pack can play a different style of offense without Favre at the controls.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Daytona Or Bust

It’s kind of a pilgrimage every year, returning to Daytona for the 500. This year was a little different, knowing that it was the 50th running of the race and they’d have plenty of special things line up to celebrate. (Not technically the 50th “anniversary, but the 50th running of the race). And they did have all of the past champions there with fireworks and a special gold and white-checkered pattern to commemorate the occasion.

It’s a spectacle.

I mean a spectacle that makes the Super Bowl look like an amateur. It’s not like any other NASCAR race. Other races have qualifying and maybe a Nationwide race on Saturday but Daytona is a week. Or two, thus the designation of “Speedweeks.” And fans set their calendars to this “celebration.” They take at least a week off, show up in their trailers, RV’s pickups or whatever and plant themselves for the next 10 days.

It used to be that they made everybody leave the track before Thursday and then re-enter for the weekend. That was a huge cluster so they’ve streamlined it and now it becomes it’s own city inside the track. In turns three and four, people set up small tents and camp for the duration. On the east side of the infield there are travel trailers with flags flying and cases of beer in the beds of pickup trucks. Moving west, the trailers give way to million dollar luxury buses, all complete with flat screens but with their own bonfires and outdoor setups.

One fan sets up a Tiki bar every year, complete with a thatched roof and the small paper lanterns. Thursday night when I left, he had at least 500 people as “guests.” (I’m back and forth a few times during the week to cover different events. For the past few years I’ve left via the turn one tunnel and because I drive a foreign car (BMW) I get a lot of strange looks. Honest. If it’s not American made or a truck, it’s out of place. Maybe that’ll change with Toyota making some inroads.)

Luxury busses have made a big change in the infield at Daytona. Since they built the turn one tunnel they can arrive at their leisure instead of at only certain times to cross over the track. You can tell that it’s made a huge difference. Also since Monday was a holiday, most fans stayed Sunday night, making an even more festive atmosphere. (It would have only been crazier if Junior had won.)

It used to take hours to leave the infield because the trucks and buses couldn’t depart until the race was over and they could cross over the track. Now the tunnel allows big rigs to leave when they’re ready.

The people watching is unbelievable as you might imagine. But first and foremost the people there are fans. Big time fans. Everybody has a driver allegiance and they display it as loudly and as proudly as they can. It’s really a cult of personality multiplied by at least 43 times. More if you count the folks still tied to Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty. (I’d wear my “3” stuff occasionally but what I’d really like is some throwback Cale Yarborough swag.)

Everywhere you go is packed. Even the pits, where you could get away from the craziness in the past are now packed with people. Some watching the race on the track, some watching the pits and others with their back to the track and watching the race on the 30-foot big screen next to Victory Lane.

The race was somewhat uneventful until the end, and I’m sure that’s how NASCAR likes it. The first caution wasn’t thrown until 81 laps in, and that was for the phantom “debris on the track.” There wasn’t “the big one” that everybody waits for at the super speedways and that’s good. Just some high speed bumping in the final laps as drivers jockeyed for position. The finish showed why you need help at Daytona with Kyle Busch pushing Ryan Newman past Tony Stewart to the checkered flag.

Newman had a fast car all week but Stewart was the man to beat. Had Busch decided he wanted to win instead of pushing his teammate to victory, Stewart would have caught and passed him.

Since they rebuilt Victory Lane, the crowd inside has swelled and swelled each year. There’s a media section for photogs and another for television and a third and fourth for fans and VIP’s. But what’s happened is that the floor of Victory Lane is now packed with family members and other assorted visitors. The entire Thunderbird squad was crammed in there. Not just the pilots who did the flyover but the information officers, mechanics and anybody else in a blue jumpsuit and a T-Birds patch.

They fire off cannons of confetti, this year gold metallic to mark the 50th running, so that’s everywhere. There’s Gatorade everywhere and chaos reigns. It’s pretty well managed by NASCAR who take the winning driver where he needs to be, from Speed Channel to the local media, to the hands and feet in the concrete station and back up on stage for about 50 pictures with different hats on.

I was glad to get a chance to speak to Roger Penske in Victory Lane. After more than 20 years of coming to Daytona, he finally had the winning car. I believe he’s the only car owner to have winners at Daytona and at Indianapolis and he said, “I hadn’t thought of that, but with 14 wins at Indy, we have a ways to go here!”

