Twenty-two Years Ago Today: The Jaguars Are Born
It was a cold morning in Chicago , November 30, 1993. I had watched ABC News Nightline the previous evening with Wayne Weaver, then of 9 West shoe fame, and now the new face of Touchdown Jacksonville! Nightline spent a segment on NFL expansion, outlining how Charlotte had secured a franchise in October and how the NFL had tabled the decision on the 30th team until their next meeting.
I had been with Weaver the day the league awarded Charlotte a franchise a month ago and then told him to wait. He was not happy. In October, Wayne invited me to walk with him at the Chicago Hyatt to the NFL’s temporary offices where he was to meet with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. As we waited outside the door for Tagliabue to finish up and speak with Weaver, I asked Wayne, “What are you going to tell him?”
Without hesitation, the future Jaguars owner turned to me with a narrow eyed, unblinking stare and said, “I’m going to ask why we didn’t get what we came here for.”
And with that, the receptionist invited Weaver into the offices. He turned and said to me, “Wait here.” So I sat back down, grabbed a newspaper (still popular then) and settled in for a long wait.
Much to my surprise, it wasn’t more than 15 minutes before Wayne walked back out the door, stern faced and clearly still not happy.
“How’d it go?” I asked somewhat jovially, trying to lighten the mood.
Weaver would have none of it.
“I wanted to know why we didn’t get an NFL franchise and he didn’t have an answer. He said, ‘Be patient,'” Wayne answered as he strode toward the lobby.
There, the other members present in Touchdown Jacksonville were briefed on what the NFL was thinking and what they’re jobs were for the next 30 days. No matter what was said, it was obvious, the league was trying to put a franchise back in St. Louis and avoid Jacksonville. The Cardinals had moved to Phoenix and with the lure of Budweiser and other institutional money in St. Louis, the league wanted a franchise there. And the little publicized fact was Weaver’s connection to St. Louis where he had lived and worked.
But to Jacksonville’s gain, Wayne turned down the league’s suggestion that he become the principal owner and managing partner in St. Louis instead of Jacksonville.
So about 30 days later we were back in Chicago at the same Hyatt going through the same song and dance with the NFL Owners. Weaver had invited me after the viewing of Nightline to go for a run in the morning.
“Seven AM, in the lobby,” he said
So at seven I was standing in the lobby in running shorts and long sleeved shirt and a knit hat. Weaver appeared moments later wearing the most beautiful running suit I had ever seen. We headed out into the cold morning, well below freezing, anticipating something around five miles. We chatted the whole time about how Wayne should present himself to the media when, or if, he got a franchise.
“You’re the shark, we’re the guppies,” I told him. “Move where you want and we’ll follow.”
Then I added, ‘When you’re up there with the Commissioner, look at the back row where the camera’s are. I’ll be standing there pointing into the camera. You look there and you’ll be speaking to all of Jacksonville,” I said with a bit of hyperbole. (In a side note, we stopped at about the three mile mark to catch our breath and out of a grove of trees in the suburbs of Chicago, stepped about a 8 point buck, 10 yards from us. I’m not much for ‘signs’ but I turned to Wayne and quietly said, “You’re getting a team.”)
This time in Chicago they would award one franchise instead of two. Baltimore was still in the picture with two ownership groups, Memphis still thought they had a shot but it was St. Louis and Jacksonville as the front-runners.
Current Jaguars President Mark Lamping knows the inside story of the St. Louis bid. The infighting, the “who’s in charge” that sank their bid. To the public though, they brought in Dan Dierdorf to help make their presentation. Dierdorf, not yet a Pro Football Hall of Fame member (Jack Buck was his biggest patron) might have told the St. Louis story to the NFL Owners but in public he spent most of his time running down Jacksonville. As part of the media in attendance at his press conference, I heard Dierdorf go out of his way several times to outline how Jacksonville couldn’t support a franchise and didn’t deserve one. Perhaps he thought he was doing his job. But at the time, it was unseemly.
Nonetheless, the presentations concluded and the different city representatives were sent to separate suites on one of the top floors of the Hyatt’s adjacent towers.
