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.

Sports Art from a Local Artist

It wasn’t until Heather Blanton had what she jokingly calls a “midlife crisis” that she became a painter.
She was about to turn 40.

The recession had hit. And her medium for more than 10 years — Polaroid manipulation photography — was on its way out.

“I needed to find something,” she said, standing in front of some of her work at the Plum Gallery in St. Augustine.

Although she played softball in middle and high school, sports was never really her focus. She watched football and baseball with her father, but she was never much of a spectator.

Still, the St. Augustine resident found her artist’s inspiration in an unexpected outlet: through those on fields of play.

“I have a twin sister who is an artist,” Blanton said. “She encouraged me a lot. She said, ‘I know you can paint. You just have to let go of your fear, and magical things will start happening.’ And they did.”
About five years ago, Blanton put brush to canvas for a commission from a cyclist who wanted original artwork around his sport. And that’s how it started.
Sitting in front of a blank canvas, the Sandalwood High graduate started creating cyclists as she saw them in her memory.

“I lived in Vilano Beach, and I would take A1A on Sundays to see my family,” she said. “I would get behind about 45 cyclists. So rather than be upset about being stuck in traffic, I tried to be grateful for all the colors that were in front of me.”

Blanton was less interested in the art being abstract or realistic, but more about conveying the energy she saw on the road onto the canvas.

“I try to not do too much planning because I’ve found that it’s better to allow the energy of the painting to move through me rather than a preconceived idea,” she said of her process. “I ask for some divine intervention to come and help me with a piece.”

There’s an organized randomness to her paintings. It’s not haphazard by any means, but there is a sense of what’s going on in that moment.

All of that inspiration, despite having no experience running, skiing, playing golf or cycling.

“I’ve never been on anything but a beach cruiser, usually with a drink holder on the front,” she said with a laugh.
From cycling, Blanton branched out to other sports, such as painting marathoners.

“There was just a calling to me about the mass numbers of runners. The marathon can be consistently chaotic,” she said. “I got a lot of feedback from people. ‘You don’t have the energy. Marathons are about chaos.’ So I tried to have more chaos in the feel.”

Most of her paintings come in one sitting, and if there’s a theme in any of Blanton’s work, a triangle makes its way into a lot of her paintings.

It can be seen in the form of golfers taking swings or snowboarders going for rides.

“It’s gone to some kind of geometrical form for me. I’m not sure why, but there’s something interesting about the lines for me,” she said. “It doesn’t have any real meaning besides that’s how I see it. I try to paint stuff I like and hope other people do. If you try to paint towards what other people want, I think you make yourself crazy.”

Others have found enjoyment in her work.

From a commercial standpoint, the Gaylord Marriott in Denver took her sixth painting of skiers and used it in 159 public spaces and common areas in the hotel. She is in numerous galleries all over the U.S., as well as overseas.

Blanton has met with the PGA Tour about doing some work when they open their new global headquarters in Ponte Vedra.

She and her twin sister, Holly, have collaborated on about 10 sports paintings and have sold them at the Saatchi Gallery in London. They’ve talked with Porsche about murals in their worldwide headquarters and would like to talk to the Jaguars about some of the collaborative work they’ve done that depicts football.

One shows a line of football players over an abstract background. “My sister did the background, and I came back over on top of it,” Heather said.

There are numerous colors and uniforms represented and plenty more than 11 players depicted.
“That’s not a line,” she said of the line of players across the center of the painting, “that’s more abstract. It’s not realism. Art is open to interpretation. It’s not about following rules. I’ve never been much on following rules.”

Said Holly: “Heather has the potential to be famous. There’s not a lot of images that come to mind when you think of sports fine art. There’s nobody else doing what she’s doing.”
Heather refers to her process as an “experience beyond words,” which gets her started and carries her through a project.
It can be a daunting feeling in front of a blank canvas, but she believes she’s as much of a “channeler” as a creator.

