Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Ali Turns 70, I Remember When: Sam’s Brush With The Champ

It was early. Especially for somebody who’d been a bartender and was working on the first job of his career that also required working the “second shift.” In the summer of 1979 I was living and working in Charleston, S.C. Just after 7am my phone rang, jolting me out of bed as only a ringing phone can. The deep voice of the News Director at Channel 2, “Specs” Munzell, my boss was pleasant and direct.

“I just got a call that Muhammad Ali was having breakfast at the Mills House downtown. You need to get down there. Now.”

I don’t look like much when I get out of bed, and with the night before still rolling around in my head, I threw some clothes on, brushed my teeth, barely combed my hair, grabbed the camera and recorder and walked out the front door in about 5 minutes flat.

“No way,” I kept saying to my self. “Ali, here in Charleston. At this hour? For what?” I made it out of Mt. Pleasant and over the Cooper River Bridge, absent of traffic and headed downtown.

The Mills House is an old, historic hotel in the center of downtown Charleston. It’s been run by Hyatt and Holiday Inn among others, but it remains a landmark in the city. The front entrance is impressive as is the lobby with the restaurant off to the left. Big white columns run floor to ceiling giving it a very big feel. With white tablecloths to the floor, it oozes elegance.

Overlooking the restaurant from the lobby landing, I realized something was amiss: it wasn’t open. For some reason, at the time the Mills House didn’t serve breakfast. It was dark but I shuffled around and leaned to the right, camera equipment in hand, only to see three men sitting at a table way in the back drinking coffee. I sat the equipment in a corner and walked into the restaurant. Muhammad Ali

Facing me at the table, luckily was a guy I recognized and perhaps more astonishingly, he looked up and recognized me.

With an easy wave he motioned me over to the table where the unmistakable silhouette of Muhammad Ali was facing the other way.

The guy I knew and the other, young man at the table both stood as I approached offering a welcoming handshake.

“Hi Sam, great to see you,” my “friend” at the table said. “Do you know Reggie?” he asked as he motioned to the young guy at the table. Reggie did look vaguely familiar so I said, “Sure” as we shook hands.

“And you’ve met the Champ,” my friend added.

Ali had stayed seated and turned his shoulders toward me, just getting his head around enough to see his face.

It was a bit surreal seeing Ali this close. He was one of my boyhood heroes and I’d read everything I could about him. But as he turned, he was so familiar it was as if I was running into somebody I’d known for years. The cut of his hair, his smooth features, the color of his skin all were exactly as I had always thought.

“Hey,” he said quietly as we shook hands. It wasn’t much of a handshake, but as I’ve learned over the years, boxers and football players don’t always have much of a handshake. It usually hurts too much. Nonetheless I stood there and stammered out a sentence trying to do my job.

“Champ, I’m Sam Kouvaris from Channel 2 here in town and I’ll be over there in the doorway so when you’re done if you would just stop on your way out and answer a couple of questions I’d really appreciate it.”

Ali eyed me for maybe a second or two and turned completely in his chair to face me before he said, “Have you eaten?”

I was so confused by his question that it barely even registered in my head. So I went back at it.

“No, but I’ll be over there by the door and if you . . .” which is when he cut me off by repeating. “Have you eaten?”

That’s a pretty simple question so this time I just said, “No sir.” Which is when he pulled out the chair next to his and said, “Sit down.”

It was my first lesson in dealing with wealthy and/or famous people that has served me well. When they make some kind of offer with a declarative statement, just do it. Like, “Get in my plane,” or “Take my car” or even at times, “Let me get the check,” just follow their lead and it usually leads to very interesting experiences.

So I sat down. Of course I knew the restaurant wasn’t open but Ali called the waiter over and said, “Sam wants to eat.” The waiter was eager to please so when he asked me what I might want (without the benefit of a menu) I ordered an omelet and some coffee.