Weaver invited everybody along who looked like a familiar face from Jacksonville. Ensconced in the suite, the league sent instructions to sit tight while the owners voted. They’d let us know the outcome.
So along with several other media members, I settled in with TD Jax members like Tom Petway and Chick Sheerer to wait. I was looking at the plans HOK had proposed for stadium improvement with Petway when a security guard started to sweep through the suite saying “Media out!”
I grabbed the plans, put them in front of my face and turned on the couch to look at Petway. He just smiled as the guard walked by.
Hearing “But Kouvaris is still in there,” from one of our competitors as the door to the suite was closed only heightened my sense that I was in the right place at the right time, but probably shouldn’t be there.
We had arranged through the Channel 4 News Director Nancy Shafran and a high-level officer of TD Jacksonville a code word, “Tangerine” to tip us off if Jacksonville were to be awarded the franchise.
Suddenly, bursting through the front door was Ron Weaver, a Jacksonville local and Wayne’s brother who had brought Wayne to the table as the principal owner the league was looking for. TD Jax had put together enough money but the league didn’t want to deal with a committee. They wanted one person, and Weaver was that guy.
I jumped out of my seat and found myself in a circle with Ron, Wayne, his wife Delores and David Seldin of TD Jax and the potential Jaguars President.
“You’re getting an NFL team,” Ron blurted out to his brother, red-faced with excitement.
Out of turn I asked, “How do you know that?”
Ron turned to me and said, “Because I just ran into the finance committee chairman in the hallway and he said we were the choice.”
Everybody knew the full NFL Owners membership had never turned down a recommendation of the finance or expansion committee so this seemed to be it: the dream coming true.
“I should go,” I said to Seldin as I turned away, shook both Wayne’s and Ron’s hand and hugged Delores. Seldin agreed and I walked to the sofa to gather my things.
In 1993, mobile phone technology was not what it is now and at the time I carried one of those phones everybody makes fun of: big, bulky, looked like the son of something the GI’s carried in WWII.
As I carefully put the antenna up to the window to see if I had service, I dialed the news director’s private number. When she answered I simply said, “Tangerine.”
“Really? Are you sure?” Nancy said excitedly.
Before I could answer, the other phone in her office rang and she said hold on. In something that seemed surreal at the time, I heard a familiar voice say from the other room of the suite, “Tangerine.” It was our source, confirming what I had just told her.
We quickly formulated a plan, I said my goodbyes’ and headed to the ballroom where the announcement would be made.
As I approached the elevator, a young producer from our competition at the time stepped out of one of the two elevators and asked, “Where is everybody?”
What happened next I’m not sure is ethical or right, but it’s what actually happened.
“Down that hall,” I motioned to her, knowing full well the numerous security guards wouldn’t let her approach the Jacksonville suite.
As she walked off, I stepped into her elevator and hit every floor’s button and jumped out as the door closed. Slowly. I then grabbed the other elevator and hit, “1.” Before the doors opened, I hit every floor’s button on that panel as well, figuring it would buy us some time.
I knew we were right, and wanted us to be first, an important element in the news business.
I briskly walked to the ballroom where Tom Wills, the Channel 4 Anchorman was just about to go on the air.
I had walked by a small room entering the ballroom that had boxes of t-shirts and hats with “Baltimore Bombers” and other contenders emblazoned on the front. The one that was missing was “Jacksonville Jaguars,” confirming what I already knew.
“We’re getting a team,” I said to Tom with a huge smile on my face.
“If you’re sure, let’s go with it,” Tom said. I’ve always appreciated the trust he had in me at that moment, littlerally putting his credibility on the line just on my word.
In seconds we were on the air announcing that shortly, the NFL would award the 30th franchise to Jacksonville.
Sure enough, Paul Tagliabue announced Jacksonville would be awarded the franchise and bedlam ensued at home.
Tom flew back on one of the two private planes Touchdown Jacksonville had brought to Chicago with Petway, Weaver, and several others. I was assigned to stay in Chicago and report from there. In a bit of irony, the plane Tom and Weaver were on had a flat tire and it took a while for them to fix it and get back to Jacksonville.
It didn’t matter though, the team had already arrived.