“The paintings I love the most take me the least amount of time,” she said. “When you are in that zone, when you go back to paintings, they don’t have that same magic. I try to do them all in one sitting. I almost feel a singing inside of me. It’s almost a harmonic.”
Often, even she is amazed when a work is complete.
“I don’t feel responsible for the finished product,” she said. “Sometimes, I stand back and just go, ‘Wow,’ I never would have come up with that.”

The Hammer Podcast, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Episode 48 – Daytona Talk and the Jaguars Last Chance

Lonnie and Tom debate the “are race car drivers athletes” discussion and its almost decision time for the Jaguars.

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Lagasse Continues Speed Tradition

There’s always been a connection between North Florida and NASCAR.

LeeRoy Yarbrough called Jacksonville home and won 14 times on the top -rated NASCAR Grand National Circuit.
Speedway Park, also know as Jacksonville Speedway, was a half-mile dirt track at Lenox Avenue and Plymouth Street in what was then called “Southwest” Jacksonville.

The track hosted seven NASCAR Grand National races, won by racing legends like Lee Petty and David Pearson. Wendell Scott won the race there in 1963, and was the first and remains the only only African-American driver to win on NASCAR’s top circuit. Jacksonville Speedway closed in 1973 and a housing development now occupies that spot.

From his shop in St. Augustine, Scott Lagasse, Jr. continues that North Florida speed tradition.

His father, Scott Lagasse, Sr. had been a racecar driver for all of Scott Jr.’s life. He faintly recalled his dad’s success in the Sports Car Club of America Corvette Challenge Series in St. Petersburg in October of 1989.

“I can barely remember that,” Scott says, “But his original Corvette Challenge car was from Jack Wilson Chevrolet. He got wrecked early but came back and won.”

Lagasse Sr. raced 39 times across the NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Truck series after winning back-to-back SCCA National Championships in the ‘80’s.

“A couple out of Wisconsin bought that Challenge Series Corvette sometime in the ‘90’s,” he explained. “They restored it and got all the ratings. They called us last year and said, ‘It’s time for it to go back to its home’ and sent it to the shop. It sits there now. It’s really cool.”

Scott Jr. knew early on he wanted to race.

“I remember my first motor cross bike for sure. I wasn’t good on two wheels, I was better on four,” he said this week as he prepared to drive the #4 Camaro for JD Motorsports Saturday in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series.

“I got in a car my dad was using to transition from the road track to the oval world. It was a fast car at St. Augustine Speedway. I ran my first race and won. I just had to lean on 30 years of stuff that was going in my ear,” Lagasse said with a laugh of his quick learning curve.

The Lagasse’s are operating out of a huge race shop right on San Marco Avenue in St. Augustine. Just less than 20,000 square feet and sharing that space with “Art’nMotion,” they also have a fabrication shop next door, “Where we do our real gritty, nasty work,” according to Scott.

A competitive nature has always been a part of Lagasse’s personality. A multi-faceted athlete, Scott says driving a racecar feeds that perfectly.

“It’s just a form of competition. The sport has competitive people. There’s the thrill of having to be perfect. It’s a high-speed chess game out there. A tenth of a second matters and all of that happens at 180 miles a hour.”

And it was that competitive part of his personality that ultimately led to a self-diagnosis of a serious medical condition.

“I was on the bike doing two-a-days, working on going to Charlotte to see Jimmy Johnson for his triathlon,” Scott said. “I texted my doctor and I just didn’t feel right. I was having to take days off because of a ‘tightness’ I felt after workouts.”

Lagasse went to see a gastro-intestinal specialist who found cancerous polyps in his colon. He had surgery and was back racing in six weeks. “It was the competitive side of me that forced me to the doctor.”

That’s one of the reason’s he’s is excited about his #4 Camaro this weekend sponsored by locals Micah Linton and Wally Devlin of the Rimrock-Devlin Group.

“There was open (sponsorship) space on the car and they put the Jay Fund on it. That has a really personal connection for me having gone through it.” The Jay Fund is Tom Coughlin’s charity that helps families’ battle childhood cancer.

