Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

March Madness in Town: What Fun!

“And in Jacksonville the Tar Heels are going to advance to the Sweet 16.”

Words most long-time residents and sports fans thought they’d never hear. But for the third time in 9 years the NCAA returned to the Arena for the second and third round of the basketball tournament known as “March Madness.”

“They won’t come back here until we get a bigger arena with better television access,” one observer sent out on Twitter this week. I wasn’t sure how he came to this conclusion since the NCAA has chosen Jacksonville as a regional site THREE times. Same arena, same “television access” and moreover same hospitality, same weather (great) and same conclusion: We’re a great spot for this event.

Everything about the NCAA Tournament is fun and Jacksonville is the perfect venue for five days of basketball, the beach and enjoyment. Somehow, the three times the tournament has been here the weather has been great. (Conversely when The Players started here in March it always seemed to feature some of the worst spring weather of the year).

While the city still lacks at least one more upscale hotel (a la the Hyatt downtown) we’re easy to get to for a lot of fans and something new for a lot of the visitors following their teams. Georgia State, UNC, Ole Miss and Wofford supporters had no trouble driving if they chose. Harvard (Boston, and please get me out of this snow!) Baylor (Waco, TX) and Xavier (Cincinnati) had easy flights, either non- or one-stop. Arkansas’s fans could drive or fly and escape their own pre-spring chill. Several members of the Crimson noted the Jacksonville weather in their opening press conference. They stayed at One Ocean so a peek at the beach and “being somewhere that used air conditioning” was a treat.

Whether it was a Bolles, UNF or JU, there were plenty of places for the eight squads to practice. The Tar Heels had dinner at Ruth’s Chris on the Southbank Wednesday night. No dealing with anything out of the ordinary when it came to weather or getting around. In fact, the JSO provided escorts for the team buses wherever they went.

Where we did drop the ball was allowing the Main Street Bridge to be closed on Thursday night and having no access to I-95 off the Acosta the same evening. I know the construction there on the interstate and surrounding roads has taken a long time but with this many people in the city from out of town, ease of getting around is paramount. Not just for this trip but to encourage people to come back. And the $30 charge for parking in the garages smacked of gouging a captive audience.

Much like when the Super Bowl was here and the NFL Owners stayed at the Ritz at Amelia and Amelia Island Plantation, most of the NCAA executives were at the Ponte Vedra Club or the Lodge, providing a nice home base other than their standard business hotel.

Having the food trucks by the arena was a good idea and it’s always a nice sight when people are walking along the river headed to and from the game. (Imagine if the Shipyards project ever gets built!)

I wish more fans had the opportunity to take advantage of the Wednesday shoot-around for all eight teams. It was a nice touch when Head Coach Roy Williams stopped UNC’s session early for a dunk and half court shot contest and then sent his players into the stands for pictures, to shake hands and sign autographs for those in attendance. “I thought there were a lot of kids there who would get a kick out of it,” he told me later.

Going to the NCAA Tournament is a treat and when they have it in your hometown, it’s really special.

Hopefully, they’ll be back. Soon.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

UNF Already Looking Forward

Despite their 81-77 loss in the first round of the NCAA’s to Robert Morris, the UNF Osprey’s are already looking toward next year.

“I’m looking forward for us to do the next right thing,” Head Coach Matthew Driscoll said in his post-game press conference. Driscoll is in his 6th year as the UNF Head Coach and has brought the program to historic heights with their first conference championship, 23 wins during the regular season and their first NCAA’s tournament berth. But it’s about moving forward at this point according everybody involved with the program. That’s no surprise given Driscoll’s attitude and the culture he’s created on the Osprey’s campus and in their locker room.

Beau Beach, the Ponte Vedra High product who had a game-high 28 points including six of ten from outside the arc, says he’s disappointed but not undaunted. “It was a great season overall, and it was the most fun season I’ve ever had. I’ll remember the good over the bad, that’s for sure.”

Returning all but three seniors and one starter, the Osprey’s could be a force in the ASun again next year. “We took a step this year and next year we’ll take another step and try to win a tournament game,” DeMarcus Daniels said in the post-game locker room.

He’s right about that. In a conference that’s dwindled to eight teams, the ASun only gets one bid to the NCAA tournament and it goes to the conference champion. UNF will be the favorite to repeat next year and has the experience and the talent to do just that.

The Ospreys shot nearly 60% in the first half but 21 turnovers, compared to 5 for Robert Morris and missed shots in key situations cost UNF a chance at victory.

“Give them credit,” Driscoll said in his post-game press conference. “Our turnovers were self inflicted and when you give them that chance, it’s really hard to stop.”

Scoring 77 points usually guarantees victory for UNF, but couldn’t clean up the “little things” to get the job done.

“I totally cherish the moment, cause it ends fast, really fast,” Jalen Nesbitt noted.

While Nesbitt won’t be back for another run next year, UNF seems poised to keep this going.

