Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars Top 20 Impactful Rookies

In our continuing look at the last 20 years of the Jaguars in town, this week in honor of Blake Bortles first start, as a rookie, we’re looking at the Top 20 Impact Rookies in Jaguars history. This list actually comes in three parts: The top few are players who were strong as rookies and continued their career as standouts for the Jaguars. The middle is players who had solid if unspectacular careers in Jacksonville but were in the lineup from Day One. And the third group is guys who were in the lineup as rookies and never fulfilled the promise they showed in their first year or just never made it here or anywhere else.

Our top rookie could be debated for the brevity of his career but Tony Boselli is number one on our list. He missed the first two games of his rookie season, and didn’t start in game three but once he got in the lineup, he was a stalwart and dominant from his left tackle position. I mentioned to Tony on our pregame show last week that he “was the best offensive lineman for five years of his career,” to which he responded (playfully I hope), “What, my first year doesn’t count.” Boselli was not only the best player at his position; he was the best player on the Jaguars and the best offensive lineman in the game. On his way to a Hall of Fame career, only injury cut that path short, starting with his rookie year. That’s why he’s our #1.

In our second spot, Fred Taylor easily fits the description of a rookie who was in the lineup and fulfilled most of the promise he showed during his first year in the NFL. Taylor started 12 games, had more than 1,600 total yards and scored 17 TD’s as a rookie.

Third on the list is Blake Bortles. How can Bortles be on the list when he’s only played 30 minutes of football for the Jaguars? Because he’s given hope to a franchise that’s been downtrodden for nearly a decade. He has an “it” factor that hasn’t been seen around here in a while. Bortles has created a buzz unlike any for a rookie in recent memory. He might do nothing. He might go to the Hall of Fame. But right here, right now as a rookie, he’s on the list.

Fourth on the list is the player who I think should be next in the Pride of the Jaguars, Brad Meester. Meester started at guard as a rookie and never left the lineup. He’s the guy who it seemed every year the Jaguars were talking about replacing, but never could. Too valuable, too talented, too smart, too durable. Meester makes the list and should be on the wall of the stadium soon.

Fifth and sixth are kickers, Mike Hollis and Josh Scobee. There’s a thought in the NFL that your kicker should be good enough to neutralize the opposing kicker and clutch enough to win the game for you at the end. Hollis and Scobee fit that description and more and have done that since their rookie seasons. The both started as rookies, kept the job, excelled and have had long careers in Jaguars uniforms.

Rashean Mathis is 7th on our list. He came in as a 2nd round pick out of BCC, started immediately and you knew you could pencil his name in there every week. That’s why Derek Cox is 8th. Same thing. Started as a rookie, never had to worry about him, although his career here was shorter than expected.

We liked James Stewart in the 9th spot. As a rookie in 1995, Stewart was the back Coach Tom Coughlin was looking for when it came to running, catching and durability. Stewart perhaps never got the credit he deserved from Jacksonville fans, but was certainly an impact rookie.

In the 10th position we have Marcus Stroud. Played and started as a rookie, had most of his best years in Jacksonville and has an easy position on this list. Same with John Henderson at eleven. Rookie impact, solid career, Henderson and Stroud will always be linked in their Jaguars history.

You could easily make an argument that Daryl Smith should be higher than 12th on this list and you probably could convince us. Smith came in as a rookie and started and stayed there. Still the most underrated player in Jaguars history.

Thirteenth is Vince Manuai. Drafted out of the University of Hawaii to be plugged into the starting lineup, he didn’t disappoint. Manuai started as a rookie and held his position in a fashion that never gave the coaches any worry.

Fourteen is Eugene Monroe. Drafted as the starting left tackle, he stepped in there and developed into the Jaguars best player in some lean years. He might have his best years in Baltimore, that’s why he’s in our second ten.

And this is where it starts to get a little strange. Fifteen is Kevin Hardy. Second player picked overall, he had impact as a rookie but never fulfilled the promise of his talent. For whatever reason, he never got there. Sixteen and 17 are two guys who were drafted to be plugged into the lineup as starters and did just that as rookies, and struggled the rest of the way. Brian DeMarco was supposed to be the other bookend to Tony Boselli but despite all of his starts as a rookie, he never played any better. And Eben Britton was supposed to be the bookend to Eugene Monroe, but injuries and whatever ended his stay in Jacksonville early.

Eighteen is Renaldo Wynn. A first round pick, Wynn had a solid if unspectacular career in Jacksonville. A starter as a rookie, he continued his career in Washington in the same fashion.

Byron Leftwich is nineteenth on our list. Thrust into the starting lineup as a rookie, he looked the part of a long-term solution at QB. But he never developed into the player they were hoping for, but certainly had an impact.

And 20th, is Terrance Knighton. A starter as a rookie, he could have easily played his whole career in Jacksonville but coaching changes and a change in scheme have put him in Denver.

There’s a whole other list of guys who were “impactful” as rookies but had virtually no career here in town. Rob Johnson didn’t play much as a rookie but turned into Fred Taylor when the Jaguars traded for him. Reggie Williams, Matt Jones, Reggie Nelson, Derrick Harvey, Quinton Groves and Justin Blackmon qualify as impactful rookies who’s career’s never went anywhere in Jacksonville.

Blaine Gabbert could have been anywhere on the list as an “impactful” player since the team pinned their hopes on him and he flamed out. So in terms of negative impact, he might be number one.

Here are other rookies who played, had an impact, but didn’t make the top 20:

  • Pete Mitchell
  • Willie Jackson
  • Bryan Schwartz
  • Aaron Beasley
  • Donovin Darius
  • Fernando Bryant
  • Micah Ross (the first JU player on the Jaguars roster)
  • Mike Pearson and
  • Tyson Alualu

And who knows where these guys might end up but all have contributed as rookies.

  • Jonathan Cyprien
  • Luke Joeckel
  • Denard Robinson
  • Ace Sanders
  • Luke Bowanko
  • Allen Hurns
  • Brandon Linder
  • Allen Robinson

Did we miss somebody? Let us know your thoughts on twitter with the hashtag #jagstop20 or @sports4jax.

We’ll reveal your thoughts on Jaguars Friday Night at 11:20.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars/Colts Preview: Race to Maturity Needs to be Fast

No doubt it was a tough week for Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley. After being overwhelmed in Washington, Bradley’s charge was to “fix it” and fix it fast. After giving up 10 sacks, the offensive line was the first place to look. So after looking at video of the game, Bradley announced some changes on the line among the starters and cut Cameron Bradfield, the player who started at right tackle just two days prior.

“It’s hard,” Bradley said this week of making those changes. “Guys come in here, work hard, do what you ask and then things change and you have to do something so yeah, it’s hard. But everybody understands it’s the NFL and we’ll move forward.” It is a harsh reality sometimes that the league is built on performance and if that disappears, so does a playe’rs spot on the team. Bradfield had been a good swing guy for the Jaguars, playing in several spots. But he was obviously beaten on some of those 10 sacks and based on the “accountability” mantra espoused by Bradley; somebody had to be held accountable.

That leaves Sam Young at right tackle, Brandon Linder at right guard, Luke Bowanko at center, Zane Beadles at left guard and Luke Joeckel at left tackle. They have differing amounts of experience but pretty much any way you cut it, the Jaguars are starting four rookies up front.

So where does that put the team in Bradley’s goal of a “Race to Maturity? Agreed, these players have talent and as the head coach has said a couple of times this week, the “look the part.” And they do. At about 6’5″ and 320 at each position, when they stand there, they look the part. But playing the part is a different story. Perhaps if you’re going to have growing pains, why not have them all together. Bradley agreed that there’s a way to look at these guys progressing as a positive.

“They all want to get there fast, and maybe doing it together will create some camaraderie,” the head coach noted when asked if they could all get to maturity together.

Getting their offensive line to play solid and consistent football is a priority for the Jaguars because for what they want to do on offense, without and offensive line doing their job, they can’t get anything done.

Throw the inexperience at wide receiver in the mix and you don’t have much of a chance for production on offense. With Cecil Shorts nursing a hamstring, the team has relied on mostly rookies and second year Mike Brown as the receiving corps. Shorts might return this week and Alan Hurns is also listed as probable. Marquis Lee has already been declared out. So again, not much experience at wide receiver could hurt the passing game performance. Subtract Marcedes Lewis from the equation because of the high ankle sprain, and the who offense remains in question.

So for all of the problems they’ve had in the last six quarters, quarterback Chad Henne has performed as well, if not better than expected. Although he took responsibility for a couple of sacks last week, the pressure Henne has been under has been daunting. Nonetheless, he’s stood in there and for the most part, thrown the ball to the open receiver. He’s had numerous drops, and wrong routes run by receivers but he hasn’t complained, despite the pounding.

Calls to put Blake Bortles in the game are premature, considering the state of disarray the rest of the offense is currently in. Getting something consistent and something you can lean on will allow the coaches to put Bortles in the game to start the process toward what they hope is consistent winning.

“When it’s time to put Blake in the game, you’ll know it,” I said to Bradley during the taping of his show.

“That’s right,” he said, confident that he’ll recognize the right situation.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars Lose Game, Ground

If you look at the play sheet from an NFL game, you can pretty easily pick out where the game changes. Usually somewhere in the first half there’s a missed opportunity and somewhere in the second half one team makes a critical play to either stop a drive or keep one going. For the Jaguars you have to go back to their first possession on offense against Washington to see where things changed, immediately. On 2nd and 10 from their own 24, Chad Henne pumped, rolled to his right and saw Alan Hurns running down the sideline, right past the man who was covering him. Hurns was 5 yards in the clear when Henne hit him in stride for a sure 76-yard TD and a 7-0 lead on the road.

Except Hurns dropped the ball.

That lead to a sack, a punt, a momentum shift and zero yards gained in the first quarter. With nothing going on for the offense, the defense was worn out quickly and it was 21-0 Washington before you knew it.

And this was without Robert Griffin III who left in the first quarter with an ankle injury and DeSean Jackson who also left with a shoulder problem.

I didn’t think these kinds of games were still in the Jaguars repertoire. Historically bad, double-digit losses were supposed to be a thing of the past.

A nice throw and catch and a run down the sideline put the Jaguars on the scoreboard 21-7. It was the longest gain of Lewis’ career. But with only 5 first downs through nearly three full quarters, something was amiss on offense. The offensive line was overwhelmed in nearly every situation. No holes open for the run game, and when Henne went to pass, he was under pressure and swamped consistently. Add in a couple of Mike Brown drops and the lack of production isn’t surprising. To succeed, everything has to be “precise” according to Gus Bradley. Without that kind of precision up front on the offensive line, everybody else has to be perfect. And they’re not.

In the 4th quarter we saw Luke Bowanko at center and Sam Young at right tackle. Perhaps that’s the combination the Jaguars need now to have five guys who can just grow together.

“Disappointed rather than embarrassed,” Gus Bradley said after the game. ”

“Disappointed because I know we can make those plays. We just didn’t,” Chad Henne said in his post-game press conference.

Without a running game, Henne was sacked repeatedly.

“You start to know you don’t have much time so we tried to go to the short game and they had that covered. We wanted to throw the ball downfield but didn’t have time for that,” he added.

They didn’t have the kind of improvement you would like to see from week one to week two. “We talk about getting better, we didn’t do that this week,” Bradley explained. “We’ll have to. It’s a race we’re in a race to maturity and we’ve got to get going.”

Marcedes Lewis has a high ankle sprain and was wearing a boot on his left foot as he left the stadium. The Jaguars said Alan Hurns was being “evaluated” after he suffered an injury to his left leg on the second to the last play of the game. His didn’t look good and if Hurns is injured, an already depleted wide receiver corps will need help.

Next week is the first home game of the year for the Jaguars. Indianapolis is the opponent at 1 o’clock.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars Top 20 ‘Moments

It’s up for debate what the “Top 20 Moments” are in the 20 years the Jaguars have played in the NFL. And actually, some of the moments were before they started playing football at all. There might be even a debate about what the number one moment in team history could be, but we picked the announcement of a team as our number one. After 14 years of pursuing the NFL through “Colt Fever” and the USFL, when NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said the name “Jacksonville” as the next franchise in the league, it’s as if time stopped for a second or so and the city would never be the same.

Second on our list is the return trip from Denver after beating the Broncos in the Divisional Playoff game in 1996, 30-27 despite being heavy underdogs. At Channel 4 we stayed on the air continuously after the game up until the team returned to Jacksonville. Perhaps because we were on the air and a lot of people were excited and watching, fans spontaneously flocked to the stadium, looking for a communal place to celebrate. City leaders didn’t know what to do, but did the right thing by mobilizing some staff and security and getting the cooperation of the JSO, opened the stadium and turned the lights on. No concessions, no game, just a place to high-five fellow revelers. It must have been some scene from the team charter when they flew over the stadium and rocked their wings in acknowledgement. Fans wouldn’t give up and the team buses brought the players to the stadium for a victory lap around the field. This is a pretty good candidate for the top spot on this list and I could probably be convinced either way.

Without the win in Denver the celebration wouldn’t have happened so the game vs. the Broncos is our third choice. A famous writer in the Denver press box heckled me before the game asking what we were doing there since we were “a USFL team anyway.” I ignored him then (as I do now although he’s risen to unexplained national prominence) but did say after the game walking out of the locker room, “USFL in the Conference Championship game, NFL staying home.” I guess it’s no wonder he hasn’t spoken to me since! (Which is OK) I remember standing on a rooftop in Denver doing live television in about 12 degrees for 4 hours. Our field producer happened to be my boss at the time (he had lived in Denver) and told me to “come inside and warm up.” I was so into it I just said,, “Really? Our team just beat the Broncos and is going to the AFC Title game and I’m coming inside because I’m cold? No!” We both got a laugh out of that in the subsequent years.

I guess most of these “moments” get onto the list because if you’ve followed the Jaguars; you know right where you were when they happened. That’s why Morten Anderson missing the field goal that put the Jaguars in the playoffs in the first place in 1996 occupies the 4th spot. I’ve had so many people over the years say, “I was standing in my seat,” or “I was crossing my fingers screaming from the upper deck,” when they talk about the win over the Falcons here at home. I was part of the “I can’t watch” segment. It’s the only time I’ve ever done that, but I couldn’t bear to watch the dream go away in an instant. That’s why I turned my back on it and stood next to my friend and colleague Todd on the sidelines when Anderson lined up for the chip shot to win it. I remember Todd saying very calmly (the first time) “He missed it.” I was like, “What?!” And then he screamed, “He missed it, he missed it” and jumped up and down with the rest of the people in the stadium.

People still talk about Tony Boselli waving Jason Taylor downfield as the Jaguars beat the Dolphins on national television. It was one of the validations of the teams of the ’90’s. It’s in the top five. In our sixth spot, the playoff win over the Dolphins was such a demolition that the game seemed to be over just when it started. Some think it might be the best home win in franchise history. It ended the careers of both Dan Marino and Jimmy Johnson.

In defining a “moment” it’s a pretty nebulous term ,but for this list it’s the times you have seared in your memory of Jaguars history. Driving to the stadium for the first game in 1995 is a memory most people who lived here then will remember whether they were Jaguars fans or not. An NFL game in our city with our team? It’s seemed impossible but there it was, Jaguars vs. Oilers right next to the Green Bay, New England and Pittsburgh scores. It made it real. Mark Brunell’s run against Denver in the win there makes the list at number 8 because it might have been the first time most fans thought, “Hey, this team is hot and pretty good. They might be able to pull this off!”

