Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Chasing Greatness: The Right Way

It’s easy to admire greatness. I’ve always been fascinated by sports dynasties. Some might find it boring to see the same team win year after year. On the other hand, I marvel and admire and what it took that group and their leaders to get there and stay there for an extended period of time. With that as a premise, I admit I admire doing it what I consider the right way part of the equation. Not to be a namedropper, but a discussion with the actor Russell Crowe solidified this thought in my mind that there was a right way to play, win and conduct yourself in sports. Crowe was the owner of the South Sydney Rabittohs when he brought them to Jacksonville to face Leeds in a “friendly” rugby match. After his press conference, I had a chance to chat with him about why he owned this particular club.

“They play the right way,” he said. “They live in the community. They support the neighborhood. Their play is a reflection of where they come from: Smart, tough, fair-minded. They just play the game the right way.”

I was struck by those comments as they applied to my own vision of sports, shaped by growing up in Baltimore. The Orioles played baseball the right way. They hustled. They moved the runner over. They hit the cutoff man. In fact, it was well known in baseball circles as The Oriole Way. And there’s a book with that title.

Over the years I’ve tried to study winning and leadership and dissect it, looking for similarities, or differences. In professional football team health is the first thread that runs though winners. With only a few outliers like Earl Morrall or Jeff Hostetler, teams that win consistently have healthy, productive starting quarterbacks with the rest of the team staying healthy around them. They also have a thread that runs through the team that is hard to quantify. The players come in all shapes and sizes, from different backgrounds but they all have this similar part of their personality that binds them together as a team. They want to win, they’re selfless and willing to reflect on themselves to try and get better. Although they haven’t won anything yet, the Jaguars show all signs of this kind of team. From rookie free agents to high draft picks who were stars in college, they all buy into the humility, self-inspection and work to get better tenants that Head Coach Gus Bradley preaches. The Packers of the 60’s, the 49ers and Redskins of the 80’s and 90’s and most recently the Patriots were that kind of teams.

And look at their leaders: Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs and Bill Belichick. All took teams with a few stars and mostly solid players and built them into sustainable winners. Tom Coughlin has come close with the Giants. Tony Dungy the same with the Colts and now John Fox in Denver is near, but doesn’t look like he’ll get there.

There’s no denying star players impact on a team. The 1966 Orioles were very similar to the 1965 Orioles except they added Frank Robinson and won the World Series, beating the Dodgers 4 games to none. Peyton Manning has made every team he’s been on an instant contender. Sam Huff once said of the 1959 rematch of the Colts and the Giants for the NFL Championship after the “Greatest Game Ever Played,” (The Colts won again) “They had Unitas, we didn’t.”

LeBron James going to Miami made them an instant favorite to win the NBA Championship and they did. Not just with him, but with Wade, Bosh and several other solid players. Going to the Heat, James looked like a carpetbagger, chasing a championship but not doing it the right way. His move to Cleveland will be a very different scenario. Obviously teams have the option to try and get whatever top players they can, and the Cavaliers know they need some talent around LeBron that’s not there yet if they want to contend. Building a team, working his way back to the Finals and a potential NBA Championship will only bolster James’ legacy. Had he gone anywhere else to a “stacked” team, he’d been forever considered just a hired gun. Now, going home, James has a chance to quiet the naysayers and try to win a title for Cleveland.

Sounds weird doesn’t it? Title and Cleveland in the same sentence?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Team USA Brings Us Together: Again

No matter where you went, its all people could talk about. The US team had played well enough to advance into the knock round of the tournament but were still underdogs. A young team, they had a coach who was positive, challenged them, and made them believe in themselves.

Sound familiar?

While that’s been the case recently with the US Men’s National Soccer Team, the scenario I’m talking about was 34 years ago when the US Hockey team went on a run in the Olympics and eventually won the Gold Medal.

I was working at the ABC Network affiliate in Charleston, S.C. at the time, new to the business and as excited as a sports fan as anybody that the hockey team had surpassed all expectations and was going to face the Soviet Union in the semi-finals in Lake Placid. All anybody could talk about was the upcoming match up (it was at the height of the Cold War) and as the ABC affiliate; we were on display since at the time ABC was the Olympic Network. Before cable and satellite were part of the everyday television reality, before cell phones and smart phones were in everybody’s hand, it was us vs. the Soviets and it was going to be televised on our station.

On tape.

Before negotiating with Olympic officials about the timing of the events and the importance of television to the whole Olympic movement, the IOC decided when the events would be contested at their leisure. So the US/Soviet Union semifinal hockey match, the biggest thing going, the only thing anybody was talking about, was scheduled for four o’clock in the afternoon.

