Stats Can Make You Better

Each September my brother Gust invites me to play in the fall Member-Guest golf tournament at his club in Detroit. It usually happens near the middle of the month and I’ve always been amused at the conversations we have with our competitors.

It’s one of their final tournaments of the year so much of the banter is about the hockey and bowling leagues that are forming that week. They’re lacing up their skates on Sunday following the final round to get ready for the winter season. Their golf clubs are going in the deep freeze for the cold weather.

Here, we’re on the opposite schedule. It might be the middle of the NFL and the College Football seasons, but most local golfers are also working on their golf games to enjoy the weather over the next nine to ten months

With a six to eight month golf season up north, ours can be year around, especially if you’re willing to play in the heat of July, August and September. They don’t have that option in the snow and cold of much of October through April.

My brother recently won the Senior Championship at his club. So how has he maintained his near scratch status when he has to quit playing half the year because of weather?

These days it’s simple. Technology has allowed us to take the game indoors to small spaces. Players up north can keep their games sharp through data and information.

Two companies, FlightScope and TRACKMAN have developed computer generated data that analyzes your swing, equipment and shot selection and can make you a better player.

“People love the technology,” says former professional golfer John Schroeder who’s the owner and an instructor/fitter at MasterFit Golf in Orange Park. “It makes it so easy for people to understand why the ball flies the way it does.”

Schroeder and MasterFit have been in business for 25 years both on Phillips Highway and in Orange Park. But nothing has accelerated his ability to do his job like the technology explosion. MasterFit was an early adopter of Flight Scope. Fifteen years ago they were the first practice range to have the technology in the state of Florida and have partnered with them ever since.
“There’s a fine line between the artistry of golf and the advancements in technology,” Sea Island Golf Performance Center Manger Craig Allan said from his teaching and fitting spot overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. “We walk very carefully along that fence.”

Sea Island and Allan use TRACKMAN technology developed by a Dutch company that’s been in the swing data business from the beginning.
It used to be that an instructor told you to “keep your head down,” or “get to your left side.” With the modern technology how the equipment performs is part of the equations. Spin rates and launch angles are a big part of the conversation when it comes to the equipment they choose.
“I can push a player toward game improvement technology in clubs but the player has to like the club they’re looking at on good days and bad,” Allan explained.
“We can look at 28 different parameters of your swing and ball flight,” Schroeder, who played college golf at UNF, added. “Ball, flight and swing parameters. Launch, landing, smash factor, spin rate swing speed, angle of attack, club path, face to path they all are invaluable from a teaching standpoint.”

Instruction has come a long way even from the time when a video camera and a radar gun seemed advanced. While the technology can help instructors improve your golf game, it can also match your game with the right equipment.

“We’re building a shaft that matches your swing speed,” Schroeder said. “You want to get your driver from 50 feet to 80 feet in the air? We can measure the data, we know what different shafts can do so we match those two things up.”

With over 40,000 shafts to choose from onsite at their 8,000 square foot facility on Wells Road, Schroeder says the data from FlightScope and watching your swing allows him to improve your game almost instantly.

“We’re looking at launch, spin and landing angle when it comes to optimizing your ball flight. FlightScope measures the shaft how it’s loading and unloading. That helps me build a shaft for you.”

With the right equipment in your hands, you can be a better player. It also allows instructors to develop your game the way you play it.

“Much easier,” Schroeder said when asked if his job as an instructor has gotten easier or more complicated.

“We’re not going to focus on all 28 data points. We’ll focus on one or two and when people see that, they can understand it much easier. ‘Why did I slice it 30 yards to the right?’ It shows your clubface was 13 degrees open at impact. And that’s easy to understand.”
Allan said he and tries not to rely just on the equipment to make better players. The combination of the “hands-on” traditional instruction combined with the technology takes learning the game to a new level with the right equipment.
“Some great players have gotten away from the artistry of the game and relying on technology,” Allan said about the blend he tries to use in his work. “But it’ll always remain a game that relies on feel and athleticism. We’re just trying to enhance that.”

Minshew or Foles? No Rush

In some ways the game against the Texans in London will help determine what happens with the Jaguars for the rest of this season and beyond. The decision at quarterback won’t be an easy one, and it could have franchise implications for years to come.

With a win at Wembley, the Jaguars will have won three straight with Gardner Minshew at quarterback, moved to 5-4 and have a say in who wins the AFC South.

In that scenario, it’s hard to take Minshew out of the lineup in favor of Nick Foles. You almost have to go with the hot hand.

If the Texans win, the Jaguars are 4-5 and are looking up at both Houston and Indianapolis in the division, at least two games behind with seven to play.

There are plenty of situations in the past where the head coach had to make a decision where to go at quarterback when the established starter has been injured but the backup plays well. Doug Marrone says he hasn’t thought about it one bit, so far.

“Why would I go through scenarios in my mind and waste my time with scenarios when I have to get ready for another game,” he said this week. “If we didn’t have a bye after the Texans game, I think somewhere along the line next week, I would start going through that in my mind. I really haven’t thought about it. The reason why is because I don’t have to, and I don’t want to. I’ll deal with it when it happens.”

I don’t think the money they’re paying Foles comes into the equation right now. If it’s about winning, which quarterback gives them the best chance to do that? You don’t know how this team plays with Foles as the starter. He got hurt after two series in the opener. He did throw a touchdown pass on the play when he was injured. You can go by the old adage that player’s don’t lose their starting jobs to injury. Or you can say Minshew throws all of the old adage’s out the window.

Ultimately It’ll be Marrone’s decision but actually what happens is up to Minshew. Marrone has to take into consideration the emotional impact Minshew has on the team. Call it “Minshew Magic” or call it chemistry but there’s no question he inspires the guys in that locker room.

That’s why it’ll be up to him. If they lose to Houston in London and the Jaguars brass decides to put Foles back in the lineup when they resume in two weeks against Indy, Gardner has to go along with it. I mean really go along.

If he says, “Yeah, I’m cool with it. Nick’s a great player and he’s our starter,” his teammates will buy into it.

But if he comes out and says, “It was a coach’s decision and I’ll stick to that” then there’s trouble in River City. The team will lose their motivation and unless Foles plays lights out, the season will grind to a halt.

There are plenty of examples in the past of injured starters and their backups: John Unitas and Earl Morrall, Morrall and Bob Griese, Jeff Hostetler and Phil Simms. This year Drew Brees was back in the lineup after his backup; Teddy Bridgewater went 5-0 as the starter while Brees was out with a thumb injury.

Morrall came in for an injured Griese in game five of the ’72 season. He won 12 straight games for the Dolphins, including playoff wins over Oakland and Pittsburgh. Head Coach Don Shula put Griese back in the game as the starter in Super bowl VII against Washington to finish their perfect season.

Morrall told Shula, “I think I should play, but I’m not going to make a problem.”

These next three games will determine what kind of season 2019 will be for the Jaguars. Three division games, none of them here in Jacksonville. Win two out of three and they’ll be a favorite in four of their last five games (maybe not against the Raiders in Oakland) with a realistic shot at the post-season. Lose two out of three and it’s an uphill slog where they’ll need help to make the playoffs.
Virtually the same scenario happened to the 1978 New York Jets. Richard Todd was the Jets starter but broke his collarbone four weeks into the season. Second-year quarterback Matt Robinson came in and led the Jets into playoff contention over the next twelve games.

“We missed a field goal at the end of the game twelve games in against the Patriots in Shea Stadium to really be in the thick of it,” Robinson recalled.

Head Coach Walt Michaels had started Todd against New England, only to see him falter. He put Matt back under center mid-game. Robinson threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to revive the Jets chances.

“When Walt started Richard the next game, that split the locker room,” Robinson said. “And we were done. We missed the playoffs.”

That’s the dilemma the Jaguars face. Can you flip-flop your quarterbacks and not lose the locker room? If they start Foles against the Colts and he falters, do they return Gardner to the lineup?

Marrone already knows what Minshew can do.

“Sometimes I look and you’re like, ‘That’s a veteran move. That’s a veteran player,’” he said after the win against New York. “He does not play like he was brought into this league, a sixth-round draft pick or something like that. He doesn’t play like that.”

It’s going to have to be a gut call. Win in London and let Minshew keep playing. Foles has shown to be the best reliever in the game if things go south. Lose to the Texans and put Foles in the lineup. He can make throws Minshew can’t. He doesn’t have Gardner’s mobility or his ‘magic’ but he’s a proven winner. Give Minshew a chance to watch and learn some more, give him some seasoning. You know he can play.

There shouldn’t be any rush here. The Packers had Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers on their roster together for three years. Foles and Minshew can co-exist.

As Minshew said when asked what he thought of Foles coming back to practice two weeks ago:

“I think we’re pretty good at quarterback.”

Bailey, Wuerffel Say FL/GA is Special

Now that the city has a new contract with the universities, maybe they’ll put their efforts into making something of the Georgia/Florida weekend. There’s been a tepid move in that direction with a party and a concert but I’m talking about something on a much grander scale. Not Super Bowl grand, but a festival weekend that brings people downtown and entices them to stay rather than tell them to just go home. (Same with Gate River Run weekend.)

It’s a mystery why the City of Jacksonville, from a government standpoint, has always seemed to take the game for granted. Closing streets, bringing in vendors, food trucks and all kinds of entertainment would entertain and contain the fans in town for more than just a football game.

Because it is more than just a football game. It’s a cultural happening.

Private enterprise will make it happen whether the city gets involved or not. School icons Champ Bailey and Danny Wuerffel are already a part of that.

They’re hosting “The Player’s Reception” on Friday night, a tailgate party in the Channel 7 parking lot across the street from the stadium. It’s the third one Bailey has hosted and the first where he and Wuerffel have joined forces.

The idea is to connect former players, fans, and corporate leaders to network, have some fun, raise money for charity and give guys a chance to make a positive transition out of football.

“I was paying attention to business after playing and thinking how can I use the game to give back,” Bailey said this week. “Who can I help by doing this? Getting everybody in the same room: players, fans, and corporate execs. I’ve gotten value and opportunities, in every meeting I’ve ever had. Face to face, that’s important.”

“I have a ton of respect for Champ as a player and a person,” Wuerffel said from Atlanta where he’s the Executive Director of Desire Street Ministries and coming off shoulder surgery. “It’s a way to reconnect with former players and engage with fans and help some guys.”

Bailey, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and Wuerffel, a Heisman Trophy winner, acknowledge the transition out of football, no matter when it stops, is a tough one. Bailey says giving guys a chance to connect with other players and business leaders equates to “local hero marketing.”

“It dominates your life,” Champ said of playing football at a high level. “If you’re not consumed with the game you don’t have a chance to be a great player. But it gets in the way of learning something new outside of football. You need to know the impact you’ve had and how that provides other opportunities.”

“When everything is going for you, it’s easy to get caught up in the ride of it,” Wuerffel added. “It’s a tough transition. Whether it’s high school, college or the NFL. So much of your life is tied up in this one activity. How do you navigate forward?”

Wuerffel is no stranger to using the popularity of the Florida/Georgia game to raise money and awareness for Desire Street Ministries. The 9th annual “desire cup” golf tournament will be contested this Friday at the TPC at Sawgrass with a dinner Thursday night.

“The momentum around the Florida/Georgia game give us a chance to achieve our goals,” Wuerffel said. The tournament is sold out but their fundraising continues with a “19th hole donation” available on the ministry’s website.

Neither Danny nor Champ knew much about the legendary tailgating going on at the game. As players they knew the hotel, the bus and the inside of the stadium. Because he was playing, Bailey said last year was the first time he had been to a tailgate.

“I had never been to Georgia/Florida,” he explained. “I had never tailgated because I was playing. I got to see so many people I hadn’t seen. That rivalry is so big, a lot of different people are going to be there.”

“It’s got that combination of significance in the SEC, the fans are extra hyped, and it’s in Jacksonville,” Wuerffel said. “I was less in tune with the peripheral stuff. I felt more uniqueness as a fan after I was finished playing in the game.”

His first trip to the game brought a quick awareness to the uniqueness and sheer scope of what happens before kickoff.

“I came in on a boat,” he recalled, getting off at Metropolitan Park. “I still had to get over to the stadium. Back then, I couldn’t walk anywhere without Gator fans converging on me. I put some pom-poms in my hat so It looked like I had long hair. I think I put on sunglasses. I put a big hood over the hat. It was wild.”

Having very different experiences as players in the game didn’t diminish their respect for the contest. Wuerffel was 4-0 against Georgia. Bailey went 1-2 against the Gators with an interception. “They were just better than us,” Bailey explained. “Spurrier had it figured out.”

Growing up in Folkston, Bailey was well aware of the rivalry from an early age. He went to the game once when his older brother Ron was on the Bulldogs roster.

“That rivalry meant something on the border,” Champ said. “There are a lot of Gator fans in my home town. My idols went to Florida. But I was always a Bulldog. It meant something to me since I can remember football.”

In a weird quirk of his career, Bailey has been on teams with all three Heisman winners from Florida. He was a teammate with Wuerffel in Washington when Steve Spurrier was the Head Coach there. And he was a teammate with Tim Tebow in Denver.

Both Wuerffel and Bailey think playing in Gainesville and Athens are the best home venues there are. But both said this game should stay in Jacksonville.

“It’s a unique thing,” Wuerffel explained. “It’s more convenient for Florida fans I know. You play plenty of home and away games in your career. Not many opportunities to play a neutral site game.”

Bailey agreed.

“To be able to play in it and now go to it. I hope it never leaves Jacksonville,” he said. “That location on the river, it’s something special. I’m interested in that game thriving. I’m interested that town thriving. I basically grew up there.”

Learning To Win

Watching the Jaguars play New Orleans last week, you just got the feeling that the Saints would figure out a way to win and maybe the Jaguars didn’t quite know how.

Wanting to win is something we’re born with, but learning how to win is something we develop.

“It comes innately,” said Sheldon Kaplan, PhD, a clinical psychologist who’s been in practice since 1975. Dr. Kaplan specializes in childhood development and says being competitive and learning to win is developed from social interactions.

“When you’re eight or nine-years-old you think it’s nice to win. But at thirteen or 14 sometimes your very being is based on winning or losing.”

Kaplan has seen children as young as two have a strong desire to win, and others who are so afraid of losing they can’t even go on the field. He calls our awareness of where we stand in any competitive situation “social auditing.” Whether it’s getting back a math test or running a race.

“It’s a very complex process that develops because of social interactions. We monitor our performance. It intensifies with your age. It’s very complex. Those things in the locker room have an impact on what happens on the field.”

Just six games into the regular season, and with a rookie quarterback, are the Jaguars learning how to win?

“It’s a team-to-team thing,” Tackle Cam Robinson said Wednesday. “At Alabama there was an aura of winning. But each team, each year had to figure out how to do it with the guys they had.”

“One hundred percent,” Calais Campbell agreed. “Each team has to figure out every year how to win, what works for them.”

Campbell maintains that even at 2-4, the 2019 Jaguars have a chance to be a good team. But admits for some teams, it takes longer to figure out how to win.

“That’s why some teams get hot late in the year,” he said.

“You look at teams that win, there’s culture there that you rise to as part of that team,” Dr. Kaplan added. “It’s the culture and the leadership of the team. They learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses; it’s a vey elaborate social culture. It’s a collective effort.”

Kaplan says losing helps us cope and learn how to move forward. To do so is a process. “You have to be aware of your mistakes but not focused on them,” he said. “The focus has to be on what to do right the next time.”

Basketball Hall of Famer Pat Riley, who has won championships as a player, coach and an executive, believes each game has a turning point. “In every contest,” he says, “There comes a moment that separates winning from losing. The true warrior understands and seizes that moment.”

Although teams want to start fast and get ahead early, that moment usually comes sometime late in the third or early in the fourth quarter in an NFL game. One team figures something out and makes a play to turn the tide.

“You have to learn to adapt,” says tennis Hall of Famer Tony Trabert. “You get to a point where you have to make something happen. You’ve got to perform and not hope the other guy makes a mistake.”

Trabert won ten of the eleven Grand Slam finals he played in saying he was a “percentage kind of guy,” taking a few chances to keep the opponent off balance but playing to his own strengths.

“When I knew I was good enough, I expected to win,” he said. “Under pressure, do what you do best. You have the best chance of doing well with that in that situation.”

“I wasn’t superstitious, stepping on lines or over them or whatever, that’s negative stuff,” the former Davis Cup captain added. “You’re fit, you know your opponent, keep that negative stuff out of your head.”

There’s not a lot of negative energy in the Jaguars locker room. Head Coach Doug Marrone wants his team to focus turning their frustration into positive energy and point it toward getting better and winning. He sees that channeling through his rookie quarterback.

“He’s a young player, he’s had a lot of success early on,” Marrone said of Gardner Minshew’s struggles last week. “I think you get to a point where you have some success [and] people are going to start taking that away. People are going to start changing things up and testing you coverage-wise to see where you can go. He’s a smart kid, and he’ll learn from it.”

Minshew says he’s building a bank of experience that he’s starting to lean on after six games in the league.

“Absolutely. There’s a lot of learning that could be done and has been done from that tape,” he said of the New Orleans game last Sunday. “There’s things you’ll see in earlier games that we have to apply to this and that continues to grow, and we’ll continue to grow.”

Eighteen-time Golf Major Champion Jack Nicklaus says part of winning is learning how not to lose. One of his keys is to minimize mistakes, even though they’re going to happen.

“You have to learn how to shrink your mistakes (you will always make mistakes),” Nicklaus said. “How to make them small enough where they won’t cost you the tournament.”

In golf that means making just a bogey instead of triple-bogey. In football, don’t compound the holding call with unsportsmanlike conduct.

Now would be a good time for the Jaguars to apply the lessons learned in the first six weeks. Cincinnati is winless and the Jets come to town next week, both AFC opponents. The trip to London to face division opponent Houston follows with the Texans making their first trip to Wembley. A hot streak going into the bye week would put them right back in the race.

Mullen Has Florida Headed in Right Direction

Regardless of the outcome of last night’s game in Baton Rouge, Dan Mullen’s tenure at Florida so far has been nothing but positive.

Riding a 10-game winning streak going to LSU after beating Auburn last week at The Swamp, Florida was undefeated through their first six games in 2019 for the fourth time since 2006 and only the 10th time in school history.

And Mullen is at the center of the Gators resurgence.

“It’s cool and great to get this program back to where it should be,” quarterback Kyle Trask said this week. “All of the outside noise comes with the success we’re having.”

That outside noise is in the form of being ranked and as Mullen noted, playing the biggest games of the week.

“We were the biggest game in the country last week and we’re the biggest game in the country this week again,” Mullen said. “That’s what makes you want to play at Florida so you can play in the biggest games each week.”

When Florida went looking for a coach to replace Jim McElwain, Mullen was the easy choice. He had won at Mississippi State and Scott Stricklin, the Athletic Director at Florida, had been his boss in Starkville.

But he wasn’t the popular choice.

During his first tenure as offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer, Mullen wasn’t the most likeable guy in Gainesville. Brash, and off-putting, he had a way of letting everybody know he was smarter than they were in any conversation.

I even asked him about that when he was introduced as the Gators head coach in November of 2017. I noted the difference between Starkville and Gainesville and asked if he was ready for the expectations that came from Gator Nation. He knew what I was asking and while lauding Mississippi State and Bulldogs fans, he said he had learned a lot about being a head coach in the SEC after being away from Gainesville for nine years.

And he has.

Glib and confident, Mullen embraces all that goes along with being the Florida Gators Head Coach. He interacts with fans and has been unfailingly pleasant during his media time. He even starts most press conferences with “How’s everybody doin’?”

None of that would matter if he hadn’t won sixteen of his first 19 games. And the Gators have done that in all kinds of different ways. They’ve played good defense, they’ve gotten things done on special teams and their offense has had its bright spots.

“The biggest factor is we win the game,” Mullen said when asked about what kind of identity he’d like the Gators to have. “Three to two, 49-48, I don’t care, we’re winning.”

But Mullen says whatever is working, he’ll go with it. It doesn’t matter that he’s supposed to be a “quarterback whisperer” and an offensive guru.

“We want to play great defense,” he added. “We look at the program as a whole. I’m not into the numbers, just so we can claim we’re some magical offense. We look at our roster, our players, each game dictates what you’re going to do.”

At Florida, the offensive and defensive staff rooms are right next to each other. That’s on purpose. When the offensive game plan is coming together, they’ll stick their head in the defensive room to see how they’d defend what Mullen and company have cooked up. And vice-versa.

Losing Felipe Franks to an injury pushed Kyle Trask into the starting role, something Mullen was confident would work out. That’s because Trask had showed Mullen every day in practice what he’s capable of on the field.

“I hate the word ‘gamer,” Mullen said this week talking about Trask taking his game from practice to the stadium. “’Hey it’s going to be different when I get in the game.’ I want to see it every day in practice. When the lights come on it is different. To me, how you respond in those situations is important. The guy I saw is somebody who’s a good decision maker, an accurate passer.“

If Florida is going to compete with Alabama and Georgia in the National Championship picture, it might take a couple years of recruiting under Mullen. He’s always recruiting, because that’s what it takes. He’s talking to recruits, meeting them on their official visits. He was shaking hands and hugging recruits after the Auburn game at Florida Field, selling the program.

When asked about LSU’s claim as the school where great defensive backs come from, Mullen showed his knowledge of Gator history, defended his team, and slipped in some recruiting dialog all in one answer.

“We’ve got good defensive backs on our roster right now,” Mullen said. “But going back, that’s always been where we’ve had good players here at Florida. It’s not just the last five to ten years. Great players that have gone onto great careers in the NFL. They’re continuing that tradition here. There are a lot of great players in America who want to come here and continue that tradition here at Florida.”

It’s only the middle of his second season in Gainesville, but Mullen looks like he knows what it’s going to take to appease the Gator Nation. There will be bumps along the way, but if Florida can get back to past glory, Mullen looks like the guy who can get them there.

Minshew is More Than Magic

It’s fun to talk about Gardner Minshew’s mustache, “Minshew Magic,” his clothes and his resemblance to Uncle Rico from ‘Napoleon Dynamite.” But somewhere in all of that hype, the kind of quarterback he actually is can get lost. He’s twice been named the Offensive Rookie of the Week Twice and this week was named NFL Rookie of the Month for September.

When Florida was in it’s heyday in the ‘90’s, Steve Spurrier developed one quarterback after another. They all did the drills, the Head Ball Coach would put his visor in the back corner of the end zone and they’d drill dropping the ball back there with a high, arching throw from inside the 20-yard line. It’s a “feel” throw more than anything else. Danny Wuerffel had that feel. Jesse Palmer, perhaps more physically talented than Wuerffel, did not.

Minshew does.

It starts with a feel for the game, and Minshew has it.

It comes from practice, but it also comes from playing in your backyard as a kid. Minshew has that innate “feel” for the game only developed when nobody’s watching.

On the touchdown pass to Rock Armstead, he escaped three different guys, just like you would in the backyard. But unnoticed is how he made the throw.

The next time you see the highlight, notice that the ball never got past his ear when he took it back. That’s not anything you can teach. He knew there wasn’t much space left in there and no doubt somebody was coming from behind. So a “flick” into the end zone was the way to make play, and he made it.

“Try to protect the ball first and make a play,” is how Minshew described the play. “He (Armstead) did an awesome job. He ran a flat, came back around, and back out. It was awesome on him.”

Standing in the pocket, Gardner has that internal clock that tells him somewhere around three seconds after the snap he needs to get rid of it or get out of there. Somebody’s coming no matter how good the offensive line is blocking. He can feel the pressure immediately when taking the ball in the shotgun without looking at the blocking scheme like some quarterbacks do, especially later in their careers. He’ll make a slight move to the right or left or take a step up; all of those things keep the play alive and allow him to make a throw.

And that’s perhaps the most surprising part of Minshew’s game.