Over the next hour or so, I sat at the table with the retired heavyweight champion of the world, one of my idols, drinking coffee, having breakfast and talking about everything you can think of: Religion, politics, women, sports, friendship, loyalty and just about everything else. Ali was disarming, fun, playful, serious and easy to talk to.

When it was time to go, we stood up and faced each other, I supposed to shake hands. Instead, Ali stepped back and flicked two left jabs within a half-inch of my nose. I reacted by raising my fists to protect myself and striking my version of a “boxers pose.” With that, Ali dropped his hands and said, “I’m not fighting you,” as seriously as you can imagine.

I relaxed and said, “Why not?”
“You’ve boxed,” the champ responded.
“Sure,” I replied.

He laughed and mimicked my pose saying, “Nobody puts their hands up like that and turns sideways to give nothing to hit when they haven’t boxed.”

With that we did shake hands, did the interview, and snapped one photo. As he left, he patted me on the back in an approving way I’ve never forgotten and walked out, never looking back.

(As an addendum to the story, Ali was in town to testify at a trial for Reggie as a character witness. Reggie had run afoul of the law on a drug charge and Ali had taken the red eye in for a court appearance that day. Reggie still went to jail, Ali said he wanted to be there because he and Reggie were friends.

In case you’re wondering, I’m 23 in this picture, Ali is 37)

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Mike Mularkey & Co. Winners? TBD

In the Jaguars locker room today, I talked with Mel Tucker and Mike Mularkey about the whole hiring process and how Mularkey convinced Tucker to stay.

“Actually it wasn’t,” Mike said when I asked him if it was a tough sell to keep Tucker as his Defensive Coordinator. “Mel and I are a lot alike. Sometimes you just need to sit down one-on-one.”

That’s encouraging because Tucker is a very solid coach and perhaps even a better guy. If he’s staying, it’s for the right reasons. If he says Mularkey is a good coach, you can believe that in that fraternity of coaches, Mularkey is well respected. Right now it’s a love fest but Mularkey demonstrated his respect for Tucker by giving him the additional title of Assistant Head Coach.

“I didn’t do that lightly,” he explained. “I’ll consult with Mel on a lot of things. I’ve told him things this morning I wouldn’t have told other assistants.”

Tucker will pick the defensive staff and said Joe Cullen and Mark Duffner have already agreed to stay. Mel stayed because “this is where I’m supposed to be” and added “Mike and I are on the same page.”

“Sometimes when guys don’t have exotic looks on defense and they just lineup and say ‘here we are'” Mularkey explained when asked how an offensive coach picks a defensive coordinator with a certain philosophy. “That can be more troubling for an offensive guy than anything else. Mel’s done that and the players respond to that by playing with a lot of confidence.”

Mularkey said Bob Bratkowski, the new offensive coordinator, is literally driving from Atlanta to Jacksonville today (Friday).

“One of us was going to be the Offensive Coordinator in Pittsburgh and the other was going to be the same in Cincinnati,” Mularkey said when asked about his history with Bratkowski. “I stayed with the Steelers and he had a nice 10-year run with the Bengals. At one point we shared a small office together so I know him well.”

I can see why Mularkey interviews well and why Gene Smith and Shad Khan were impressed. He’s very clear-minded, friendly, and direct. He smiles, is pleasant and is confident all at the same time.

Sometimes the questions asked of the head coach in press conference situations can be pretty pointed and occasionally hostile. So far, Mularkey has an understanding of how to answer those questions, being honest but not revealing information he needs to keep to himself.

He welcomed the Jaguars employees today by hosting a pizza lunch at the stadium. “I just wanted to let everybody know I’m here to help,” the Jaguars new head coach explained. “Tickets, charity, whatever, I want them to know my door is open and they can come talk to me.”

He even joked that he’s trying to learn everybody’s name. “Two a week,” he chuckled. That’s a pretty good departure from Del Rio and even Tom Coughlin. Both had their own style but neither had the “approachability” that Mularkey displays.

“There’s a little extra pep in everybody step here in the building,” one employee told me.