A few weeks into the inaugural season, the Jaguars win against the Oilers in Houston makes the list as a milestone and a relief that the team wouldn’t go winless in their expansion season. An unproven coach coming out of college with a bunch of expansion castoffs was a complete unknown.

Going to Pittsburgh and beating the Steelers in 2007 was made possible by an improbable run by QB David Garrard. Steeler fans to this day scream “What about the holding” when you bring that play up. That certainly makes it memorable at number ten. Eleventh was hotly debated but the way Josh Scobee ran around the field with his helmet in the air after beating the Colts with a 59 yard field goal in 2010 qualifies. Maybe because the Colts were the Jaguars nemesis at the time, but we thought it belonged here. And ditto for Fred Taylor’s run against the Dolphins to open the scoring. Never really given his due while he was playing, Taylor showed the speed and power that very few backs have for a moment many Jaguars, and Dolphins fans won’t forget.

We put the Jack Del Rio firing and the Wayne Weaver selling the team as one entry, 13th on the list. Weaver had kept his intention to sell the team so quiet that when he fired Del Rio, he didn’t even tell Jack when he sent him home. It wasn’t a surprise that Del Rio was shown the door but in retrospect, firing Jack before he got here was probably one of Shad Khan’s “asks” when the deal was getting done. (Or maybe Weaver just wanted the pleasure of doing it.) It also solidified Jacksonville as the Jaguars home. Despite the constant drumbeat regarding the team moving to LA, the sale to Shad Khan was Weaver’s parting gift to the city. He acknowledged that he had spurned offers from “groups in California” instead opting for Khan and his commitment to keep the team in town. So far, Khan hasn’t done anything to make anybody think to the contrary.

In fact, 14th on the list is one of those wild things that Khan thinks up and then makes happen: World’s largest video boards. New technology, new look, when they were unveiled in July of 2014 it was hard not to be impressed. More than 53,000 showed up in a scene reminiscent of the “old days” where people just liked coming to the stadium to be together. A nice soccer match, a concert and the unveiling were all nice but “being there” was the thing that counted.

Our 15th selection happened on the road, or it might have been higher. Fred Taylor ran all over the Steelers for 275 yards at Three Rivers, the most for an opponent all-time vs. Pittsburgh. At the time, the Jaguars were in the AFC Central and Tom Coughlin had used the Steelers as the gold standard when building his team. Manhandling the vaunted Steeler defense by running it right at them put the Jaguars on the map as a tough, physical team.

Sixteenth is a little obscure and wasn’t seen by many people but everybody who was there says the same thing: “That was really cool.” When Aaron Ross signed with the Jaguars he was the second best athlete in his household. His wife, Sonja Richards Ross was an Olympian and the favorite in the 200 meters in London. Head Coach Mike Mularkey arranged for her race to be shown live on the screens in the stadium and surprised his team with a shortened practice and a walk onto the field to watch. Richards Ross lost the lead in the middle of the race but finished strong to win the gold. Perhaps the best outcome any football coach could have asked for to show his team how to get the job done. Mularkey never got that chance, unlucky again as the Head Coach in the wrong situation. Very cool moment though.

Three plays make the 17-19 spots on the list. Mike Thomas’ catch of the Hail Mary for a TD is still talked about, perhaps mainly because it’s so improbable it generally never happens. If you were at that New Orleans game here and remember it being cold and dank, the lateral filled TD they scored in the games waning moments certainly woke up the crowd. And when John Kearney (who later kicked for the Jaguars) missed the PAT, it was a stunning, head-scratching moment for everybody who was there. And in the Jaguars first appearance on Monday Night Football, it seemed as if the stadium was the center of the universe that night against the rival Steelers. Chris Hudson’s return of a blocked kick for a TD sealed the victory for the Jaguars, but Bill Cowher’s half-step onto the field and the moment you thought he might actually punch Hudson is something considerably memorable.

Tagging on the 20th most memorable moment was debatable between several candidates. Chris Hanson hitting his own leg with an axe in the middle of the locker room while “chopping wood” made the list maybe because it’s so preposterous. When Del Rio put that piece of wood in there to symbolize his whole silly “keep chopping wood” theme for a team that was losing, just about everybody thought it was a bad idea and a disaster waiting to happen. As a self-fulfilling prophecy and a memorable moment, it certainly qualifies.

Our honorable mention moments include the loss to the Titans in the AFC Championship game in 2000. It could have easily been anywhere after the top 4 or 5 on this list but I think it’s still too painful for the Jaguars faithful.

Here’s a look at the list.

  • 1 Getting a team – Tagliabue announcement
  • 2 Return from Denver
  • 3 Beating Denver
  • 4 Anderson Missed Kick
  • 5 Boselli waving on at Jason Taylor
  • 6 62-7 win over Dolphins
  • 7 1st game vs. Houston
  • 8 Brunell Run vs. Denver
  • 9 1st win in Houston
  • 10 Garrard run vs. Pitt
  • 11 Scobee 59 yarder vs. Colts OCT 3 2010
  • 12 Taylor 90-yard run vs. Miami
  • 13 Del Rio firing/Weaver sells team
  • 14 Video Board unveiling
  • 15 Taylor game vs. Pitt
  • 16 Sonja Richards Ross video board watch
  • 17 Mike Thomas Hail Mary
  • 18 Saints lateral and missed PAT (John Kearney)
  • 19 Cowher fake punch on Chris Hudson Sept 12 1997
  • 20 Chris Hanson Chopping wood

Honorable mention:

  • Beating Buffalo in 1996 Playoffs
  • Khan approved by NFL Owners
  • James Stewart 5 TD’s vs. Philadelphia here
  • Jimmy Smith game vs. Baltimore
  • Losing AFC Title game to Titans
Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars Fall to Eagles, Learn Lessons

As Eagles fans were just settling in their seats, the Jaguars went to work utilizing some of their off-season acquisitions to some success early in the games. Toby Gerhart carried the ball very effectively, moving the pile and getting positive yardage (although he was stopped on 3rd and 1 on the first drive) and the Jaguars defense was pretty stout against the vaunted Eagles offense. I think people were a little surprised that the Jaguars just didn’t roll over the way they seemed to last year early in games. In fact, after giving up a 3rd and long conversion, the Jaguars’ Chris Clemons sacked Nick Foles and stripped the ball. The Jaguars recovered and took advantage of the turnover with a 34-yard TD from Chad Henne to Alan Hurns to take a 7-0 lead. Again the Jaguars defense was swarming to the ball like we haven’t seen in, well forever, and forced Foles into another fumble. Henne to Hurns again from 21 yards out (and a great catch by Hurns BTW) to make it 14-0 Just over 8 minutes into the game, the boo birds were out in Philadelphia.

They were really booing when Clemons batted Foles’ arm again on third down causing an incomplete pass to give the Jaguars the ball back. This is what the team spent their money on in the off-season and at least early, it’s paying dividends. Nothing compares to pressure on the quarterback. It makes the whole defense work.

A horse collar call on the Eagles gave the Jaguars good field position for a Josh Scobee field goal to make it 17-0 but Toby Gerhardt suffered a sprained ankle on the play. That’s why the horse collar is illegal. Gerhart limped off and had his ankle re-taped.

Again, pressure on Foles, this time by Ryan Davis gave the Jaguars a sack and good field position after the punt. Mike Brown is returning punts for the Jaguars and you figure if over the 4 games before Ace Sanders comes back if they can have no turnovers and some positive yardage, it’s a win on special teams.

An interception in the end zone ended an Eagles drive. The third turnover for the Jaguars and they pushed the ball downfield. Still without a conversion on third down, the usually automatic Josh Scobee missed a 50-yard attempt and had one blocked to hold the Jaguars at 17-0. Jacques McClendon is getting his first start at center and so far he’s struggled with a couple of high snaps and one he couldn’t get off the ground. I’m sure they’re hoping he’ll grow into that spot because they can’t afford those kinds of mistakes. If not, Luke Bowanko will get a chance there.

Grinding away in the second half, the Eagles offense wasn’t gaining a lot of yards but on 4th and short, the Jaguars defense got caught a little slow getting set and Darren Sproles broke a 49 yarder for a TD to make it 17-7.

The rest of the third quarter was all Eagles. The defense fell back into the bad-tackling mode and the offense couldn’t convert on third down. That gave Philadelphia a lot of chances and they converted, tying the game at 17 with 10 minutes to play. And When Foles found Jeremy Maclin running wide open down field; the Eagles had an easy TD and a 24-17 lead.

Missed opportunities in the first half came back to haunt the Jaguars but it also seemed the Eagles made some adjustments at halftime that worked and the Jaguars couldn’t compensate. It wasn’t until midway through the 4th quarter that the Jaguars started running the ball at the line of scrimmage instead of that stretch play. It worked for a while but on 4th down they outsmarted themselves trying to hit Marcedes Lewis in the flat and turned the ball over on downs at their own 30. Muscle up and run the ball there.

A field goal made it 27-17, and a fumble by Henne was run back for a TD giving the Eagles a 34-17 lead.

Lots of flashes of a new team, too often reminders of the old one.

On to Washington next week.

The Hammer Podcast, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Hotel Domestique: (Almost) Cycling Paradise

Most of my bike trips have been like bohemian adventures: piling in a car with some friends, stops for fast food, a cooler of beer and accommodations just a step above a hostel. So looking at pictures of George Hincapie’s place “Hotel Domestique” in South Carolina was something that didn’t seem real. A luxury hotel that caters to cyclists? I didn’t think such a place existed.

“Pictures don’t do this place justice,” my friend and regular traveling cycling partner Alex said as we drove up from Greenville through Travelers Rest and into the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. “Incredible,” Phil Foreman the owner of Champion Cycling said as we rounded the corner off Highway 25 and got a glimpse of the hotel perched on a hill.

Both are right, the Hotel Domestique is something unique, different, incredible — pictures don’t do it justice. As you see the hotel for the first time it’s as if you left the States all together. Surrounded by rolling hills and sweeping vistas, you’re in Italy. Or Spain. Maybe parts of Croatia. The stone walls, the cinder paths and the architecture of the hotel itself have a distinctly European feel. With thirteen rooms, Hotel Domestique isn’t in line with most small, boutique, luxury hotels when it comes to the common spaces or the rooms. Large sitting areas, fireplaces and comfortable chairs abound inviting you to just sit, relax and enjoy. The back patio overlooks a ridge and is nicely appointed with a reflecting pool complete with fountains for a calming, ambient sound.

The rooms are spacious and well appointed. Available with a king bed or two queens, there’s a nice touch with each room named after a classic European cycling climb. The thirteen rooms cover two floors, with a unique “pantry” on each floor. Hotel guests are welcome to freshly ground coffee, red or white wine, sodas, waters and snacks. There’s even a supply of water bottle additives in multiple flavors. A nice touch.

Bike stands line either side of the front door and the entrance to the cafe as your bike waits whenever you’re ready to ride.

The cycling focus extends to ride planning with the staff drawing on their established base of rides or just mapping a ride out for you and downloading it into your Garmin. You can rent a bike if you like ($50 a day for a full carbon BMC) and it comes equipped with a Garmin with your daily ride loaded and ready to go.

We did rides over four days ranging from 30 to just over 70 miles. Two were into the Greenville Watershed, a protected park setting that involved plenty of climbing and descents with some switchbacks that rivaled just about anything short of Mt. Ventoux. Two other rides headed into the city of Greenville through farmland and neighborhoods, taking advantage of the Swamp Rabbit Trail, a Rails to Trails project that gets plenty of use on the weekends. One of the “city” rides included a trip over Paris Mountain, one of the climbs in the US Pro Championship when it was contested there.

While the riding is great and the hotel is beautiful, the crown jewel of the facility is the restaurant, 17. Named after the number of Tour de France appearances Hincape made, 17 has 164 seats, quite a lot compared to the number of guests possible in the hotel. It’s a destination for people in the Greenville/Ashville/Spartanburg area and is considered perhaps the best restaurant within the tri-city area. From the peach risotto to the fried pork rinds, the menu is varied and each dish prepared daily based on what’s locally available. Desserts are equally sumptuous. I even had a chance to spend a few minutes with George Hincape our first night there as he was dining with his family in the main dining room. True to his reputation, he couldn’t be a nicer guy and as often happens in my job, I chuckled to myself standing there speaking with him thinking he couldn’t walk down the street in Paris without being mobbed but here we were left alone to chat about non-stop flights from New York to Greenville.

While Hotel Domestique and “17” are a welcome addition to the cycling scene, they’re not perfect. Being outside of any major metropolitan area and 30 or so miles from Greenville, finding, keeping and training a staff for a new luxury hotel is a bit of a challenge.

When we arrived, we stood at the front desk for about 5 minutes while a staff member lounged on a chair and chatted on the phone. Actually I wasn’t sure he was a staff member by his conversation and body language but eventually figured it out. I know there’s a debate in that industry about nametags. But, if they don’t want to formalize the name tag process, a pin or some other kind of identifying mark would be helpful.

Speaking of helpful, I’m sure it’s somebody’s job to show guests to their room, help with luggage and explain how the hotel “works” but that person wasn’t around during our check in process. I wandered up to my room (Courchevel) dragging my luggage and found it to be very nice and spacious with a very comfortable bed. The bathroom was fabulous. Although listed as a “vineyard view” room, my view was actually more of the parking lot. Alex’s room, by comparison, had sweeping mountain views that exceeded the pictures by any measure.

One of the “promotable” items at Hotel Domestique is “iPads in every room.” The tablets are a replacement for a phone in your room, placed there to connect you to the staff for any issues you might have as well as bike schedules, restaurant reservations etc. It’s a great idea but since a) no staff member explained how it worked and b) the one in my room was dead for two days, I don’t know if it’s an idea that can be executed well or not. I waited for a staff member to recharge my iPad but when that didn’t happen, I took it to the front desk myself. (Same thing for shampoo in my shower that was never replaced)

I know these are little things and perhaps a bit nit-picky but charging luxury hotel prices ($350-$475) per night raises the level of expectation as it lightens your wallet. There’s talk of expanding the facility to include some cottages and a full bike shop. That’ll be a welcome addition. A bike-centric hotel needs somebody in the bike room 7 days a week. Alas, our last two days there we were told were “his days off.”

I’ll definitely go back and my riding buddies said the same. I’m sure the fall and the spring will be prime times for riding and rooms will be at a premium.

We’ll book in advance.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars/Eagles: It’s What’s Up Front That Counts

While the off season has been full of quarterback and giant video boards talk, the on-field product for the Jaguars this year will be tested in an unglamorous way.

Up front. Both sides.

We can talk about the future for Blake Bortles and whether Chad Henne is the right call all we want. We can debate whether the lack of a real veteran in the wide receiving corps will be exposed by opposing defenses once the regular season starts. And any discussion about the receivers can spark a debate on how the Jaguars spent their draft picks, taking Marquis Lee and Allen Robinson back to back. But any discussion about the success, or lack thereof of the 2014 Jaguars has to start with the offensive and defensive lines.