He’s throwing passes for the Jaguars that scouts didn’t think he could make coming out of Washington State. That’s why he lasted until the sixth round. His football IQ is plenty high and everybody knew that. He’s the same height as Drew Brees. He’s not fast, and he admits it. But nobody thought he could take that ball from the far hash and throw the deep crossing out pattern on the other side of the field.

Except in games he can.

Minshew is a “gamer” for sure, finding that little extra mustard or the right touch on the throw when he has to have it.

“I really don’t think they’re 50-50 balls,” he said of his willingness to put the ball up against one-on-one coverage. “Our guys can go up and get those.”

Minshew is developing that knowledge in practice with the receivers, knowing what they’re good at. For D.J. Chark, it’s back shoulder. For Dede Westbrook, it’s an outstretched arms catch. Chris Conley can “high-point” the ball and Gardner is able to throw that ball in the game for what’s best for his receivers.

Two throws stood out for Minshew on the Jaguars last two scoring drives. On third and 4 from their own 41 and 7:04 to play, the Jaguars called a crossing pattern to Marqis Lee. It looks like an easy throw, just five yards down the field. But Lee is streaking across the formation and the ball has to be delivered in perfectly for the play to work.. You get the timing for this play in practice. But in the game, with the pocket collapsing, Minshew delivers the ball in the ideal spot for a first down to keep the drive alive. It resuled in a Josh Lambo field goal.

On the final drive, starting at their own 25, Minshew threw incomplete on first down and fumbled the ball on second down, only to pick it up and throw it to D.J.Chark for 1-yard. On that play, Bradley Chubb was called for roughing the passer giving the Jaguars a new set of downs but leaving Gardner limping after the hit. (“Just football stuff,” he said afterwards. He’s expected to wear a knee brace against Carolina.)

On the very next play, Minshew had a couple of options where to throw it but picked the longest and most difficult choice, hitting Dede Westbrook, deep and across the field going away from him. One of the hardest throws for a quarterback to make but it was delivered perfectly. Westbrook tacked on some yards after the catch for a 32-yard gain to the Denver 27 and the Jaguars were already in field goal range.

“It was crazy. We knew we had to make some plays right there,” Minshew said after the game. “We had the ball, it got tipped up, I got hit, it was crazy. Then we get the penalty, Dede runs an awesome route. That was awesome.”

He’s the anti-Gabbert. Watching Blaine Gabbert in practice you wondered, “How do we ever lose?” The ball came out of his hand singing. He had command of the offense and nearly never missed a receiver. But that performance didn’t translate into games.

Minshew is the opposite.

In practice he looks fine, runs the offense and gets the ball there. But in games he steps up to another level. During the preseason Marrone was fine with Gardner’s performance but admitted he wanted to see more production.

“I don’t know if anxiety is the right word for me, but it’s more of I didn’t know. I really didn’t know,” the Jaguars head coach said of what he thought of Minshew coming out of the preseason. “I wasn’t sure, I just would have liked to see more production. Sometimes it’s about who’s around him at that position, trying to get a good beat on what that player is going to be able to do.”

When he was thrust into the game against Kansas City, he was handing the ball off to Leonard Fournette. Westbrook, Chark, Chris Conley and Geoff Swaim were running routes. That’s a big difference from standing in the huddle with guys just trying to make the team.

Starting this week there’s a big enough body of work for Minshew in the NFL for defensive coordinators to concentrate on taking the things away from him they perceive he’s good at: Crossing routes, quick outs, whatever. The good and great quarterbacks face that early in their careers and adjust. They make the defensive coordinators pick their poison. You can’t take it all away, they have a full arsenal of things they can do.

It’s why Marrone said this week, “I think it’s still early and we’ll see how it goes and we’ll take it week-by-week.” He knows what coaches are plotting to stop the Jaguars offense and their rookie quarterback.

The next couple of weeks will tell: Is it “magic” or just smoke and mirrors?

Calais Campbell

I liked Calais Campbell the first time we met. You know that feeling when you meet somebody and they emit some kind of aura that’s instantly disarming. His handshake, his body language, how he looks you in the eye during conversation.

“I feel the same way,” Jaguars Guard A.J. Cann agreed. “When I first met him I knew he was something special. He can step into a room full of people and when he leaves everybody loves him.”

He’s engaging and gregarious, smart and thoughtful. Where’d that come from?

“From my dad,” Campbell said after his normal media time this week on Wednesday. Calais’ dad, Charles, died just a few months after Campbell’s high school graduation. “He’d make five friends just going to the grocery store,” Calais added.

The youngest of six brothers, with two younger sisters, Campbell has always had athletic ability and size. “I’ve been this tall since I was 15,” he said. Listed at 6’9” and 300 lbs., Campbell is one of the largest people you’ll ever meet. Reminds me of Shaquille O’Neal when he was with the Magic. Just a few inches shorter.

“Big? He might be the biggest guy I’ve ever faced,” Jaguars Guard A.J. Cann said. “He’s freakish in a good way. I’ll be behind him getting on the scale and it’ll say ‘300’ and he’ll step down and he’s cut. He has abs, he’s broad shouldered.”

But it’s his demeanor, leadership, and presence that are universally respected. His father’s early influence has stuck with him though his days at the University of Miami and in the NFL.

“I used to brag on myself all the time” he added. “My dad hated it. He said, ‘If you’re that good, you don’t have to tell anybody.’ And he was right.”

Campbell, an All-Pro and four time Pro Bowler, was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week for the second time in his Jaguars career for his play last Thursday against Tennessee.

Denver is Calais’ hometown so this week’s game against the Broncos is somewhat of a homecoming. He’s rounded up more than 200 tickets for family and friends and donated $20,000 from his foundation to Denver charities this week. He’s doing the same here at home, donating $20,000 a month to different charities in town based on his performance and encouraging fans and sponsors to donate as well.

“Success comes from a village,” Campbell said when asked about his community commitments. “I’ve had a lot of people help me along the way.”

“We have a lot of ballers,” said Tight End Geoff Swaim. “But Calais is much more than that. He’s a real leader.”

Swaim is a five-year veteran who spent four years in Dallas. He characterized the culture in the Cowboy’s locker room as “really good.” And says Campbell and Nick Foles, in different ways, set that same tone here.

“Calais says the right things and he backs it up with what he does,” Swaim explained. “Leadership is displayed in different ways. Calais is a great leader. He doesn’t show his emotions in a negative way. He’s human and that’s hard to do sometimes.”

“I try to be genuine,” Campbell said when his teammates words were relayed to him. “Talk it and walk it.”

“Super-human” is how his play on the field is described occasionally. Swaim has been a victim of that.

“I had him on one play in practice,” he explained. “It was a zone block and I got my hands on him in the right spot. My feet were right and I thought ‘I’ve got him.’ He saw the play and just extended his arm and zoomed me down the line and made the tackle. I looked at my assistant coach and he just shrugged his shoulders.”

“I just try and be a sponge,” Jaguars third-year tackle Cam Robinson said. “He’ll talk to me in practice about what he did and how I reacted and what I could do better. I’m listening because whatever he’s doing, it’s working!”

At 6’6” and 320 lbs. Robinson is big in his own right. But when he lines up in front of Campbell in practice, it gets his attention.

“He’s the biggest guy I’ve faced,” he said.

With 84.5 career sacks, 25 of those coming in Jacksonville, Campbell can get after the quarterback. But he’s equally effective stopping the run. Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone says he’s a complete player. “Couldn’t ask for anything better,” he added.

“He doesn’t hear anything on the field,” Campbell’s defensive line mate Marcel Dareus said with a laugh when I asked for something about Calais we don’t know. “At least he acts like he doesn’t hear anything. We call the play and he’ll say one or two things and then he zones in. I’ll be yelling ‘Calais, Calais’ about what’s going on and he acts like he doesn’t hear a thing. But then the play goes and he does the right things and I say, ‘OK, he heard me.”

I’ve said many times that Campbell is the kind of guy you hope stays in town after his playing days are over. He can have a real positive impact on the community. So I asked him about that.

“We love it here,” he said, “We’re splitting our time between Arizona and here mostly.”

“But what about staying?” I asked.

“It’s tough because my family is out west,” he added. “Some in California, a few in Denver and some in Arizona.”

Hard to say what’ll happen when his career is over but currently in the third year of a four-year deal, Calais is still playing at high level. No matter his production from this point forward, the Jaguars shouldn’t let him get away. The Cardinals still lament the day they let him sign here as a free agent for both his on and off-field presence.

“He’s had some players and their wives over to his place and his wife and mine were going to get together,” Cann said of Campbell’s impact. “I told her ‘I’ll go,’ just to hang out with Calais.”

Ramsey Answer Is In The Mirror

After the Jaguars 20-7 win over Tennessee at home on Thursday night Head Coach Doug Marrone called it the ”longest short week we’ve had in the NFL.” While prepping for a division opponent and still looking for their first win, the Jalen Ramsey story hung over the Jaguars like a dark cloud that wouldn’t go away.

So it was a unique week in Jacksonville. That’s because Jalen Ramsey is a unique player. Unique in that he’s fantastically talented, and woefully misguided. But he’s not alone in this unique category. There have been others on the Jaguars in the past and sprinkled through NFL rosters as well.

For pretty much as long as he can remember, Ramsey has been told how good he is, that he’s special. And there is no denying that. At this point in his athletic career he’s always in the discussion about who’s the best cornerback in the NFL. So he has a special talent that he’s spent a few years developing. But he stopped developing everything else.

Ed Reed talked about this kind of player prior to his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction. The one’s who have no concept of how the uniform they left on the floor in front of their locker yesterday was cleaned and hung up perfectly today. Call it immaturity, a lack of self awareness or whatever, but Ramsey lives in that “bubble” of an echo chamber where only good things said about him count.

One classmate at Florida State said, “It’s typical Jalen. He creates this kind of situation where ever he goes.”

When asked this week, his teammates have nothing but glowing things to say about him. So as a teammate, he apparently sets the right tone. And against the Titans, true to his word, Ramsey played, played hard and played well. But that’s all about football. His actions this week show he doesn’t’ know much about life. Because that’s not how life works.

One veteran player raised his eyebrows and shook his head “Yes” when asked this week about every player dealing with something on every play. “Even in practice” he added quietly. So they know what’s going on. You deal with whatever it was and you move on.

Would Ramsey have had the same demand if Leonard Fournette had scored on the 2-point play? An inch makes that much difference? The Jaguars now would be 2-1 and in the thick of the division race three games into the season. His problem is apparently with the front office saying that some “disrespectful” things were said to him after last week’s game. I guess he’s never worked in a newsroom.

Everybody deals with something. I’m always amused when people associated with professional sports say “it’s an emotional game, it’s a high stress situation” as if nobody else would understand. Try standing in the ER one night and watching nurses and doctors handle the “high stress” situations hour after hour. Or get behind the wheel of a fully loaded 18-wheeler in bad weather with bad drivers all around at night and see how stressful that is.

When something doesn’t go right, those people don’t just say, “I want out!” they figure out how to get the job done. And that’s what gains respect in our city. Jacksonville is more working class than white collar and people in this town put up with plenty. They go to work every day and get their jobs done. Nobody cares if you’re making a dollar or a million dollars. If you’re figuring out how to do your best at whatever you do, that’s fine with them.

Any championship team usually reflects the city where they’re based. Think about the Steelers in Pittsburgh, the Eagles in Philly and even 20 years ago the Raiders in Oakland. It’s why football fans in Jacksonville are entertained by offense but they LOVE defense. It’s a reflection of our culture. We’re pretty comfortable in our own skin and don’t have a problem if you want to leave. Planes and trains are departing every hour. Maybe Ramsey’s just not a good fit here.

Bumping into the coach, shouting obscenities at the boss, holding onto that moment and ultimately asking to be traded sounds like something out of middle school. Walking away from a Ramsey press opportunity has always had that “middle school” feeling. Most times the press corps looks at each other in the aftermath and asks, “Really?” You might have seen it in the press conference he called on Tuesday. When it was over, mostly the reaction was “What was that?”

It reminds me of an episode of “30 Rock” centered on John Hamm’s character Drew Baird. He’s a good-looking doctor who’s always been told how good he is at everything. People try to curry favor with him because he’s a doctor and he’s good looking. Tina Fey’s character starts up a relationship with him only to find out he lacks so much self-awareness that he’s actually terrible at just about everything, But he has no idea since nobody’s every actually told him that. They’re too busy telling him how good looking and what a great doctor he is. “Drew Baird,” she says. “So good looking and so, so stupid.”

It’s not that Ramsey is stupid at all. He just lacks the self-awareness of how the rest of the world works and how it applies to him. You might say the NFL is a unique place, but when things aren’t exactly to your liking, you can’t just run away from it looking for something else. Because it’s usually not there.

Jalen has been called out plenty by former NFL players including Jaguars TV analyst Leon Searcy who cited Rod Woodson as an example of how to get things done. One of the former player-analyst on a post game show last week, Nate Burelson, called the modern player, and he paused for a second before saying this, “umm, sensitive.”

“They have their faces in their phones in the locker room. Everything that happens to them or anything they do is on social media immediately. They’re reacting to what the people in their circle are saying about it.”

“It’s football,” another analyst chimed in, “It’s not a sport for ‘sensitive.’ It doesn’t work that way.”

Neither does the rest of the world.

I don’t harbor any ill will toward Jalen. I know he’s young and we all look back at things we did and said when we were 24 and usually cringe. I do hope he does find what he’s looking for, even if it’s here.

Because it’s actually right in the mirror.

Jaguars Loss Shows What To Fix

Pretty often my favorite Jaguars fan asks me, “Are we the Browns? We’re the Browns of the South right?” I’ve always laughed the question away but when you look at the 24 years of Jaguars history, their lack of consistent success certainly puts them in a category something other than perennial favorites.

After Week 1 of the NFL season, every team starts to have a feel for what they’ve got and how their players will react in game situations. Teams that win in the opening week don’t get too high; teams that lose get back to work. Nobody panics, and nobody pops champagne.

Fans, on the other hand, have already decided what their team’s fate is going to be. Patriots, Chiefs and Ravens fans are making plans for the Super Bowl. Jaguars, Browns and Dolphins fans are making plans to go skiing.

After Sunday’s game, Jaguars fans were of two minds regarding the 2019 version of their team.

“It was ugly and embarrassing,” one fan wrote to me. “Where’s the defense?” another tweeted. “Fragile Nick,” was a popular DM on my feed.

But some others decided to take a different route.

“I’ve decided to put some positivity in the universe and am going to say it’s not as bad as it looked,” one wrote to me last Sunday night. Another pinged me saying, “Fournette looked good and Minshew looks like he can play.”

It’s an interesting position reporters have, hearing what the fan base is thinking but also dealing directly with the players and coaches. On one hand, fans can be pretty harsh, deriding the players’ and usually referring to their social life, their effort or the money they’re making. On the other hand, being in the locker room, talking to players and coaches and watching parts of practice, we get to see the effort and hear the commitment most players and coaches have to being their best and winning.

“We’ll be alright. We just have to find a way to win these games,” is a quote I’ve heard from numerous Jaguars players in post-game locker rooms in the last ten years, most recently from Calais Campbell. You can see the wheels spinning when they say that, trying to figure out the next thing they can do to contribute to a win. They don’t give up. It’s not in the nature of any athlete who makes it to the NFL to give up. Especially after Week 1. They’re highly competitive people.

When Head Coach Doug Marrone says, “Stuff happens,” (trying not to curse), he accepts the reality of a performance-based outcome.

“We’re in a profession where people are going to say, ‘Hey, you should do this, you have to do this, you didn’t do this well with the team, you didn’t do that,’ and I understand that,” he added. “A lot of times, what people say, it’s right out there on the screen and that’s the way it is.”

Nobody is happy that Nick Foles is injured after just two series in the opening game. What the Jaguars should be more concerned about is how their defense disappeared and how undisciplined they played. Granted, Kansas City might be the best offense in the league but if the Jaguars are going to hang their hat on defensive performance, it has to be better than that.

And for all of the talk about Myles Jack becoming a complete player in his third season, to get thrown out of the game just makes you shake your head. It’s out of character for him. But don’t tell me “it’s an emotional game.” He’s a professional and knows he’ll have his chance to exact a toll on the opposition the next time the ball is snapped.

It seemed like a stretch to keep just two quarterbacks when one was a rookie, but Gardner Minshew validated the confidence the Jaguars had in him by naming him the number two quarterback. He set the franchise record for completion percentage; a league record for consecutive passes completed in his debut and gave fans some hope. Remember, this is the guy who told Tom Coughlin at the combine when they first met, “I know, I’m too short, too slow and don’t have a good enough arm. But I did win eleven games last year.”

With Foles out at least half the season, the Jaguars are going with a rookie quarterback as the starter and acquired Josh Dobbs from Pittsburgh as some insurance. Trading for Dobbs shows that Coughlin, Caldwell and company thinks this team is ready to win now. Is Minshew Earl Morrall or Jeff Hostetler or just another rookie trying to make it in the league?

One thing’s for sure, the team and the coaching staff have the confidence that he can get the job done. Not just from his stats against the Chiefs but what he’s been able to fight through at every level he’s played.

“He’s a guy that really works hard outside of this building,” Marrone said of his new starting QB. “He’s a guy that has been through a ton of adversity. He has been through a hell of a lot more as an athlete than a lot of people have at his stage. He’s probably going to have to go through a lot more now that he’s playing.”

All of that traveling from school to school, competing for playing time, taught Minshew how to become the starter. Not just a stopgap guy.

“Going to different schools and learning the right way to step in and try to lead,” Minshew said of his assimilation into the starting job. “And that’s through going in and earning respect and not demanding respect. Earn it with how you work, with your habits, everything like that, instead of just going in, and talking and being loud. So, that’s been one thing that’s served me well through my whole career.”

Where Do the Jaguars’ Wins Come From

Every team is ready to win going into the first week of the season. A lot of teams think they can be good. A few know they’re good.

For the Jaguars, thinking they can be good might be half the battle after last season’s collapse. If there’s a flaw in their thinking, it’s what they “expect” to happen with about half of their roster.

Hope is not a strategy. Yet it seems the Jaguars are ‘hoping’ a lot of different things will fall into place. Nobody says ‘hope’ any longer when talking about their team, but “expecting to” or “anticipating” something are the euphemisms you hear coaches and personnel decision-makers use.

I don’t think there is any question that the Jaguars Oline will be the key to their success on offense. That’s the case with most teams but injuries on offense and specifically up front in 2018 eliminated any chance of success for the Jaguars.

So what’s the plan this year?

It appears the Jaguars are “expecting” Cam Robinson, Andrew Norwell and Brandon Linder, all lost last year to injuries, to return to their previous form. They barely played in the preseason, as the Jaguars plan for this training camp was to get as many players to the regular season healthy and ready to play.

At wide receiver, the Jaguars are “anticipating” Dede Westbrook and D.J. Chark to blossom into their potential and Marqise Lee to return to the player he was before last year’s knee injury. They’re also “expecting” Chris Conley to bring some consistency to that position and Keelan Cole to be the player he was in 2017 and the clock not strike midnight on him as it did last year. At tight end, new faces will be “expected” to block and catch in a fashion the Jaguars haven’t had in a while.

Admittedly, Leonard Fournette looks like the player he was as a rookie. He reported in shape and has the quickness at around 220lbs as well as the power that he misses at 230. He might be a three-down back this year, coming out of the backfield on third down. He can be a star. But behind him the backups at running back don’t have much, if any, NFL experience so the team is “expecting” them to be able to do the job if called on.

Even at quarterback, as much as there is to like about Nick Foles, he’s an unknown quantity over 16 games. Coming off the bench and leading an already solid team, he took the Eagles to the Super Bowl and was named the MVP. Signing him in the offseason shows that the Jaguars are “anticipating” him being that player for a whole season. Behind him I like Gardner Minshew developing in his first year, but as a rookie, he won’t be the answer for anything but the short term if Foles can’t play.

So on offense, the Jaguars are really an unknown quantity. If all of those things they’re “anticipating” or “expecting” happen, they’ll be fine. But there are a lot of moving parts in that equation.

On defense it’s almost exactly the opposite. This defense is built to win now. The Jaguars aren’t “expecting” or “anticipating” anything to happen. They know Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye might be the best cornerback tandem in the league. They know Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue can stop the run and get to the quarterback. They’ve seen the upside in Josh Allen. They gave Myles Jack a contract extension to keep playing like he has. They have some holes to fill at linebacker and their safeties are untested over a full season. But this is a defense you can win with.

And they’ll have to play just like the Jaguars are “expecting.” Only because that’s how the team is built.

Executive Vice President Tom Coughlin has said he wants the Jaguars to stop the run, get to the quarterback, run the ball and be successful a with play-action passing game. That means keeping the score down, controlling the ball and the clock on offense and limiting the opposition’s offense to a couple of possessions per quarter at most.

Clearly this team is built to beat teams in the AFC South. With Andrew Luck’s retirement, the Jaguars will be the favorites to beat the Colts both times they line up. Without Lamar Miller, the Texans will have to figure out a running game and rely more on Deshaun Watson. And the Titans will lean on Derrick Henry and Marcus Mariotta and the Jaguars know that. Plus their three-time Pro-Bowl tackle Taylor Lewan is out for the first four games of the year, including week three vs. the Jaguars.

Does that beat the Chiefs? Kansas City is a team built to score points from all kinds of angles and in bunches. They’re where the league is heading. Only if the Jaguars defense does their job, and they probably need to score some points, do the Jaguars come away from Week One with a win.

Not trying to be “Debbie Downer” here but that’ll be the theme throughout their schedule. Nine wins could win the division, which means stealing one or two on the road in Charlotte, Cincinnati, Oakland or Denver and winning games at home against the Chiefs and Saints where they’ll be underdogs to get to that number.

At least this team should make it interesting into December.

I “hope” it all works.

When A Team Is A Team

One thing I like about this Jaguars team is it’s honest. That might sound like a strange thing to say about a team but after walking into locker rooms for over 40 years, you can tell when they’re feeding you a line.

Most of Jack Del Rio’s teams were full of it. Gus Bradley’s teams were honest, knowing they weren’t very good. Doug Marrone’s teams have been a little bit of both.

In 2017 they were straight up, giving real answers and backing them up with solid play. Last year’s Jaguars used the same words but you could tell they were hollow. Calais Campbell knew it from the start. That’s one of the reasons he held two “players only “ meetings in the first four weeks of the season, even though they were 4-1.

So when Campbell says, “this team could be special” I believe him. He knows they have some talent on the 53-man roster and the addition of Josh Allen makes the defense better in every aspect. But when Campbell talks about “communication” he’s actually giving us a peek into the team chemistry, especially in the locker room.

You can get a hint of what’s going on with a team noticing how they interact with each other off the field. Little things like how they walk off the practice field, how long they hang around the locker room together. What kinds of conversations are happening when they’re not talking about football?

This all might seem silly, but Head Coach Doug Marrone talks about it at the beginning of every year when he says, “We’re a team in name only. We’ll see what kind of team we become.”

When he was a head coach, Tom Coughlin said no team becomes successful without “an intense affection for one another.”

Some of the “honesty” from a team comes from the quarterback. Mark Brunell gave canned responses and kept the media at arms length on the successful Jaguars teams of the ‘90’s. But he could because Tony Boselli was the emotional leader on those teams. Blake Bortles was honest about his shortcomings and was respected for his toughness by his teammates. That worked in 2017 with complimentary parts around him. It didn’t last year when things started going south.

Nick Foles is an earnest and honest guy who always puts a positive spin on things. A lot of what he’s said since joining the Jaguars has sounded like platitudes from a guy tying to fit in.

Until this week.

Foles took the field last week for the first time in a Jaguars uniform. He said it was an emotional experience but then gave some insights to this team between the lines of his answers.

“You can tell when you step in the huddle what it’s going to be like and tonight was a step in the right direction,” he said after playing in Miami. “Just the feeling in the huddle.”

If you’ve ever been in a huddle and especially if you’ve ever been the quarterback in that huddle, you know exactly what he’s talking about. It’s almost intangible, but the confidence each player has in themselves and in the other guys around them is evident at that moment.