With no other outlet to show the game live, ABC decided they’d run the game on tape and show it in “prime time” starting at 7pm on the East Coast. As I mentioned, it was before cable and cell phones so you could still play that game of not knowing what happened in the game, and turn your television on at 7pm and watch it “plausibly live.”

And a lot of people did that.

To accommodate them, I did all kinds of silly things on the air when we had the Olympics (and continued that tradition at Channel 4 when CBS picked up some of the Olympic games). I held up signs, told people to turn the sound down, skirted around the issue and generally had fun with it. But on that night with a big audience watching, I was in a bit of a dilemma. I don’t remember if the game was over by the time I went on the 6 o’clock news but I do remember telling people I wouldn’t reveal the score or anything about the game during the sportscast. That decision had it’s detractors, and I answered the phone starting at 6:30, telling people what they wanted to know since I had kept it out of the 6 o’clock news. (Remember, no internet, radio played music, no way to get the information unless you knew somebody at a news outlet. I know, seems like a hundred years ago.) I was the viewer’s conduit to the information of the day and some didn’t like that I had shirked my “responsibility.”

So I spent the next half-hour telling people we had won and explaining that it was a station-wide decision to not tell the score (we didn’t say anything during the newscast either) and that the News Director and the General Manager were part of that decision-making process.

You might know that network affiliates take advantage of their affiliation in many ways, but a “promo” or a “tease” at the top of the hour, right before one of your favorite network shows, is a big opportunity for an affiliate to promote their own product. You see this a lot in the evening with the local anchors promoting the station’s coverage of the news that night. At the time, we were only doing a 6 and 11 o’clock newscast so those three-second spots at the top of the hour were valuable in promoting our late news. So after all of this elaborate planning and shenanigans, the game broadcast was finally scheduled to begin at 7 o’clock. But at 6:59:57 we had a 3 second tease, taped in advance right after the 6 o’clock news, promoting our 11 o’clock broadcast, right after the Olympics.

At that moment, I looked at our monitor in the newsroom ready to watch the game myself (there was no feed of the game anywhere while it was going on) and our 11 o’clock anchor, a young woman who went on to some success in her career after Charleston, smiled, looked right into the camera and said, “Big win for the Americans. Highlights at 11!”

It sounds quaint, but people had set up their whole day around knowing this was going to be broadcast “plausibly live.” They rushed home from work, rushed through dinner and sat down in front of their televisions ready to watch the “big game.” And at that moment their bubble was burst. And they were mad. So what did they do, they called the television station. And since it was a “sports” story, the News Director designated me to answer the phones and explain what happened. While I’m not a big fan of being out of touch with what’s going on around you, I still probably was a bit harsh on the phone myself. I was also mad. And I knew I’d be taking the brunt of this “miscue” for a while.

So for the next half hour or so I answered the phone explaining what happened and ended each conversation with “The game’s on right now, don’t you want to watch it?”

Not since then have I seen this kind of excitement surrounding a team wearing “USA” on their chest. Yes, the women’s soccer team caused a stir in 1999 winning the women’s World Cup but nothing like this.

Watch parties, appointment television, interest from people who couldn’t care less about soccer or sports in general is an indication of the shrinking world and the expanding knowledge available when it comes to information.

Soccer was generally a fringe sport, and some even thought of it as “un-American.” In 1994 when we hosted the World Cup, I couldn’t get my News Director to even let me drive to Orlando to cover some games. Her answer: “Nobody cares.” What a difference this time around, and for a lot of reasons. The global information age we live in has brought the game closer. NBC Sports Network televises the English Premiere League every weekend in season. Stars like David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo transcend the sport. ESPN covers the MLS with highlights during Sports Center. The decision makers in newsrooms around America are familiar with the game, many of them having played it as kids. And the reporters are in the same group. Guys like Dan Jenkins and Jim Murray, influential sports writers of the 60’s 70’s and 80’s didn’t have that much interest in the game other than it was “foreign.” Now, sports reporters are familiar with the game, for many having played as kids and followed it along the way.

I played the game as a kid, mainly because they wouldn’t let me play football. Too big for my age group and my parents didn’t want me to “play up” with the older kids. I played on a church team, a club team and played a lot of pick up games. My interest in the game only grew when I was the voice of the Jacksonville Tea Men in the NASL doing television play by play on channel 4 when we broadcast the games. I spent many nights listening to Noel Cantwell, Dennis Viollet and Arthur Smith explain the ins and outs and nuance of the game. And I stayed close to it through my own children’s careers, as they all played, culminating with my son’s captaincy of his high school team as a senior.

So in other words, I really like the game. And I’m glad so many people are coming to the game and I don’t care if it’s only because a team with USA is playing.

Good for you.

Good for us.