Penske is a top-shelf guy, and seems like the kind of guy you want to work for. I’ve been around him a few times and he’s always been extremely gracious. I thanked him for that the last time I spoke to him at the announcement that Detroit was getting Super Bowl XL and he laughed. But the guy standing next to him stepped out and introduced himself as the Mayor of Detroit and said, “You’re right, he’s the greatest isn’t he?” So that was a pretty solid endorsement.

Everybody should experience Daytona, if only once.

There’s nothing like it.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Bad Words, Worse Consequences

There are a lot of angles to the Kelly Tilghman situation. She’s back on the air and Tiger said it was a “non-issue.” Fair enough but on the outside, a lot of things have happened.

The editor of GolfWeek was fired for putting a noose on the cover of the magazine. He was just trying to further the discussion but his bosses considered it the height of insensitivity and he lost his job.

PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem railed against the cover when it first came out and that probably led to the firing. When asked about it, Ben Wright had plenty to say. Wright was fired from CBS for his comments about lesbians on the LPGA Tour and his observation that “women’s boobs get in the way of the golf swing.”

“I think she has very little talent,” Wright said. “I’m amazed that she’s gotten just a slap on the wrist. I can’t stomach the woman.” Was he sympathetic? “Not one bit,” Ben continued. “Think before you speak.”

Fuzzy Zoeller hasn’t had any comment but it is interesting that he was destroyed in public and lost millions in endorsements, in essence fired, after his comments in 1997 when Tiger won his first Masters. Zoeller’s thoughts were in response to a question under the oak tree at Augusta, after his round with a drink in his hand and who knows how many before. His comments were wrong-headed, as were Kelly’s. But the punishments have been very different.

Fuzzy was virtually forced off the face of the earth when it came to making money outside of swinging a golf club. Tilgham is back to work in two weeks. I hadn’t thought of this before but is there a gender disparity at work here?

Not being black, I’m sure I can’t appreciate the depth of the negative connotation of a noose or any phrase that includes the word lynching. Knowing that Tilghman went to Duke, maybe that was part of her lexicon growing up. But as the lead anchor in a major sport, she has to know better and measure her words better.

I know how easy it is to paint yourself into a corner when it comes to ad libbing but based on the knowledge of the inflammatory nature of certain words. I thought she got off light.

As for Wright and Zoeller, both white men, they paid a very steep professional price. I’ve seen Ben work occasionally but he’s like he’s radioactive when it comes to a network hiring him. Zoeller just received an apology from some of the sponsors who dropped him but he’ll never recoup his reputation or the years it cost him.

Tiger left Zoeller out to twist in the wind as well as compared to how he defended Tilgham immediately. She’s not a competitor for Tiger and she’s a de facto “friend” of Woods’. So she gets to apologize and get back to work.

It hardly seems fair.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Australian For A Day

I’m sitting here watching the Championship games in the NFL and really enjoying it. Good games, both of them. But I’m also interested in the upcoming Rugby League game scheduled for this Saturday at UNF. The South Sydney Rabbitohs will face the Leeds Rhinos in what they call a “friendly” in soccer.

My long-time friend Spinner Howland is the driving force behind this match and I’m glad to see his dream come to life. Plus it’s a great thing for the city. These two teams aren’t just showing up to play a game on Saturday. In fact, they’re both already here, practicing and bringing a lot of publicity to the city.

The Rabbitohs are a resurgent team in Rugby League in Australia. Actor Russell Crowe bought the team a couple of years ago and has brought them back to championship form. When he was in town promoting the event he said he didn’t realize how much the Rabbitohs helped shape his personality as a young boy.

“They were the guys who did things right, and won,” Crowe explained. “They hung around after games, signed autographs, talked to people, were part of the community. They did it right and I wanted to bring that back.”

South Sydney is staying at the beach and enjoying every minute of it. Although the weather hasn’t been conducive to surfing, a couple of the Aussies on the club are waiting for their chance.

Leeds is a global powerhouse when it comes to Rugby League so their mere presence will bring attention to the city and the game. Plus Australia’s Channel 9 is showing the game live back in Australia (and providing it live for whomever wants to take it.)

The two teams are practicing all week and there are a couple of events that are open to the public. “The people here are so friendly,” one of the visiting players said on Saturday. “It’s hot at home so the change of climate is taking a little getting used to,” another noted pointing out it’s summer in the southern hemisphere.

They’ll have some good weather here this week and a little rain won’t bother either team a bit. The game is a full celebration of Australia Day as well so no doubt there will be plenty of fun had by all.

I don’t say this often but: Buy a ticket.