“I’ve stepped in a lot of huddles and just the energy was really positive in the huddle,” Foles added. “A lot of that comes from the O-line. Guys are growing closer and closer together every single day.”

This year’s training camp was designed to foster those relationships. Foles said the schedule gave the players more time off the field to talk, study and just be together. “I’m not just talking to the offense,” he said early in camp.

Cutting players is no fun for Doug Marrone and he was honest when he started the week saying that. But there’s enough talent among the 90 players who have been in camp for the Jaguars that some players released will end up on other rosters.

“It’s difficult,” he said. “The ones that are easy and are the ones that are guys that are a**holes that are not going to make it anyway. You cut them with a smile on your face. You can’t get them out of the building fast enough, but we don’t have that. We have guys that are truly working their butts off.”

The talent level in the NFL is close, top to bottom. It’s the teams that gel, stay healthy, have confidence in each other and make plays that get to the post season. If it were only all about blocking and tackling and game plans, everybody would be 8-8.

So you probably tuned Foles out when he said the following after the Miami game, although he revealed the secret to his ability to come off the bench in Philadelphia and win the Super Bowl.

“The things I focus on when I play the game are trust, love and carrying for the guys around me. All of those things can overcome anything. Execution comes when there’s like an energy when you trust the guy next to you.”

Some of you are rolling your eyes and talking about “Kum-by-ya” about now saying ‘Come on” and asking if they can hit somebody. But f you’ve ever been on any kind of team, you’ll understand the rest.

“There’s a special energy when you run a play. I was on the sideline, I was in the huddle, this thing is building. It’s about those relationships. It’s about caring for one another and the locker room is full of that right now. That’s something special. That’s something that’s built over time. We’ve been building since OTA’s and it was good to see tonight.”

At 36 Vince Covello is Finally a Rookie

This week the PGA Tour season ends in Atlanta with the Tour Championship at East Lake. The payout this week is $45 million. That’s not a typo. The 30 players who made it to Atlanta will split $45 million with $15 million going to the winner. The eighth place finisher takes home $1.1 million. Finish last and you still get about $800,000. And that’s just part of the $70 million that made up the FedEx Cup winnings on Tour this year.

That’s why getting to the PGA Tour is a giant step for any professional golfer’s career. And that’s why Vince Covello’s story is so compelling.

Covello is 36 years old and has lived in North Florida for almost 20 years. He’s a Philadelphia native but after his family vacationed here a few times and came to watch The Players at TPC, they moved here. Vince was graduated from Nease High School in 2001 and went to UNF to play golf. He turned pro in 2004 and has been trying to make it to the PGA Tour ever since.

And this year, after 15 years of trying, he made it. He credits some of his Philadelphia upbringing for him being able to hang in there and keep trying.

“Being from there had a lot to do with my success,” he explained. “It’s a hard working town, people are hustling, trying to find a way to get it done. People don’t take no for an answer”

How big is it to get on the PGA Tour? Vince won once on what is now the Korn Ferry Tour this year and won about $165,000 playing 19 events. Justin Thomas also played 19 events on the PGA Tour this year and won once as well. He won just over $5 million.

In his profile of Covello after Vince’s win in March on the Web.com Tour in Louisiana, Times-Union golf writer Gary Smits compared him to Rocky or the NFL Eagles’ Vince Papale and even the 1985 Villanova basketball team. And he fits that mold: all underdogs who became champions.

“I never stopped smiling,” Covello said of August 11th, the day he got his card at Pumpkin Ridge in Portland. “It’s an elite list of guys 25 of the 180 or so who played the tour this year. I couldn’t get enough of it.”

He admitted it was a bit of a surreal experience to finally achieve his goal. Playing all over the world, gaining experience and trying to make some money as a professional golfer included stops in Australia, Chile, Mexico, Scotland, Austria, Turkey and Argentina among others.

You need to be resilient to continue that quest through the years and all of those stops, but Covello says there’s a bit of an art form to it as well.

“That’s always the battle,” he noted as he prepared for this week’s Korn Ferry Tour Championship at Victoria National in Indiana.

“It’s not the most lucrative business until you get to watch us on TV. It’s an art in itself just staying out there. Just knowing how to get around, save your money. Guys run out of cash and backing who can really play. You have to be fiscally aware. That’s an art in itself.”

Between 2012 and 2013 Vince went from missing getting his PGA Tour card by a shot at qualifying school (“I missed a putt on the last hole.”) to losing his status at 30 years old and had no place to play.

“It was a crushing moment. I went back to Monday qualifiers and played in Canada,” he explained. “It’s a downgrade in your life. It’s a tough walk. There are 300 guys trying to shoot 65 on Monday’s to play on the Korn Ferry Tour.”

Winning in March brought some new pressures that Covello didn’t fully expect. Some of it from inside his own head.

“There was more attention that I wasn’t used to,” he said as a first time winner. “I was the 4th ranked player out there for a minute. I knew my game was in a good spot but sometimes that makes it harder. You do things out of your comfort zone.”

After playing well the week after his win, he missed three straight cuts. That’s when he brought his coach and mentor, former PGA Tour player Anders Forsbrand, out on tour to caddy for him to see what was happening.

“It’s been my biggest help, working with him,” he said. “Almost a father figure since my dad passed away in 2009. “The golf knowledge of course, but also the mentoring. Especially since he’s walked that journey. He’s been able to talk about how to get from playing bad to playing better.”

After this week, Covello will be “zippered in” with the top 25 finishers at the Korn Ferry Tour Championship giving him status at minimum inside the top 175 players eligible to compete on the PGA Tour. He’s studied the schedule and expects to get into around 16 Tour stops with his status. The rest will depend on how he plays.

“The rookies get reshuffled every five weeks,” he said. “So there’s no time to slack off. You need to come out ready to play.”

Even though he’ll turn 37 this November, Covello isn’t the oldest rookie in his graduating class. Scott Harrington is 38 years old, a Portland native and played well in his hometown at the year’s final event to earn his card. Still, rookies are rookies in any sport.

“One piece of advice I was given,” Vince said with a laugh. “Don’t let the other guys in the field know your hotel room number if you’re staying at the resort. Guys will charge stuff to the rookies.”

Knowing how to travel, practice and rest are things Covello says he figured out early in his well-traveled career. But he says he’s learned a few things on the course about himself in just the past few seasons.

“The last few years I figured out how to keep a job,” he said. “I’ve learned you can keep the stress off, play freer. You have to figure out how to move forward past your good and bad moments. How to hit your best shot as your next shot.”

Covello has now been on both sides of that ceremony at the end of the regular season. While a few tears were shed with those close to him who helped him achieve his goal, it was mostly joy he felt standing on that green with his PGA Tour card.

“I’ve been on that green watching my friends graduating in the past,” he explained. “I told my self I wanted to be that guy toasting champagne. I never put my little card down. I walked around with it one hand in front of my chest and a glass of champagne in the other.”

“I’m looking forward to getting my feet wet,” Covello said. “But golf is still golf. We’re all trying to hit it down the middle and on the green and make a birdie putt.”

Here’s hoping he makes plenty of those.

Coaches and QB’s Make the Difference

When it comes to where the University of Florida and the University of Georgia football programs have gone in the last ten years, it’s apparent where the success or failure in Gainesville or Athens comes from. To win in either of those places you need a coach with an offensive philosophy and you need a quarterback to get the job done.

That’s nothing new in the last thirty years in the Southeastern Conference. Steve Spurrier brought that idea to a defensive minded “Don’t make a mistake” SEC in 1990 and revolutionized how to win in the conference and in turn in college football. Dubbed the “Fun ‘n Gun,” Spurrier’s offense put up numbers, touchdowns and wins at a record pace. He made no apologies about scoring and not worrying about out-scoring the opponent. When you’d ask Steve something about the Gators’ defense during his mid-week press conference, he’d say “You’ll have to ask Coach (Bobby) Stoops about that.” And Stoops would have his own press conference when Spurrier was done.

Going back thirty years, the two schools’ football programs are dominated by two coaches: Steve Spurrier at Florida and Mark Richt at Georgia. Both were offensive-minded coaches who were willing to spread it out, throw it around and recruited quarterbacks to do it. Spurrier had Shane Matthews, Terry Dean, Danny Wuerffel, Doug Johnson and Rex Grossman running his offense. Richt recruited David Green, D.J. Shockley, Matt Stafford, Aaron Murray and even Jacob Eason although he never played for Richt.

SEC passing records and conference titles followed both coaches and their quarterbacks in Athens and Gainesville. Since Spurrier’s departure nearly 20 years ago, Florida has had only one real offensive run under Urban Meyer. Meyer’s another coach who’s looking for skill players who can run, throw and catch.

Neither his off-putting personality nor his penchant to recruit players on the edges of eligibility and the law stopped Meyer’s offensive juggernaut. He wanted to score points and recruited players to do that. While Ron Zook brought Chris Leak to Florida, it was Meyer who won a National Championship with Leak behind center. And when Leak committed to Florida, it opened the floodgates for other skill players to make their way to Gainesville.

Meyer convinced Tim Tebow to join him in Gainesville, outdueling Alabama for the quarterback’s services. Another National Championship followed along with a laundry list of quarterback records amassed by Tebow.

So what’s happened since then?

Once the Meyer era ended the Gators turned to Will Muschamp to lead the program. Muschamp is a solid coach, but he’s willing to win games 21-17. Not only does that not work in the SEC any longer, it also doesn’t please Gator fans.

“We just didn’t win enough games,” Muschamp said at his departure press conference. He was exactly right but an inspection of his quarterbacks probably reveals why. John Brantley, Jacoby Brissett, Jeff Driskel, Tyler Murphy, Skyler Mornhinweg and Treon Harris all started for the Gators under Muschamp. With Muschamp’s philosophy, none flourished in Gainesville. Brissett, Driskel and Murphy all transferred. Brissett and Driskel are still in the NFL. Murphy starred in his final season at Boston College.

With the promise to revive the offense, Jim McElwain arrived in Gainesville to much fanfare. His problems started when Will Grier became ineligible and transferred to West Virginia where he had a stellar career. Gator fans then watched Luke Del Rio, Malik Zaire and current placeholder Feleipe Franks drive the points and win totals down. Turns out McElwain was part of the problem, not the solution and his acumen for recruiting quarterbacks remains in question.

Georgia’s quarterbacks in the last twenty years also follow their success. Joe Tereshinski, Joe Cox, Hutson Mason, Greyson Lambert and Faton Bauta all started games of varying degrees for the Bulldogs but without much success.

Both Dan Mullen and Kirby Smart fill the role needed to win in the SEC and on the national stage in today’s college football climate. Mullen has stuck with Franks and Smart inherited Eason but recruited Jake Fromm and even Justin Fields to Athens.

Mullen is quick to point out that 17 of the top 25 quarterbacks in Franks’ recruiting class have already transferred.

“He’s stuck it out, and he’s continued to work and stay through different adversities, to continue to grow, to continue to develop,” Mullen said of the Gators projected starter for 2019. “And he’s starting to reap all of the rewards of that now with how he finished last year.”

At 6’6” and 227 lbs. Franks is a prototypical quarterback that wins in college football these days. He can throw and run, something Mullen has encouraged him to do. He made the outlandish statement, “I want a fourth statue,” at the SEC Media days referring to the three Heisman winners already immortalized outside of Florida Field.

Smart, despite his defensive background as a player and a coach, has had an embarrassment of riches at quarterback since becoming the ‘Dogs Head Coach and his 24-5 record reflects that. Having Jake Fromm entrenched at quarterback the last two years continues the skill player talent pipeline to Athens. The Georgia Head Coach referred to that when talking about emerging star wide receiver George Pickens who picked the ‘Dogs over Auburn.

“He knew what style offense he wanted to play in,” Smart explained. “He saw an opportunity when he saw two guys declare early for the draft. I know he wanted to have an opportunity to play with a quarterback like Jake Fromm.”

So you want to win in Athens and Gainesville? Get a coach who loves points and a quarterback who can get them.

Georgia is there. Florida might get back there, but currently the Gators are playing catch up.

Preseason Injuries Are The Worst

Doug Marrone is probably scared to death right now.

It’s got nothing to do with wins and losses, not scoring against the Ravens, what his team might do this year or his job security. He’s too good of a coach, too good of a guy, too well respected in the league and has been around long enough to know a lot of those things are out of his hands.

What he’s scared about is preseason injuries.

Whether they happen in conditioning, OTA’s, mini-camps, training camp or preseason games, Marrone admits to losing sleep over the possibility of players getting hurt on the last days of any offseason workouts.

“It drives coaches and head athletic trainers crazy,” says Mike Ryan, the Jaguars Head Athletic Trainer for the Jaguars for their first 20 years. “It’s a nerve racking time. Its one thing to lose a guy in October but if you lose a guy in training camp? The risks are higher than a regular season practice.”

That’s one of the reasons the Jaguars sat thirty-two players including most of the projected starters in the exhibition opener against the Ravens last Thursday night.

And Marrone is right to worry about injuries this time of year.

According to NFL research from the six years between 2012 and 2017, players average 81 concussions in the preseason. There are an average of 26 ACL and 43 MCL tears all before the real games even start.

“You can’t train enough to avoid a soft tissue injury,” says Matt Serlo, the Senior Clinical Director and
Licensed Physical Therapist at PT Solutions in Ponte Vedra.

Serlo has worked with hundreds of athletes from the NFL, the PGA Tour and other college and professional leagues over nearly three decades. He sees the progress their bodies can make quickly through hard work in rehabilitation. But he admits, those injuries are unpredictable.

“Sometimes guys can actually over train,” Serlo explained. “Those tendons and ligaments sometimes need a break. Sometimes going too hard and too quick makes it tough on their bodies.”

In the past week the Jaguars have lost rookie Tight End Josh Oliver to a hamstring problem, Linebacker Quincy Williams to a MCL tear and Linebacker James Onwualu is probably gone for the year with a knee injury suffered in practice in Baltimore. All three are players who were expected to contribute this year. Oliver and Williams have a chance to be starters.

“Hydration is a big part of it,” added Ryan who also owns Mike Ryan Sports Medicine and now is the Sports Medicine Analyst for Sunday Night Football and NBC Sports.

“There’s a direct correlation between hydration and soft tissue injuries. I’d give a talk before camp about supplements, legal supplements, anything that isn’t allowing you to hydrate properly.”

New technologies are available to every player in the NFL for rehab and recovery. Cutting edge stuff like hyperbaric chambers, cryotherapy tanks, compression boots, you name it, are all available. But sometimes it just comes down to simple rest that can make the difference.

“The hamstrings are some of the longest and strongest muscles in the body,” Serlo explained. The inflammation has to go down, the body needs rest. These guys want to push, push, push because they’re on a short timeline. The best treatment out there can’t change that over rest.”

With players trying to earn jobs for the year, unlike when the season starts, some guys are going a hundred miles an hour in practice. When you get guys that big changing direction at fifteen or 16 miles an hour, it doesn’t take an opposing impact to cause an injury.

“Players are sleep deprived, they’re under stress, their immune systems are down. They could be doing something they think helps them earn a job but it creates more problems than it helps,” Ryan explained. “I try and educate them on what to drink and what to eat to give them the best chance to stay healthy.”

Research shows that If you lose at little as 2% of your body weight your mental capacity starts to deteriorate. When Ryan puts it in those terms to the players and coaches, they listen.

“Your comprehension is a little bit cloudy. The player is just as not as sharp as he was. Dehydration is a health issue but also makes a difference in performance.”

Anytime a player is hurt, Marrone takes the time to talk with them about what to expect. When Doug talks about that process, you can tell it bothers him.

“It’s just a tough situation,” Marrone said. “You thank the player for everything he put in, but you kind of know what the road looks like ahead, which is always a tough road for anyone that has an injury.”

And when you hear estimates on a return to the lineup that are inexact, it’s on purpose: nobody actually knows.

“Pro athletes respond so much faster than the weekend warriors,” Serlo said. “They’ll go the extra mile. Their bodies are so in tune with what they’re trying to do. The hardest thing to do is to get them to understand that it takes time.”

And there’s no rhyme or reason for when or where an injury might happen.

“It’s funny sometimes,” Serlo added. “Dan Marino tore an Achilles just dropping back, something he did a million times. It just happened that time for no real reason.”

Ryan says the whole injury process is unpredictable, something he learned during his 26 years in the league.

“I’ve had training camps where guys are dropping like flies. We went to Detroit in the preseason our first year (1995) and had three very serious injures in five plays. I had some camps without any. You don’t know when they’re going to come and whom they’re going to happen to. Sometimes injuries can happen in the craziest ways that you don’t expect. Some of its just bad luck.”

Colt Fever 40 Years Ago Was the Start

There’s a bit of irony this week as the NFL football team from Jacksonville is visiting in the city of Baltimore. That’s because it’s happening nearly 40 years to the day since the NFL owner from Baltimore started threatening to leave town take his team to Jacksonville.

That’s the start of the story that ended with the NFL awarding a franchise here in 1993. The beginning was on August 15, 1979 with “Colt Fever.”

That night in August of ’79, I was mad at Jacksonville

You might know I’m a Baltimore native, born and raised. I still root for the Orioles. I was a Colts fan growing up and when then-owner Robert Irsay visited Jacksonville threatening to move the Colts here, I wasn’t happy.

I was working in Charleston, South Carolina as a sportscaster and I thought Jacksonville and Mayor Jake Godbold were way out of line trying to steal the team from my hometown. I scoffed at the idea on the six o’clock news that night. Little did I know that it was Irsay I should have had the problem with and not Jacksonville or Jake Godbold.

After negotiations with the city of Baltimore to build a new stadium broke down, Irsay started a tour of the country, claiming he was looking for a new home for the Colts.

A local Northside businessman, Doug Peeples, President of the Northside Businessman’s Club, took it upon himself to invite Irsay to Jacksonville. Irsay accepted and planned to spend two or three days here. Everybody knew he was using Jacksonville, Los Angeles and other cities as leverage to get Baltimore to build a new stadium. Jake Godbold didn’t care about the Colts’ owner’s motive. He got involved and put his campaign machine in motion to show Irsay around.

“We had a lot of things planned for Irsay being in town,” Mike Tolbert, the man who ran Godbold’s campaign for mayor and his biographer recalled this week.

“Jake asked me at the final planning meeting for Irsay’s visit, ‘What have we left out?’ and I said, ‘The people who just elected you,’” Tolbert said.

The plan to entertain Irsay in town included a trip to Ponte Vedra, a ride on the St. Johns in yacht, lunch at the River Club and a bunch of other high-end stuff.

“But nothing for the people who were going to buy the tickets if the Colts came here,” Tolbert said. “Everybody who was going to host Irsay said it wouldn’t work. It would be embarrassing. Nobody would show up. They were groaning in the background. But we decided to invite everybody down to the Gator Bowl to let Irsay know, ‘We want the Colts.’”

And with that, Colt Fever was born.

“I was really nervous about it,” Jake Godbold recalled. “I was nervous as I could be. I didn’t know if anybody would show up. Everybody thought maybe three or four hundred people might be there and I’d be really embarrassed.”

But for the promise of a free soda and a hot dog, fifty thousand people showed up on a hot August evening at the Gator Bowl. The soda was donated, so were the hot dogs. Since the stadium’s official vendor wanted nothing to do with Colt Fever, Jake’s friends from his recent Mayoral campaign got together and did the cooking. Another ten thousand couldn’t get in the stadium so they sat in their cars listened to it live on the radio.

“We didn’t think anybody was going to show up. We only had four or five JSO officers there. No ticket takers really,” said Tolbert.

After just five days of planning, Irsay flew into the Gator Bowl in a helicopter, landed at the 50-yard line and greeted the fans that Wednesday evening. There were some speeches made, a bunch of back-slapping and waving to the crowd followed.

When it got dark, they turned the lights out and 50,000 fans lit matches donated by Winn-Dixie and distributed at the gates by the volunteer youth group from the downtown department store May Cohen’s. And a chant of “We want the Colts,” reverberated through the stadium and into downtown.

“There were a lot of tight throats and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house,” Godbold recalled.

“Irsay was a delightful guy, a colorful guy,” he added. “He was a big guy, like a big Teddy bear, always laughing but he had tears in his eyes, he was impressed. I got really choked up.”

While the Gator Bowl hosted two college football games each year and the occasional pro football exhibition, getting it up to NFL standards would be a huge undertaking.

“Irsay put his arm around me as we walked under the stadium and told me, ‘Jake, we’ll have to do something about this place’” Godbold said remembering the reality of renovating the Gator Bowl. “He was a steel guy. He told me we’d have to tear this place down. I knew it would be a long process to get a team to play here.”

Five years later, Irsay snuck out of Baltimore on a snowy night, moving his team to Indianapolis on the promise of a new, modern stadium.

But Jacksonville had made its mark.

“We got more out of him than he got out of us,” Godbold said. “I knew we had done something nobody thought we could do. I couldn’t believe all these people were coming out in the middle of the week. I knew we had done our job and the people had responded.”

Godbold was amazed that the story was picked up nationally and had created a buzz. At a meeting the following week in Washington at the White House to discuss funding for the people mover, Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan wasn’t that interested in talking about the people mover.

“He had been playing tennis, walked in, and got a cold drink,” Godbold said with a laugh. “Then he sat down and said ‘Before I talk to you about a damn thing I want to know how you got 50.000 people in the Gator Bowl the other night.’”

“We didn’t expect Irsay and the Colts to come here, but we showed what we could do,” Tolbert said. “That night lit the fire that turned the town around. Jake had only been in office six weeks. That takes a lot of guts to pull that off.”

“I knew that night if we could hold that spirit, we could accomplish anything, it was very emotional.” Godbold added. “We needed an uplift more than we needed a team. I was more interested in what we could do for the city than getting a team.”

“The tenor in the town and the tone changed,” Tolbert explained. “Anything he could do to put Jacksonville on the stage was his goal. The Tea Men (from the NASL), the Bulls. Fred Bullard probably doesn’t consider Jacksonville for the USFL if Colt Fever didn’t happen.”

And the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars certainly wouldn’t be visiting Baltimore this week.

(Author’s note: A full accounting from the founder of “Colt Fever,” Mike Tolbert ,can be found in Tolbert’s book, “Jake!” available at local booksellers and online.)

Jaguars Ease Into Camp

In the first week of training camp all 32 NFL teams believe. They’re healthy, their free agents are signed and generally everybody’s ready to go. Yannick Ngakoue and the Jaguars negotiations notwithstanding. They’ll come to a deal.

There are different approaches to training camp. Since there used to be six preseason games, NFL camps were two months long. The Cowboys one year brought 200 players to camp. When Don Shula was the head coach of the Baltimore Colts he wrote a letter at the beginning of summer to each of his players outlining his expectations of their fitness and weight on the first day of camp.

Now it’s a year round process to be ready to play in 16 regular season NFL games. Between off-season workouts, OTA’s and mini-camps, teams have a pretty good gauge of their players’ fitness status for most of the year. There are spots in the schedule where a player is on their own but most know the competitive nature of the job and keep staying fit near the top of their priorities.

There are exceptions. Leonard Fournette last year. The Jaguars knew past players Natrone Means and Damon Jones had a tendency to slip during the offseason, so they tried to give them plans, have them check in and be ready to play.

“I was very pleased with the way the team came back in from the standpoint of weights,” Head Coach Doug Marrone said this week prior to the first day of camp. “We’re in great shape there from a standpoint of conditioning which is outstanding, so I’m very, very happy with where we are with what the players have done.”

At the end of last season, Marrone quantified players who “missed their marks” in the offseason when it came to their weight and their fitness level noting that those players missed an average of 5 ½ games during the regular season.

So not only were they more vigilant in the offseason about players keeping their fitness up, but also their approach to training camp for 2019 is different.

“We’ve tried to build in better recovery time,” Marrone noted. The one thing you’re going to see in practice is we’re looking to build up our practices, meaning that we’re going to take it in a progression and build up to a level where we can go. These first 10 days have been a high level of soft tissue injuries.”