And according to Sophomore Chris Davenport this is just the start. “It’s a stepping stone and we’ll move forward for next year. Hopefully we’ll come out on the other end.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gate River Run (and Race): Worth a Day

It’s a well told story but worth repeating. When American running legend Bill Rodgers won the first Gate River Run, he went out and ran the course a second time: to get in some more training.

Rodgers helped put the “run” on the map as a “race.” In the time since, it’s gone from a local event to an internationally known race with premier prize money and a distinctive course. At the same time, it’s become a rite of spring and for a lot of locals, a yearly fitness test. Again in 2015, the registration numbers will set a record with no end in sight. “If we get to 20,000, we’ll probably have to cut it off,” race director Doug Alred said recently. “The roads in San Marco and in St. Nicholas couldn’t handle more than that.”

Doug’s right about that. Having run the “Gate” numerous times, somewhere in the middle of the pack, it’s as much of a social event as anything else. It has to be. The crowds along the neighborhoods who are IN the race kind of carry you along. The crowds in the neighborhoods who have set up lawn chairs, signs and make-shift water stations are usually shouting encouragement. Bands have lined the course. Marines and Army personnel have run in step as a unit, doing “double time” for 9.3 miles.

It’s become a thing for part of the more than 15,000 runners recently to make a splash in costume. I’ve seen “Thing 1 and Thing 2” running side-by-side. One guy ran in a banana costume. Firefighters in full battle gear. Somebody in one of those full body suits. One full cow costume, a chicken suit and every superhero imaginable. This year, two guys will run inside a replica of the USS Adams to promote and honor the retired naval vessel that could be a museum on the Jacksonville riverfront in the future. It’s a fun day, for most, and it’s a target for local runners and fitness buffs every spring. Where will I finish in comparison to last year? Will I run a PR?

Every time I ran (before Channel 4 started to televise the race) I finished somewhere in the middle. If there were 5,000 runners, I finished 2,500th. If there were 15,000 runners, I finished 7,500th. Because my times were always somewhere between 82 and 90 minutes. “You’re barely moving!” one of my serious running friends exclaimed when he saw my time one year. Which is OK. Because I was running with everybody else. A majority of the finishers are going to cross the line somewhere between 75 and 95 minutes. That’s the Gate River “Run.”

But there is a race involved, for sure. At the front of the pack, two-time defending champ Ben True will be a heavy favorite and even has been specifically training for this race. “I’ve had 42.22 on my mind,” True told me on Thursday. “I’ve been focusing on that number but with the weather forecast, that might be a challenge.” True was referring to the American record time for 15K that two-time Olympian Todd Williams set in 1995. It was so fast that Alred went out and measured the course again to make sure it wasn’t short. “I caught a perfect day,” Todd said this week. “I was training right, the wind was down, it was about 45 degrees and I felt great. You need that kind of a situation to pull that off.” Williams record is the longest standing track and field mark in the books. “I love this race and being a part of the community,” Todd continued. Growing up in Michigan, he moved here from Tennessee and has made Jacksonville his home. “The way this race has taken off from the first national championship in 1994 to now is phenomenal. People love to run the Gate and around the country and the world, the running community knows about the Gate.”

This is such a landmark for the year, I’ve never understood why the city government hasn’t embraced it more openly. With nearly 20,000 runners and another 20,000 spectators and family members downtown, why not take advantage of the built in audience and make it a festival. In fact, in the early ’80’s the city make the run part of “River Day” that included a full celebration of the river on the North and South banks with festivals, concerts and the like. Recently when the race is over the message has been, “go home.” For all the talk of creating a vibrant city core, why not show it off to the people who are already there? A set up similar to what we did with the Super Bowl would fit perfectly with the tens of thousands of people who are already downtown. I’ve talked about this with the last 5 mayors and all have said it’s a “good idea.”

How about we put that idea into action? Who knows, people might stay downtown.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars spend Money, Goodwill in Free Agency

And now we wait.

With a big push in free agency, the Jaguars have stocked their team with new talent, potentially adding six new starters for their 2015 roster.

Although General Manager Dave Caldwell said he hasn’t spend as much money as he expected, the Jaguars have committed $175 million to free agents so far, with $78 million of that guaranteed.

“Our aim in free agency was to help Blake. Everything we wanted to do was get him some help and I think we did that,” Caldwell said on Wednesday. “It’s been a fun last 48 hours from a team standpoint working with the staff and the coaches.” Caldwell admitted to targeting five potential free agents and getting three. Randal Cobb and Devin McCourty re-signed with their original teams. The Jaguars signed Julius Thomas from Denver, Jared Odrick from Miami and the Cowboy’s Jermey Parnell. In addition the Jaguars signed contracts with cornerback Davon House from Green Bay, San Francisco linebacker Dan Skuta and Colts free safety Sergio Brown.

Thomas is the big catch having scored 24 touchdowns with 108 receptions over the last two years in Denver. Although he was catching passes thrown by Peyton Manning he was quick to point out, “there are a lot of factors for the production I had in Denver, not just Peyton.” Thomas was so thoughtful with his answers and forthright and honest that his press conference turned into more of a conversation than anything else. At the end, he thanked the media and walked around the room, shaking hands and introducing himself to everyone in attendance. Last time that happened with a player was never. (Mike Mularkey did it once but that’s about it.)