Acquiring Chris Clemons, Red Bryant, Ziggy Hood and Dekoda Watson in the off-season as free agents showed how General Manager Dave Caldwell wanted this 2014 team to perform. Too often last year, double-digit losses early in the season were because when the offense sputtered, the defense couldn’t hold. This season, Caldwell and Head Coach Gus Bradley are hoping the money spent on defensive free agents will keep the Jaguars in games. Bryant and Clemons will start on the defensive line, giving the Jaguars two veteran players who have proven track records. Bryant might be the linchpin, taking up double and triple teams, freeing Clemons, Sen’Derrick Marks and others to beat their man and make a play. At least that’s the plan.

Hood will rotate in and do the same, with the team hoping Watson will have the speed and the instincts to rush the passer when necessary. You might hear the terms “cheetah” and “lightning” thrown around a lot this year in passing situations, both denoting defensive personnel packages designed to get the maximum number of speed players on the field at one time.

The Lone free-agent acquisition on the offensive line is veteran Zane Beadles. Like the defensive newcomers, Beadles is in the prime of his career and has a proven track record. For the Jaguars, he’s the own known quantity up front. Luke Joeckel is technically a second year player and starts at the all-important left tackle spot. But with only 5 games in 2013 before he suffered a season-ending injury, you could call this rookie year 2.0 for Joeckel. He’s already good, worthy of his second overall selection. But he’s not the elite player yet the Jaguars hope he’ll be. The rest of the line is a big question mark. Most coaches admit that linemen in the NFL have a gradual growth in their development. There aren’t any giant leaps forward as there can be with the skill players. So often players are put in situations they’re hoping they’ll grow into. Such is the case of Brandon Linder at right guard. The Jaguars see great “upside” in Linder, so he’s starting right now with the team hoping he grows into the player they think he can be. But he’s not that yet. To his right, Cam Bradfield is a known quantity and a valuable stopgap player until Austin Pasztor returns. But Bradfield isn’t a superstar. And Pasztor is a project in his own right. In the middle, Jacques McClendon won the center job almost by default. Mike Brewster never could perform at the level the Jaguars had hoped he would and McClendon, a guard by trade, was plugged in until Luke Bowanko, a sixth round draft pick, can push himself into the starting lineup.

None of what Toby Gerhardt, Lee, Robinson, Marcedes Lewis or Chad Henne does can be done successfully without the five guys up front getting their job done consistently well. Same thing with Alan Ball, Dwayne Gratz, Jon Cyprien and Winston Guy. Without effective pressure up front and some kind of run stopping force from the D-Line, they’re job is almost impossible.

So watching the game against the Eagles Sunday, look at what’s happening up front. It’ll give you a clue as to what’s going to happen in the back.

And on the scoreboard.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Henne Takes Control, Jags Move Forward

From the opening series, the Jaguars were looking to get different players involved in the offense and use their up tempo look to move the ball downfield. Both were evident as Marqis Lee, Toby Gerhardt and Marcedes Lewis all had touches for considerable gains right away. The “no-huddle” started paying dividends right away, keeping the Bears base defense on the field for the first nine plays of the game, culminating in a Josh Scobee Field Goal and a 3-0 lead. While they team has worked on the stretch running play during training camp, they haven’t had much success with it and against the Bears on 3rd and 1, Gerhardt failed to gain a yard.

Starting on the offensive line, Luke Joeckel, Zane Beadles, Mike Brewster, Jacques McClendon and Austin Pasztor gave Chad Henne good protection but didn’t provide a lot of room to run. Luke Bowanko was in the game in the second series at center for a few plays before Brewster returned. Center is an area of concern for the Jaguars coaching staff and they’re looking for the right combination.

Meanwhile, Henne showed good leadership and patience, finding open receivers both down field and coming out of the backfield. He has a good command of the offense and is finding the open man better than in the past.

Getting into the Red Zone is a big emphasis for the Jaguars this year, but scoring touchdowns is also what Gus Bradley is looking for. Again, they had a false start penalty near the goal line, (Brewster failed to snap the ball on time) and settled for another Scobee field goal, 6-0.

Will Blackmon is one of those players you need around for a lot of reasons and on special teams, he continues to make an impact. A strip and a fumble recovery on the kickoff gave the Jaguars the ball back. Henne continued to answer the bell, converting a key 10-yard pass on 3rd down enroute to a short flip for a TD to Lee and a 13-0 lead. With Chad playing well, he’ll solidify his spot at the starting quarterback and quieting some of the critics. Kind of. There continues to be calls for Blake Bortles to start NOW and take his lumps but the Jaguars are pretty confident in their plan of Henne playing till they think Bortles is ready. I will say Bortles has been impressive in the preseason, if only in his demeanor and his execution of what they’re asking him to do. I like the Jaguars plan, but if Bortles has to play for some reason, it won’t be a disaster like putting Gabbert in the game was.

As the preseason progresses, it’s obvious the league is trying to subtly change how the game is played. The illegal hits and leading with your head penalties have been minimized, as the players understand that’s now illegal. This year it’s the “Illegal hands to the face” and a “crack back” block that are the points of emphasis for the officials. Flags got plenty of work calling those penalties and will continue to do so until the players figure out what’s legal and what isn’t.

Another solid performance across the board for the Jaguars. Offensive line still needs work with some decisions in the middle but overall, a better game than last week. Second straight road game against Detroit next week and the starters will probably play through three quarters. We’ll see if Bortles gets any late time with the 1’s in the third quarter. And lots of decisions to be made shortly as the first cuts are due after the trip to the Motor City.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Keep Improving and Jaguars Have A Chance

From the opening series, the Jaguars were looking to get different players involved in the offense and use their up tempo look to move the ball downfield. Both were evident as Marqis Lee, Toby Gerhardt and Marcedes Lewis all had touches for considerable gains right away. The “no-huddle” started paying dividends right away, keeping the Bears base defense on the field for the first nine plays of the game, culminating in a Josh Scobee Field Goal and a 3-0 lead. While they team has worked on the stretch running play during training camp, they haven’t had much success with it and against the Bears on 3rd and 1, Gerhardt failed to gain a yard. Starting on the offensive line, Luke Joeckel, Zane Beadles, Mike Brewster, Jacques McClendon and Austin Pasztor gave Chad Henne good protection but didn’t provide a lot of room to run. Luke Bowanko was in the game in the second series at center for a few plays before Brewster returned. Center is an area of concern for the Jaguars coaching staff and they’re looking for the right combination.

Meanwhile, Henne showed good leadership and patience, finding open receivers both down field and coming out of the backfield. He has a good command of the offense and is finding the open man better than in the past.

Getting into the Red Zone is a big emphasis for the Jaguars this year, but scoring touchdowns is also what Gus Bradley is looking for. Again, they had a false start penalty near the goal line, (Brewster failed to snap the ball on time) and settled for another Scobee field goal, 6-0.

Will Blackmon is one of those players you need around for a lot of reasons and on special teams, he continues to make an impact. A strip and a fumble recovery on the kickoff gave the Jaguars the ball back. Henne continued to answer the bell, converting a key 10-yard pass on 3rd down enroute to a short flip for a TD to Lee and a 13-0 lead. With Chad playing well, he’ll solidify his spot at the starting quarterback and quieting some of the critics. Kind of. There continues to be calls for Blake Bortles to start NOW and take his lumps but the Jaguars are pretty confident in their plan of Henne playing till they think Bortles is ready. I will say Bortles has been impressive in the preseason, if only in his demeanor and his execution of what they’re asking him to do. I like the Jaguars plan, but if Bortles has to play for some reason, it won’t be a disaster like putting Gabbert in the game was.

As the preseason progresses, it’s obvious the league is trying to subtly change how the game is played. The illegal hits and leading with your head penalties have been minimized, as the players understand that’s now illegal. This year it’s the “Illegal hands to the face” and a “crack back” block that are the points of emphasis for the officials. Flags got plenty of work calling those penalties and will continue to do so until the players figure out what’s legal and what isn’t.

Another solid performance across the board for the Jaguars. Offensive line still needs work with some decisions in the middle but overall, a better game than last week. Second straight road game against Detroit next week and the starters will probably play through three quarters. We’ll see if Bortles gets any late time with the 1’s in the third quarter. And lots of decisions to be made shortly as the first cuts are due after the trip to the Motor City.

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.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

A Special Day in Town

Saturday was just a validation of who we are.

Not how we’re perceived. Not how we’re talked about or thought about or written about or disparaged by people who don’t live here. They’re usually about two years behind what’s actually happening in North Florida.

Whether you decided to watch a sailing regatta or a powerboat race, go to a NFL sponsored football camp or attend the Suns, Sharks or the USA friendly against Nigeria, there was something for just about everybody. You couldn’t help but notice what was going on if you were anywhere in town. From Fruit Cove to Orange Park, Arlington to St. Nicholas, the sights, sounds and yes, the traffic reminded you that this is where “it” was happening today.

Not that things aren’t happening every weekend in North Florida. Whether it’s the beach or boating, the river, running, cycling, golf or the multitude of games and leagues that take advantage of our landscape, our facilities and our weather, there’s something to do for everybody.

And we know it.

Sometimes that doesn’t sit well with people who want to try and keep us in their mind as an “outpost” that’s non-threatening. We’re perfectly comfortable being who we are. We don’t want to be Tampa or Orlando, Miami or Atlanta. And, oh by the way, none of those cities were selected to host the final friendly in the “Send-Off Series” for Team USA.

Because we were.

The fact that more than 44,000 showed up two years ago for a friendly against Scotland, just because it sounded like fun, lead to Jacksonville being chosen as the final stop for Team USA before headed to Brazil. This time, more than 52,000 showed up, and showed up early. If you headed downtown more than 3 hours before kickoff you saw thousands of people walking around, tail gaiting and just thoroughly enjoying themselves. Some had walked over from the powerboat races. Others were going to the Suns or the Sharks game before heading to the stadium.

“The reception from the fans here has been tremendous,” USA Soccer Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann said after his side defeated Nigeria 2-1. “The fans lining up for our players to walk through. That was something special. We’ll take that with us to Brazil and build on it.”

Klinsmann was right. When the team walked into the stadium, from the bus, the atmosphere was electric. (I just wish the players ALL would have taken their Beats headsets off to enjoy the moment). A lot of high fiving, picture taking and chants of U-S-A. In fact, it seems that we’ve taken that “Ole, Ole, Ole” traditional soccer chant and made it our own, adding “USA, USA, USA” as a second verse.

I tweeted a picture of the stadium after Jozy Altidore scored the second goal of the match because it struck me as something very different than what I normally see there. Even at Jaguars games, it’s been a while since everybody jumped up and raised their arms in triumph all at the same time. When the ball hit the back of the net in the 68th minute, the place just exploded.

There was a time in the early and mid ’80’s that downtown looked like this on what the city annually called “River Day.” There were all kinds of events, all centered on the showcase of the Gate River Run. People made their way to the Southbank, downtown, walked the bridges and took advantage of what natural resources the city had to offer. With the improvements downtown and the advancements we’ve made with the different facilities, isn’t it time to make this kind of thing happen on purpose on a regular basis?

Since Jake Godbold left office, each subsequent Mayor has lamented about getting people downtown. Here’s another perfect opportunity.

Mayor Brown, are you listening?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars 1st OTA: Plenty of Questions

Competition is what it’s about for Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley. It doesn’t start at a specific time, and it’s obvious with him, it never ends.

“Everything counts,” Bradley said after practice. “Everything. They way they walk on the field, they way you handle yourselves in the huddle, the way you talk to your teammates, all those things. Everything counts.”

So it was no surprise that in their first Organized Team Activity (OTA) the Jaguars had loud music, an up-tempo pace and a fairly stressful environment from start to finish.

“We went two periods of no huddle” the Head Coach explained regarding the tempo. “That really strained them. We’re trying to get to the point where we can execute under strain.”

The players run from one drill to the other, in between periods and whenever they’re not in the play, they’re fully engaged. In fact, Bradley and the coaching staff have instituted a couple of “flexibility” periods. It’s a chance to see where guys could play a couple of positions if necessary.

“You saw some of the younger guys are playing multiple positions. We’re looing for position flexibility,” was the explanation when Bradley was asked about moving players around. Offensive linemen were put in multiple positions. Linebackers were moved all over the place. JT Thomas played middle linebacker.

While doing that, Bradley said “the guys with their helmets off” were challenged to become coaches. You saw veteran players teaching and learning from the process. “It didn’t go as well as we would have liked, but we’ll get there,” Gus explained.

As far as the tempo, it’s part of the learning but part of the conditioning process as well.

“That heat, it’s no joke,” DL Red Bryant said in the locker room peeling off his practice uniform.

“It’s a race to maturity,” according to Bradley. “We’re trying to speed up the learning curve.”

Four players sat out of practice today, including Josh Evans who had a procedure for a bone spur on his foot. Bradley says he’ll be back for training camp. Chris Clemons was not at the “voluntary” practice, the only veteran not in attendance. He had “an issue” according to Bradley and is expected soon.

All four quarterbacks saw action today. All seemed well suited for what they’re being asked to do. “We’re trying to speed it up and by keeping it simple, we can do that,” Bradley said when asked about the QB’s. Blake Bortles looked like a rookie with a lot of talent, but still a rookie. “It’ll all settle down for him when he knows the offense,” Bradley explained.

The Jaguars also signed fifth round draft pick LB Telvin Smith from FSU. He’s the fifth of nine draftees under contract. That leaves Blake Bortles, Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson and Brandon Linder unsigned.

There was one dust-up in today’s workout. OL Sam Young and Bryant got into a minor skirmish when Young’s helmet went flying in the middle of a play. Both were separated and nothing seemed to come of it.

OTA’s are Wednesday and Thursday of this week and Monday, Tuesday and Thursday of next week with Thursday, June 5th open to the public. The Jaguars are still waiting on an official time for that day (there have been conflicting reports) but right now it’s set for 10:50-12:50.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars Rookie Camp: A Look At The Future

It didn’t take long for Jaguars fans to get excited about the draft class of 2014. At the first rookie mini-camp at the practice fields, more than 2,000 showed up to see Blake Bortles, Marqis Lee and the other 7 draft picks take the field for the first time as professionals and for the first practice as members of the Jaguars organization.

“It’s my job to come out here and work my tail off and compete,” Blake Bortles said in front of a large media contingent after practice. Two national cable networks, a couple of statewide cable operations, three Orlando TV stations and beat writers from all over the southeast were an addition to the normal Jacksonville sports media in attendance.

Bortles looks like a quarterback. He has a quarterback’s presence. He walks like one, he talks like one, he acts like one.

“Its great having the same quarterback in there,” 7th round pick Storm Johnson told us in front of his locker. “Different cadence but the same voice. It was great to take the ball from him, catch passes from him. He knows what he’s doing in the huddle,” Johnson explained about his teammate from UCF.

While he has all of the attributes, Bortles does look like a raw version of what he and the Jaguars hope he becomes. He’ll know the offense better each day. He’ll become more familiar with the Jaguars personnel and he’ll get physically stronger. Some passes today were blown around by the wind; others came out of his hand singing.

Lee looks to be that explosive “stretch the field” receiver the Jaguars have been lacking since Jimmy Smith. He’s exceptionally fast and quick and has an upbeat personality that his teammates are drawn to.

“Marqis is always talking, always smiling,” Gus Bradley told us on the field after practice. “Allen (Robinson) is a little different, a little more straight focused but both good.” Robinson does have that big body coaches love to envision blocking out defensive backs downfield. He believes he has a lot of room for improvement, saying “You can always be a better route runner.”