“It’s way different. It’s a nice change, though,” Calais Campbell said about this year’s camp with a laugh. “I think the team is maturing and he’s allowing us to be pros and to kind of do what we need to do to get ready. We have a lot more free time which I think allows us to take care of our bodies.”

Measuring height and weight and passing the conditioning test are part of a numbers game every team keeps track of but players can tell, in the locker room and on the field, who showed up leaner, quicker and ready to play.

“Yeah. I think that anytime you come off of a season where you didn’t do as well as you wanted to, guys kind of—you develop a chip on your shoulder again,” Campbell explained. “I’m sure you can see it around when you look at guys, they’re working hard trying to earn back that respect that we once had,”

New Jaguars Quarterback Nick Foles has his own routine in the offseason. While he stays close to his playing weight and looks like a starter in camp (lots of spirals, not many balls on the ground) he doesn’t throw much out of season. Maybe three times. Once with his wife.

“You know that you might not be as accurate,” Foles explained. “And you may not be as great on your deep ball, that’s part of it. That’s just something that I’ve always done. I didn’t just switch it, that’s just what’s best for me and some guys throw all the time, that’s just how it is.”

The new schedule is also giving the Jaguars a chance to spend more time together off the field, building the things Marrone believes makes them a team.

“I’m not just talking to the offensive guys,” Foles said of the off-field conversations he’s having. “I want to see what the defense sees, I want to see what they’re thinking based on our splits, what they’re seeing based on my footwork, because I feel like we can make each other better as a team.”

After their success in 2017, the Jaguars showed they couldn’t handle it last year falling back to 5-11. This year’s camp, according to the players, already has a different feel.

“Well, I’ll say that there’s an energy,” Campbell explained. . “There’s just a pep in our step and I think that comes from being in quality shape. Guys are ready, focused, locked in. I think it’s not even just physical shape.”

Now in his 12th year in the NFL, Campbell explained the work he puts in contributes to his longevity in the league.
“The guys who are the most successful are usually the hardest-working people, and so I try and be on the same par, the same playing field as those guys.” he said. “But I also know that you only get so much tread on your tires and so I have to be smart and take advantage of allowing my body to adjust slowly. I can’t just go out here and act like I’m 25 again.”
So as the Jaguars ease into the physical demands of training camp, Marrone has laid out his expectations.

“One, I obviously want everyone to be on time. No. 2, I want everyone to be prepared. No. 3, I want everyone to give their best effort. No. 4, I want us to focus on winning. That is why it is a performance-based business and you have to make sure you are ready to go and do the things during the week, but you are going to be judged, myself included, the coaches included, on what you do on that Sunday.”

USFL Was Real Football

This week marks the 34th anniversary of the United States Football League’s final game. The Baltimore (previously) Philadelphia Stars defeated the Oakland Invaders at Giants Stadium to win the USFL Championship behind MVP Kelvin Bryant and Head Coach Jim Mora.

The Jacksonville Bulls were part of the USFL in its final two years, 1984 and ’85 as real estate developer Fred Bullard brought the franchise to town. He gave it instant credibility, hiring NFL legend Larry Csonka as his General Manager and young offensive genius Lindy Infante as the Bulls’ Head Coach.

The city had gone through some flirtation with Bob Irsay and the Colts, John Mecom and the Saints and Bill Bidwell with the Cardinals. All three NFL owners used Jacksonville as leverage against their cities. Attendance at Bulls games was solid and it caught the NFL’s attention. Eventually then-Mayor Jake Godbold’s dream of an NFL team was realized eight years later in 1993.

The league’s ups and downs off the field are well documented, including their winning anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL that netted the league three dollars. In retrospect though, among the myriad of leagues that formed to challenge the NFL, the USFL was the most legitimate product on the field as a competitor. The recently defunct AAFL looked like a college all-star game. The XFL’s first iteration was amusing. The WFL of the ‘70’s was spotty. But the USFL was real, professional football.

“Absolutely, 100%,” Bulls receivers coach Buddy Geis said this week from his home in Jacksonville Beach. “Within ten years we’d have played the NFL for a championship.”
“Each team had a core of players who were good enough to play in the NFL,” explained Brian Franco, the Bulls kicker for both seasons. “Just look at the Heisman Trophy winners in the league.”

When the Bulls opened their second season, three Heisman’s lined up behind Brian Sipe in their backfield: Mike Rozier with one and Archie Griffin with two.

“It was real football,” Bulls quarterback Matt Robinson explained. Robinson had been in the NFL for seven years with the Jets, Broncos and Bills when the Bulls signed him for the ’84 season.

Geis was near the beginning of his coaching career when he put together a Jacksonville receiving corps that included Gary Clark, Perry Kemp and Aubrey Matthews.

“Look at the guys just on our roster,” he explained. “Just our receivers. Clark and Aubrey played eleven seasons in the NFL. Gary won two Super Bowls. And Perry Kemp had five years in the league.”

Much of the Bulls coaching staff, including Infante, went to work in the NFL. Lindy was the head coach in Green Bay and Indianapolis. And the talent extended off the field as well. Glenn Greenspan, Tiger Woods’ Director of Communications held the same job for the Bulls in ’84 and ’85.

“The league had talent, no question, real athletes” Greenspan says. “I think the talent in the league is underrated.”

Overall, nearly 800 players from the USFL, about half the league, played in the NFL. Four made it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Reggie White and Gary Zimmerman. Hall of Famers Bill Polian, George Allen, Sid Gillman and Marv Levy all worked in the USFL. Sean Landetta and Doug Flutie were the last two players from the USFL to retire in the mid 2000’s.

For the Bulls, quarterbacks Brian Sipe and Matt Robinson were among the players who had NFL experience before joining the USFL. Linebackers Andy Hendel and Vaughn Johnson went right to the NFL when the league folded. Defensive Tackle Keith Millard joined the Vikings right away and was twice an All-Pro and the NFL”s Defensive Player of the Year in 1989.

Geis went on to coach in Green Bay, Indianapolis and Dallas, as well as several college stops after his stint with the Bulls. He worked with Troy Aikman, Calvin Johnson and Sterling Sharpe and says the skill players in the USFL were nearly on par with those he later worked with in the NFL.

“We might have been Triple A at the time,” he explained. “But players like Jim Kelly, Bobby Hebert and even Steve Young were part of the league. We had smaller defensive lineman, but they could run. We would have had to develop more offensive linemen. But the skill players? They were ready.”

Geis’ assertion that the players he coached in the USFL were NFL caliber was put to the test when he brought Matthews and Kemp to Green Bay while coaching the Packers.

“Those guys were better than our 3rd and 4th round draft picks. They stuck and they played,” he explained.

There’s a perception that the league was something akin to the movie “The Replacements” operating outside the normal bounds of professional football. But players in the league said it was nothing like that.

“It’s not like we had kickers walking around the sidelines smoking cigarettes,” Franco mused. Franco joined the Bulls after a successful college career at Penn State and spent time in several NFL training camps after his USFL career. He kicked for Cleveland during the ’87 season.

“Everybody was fighting for a job,” he explained of the atmosphere in the USFL. “It was no different than going to an NFL camp. The way expectations were communicated, the way we practiced. There were only so many jobs and this was a chance to play.”

With 28 teams in the NFL in 1983, there were more good football players than there were roster spots in the league. That’s where the USFL was able to grab guys who could play.

“When you cut a guy at the end of training camp, it’s usually just because you’re not sure,” Geis said of the Bulls approach to acquiring talent. “Those last seven or eight guys you cut, they can play. We signed those guys and they had chip on their shoulder, wanting to prove they could play.”

“Things with the Bulls under Lindy ran just like they would in the NFL: Meetings, practice, all of it,” Robinson remembered. “In Portland they were a little bit looser. They’d been in three cities in three years (Boston and New Orleans before that). We practiced at a middle school. My helmet wouldn’t fit in my locker.”

But when it came to football, Robinson says the USFL brand was anything but substandard.

“The league was ahead of its time when it came to offense. Lindy had the receiver route tree and the quarterback passing options all laid out. Somebody was always open. It’s what everybody in the NFL uses now.”

Season of ’73 Saved Baseball in Jax

There’s s rich list of names and dates that are a part of Jacksonville’s baseball history: Henry Aaron 1953, Tom Seaver 1966, The Bragan’s 1984, Alex Rodriguez 1994 and even 2019 as current All-Stars Brad Hand, J.T. Realmuto, Christian Yelich and Clayton Kershaw all spent time In town during their ascent to the Majors.

But there’s an untold story about the 1973 season makes much of that list possible.

Since building the Baseball Grounds in 2003, fans have flocked downtown to see baseball games. But in 1972, baseball in Jacksonville was anything but a foregone conclusion.

“We had to borrow $75,000 from the parent club, the Kansas City Royals in ‘72 to stay in business,” former Suns General Manager Dick Kravitz recalled.

You might know Kravitz from his political career on the Jacksonville City Council and in the Florida House of Representatives. Before that, Kravitz was the GM of the baseball Suns, the football Express of the World Football League and the soccer Tea Men of the North American Soccer League. He also served the City of Jacksonville as the Executive Director of the Sports and Entertainment Commission during the Godbold administration.

After getting his undergrad at Temple, Kravitz went to Ohio University to get his masters in sports administration. He then went to work as the business manager in Oklahoma City for the Kansas City Royals’ AAA ball club. They asked him to come to Jacksonville the next year to run the Suns under new ownership.

“They told me we needed to pay back the $75,000 that year or we’d be out of business,” Kravitz said of his charge for the season. “We had four employees, including me, and we all did double duty.”

Ownership was two investors from Oklahoma City; Keith Price was in the oil business, and banker Carl Grant. They were anything but absent.

“Price liked to come to games and watch from upstairs,” Kravitz recalled. “It was wild. He got thrown out of a game from the press box for arguing with the umpire. The ump sent a policeman to he press box and he physically threw him out of the ballpark.”

The business plan was simple: Raise as much money as possible and spend as little as possible. They started selling sponsorships and season ticket packages in the fall of 1972.

And it wasn’t easy.

“We had to fight against what had happened before. Some people wouldn’t even talk to us,” Kravitz said of the business climate regarding minor league baseball in Jacksonville at the time.

They sold five sponsorship nights to Prudential. They had a cow-milking contest that included one of the players with some farm experience. “Rocky Gibraltar” was a regular promotion, throwing a ball into a replica of the famous Rock. Kravitz even arranged for one of his players to race a horse in the outfield.

“We were playing a day game and I knew we needed a promotion,” he explained. “So I tried to ask one of our players, Minnie Minoso’s son, if he’d race a horse. He didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Spanish and I couldn’t find an interpreter. But I pulled out a $100 bill and he eventually figured out what I was asking. He said he would so I went to Bayard where they were running quarter horses at the time and we set up the race, foul line to foul line. A handicapper gave Minoso a head start. And he was winning but heard a thousand pound of horse coming and jumped out of the way!”

It was an uphill battle, even facing the weather. Because of a lack of staff to put the tarp on and off the field, the city provided eight workers out of the daily labor pool to do the job. They weren’t very skilled at handling the tarp and the team had 14 rainouts in 72 games. Once they pulled the tarp off the field but only had seven workers finish the job. The eighth had been rolled up in the tarp.

Minor league staples Max Patkin, Eddie Feigner and the barnstorming/retired Bob Feller were regulars.

“I knew we were in the entertainment business, not the baseball business,” said Kravitz.

Minimizing expenses was the mantra for that year. Every dollar counted. There was no money to send the play-by-play person on the road so he did re-creations of the game, a half inning delayed, from Jones College. Re-creations generally stopped in baseball during the 1930’s. Travel was done on a church bus until one night the team ended up in a ditch on the way to Chattanooga.

“The driver worked for the church and he was working all day and then driving all night,” Kravitz explained.

Local kids were paid 50 cents to retrieve foul balls and home runs so the balls could be reused. Scuffed baseballs were rubbed down with milk to give them a new white shine. The visiting clubhouse was a Spartan affair.

Even Kravitz now admits he cut too many corners.

“One night I forgot and left the baseballs in the milk,” he explained. “After the game the umpire asked me about the baseballs because they were like lead weights! Cal Ripken, Sr. was managing the Charlotte AA club and came into my office railing about the lack of towels in their locker room. That’s when I knew I had gone overboard trying to save money.”

The club’s books were being run out of a bank in Oklahoma City. Kravitz deposited the money and filed the receipts each night and went back to selling. He didn’t keep a ledger of whether they would make enough money to stay in business.

Around Labor Day when the season ended, the Royals sent word that the Suns had done enough to pay the parent club back their $75,000 and had made another $100,000 to boot. Kravitz was named AA General Manager of the Year by the league and the Sporting News.

So add 1973 as an important date in Jacksonville baseball history.

George Hincapie Still Riding High

As they start the 106th edition of the Tour de France this weekend in Belgium, 17-time Tour finisher George Hincapie knows what the riders are feeling.

“All of the Grand Tours are hard,” Hincapie said, looking fit and relaxed as we talked sitting in the study of his bike-centric Hotel Domestique in Travelers Rest, South Carolina. “There are a lot of nerves early on.”

Best known as Lance Armstrong’s “Loyal Lieutenant” (also the name of his autobiography), Hincapie helped Armstrong, Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans win the Tour de France as a teammate and “super domestique.”

“Domestique” is a French cycling word describing team members whose main job is to help the team leader win the race. Nobody was ever better at that than Hincapie.

Over the next three weeks, George will be part of Armstrong’s daily podcast reviewing each stage of the Tour de France for the second straight year.

“I was nervous and anxious about putting myself out there,” he explained. “But now I’m back into it. I know what they’re thinking and ask my guys who are still out there what’s going on.”

His role with Armstrong on the podcast is to add perspective, and stands in stark contrast to his role as Armstrong’s lieutenant when they were on the bike. He’s not afraid to disagree, but it’s clear when he has the needle out, he and Armstrong have been friends a long time.

“What people are seeing now is what our relationship was on the bus,” George said with a laugh.

now, he’s anything but a “domestique.” He’s the main attraction and the model of what a professional athlete’s post-career should look like. Retiring as a rider after 2012, Hincapie slipped seamlessly into roles as team owner, hotelier, commentator and cycling apparel mogul.

Or at least it looked seamless.

“My brother Rich got the whole thing started while I was still competing,” Hincapie said. “It was just supposed to ride my bike fast.”

George’s older brother Rich was also a professional rider for two years before a serious crash pushed him into the business world. From his job as a salesman for a computer distributing company, Rich saw an opportunity to market his brother’s good name in the cycling apparel market.

“I started it when George was still riding,” Rich explained from the Hincapie Sportswear offices in Greenville. “Most guys start when they retire. They’re brand is dipping. We were in a position when George was riding so we got free marketing.”

While the Hincapie Sportswear riding apparel is now a powerhouse in that market, it started piece by piece out of a factory in Italy. When they grew out of that, Rich turned to an uncle in their dad’s home country of Columbia for help.

“In 2002 I got an order for 50 cycling caps,” he explained. “My uncle was in an associated business and he made a mock-up for me.”

Rich saw some potential there so he went to Columbia. He and his uncle went to a fabric store, and then went somewhere else to get the art screened on the fabric. But to get the finished product they needed someone with special sewing skills.

“We dropped the bag of printed, cut fabric to a lady at a hot dog stand at the bus station,” he said with a laugh. “She sewed at night. Three days later we had the hats. Then we did jerseys.”

Little by little over two years, they brought the process in house. Now they have150 employees at their factory in Columbia.

Meanwhile as George’s riding career was winding down the sport was ablaze with charges of illegal doping. Armstrong famously denied any wrongdoing until he couldn’t, in large part to Hincapie’s own admission of guilt to the United States Anti-Doping Agency. (Coincidentally led as the CEO by Bolles School Graduate Travis Tygart)

“I didn’t give a lot of details because, at that point, I really couldn’t,” Hincapie told the New York Times at the time. “I told them that I was part of a time in cycling that was really screwed up. I can’t take that back, but I rode clean for six years and contributed to changing the sport for the better.”

George’s mea culpa and the reservoir of good will he had built up over his career with his hard working, good guy reputation perhaps saved Hincapie Sportswear and George’s post-riding career.

The week of USADA’s announcement, Rich had already organized a retirement ride on George’s behalf and was surprised by the over 1200 riders who showed up. “Only one person asked for their money back,” he noted.

And now, in part because of Hincapie’s efforts and stricter controls by international cycling organizations, George believes the sport is “nearly” clean.

“There’s been a culture shift,” Hincapie said. “Back in the day it was 90% were doing it. Now 90% just want to go fast and do it right.”

The Hincapie “Gran Fondo” or “Big Ride” grew out of the retirement ride and now they have events in four cities with numerous other towns asking for more.

“We’re going try to be really good at what we’re good at for now,” Rich said, leaving the door open for future expansion.

By their own admission, neither George nor Rich knew anything about the hotel business when they bought the 13-room, closed, wood and stone structure in 2012.

“The first five years were rocky, but we’re in a stable place,” George said of Hotel Domestique. “We have our best team we’ve ever had here in place. Service and food quality is the best ever.”

“It’s absolutely authentic,” Rich explained. “There’s really no other place, the look and feel of the structure, the roads, the authenticity, the bikes, the Garmin’s, the ride guides. The camps we have with George, Christian (Vandevelde) and Lance. People are looking for the most authentic.”

Hotel Domestique is also home to a destination restaurant fittingly named, “17” after the number of Hincapie’s Tour finishes. Much like the other businesses the Hincapie’s are in, “17” is high end, well respected and trying to get better.

“George’s brand was the highest standard,” Rich explained. “He was very well liked, so I could only damage his brand by not doing it right. So I try to do things at a very high level.”

While the Tour de France will captivate much of Europe, Asia and South America over the next three weeks, the interest in the U.S. has dropped because of the lack of American contenders. Hincapie, a cycling team owner himself, thinks that could change in the future.

“I think it can get better,” he said of the pro cycling scene in America. “The mountain bike talent is growing and it can trickle over to the road scene. We’re developing talent. We need more high school programs, it needs to be across the board.”

Almost single-handedly, Hincapie is turning Greenville into an international cycling destination. And one of the most cycling friendly towns in America. Rich moved to Greenville after his college career in Charlotte brought him there to ride. George followed him there a couple of years later and trained there his entire career. He now does television and radio PSA’s for cycling awareness. Cyclists are commonplace, and respected on the roads and trails around town.

“We’re forming a task force to get more awareness about cycling,” George explained. “This community knows the resources they have and what cycling can do for the economy.”

George still spends plenty of time on his bike and tries to do one “challenge” each year. He rode the “Cape Epic” mountain bike race this year in South Africa. But he knows his business now is business.

“I’m getting better,” he said of his foray into the boardroom. “The variables in business are so much more that makes it successful. As a rider I knew pretty much how things would go if I trained right and rested right. Business isn’t like that.”

So far, George and his brother Rich have been successful in the things they’ve gotten involved in. It’s a combination of George’s popularity, Rich’s hard work and ingenuity and the diversity of their endeavors.

“There’s a story behind what we’re doing,” Rich said. “That’s where we’re unique. People who know cycling know the story.”

Racin’ and Fishin’ at Daytona

I’ve been pretty fortunate in my journalism career to do some exciting things and meet some interesting people. I’ve often said that I had the second best job in the world, Pat Summerall and now Jim Nantz topping that list. And you might have heard me say more than once, “I’ve flown with the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds. I’ve had breakfast with Ali, lunch with Richard Petty and beers with Arnold Palmer. Tony Trabert is one of my best friends. What’s not to like?”

Add to that list now, I’ve fished in Lake Lloyd.

If you’re not a NASCAR fan, you’ve never heard of Lake Lloyd and have no idea where it is. Because Lake Lloyd sits in the middle of Daytona International Speedway.

When Bill France, Sr. was building the Speedway in the late ‘50’s, they dug down in the middle of the racetrack to grab enough dirt to build the 31-degree banking in the turns. When the track was finished in 1959, France named the lake after a local car dealer in Daytona who had given him his first job as a mechanic in the 1930’s.

At 44-acres, the lake was a little close to the edge of the track and a few times cars did end up in the lake so it was trimmed down to it’s current 29-acre size. Early NASCR Driver “Tiger” Tom Pistone was so fearful about driving into Lake Lloyd. he’d keep scuba gear in his car. Just in case.

France also had the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission come in and stock the lake with bass. And it rarely gets fished.

So when the invitation came from NASCAR to fish in Lake Lloyd with 2011 Coke Zero Sugar champion David Ragan, I immediately said yes.

I’ve bass fished for about 35 years and since my friend and former Georgia and NFL quarterback Matt Robinson taught me how to bass fish, I thought it was only fitting that I invited him to go along. Matt was there to get some pictures of me fishing with Ragan and if the chance came, throw a line in Lake Lloyd.

Ragan lists his hometown as Unadilla, Georgia, just south of Macon along I-75. “Being from a small town, I’ve had a chance to fish in some ponds,” Ragan said before jumping onto the bass boat waiting at the dock. He fished with Daytona President Chip Wile and looked right at home with a pole in his hands. The media was aboard two pontoon boats waiting our turn to join them.

Actually during the NASCAR races, any fan in the infield can fish from the dock at the lake. And there’s a charity fishing tournament held there before the Daytona 500. But a chance to get into a boat and fish some of the nooks and crannies, some of the structure and the drainpipes was something special.

Smartly, the folks from Bass Pro Shops who supplied the boats and the fishing equipment put an extra couple of poles in the media boats.

Before you knew it, Wile had caught three good-sized fish along the southwest corner of the lake. Ragan pulled two to the boat on successive casts. It was pretty windy but the tackle provided was able to handle that.

While we were maneuvering to get more pictures of Ragan and Wile fishing, Robinson, in the photographers boat, and me, in the reporters boat, rigged up some green worms and got lines in the water.

If you’ve ever fished with friends, you know those dual, simultaneous feelings that come over you when they hook the first fish. You’re thrilled for them, and at the same time more determined than ever to have something happen on the end of you line.

That’s how I felt when I looked up to see Matt standing on the side of the boat with his line bent in half reeling a bass to the boat. No sooner had he held it up to show me when I felt that familiar “tap-tap” in my hands. I set the hook hard but the line didn’t move so I figured I was snagged on the bottom.

That’s when the drag started signing with the line going in the opposite direction. A few minutes later, I brought what turned out to be a 4-6 lb. bass to the boat. He was big enough that I couldn’t get him out of the water with just the line and the pole.

I was feeling pretty good when I showed him to the guide on our boat who said, “You could throw a sledgehammer in here and catch a fish,” to a big laugh.

Ragan was clearly enjoying himself when I jumped aboard his boat. He had reeled in a few fish and helped a couple of novice reporters catch their first ever in the process.

After this season, NASCAR will move the second race at Daytona to the end of the year, the final qualifying race before the playoffs. Ragan was nostalgic about racing this Saturday at Daytona for the final time during the 4th of July holiday weekend.

“I love coming here,” he said. “When I was a kid, I knew we were going to sit around the house and watch the Firecracker 400 (now the Coke Zero Sugar 400). It was something we knew we were going to do. My dad (Ken Ragan) got to race here. I was fortunate to win here. It’s really special to me and my family.”

Ragan’s father is involved in his career and according to David, sometimes just shakes his head at how technology has changed the sport.

“He shakes his head a lot,” Ragan said with a laugh. “We have a group of engineers using simulation two weeks ahead of the race to prepare. We know the car, the engine. We’ve scanned the racetrack for the different bumps, the width, everything about it.”

“We know when we hit the racetrack about what we’re going to do,” he explained. “Just 15 years ago you’d have to do all of that with a smart guy pulling wrenches here at the track after a practice session. Now we’ve got smart guys pecking on the computer. But when they throw the green flag its still man vs. machine.”

At 33 years old, Ragan could be considered in the prime of his career. But the recent retirements of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. are reminders that driving a racecar won’t last forever.

“Driving is a short window in the big span of my life and I want to make hay while the sun’s out,” he said. “Wives and girlfriends and children have to put up with a lot, but it won’t be forever.”