Mularkey hopes to build his staff quickly but said he doesn’t have a timeline. He added it’d be nice to have them together by the Senior Bowl (practice starts January 23 in Mobile) but he said he wouldn’t rush it.

He will hire a quarterbacks coach and mentioned it might be somebody with offensive coordinator experience. He didn’t mention names but he obviously has somebody in mind.

Nobody’s going to rush out and buy tickets or get excited because of a bunch of football coaches but Mel Tucker said it’s pretty satisfying to be on a staff where everybody has the same goal.

“These guys are professionals and good coaches,” he said today. “When everybody has the same goals, you can achieve great things.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

In the Near Future: Jacksonville Jaguars, Super Bowl Champions

The Jaguars will win the Super Bowl.

That’s right, they’re going to win it. I don’t know when and I don’t know if it’ll be under the new head coach, but they’re going to win the Super Bowl. Shad Khan won’t accept anything less. Getting to the playoffs will be the first step. Winning in the post-season, the second. Playing in the big game the third and finally winning it will be the goal achieved.

How can I say that?

Because Khan is going to make it happen.

Wayne Weaver obviously tried. He spent money and twice the Jaguars were close to playing on Super Bowl Sunday. But even by his own admission, Weaver knew what he didn’t know and was a little too patient with making personnel changes that could have produced more wins and maybe even a championship season.

Khan doesn’t have any of the encumbrances that Weaver faced. If he needs to make a change, he will and he’ll do it without looking back. While I’ve said he’s a thoughtful, patient and measured businessman (and appears that personally as well) he will take action when necessary.

Weaver said his biggest regret was firing Tom Coughlin when he did. Coughlin didn’t appear to be ready to relinquish the personnel, GM part of the job as he did later in the New York. I don’t know if Weaver asked him, but that might have been the best move at the time. Coughlin has had multiple playoff wins and a Super Bowl Championship since then. Weaver also said he was a bit “too patient” with some of the people working for him making the football decisions. Wayne was respectful of his “football people” to a fault. In retrospect he hung with James “Shack” Harris and Jack Del Rio too long. He gave David Garrard a new deal when he didn’t deserve it.

But that’s all in the past.

Shad Khan won’t be a patient but he won’t fly off the handle either. “You know, fans want to shoot first and ask questions later,” he said last week when talking about a new head coach and Gene Smith’s future. Khan wants to be proactive but do the right thing. “Paralysis by analysis,” is something he said won’t happen.

Smith is working on kind of an “audition phase” of his tenure with the Jaguars. That sounds crazy after a career of working with the same team from the bottom up but with a three-year extension on his contract, Smith has a chance to show Khan what he’s all about.

So far, Khan has been very complimentary of Smith’s knowledge of the league and what needs to be done when it comes to hiring a head coach. You could say Gene has “institutional knowledge” when it comes to the NFL. “I’ll always be a scout at heart,” Gene has told me several times. But he’s going to have to be much more than that to be Shad Khan’s General Manager. Khan wants leadership, decision-making and results.

Smith has a tepid track record so far as the sole personnel decision maker for the Jaguars. His first round picks, Tyson Alualu and Eugene Monroe have been solid but not great based on their draft position. Nobody knows about Blaine Gabbert although he certainly has the physical tools to be an NFL quarterback. Clearly that’s what Smith saw in him and is, by necessity, his biggest fan. If Gabbert isn’t a “franchise quarterback” Smith’s tenure with the Jaguars under Khan could be short.

His role in picking the new head coach will also go a long way in determining his future with the Jaguars. Last time he recommended Mike McCarthy. Weaver hired Jack Del Rio. Jack’s out of a job, McCarthy has arguably the best team in the league and already one of those “gaudy rings” as Wayne described it on his finger.

But the Jaguars are going to win a Super Bowl. And they’ll do it in Jacksonville. Khan’s a big thinker with big ideas he can make happen. So when things start rolling, look at the guy at the top. He’ll be the one with the big smile under that moustache.