“Route running” has come a long way since the “Square in” and “post” or “fade” days of yore. Coaches are always looking for the smallest nuance to get receivers in and out of breaks, getting them into open spots. It’s a combination of athletic talent, coaching and art. Robinson wants to use all three.

“You can always be a better route runner,” the Penn State product said in the locker room. “I want to work on my technique and get better everyday.

Much like last year’s draft class, this year’s has a wide variety of personalities with different skill sets. But when you spend any time with these guys, you see the similarity in that one thread of their personality: they love to play.

Bradley says he wants players who want to compete, and he and GM Dave Caldwell obviously put heavy emphasis on that when it comes to selecting new players. There’s no half-commitment on a Gus Bradley team. You’re either buying in or you’ moving out.

“I wanted them to get used to the tempo today,” Bradley explained. “Some guys were surprised. I want them to know that ‘this is how we practice’ and what’s expected of them. I liked what I saw today, running from one drill to another, the tempo out here. We’ll get them all ready and caught up for our mini-camp. It was great.”

You could see some of the players head spinning today during practice, trying to absorb all of the information thrown at them before they took the field. But you could also see the better, faster players Dave Caldwell talked about after this year’s draft.

Where they go from here is up to them. But after day one, optimism rules.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars “Sustainability” Seems Upward

As the main presenter on Tuesday, Jaguars President Mark Lamping reviewed what the team calls the “sustainability” of the franchise, outlining different ideas to create revenue and not raise ticket prices across the board. Owner Shad Khan admitted they have big ideas in their organization. From the no-reality of the big scoreboards, to the potential of the team being the developer of the Shipyards property with a Jaguars theme in the Sports Complex, a concept of a roof over the stadium, a change to the club seats to enhance the experience, and even their own version of “courtside” seats, the Jaguars owner wants his team to compete on the scoreboard and on the balance sheet.

“I can tell you if there’s one difference in the last two years, it’s that there’s no sense of entitlement,” Khan told me as his eyes flashed at the idea of complacency. “None of our former players will ever say again that they enjoyed their vacation in Florida,” referring to Aaron Ross’ comment when he went back to the Giants. (Ross was mediocre at best while he was in Jacksonville anyway despite signing a big free agent contract)

Khan wants a competitive organization in football and in his business and believes that’s what makes you successful. As one of the wealthiest people in America (and pretty high up on the worldwide list as well) the Jaguars owner wants all of his businesses to have that mindset. He told a local group recently that his biggest fear was “having too much money and too much time.” So if somebody at his level is still getting after it, he expects his organizations to be doing the same.

Lamping laid out the economic realities of having the smallest fan base in the NFL and also having among the lowest ticket prices. It’s a business model that’s not sustainable. So they are looking for new ways to create revenue.

“It seems to me they’re competing,” Head Coach Gus Bradley said after the presentation. “Just like the culture that we’re building on the team, they’re doing the same on the business side. They want to compete.”

Lamping agreed. “We’re competing. You can feel the buzz in the organization. We just need to give the fans what they deserve, a winning team. Shad’s confident Gus and Dave (GM Caldwell) have us in the right spot right now.”

Jaguars revenue is up 8% over last year, buoyed by their London foray. Otherwise they would have been fairly flat in 2013. Not bad after a 2 win season but they say the current uptick in the season ticket sales and the increased sponsorship dollars are the leading indicators of a competitive, sustainable franchise.

They’ve always said that Jaguars fans are the best in the league; they’re just not enough of them. So building a competitive organization means changing the culture on and off the field.

“When you come in you absolutely feel the drive and the hunger,” Khan told me afterwards in the back of the room. “Whether on the field or on the business side, you can feel it. And you have to have that in order to be a successful organization.”

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Kaymer Wins Players: Wins Fans Too

Expecting a shootout between Germany’s Martin Kaymer and the USA’s PGA Tour wunderkind Jordan Spieth, fans surrounded the first hole from tee to green, five deep when the two approached for their 2:35 tee time. Kaymer ripped it 310 yards down the middle. Spieth hit it in the right rough. A chink in the armor? You might have thought so but actually Spieth took the lead with a birdie on 4 to go to -13. And that was it. Kaymer inherited a share of the lead after Speith bogeyed 8 and then took the lead for good at nine with a birdie out of the bunker while Spieth’s second shot in the rough forced him to settle for par.

Kaymer had it to 15 under before play was suspended while he was playing the 14th hole forcing a 91-minute delay because of lightning. That changed the fabric of the end of the tournament, with Kaymer and Spieth, along with Sergio Garcia and Francisco Molinari among the contenders finishing in front of just a smattering of fans.

The golf course yielded some low scores among those not contending. Former champ K.J. Choi shot a 65 and finished the tournament at -7. Rory McIlroy’s crazy experiences here at The Players continued, shooting a 66 on the final day to finish at -9. McIlroy shot 31 on the back, birdieing 16, 17 and 18 to continue his great play at the Stadium course on holes with double digits. “Overall it looks like another back door top 10 but it’s getting close. I’m playing solid, things are headed in the right direction.” McIlroy played the back nine in 17 under this week, but 8 over on the front hurt his chances. “I feel very comfortable on the back nine here; and just played the front nine a little better (today) and ended up shooting a lower score.”

The leading money winner on tour, Jimmy Walker opened on Thursday with a 75 and was wondering if he’d make the cut or not when he teed off Friday. Instead, Walker shot 65 on the final day for a top ten finish, including an eagle on eleven. “I was running and gunning,” he said after his round. Make a couple of birdies, and if the wind picks up and the storm starts to maybe come in, you never know what could happen.” As the top ranked player, Walker is having some new experiences at tournaments and he said it’s making him change his game a bit. “It makes me feel like I need to keep the pedal down. Sure would be good to be number one at the end of September so that’s what we’re trying to do.”

After the rain delay, Kaymer certainly made it interesting, making double bogey from the left trees on 15 and taking a one-shot lead to the final three holes. A par on 16 didn’t give him much cushion over Furyk who was doing interviews in the rain while waiting to see what might happen.

“I’ve struggled at this golf course,” Furyk told us while after making a 2 ½ foot putt to finish at 66. My results haven’t been nearly as good as I would have liked. It’s fun to play well in front of friends and family.”

Meanwhile, Kaymer hit the strangest shot on 17, just clearing the bunker and spinning back to the high rough in the front of the green. A short chip left him with a long par putt that he poured right in the middle of the cup to maintain a one shot lead and continue the drama. “It was hard to read because it was getting a little dark,” he said afterwards. “But it went in and it’s on the card so I’m happy.”

Two shots on 18 put Kaymer on the front of the green with just under 50 feet to the hole. Two putts would win the title for him and Kaymer thought back to the putt he made to win the Ryder Cup last year. “I was walking up there thinking that one of the best players in the world should be able to make it in two putts to win.” He admitted the just over 3 footer he had left was no easy roll for the victory. “It was left to right and downhill and I was thinking, ‘Just go in’ and it did.”

Kaymer was incredibly gracious in the awards ceremony, thanking the fans for being “fair, even though I was playing an American the last couple of days.” He admitted the opening round 63 put a lot of pressure on him for the rest of the week. But said playing with Jordan Spieth really helped him. “He’s a good guy, and a really good player for someone so young. You have a great player to watch for a lot of years to come.”

“When you shoot that low score on Thursday, everybody expects you to win,” Kaymer explained. “You expect to finish high, there’s just a lot of pressure.”

Interestingly enough, Kaymer was 12 under through 36 holes in this year’s Players, and won at -13 under, the fourth consecutive year that score was good enough to win.

He also thanked the volunteers and reminded everybody to be nice to their mom, not just on Mothers Day. He’s a good player, and proved over the last 4 days he’s a pretty good guy too.

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The Players: First Round Update

As predicted, low scores were the rule of the day among the morning players in the first round of The Players. Russell Henley shot 65, seven under par while, eight players, including Lee Westwood, Gary Woodland, Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia are at -5.

“It’s playing a little softer,” Woodland said after his round. “The key out here is to, keep the momentum going, and avoid the big number.” Woodland also changed a bit of his strategy this week as well. “I only hit 4 drivers today. Callaway strengthened my 3-wood and that seems to be working.”

There are a lot of different experiences to be had at the Stadium Course during the tournament. Henley had nine birdies today, but double bogeyed the 7th. No bogies on his card. Lee Westwood didn’t play any holes over par today, making five birdies enroute to his 67. Ernie Els shot 68 with three bogies, an eagle (on 4) and three birdies, the best a chip in on 14.”

“I’m never comfortable here,” Else explained immediately after his round. “I tried to come in on Thursday morning but I had an early tee time,” he joked, adding that he didn’t arrive until Wednesday afternoon. “The tee boxes here all point you to the right. I have to pick my spot. Pete Dye is a genius but he is a sinister man.”

Jordan Spieth’s 67 in the morning included five birdies for his first time seeing the Stadium Course for this tournament. He’s played here before in junior golf and leaned on some of that experience. “I’ve played enough PGA Tour courses to change my thinking to pick my lines and be a little safer,” he said after his round. “It’s the same here. You just have to commit to the shot.”

Scott Stallings was a mid-morning starter and said he “thought” his way to a 67. “You have to pick your shots here the take a big number out of play,” he explained right behind the 18th green. “Every hole is a birdie opportunity but every one is also a double waiting to happen. You try and eliminate that.”

Justin Rose played the par 5’s in one-over today, leading him to think there could be a lower score than his 67 waiting tomorrow. “I’ve been working on a lot of things, hitting it great on the range for a while. I’m hoping it’s all coming together.”

Among the afternoon players, Bill Haas (-4 through 8) John Huh (-3 through 8) and former champion Tim Clark (-3 through 9) are moving up the leaderboard.

Phil Mickelson shot 75 today, Rory McIlroy 70 and Adam Scott is one under through 7.

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Players 2014: Will The Greens Be Up To Par?

Tee times for the first two rounds are out fo the 2014 Players. They’ll play in threesomes and start at 7:15 as expected, going off the first and the tenth tee. If you’re a morning player on Thursday, you go in the afternoon on Friday and vice versa.

In the morning on Thursday, last week’s winner J.B. Holmes goes off the 10th tee at 7:47 with Ken Duke and Rory Sabbatini. Stuart Appleby is at the same time going off one. A contender last week, Martin Flores is in the first group off of #1 with Lee Westwood and Brendon de Jonge.

Patrick Reed is playing with Jason Dufner and Luke Donald at 8?08 off #10, the start of four good groups in a row going off the back. Zach Johnson, Jordan Speith and Graeme McDowell at art 8:18, the Harris English, Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy at 8;29 followed by Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia at 8:39.

Billy Horschel is a morning player on Thursday at 8:18 at number one. K.J. Choi is at 7:57 on #1 and Ernie Else is at 8:39 on number one.

The afternoon rounds start at 12:25. Angel Cabrera goes off number 1 at 1:07. Keegan Bradley in the next group at 1:18 with Jonas Blixt and Webb Simpson. Jim Furyk Henrick Stenson and Brandt Snedeker are at 1;28 and then Rickey Fowler, Adam Scott and Steve Stricker at 1:39. They’re followed by Matt Kuchar, Bubba Watson and Jimmy Walker at 1;49. Matt Every is at 1:39, Ian Poulter at 1:49 and Russell Knox at 2:21.

Phil Mickelson played a practice round this morning with Ricky Fowler and Dustin Johnson. They all switched clubs on 17, with Fowler and Johnson playing Mickelson’s left-handed irons. All three had nice swings from the other side, a testament to their athletic prowess. Fowler actually knocked one on the green. Mickelson does just about everything else right-handed, so he looked good from that side of the ball as well. Mickelson had his press conference this afternoon and laid out the nuances of the Stadium Course. His approach to 17 will be “middle of the green. I think you make more birdies that way,” he said about the island green. Phil says the course is a bit softer than in past years so he’ll keep driver in the bag and hit it a lot. “I think we’ll see some low scoring.” Mickelson is toying with two putters this week, and probably will play “the blade” after working with it on Monday.

Bubba Watson played in the morning as well. He said he likes to look at “the ground, how it lays out, and it’s difficult here because the fairway and the rough seem to blend together when you’re looking from the tee.” Watson doesn’t like to aim at trees, so that’s his reason for never seeming to drive the ball well here. Watson laughed when he was reminded that if he wins here he could move to #1 in the world. “Let’s remember that my best finish here is 37th. We probably don’t need to worry about that.” But it was interesting that his assessment of the rankings is that they’re flawed. Phil Mickelson has never been the top ranked player and Watson doesn’t see how that’s possible. “I played against Tiger when he was at his very best,” Mickelson reminded everybody. Watson said LeBron James and Kevin Durant have been in contact with him since his Masters win.

PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem held his annual “State of the Players” media session, limiting his comments to the Players. He noted that the television broadcast of The Players this year could reach a billion people, being broadcast in 230 countries. Regarding the greens, Finchem sais they’re going to replant the Stadium Course with a strain of grass called TifEagle after the 2015 tournament. The Tour has struggled getting the greens right since moving to May in 2007 and they now believe giving a little more room on the greens, changing them slightly and going with the new grass could be the answer.

Finchem didn’t seem concerned that the NFL draft was rescheduled for this week. He joked that if “Shad would share with me who the Jags were going to draft in the first round, I might watch that.” Finchem also downplayed Tiger Woods’ absence, saying “it’s not the first time we haven’t had Tiger.

As far as The Players staying in May, the Commissioner said he likes the date and hopes to make it work. But if they keep having what he called “these weather related issues, we’ll re-think the date.”

Finchem has been Commissioner for 20 years and recently named Jay Monahan as a Deputy Commissioner, kind of a Commissioner in waiting role. Monahan was the Executive Director of The Players in the past and has fulfilled a variety of roles with the Tour, putting him in a position to become Commissioner. When? Finchem says he’ll be around for a while and is looking forward to finishing his tenure.

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Players 2014: Who Can Win?

As the PGA Tour progress through the past five decades, some of the old adages have faded away. Fields were smaller and not as deep, meaning you could probably pick the winner any week out of a pool of about 20 players. Jack Fleck beating Ben Hogan was a huge story on tour, given Hogan’s standing and Fleck’s lack thereof. Golf course design and advances in agronomy made the competition tighter and certain players seemed well suited for different courses. Augusta’s design was famously if not subtly changed when Bobby Jones commented on Jack Nicklaus’ game as “something I’m not familiar with.” Jack’s length and his ability to hit a high fade presumably gave him an advantage at Augusta National.

But all of that seems to have changed. Certainly there are courses that will always favor certain aspects of a player’s game, particularly prodigious length. But as the popularity of the game advanced and more and more prize money was offered, some top athletes started to look at the game as a profession instead of the traditional, football, baseball, basketball, hockey options. It’s not hard to imagine Tiger Woods as a defensive back in the NFL, or Dustin Johnson brining the ball up for some NBA team. While professional golfers in the last 40 years of the last century came in all shapes and sizes, an emphasis on fitness and technology has brought a standard body type to the Tour. Very few guys out here who compete week in and week out don’t also look like they’d be comfortable putting in a few miles on the treadmill. Gary Player was considered a bit out of the box with his emphasis on fitness as a player. Today, he’s the standard bearer of what’s happening on Tour. Greg Norman took those ideas to the next level, and Woods looks like he could be the light-heavyweight champion of the world.