Throughout his career, Scott has had success on several racing levels, and has had offers to drive full-time on NASCAR’s top circuits. None were fully-funded, top competitive teams, so he chose to race where he thought he had a chance to win.

“Could it have been different,” the 39-year old asked rhetorically. “Probably, but I’m really committed to the road race program we have going on.”

Lagasse has thirteen races on the schedule for his Camaro in the National Trans Am Series this year. Last September, Lagasse won his first Trans Am race and was surprised by his ability to adapt. “I’ve been pretty good on superspeedways but our team is really committed to our road race program.”

An avid cyclist, the Flagler College grad is the spokesperson for the “Alert Today Florida’ a campaign which raises awareness about pedestrian and bicycle safety. On Thursday he organized and rode in the third annual “Champions Ride for Bicycle Safety” from Daytona International Speedway. Jimmy Johnson, Aric Amirola and other NASCAR drivers were among those riding. Professional cyclists George Hincapie and Christian Vandevelde along with former drivers Dario Franchitti and Tony Kannan have been part of the ride in the past.

Lagasse and his wife Kelley have two young children, so will the racing bloodline continue?

“I was watching a race the other night with our 4-year old daughter” Scott said. “And she said ‘This looks like a lot of fun.’ and I said. ‘No, no, no a piano is a lot more fun.’”

The Hammer Podcast, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Episode 47 – The AAF Gets Some Buzz and How Players Think

Lonnie and Tom reveal how a player looks at the game and the new league. And they still want to hit somebody.

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Second Jacksonville Super Bowl? Not Soon

It was nineteen years between Super Bowls for Atlanta. They hosted Super Bowl XXVIII in 1994, Super Bowl XXXIV in 1999 six years later and then not again until 2019 For Super Bowl LIII. For a major metropolitan city with a diverse population, a solid corporate base and a vibrant social scene, that’s a long time between hosting the NFL’s biggest party. I’m not sure why it took so long for Atlanta to get the Super Bowl back and that question was asked to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell at his annual “State of the League” press conference last week.

“As it related to when we are going to come back, as you know they’ve become more competitive for cities to host the Super Bowl, which we think that is great,” Goodell said. “I also believe is that not the city, which is an important city for us, the new stadium is one that everybody is going to marvel at on Sunday.”

For decades, the game was held in warm-weather sites like LA, New Orleans and Miami. But the league has used the game as a reward for owners and places with domed stadiums like Minneapolis and Detroit were included in the process.

A couple of the real reasons were very obvious why the game didn’t return to Atlanta for nearly two decades. It snowed there the week of Super Bowl XXXIV and it was known as the game where Ray Lewis was accused of killing two guys in Buckhead. But back with Super Bowl LIII, Atlanta was the ideal host. The Georgia Congress Center is big enough to land airplanes in let alone host the media center and the NFL Experience. The Omni hotel is attached and had plenty of lounge and meeting space for corporate get-together’s and after- (or during) hours socializing.

But the reason Atlanta got the Super Bowl back is because Arthur Blank, the Falcons owner, wanted it there and they had the new $1.6 billion Mercedes Benz Stadium to show off and host the big game.

And that’s how it works. If an owner wants their city to host the Super Bowl, they get behind the local effort to put together a plan and lobby the other owners to vote for their bid. Miami and Tampa will host the next two Super Bowls, followed by the new NFL stadium in Los Angeles. The NFL owners in the early 2000’s liked then-Jaguars Owner Wayne Weaver and got behind Jacksonville’s bid for the game. Weaver controlled the temporary seats in the south end zone for the game, kind of a “thank you” from his fellow owners.

So will Jacksonville host another Super Bowl? The short answer is yes, but not for a while.

Current Jaguars owner Shad Khan doesn’t see the city hosting the game any time soon. He said in 2016 that hosting a Super Bowl would, “Set up Jacksonville for failure. The requirements now for hotel rooms and some of the other infrastructure amenities we don’t have here so let’s not kid ourselves.” In fact, Shad has more often talked about the league hosting a Super Bowl in London.
It’s a popular national narrative that Jacksonville was the worst Super Bowl host city ever and that we’ll never get another game. First of all, that’s not true on a lot of levels but it makes for a good story line when you can pick on a place you like to pick on anyway, which we all know the national media likes to do.

