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!

Doug Alred “Runs” the Gate River Run

Starting in 1978, with running for fitness in its infancy, The Jacksonville River Run, as it was called, was more of a competitive race than a fun “run.” Race organizer Buck Fannin recruited the Times Union and Jacksonville Journal as the sponsors, drumming up publicity and support for the run.

Using the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta as a model, the first race had about 2,600 participants. A pretty good start. Peachtree is 10K, and Jacksonville wanted something a little different. So they settled on 15K.

Marathon icon Bill Rodgers was recruited for the first race. He won, but then did the course again to complete his training for the day. Organizers paid him about $1,000 under the table so he could keep his amateur status.

Doug Alred ran that first race in 1978 and the next four as well. That same year, Alred, a CPA by trade, and his wife Jane had opened a store on Baymeadows calling it, “1st Place Sports.” They had sign out front labeling the store as “Your Running and Snow Ski Headquarters.” They knew only selling running stuff wouldn’t keep them in business.

“We had a store and were wondering how to get people in the store,” Alred said this week. “So we got involved in the River Run.”

It was a business that followed their passion for running. Doug was a pretty good competitive runner and wanted to keep it up. This was before running became a fitness craze, before Nike became Nike and Adidas was still a European phenomenon.

But to get the store open, Alred knew he needed the latest equipment, and Nike was about to boom.

“I knew we needed Nike in the store, so I met with their sales rep at my apartment and put together a big order to get us going,” he recalled. “But Athletic Attic got wind of the order and told Nike not to sell to us. So the salesman called and said, ‘Sorry Doug, we have to cancel.’’

Thinking he’d never get the store off the ground, Alred went to meet with his business partner Doug Milne to give him the bad news.

“I told Doug Nike wouldn’t sell to us because Athletic Attic put the squeeze on them. He didn’t say a word, didn’t flinch. He just turned around in his chair with his back to me and started dialing the phone. I heard him say ‘Hi Bill’ and tell the story. When he was finished he turned around and said, ‘You’ll have Nike next week.’ Turns out his college roommate was Bill Bowerman at Oregon, (the founder of Nike.) What are the odds!”

It was in 1983 that Doug and Jane were asked to be the race directors for the River Run as the day, the sport, the run and the business of running began to explode.

“River Run was born out of the first running boom. A competitive boom. It was a competitive race,” Alred recalled. “The first one had a very high percentage of out of town runners.”

Icons like Rodgers, Joan Benoit, Greta Waitz, Meb Keflezigi, Todd Williams, and Denna Drossin raised the profile of the Gate River Run to international status. Williams set the 15K American record in 1996 at 42:22. A time so fast that Alred went out and re-measured the course.

In 1994 USA Track and Field designated it as the 15K National Championship. Also in ‘94 Herb Peyton decided to get involved, putting up prize money to put “Gate” in front of “River Run.”

“We’ve gone through the dominance of so many countries and continents when it comes to winning the race,” Alred said of the GRR, now in it’s 42nd year

“The English dominated, the Mexicans, then the Americans and the Kenyans. We created the ‘American Cup’ awarding $2,000 to the first American finisher and helped to keep developing American runners. That led to the National Championship designation. Then we were fortunate to have Todd (Williams) and Meb (Keflezigi) dominate for so long.”

Now known in the running world as the “Gate,” the 15K here every March has established itself as one of the premier races on the international running calendar.

“One thing I wanted to do along the way was to keep it as a competition,” Alred said. “It started as that but there’s the fitness component. We try to roll everything into one race.”

While the GRR has an international reputation, it’s the local runners who fortify the day.

“We’ll have 85 elite runners in the field this year,” Alred explained, “But the number of first-time runners every year is a very high percentage. It’s more of a social event. It’s a bucket list item.”

River Run in 1978 had about 2,600 runners. The 2019 Gate River Run version will have over 20,000 participants.

“The biggest boom in running happened when women started running,” Alred said. “That changed the business. The first River Run had 85% men. This year’s Gate will be 57% women.”

Now in his 37th year as race director, Alred has a full-time staff of five dedicated to the GRR and the nearly 100 races they organize and operate ever year. Jane runs the now five stores that make up 1st Place Sports on the retail side of running.

It’s safe to say the GRR wouldn’t be what it is without Doug and Jane at the helm. Do they have an exit strategy?

“We’ve been working that way,” Doug said with a laugh.