So how does that play into who the favorite is at The Players?

Actually, it doesn’t. And that’s the beauty of this golf course and this championship.

Looking over the winners at the Stadium Course, it’s about as varied a group of champions as you’ll find at any event. It doesn’t favor long hitters, nor great putters. It’s not tilted to somebody right or left-handed, a player who hooks or fades the ball as their natural shot. Greg Norman holds the course record at -24, and he’s considered the longest, straight driver ever on Tour. But Tom Kite, Justin Leonard and Lee Janzen have won here as well, none considered among long hitters in their era. Phil Mickelson won here, and barely hit driver all week. David Duval’s plan was to just hit fairways all week, and it lead him to victory in 1999.

So what thread runs through the Champions Locker Room at The Players? That week, they had control of their entire game.

“This course will make you use every club in your bag,” Tom Kite once told me during a practice round. “And if you’re not hitting all of them good, you’re not going to win.”

Some players think it’s a drivers course, others believe it’s all about the second shot. Twenty years ago a shot on the green on the wrong side was a recipe for an automatic three putt. “You just can’t get it close,” Nick Faldo once said. “Too severe, too fast.”

The golf course has changed, and the names and games of the players have changed as well. But the constant is playing the Stadium Course with the idea that you’re whole game will be tested. Anybody playing well will have a chance to win. You’ll never be comfortable out there.

Greg Norman summed it up after winning here in 1994.

“You have to learn to get comfortable with that uncomfortable feeling,” .

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Players Preview 2014

For most of it’s existence, The Players signaled the beginning of the golf season for many fans. While the Masters was a sign that spring is here, The Players in March is where golf fans started to focus on the season and the sport. Many of the top players skipped the California swing (private jets and 24 hour communication services were not a part of PGA Tour life yet) and started their season in Florida. Stops in Tampa, Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, Miami and here provided easy travel, similar conditions and usually warm weather to get the season started. (Although The Players was originally scheduled for the first week of March, it eventually moved to the final week of the month and, of course, to May in 2007).

What’s different about this year is that The Players is nowhere near the beginning of the season. In fact, it’s the 26th event of the Tour’s “wraparound” season, with just 15 tournaments remaining in this “year.” That means a win here can go a long way in the end of season FedEx Cup standings and qualifications for the Ryder Cup, the Tour Championship playoffs and extra cash.

“It’s my favorite week of the year,” Ben Crane said yesterday, echoing the sentiment of just about every player we talked to. “It’s our championship, the field is great, the golf course is a tough test. It’s a Major in my mind.” You also hear that a lot from the current participants. While the first generation of players in this tournament were almost unanimous in their disdain for calling this tournament anything but a “bigger” competition, (some of that coming from a general animosity for then Commissioner Deane Beaman) the current players have no such bias. When Adam Scott won in 2004, he said it felt like a major to him because he grew up in Australia watching this tournament on television and imagining winning it one day. While the Tour increased the payout for winning The Players exponentially every year, getting the attention if not the respect of the players involved from the beginning, comments like Lee Trevino’s “It’s hard to read dirt,” and Jack Nicklaus’ “I don’t think you’re supposed to be able to hit 4-iron to the hood of a car and stop it,” ensured that The Players would stay stuck in a slightly elevated status but never up for “Major” consideration.

A little historical perspective is important when you look at The Players development. Beman’s dream of the Tour having their own championship grew out of his belief that “the Super Bowl, the playoffs and the World Series of our sport were owned by somebody else.” While the USGA, the R&A, Augusta National and the PGA owned the four major championships; the PGA Tour ran the week to week competition that brought the names and faces of the Tour into fans living rooms. As a former player, Deane had some history with Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as well as the rest of his contemporaries. He won the US Amateur; he won on Tour and was a rival, albeit mostly friendly to the guys out there playing.

Remember as well that Jack had started the Memorial and Arnold his tournament in Orlando, each with the idea that it would be the next “significant” tournament. Nicklaus never tried to tamp down the idea that the Memorial could be on track to be the next Major. And both of them, along with Gary Player as the Big Three, had expanded their reach in the game to building golf courses. All three expressed real reservations about the Tour getting into the golf course building business as their competitor. So if The Players was in essence, “Deane’s Tournament” it wasn’t going to get their approval as anything but the next stop on the Florida swing.

The media followed the Big Three’s lead, most turning their noses up at the idea there could be a “5th Major.” Legendary golf writer Dan Jenkins once wrote, “TPC sounds like something you sniff, not a golf tournament.” The Players represented the TOUR: fans, excitement, money and fun. It was a long way from the hushed locker rooms of The Country Club, Oakmont, Seminole and other tradition-laden clubs. The Tour itself couldn’t quite identify what The Players was supposed to be either. Was it “Augusta South?” For a while they tried to emulate the major championships and even shunned their home-town, stiff arming North Florida and South Georgia, insisting the byline for stories and television coverage be “Ponte Vedra” with no mention of Jacksonville (my friend Verne Lundquist admitted it took him two years to figure out how to pronounce the host town) Then The Players was marketed as an international destination, which it is becoming. But in recent years, they’ve embraced Jacksonville and North Florida, understanding that without the full support of the local community, they’d just be spinning their wheels.

I read an article the other day where the author said you could have put the Stadium course anywhere. I chuckled at his lack of historical knowledge, not knowing that the local support of the Greater Jacksonville Open through the volunteer force and the foresight of Beman, the Fletchers and others landed the PGA Tour headquarters and their showcase event in the right spot.



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The Players : Wide Open

As the last qualifier for The Players, JB Holmes has quite a story. He was a well-known quantity on the PGA Tour. A popular player with galleries and a two-time winner in Phoenix, one of the most raucous stops on the circuit, Holmes embodied the ‘grip it and rip it” bomber style popular on Tour. Then all of the sudden he was diagnosed with a rare brain disease, recovered from that, was allergic to the resin that kept things in his head in place, and recovered from that. Hurt his elbow hitting balls trying to get back on Tour, but didn’t have surgery on that until he suffered a broken ankle and figured he wouldn’t be playing anyway so he finally got it fixed. Then, of course, he was back on Tour playing on a medical exemption and won one of the toughest events, getting him into the Players this year and the Masters in 2015.

Because Holmes wasn’t already eligible for the Players, he pushed Ryo Ishikawa into the first alternate spot. JU’s Russell Knox stays in the field of 144.

As well as he’s playing; it’ll still be interesting if Holmes contends this week. The Stadium course doesn’t favor anybody who just stands on the tee and kills it. It’s a bit too demanding in the landing areas, and the players haven’t been able to overpower that part of the golf course. Yet.

That’s why somebody like Luke Donald should do well here. Not particularly long but accurate and a good putter. When he won in 1994, Greg Norman shot 24-under, setting the tournament record. He took advantage of how long and straight he drove the ball in comparison to his peers. Plus his putting touch that week was impeccable. Nobody seemed to enjoy that, except for Norman and the runner-up Fuzzy Zoeller. Add Jeff Maggert to the mix and those three lapped the field. Everybody else was down near -10 and in single digits. It was enough of a low score though to change the golf course to make it harder and faster and more difficult. The funny part is that the last three years, ’11, ’12 and ’13, the winning score has been the same: 13 under.

Look at the winners over the years and there’s not one thing that binds those guys together. Some long hitters, some short knockers have won, but that week, they all were able to manage their game perfectly. “It’s not a golf course for scatterguns,” former PGA Tour Commissioner once told me during a round at the Stadium. I’ve always thought that the golf course identifies the player who has command through his whole bag. He’s driving it straight, he’s accurate with his irons, he’s chipping well and rolling it well with the putter. That’s how Justin Leonard and Jodie Mudd won here. I’m surprised Nick Faldo never won at the Stadium as meticulous as he is.

Luke Donald, Sergio Garcia, Stuart Appleby and Matt Kuchar (again) are likely candidates to be near the top of the leaderboard. Matt Every and Bill Horschel have the regional knowledge to contend. I’d say Camillo Villegas but he’s been nowhere for so long. Harris English has played well here as well. And while Phil Mickelson said he played “two great rounds and two pathetic rounds” at Charlotte, he likes it here and of course is a former champion.

In other words, it’s wide open!

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The Players Update: Monday Afternoon Some greens still closed

For a while it was a murmur, then some idle chatter but the talk about the greens at the Stadium Course for this years Players has grown into a full-blown conversation today. It’s been customary to allow players to practice on the Stadium course starting on the Saturday before the tournament, accommodating those who either missed the cut in Charlotte or didn’t play last week. Instead, the course has been closed until today, with no play anywhere on the Stadium for the last 9 or ten days. (It’s been closed to resort play for about 3 weeks already). So while they’ve had trouble this year with grass on 4, 9, 11, 12, 13, and 14, they’ve only kept 4, 11 and 12 closed today and until further notice.

The greens have noticeable patches on them, and perhaps growing grass for the next three days non-stop will help their playability and their appearance.

Either way, no players, caddies, no anybody on the greens.

The players found out today with a memo posted about the condition of the greens. There has been no official comment, and won’t be until tomorrow at Commissioner Tim Finchem’s press conference.

“It’s not unusual based on the weather we’ve had,” one player told us this morning, “but for this tournament, this late, it’s pretty rare.”

The Tour has said an “over aggressive” chemical application is the cause. Locals (including some charter members) have told me it’s a combination of the chemical, the bad weather and poor use of the “sub air” system they have here to take moisture off the greens.

“They can’t get the roots to grow,” one member of 27 years told me. “Worst I’ve ever seen it.”

This tournament has 29 of the top 30 in the current FedEx Cup standings in the field. Only Jason Day is not here because of injury. Twenty-seven of the top 30 in the official world golf ranking and 20 of the 21 PGA Tour winners in this season are here.

Eight former Players winners are in the field, 23 major champions and 15 of the participants are first timers. By the way, if the winners seem younger to you, 10 of the 21 different winners on Tour this season are under 30. Twenty countries are represented, with Australia second behind the US with 10 players.

Jim Furyk, Jonas Blixt, David Lingmert, Matt Every, Luke Guthrie, Russell Knox and Billy Horschel are players in the tournament who call North Florida home.

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Pre Draft Jaguars Ramblings

It’s annually called the “Pre-Draft Luncheon” and it qualifies as that because it is before the draft and they do serve lunch. (Great potato chips and nice BBQ sliders this year). It’s mainly a chance to get the powers that be with the Jaguars on the record about their philosophy when it comes to the draft. They’re not going to tell us who they’re going to pick, nor are they the type of organization that is trying to send out false signals to the other 31 teams in the league.

For the last two years, it’s been a chance to hear General Manager Dave Caldwell and Head Coach Gus Bradley give us their ideas about the process, both in and out of Jacksonville, and how they’ll arrive at whatever decisions they make in the first round and beyond.

“I like it loud and busy,” Caldwell said today when asked how he likes to set up the draft room. “I get antsy when it gets too quiet.”

Caldwell will make the final decision if it comes down to picking one player or another, but Bradley is fine with that. “I completely trust Dave,” Gus told us at today’s get-together. “its kind of fun that we’re preparing him and the scouts and personnel people for making the picks next Thursday. We’ll have input, but he’s sharp, he’ll make the call.”

What role has Bradley played? “This year, knowing Dave better, being more comfortable, I’ve been challenging him, like you guys would,” the Jaguars head coach said pointing at the assembled media. “With this extra time (two weeks) I’ve had a chance to ask him, ‘What about this’ and ‘What if this happens’ over and over so he’s ready when it comes time to make the pick.”

Both guys on the hook for selecting what they hope are the Jaguars of the future have run through every scenario possible for the first round. With only two picks in front of them, they know somebody they like will be there. They both said they wouldn’t be surprised by pretty much anything that happens at that point. Later, that’s a different story.

“I’ve told Gus to be prepared for a good player to be available in the second round,” Caldwell related when asked about surprises. “I think we might be surprised at who might still be there and what we’ll have a chance to do at that point.”

Bradley isn’t worried about the first three rounds, saying, “They’re going to be fine. It’s the 4th round picks and guys like that you have to hit on. Looking at the stats of what guys in the 4th round have done in the league; gotten injured, didn’t make the active roster or whatever. If we can do a little better than the average in those spots, we’ll be ok.”

With picks near the top of each round, the Jaguars have plenty of leverage if they’re looking for more picks. Caldwell said at the owners meeting in March that ideally he’d like between 12 and 14 picks in this draft. The Jaguars currently have eleven. “That would be an ideal scenario,” he reiterated today.

With strength in this class in the top 10 picks, and at defensive line, offensive line, running back and wide receiver, the Jaguars think they could get 5 or six eventual starters out of the class of 2014. That top ten is important because Caldwell said he would have to be offered a pretty special package to move any lower than that in the first round. But he’s open to moving back, primarily because those guys in the top ten are all potential stars and starters and can help immediately.

So when it comes time to select in the third spot, will they make the pick right there or wait for the phone to ring?

“It depends on what happens in front of us with the first two picks, ” Caldwell said with a sly grin.

Interpret that anyway you like. I think if Jadeveon Clowney is somehow there, they’ll snap him up. If not, they’ll listen to offers to move back to take one of the other guys they have rated in the top ten. If no offers come to them they like, they’ll take Sammy Watkins or Khalil Mack. What about quarterback? They think it’s the last piece to the puzzle so taking somebody in the second or third round and seeing if he can develop into a reliable starter: AJ McCarron, Zach Mettenberger, Aaron Murray, is where they’ll begin.

The first round, finally, is next Thursday.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Players Field Almost Set

In addition to Tiger Woods, add Jason Day’s name to the list of PGA Tour players not participating in next weeks Players. Day is still recovering from a thumb injury and has decided he needs at least another week of rest before reentering competition. The 26 year old Australian won the Match Play Championships in February and has only played once since, at the Masters, because of the injury. He had his left hand put in a cast as a precaution last week but now it appears he might not play until the Memorial. Day is the 6th ranked player in the world.

Most of the world’s top players will be here next week for The Players, traditionally the strongest field of the year. In addition to Tiger and Day, Victor Dubuisson, Miguel Angel Jimenez, David Lynn, Scott Piercy, Bob Estes and Chez Reavie are the only players eligible who are not in the field because of injury or otherwise.

It appears that JB Holmes will make the field by way of his FedEx cup points after this week’s tournament in Charlotte. That would may Ryo Ishikawa the first alternated. Former JU Dolphin Russell Knox would then be the last qualifier and could only miss the tournament if this week’s winner isn’t already in the field.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars Buzz is Real

It’s been a while since there was this kind of buzz around the Jaguars. While the national media has always considered putting a team in Jacksonville “a mistake” and has always looked at Jacksonville as an outpost, they couldn’t ignore the early success the franchise had particularly in 1996 and 1999.

Although they tried.

In ’96 the Jaguars post-season success was considered a fluke but when you look back at the talent on those teams and how they won games at Buffalo and Denver in the playoffs, it’s easy to see why they had that kind of success.

They were that good.

A talented quarterback, a hot running back and an opportunistic defense took them to the AFC Championship game. A couple of mistakes against the Patriots in New England in the bitter cold gave rise to the national chorus of “they were lucky and too young.” But it’s clear by looking at subsequent successful teams that the Jaguars deserved to be there.