He admitted it was difficult to leave his two young daughters that morning for this appearance at Daytona.

“Sometimes you miss things you want to be at,” he said.

When I motioned to the water with a smile he answered,

“But hey, we caught fish!”

This Team Wins Titles

To find National Champions, and lots of them, look no further than the Sporting Clay, Skeet and Trap team at JU.

A shooting team? At JU you say?

Exactly.

They’ve won nineteen National Event Titles, at least two outright National Championships and have had thirteen team members invited to the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Each year they’re a top ten national program, no matter what division.

“These are really good kids,” is the first thing founding program director and Head Coach Dave Dobson says about his team.”

There are usually around 40 members of the team. They “practice” at Jacksonville Clay Target Sports on New Berlin Road.

Dobson started the team as a club sport at JU in 2009. The team became a varsity sport in 2011. He also helped start the clay sports team at UNF as a club sport with one of his students in 2010.

Dave is an accomplished clay sports shooter who is also one of only two instructors in the US certified by both the National Skeet Shooting and National Sporting Clays Associations at level three. He runs a clay shooting school and serves on several boards including at Jacksonville Clay Target Sports. He’s also rated as a Master Instructor. In other words, he’s pretty unique
I first met Dave in the mid-‘80’s when my friend Larry Gordon invited me to sit in with the horn section and play my trumped with the “Not Tonight I’ve Got the Blues” band. Dobson was the band’s guitar player. He was, and still is, phenomenal at that as well.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say we are to the collegiate clay sports world what the likes of Alabama, Florida State, Florida and Clemson are to the football world: we are a powerhouse,” said Dobson.

“We recruit highly sought-after kids with very high GPA’s – honor students whom we help develop and succeed here and after they leave.”

And the team’s success is not a secret in the clay sports community. Dobson takes calls about students joining the team from all over the US and numerous countries in Europe and South America.

“We’re bringing top academic students to JU. Twenty-seven percent of the students here are student-athletes. Our team competes for the top GPA every year.”

“I only looked at schools where I could continue my shooting career and JU had a shooting team as a varsity sport,” Allison Franza a senior from Avon Park and an assistant coach on the team said this week. Franza was a highly sought after shooter coming out of high school but picked JU because of the “whole package” they offered.

“I loved the campus, the shooting facilities (at Jacksonville Clay Sports) and the academics were a big part of it,” the business administration major noted. The JU business program is rated top three in the country. Franza got her AA in high school, is a 4.0 student and will graduate this year as an 18-year old.

“Allison is pretty indicative of our student athletes,” Dobson said. “We’re looking for high GPA students. Recruitment and retention is what we’re all about.”

Franza is one of fifteen women who will be part of the squad this year. “I have a twin brother (who shoots on the UNF team) who did that. I went to one of his tournaments. I thought it looked easy, but it’s not!”

The team has spawned an academic track for the Dolphins in the JU Wingshooting program. They study the history of shooting, eye dominance, safety and plenty of theoretical and practical applications.

“The courses allow the students to gain an appreciation for the sport and become mentors and instructors themselves,” Dobson said.

“We go from beginning to advanced. It allows students to explore all parts of the clay sports industry. It gives them practical experience, including gun club management.”

In fact, clay-shooting sports are the fastest growing element of team sports in High School and colleges. Alabama, Clemson and Lindenwood out of St. Louis are among JU’s fiercest competitors.

“I’d say Clemson is our nemesis, our biggest rival. We beat them twice this year. We go back and forth. But they’re running a great program up there,” Dobson said.

As a four-time member of Team USA and an international competitor, Kelby Seanor had some family ties in Jacksonville and transferred to JU from the University of Georgia to join the team. In a bit of irony, picked the Dolphins over Clemson when he decided to transfer.

“I wanted to start at team at Georgia,” he explained of his first two years in Athens. “But JU had a well established varsity team here and I’m glad I came.”

Seanor is a multiple time clay sports All-American and graduated from JU this year with a degree in political science. He wants to get into the gun and shooting industry as a profession after graduate school. He’ll serve as an assistant coach for the Dolphins after competing in the World Championships in England next month.

Adding team members to the program who are beginners and learn through the academic program is one of the most rewarding aspects of Seanor’s experience at JU.

“The biggest place I’ve grown is my teaching,” he explained. “That’s grown exponentially. Mentoring all of these people who have never picked up a gun has really helped. Working on their mental and technical game. It’s cool to see how they grow.”
“Coach Dobson leads the program in a way that allows students to fully engage,” said Kristie Gover, the Senior VP for Student Affairs at JU and Dean of Students. “Team members are given the opportunity to play an active role in designing the team experience.”

“They run the team under my guidance-mentor program,” Dobson explained. “They have always made good leadership and business decisions. Super proud of them. They take a stake in it.”

“Some come to me and want to go inactive on the team to concentrate on their academics,” he added. “That’s paramount here at JU and we support that. Academics come first.”

While the team is subsidized through University funds, it’s donations that help them compete at the highest level. Fund raising is an important element in making the team what Dobson calls “the gold standard.” Dobson’s and his wife Adeline contribute every year. JU President Tim Cost and his wife Stephanie include the shooting team in their donations to the University.

“The board and Tim have been incredibly supportive,” Dobson noted. “We have so many friends of the program who donate money, the Felker’s (Caren and Paul), Sandy Semanik and others who make all this possible.”

Jaguars Locker Room Leadership

Don’t spend any time worrying about Yannick Ngakoue not coming to the mini-camp. I can tell you this: the players don’t care.

They all know this is the business part of the season and running around in his “pajamas,” as Head Coach Doug Marrone likes to say, isn’t going to make a bit of difference for Ngakoue. His teammates aren’t worried. He’s said he’s playing during the regular season and if he shows up for the first game and can help them win, they’re good with that.

The Jaguars will sign him to a new deal, and next year they’ll do the same with Jalen Ramsey.

Because they have to.

Those are the players, along with Nick Foles, who will be the leaders, the tone setters for the Jaguars in the future.

It’s always been kind of interesting that professional sports seems to be the only profession where what you signed for doesn’t matter in the last couple of years of your deal. Pro football is a little unique because of the possibility of injury and the former lack of guaranteed money. In most professions a contract is in force until the end. But pro sports is a little different. The players are athletes and entertainers. Nobody cares these days about how much money they’re making. The day of screaming headlines about tens or hundreds of millions being paid to players are gone. Everybody’s making money from the owners on down. How much doesn’t matter.

In a negotiation, both sides have a responsibility. The player has to perform and bring to the table realistic numbers for what he thinks he’s worth. The team has to recognize that and be prepared to pay a player and fit it into their salary cap equation. It’s not as if they don’t have the money. As well as a salary cap, there’s a salary floor every team has to meet. It keeps teams from tanking and just putting money in the owner’s pocket.

Besides the injuries, what’s the difference between 2017 and 2018?

It was obvious from the beginning that the locker room was different last year. Even the now departed Dante Fowler noted that the team rested on their laurels. The departures of Paul Posluszny and Marcedes Lewis, and the personal issues of Telvin Smith left a leadership void.

Blake Bortles’ struggles without much help around him sowed discontent between the offense and defense. Calais Campbell saw it coming, holding two “players only” meetings in the first four weeks of the season. And that’s when they were 3-1 with a win over the Patriots. He had to hold Ngakoue back from attacking his own teammates after the home loss to Houston.

Leadership has to evolve on any professional sports team. It has to come from the top players whom their teammates respect. The only player who fit that bill last year was Campbell.

This year, Ngakoue has said he wants to be a team captain. He warrants that based on his production and how he’s matured as a player. And the Jaguars need him to develop as a leader to be successful.

“There are a few guys who really came in and changed the culture and made things pop and he’s definitely one of them,” Jalen Ramsey said this week of his defensive teammate. “Yannick is an important piece on this team. He’s also a leader, and I really hope something is done. I think he has earned it.”

“He’s a hothead,” one veteran told me during Ngakoue’s rookie year. “But he’s good now.”

“How did you handle that?” I asked.

“We knocked the hell out of him everyday until he came around,” the vet said with a laugh.

Ngakoue was subjected to the standard rookie hazing, being in charge of getting food and drinks for the veterans on road trips. They sent him all over town to pick stuff up before boarding the team plane.

Here’s an exchange from a couple of weeks ago between Ngakoue and a reporter after practice. He was asked if it was important to show some leadership this year.

“It is important because I love the game and I try to go hard every day 100 percent. I’m trying to be a captain this year,” he said.

“Do you think about a 100-million-dollar contract,” the reporter asked.

“That money don’t mean nothing. But I know what I’m worth,” was the reply.

“What do you think you’re worth,” asked the reporter.

“What do you think I’m worth,” Ngakoue shot back.

“A lot,” was the quick answer.

“I appreciate that,” Yan said.

When asked if he would consider playing in 2019 if a long-term deal doesn’t come, Ngakoue was adamant.

“Absolutely. Of course I’m going to play. I love the game. I’m in God’s hands at the end of the day. I’ve been playing this game my whole life and that’s what I’m going to do.”

Although he shuns the “leader” label, Ramsey is an important part of the Jaguars locker room culture.

“Jalen just leads by example once he gets on the grass,” Defensive Coordinator Todd Wash explained. “He’s not a vocal guy in the room or anything like that, but they follow Jalen also even though he might not want that, but Jalen is also one of the leaders.”

“Once you get into year four, people expect you to put yourself in a leadership role,” Ramsey said. “That is not something you can force. I want to continue being myself, leading kind of from behind the scenes and by actions more so than breaking down the team and giving speeches to the team. That is not how I view leadership. I think there are different ways to lead.”

Leadership naturally falls to the quarterback so he has to be equipped to handle it through his play and his actions. Nick Foles admitted that right away.

“I think the big thing is being genuine, being who I am,” he said. “Obviously, leading by example. That’s why this part of the year is great because we come to work four days a week. You get an opportunity to get to know the guys and then you can build that trust and go from there.”

And that doesn’t happen overnight.

“Trust is something you can’t just rush,” Foles explained. “That’s why you come in here each day. I don’t try to be anything other than myself. I think guys respect that. My goal is right here to be who I am all the time.”

Head Coach Doug Marrone is well aware of the void in leadership in the Jaguars locker room but also realizes it’s something that can’t be manufactured.

“The team picks the captains. I don’t think as a coach you can go out there and orchestrate it and manipulate the situation,” he said. “ It’s going to come from those guys. They know, or should know, what they want in a captain, who they want the captain to be.“

What’s important for the Jaguars in 2019 is that their captains aren’t in name only.

World Golf Hall of Fame

This week the World Golf Hall of Fame will welcome five new members of the Class of 2019. In now what has become a bi-annual event, Peggy Kirk Bell, Jan Stephenson, Billy Payne, Retief Goosen and Dennis Walters will be inducted at Pebble Beach, site of this year’s U.S. Open. While they’ll be inducted in California, they’ll be enshrined at the World Golf Village just outside of St. Augustine.

The enshrinement ceremony used to take place at the Hall of Fame, similar to what other sports do in Canton, Springfield, Toronto and Cooperstown. But that’s never worked in St. Augustine. Despite convenient transportation from Ponte Vedra during The Players Championship, current competitors didn’t show up. So they took the induction ceremony on the road, coinciding with major golf events in St. Andrews and New York. But still, the current players didn’t attend.

Why the apathy toward the Hall? It’s concerning when looking at the bigger picture for the future of the Hall of Fame. The PGA Tour supports it here in North Florida. But the other organizations have their own things going on. The PGA of America is moving to Frisco, Texas. The USGA’s Golf House in New Jersey has its own exhibits. And the R&A in St. Andrews has their iconic clubhouse behind the first tee at the Old Course that has its own historical significance.

When the WGHOF was first proposed and built it was heralded as a destination on par with Cooperstown and Canton. There was already a Golf Hall of Fame at Pinehurst but this was going to supersede all other efforts. The project had a rocky beginning switching locations from Durbin Creek to St. Johns County when then-Commissioner Deane Beman had a dispute with Duval County.

Two significant golf courses, the Slammer and Squire and the King and the Bear, were supposed to help fill the Renaissance Hotel and the St. Johns County Convention Center. The IMAX theater is one of the best anywhere and was an adjunct to the retail space built around it. Bill Murray and his brothers opened their first restaurant on site to bring a certain cache and celebrity touch to the whole property.

The place is full of great ideas, beautiful buildings and wonderful infrastructure. What it’s not full of is people.

Nobody can quite put their finger on why it hasn’t taken off. Promotion, local support, player apathy have all been targeted, but despite all that’s been put into it, it just hasn’t happened.

Not for a lack of trying. Concerts, fireworks and special exhibits are all part of the World Golf Village’s history. Where else would you get a chance to see the six-iron Alan Shephard hit on the moon?

No matter what the future holds for the Hall in St. Augustine, those enshrined and this year’s class will have golfing immortality.

A charter member of the LPGA, Peggy Kirk Bell was a great advocate for women’s golf and a celebrated teacher. She’s the only member of the class to be inducted posthumously.

The four living members visited the Hall together this year and shared stories about their history in the game.

Dennis Walters had a promising golf career in front of him before he was paralyzed in a cart accident. Undeterred and motivated by his father, Walters became one of the premier attractions at golf clinics, performing from a specially made chair attached to a cart, with his father teeing up what he estimates was over a million golf balls.

“I always say it’s great golf and bad jokes,” Walters said of his shows. “I’ve traveled over three million miles telling people ‘Do something in this life.’”

I was asked to host several of Walter’s exhibitions at the TPC at Sawgrass when it first opened in the ‘80’s. When we talked after the announcement of his selection to the 2019 class, I mentioned that I often thought of him while playing golf since we met.

“How so?” he asked.

“I always refer to the thing you told me once about how you hit that squiggly club so well. You said, ‘You have to wait’ and I think about that when I’m trying to slow down.”

“I’ve done over 3,000 exhibitions,” Walters said with a smile. “And a friend once told me, ‘You never know who you leave in your wake.’ And he was right.”

Jan Stephenson said she was truly shocked when she got the call.

“I thought my time had passed,” she said.

Often remembered because of her looks (she once posed in a bathtub full of golf balls) Stephenson was a stylish and successful player. She won three majors and 16 times on the LPGA Tour. Her winning totals, like anybody in her era, were overshadowed by Nancy Lopez.

“I was tied with Nancy going into the final round of a tournament,” she said as she recalled facing Lopez on the course.

“She was hitting it all over the place on the range. My dad happened to be caddying for me and he said, ‘She can’t hit it at all, you’ll win easily.’ I knew better.”

On the first tee, Stephenson ripped a drive down the middle while Lopez smothered it into the left rough.

“She gouges three wood out to the front of the green while I hit five iron to ten feet. She rolls it up as a tap in and I miss for birdie. On the second hole, I stripe it down the middle, she knocks it in the rough again, muscles it onto the green and makes a 30-footer for birdie. I miss again from ten feet and I’m down by one. I’m hitting it great and I’m losing! That was the greatness of Nancy, she always thought her next shot would be her best. If I started like that, I’d have shot 85!”

Lopez went on to win the tournament by a shot over Stephenson. Perhaps it’s fitting that Nancy is the one who called Jan to tell her of her Hall of Fame selection.

Famously struck by lightning as a kid, Retief Goosen was known as expressionless and placid on the golf course. “He’s very quiet. I mean mentally,” Johnny Miller once said of Goosen.

But that wasn’t always the case.

The two-time U.S. Open winner said he had a “terrible temper” early on in his career. “It was holding me back, I’d hang on to bad shots and bad rounds.”

Goosen credits seeking help from sports psychologist Jos Vanstiphout for changing his demeanor.

“Without that, I don’t win,” he said.

After bringing the Olympics to Atlanta, Billy Payne’s stint as the Chairman of Augusta National moved the Masters to the forefront on many levels. He ushered in the first women members at Augusta, pushed television and digital platforms to the cutting edge, help start the Latin American and Asia-Pacific Amateur Championships, partnered in starting the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship and opened the new Press Building and practice area at Augusta.

“From my first day, the members let it be known that our number one responsibility was to grown the game,” Payne said of the focus of his chairmanship.

At the Masters the price of food and drink on the golf course has held firm forever. “Affordable value” is the term most associated with buying a pimento cheese sandwich for $1.25.

“Hootie Johnson (his predecessor at Chairman) told me ‘You’ll be judged on how much you lose on concessions.’ And he was right.”

“We want to lead, but not lead alone,” he said of Augusta’s partnerships with golf’s other organizing bodies. “We needed to be the best. If there was a choice between good and great, we chose great.”

The adaptability he showed as Chairman was forged by his football career at Georgia.

“I went to one of those all-star games in the state and they had four quarterbacks,” Payne recalled. “The coach said ‘Only one of you can play quarterback, who wants to play somewhere else?’ I raised my hand and said I’d play anywhere.”

So at Georgia he played split end with some success until Vince Dooley talked with him after his junior year.

“Coach Dooley said to me ‘Billy, you know we have so and so coming up to the varsity next year and he’s better than you’,” Payne said with a big laugh. “So if you want to play, you’ll have to change positions.’”

“I said I’d play anywhere, so they put me on defense and everybody thinks I went to Georgia to play defensive end!”

Payne was All-SEC at that position in 1968.

While joking that he’s the “worst player” among the Class of 2019, Payne also spoke for the class when he talked about the game’s impact on his life.

“If I have 10,000 friends, 9,999 of them play golf,” he told the crowd at the World Golf Hall of Fame during a question and answer period. “That’s the kind of impact the game can have.”

Shoot Your Age 500 Times Former Cubs Manager Jim Frey Did That This Week

You never know who you might run into on the golf course. A few years ago I saw Jim Frey headed to the first tee at Marsh Landing. Sports fans know Jim as the manager of the Chicago Cubs in the mid-‘80’s. The Cubs were broadcast every day on WGN “Channel 9” on the cable out of Chicago. Same as the Braves were on the “Superstation WTBS” from Atlanta. The Cubs were a national team. Harry Cary was doing the play-by-play, drinking Budweiser in the left-field bleachers; Jim Frey was running the team from the dugout.

Growing up in Baltimore, I knew Jim from his fifteen year stint with the Orioles as a scout, coach, and the guy who was coaching first base or sitting next to Earl Weaver on the bench in their heyday of the 1970’s. That stint is part of a more than four decades career in baseball as a player, scout, coach, manager and general manager. So we’ve had a lot to talk about.

It’s not unusual to hear about professional athletes in other sports playing golf at a high level. Michael Jordan’s money matches are legendary. Steph Curry’s play at the Web.com event last year turned some heads. John Smoltz, Tony Romo and countless others have game.

The same can be said for Jim Frey. This week, the week of his 88th birthday, Frey shot “his age” carding an 80 at Marsh Landing.

It’s the 500th time he’s done that.

A baseball man through and through, the golfer they call “Coach” at Marsh Landing is used to keeping track of a game based on numbers and statistics, Frey has documented the 500 different times he’s shot his age, from the first time when he was 72 at Cave’s Valley in Baltimore to this week at Marsh Landing.

And it’s amazing he’s even still playing. Just last year Frey, who moved here in 2008 to be closer to his daughter, had a health scare that included chemo, radiation and double pneumonia. So serious that at one point, as he puts it, “I thought the party was over.”

Once with a handicap as low as six, Frey has never relied on length rather using accuracy to get the ball in the hole. “I’ve always hit it straight,” he said remembering golf games with Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer who consistently outdrove him. But much like his plus-.300 batting average in his 14-year minor league career (two of those in the South Atlantic League here in Jacksonville), Frey’s golf game relies on his hand-eye coordination and his ability to think through the game.

When his playing career was over, Frey served as a scout and a coach before managing in Kansas City and Chicago. He took the Royals to the World Series in 1980 after winning 97 games in the regular season, losing to the Phillies in six games.

In his first season as the Cubs manager, they won 96 games to win the division and held a 2-0 lead over the Padres for the National League Pennant. But San Diego won the last three behind Steve Garvey to go to the World Series.

Baseball is a game built on failure. Get a hit three out of ten times and they put you in the Hall of Fame. As fans, the ups and downs stick with us. But when you’re in it Frey says, the downs really sting.

“You get your heart broken in baseball,” he said as he recalled a few of the near misses. “We got to the 7th game of the World Series in Baltimore in ’79 and Willie Stargell beat us with a home run.”

“I still lay in bed at night and think about games in 1991 that didn’t go so well,” he said of his final year as GM of the Cubs.

Maybe that prepared him for the ups and downs on the golf course. He had a chance to shoot his age they day before he did it for the first time fifteen years ago.

“I didn’t tell anybody, but when we got to the 18th that day at Caves, a pretty strong par four up the hill, I had a 7-footer to shoot 72. And I missed it. The next day, I had a six-footer for 72 and I stepped away and told the guys I was playing with what was going on adding, ‘I’m making this putt!’ he said with a huge laugh. And he did.

Shooting your age is a big deal in golf. I’m sure Chris Kappas at Sawgrass did it all the time. John Tucker and Wesley Paxon notched that with regularity.

But 500 times?

“I played a lot of golf after I retired down in Estero in the winters and in Baltimore in the summers. When we moved here in 2008 I was still playing three, four times a week.”

Knowing Jim, it’s no surprise that friendship and relationships are at the core of the two games he’s been involved in his whole life.

He was the young scout in the Midwest who alerted the Orioles that the Reds were willing to trade Frank Robinson. It’s considered one of the greatest heists in Major League history.

“I had breakfast with and old scout from Cincinnati and he said, “I just came from a meeting and they want to trade Frank Robinson!’ I went to the phone and called Baltimore. I had just started scouting for the Orioles. I talked to my boss, and they brought me home.”

He met with the Orioles brass including Lee McPhail, Harry Dalton and Manager Hank Bauer.

“How good to you think Frank Robinson is?” Frey was asked. “A better offensive player than Brooks?” He didn’t hesitate, ‘”Yes I do.”

And shortly thereafter the Orioles traded pitcher Milt Pappas to the Reds and got Robinson who won the MVP, the Triple Crown and helped Baltimore win the World Series over the Dodgers in four straight in 1966.

“All of the sudden, I’m not a little scout in the Midwest,” Frey said with a chuckle.

Frey hedges a bit when asked who the best player he ever worked with was, but admitted, “When I was with Baltimore, Frank Robinson was clearly the best player. He never quite got his due. He was the best player for nearly 20 years.”

That trust, camaraderie, friendships and the relationships he found in baseball are the things Frey says are important to him now in his golf game.

“I belonged to three or four other clubs before I came to Jacksonville. I joined Marsh Landing and I’ve appreciated the membership there, they’ve really embraced me. The group of guys I play with there has been a lot of fun. At this point in my life I’m appreciative of how they’ve taken me in.”

Hey Jim, that was the easy part.

Holzhauer Streak on Jeopardy! Impressive!

Lots of smart people come through the Jeopardy! pipeline but haven’t come close to what James Holzhauer is doing. Holzhauer is plenty smart and being a professional sports gambler, he knows how to play the odds but has the confidence and competitiveness of a top-level athlete.

It’s a rare combination.

It is impressive during Holzhauer’s streak, the amount of money he’s amassed, his breadth of knowledge, and as he says, the technique of hitting the buzzer at the right time so he could be the one answering the question. That might be the key.

Important? Absolutely.

On Tuesday of this week, the three contestants ran through Jeopardy and Double Jeopardy without missing one answer! They only didn’t buzz in on two questions but the rest they answered correctly. No wrong answers? I’m sure the statistics are pretty high for that happening so you’d figure the game would be close. Except Holzhauer won by over $60,000!

By somehow practicing how to hit the buzzer at precisely the right time, Holzhauer gets control of the board. He has the confidence that he’ll know the answer, the competitiveness to understand the stakes and amasses enough money to dominate early.

“You can see as soon as I get control of the board in the first game, I’m going for the $1,000 clues whenever I have the opportunity,” he told the New York Times, similar to a poker strategy.