It’s clear that the Jaguars have vetted their potential free agent targets as much as people as they do as players.

“How they approached me as a person more than as a player,” is how Odrick answered as to ‘why’ he chose the Jaguars. “You never want to sign the papers and have a pit in your stomach. I’ve been walking around here with a smile on my face all day. And it’s not because of some numbers on a contract, it’s because of the people I’ve met.”

“I was pleased to hear that when they asked people in the league about me they said I was a good person,” Thomas responded when I asked him about being checked out by the Jaguars. I met with Coach Gus today and he’s the type you just want to go play for.”

In the three seasons that Caldwell and Bradley have been together, they have brought in the same type of player in free agency and in the draft. They’re all in what you would call the “ascending” phase of their career, just about all in the 20’s and all have a thread of personality that matches what’s already in the locker room. Thoughtful, earnest and willing to work are the trademarks of the personality type.

With the addition of new starters on the offensive line, at tight end, linebacker, defensive line and in the defensive backfield, the focus shifts to the draft and what they can do to upgrade with the 3rd overall pick. If Leonard Williams is there, they’ll take him. Outside of that, they’ll be willing to listen to offers, if there are any, to move up to that spot. Help at running back (still a free-agent possibility), wide receiver and depth are still priorities but the Jaguars have fulfilled their promise to upgrade the team.

“You deserve better,” Shad Khan said last month addressing the fans and the nine wins the team has had in the last three years.

This group should go a long way toward that goal. They are a solid bunch of guys with only one question remaining:

Can they play?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

“Pedro’s Last Dance” Should be Fun

Many an afternoon I sat in the stands at Wolfson Park or in the upper deck at the Baseball Grounds with “Senior” and “Pedro” listening to common wisdom, getting life lessons, hearing fantastic stories (that were all true) and enjoying a cigar (when it was legal). I knew those moments were special and I savored every one. Oftentimes the evening was spent on the “Chairman’s Bench” watching baseball, hearing baseball wisdom and watching the endless stream of well-wishers who came by just to say hi to Peter Bragan, Sr. and Peter Bragan, Jr. and express how much they enjoyed being there. I saw kindness and humility, passed from father to son and watched a local business become an institution and flourish.

Monday’s announcement that Pedro was selling the team to an out of town businessman was inevitable, of course. Having bought the team from the Eliopoulos family (good people and owners in their own right) for $330,000 in 1984, a 30+ year run as the owners of the Double A franchise in Jacksonville seemed enough. When Senior died in 2012 and Pedro passed into his 60’s, the idea that somebody else was going to own the franchise soon was getting close.

“If Daddy saw those numbers he’d say ‘Sign the papers boy,” is how Pedro told me he came to his final decision to sell the franchise. It’s been widely reported that Ken Babby is paying about $25 million to be the new owner. “That’s funny money,” according to Pedro and “more than me and Nancy will ever be able to spend.” But at the very least the Bragan legacy in Jacksonville seems secure. With that “funny money” Pedro intends to start a baseball foundation and perhaps build a museum to honor Jacksonville’s baseball history.

“He’ll make it a better franchise,” Bragan said during the announcement in the locker room at the Baseball Grounds. Babby, the owner of the Akron Rubber Ducks is media-savvy having worked for the Washington Post Company. So it was no surprise when he encouraged applause regarding the baseball foundation announcement.

“We like affordable family fun,” Babby explained when asked about his philosophy regarding running a minor league franchise. “But a few championships thrown in here and there wouldn’t hurt either.”

Bragan will run the franchise for 2015 calling it, “Pedro’s Last Dance.” He stepped out from behind the podium, and in classic Pedro fashion, danced an abbreviated jig for the media. “It’s not quite right because I still have this boot on,” he explained having had foot surgery two months ago.

Interestingly enough, Shad Khan was interested in buying the Suns but Babby was willing to pay top dollar and Khan let the deal go.

Pedro wanted to announce the deal at his annual Christmas party in December but couldn’t complete the paperwork for the deal to go through in time so he figured the beginning of spring training was his next best option.

What the Bragans did was bring exactly what Babby says he wants to continue: affordable family fun. They also build relationships with advertisers and sponsors, the city and most importantly their paying customers, the fans. Babby has increased attendance nearly 30% in the first two years he’s owned the club in Akron.

That can’t be overstated. If you went to the ballpark and didn’t see Pedro and his Dad there, it would have been strange. I guess that’s why I can’t remember a time when I was at the ballpark and didn’t see one of them there. That will end after this season. Chris Peters has done a great job of learning the business and running the show for the last few years and hopefully, he’ll be given a chance to continue to do the same.

That local, common touch is important in any minor league baseball operation but perhaps more pronounced in Jacksonville.

As Pedro said, “I never really owned the Suns, the fans and the city did, I was just a steward.”

And it’s because he thinks that way that made it work so well.