In ’99 they were the best team in the league, hands down. Before their salary cap problems came home to roost and injuries took away some of their key players, this was the year they were dominant. But of course the national discourse was how easy the Jaguars schedule was during the regular season. A 14-2 record (both losses to Tennessee) gave them the division championship and a first round bye. When Miami came to town with Dan Marino on a roll, the Jaguars might be in trouble. Instead, again with a Pro Bowl quarterback, a hot running back, two talented receivers and an opportunistic defense the Jaguars dismantled the Dolphins 62-3.

Hosting the AFC Championship against Tennessee the Jaguars led at halftime but Head Coach Tom Coughlin gave them no credit in the locker room at intermission, highlighting their mistakes instead of their lead and they were dominated in the second half, losing their second chance at a trip to the Super Bowl in three years.

Titans Head Coach Jeff Fisher called Jacksonville their “other home stadium” fueling the rivalry during Tennessee’s Super Bowl week. It was as much of a shot at Coughlin as anything. Their relationship might be different now as they’re both coaches on other clubs but at the time Fisher told friends he thoroughly enjoyed beating the Jaguars because Coughlin “acted like he @*&%! Invented football.”

I get asked all the time why the Jaguars don’t get any credit from the national networks and reporters. First of all, we’re not New York or Miami or Dallas or anywhere else in the league with restaurants and late night bars and adult entertainment. Most reporters coming to town to do a story go from the airport to the Hyatt to the stadium, back to the Hyatt and back to the airport. That route is no showcase for the city, but that’s pretty true just about everywhere. Nobody makes it to the Southside, the beaches, Riverside or San Marco, the river or anywhere else things are happening.

Also, as an organization, the Jaguars have never been stocked with “insiders.” The guys who talk about this team or that on the pregame shows on Sunday or on ESPN or the NFL Network rely on information from confidants in the league. The Jaguars were never stocked in the front office with those types who were chummy with anybody else in the league. When Coughlin was the GM as well as the Head Coach, he demanded that the team speak with one voice. Consequently, if there was information out there about his team that he didn’t reveal, he knew exactly where it came from.

So it didn’t happen.

Shack Harris, Gene Smith and Jack Del Rio weren’t “connected” throughout the league so juicy tidbits about the Jaguars were non-existent. And it didn’t help that the team was average to bad in those years as well. On top of that the other front office personnel with knowledge of what was going on were a banker and a lawyer who had somehow convinced Wayne Weaver that they knew something about football and running a team.

Recently there’s been a lot more information and chatter about the Jaguars movements in the offseason and their prospects for the future. Part of that is because of the free agents they’ve signed. All will be instant contributors if not starters for the 2014 team and the personnel types in the media have lauded the quality of player the Jaguars are seeking and signing.

Obviously, Gus Bradley’s engaging personality helps when it comes to PR but Dave Caldwell’s connection to Bill Polian and Thomas Dimitroff gives him the appearance of an NFL “insider.” And that’s what is helping cause that “buzz” around the Jaguars. Caldwell has plenty of name recognition and respect around the league. Not because he’s done anything, but because Polian and Dimitroff are telling everybody who’s asking that Caldwell is the real deal.

Last year’s draft class is, so far, a step in the right direction for showing that Caldwell does have the goods to get the job done. This year’s free agency signings look like the second step in that process.

So don’t be surprised if this year’s national coverage of the Jaguars includes a lot of raised eyebrows and “I told you so” moments with everybody taking credit for knowing that the Caldwell/Bradley combination would work. We’ll also get a lot of that, “There’s something going on in Jacksonville” storyline.

Which happens to be true.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Final Four Bigger in Big “D”

It’s just cliché enough to say “Things are bigger in Texas.” And it’s generally true. Bigger buildings, bigger roads (and lots of them), bigger traffic jams and certainly bigger aspirations. It’s not that bigger is better, but for their first time hosting the Final Four at ATT Stadium, the locals and the NCAA have decided to go big.

Having been here for the Super Bowl a couple of years ago I wasn’t totally shocked by the “bigness” of ATT Stadium in Arlington. It is massive. It’s a block away from where the Rangers play baseball and somehow it makes a Major League ballpark look small. It looks like it landed here to take over.

While the Final Four is huge and has gotten bigger in the past 10 years, it’s not the Super Bowl. No big international contingent, not many “Here because it’s happening” reporters. Most of the media is from the group that covers one of the four schools here (like us), from the local area (in this case Dallas (and most of Texas), student newspapers and electronic journalists from campus stations or from national publications.

When the Gators played in the 1994 Final Four at the Charlotte Coliseum, it felt like a basketball game. The arena was built for basketball and there was a quasi-intimate feel to the tournament. Bill Clinton attended as President to see Arkansas play and security was able to lock down every single person in the building while he was escorted to and from his seat. I don’t know if Barak Obama is planning on attending Saturday or Monday in Dallas but there’s no way security could ever bring things to a halt here. Way too big.

And that bigness has been an issue for teams in the past, moving from the confines of a gym atmosphere to a huge football facility where there’s no perspective or depth perception for anybody on the court. It takes some getting used to. As recently as 2009, the NCAA only allowed teams to have one shoot around the day before their game to get acclimated to the surroundings. Now, the teams arrive on Wednesday night for a full practice on Thursday, a shoot around on Friday and another Saturday before the game. Imagine shooting at a rim on a backboard in the middle of a vast field and that’s what it feels like at the Final Four. When Florida won their titles in Indianapolis and Atlanta, a huge drape was pulled across the middle of the football field; cutting the stadium in half and at least making it feel like a basketball court. No more. Imagine a 94-foot basketball court on the 50-yard line where the Jaguars play, and you get the picture. From the 35 to the 35 and only 50 feet wide (1/3 of a football field).

I’d include a picture of what it looks like at ATT Stadium but when I tried to snap a photo, I got a “NO!”

A really big “NO!” ‘Cause everything’s bigger in the Big D.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators in Elite Eight: Want More

As expected, it wasn’t easy.

Florida withstood a run by UCLA in the second half with poise and tough defense as they beat the Bruins 79-68 to advance to the Elite Eight for the fourth consecutive year.

“Done it before,” Will Yeguete said in the post-game locker room. “Go back to the hotel, get some treatment, get some rest, look at the scouting and go again. It’s fun.”

Taking a six-point lead to halftime, the Gators came out in the second half and extended that out to 11 as freshman Chris Walker made some unexpected contributions off the bench.

“I just try to be ready when coach calls my name,” Walker said with a big smile sitting in front of his locker. “I go in and play good defense, give some energy to my teammates, block some shots and then see what I can do on offense.”

Walker only played six minutes in the game but his 7 points were a necessary bonus with Patric Young and Casey Prather on the bench with foul trouble.

“We know when we go to the bench that the other five guys on the floor are going to play great defense,” Young explained to a media throng gathered around his locker. “I was a little frustrated so my role was more cheerleader than anything else. I did contribute a little there in the second half but this is really a team win.”

Prather agreed that the team gets the credit, not unexpectedly. “All the guys contribute. It’s been that way all year. Dodo, Kasey, Chris gave us big minutes. We’re just thankful that we get to play again on Saturday.”

UCLA’s early zone defense allowed the perimeter of the Gators offense open shots, and for the first time in this tournament, Michael Frazier II made them pay. Frazier finished with 19 points, hitting 5-three pointers to lead the Gators in scoring. Apparently he didn’t like the rims at the Amway Arena in Florida’s first two games but he found the ones at the FedEx Forum to his liking. When he scores like that, it opens up the floor for a lot of other offensive options for the Gators; and they have plenty.

“He’s (Frazier) been working really hard the last few days, working on his shot. He’s a shooter, so he’s got to get that confidence going,” Yeguette explained. “When he was open, he made it.”

For the fourth consecutive year, Florida is back in the Elite Eight, this time against Dayton (6:09 Saturday TBS from Memphis). The Flyers are in the Regional finals for the first time since 1984. The Gators on the other hand, are familiar with this position. It’s the one they’ve gone home from the last three years.

“It’s crazy that it’s here already, ” Young said about going back all four years of his tenure in Gainesville. “You never want to take it for granted but we’ve been blessed and we’re here again. Hopefully we can go farther this time.”

Against the Bruins the Gators leaned on some of the close victories they grabbed during the regular season. In fact, it felt like a late season conference game in the second half. They didn’t panic; they leaned on their seniors and advanced.

“The seniors really lead by example,” Dorian Finney-Smith said at his locker still sporting a Band-Aid over his right eye. “When they don’t panic, we don’t panic. It got to be a one point lead and we just settled down, played good defense and Scottie hit a couple of shots.

This team is accustomed to the quick turnaround and Donovan can look back over the last 8 years and see what worked and what hasn’t once the team got to this point.

Obviously, motivation won’t be a factor.

“I’ve never been to the Final Four,” Young said earnestly. “We’ve got a chance to be the best team in Florida history. We’ve got an opportunity to win a National Championship. What more motivation do you need to go out and play your best?”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators vs. UCLA: Toughest Test Yet

It’s like a traveling road show when teams go deep into the NCAA tournament. Like that old saying, this week it’s “If it’s Wednesday this must be Memphis.” Adapting to that kind of travel and schedule, new arena’s, new locker rooms, new environments favor a veteran team in college basketball and certainly the 2014 Gators are that. Lead by 4 seniors, they’ve played on the road, had late nights, strange schedules and bad plane rides in their careers. But it’s all gotten them to this place in the Sweet 16 against UCLA.

“You have to have a routine,” Senior center Patric Young said lounging in front of his locker on Wednesday afternoon. “Everybody has the little things that they do before a game and you have to keep doing those things. The coaches do a great job of setting things up so we don’t have to worry about a thing.”

Since the NCAA went to a standardized floor at all of the sites a few years ago, it was striking how similar the FedEx Forum looked like Amway Arena from floor level.

“The floor is always the same so it’s not much to worry about,” Senior Guard Scotty Wilbekin surmised right before the Gators shoot around. “The floor’s the same, the basket’s the same. We just need to be ready to play our best.”

It would seem the farther a team gets in the tournament, the tougher the competition might be. While that doesn’t always happen, in this case, UCLA will be the most difficult opponent the Gators have seen. Tall, strong, offensive minded, the Bruins like to score a lot of points while Florida is among the best at limiting their opponent.

Wilbekin broke it down pretty simply when asked about UCLA’s high scoring offensive game. “We’re going to play defense, be we’re also going to have to play offense They’re going to play offense, but they’re also going to have to play defense. So it’s just going to be a battle.”

Senior forward Will Yeguete said it might come down to a battle of wills. “We’re going to stick to our principles and just play the way we’ve been playing and we’re just going to have to limit them because we know they’re going to score tough shots.”

Three times in the last eight years Florida has eliminated UCLA in the NCAA tournament. In their title years the Gators beat the Bruins in the title game and in the semi-finals. Three years ago they ousted them in the second round. While some would think that means Florida has UCLA figured out, the players say none of that matters.

When asked, Wilbekin could recall an end-of-game sequence when Florida sent the Bruins packing in 2011 in Tampa. Other than that, he says it’ll have zero impact on the game Thursday night. “I don’t think it’ll affect the game at all honestly,” Wilbekin said while seated at the formal podium interview.

Pushing out all of the “distractions” as coaches call it will be a big plus for Florida. They’re still the #1 seed and top ranked in the polls. They’re the target for everybody and they’re the favorite. The veteran leadership on this team has helped them get to this point and has refocused the Gators on what’s possible.

“The coaches asked us who we wanted to be,” Young recalled from last week. “They reminded us that we have a chance to be one of the best teams in Florida history if we just focus on the things we can do. Play the kind of defense we’re capable of, do the little things. It’s right there within our grasp.”

Have they retained the mindset that propelled them to victory over Pittsburgh last Saturday in Orlando?

“I didn’t want to talk to anybody before the game Saturday,” Young explained. “I was just focused on going out there. I don’t expect to want to talk to anybody tomorrow either.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Bradley Looking To Upgrade Team, Self

While looking for a constant upgrade in the draft and through free agency, Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley isn’t forgetting what last year was like. The ups and downs, the teaching and the learning and how he can take that and move forward.

“I know this sounds bad,” Bradley qualified his statement before going on Tuesday morning. “But I enjoyed last year. I’m not going to miss that opportunity to use our experiences to teach our players and to get better. Not the record, but the things we talked about. Don’t be consumed by defeats and don’t be overwhelmed by victories. I’m not going to miss out on that.”

At the AFC coaches breakfast, all 16 head coaches in the conference are at separate tables throughout a large ballroom with name placards and seats around the table. Some eat; some spend their time talking to some reporters as old friends. Some seem to be enduring the torture, knowing it’s only an hour. Bradley is experiencing this for the second time, but last year was nothing like today. As the hour wore on, more and more reporters made their way to the Jaguars table until there was no room.

“More people at the Jaguars table since what, 1999?” I asked one of the Jaguars PR staff.

“Oh, no,” he laughed, “EVER.”

While the Jaguars were a know force in the late 90’s, then Head Coach Tom Coughlin was considered just this side of what Bill Belichick is now. Bradley is on the other side of the spectrum: funny, engaging, honestly interested in answering questions and giving out what information he can. It’s all part of the “transparency” he thinks is important to success.

Owner Shad Khan mentioned that while in Orlando yesterday, praising both Bradley and General Manager Dave Caldwell for keeping things open and honest.

“I’m glad he said that,” Bradley commented when I told him about Khan’s observations.

“Because I think that’s important, not just for our staff and the owner, but for our relationship with the players as well. If they’re having a problem, they need to know that they can come talk to anybody, anytime.”

Bradley said his policy of always getting better applies to him as well at these meetings. He said he’s meeting with fellow coaches to see how they’re doing things and how it compares.

“I did that this morning with another coach, talking about (the culture in) the locker room. How’s he do it? Does he walk through there? If I didn’t do that I might think ‘I got it” and you know those are the three most dangerous words.

His competitors in the division already know what to expect when playing a Gus Bradley coached team. Chuck Pagano, the Colts coach and at three years the most tenured in the division said they knew Bradley’s teams would be ready but afterwards realized, despite their record, they weren’t giving up.

“They played hard that’s for sure,” Pagano said this morning. “From snap to whistle, they gave it a full effort. They never backed off and played until the game was over. You don’t always find that.”

“I don’t know what their record was when we played them,” new Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt remembered this morning at his table. He faced the Jaguars last year as the Cardinals head coach. “But they didn’t have any wins and they played hard. There was no ‘give-up’ in that team. Spend 5 minutes with Gus and you see why.”

Bradley is careful to not criticize any of the players on last year’s roster, but is clearly excited about the upgrade.

“Maybe 30 new guys?” he guessed.

Take Bradley’s enthusiasm, transfer it to his team, add in the upgraded talent and it’s possible, the Jaguars could be the most improved team in the league.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators Change Mindset, Beat Pitt

It really is all about defense for the Florida basketball team. And while that’s a given for most teams, the Gators have bought into it.’

“This was about to our standard,” Senior Patric Young said in the post-game locker room after Florida’s 61-45 win over the 9th seeded Pitt Panthers. “We can’t always control whether the ball goes in the basket or not on offense but on defense, we can play hard and we did that.”

Following a lackluster first round win over Albany, Head Coach Billy Donovan challenged his team on Friday during practice to come to the court Saturday with a different mindset.