“There are big advantages to having a lot of chips early on in a poker tournament. You can make plays that other people can’t.”
While Holzhauer is a game changer when it comes to playing the game, he’s also reshaping the image of a professional sports gambler. The stereotype of a dimly lit room with the racing forum and nicotine stained fingers has given way to a new type of pro gambler: college educated, statistically adept and fearless.

“This is an area that is shrouded in mystery,” Chris Grove, the managing director of the gambling research firm Eilers and Krejcik Gaming told the Washington Post. “I think Holzhauer demystifies it to a degree. This is a living, breathing relatively normal seeming individual.”

You might remember during my television career I did a popular segment called “Stump Sam.” For twenty or so years I answered questions, mostly submitted by viewers, live on the air asked by Tom Wills and Mary Baer. All told, I was asked over 2,000 questions before current management killed the segment, and as a credit to Tom and Mary, I was never asked the same question twice.

Answering trivia questions live on television is different than sitting around a coffee table having cocktails with friends playing Trivial Pursuit. Anybody who’s been in a trivia contest knows that one of the hardest things about answering the questions quickly is getting the answer that you know is wrong out of your mind.

In “Stump Sam” I had about 30 seconds to come up with an answer (usually with a producer yelling in my ear ‘wrap, wrap.” So my experience, while similar, is different than the contestants on Jeopardy!

I remember the first question I was asked:

“What team played the Montreal Expos in the first regular season MLB game played outside the United States.”

Finding the answer kicks in your deductive reasoning quickly: A National League team, in the Eastern division where the Expos played in 1969, probably a major market team, the Mets, or a traditional NL team like the Cardinals.

When I got it down to those two quickly, Tom said, “Aaaand?” So I knew it was one of those two. I guessed New York but the answer was St. Louis (they opened the season in NY but played their first home game in Montreal against the Cardinals.)

Only once did my mind go blank on an answer I clearly should have gotten. Late in the 1995 baseball season a pitcher threw a no-hitter and before his next start Tom asked me an easy question:

“Who’s the only pitcher in Major League history to throw back-to-back no-hitters?”

I’ve known the answer to that since I was about six but it just wouldn’t come up in my brain that day.
“Johnny Vandermeer,” Tom eventually said seeing me struggle and graciously added “Football overload,” as we had spent the summer in Stevens Point, Wisconsin with the Jaguars and were preparing for the their first game ever. Baseball was way off in the recesses of everybody’s mind, including mine.

Holzhauer knows the subjects, he knows how to buzz in, but he also knows how to play the game. Kind of like being a polo player. People in that community will tell you being a good horseman is important, but being a good game player is paramount. He’s a great games player and the way he runs through the board, from the bottom up might not be novel but it shows a confidence he has in the competition that reminds you of a 3rd-and-2 80-yard touchdown pass.

Being a professional gambler, going “all in” is usually a strategic move, and Holzhauer uses it with a competitive confidence that puts plenty of distance between him and the other two competitors.

Five-time “Jeopardy!” winner Eddie Timanus, who compiles the college coaches’ polls for USA TODAY says Holzhauer’s buzzer skills and aggressive money play sets him apart.

“Thanks to his ability to ring in first consistently and rarely miss, he usually has a considerable total built up by the time he uncovers a Daily Double,” Timanus said in USA TODAY. “He finds most of them since he’s able to maintain control of the board for long stretches, and, as we’ve seen, he’s not afraid to bet big.”

Jeopardy isn’t the first game show Holzhauer has competed on. He was on a show called “500 Questions” and although he didn’t advance he impressed the executive producer Phil Parsons.

“When we auditioned people, we did a ‘general knowledge’ test, and James, by far, scored the highest in that test,” Parsons told the New York Post.

“He was quite the tactician, and even in that way he was interesting to watch,” says Parsons. “A lot of people are talking about his top picks and concentrating on that, but the thing is you can’t get that far if you haven’t got the knowledge to back it up — and his range was astonishing.”

Record setting Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings was also on “500 Questions” but Parsons says, “James’ test score to get on the show was way better than Ken’s.”

“Jeopardy!” and host Alex Trebek are celebrating their 35th anniversary season. With a weekly audience of 23 million viewers, it’s the top-rated quiz show on television.

The original host, Art Fleming hosted the first version of the show from 1964-75 and again in ’78 and ’79. It was before electronics so somebody pulled a card with the money amount on it to reveal the answer: Seems quaint now. When asked to return as the host of the syndicated version in 1984, Fleming declined, saying the show had become “too easy.”

I don’t think there is anything easy about what James Holzhauer is doing.

Tiger Misses Cut, Still Wins

Yes I said Tiger wouldn’t win again and reiterated that he certainly wouldn’t win a Major for the rest of his career. In the crow-eating category, several of my friends charitable endeavors were bolstered out of my bank account thanks to Tiger winning last year in Atlanta and again at Augusta. I joked with them, being completely facetious, that it was nice that he was able to play in those “small field, invitation only events.” Because he showed something I didn’t think he could summon ever again at that level at the Masters.

But my previous prediction was based on knowing only the “old” Tiger. The sullen, distant, arrogant, phenomenally, dominating Tiger. For as much as his swing changes, injuries, surgeries and personal life have been dissected and analyzed, it’s his transformation of personality that’s most impressive.

Even after missing the cut at this week’s PGA Championship at Bethpage, Tiger stopped off to talk with the media about his play over the first few days. “I just didn’t play well,” he explained with a smile. Even talking to the media after missing a cut was a rarity in the past. And he admitted players like Brooks Koepka, and Koepka in particular have an advantage over him these days.

“Relative to the field, yes,” Tiger said when asked if he had the same distance advantage when he was in his heyday. “He’s (Koepka) hitting nine-iron when the rest of us are hitting five-iron,” Tiger said, sounding just like everybody talking about competing with him fifteen years ago. “And when he misses, he misses in the right spots where he can still get it on the green.”

You can think, as some purists do, that that’s the problem with golf these days, but no one is more the cause of that than Tiger Woods. He brought athleticism to the game that very few players, Arnold Palmer and Greg Norman come to mind, brought to the professional ranks in the past.

And with payouts and winners checks increasing ten-fold, thanks to Tiger’s popularity and huge television contracts, great athletes that might have chosen other sports are choosing golf. If you met Brooks Koepka and didn’t know who he was and he said he played middle linebacker for the Jaguars, you’d believe him.

Tiger’s been famous since he can remember. His dad had him on the Mike Douglas Show when he was three years old. He played in the LA Open as a 14-year old. So he’s always been the center of attention but has been able to block out the noise and imagine and execute under circumstances where most people couldn’t even take it back.

His well-documented fall from grace in his personal life didn’t take a toll on his psyche on the golf course. He can compartmentalize and distill what’s important and what’s not when he steps between the ropes. The only difference now seems to be the gum chewing. “It curbs my appetite,” he explained.

Thus, 14 Major wins before this year’s Masters for the “old” Tiger. Going into the final round at Augusta this year though he said some things that were very much unlike the old Tiger. He talked about plodding around the course and “hanging in there.” And the way he won was classically “Nicklausonian.” Jack Nicklaus stayed around the leaders and when they would make a mistake, he wouldn’t be overly aggressive, but rather make the smart play to move, and stay, atop the leaderboard. This week, Koepka outlined the 35 or so players in the field of 156 at Bethpage he’d have to beat to win. Nicklaus said many times majors were in some way the easiest to win because so many guys played themselves out of contention.

When the other two guys in his group on Sunday at Augusta hit it in the water at the par three 12th, Tiger aimed over the bunker and hit it in the middle of the green. The only “old” Tiger move was when he walked over the Hogan Bridge to mark his ball and stand and watch while Francesco Molinari and Tony Finau walked over to the drop area. Woods stood on the back of the green with his arms folded, hammering home the idea “I’m here and your not.”

Woods made the expected birdies at 13 and 15 in the final round at the Masters, sandwiched around at par at 14. And the birdie at 16 was similar to what Nicklaus did in 1986. When he hit the shot, his son Jackie, caddying for him said, “Be the right club.” Jack picked up his tee while the ball was in the air (his eyesight was not good enough to follow the ball) and said, “It is.” Tiger watched the ball ‘till it stopped, mouthing “Come on” knowing he hit it just like he wanted. For comparison, Jack hit six iron, Tiger hit eight iron.

I ran into Tiger after a practice session recently away from the PGA Tour and any network coverage.

“Two ball, worst ball,” he said when asked what he was up to. His practice session consisted of playing three holes, hitting two shots from the tee, then picking the worst of the two, hitting two shots from there and repeating the process until the ball goes in the hole.

How’d he do? “Three birdies,” he said with an honest laugh.

We all know people who can have singular focus and get things done we couldn’t imagine. I had a cousin like that. He could lock himself in a room and study and study for hours on end. He was singularly focused on knowing the most he could. He had great grades. One of those guys who studied enough to get 1600 on the SAT’s.

While I still don’t think Tiger will win another Major, I’m impressed with what he’s done in this stage of his career and life. It’ll serve him well no matter how he hits a golf ball.

Odds Against Rookies in the NFL

Pictures courtesy of the Jacksonville Jaguars/Rick Wilson

There’s a prevailing thought that “all jobs are open” during the offseason in the NFL. There are 90 players on every roster once OTA’s start. Eventually that number gets pared down to the 53 on the team when the season starts. That means when the 32 teams get to opening day in September, over a thousand players currently on NFL rosters will be out of a job.

This weekend’s Jaguars rookie mini-camp highlighted the uphill slog for any player trying to break into the league. The reality is that on average, on the final fifty-three-man roster, six rookies might make the team. Factor in the top three or four draft picks will be given a long leash to prove themselves and that leaves two spots for the 62 rookies and first year players to compete for throughout the summer. Seven draft picks, 21 rookie free agents and 28 workout players are included in that number this weekend.

Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone knows these facts all too well. Coming out of Syracuse in 1986, Marrone was the 164th player picked in the draft, a sixth round selection of the LA Raiders. They cut him before the season. He sat out in ’86, was with the Dolphins a couple of years and they cut him. Signed with the Cowboys and they cut him on the first day of training camp. Picked up by New Orleans in ’89, Marrone had a meeting with Hall of Fame General Manager Jim Finks at the end of the year when Minnesota offered him more money and a chance. And that conversation impacts what he says to players today.

“I have to be honest,” Marrone recalled Finks telling him. “If you’re playing for us, that means someone got hurt. You’re not good enough to be a starter.”

That’s a pretty harsh assessment and Marrone admits he was not happy leaving that meeting. But he leans on that experience evaluating and talking to players.

“I always admired that at least someone told me the truth. I try to do that,” Marrone said after practice with the rookies this week. “I don’t know if I can tell someone in a short period of time that I think they can’t play in this league. But I can tell them that we feel we have better players.”

“It really doesn’t matter why you are sitting here right now or how you got here,” Marrone told the rookies at their meeting Thursday night. “It’s an opportunity and you never want to waste an opportunity to make a good impression. You are going to have opportunities. Take advantage of it and leave the stuff you can’t control out.”

Courtesy of the Jacksonville Jaguars/Rick Wilson

Counting starters and back-ups, draft picks and free agents, the Jaguars have 48 spots “penciled in” of the 53 who will be a part of their quest in 2019. There will be some new faces in new places, but players like Nick Foles, Josh Allen, Chris Conley, Geoff Swaim and Jawaan Taylor will be on the roster come September.

And the chances aren’t unlimited. Once the final cuts are made in August, more than 67 percent of those players will never play in an NFL game. Half of those players released have never played in the league and never will.

What’s amazing is how great the athletes are who will not make this or any other NFL team. The last man on the roster has been a star at every level, a standout in high school and college. If you saw him in a pickup game, you’d think he was so good it was unfair. He has a case full of trophies, MVP awards and Player of the Year accolades. But in the NFL, none of that matters.

One player trying to make a quick impression is former Alabama cornerback Saivion Smith. Smith was invited to the combine, was projected as a third round pick but never heard his name called. He signed as an undrafted rookie free agent with the Jaguars.

“I was disappointed,” he admitted after practice this week. “Everybody dreams of being drafted. But now I have to know the playbook, what I have to do and play fast. That’s all I can do.”

Looking at Smith’s athletic resume he fits the role of “what are you doing here?” Six feet one, 200 pounds, he’s been a star everywhere, a phenomenal athlete. Rated the best cornerback in the country coming out of high school in Tampa, he signed with LSU, played for Mississippi Gulf Coast CC, played a year at Alabama and then declared for the NFL draft. He’s a shutdown corner who can also hit and returns punts and kicks.

He knows the numbers game he’s in but isn’t focused on it.

“I’ve talked with some of the guys I know on the team, Ronnie Harrison, Leonard Fournette,” he explained. “I tried to know something about what goes on here before I got here. I’m spending some extra time with the coaches and guys I know. I’m trying to control the things I can control.”

That’s an overriding theme for players trying to stick with the Jaguars or any team.

“What I try and do is make sure,” Marrone said, recalling his time as a player “I tell them ‘Don’t look around and put into your mind, ‘Oh, this guy is going to be here.’ You try to get them to understand that they are not only competing with the guys in the room, but they are competing with 31 other teams, too.”

Some dreams will be realized in the next few months, others will be crushed. Both Marrone and Smith are aware of how it happens.

“I’m not ever going to be that guy that sits there and stops somebody’s dream,” Marrone said. “The one thing about this game you have to make sure that you are happy with yourself.”

Marrone left the field after playing in the World League for London, turning down a chance to go back to camp with the Raiders to stay at the Coast Guard Academy and start his coaching career.

“I made that decision,” he explained.

“I’m going to play as hard and fast as I can,” Smith said. “The rest is up to the coaches.”

Can’t Measure Heart


There’s been a lot of talk recently about the measureables of athletes: height weight, 40-time, shuttle run, bench press. And some talk about production and “getting to the next level.”

As anyone who’s played anything knows one of the best cliché’s in sports is “you can’t measure heart.”

Because you can’t.

That’s why Donnie Horner III and Sharon Siegel-Cohen are such great competitors. One’s an athlete and one’s not. They don’t have much these days in terms of “measureables.”

But they have heart.

Donnie has a form of MS. Sharon has a form of ALS. Yet both compete everyday, get out of their comfort zone, motivate other people and make a difference.

I’ve worked on and off with Sharon for the past 38 years. She’s one of the rare, good people in TV, but you wouldn’t know her if you passed her on the street. She’s what the industry calls a “producer” whose job basically is to make the people on-air look good. And Sharon’s an expert at it.

Never one to get bogged down in the details, she didn’t think a thing of it when during a family trip to NY in June of 2017 she tripped on a sidewalk in the city.

“Everybody trips on the sidewalk in New York,” she told me. “Even though the swelling in my ankle went down I was still limping around in November.”

As the orthopedists and the physical therapists were trying figure out what was wrong with her, Sharon started walking with a cane in February of last year. Eventually they did a nerve conduction study and she ended up at a neuromuscular specialist who diagnosed her nearly a year later with a form of ALS.

Right now, Sharon’s lost the use of her legs and gets around in a wheelchair. “Whether it gets worse, I don’t know,” she said. “I can type and talk. It’s my new reality.”

Her sister Frances, a pretty good athlete in her younger days, now has MS. She jokingly gave Sharon some family ribbing and encouragement noting, “You weren’t much of an athlete anyway!”

Sharon laughed telling me that story, saying, and “She was trying to make me feel good. And she’s right, I was president of the service club and the drama club. It wasn’t that big a thing for girls to be involved in sports when I was younger. I think people with this disease all have a sense of humor.”

Commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” ALS has been in public view since the Yankee first baseman retired, making his “I’m the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” speech in 1939.

“That’s 80 years ago,” Sharon remarked. “It’s time something got done.”

That’s why at the recent ALS walk, Sharon was asked to speak and paraphrased Gehrig’s speech in her remarks.

“Today, despite this physical limitation, I feel like the luckiest woman alive,” she said. “I’m surrounded by family friends, colleagues, college friends I haven’t seen in 40 years. I’m buoyed by the love and support I’m getting.”

We often hear announcers refer to the “courage” it takes to hit that shot or the “guts” it takes to make that tackle. That’s amusing when you consider the courage and guts Sharon and others like her have everyday, competing against this kind of disease.

Sharon’s somebody who always sees the big picture. As a producer, she doesn’t sweat the details and lets people do their job. So it was a conscious decision that took some courage to get “in front” of the camera, so to speak, after being in the background her entire career.

“If I can lend my voice, I’ll do it,” she explained. “This disease isn’t incurable, it’s just underfunded.”

Last night, Sharon received the Courage Award at the Augie’s Quest banquet.

“I don’t want to dwell on it,” she added. “I want to stay active, working, reading.”

While September 11th has meaning to all Americans, Donnie Horner III remembers that day in 2009 when he was diagnosed with MS. Horner was an elite athlete, played hockey at the Naval Academy as a four-year starter. He delivered the game ball on the field for the Army/Navy game in his senior year. Club sport athlete of the year, an all-star game starter, Horner was in, as he describes it, “the best shape of my life.”

Then shortly after graduation, as an Ensign on watch aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard during workups for his first deployment, Horner felt his first symptoms of MS. “It felt like my legs had fallen asleep. I thought it was vibration from the steel-toed boots from the vibration of the ship. When it didn’t go away, I decided to get checked out.”

For Horner, the diagnosis was quick. Neurology at NAS Jax, MRI, Cat scan and spinal tap, second opinion at Mayo Clinic. After a promising athletic and academic career, he was retired from the Navy in April of 2010 with relapsing, remitting MS.

“I was cocky as a junior officer but this brought me back to earth,” he explained. “I threw myself into research, I refused to believe that this wasn’t something I could deal with.”

But despite his previous success competing and excelling in athletic competition, this confident, bright, “meet things head on” young Navy officer lost his edge.

“I was a low self-esteem, didn’t know what I was going to do kind of person,” he recalled. “I had to walk with a cane for months. I didn’t know how to give myself a shot. I was scared; I didn’t believe in myself at all. I felt bad physically, mentally and emotionally.”

That’s when he called on his athletic background to restart his life.

“The first five years were brutally hard. I couldn’t recognize I was dealing with insecurity or low self-esteem because I hadn’t ever been that,” he said. “Time has a way of contextualizing things. It was five years before I figured out how to act with this disease.”

So with encouragement from his wife Kristen and his family, some medical and spiritual help, Horner says he’s back at a “good place.”

So good that two weeks ago, Donnie, despite having MS, ran the Boston Marathon.

How is that possible? Courage. Guts.

“I wanted to live my best life,” he explained. “I looked into diet, and exercise. I go to mental health counseling, I took my spiritual affairs seriously.”

Last August, Horner decided he wanted to run the Boston Marathon. Despite the numbness in his leg that’s always there, the tingling and vibrations that come and go, he was diligent in his training. But admits part of it is luck.

“The week before the Boston Marathon I couldn’t get out of bed because of a relapse. Literally. Three days later I felt OK and went back to training,” he explained.

“I’m at my best when I set my goal and get things done,” he added. “The competitiveness and wanting to succeed all comes from playing sports. I enjoy being part of a team. I want to do whatever it takes.”

The “Strides Against MS” team raised $220,000 at the Boston Marathon. Horner alone raised over $9,000. Last weekend he competed in Jacksonville’s version of “Dancing with the Stars.”

“It’s a challenge,” he said of his active lifestyle despite living with MS. “I believe my background as an athlete has contributed to my well being as an MS patient.

And how’d he feel after competing in the Boston Marathon and seeing Kristen at the finish line?

“Like I scored a hat trick. Maybe ten goals! Never been happier since my wedding day.”

Jaguars Take Allen, Easy Pick

When you pick a player in the first round of the NFL Draft, you expect him to step in a be a starter for ten years. That’s what first round talent is supposed to be: solid, reliable and sometimes spectacular.

But despite the millions of dollars spent and the millions of man-hours dedicated to the draft, it remains an inexact science. There wasn’t a personnel director or draft guru who didn’t think Josh Allen was a top five pick in this year’s draft.

And yet, when the Jaguars were on the clock with the seventh pick, Allen was still there.

The Raiders, as predicted, did something weird with their pick at #4, taking Clelin Ferrell from Clemson. That left Allen as the far and away best player still on the board for the Jaguars.

Which made it an easy selection.

This was not a reach.

Unlike many of the Jaguars first round picks in the last fifteen years, Josh Allen was the best player on the Jaguars board. They wasted no time calling him and turning the card into the NFL. That’s why less than two minutes had gone by in the Jaguars draft window when the sign went up, “The pick is in.”

It was like the Jalen Ramsey pick three years ago. When the Cowboys took Ezekiel Elliott right before the Jaguars were “on the clock,” GM Dave Caldwell wasted no time calling Ramsey and making the pick.

Why wait when you’re getting one of the best players in the draft?

Yes, Executive VP Tom Coughlin said they were high on tight ends and offensive lineman in that spot but this was a no-brainer.

Unless Quinnen Williams, the defensive lineman from Alabama, whom the Jaguars thought was the best player in the whole draft, fell to them, Allen was an easy selection for the Jaguars when he got past the Jets and the Giants and even the Bucs. They never thought he’d be there.

“Too good of a football player to pass up. A superior player,” said Executive VP Tom Coughlin. “In all of our scenarios, he was already gone.”

Taking Allen, as unexpected as it was, is a very “Jaguars” pick under Coughlin. Last year’s selection of Taven Bryan seems like an aberration, a reach, even a pick based on hubris rather than careful study.

Allen is a football player, not some combine freak or just an athlete who’s playing football. Fifty-one games in college, 35 starts, first team All-America and plenty productive. Defensive player of the year and 17 sacks his senior year. That’s the most by an SEC player since the NCAA started keeping the stat. Didn’t miss a game in his entire college career.

And Allen seems to be thrilled to be with the Jaguars, a team self-described as committed to defense and running the football.

“They get after the quarterback.,” Allen said of the Jaguars emphasis on defense. “That’s all I need to hear. I went there on my visit and they said, ‘Josh, we get after the quarterback.’ I love getting after the quarterback.”

Regrettably for the Jaguars since 2003, their first round picks have been rarely been solid, reliable, and almost never spectacular. Only one, Marcedes Lewis, lasted 10 years with the Jaguars. Reggie Nelson and Tyson Alualu have had extended NFL careers. But Byron Leftwich, Reggie Williams, Matt Jones, Derrick Harvey, Eugene Monroe, Blaine Gabbert, Justin Blackmon, Luke Joeckel and even Blake Bortles and Dante Fowler have been part of an extended period of futility. The only star is Jalen Ramsey. The jury is out on Leonard Fournette and Taven Bryan.

“The best player in the draft,” Ramsey said on his Twitter feed.

This is not a pick made from hubris. This is a solid, football pick. Even if Allen doesn’t become a superstar, he’s going to be a good NFL player.

And the Jaguars need those. Too many times they’ve had picks that have a high ceiling, but also a very low floor. Allen’s physical abilities as a football player seem to have a high ceiling. His attitude about life and achievement seem to keep him from sinking to a lower level. He came back for his senior year at Kentucky for all the right reasons.

“I think about it every day. I would have never been in this situation last year,” he said. “I decided I am glad I came back to further myself as a person and as a player, as well.”

I’m sure Coughlin is sick and tired of hearing about R.J. Soward and the other draft picks that didn’t work out during his tenure with the Jaguars and the Giants. But he did build contending teams in both places and won two Super Bowls with the Giants.

You can’t use revisionist history and say they should have taken Ben Roethlisberger or Terrell Suggs without the context of the moment. The Steelers cut John Unitas and teams passed on Tom Brady 198 times before the Patriots took him in the 6th round. They’re the best two quarterbacks in the game’s history.

It’s easy to cherry pick the mistakes teams have made in the draft from Ryan Leaf and Tony Mandarich on down.

This isn’t one of them.

Hitch Our Wagon to Shad Khan and Let’s Go!

I’m not sure what the downside is to hitching our wagon to Shad Khan and going along for the ride. If a rising tide floats all boats, Khan IS the rising tide. Not many cities have a patron who is among the wealthiest people in the world. He has the vision and the wherewithal as well as the willingness to spend his own money to help take Jacksonville to the next level.