“Yeah, Coach was really getting on us,” Scotty Wilbekin noted after the game. “He was challenging us and just asking us if that was the team that we wanted to be in these last couple of games that we have.” Wilbekin clearly responded to the challenge, scoring 21 points, 13 in the last six minutes of the game, leading the Gators to 10 steals and forcing 11 turnovers.

The Gators went on a 9-0 run in the second half to create a little breathing room and held Pitt without a basket for more than 5 minutes.

“I could see it in our guy’s eyes in the locker room before the game,” Sophomore Michael Frazier said about the change in focus for the top ranked Gators. “We were locked in and ready to go. Much different than Thursday.”

As big as Pitt is across the front line, Florida was able to control the paint, part of their focus going in. “We knew it was going to be a battle,” Will Yeguette said after the Florida win. “I think we did a good job boxing out and the guards got in there, got a lot of rebounds. So that helped us move those guys to get in there and rebound the ball and help us out.”

Donovan was determined to change how the Gators approached the game against Pitt after what he considered a sub par effort against Albany.

“We didn’t play to our identity there (Thursday) and I was disappointed by that because we really hadn’t done that all year long,” Billy explained. “I wanted to make sure they understood that and we got back to who we were. I don’t think any of them disagreed with anything I had to say.”

“Coach Donovan is the perfect coach in that sense,” Young explained when asked about the change in mindset. “He challenged us and he was right. Do we want to be that team we showed on Thursday? No. So we were able to get back to more of who we are today.”

Florida will play in Memphis next Thursday in the Sweet 16, most likely against UCLA. The Gators beat the Bruins enroute to both of their national titles and again in 2011 to advance to the Sweet 16. Florida will try to move into the Elite 8 for the fourth straight year. It’s where they’ve been eliminated in each of the past three seasons.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators “Survive and Advance”

It’s difficult to be such a favorite in college basketball. A team that shoots well, and executes their game plan, no matter what their talent level, size or speed, can make things difficult. Florida found that out in the first half against the Albany Great Danes in their first game in the NCAA tournament in Orlando.

Florida had every advantage you could ask for: size and speed and even depth, but Albany couldn’t miss for a while and kept it close. Maybe it’s the setting or the bigness of being the top seed, but the Gators looked out of sorts and a bit skittish in the first half. It wasn’t until about halfway through that they found their range, finishing the half shooting 56% and taking a 34-28 lead. Statistically, the Gators dominated across the board, but couldn’t shake the Danes. In some cases it was trying to do too much, and in others it was a bit of disbelief I’m sure that Albany was being so efficient. Anytime you’re the top seed, any lower seeded team slows it down, limits the number of possessions and if they hit their shots as the clock winds down, they can keep it close. That was clearly Albany’s strategy, and they kept it close.

In the second half it was more of the same but Florida was just too deep, too talented and in the end too determined.

It wasn’t pretty, but in this tournament it’s about “survive and advance.” Florida used 10 points from Casey Hill and a double-double from Patric Young to beat Albany in the first round 67-55.

“We survived but we won’t advance past Saturday if we play like that again,” Scottie Wilbekin said in the post-game locker room.

“Too often we were playing not to lose,” Michael Frazier II chimed in. “We have to go get it. We have to have that mindset.”

I asked Will Yeguette if Florida was aware that they’re the target as the top seed in the tournament. “We’ll get everybody’s best shot,” the Gators senior said. “But we know that. We just weren’t in sync. Give them credit but generally we were all on the same page. We’ll look at film and figure it out.”

It’ll be Billy Donovan’s job to determine how to get his team back into the mindset they carried through the end of the regular season and through the SEC tournament. He wasn’t happy with the defense in the first half, but felt like it was better in the second. And Albany had a lot to do with that.

“The way they play, you know it’s not going to be a high scoring game,” Donovan explained. “I thought we did a pretty good job of forcing the tempo.”

Once again, Young was the one able to put it in perspective. “Looking at this game, we feel moving forward that this isn’t going to be enough to keep our season going. And we know there’s more inside of us and more we can give. We didn’t have our style of of play for 40 minutes. We didn’t sustain that and we’re going to have to do that if we want to make the Sweet 16 because Pitt played exceptionally well today. Hopefully Saturday we’ll have a better mindset and focus.”

In the locker room, it felt like a loss. Which is probably a good thing. Florida hasn’t been beaten in over three months and their biggest hurdle coming into the tournament was finding new motivation to get back to their best basketball.

Every coach will tell you it’s easier to teach after a win. The Gators have the luxury of putting this in the win column (their 33rd of the year) with the players feeling like they got beat. They’re disappointed, understandably.

No better scenario for Donovan and his staff to hammer the message home again: Play well, or anybody can beat you.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators Ranking Doesn’t Matter

It would be pretty easy for the 2013-14 Gator basketball team to strut into Orlando with an attitude. They’ve won 32 games; they’re the only team to ever go 18-0 during the regular season in the SEC. They won the SEC tournament by beating Kentucky for the THIRD time this year and they finished the season ranked #1. Put their number one seeding in the tournament on top of that, and their resume for this season is already pretty impressive.

But they’re not like that.

At all.

“For us being number one is a great honor and a great compliment, but I really don’t know what it means,” Head Coach Billy Donovan said during his press conference on Wednesday. “We’re in a bracket, we’ve got to play tomorrow and that’s the only thing that really matters. When you’re in a one-and-done tournament if you have a game where you don’t play well, chances are you’re not going to advance.”

Sometimes you can get a bunch of different answers from players, but this Gators team stays on message. And that message comes from Donovan.

“Coach D does a good job reminding us that no matter what the rankings are every year, there’s upsets,” the SEC Player of the Year Scotty Wilbekin said prior to the Florida shoot-around at the Orlando Arena. “It really doesn’t matter once the ball goes up. Anything can happen, anybody can beat anybody.”

Patric Young has been on Florida teams that have had some success and plenty of failure. He was able to put Florida’s past record and their current ranking into perspective. “Our first three years here, we were never the number one team in the country, and when we finally achieved that this year, we were just like, okay, I mean, everything is the same, nothing has really changed.”

It’s probably good that the Gators ascended to the top spot in the rankings as early as they did, because they got used to the questions and the attention that goes with that lofty ranking. Donovan reminded everybody, including his players that all that goes with that kind of recognition is that everybody gives you their best shot.

Playing so close to home, Florida will have plenty of fans in orange and blue come game time and it’s pretty much as close to a home game that they could have gotten in this NCAA Tournament. While the players admit that’s a good thing, they’re trying to stick to their routine. One scribe inquired as to why the Gator hadn’t allowed the team Moms to come in and cook for the players.

Actual home cooking.

“We’re going to focus on what we’ve always done,” Donovan said. “We’re not going to change routine. Everything we’re focusing on is what we have the responsibility to do and that’s to prepare, to practice and get ready to play. All the other stuff, we’re going to focus on anything that helps us play our best tomorrow.”

That’s the sound of an experienced, successful coach. While the Gators have been on this route before, this team, this year, this coaching staff is uniquely different. No matter what experience you’ve had at the tournament, each year has it’s own pitfalls. Donovan’s job is to anticipate those things and navigate around them.

We’ll see how they respond when the ball goes in the air against Albany.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators in Orlando For NCAA’s

No 16 seed has ever beaten a #1 seed in the history of the NCAA tournament.

I thought I’d get that out there right away so if there is some kind of jinx, it’ll fade by game time on Thursday.

But the Gators won’t need it.

As the top ranked team in the country for the first time at the end of the regular season, Florida will beat Albany in their opener in Orlando of the NCAA tournament.

Unlike with the back-to-back national championship teams, this Gators squad doesn’t engender a lot of confidence when it comes to the fans expectations. Maybe it’s just the Gator fan mentality, maybe because they don’t have a part of their game that looks dominating, or maybe it’s because they’ve been scared to death at the close calls in the last three weeks. But the fact remains that Florida is still unbeaten since December 3rd when UConn threw up a prayer at the buzzer to beat them. Since then there are a half dozen games that this group of players would have let get away coming down the stretch.

“Absolutely,” Patric Young agreed after beating Kentucky in their final regular season game at home. “But this team believes in each other. We pump each other up. When other teams go on a run, we respond.”

And that’s the biggest difference. This team does respond. Instead of running from the ball with the game on the line, Scottie Wilbekin is looking for his shot. Michael Frazier II accepts, as Billy Donovan calls it, the “responsibility” to take that shot. Young is not afraid with the ball in his hands and can make things happen.

The ability to reach what you might think is the highest of highs, regroup and do it again, and regroup and do it a third time is the key to the Gators continued success.

“It’ll be talked about,” Donovan said when asked if it was the coach’s responsibility to manage the emotional ups of his team. “We all have a stake in that, and I like our guys attitude towards that. They’re concentrating on what they can do instead of all of the potential things going on around them.”

That’s what happens when you have a senior laden team. With Young and Wilbekin in the starting lineup with Will Yeguete and Casey Prather, the Gators put four guys on the floor who have been around college basketball for a while. All are stories that have a bit of redemption in them.

Young was so raw as a freshman it was hard to project him as any kind of offensive threat.

Wilbekin has been suspended from the team multiple times for breaking team rules and was told by Donovan after his injury early this year that if he didn’t change his game, he was going to the bench. Of course, he became the SEC Player of the Year.

Yeguete has battled knee problems and Prather was so far in the dog house in his first two years in Gainesville that most of the talk was about where he’d transfer to.

All have played pivotal roles in the Gators success this year.

But the thing I was most impressed with seeing those guys in person before, during and after games is how they actually stick together. When they’re going to do something, be interviewed, kiss the floor, cut the nets, they do it together.

It’s hard not to think of anything less than a National Championship as a failure. But that would be a shame if they don’t win it if that’s all they’re remembered for. This has been a fun team to watch and a fun team to be around. Donovan calls it the most satisfying, fun regular season he’s ever coached.

Let’s hope it continues.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars Free Agency: Impressed, Not Surprised

I’m not surprised, but I am impressed.

For what seems like forever, the Jaguars in free agency were a non-factor. And even when they were a factor, it didn’t matter. Jerry Porter, Drayton Florence and Tory Holt were supposed to make a splash. They did, more looking like a belly flop. A bunch of journeymen fill-ins barely made a ripple. Part of the fault was Jack Del Rio and Gene Smith thinking the Jaguars were better than they were. Just a few tweaks here and there and they’d contend. That turned out not to be true. Even in his first year of ownership, Shad Khan was told that if they acquired CB Aaron Ross, resigned Jeremy Mincey, and picked up WR Laurent Robinson, they’ve have a chance in the division. Instead, they won two games and Khan decided to go back to the drawing board.

In comes a new GM Dave Caldwell and a new head coach, Gus Bradley. A couple of free agent signings in the first year of Sen’Derrick Marks and Roy Miller barely were noticed among the purge of players like Montel Owens, Daryl Smith and others. And while Marks and Miller exceeded expectations, there was no reason to think that the Jaguars of 2014 would be a player in the free-agent market where it would make a difference.

But all along Caldwell and Bradley have talked about “the plan” and clearly in the second year of their plan, free agency was a major part of the upgrade of the roster.

Before it even officially began, the Jaguars had agreed to terms with Red Bryant. Bryant, a DT off Seattle’s world championship team was a team captain and brought in for not only his ability to stop the run, but his leadership as a locker room guy. Upgrade.

When the free agency period began, OG Zane Beadles signed here from the Broncos and will be plugged in as a starter. “I’m only entering my 5th year. In some people’s eyes, that’s not hugely experienced. But I’ve played a lot of football, a lot of snaps and been through a lot of situations.” Upgrade

Shortly thereafter, RB Toby Gerhardt, the backup to Adrian Peterson in Minnesota signed a deal to play in a Jaguars uniform. Four years in the league, Gerhardt has less than 260 carries. “I’m a veteran without a lot of miles on these legs,” is how he put his level of experience. He expects to start. Upgrade

Dekoda Watson wasn’t impressed when he first saw downtown Jacksonville. “This is it? Is what I thought,” he said with a laugh at his press conference announcing his signing. “But then they took me over the bridge and I said, O, K, !” Watson will plug holes AND rush the passer from the edge. Upgrade.

After day one, the Jaguars were a better team. Day two brought the signings of DL Ziggy Hood and DE Chris Clemons. Clemons had more than 30 sacks in three years playing under Gus Bradley in Seattle. Hood started every game for the Steelers last year. Upgrade.

In kind of a surprise, Jason Babin re-signed with the Jaguars saying it was the plan all along. “They knew this is where I wanted to be. They knew all along I would void my contract.” While Babin is a known quantity, clearly Bradley thinks he brings enough to the table to give him a shot in competing for a spot here.

Add Will Blackmon’s signing as a free agent and you get a picture of what the Jaguars are trying to do before the draft. Just about all of these guys are in their late 20’s, have been around the league for 4 or 5 years, have played on some good and bad teams but all are either in, or about to be in the prime of their careers. They can be a core nucleus for Bradley and Caldwell going forward.

The other interesting part is how the players have gravitated to the Jaguars as a choice. Almost all said they heard about the energy Bradley brings to the team and admitted that they were curious but not convinced: Until they got here. Bradley’s culture has a reputation in the league already, and it has some players curious. Besides their age and experience, the other thread that runs through these free agents is their work ethic. All are know for going full bore, competing and hard work. In other words, according to Bradley, they love football.

They still need help at WR (Emmanuel Sanders?) and on the offensive line but year two of the three year plan is starting to take shape.

Whether they do a little more in free agency or wait until the draft (right now they have 11 picks in 2014) they’ll continue to follow Gus’ mantra of “Get Better.”

They are.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gabbert Gone

Walking off the practice field last summer during Gus Bradley’s first training camp as the head coach of the Jaguars, I found myself at the back of the pack walking with the Jaguars new leader.

“What the biggest surprise,” I asked as the two of us made our way to the locker room.

“Just the scope of it,” Bradley said, spreading his arms wide. “As the DC you’re in charge of the defense but as the head coach it all falls to you. It’s exciting.”

I’ve come to learn that that’s a pretty typical Bradley response. Assessing the situation, grasping the solution, rising to the challenge and excelling at the execution.

During this first real conversation one-on-one between the two of us, I asked him what he thought of Blaine Gabbert.

“He has all the tools, great arm, right size, nice speed,” he explained, outlining all of the things everybody sees when they get a look at Gabbert on the practice field.

“What you’ll find is that he’s the most seductive practice player you’ll ever see,” I said, echoing my sentiment since about day one of Gabbert’s tenure in Jacksonville.

“What the heck is that supposed to mean,” Gus said with a playful poke to my shoulder.

“It’s just that when you watch him in practice, it makes you wonder how do we ever lose?” I explained. “He has all of the tools, size, speed, arm strength. He makes all the throws, has a command of the offense and runs the team like he owns it out here,” I added pointing to the practice field.

“But taking that from here, to there,” I said pointing to the stadium, “seems to elude him.”

“I guess I’ll have to see that for myself,” Bradley quickly replied. He went on to outline the research they’d done on Gabbert, noting that he completed over 80% of his passes when given a reasonable amount of time in the pocket and how he was like having a first round pick on the roster.

“Fair enough,” I said as we shook hands. “I hope you’re right.”

And Bradley named Gabbert the starter for game one before training camp was over.