The nay-sayers and the doubters remind me of the old guard power brokers in town who knew an NFL team in Jacksonville would undercut their influence, and nearly killed the deal in 1990. Shortsighted and selfish, luckily smarter and more reasonable people prevailed and here we are, 29 years later, as Mayor Lenny Curry likes to say, a “city on the rise.”

At the Jaguars State of the Franchise” meeting on Thursday there was a lot of the regular, “We’re 30th in this, 28th in this, 26th in this, and 31st in this” kind of talk. So much so that Jaguars President Mark Lamping departed from his prepared remarks, trying to put his assessment into perspective, “I don’t want this to be a downer announcement. We might be 30th in the NFL, but we’re comparing it to the most dynamic cities in America. We’re way ahead of most cities.”

Lamping likes living here, and that’s one of the reasons he’s the point man for all of Shad Khan’s development ideas in North Florida. Lamping also knows that only through a public/private partnership between Khan and the city can anything get done. So they’re looking to in the future, and describes this kind of relationship as a “win-win.”

“It is naive to believe that just through the benevolence of some person that all the city’s problems are going to be taken care of. It needs to be a private/public partnership only to the extent that the risk isn’t so high that the investment won’t come and if it is successful that the returns to the investor aren’t exorbitant.”

Sure Shad’s making money. So what? That’s what he does and he’s proven to be good at it. He’s a doer. He thinks big and then gets things done. The pools, the scoreboards, the club renovations, Daily’s Place and now the Lot J development. He’s spent his own money to augment what the city is also contributing. As a businessman, Khan is results-oriented. No amount of talking and promises by politicians and nay-sayers compares to getting things done.

“I’m used to that you have a vision, you believe in it, you have to get all the stakeholders in and get it done,” he told the assembled media after the formal announcement of his development intentions. “You just can’t talk about it. We are as determined as ever. We need to get it done because I believe in it. I think the Jaguars and the community really needs it. It’s like anything else – if you aren’t growing, you’re dying.”

The Lot J development is a $500 million project that includes an office building, an entertainment/retail center, a hotel and a residential unit. There will also be a 3,000 parking garage to replace the 1300 parking spaces currently in Lot J.

Much of the focus on the Lot J development centered around the JEA choosing it as their next home. I’m not sure why they chose another location downtown, passing on the Jaguars offer, knowing it would cost them $18 million more over the next 15 years, but Lamping says it wasn’t the lynchpin for the success of Lot J.

“It’s a zero sum game,” he explained. “They’re taking 850 employees from one location in downtown and putting it in another. It’s not like Jacksonville’s downtown has so much going for it that we can afford to lose the opportunity to bring a catalyst. The thought that governmental entities – like JEA, that somehow they can’t be part of major redevelopment initiatives, it’s just not true.”

Lamping pointed to Tampa and their regeneration of the downtown area with help from governmental agencies as “doing it right.”

There are lots of signals from the Jaguars that the stadium will need a reboot. Jacksonville and Buffalo are the only two stadiums that have not had a $300 million or more renovation in the last 25 years.

“I think the stadium has to be upgraded. I think that is our approach,” Khan said without putting a timeline on renovations. “I think it signifies Jacksonville. I think that if you look at all the upgrades that have happened – clubs, scoreboards, pools, Daily’s Place, we have been a big part of spending money with the city.”

There will be a sunshade on the stadium at some point. Khan said he was intrigued by the proposals, as an engineer, to hold a shade over the stadium with drones. Its one of the proposals in the idea stage for the upcoming World Cup in Qatar.

The Jaguars will also be playing two games in London, one as the home team and one as the visitor, probably as soon as next season. It’ll solidify the Jaguars as the NFL’s presence in London. They pointed out that there’s competition in the league for London games, particularly with the Raiders and the Rams. Khan said the team is “absolutely committed” to London beyond their agreement through 2020.

As the Jaguars revealed their logo for their 25th Year, their Silver Anniversary, they were quick to point out that it prominently displays a shadow of the Jacksonville skyline.

There were a lot of “experts” who said the team wouldn’t last ten years here let alone twenty-five. I heard that chant constantly from my media brethren around the country.

But the spirit that brought the team here remains.

So let’s go.

“Here we are — Jacksonville honoring our 25th season,” Khan said. “And with the continued support of our fans and partners, combined with the realization of our vision for downtown, 25 years from now we’re still going to be here, bigger and better.”

Culture, Not X’s and O’s Jaguars Focus

It’s called the “Offseason Conditioning Program” officially by the NFL but as we know, there is no “off-season” in the league. They’ve stretched it out to 12 months, hoping you’ll keep teams in mind when shopping, discussing and whetting your sports appetite.

For the Jaguars, they’re hoping it’s a new beginning, or more specifically a throw back to 2017 where the team went to the AFC Championship game. They disintegrated in 2018, a combination of a bad locker room culture and injuries that hadn’t happened the year before.

“It’s great getting back to work,” said new quarterback Nick Foles this week as he shook hands with his new teammates, went through some conditioning and got his first look at the Jaguars playbook.

“For me it’s an opportunity to get to know everyone. I haven’t really had the opportunity to get to know the guys in this building.. There are a few guys on the team that I’ve played with before, but it’s fun these last couple days putting faces to names and understanding everything. It’s been great.”

With only Calais Campbell filling a leadership role, the Jaguars brass are hoping Foles fills that void on offense. It naturally falls to the quarterback and Foles knows it.

“I think the big thing is being genuine, being who I am, and a lot of that is getting to know the guys,” he explained. “We’re all here to make things better, to ultimately give us the opportunity to succeed. To do that you have to build a foundation and that is trust and getting to know each other. That’s why this part of the year is great because we come to work four days a week. You get an opportunity to get to know the guys and then you can build that trust and go from there.”

Foles has an earnest personality and a high likeability factor. He said he’s already bought a home in Jacksonville. It has a “sports court” where he can shoot some hoops occasionally, something he’s always wanted. He admits the burden falls on him to lead, but adds it will take some time.

“Trust is something you can’t just rush,” he said. T”hat’s why you come in here each day. I don’t try to be anything other than myself. That’s what makes football such a special sport, is all the different guys from all the different backgrounds who come together in the locker room and go out there to achieve great things.”

While Foles is just getting his feet wet, understanding how things are done wearing teal and black, Head Coach Doug Marrone is looking to start anew. Marrone has always said at the beginning of each year, you have to start all over.

“Basically, what I told the team is that our goal right now is that we are a team just because of our name; we are not a team because of how we interact with each other,” Marrone said. “The big thing is, ‘Let’s talk about building trust and getting to know one another. We have to find a balance in that so that we can go in there and get to know everyone and build that team chemistry.”

It’s what was missing last year when the team fell flat. Even traded defensive lineman Dante Fowler was able to see that once he was traded to Los Angeles. Fowler said the difference between the two teams was stark: The Jaguars had lost their way.
“It has to come from within that locker room,” Marrone said of the team’s leadership. “Players have to step up. At the end of the day, like I always said, [former Alabama Head Coach] Bear Bryant, he would look at it as that everyone has to be a leader. I think you look at everyone to be a leader in whatever way they are.”

In this offseason conditioning period, Marrone and the Jaguars staff will rely on all of the metrics and data that’s now available to them to bring the players into the kind of “football shape” that can sustain them through the season.

“You don’t want to force them into something that they are not prepared for,” he explained. “You want to gradually build Let’s get to know each other. Let’s build this trust. Let’s make sure we get ourselves in shape. Let’s learn what we want to do offensively, defensively and on special teams. Let’s build the chemistry and let’s get our technique right.”

Perhaps Foles can foster the kind of leadership the Jaguars were lacking last year. Calais Campbell already things he’s had an impact.

“You have a guy like him who is a natural leader and loves the game … He comes with the right attitude each and every day, gives us a chance to create the atmosphere we want for this year,” Calais said.

Last season when the team started 3-1, Campbell knew things weren’t right, calling two “Players Only” meetings to reset the culture of the locker room. It never happened.

“I think it is really important to create the atmosphere that is going to breed success and that is an each and every day grind. I’m looking forward to it. I think we have the right people in place to make it happen.”

And Campbell agrees that you can’t just magically make that happen. It takes time ti build and it’s a process that has a life of its own each season.

“You come back and you have to rebuild everything,” he explained. “We saw that last year. You have to recreate it, and it’s a process. It’s really just a constant grind each and every day, building that atmosphere. It’s really embracing each and every moment and making the best of it.”

The Hammer Podcast, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Episode 49 – Back to Work, The Jaguars Regroup

Sam and Lonnie talk Off-season conditioning player additions and subtractions and more!

[iframe style=”border:none” src=”//html5-player.libsyn.com/embed/episode/id/9435530/height/100/width//thumbnail/yes/render-playlist/no/theme/custom/tdest_id/770553/custom-color/14679e” height=”100″ width=”100%” scrolling=”no” allowfullscreen webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen oallowfullscreen msallowfullscreen]

The Masters is Emotional

They played early at Augusta National in yesterday’s final round of The Masters because of weather.  But it didn’t make a difference. Early or late, it’s the same.

Because this is The Masters.

It was a leaderboard fitting of The Masters with Major Champions trying to add to their collection and others trying to make the Green Jacket their first Major Championship trophy. Brooks Koepka was looking for his fourth Major in the last two years and Francesco Molinari was playing well enough to add to his Open Championship win of 2018.  Tiger Woods was in position to win his 15th Major and his fifth Masters.

And that’s what happened.  Tiger outlasted the competition, played steady when others faltered and stood on the 18th green as The Masters Champion for a fifth time.

There was pure emotion coming from Tiger as he dropped the final putt to win by a shot.  From not knowing if he’d play golf again just 18 months ago, Woods completed an improbable comeback and said later he didn’t know what he did as the last putt dropped.  He just let it all out.  The emotions of the week and the last two years.

And The Masters is all about emotion.

Before the traditional Green Jacket ceremony in the Butler Cabin at Augusta National today, CBS ran a montage of players over the years reacting to a question about winning the Masters. The response is universal, a long exhale with a faraway look in their eyes. It’s enormous from a golf standpoint. A major championship, endorsements and a signature win.

“I never allowed myself to dream this big,” Bubba Watson said, choking back tears.

“It’s a week not like any other week,” Andy North a two-time US Open winner told me last Wednesday.

Winning the U.S. Open is an achievement. Much is made of the qualifying process and the USGA’s protection of “par.”  You’re the best player in America as the U.S. Open champion.

At The (British) Open Championship, they declare you the “Champion Golfer of the Year” and from an international standpoint, no title is more recognized. You beat all-comers.

The PGA is an accomplishment, winning among your peers, almost a throwback to the days when not every best player turned pro and played what became the PGA Tour.

But this is the Masters. And it’s different, it’s emotional.

It’s the only major that’s played on the same golf course every year. In fact, it might be the only significant sporting event that uses the same venue annually. The World Cup travels, so does the Super Bowl. The Daytona 500 is always at Daytona, obviously, but it’s stature and appeal outside of NASCAR fans is limited.

In the few minutes after sealing his victory, Tiger hugged his caddie, Joe Lacava, shook hands with his fellow competitors and caddies on the green and then went through a series of long, emotional hugs with his children, his mother, his girlfriend and other close associates.

It’s the kind of scene only found at the Masters.

When the Augusta Invitational started in 1934, it was an idea that Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones had to bring together the best players just as the weather began to break in northern Georgia. Writers traveling from baseball spring training in Florida would find it convenient to stop off in Augusta to cover the golf. Editors in the northeast weren’t put off by the stopover, as there was limited extra expense.

Horton Smith’s win in ’34 wasn’t overly celebrated. But as is widely know, Roberts and Jones understood that putting on a golf tournament and having people know about your tournament were two different things. Through the reporting of the iconic sportswriters of the time the Augusta Invitational became The Masters.

Employees of what is now CSX in Jacksonville stood on Washington Road in Augusta outside of “The National” selling tickets.  They operated the Butler Cabln as a hospitality venue for years.

Herbert Warren Wind dubbed the 11th, 12th and 13th at Augusta “Amen Corner” after a blues tune he knew from the ’30’s. Gene Sarazen’s double-eagle gave some mystery and verve to the tournament as eyewitness accounts were reported breathlessly by the major newspapers of the era. Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead playing and winning showed it was important.

But it wasn’t until Arnold Palmer showed up and started winning did it get emotional. That’s how Palmer played and he transferred that emotion to Augusta National and the Masters.

Although he won four times, it’s the near misses that are as easily remembered in Palmer’s career at Augusta and the emotion those evoked. As television emerged as a vehicle to bring golf to the masses, TV executives like Frank Chirkinian of CBS knew Arnold was telegenic and projected that emotion right through the screen and into our living rooms. (By the way, Chirkinian also invented the “under” or “over” par scoring for television we still use today.)

And it didn’t hurt that TV could bring beautiful pictures of a golf course to the millions still saddled by snow and bad weather throughout the country.

As Jack Nicklaus emerged as the best player, the emotions at the Masters still centered on Palmer as the crowd favorite. He brought a visceral connection among the fans at the Masters as he tried to hold off the then unemotional and methodical Golden Bear. Unlike previous golf “rivalries” where you had your favorite and were polite to their competitors, Palmer fans didn’t like Jack and let everybody know. Arnold evoked an emotional response even when he didn’t win.

I say Nicklaus was unemotional, but Jack burned with a competitive fire that centered on winning and beating Palmer. He didn’t show it much, that wasn’t his personality, but being around the two it was obvious they had a deep friendship but also a competitive nature that never abated.

Until recently, Jack was the most un-sentimental champion I had ever met. Even when he won his sixth Green Jacket in 1986, it wasn’t until 20 years later that Jack started to embrace the emotion of Augusta National publicly. Tom Watson is kind of the same way. Johnny Miller once said, “Golf champions aren’t chummy,” and maybe he’s right. It’s such an individual game that it breeds and inner strength among the best players.

Sometimes the emotions of nearly winning are equal to those of winning. It’s so demanding as a golf course and as a competition and it is such a big deal that the best players of their era sometimes just don’t win at Augusta. Ken Venturi, Tom Weiskopf, Greg Norman, Tom Kite, David Duval, Ernie Els and others are supposed to be Masters Champions. Their runner-up finishes are legendary.

Art Wall, Doug Ford, Gay Brewer, George Archer, Tommy Aaron, Charles Coody, Larry Mize, Mike Weir, Charl Schwartzel, Trevor Immelman and Danny Willet, distinguished players, but not household names, even in the golf world, have Green Jackets.

Winning the Masters brings an emotional response not seen anywhere else.

Ben Crenshaw cried both times he won. Phil Mickelson shed a tear in his wife Amy’s arms standing on 18 at Augusta. Sergio Garcia dropped his face in his hands after beating Justin Rose two years ago. That doesn’t happen at a regular tour event or even the other three majors.

But this is The Masters.  It’s emotional.

 

Masters Memories

Receiving an invitation to cover the Masters when I was at Channel 2 in Charleston in late 1978 was an unexpected and welcome surprise. I took my Dad as my cameraman since I was a one-man sports department at the time. We rented a room through the Augusta Housing Bureau and were both amazed the first time we walked on the grounds.

Beautiful and manicured beyond belief “The National” as locals know it, exceeded expectations.

This year I’m lucky enough to cover my 39th Masters. The southern hospitality there is no myth: Everybody is unfailingly polite.

I must have looked lost standing outside the Quonset hut that served as the pressroom because PGA Tour media director Tom Place walked out and asked, “Do you need help Sam?” Seeing so many titans of sports journalism in one place was a bit stunning for a young reporter.

After Fuzzy Zoeller’s playoff victory, an Augusta National member brought him up from the 11th green where he had made the winning putt. It was pretty dark but I was standing by the 18th green with my father holding the camera and the member brought Fuzzy right to me, much to my surprise.

“I don’t see him, I don’t see him,” I could hear my Dad saying behind me. While running a camera in those days was pretty simple, the viewfinder and the camera were separate, connected by a hinge. My Dad was looking straight ahead through the viewfinder but the camera had drooped off the front and was pointing at the ground. As Zoeller walked up to me, I reached back and grabbed the camera and pointed it at the new Masters champion. “There he is,” my Dad said as I told him to hit the “record” button.

I asked Fuzzy a question about winning with his wife expecting their first child and he gave a standard Fuzzy Zoeller answer that included a joke. As I brought the microphone back to my face to ask a second question, out of the darkness, what seemed to be a hundred microphones pointed at me in our little circle of light. The most prominent was from a network in Australia. My first thought was “Man, this is a big deal.”

We used to stand in the gravel parking lot under a sign that said “Media” to do our live shots during the Masters.

One year we took the satellite truck and Bob Maupin, our engineer, found a dogwood tree down Washington Road in a public park that was pretty accessible. We lit the tree and did a week’s worth of shows there, honestly saying “Live from Augusta.”

The media committee once wired a connection for local media from the parking lot to the edge of the ropes surrounding the famous oak tree outside the clubhouse and we went live from there. Greg Norman heckled me from the porch that year and we had a good laugh about it afterwards. Most recently our live broadcasts were from behind the big scoreboard along the first fairway, looking out on the expanse of green that makes up the golf course. Each time we’d pop up from there, Anchorman Tom Wills would say, “It’s just breathtaking.” (I took Tom to Augusta as my cameraman in 1983!)

I’ve created lifelong relationships at Augusta. My friendship with Pat Summerall grew there. I got to know Ken Venturi and Ben Wright. I did some golf commentary with Verne Lundquist in the infancy of cable television and we’ve stayed friends ever since. Every year I’d renew my friendship with Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer, (from my days as a bartender in DC) smoking a cigar and having a cocktail with them on the veranda at the back of the clubhouse.

I’ll miss Dan Jenkins at Augusta.  A lot of us will. “Your Dad made me laugh and think at the same time,” Tom Watson wrote Dan’s daughter, Columnist Sally Jenkins. No statement could be more true.

I got to know Dan when he lived in Ponte Vedra and we played golf together a half dozen times. A few of those rounds were in the Sawgrass Member-Guest with his son Marty.  We somehow always played to a tie.

He brought me into his inner circle at Augusta, introducing me as his “friend from Jacksonville.” Dan famously knew Ben Hogan, played golf with Hogan, and once gave me a book about Hogan that he signed, “From a guy who knew Hogan.” This would have been his 69th Masters.  Hopefully his usual table at the front of the media center, from where he sent pithy tweets in recent years, remains unoccupied.

There’s a picture of me in the 1981 Masters yearbook waiting to interview, Tom Watson, that year’s winner. When I see it I’m reminded of the intimacy that Augusta National had then for players, fans and media. And it still exists.

There’s always a reverence for the game, the course and the traditions. Smokers won’t even throw their cigarette butts on the ground. I’ve seen patrons put them out and stick them in their pocket.

Even with all of the changes that have happened in the last 40 years, that intimacy remains when you step on the grounds.

People remain unfailingly polite. There’s no running. No cell phones on the property. No selfies or other social media cataloging every second. Just a reunion or a rebirth of sorts every year.

It’s a lot more than just golf when you say the words, “The Masters.”

Mayor Curry on Board With Sports

It was over forty years ago when Mayor Jake Godbold decided that Jacksonville’s image needed burnishing and the local citizenry needed their spirits lifted. He chose sports as a vehicle to promote city pride and invited Baltimore Colts’ owner Robert Irsay to town for the now-famous “Colt Fever.” Godbold was unfairly dubbed “Mayor Jock” because he was right: Sports can lift the spirit of a town and a professional sports team helps put a city on the map. His dream was realized in 1993 with the NFL awarding a franchise to Jacksonville and the city has flourished ever since.

Along with getting rid of tolls and the stench from the paper mills (once dubbed “The Smell of Money”) sports has been an integral part of North Florida’s growth from less than 500,000 people in 1980 to more than 1 ½ million residents.

Current Mayor Lenny Curry, now starting his second term, sees sports as a big driver for economic growth and creating a positive quality of life in North Florida

“The economic piece is important, these events drive bed tax, sales tax, they’re huge economic engines,” Curry said this week.

“But for me, sports is part of my ‘One City, One Jacksonville’ effort in the next four years,” he added. .

Curry’s not naïve about the deep divisions on either side of different roads and rivers in Jacksonville. He calls ‘One City, One Jacksonville’ “a fragile idea” that needs to be cultivated.

“We have a lot of work to do be one city as a people,” he explained. “But where we’ve come together is around a crisis like the hurricanes or around sports. Regardless of background or where you live, we all get together behind sports in town.”

On that he’s right.

A high school baseball and football player who was also on the weightlifting squad, Curry has run “The Gate” nearly 20 times and most mornings can be found in the Y before heading to City Hall.

He was eight years old when Colt Fever happened, “But I remember the USFL,” he said with a laugh. He famously watches the NFL Network’s morning show religiously and that network is regularly on one of the TV’s in his office.

He coached his son’s peewee football team before he went to middle school this year. Sports, fitness and recreation are not just a political platform: They’re a part of his life. And he wants it to be a part of yours as well.

“We put $150 million in the budget for infrastructure,” he noted. “And a lot of that is for sports and recreation.”

Curry would like to see bike trails expanded and more parks as part of everyday life in Jacksonville.

“When I coached my son, we practiced on city fields,” he explained.

The Mayor was there last Tuesday night when the city hosted the annual Florida/FSU baseball game at Bragan Field and helped celebrate Mike Martin’s 79th and final game in Jacksonville.

“FSU’s (football) is coming back here in late August, Georgia/Florida brings in $30 million to economy each year,” he said. “Anything where the numbers work, anytime we can do anything around sports an entertainment. It comes back to people being together.”

There’s a sense of urgency in Curry’s voice, knowing he only has four more years as Mayor to get things done. With sports, he’s focused on “leveraging” what’s already here and bringing in new events with broad-based appeal.

“We feel a sense of urgency,” he said. “You’ll see some pretty aggressive stuff. My first year in office we got Daily’s place done right away.”

Curry says his office is “aligned” with the Jaguars and owner Shad Khan. He’s been instrumental in acquiring the funding to take down the Hart Bridge ramps near the stadium to help facilitate Khan’s vision of the Shipyards and the Lot J entertainment complex.

“Shad’s relationships as an international businessman bring a lot to the table,” Curry explained. “And he loves Jacksonville.”

As Mayor, Curry is on board with Khan’s desire to bring the NFL Draft to Jacksonville and Daily’s Place. He went to the draft last year in Dallas and was asked to spend some time with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

“So we’re on their radar,” he explained.

One bonus for Curry’s time in office is his relationship with the PGA Tour and The Players Championship.

“They heavily supported my re-election,” Curry said of the PGA Tour and Commissioner Jay Monahan. “I know it’s in St. Johns County but I think of it as a ‘City of Jacksonville’ event. The city and The Players have had a better relationship in the last four years. All I see from them is an intention to be unified and branded.”

As with any term-limited politician, Curry’s first four years were part feeling-out process, part accomplishments. In his next four years, he hopes to take steps toward downtown to make it presentable residents and visitors alike. Khan’s plans for the area around the stadium and a Four Seasons Hotel on the river are part of that vision.

“We have opportunities to leverage what we have,” he said of the future. “There’s so much we can expand on”

“The first four years have been a turnaround,” he explained. “We’ve solved the pension, we’re financially stable. We have the financial wherewithal to do things around sports. So stay tuned.”

Are Jaguars acting with confidence or hubris? That answer is important.

There’s a certain level of confidence that’s needed to lead. Whether it’s a business, a political movement or a sports team, the leader has to believe in what he or she is doing.

The problem is, sometimes those leaders are so cloistered, so single-minded that their confidence turns to hubris and things don’t go so well.

The confidence coach Bill Belichick has in what he’s doing in New England has turned into Super Bowl championships for the Patriots. Belichick can come off as arrogant but you can’t knock the results: They win.

For the Jaguars, things are a bit different. While they were in the AFC title game (against the Patriots) two years ago, history says that’s more of an anomaly than the norm with this team. Tom Coughlin was brought in to run the football operation and create a “sustainable winner” and so far he’s one for two in that department.

From a “whistle away” from the Super Bowl, the Jaguars floundered with five wins in 2018. And despite Coughlin’s protestations, he should bear the brunt of the Jaguars’ failure last year to prepare for what “could” happen.

“The nature of the game” is how he described the Jaguars’ troubles after going 3-1, referring to the injuries on offense, particularly on the offensive line, as the explanation for the team’s failure to capitalize on winning the year before. It was Coughlin’s only comment during the year, and it come in a radio interview promoting his charity. He needed to be more accountable than that.

In his first stint with the Jaguars, Coughlin chose R.J. Soward in the first round to bolster the Jaguars’ passing game. Despite his behavior problems at USC, Coughlin was convinced Soward would be different as a professional. “Because the young man’s never played for me,” was his answer when I asked him on draft day what gave him the idea that Soward’s problems were behind him.

With Soward’s flameout now a distant memory and hindsight being 20-20, Coughlin’s confidence in his ability as a coach and a motivator spilled over into hubris and it cost him and the franchise.

There’s no disputing Tom’s growth as a coach and a leader once he joined the New York Giants, getting to and winning two Super Bowls with his blend of discipline and “no tolerance” that players need to buy into.

This year, Coughlin and the Jaguars have made a series of predictable moves trying to take advantage of a winning window their defense has provided.

Signing quarterback Nick Foles and releasing Blake Bortles was in the cards once Bortles was benched last year. There’s a reason Foles hasn’t been able to win and keep the starting job wherever he’s been. Having said that, if the Jaguars are going to stick to their philosophy of play defense, run the football and use play-action passing to throw downfield, he might be the right guy.

This week, coach Doug Marrone told Sports Illustrated, “Really, for me, you gotta be able to talk to people you trust,” referring to the process of signing Foles without ever talking to him or working him out.

“You have to hear that, so you get the truth. And sometimes, that’s the hardest thing — when you’re trying to find out, and going through the process, whether it’s free agents or the college draft, finding someone you can trust that’s gonna tell you exactly what’s going on,” Marrone said.

So, clearly, Marrone and Coughlin heard enough from people they trust in the league to give Foles a starting quarterback contract. He might be fine, but as Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers showed last year, it’s not just about the quarterback. Rodgers is one of the best QBs in the league, but his team won only six games. So Foles will need the Jaguars to be right in almost every other move they make.

As expected, they cleared cap space cutting reliable veterans on defense, expecting other players to step up.

They’ve decided the injury bug on the offensive line was unique, so they’re going into the season with Cam Robinson, Andrew Norwell, Brandon Linder and A.J. Cann starting up front, with competition for the right tackle spot. Not a big departure from last year. And the thought that their injuries from 2018 won’t linger.

They’re counting on Leonard Fournette coming back from offseason workouts in Wyoming as the player he was in 2017: in shape and motivated.

They didn’t make a bold move at receiver despite the injuries and lack of production from that position last year. They’re counting on the development of DJ Chark and Dede Westbrook, adding Chris Conley to that group as a reliable, if not spectacular pass catcher.

Signing linebacker Jake Ryan, also coming off an ACL injury, could be the tweak the defense needs, putting him in the middle and letting Telvin Smith and Myles Jack go back to their natural positions.

What they do in the draft in the first couple of rounds will show their mindset for the next two years. Addressing offensive line or tight end early and possibly looking to develop a quarterback out of the second round would make sense.

Last year’s first round pick, Taven Bryan, looks like a pick made out of hubris rather than confidence. With a couple of positions they needed to address, Bryan was their first-round pick in an already stacked position. He finished with one sack and that was in the final game of the year.

“I’ll put the gloves on with anybody,” Coughlin said of the doubters regarding his offseason moves in 2018. That’s amusing since Tom is 72 and making those decisions internally and never speaking of them again.

There are a lot of question marks and “ifs” for the Jaguars so far in this offseason. Their “counting on” and “expecting to” need to pay off in a similar fashion to 2017. If so, they’ll win some games. They know they won seven of their ten games in 2017 against backup quarterbacks. That won’t be the case this year.

Fans are counting on the confidence team management has in the players being put on the field. If those moves are made out of hubris, the window is closing and somebody else will be making the decisions in 2020.

McIlroy Wins Players, Furyk Contends

On a tough weather day on a difficult golf course, Rory McIlroy used his new found “poise and patience” to win the 38th edition of The Players Championship contested at the TPC at Sawgrass Stadium Course. A missed birdie putt on two and an unheard of double-bogey six on number four could have derailed McIlroy’s day, but said he called on recent failures to get him to the finish, “One shot at a time.” Even he knew it was a cliché’.

With a real game plan and the ability to execute it, Jim Furyk put up a -15 score for everybody, including McIlroy to look at coming through “The Gauntlet” as the players call the final three finishing holes of Pete Dye’s design.

His 7-iron from 171-yards on 18 led to a short birdie putt that allowed him to post 15-under and wait. “I was just real comfortable over the ball on that shot,” Jim told me walking to the press room. “I usually hit 7-iron 172, I know that’s a weird number but I was trying to land it 167 and let it roll up. It was hard to judge how much the wind was hurting.”

McIlroy’s birdie on 15 was the decisive shot as it buoyed his confidence going to the final three holes. A two-putt birdie on 16 gave him a one shot lead and the thought “just three more good swings” would give him the title. He made those three swings and an easy two putt par on 18 made him the 2019 Players Champion.

Add Rory’s name among the best players of their eras to win in North Florida as this year’s tournament marked the 55th consecutive year of a big-time professional golf tournament in North Florida.

There’s a colorful history of professional golf in Jacksonville. In 1947 Ben Hogan made a famous 11 on the par 3 sixth hole at Hyde Park during the Jacksonville Open. Legend has it that’s when he uttered the now famous retort when asked how he made an eleven. “I missed a four footer for ten.”

That tournament took an eleven-year hiatus starting in 1954 before being resurrected in 1965 by “three or four guys sitting at Silvers Drug Store” according to two of the tournament founders, John Tucker and Wesley Paxon. Silvers Drug was at the corner of 3rd street and Atlantic Boulevard in Neptune Beach. “Mr. Silver would open up at 5AM and put on a pot of coffee for us to meet.”

At 95 years old, Paxon played nine holes last Sunday. Nowhere near the “two or three” he once was, but still enjoys playing and watching the game. It was his germ of an idea that created the momentum for what The Players is now, fifty-five years later.

“I called Tucker and tried to upgrade the Gator Bowl Pro Am,” Paxon said this week from his home in Ponte Vedra. “And the next thing you know, we had a tournament.”

If only it were that easy.

Tucker, who will be 90 in July, also played as “a three most of my life” and still plays nine holes once or twice a week.

“Wesley got me interested in the Gator Bowl,” Tucker started to explain. “They had started the Pro Am and it wasn’t going anywhere. In 1963, Wesley called me and said he was going to be president of the Gator Bowl and asked if I couldn’t get a big name, Palmer or Nicklaus to play in this thing.”

Running the operations in Jacksonville for Southern Bell, Tucker had an advantage for the early ‘60’s: free-long distance calling.

“People wouldn’t believe this today,” Tucker recalled, “But you only used long distance for emergencies. I’m the manager of the telephone company so Wesley says to me ‘You can call free, call around and see if you can get some players.’ So I started making some calls.”

When the first “super-agent” Mark McCormack gave Tucker the price for Palmer or Nicklaus, John knew he had to look elsewhere. He called Jim Gauqin from the PGA of America in New York and asked for help finding players. The PGA was running tournaments before the creation of the PGA Tour and Gaquin admitting he was having problems with the tournament in St. Petersburg.

“He was on his way to St. Pete,” Tucker remembered, and I invited him to stop off here and he came.”

Gaquin liked Tucker and Jacksonville, the new Deerwood course and Selva Marina. “I told him if that doesn’t work out in St. Pete, bring them up here.”

When things fell apart in St. Pete Gaquin called Tucker to ask if he really wanted the tournament. To do so, Gaquin explained, they’d have to offer a $50,000 purse, double the going rate. Undaunted, Tucker said yes.

“Where are we going to get $50,000? Tucker recalled thinking.

And that’s where the business owners, sports fans and golf enthusiasts came into play.

“Prime Osborn and Tom Rice ran the paper and they had just hired Bob Feagin as their VP from SWD,” Tucker explained. “I told him this was a chance to get this community behind the Times Union. They liked it and put up the money.”

But that was only the first step. Tucker and Paxon sat down with guys they played golf with from around the city to talk about organizing the tournament. They had a blueprint provided by the Pensacola pro tournament’s Sam Love, Tucker’s counterpart with the phone company from Pensacola.

“John Montgomery, Sonny Miller, Gene Cowan, Lester Varn from Timiquana, D.K. Brown from Selva all were guys we knew who could get their clubs involved. I knew Brown because he was head of the FBI here in Jacksonville. I knew him because when he wanted a wiretap, he had to talk to me. He got the tournament to Selva.”

They had meetings at the George Washington and Roosevelt hotels downtown. But at the meetings the lower your handicap, “The more influence you thought you should have.”

They hired Paul Warren from Toledo to do the nuts and bolts operation of the tournament. Then they started calling their friends.

“I called Jim Taylor the president of Capital Concrete and told him the kind of stakes I needed to rope the golf course. He made them and gave them to us. Everybody called on their best friends. Port-a-lets, rope, printing, all of it was donated. You give us this; we’ll give you tickets. A lot of people in town felt ownership. Billie Nimnicht gave us cars, there were150 different organizations involved and felt like they had ownership.”

“Brining in your friends was a new concept,” Paxon explained. “Getting the community involved. My electric company had the 18th hole for 20 years. We were proud of that. We had the newspaper, the banks, the railroad. They were all local people. Those people all helped us.”

If there was a missing piece, Tucker found it in Dick Stratton. Stratton, along with Virginia Atter Keys, was the first television star/celebrity/personality in Jacksonville. He reached across the whole city from his spot as a TV host and Master of Ceremonies nightly.

“All of us had a few friends,” Tucker explained. “Everybody thought they knew Dick Stratton and he knew everybody. The audience was magnified. He brought us an audience that none of us could have produced. He took our dreams and verbalized them where everybody had ownership and made it feel like they were a part of it. Without him, it would have taken years to get that out.”

The tournament re-started in 1965 with a volunteer force that caught the eye of the first PGA Tour commissioner Joe Dey. Dey called Tucker and wanted to come to Jacksonville to see why the players wanted to come here.

“We had shopping trips for the wives, free day care, free babysitting and the players loved it,” Tucker explained. “Deane Beman came down and saw the tournament organization when he was looking for a permanent home for the Tour. He liked how different people in town had ownership.”

After a stint as the general manager at the Times Union, Tucker was called back by Beman to run the tournament again in1983. And he might have had a hand in the corporate hospitality that’s prevalent, and a moneymaker, for golf tournaments worldwide.

“I ran into a group from England on a trip to New York who fed the players at Wimbledon and they told me what they could do. They put on a white tablecloth, silver service dinner in a tent. We always hosted all of the tournament directors during TPC and when I told Deane we were going to hold the dinner in a tent on the golf course he said, ‘Is this going to work?’ It did and we started selling corporate hospitality tents right away.

Admitting the tents they put up were pretty funny looking by today’s standards, Buick was the first to paly $20,000 for their own chalet, brining in clients from North and Central Florida and eventually from around the country.

“Pete Dye and Beman designed the course with spectator mounds for people to sit on,” Tucker said. “We just helped that along.”

And what will John Tucker see when he watches the final round on television today from his home in San Marco?

“Damon Olinto grew up in my backyard with my kids,” he said. “When he was chairman last year he took me out there. Everything was smooth and beautiful but the people to people communications is still the same. The fun they volunteers are having. Every hole, the marshals want to make their hole the best. That’s what makes it great, the people.”

In fifty-five years, the tournament has grown, the PGA Tour has spent tens of millions of dollars to make it their showcase, but Tucker and Paxon believe the people in North Florida are the cornerstone of the success of The Players.

“We were just three or four guys sitting in Silvers trying to find out what we’re going to do that day,” Tucker explained. The people now running the tournament know how to find the solutions. They can call on past tournaments and fix whatever problem they have. It’s beyond anything we ever dreamed of. But every year the volunteers and the new chairman want it to be the best ever. That really makes it special.”

“It’s on the same level as it was 60 years ago,” Paxon added of the volunteer enthusiasm. “It was the anchor of what it was and what it is today.”

“I think America comes to mind,” Paxon added. “Only in America could something like that happen. You start in a drugstore and now it’s worldwide. It’s because of the kind of people we are and the kind of people who live here.”

“It’s no longer a Model T,” Tucker said with a laugh. “It’s a magnificent machine. They call it the Gold Standard. I think that aptly names what it is.

THE PLAYERS a Blend of Then and Now

I’ve always said that most of the locals who attend THE PLAYERS think every PGA TOUR event is like this week in Ponte Vedra. The Players is like nothing else out there, taking the best from every PGA Tour stop all year and incorporating it into the TPC at Sawgrass for one week.

It’s not only the best run PGA Tour event, right with The Masters; it might be the best-run sporting event anywhere as well. It’s a sought after hospitality opportunity for corporations all over the world as well as businesses in Jacksonville and North Florida. It’s a nice blend of both.

With the old burden of achieving status as the “Fifth Major” gone, you knew it was only a matter of time before The Players moved back to March.

The Tour never could get the golf course to play they way they wanted in May, how Pete Dye designed it and more than a few players said the course was “tricked up” after the move on the schedule.  Both The Players and the PGA Championship, now contested in May, have a history of moving dates so it’s not that big of a deal.

When he took over as the PGA Tour Commissioner in 1994, Tim Finchem had many of the same thoughts about The Players as the tournament’s originator Deane Beman. What it was, what it should be and how it should be considered. And he had even more thoughts about its relationship with Jacksonville.

Under Finchem, the Tour tried to separate the tournament once known as the “GJO” from the city entirely, stressing to the assembled media, “the dateline is Ponte Vedra.” There was no reference to it being one of the beaches associated with Jacksonville in any of the promotional material regarding the tournament nor on the national telecast.

The dis-association with the city was strongest when Finchem and the Tour decided that The Players should be a national and international destination for fans and that the local flavor and support of the tournament was holding it back from it’s rightful place in the pantheon of professional golf competition.

They came to their senses a few years ago. Matt Rapp took over as the Executive Director and was given the directive to refocus on the local community; it’s support, fan base, and the tournament’s reputation as a “must attend” event (and party) in North Florida are part of what makes THE PLAYERS, THE PLAYERS. Current Players boss Jared Rice seems to have the same charge from new Commissioner Jay Monahan.

Monahan sees the right fit with the move back to March. Jay doesn’t seem to have a problem with the proximity to the Masters nor the concurrent time frame of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. On the golf schedule, it’s the first really big, significant tournament of the year.

He sees The Players as a stand-alone sporting event and now, in 2019, he’s right. The tournament has it’s own following, it’s own stature and maybe most importantly, it’s a very big deal to the modern day PGA Tour and International player. Adam Scott was the first champion to say, “This is the tournament I’ve dreamed of winning.” And that was in 2004.

Gone are the days that “Deane’s tournament” was vying for significant status ahead of “Arnold’s tournament” or “Jack’s tournament” on the PGA Tour. Beman’s drive to put the Tour in the club and course building business rankled more than a few of his contemporaries, so they weren’t all fired up about supporting the TPC, as it was originally called. Raymond Floyd made his feelings well known at a famous players meeting during the TPC in the ’80’s.

From a nuts and bolts standpoint, the move to March brings the golf course condition and the wind direction back to where the Stadium Course was originally designed. They can make the course play the way they want.

And it puts The Players back in the “Florida Swing” on the golf schedule where it belongs. While much of the country looks to the Masters as the start of spring and the beginning of the golf season, those of us in North Florida know, our games are already rounding into shape during some good weather days in February and March.

It’s the right call and a good fit. Nothing’s ever wrong with being 1st on the schedule.

The Players: Big Time, Hometown Fun

When to contest The Players has been a topic since the tournament was started in the ’70’s. Beginning in Atlanta on Labor Day in 1974 it moved to Ft. Worth the next year in August and then to Ft. Lauderdale the following February. When it moved to Ponte Vedra and Sawgrass Country Club it was played in mid-March before settling on the last week of March in 1983 the year after it moved to the Stadium Course.

The move to March has gotten different reactions from the contestants. Former champ Phil Mickelson, who won the first year the tournament was moved to May, says the course was designed to play in March weather.

“There’s a lot of holes like that where we’ve got to fly it on and stop it,” the 2007 champion said. “I think the way it played in March, I kind of preferred over the firm, fast. I don’t think when it was designed, it was designed to be firm, fast the way it has played the last few years.”

Three factors worked against The Players in March in the Tour’s quest to make it the Fifth Major.

Weather could always be a factor, but as anybody who lives in North Florida knows, we’re as likely to have a week of sunshine as anything else in March and many of the memories of the Players in March include perfect weather. There were a couple of Monday finishes, but for the most part, delays in the competition were minor.

In it’s quest for a spot on the overall sports calendar as a significant sporting event, the tournament switched from CBS to NBC once CBS made a commitment to the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Nobody’s going to forget about March Madness because the Players is happening, and at times that was a sticking point for the decision-makers at the Tour.

And finally, the last week of March also happens to be two weeks before the first full week of April and that’s always The Masters.

When contested in March, there wasn’t a year that went by without many of the storylines focused on the contestants preparing for Augusta. The Players creator, then-Commissioner Deane Beman, didn’t like any talk about the Masters, wanting his tournament to gain “Major” status as a true “players championship.”  Beman had one eye on what they were doing at Augusta National as he developed The Players. His competitive nature would not allow otherwise.

“This is our championship,” he was fond of saying. Deane had a prickly nature about him when it came to competing with Augusta and the Masters and didn’t like it when the NCAA basketball tournament was on television in the hospitality suites, the clubhouse and the media center.  When he could control what people were watching, he did. We couldn’t watch the basketball in the media center more than once.

Using how Louisville claims the Kentucky Derby as it’s own as a model, the PGA Tour now embraces local restaurants, fans and revelers for The Players. It’s a national event with a local feel.  At the same time The Players holds a place among the most significant tournaments in competitors’ minds.  Current Players boss Jared Rice is charged with keeping that balance and growing the tournament on all fronts.

A winner four years ago, Rickie Fowler says it’s about adapting.

“Luckily it’s still the same golf course, still the same look, but just make that adjustment as far as wind direction,” he explained. “I mean, I feel like we do that on a day-to-day basis when it comes to a place like the Open Championship overseas.”

Outside of the playing conditions, former PGA Champion Justin Thomas said the Players deserves more respect and will probably get it in March.

“Yeah, it’ll be exciting. It’ll be cool just because I think all of us on the Tour feel that this event can stand on its own,” he said. “It’s not like it’s another event, and it’s no disrespect to the other events, but this is our championship, this is The Players Championship. This has a very major-like field, has a very major-like feel, air to it. The roars are very similar. So it’ll be cool to kind of have a major tournament, one a month there, starting in March”

Is it a Major?  No.  Will it be? Probably not anytime soon.  For years the Tour made it a significant tournament by ensuring the payday was the biggest of the year.  The tournament itself though through the years has grown in stature in players’ minds, and that’s most important.  The media has some say, but not that much influence any longer.  There’s so much coverage of the sport, the tournament and the personalities on so many platforms that you’re going to get every opinion possible. In the past, Grantland Rice, Herbert Warren Wind and O.B. Keeler were able to shape what readers thought.  They were the only outlets.  Today, it’s a different story.

When Tom Kite won in 1989, before his US Open victory, I asked him if the TPC was a ‘major.”  “It is to me!” he said on 18 holding the trophy.  Jason Day said because he won in The Players in 2016, “Oh, I might be able to sneak my way into the Hall of Fame one day.”

Any PGA Tour event is two things in one: The competition on the course and everything around it.  Beman was right declaring it “our championship” for the players.  But with more than 2,000 volunteers and tens of thousands of spectators each day supporting the tournament, the rest belongs to them. It’s a seven-day showcase of the best of North Florida.

Enjoy it!

 

 

 

Gate River Run Prep

If you’ve been training for this week’s Gate River Run and you’re worried about the last week of training, don’t be. If it’s your first Gate, you’ll be fine. Unless you’re trying to qualify for a national team or prepping for some of the top ten-prize money or the equalizer bonus, you’ll be fine no matter what you’ve done. That’s because the Gate River Run is a giant social event. It’s the second biggest one-day party in town, right behind Georgia-Florida.

If you want to run the whole 15K, you probably did some training over the last couple of months. That’ll be enough. The size of the field of runners, the atmosphere and the excitement of the day will carry you through the 9.3 miles. There’s a band every mile. The residents of San Marco, Empire Point and all along the route will be out cheering you on, offering water, champagne, cocktails and even mimosas. It’ll be fun. (Also donuts)

It’s one of the reasons the city should be taking more advantage of bringing over 30,000 people downtown. There’s some beer drinking at the Fairgrounds after the GRR but the general message when the run is over and the awards are handed out is: Go Home. It should be one of the two days the city rolls out the red carpet, closes Bay Street, brings food trucks downtown and entertains people for the day. (The other is Georgia/Florida). But since “River Day” went away in the early ‘80’s, that hasn’t happened.

There was a time when the Gasparilla race in Tampa was competing for a spot in the hearts of the running community. Both were in early spring and both were 15K. But the one thing both races had in common was a huge participation element from the locals.

Thee are two events happening at the same time on the day of the GRR. There’s the 15K “race,” the National Championship for elite runners from around the world. There are all kinds of prizes for the race. Based on historical times, the elite women start six minutes in front of the elite men. An “Equalizer Bonus” of $5000 is given to the first finisher, man or woman. Another $1,000 is awarded to the fastest runner in the final mile. This in addition to the $65,000 available prize money.

And there’s the “run” for the rest of us. Starting at the stadium, the 9.3-mile route showcases some of the scenic parts of Jacksonville around the river. From the stadium downtown, runners go over the main street bridge, through San Marco, over to Empire Point, up Atlantic Boulevard, over the Hart Bridge and finish on the north side of the stadium.

The staggered, “wave” start gives runners a chance to run with people going about the same speed. No bobbing and weaving around, or being passed by everybody from start to finish. Don’t worry; you’ll get to the Hart Bridge before the 2.5 hour cut off. The Hart Bridge is a 6% incline, a half-mile to the top and a mile from there to the finish line.

Six charities benefit from the GRR and there are more than 1,000 volunteers helping make the race happen. There are 20,000 bagels available at the post-race party at the Fairgrounds. You’ll see 1,200 traffic cones employed and 160,000 cups of water, 700 gallons at each water station, are available.

Don’t worry about being fast. When I was hosting the live TV coverage, I always argued that we were missing the biggest portion of the race by going off the air at 10AM. That’s because the average run time is about a 10 minute per mile pace, finishing after ten o’clock. Half the field is still on the course. So take your time.

Anytime the temperature is above 60 degrees F it’s warm and even feels hot during the race. Don’t outrun yourself in the first part of the race. Drink at each water station. When you turn from St. Nicholas at Mayfair east onto Atlantic Boulevard the sun will be right in your eyes. A hat or visor helps but if you’re not interested in that, stay in your lane and cruise up to the Hart Bridge ramp.

That ramp is a little steeper than the bridge itself and it leads to a mild grade at the foot of the bridge. Take advantage of that little respite after the ramp. Being a Florida runner, the Hart Bridge is like nothing you’ve trained for. So slog your way up to the top. Once you’re there, take a deep breath and look around. The view from there is spectacular. The final mile starts downhill, also a foreign stride to Florida runners, so be careful.

And when you turn the corner for the final 200 yards to the finish line on the north side of the stadium, see what’s happening. People will be cheering, music will be playing; the announcer will be talking about the finish. Keep moving and pick up your medal and drink some water.

You’ve finished!