Almost four years into his tenure with the Jaguars Gabbert has finally been given a chance to perhaps to make it elsewhere, traded to the San Francisco 49ers for a 6th round draft pick this year. The Jaguars could get another pick next year if Gabbert gets some significant playing time in San Francisco this season.

While Gabbert was surly and sullen generally during his time talking to the media in Jacksonville, it’ll be interesting to see if he can take his talents from the practice field to the game field at the same level with a fresh start. If you look at the Niners starter Colin Kaepernick and Gabbert in terms of what the NFL people call “measurables,” they match up pretty well. But that’s where the similarities end. Kaepernick has outperformed his draft position (2nd round) while Gabbert has never lived up to his (10th overall.)

Some of that can be blamed on Jack Del Rio putting Gabbert in the game as a rookie before he was ready. With no summer (strike/lockout) and only a few weeks of training camp, Del Rio threw Gabbert into the game three weeks into the season because Luke McCown had thrown a bunch of interceptions the week before. Gabbert was in way over his head, didn’t know much of the offense, couldn’t figure out the speed of the game and started looking for the rush instead of looking downfield. John Gruden called him out on a Monday Night Football national broadcast and Gabbert’s reputation as “afraid” in the pocket was cemented. That’s followed him around since then, and he’s done nothing to prove that theory wrong.

Given the benefit of the doubt and every chance to ascend to a true starting quarterback role in the National Football League, in Jacksonville, Blaine Gabbert never got it done. Maybe the West Coast will be the tonic that allows him to flourish.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators Still “Chasing Greatness”

“This is just goal number one,” Patric Young said with a big smile on his face after the Gators finished an undefeated regular season in conference play. Florida jumped out to a 21-point lead at halftime over Kentucky, weathered a 15-0 run by the Wildcats in the second half and finished with an 84-65 win on Senior Day at the O’Connell Center.

“I love Senior Day and I hate it,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said after calling this the best regular season he’s ever been a part of.

“That’s the best sendoff I’ve seen in my 18 years here for our 4 seniors. And with all of that emotion, I didn’t know how they’d come out and play.”

Donovan needn’t worried.

Jacksonville’s Pat Young got things started, scoring on a variety of jump hooks, dunks and short jumpers as Florida took control early. “It fired me up,” Young said of the Senior Day festivities before the game. “I just wanted the ball to get in the air to get started. I was ready to go.”

In a reference to the “one and done” history recently for the Wildcats under John Calapari, one fan held up a sign before the game, “Hey Kentucky, this is what Senior Day looks like.” Florida leaned on their seniors with Young getting 14 points in the first half enroute to their big lead.

“Coach told us it was going to be a dogfight at halftime,” senior guard Scotty Wilbekin said afterwards. “We believed him. Kentucky’s a good team, they can score. We just had to weather that storm.”

Wilbekin put an end to that 15-0 Kentucky run in the second half with a big 3-point shot. “I was looking for that” he noted as the lead was cut to just six. His shot pushed it back to nine with 12 minutes left in the second half. Young hit a hook from the lane and Casey Prather made a layup and a free throw on a great drive to the basket to push Florida’s lead back to 17 and they never looked back.

The Gators earned a first round bye in the SEC tournament by winning the regular season title. They’ll next play in Atlanta in a second round game next weekend.

“We’ll enjoy this for now, take tomorrow off and work on getting our minds and bodies right for the next thing we have to do,” Donovan said with a smile in his press conference.

The SEC played an 18-game conference schedule from 1967 through 1991 but no team went undefeated in conference play in that stretch. Kentucky (twice) and LSU went 17-1 over that period of time. Now that the league has expanded, the Gators become the first team to go undefeated through conference play. “We’re not perfect,” Donovan noted, admitting that the record says otherwise. “We’ve played some bad games and have managed to win. We can still better. Our goal is to “chase greatness” by being as good as we can be. The rest will take care of itself.”

When they’re that good, they’re unbeatable.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

“Personal Foul” on the Dutch

I guess we should just be amused when people who don’t know anything about America try and come up with reasons why Americans are, well, Americans. We are somewhat iconoclastic, doing things our way in our almost 240 years as a nation. We drive on the other side of the road than the British. Our horse racing goes the other way, specifically to create an independent state of mind for “the colonies.”

We’ve developed our own sports, some of which we’ve exported to the rest of the world. Basketball is an international game. Baseball has a footing in Central and South America and in Asia. Football has a following, but it would be a stretch to call it “international.”

My European friends call the games we play the “entertainment sports.” To most of them, if it’s not futbol, F1 or Moto (motorcycle racing) it doesn’t count.

Other countries have their specialties. The Irish follow hurling religiously. Australia has it’s own brand of football. And the French have a sport that resembles bocce ball called Petanque. In fact, their biggest tournament was played in Jacksonville in the past two years.

So I suppose I should have just laughed it off when Dutch speedskating coach Jillert Anema on an American cable network during the Olympics, blasted Americans for focusing on what he called “foolish sport.”

“You have a lot of attention for foolish sport, like American football. You waste a lot of talent, athletic talent, in a sport where it’s meant to kill each other, to injure each other. …and when you compete once every four years, with talent, with a few lone wolves, who are skating, you can’t beat the world, it’s no way.”

I was amazed that the “reporter” asking him the questions let him get away with that, just smiling and saying his comments would be considered “blasphemous” in the US. She laughed when she said, “Americans love their football.”

So he continued.

“You’re [the US] is so narrow-minded, and you waste a lot of good talent in a sport that sucks,” he added.

It would be easy to call Anema “misguided” but he was clearly using this platform to slam the States at will.


Perhaps he should have been reminded of Shani Davis’ success in the past two Olympics. Or Apolo Ono’s medal haul in Vancouver. Maybe he’s forgotten about Bonnie Blair. Or he wasn’t around in 1980 when the single greatest feat in Olympic history was achieved by American Speedskater Eric Heiden. Heiden won all five gold medals in speedskating at those games, from the 500 to the 10,000. That’s akin to somebody winning the 100 meters and the marathon in the same Summer Games. He set 4 Olympic records and one world record at those games for good measure.

“Coach” Anema should be congratulated for the success the Netherlands scored in Sochi. Speedskating is a national sport in his country of nearly 17 million people. But he should also be reminded that it’s a good thing we’re not serious about speedskating as a nation.

With our more than 330 million people in the States, I’m sure we could find a few who might be able to rival the Dutch in just about anything. Imagine if there was no American football and those athletes turned to speedskating instead.

Our national team would be made up of guys like Maurice Jones Drew in the 500. Chris Johnson in the 1000. Megatron looks like a good fit for the 1500. Larry Fitzgerald could probably handle the 5000 with Tony Gonzalez or Vernon Davis in the 10,000.

So Coach, stay home and stay under the radar until every 4 years you can grab some global glory. Because if we decide we’re going to be good in your sport, you’ll be playing for second.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

NASCAR: Looking To The Past To Find The Future

It was about racing.

From the inception of what is now known as NASCAR through the beach driving in Daytona and onto the 2.5 mile tri-oval through the rule changes designed for speed and safety and all the way up to about 2000, driving at Daytona was all about racing. Finding speed was always the key, either by being better than the rules or just bending them a bit.

Walking through the garage area you were just as likely to find the drivers elbows-deep in the engine under the hood as you were seeing them on a slider under the chassis. They knew the car. Most of them helped build them. The car was an extension of who they were. If it didn’t feel right on the track, they’d whip into the garage, jump out of the drivers window, unlatch the hood and grab a wrench.

If you wanted to talk with Richard Petty, he was probably going to be talking to you while using a grease rag to wipe his hands. Cale Yarborough talked about driving that “MC Anderson Valvoline Buick” as if he was piloting a supersonic jet. And in some ways he was. “At 180 you have time to do this,” he told me as he jerked the imaginary steering wheel to the right. “At 200, you’re on it already.” Dale Earnhardt was elusive and almost made a game of disappearing and then all of the sudden being in the car and rolling onto the track. Walking through his garage one afternoon during Speedweeks after practice I found him sitting on the floor, by himself, leaning up against the wall.

“You OK?” I asked

“Yup,” he responded without looking up.

I figured I’d take a chance and sat down next to him. He never gave me a glance.

“Learn anything out there today,” I said after a minute or so of silence.

That’s when he looked right at me and said, “Learned I don’t have enough car to win.”

What do you say to that? So I just sat there. And so did he. I suppose contemplating how to make the car faster. After a short while, he got up and walked away.

“See ‘ya,” I called after him.

“Yup,” he answered without turning back.

You knew who had the best chance to win before the green flag even dropped. Certain cars had money; everybody else was scraping it together for the race.

While NASCAR was the first sport to embrace sponsorship as part of the “game,” the drivers knew how to fit it into the conversation as part of any sentence.

The “STP Pontiac” and the “Wood Brothers Ford” were part of the lexicon of the sport. They knew what kept them driving. And they knew it was their relationship with the fans that kept the attendance high, the merchandise sales going and the payouts increasing. That’s why “the King” would sign autographs ’till the last person was happy. Why Cale called to me across the garage and asked, “Where you been boy?” when I moved from Charleston to Jacksonville and he no longer had a Charleston TV station connection he could watch from his home in the Palmetto State. When NASCAR couldn’t figure out how to keep the crews in line when it came to following the rules, they plucked the guy most known for skirting the regulations to police the rest of the teams. They hired the crew chief who was driving them crazy looking for ways to “get around” the rules.

When their most popular driver died at Daytona on the final lap, NASCAR revamped their whole safety structure, requiring a safer cockpit for the drivers and even changing the cars, trying to move the sport forward.

They’re raised and lowered spoilers, put restrictor plates on the engines and gone through a half dozen “generations” of cars looking for safety and speed but still trying to find that “racing” heritage that made the sport what it is today.

So many fans I know have tired of the pack racing that happens at Daytona. It’s an aerodynamic race now. While drivers used to shift 1,000 times during the 500, now once they’re up to speed, their foot is on the floor all the way around the 2 ½ miles.

The sport is still driven by the personalities of the drivers. They’re all fast, hundredths of a second separating the first from the 43rd qualifier. Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin won the qualifying races, contested at night for the first time on Thursday. Both admitted they have fast cars but said, “Everybody’s fast. Anybody can win. Honest.”

While the spectacle of “The Great American Race” will carry the day as Luke Bryan performs and the Air Force Thunderbirds perform the flyover we can only hope the racing will be as exciting.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jax: An Events Town

While attendance at the MLS exhibition on Wednesday night between Philadelphia and New York was down because of the weather, that’s no indication of the passion for “the beautiful game” here in Jacksonville.

When the NASL had a team in North Florida in the early ’80’s it was relocated from Boston and kept the name ‘Tea Men’ despite calling Jacksonville home. That’s only because the Lipton Tea Company was the owner and ran the team from afar.

“We had no business being in places like Jacksonville, Atlanta and Tampa,” one former NASL executive said recently in explaining why the league folded.

On the surface, he’s right. As a professional sports league mostly fueled by ethnic followings in major cities, the NASL struggled to find a footing in places where American football as well as baseball, basketball and hockey were already established. To attract a crowd that wasn’t in town to see the New York Cosmos, whole retinues of minor league style promotions were in play, drawing scant attention from most of the sporting public.

But here, the Tea Men had a following that understood the game.

The crowds in Jacksonville were decent, anywhere from 9 to 17-thousand rattling around the Gator Bowl. But they were passionate and knowledgeable, and they were there for every game. A pair of English stars, Noel Cantwell and Dennis Viollet lead Jacksonville’s NASL effort, bringing in a blend of American, European and South American players to compete. It was a quaint, fun time with a big-time feel in a small-time town.

But it laid the groundwork for so many things to come, whether it was the USFL, the NFL or the Super Bowl. It was part of a dream.

Billy Joel said at his concert last month that it was fun to be back in Jacksonville because the first time he was here “you could smell it coming before you got here.” As the paper mills and the chemical plants disappeared and the quality of life improved, there were more and more queries about the viability of a real professional sports team calling Jacksonville home. Joel’s comments dated him back at least 30 years.

Oh how things have changed.

There will be a NASL team in town next year, with the announcement of their name and logo expected Tuesday morning at the Landing. More than 44,000 showed up for a “friendly” between Scotland and the US last year.

We’re an events oriented town, and if a team with “USA” emblazoned across their chests is taking the field (or pitch in this case) we’re going to show up. Think back to the buzz around the Rugby League match between Leeds and South Sydney a few years ago. It became “the thing to do.”

That’s why one of the final friendlies before heading to Brazil for the World Cup for Team USA should be played here.

Yes our stadium field is too small for an official ‘qualifier.” (A situation that can be remedied with about a $5 million investment for detachable seats in the four corners of the stadium floor) but if you want to send our boys off with a bang, let them depart from here. An early summer game as the jumping off point for Brazil could mimic the weather in that part of South America and would create a buzz in town that would attract at least 50,000.

Outside of Seattle, nobody attracts that kind of crowd.

Make it an event, bring in “our boys” and it’ll be an incomparable evening.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

National Signing Day: “Mark Your Calendar!”

It wasn’t quite ten years ago that you could sense a spike in the interest surrounding what was happening on National Signing Day. Formerly reserved for what were called “recruit-niks” and hard-core college football fans, suddenly high school auditoriums were full of students and faculty as football players (although all ‘fall’ sports use today as their first official day to commit) sat behind an array of hats and selected a school to play at the following year. National cable sports channels started to televise these announcements live and suddenly, new stars, and a new date sports fans put on their calendars were born.

A gym full of students sat completely silent (a feat in itself) as Tim Tebow waited for an ESPN producer to count him down to when he was going to make his announcement live on the air. When he chose Florida, the assembled group erupted, with cheers of “Go Gators” ringing through all of Nease High School. Interestingly enough, anybody who was there realized just how close Tebow had gotten to going to Alabama based on his relationship with Mike Shula. While much of the suspense regarding announcements is gone from this day because of social media and early commitments, it’s still a fun and exciting day for the student athletes, their parents and the schools.

Although recruiting is an inexact science at best.

Before an avalanche of information became the norm, the 6 o’clock news was the first place college football fans would hear about which big recruits were going where. That’s why in 1986, my phone rang about every 30 seconds on Signing Day with fans asking “Where’d Emmitt Smith sign.” Luckily Smith had made his decision and announcement to attend Florida early enough in the day to get the information out in a timely fashion.

The following year, my phone rang about every 10 seconds all day with fans asking “Where’d Marquette Smith sign?” Perhaps relishing in the attention at the time, Marquette Smith waited most of the day before letting people know he was headed to FSU. The interest in Emmitt’s destination was noticeable; the interest in Marquette’s was like a circus. Of course, Emmitt Smith went on to an All-American Career in college and is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Marquette Smith never could find his footing in Tallahassee, eventually transferred to UCF (when their program was not yet Division I) and spent two years injured in the NFL. You’d have never known that based on the level of interest in the recruiting of those players before cell phones, the internet and cable television brought this day right into the national sports consciousness.

Lives will be pushed in a new direction today, parents will exhale and be thankful their son or daughter will have the opportunity to continue their education (in man cases for free) and we’ll update you throughout the day on what’s happening right here on News4Jax.com as well as our Facebook page and Twitter accounts. And we’ll have complete coverage at 5, 6, 10 and 11 tonight.

What fun!