Remember, we’re an outpost to most of the national commentators. You have to make a trip here. You’re not stopping by Jacksonville on your way anywhere else and for that crowd, we don’t have enough late-night cocktails or strip clubs to suit their taste. None of them make it to the beach or even to the Southside for that matter.

Hall of Famer and Fox commentator Howie Long bashes Jacksonville as the worst Super Bowl city in corporate speeches complaining that we ran out of hot dogs at the game. I don’t know if Howie even eats hot dogs, but a little research would let him know that we had nothing to do with that. The NFL runs the game and makes those kind of decisions. Clearly the New England/Philadelphia crowd at our game liked hotdogs.

A look at the facts of Super Bowl XXXIX here showed that the NFL Owners stayed at the Ritz-Carlton at Amelia and other beachfront resorts. And they made a lot of money. The Host Committee and the city of Jacksonville bent over backwards to make things easy for the league and being mostly a non-union town in a right to work state, the venues and the labor costs were minimal. The Super Bowl in Minneapolis last year pumped an estimated $350-$400 million into the local economy.

If you remember the weather that week, it was our typical Nor’easter, Sunday to Thursday with very “un-Florida” like temps and a decent breeze blowing on the St. Johns. On Thursday at noon, as predicted, the front moved off-shore and the average temperature for the rest of the weekend was 65. And sunny. But that doesn’t fit the narrative so the media, looking for something to talk about for the four days they were here at the beginning of the week, focused on what a terrible time they were having. According to the local host committee, 90% of the people coming to the game that year arrived after noon Thursday. So they had a great, Jacksonville, Florida experience. The weather was great, we closed Bay Street and put on a big party. (Something we should do for Georgia-Florida and the Gate River Run.)

The host committee even treated the visiting media to a try at the 17th green at TPC Sawgrass on Tuesday night followed by a concert by Hootie and the Blowfish in a huge hospitality tent. The whole island green, lake and tee area was lit and it was fun. Complaints about the free, luxury bus right out there from the Hyatt downtown ensued, but it was no different than the bus rides in other host cities like Miami and San Diego.

I even heard one commentator complain on Monday after the game about the bus from the Hyatt to the stadium. “There were people walking to the game holding the bus up,” he told a national radio audience. “I mean; they were holding up traffic!” Which got me thinking about him leaving his free hotel room for a free ride to a game where he had a been given free admittance.

Bringing in the cruise ships to house visitors for the game was a great idea. It worked at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and it worked here. Until the ships had to pull out at 8AM Monday after the game following a night of partying.

“You people in Jacksonville really know how to blow stuff up,” a friend from a national cable network said to me while the post-game fireworks were going off. From my broadcast position atop the parking garage near Berkman’s Place, I was able to see the fireworks every night off the Main Street Bridge and over the river and they were spectacular. My friend was right: we know how to do fireworks.

“You needed better transportation,” one scribe told me that week. I don’t disagree with that. More cabs, more limos, more shuttles would be on the list next time. Uber wasn’t a thing in Jacksonville in 2005.

And another luxury hotel is a must to hosting the game again. The downtown Hyatt, with more than 900 rooms is a great base of operations, but variety makes it better. Indianapolis was lauded for hosting Super Bowl XLI, mainly because everything was tucked into downtown with several large hotels within walking distance providing plenty of gathering spots.

Shad has a plan to build a Four Seasons hotel on the river near where Metropolitan Park is right now, so that’ll be the first step to hosting another Super Bowl. But he has a lot of things he wants to get done before backing another Super Bowl bid by Jacksonville. The Shipyards, the Lot J entertainment district and stadium improvements, including a possible sunshade are all on the list. The first league event Shad would like to bring here is the NFL Draft, with Daily’s Place acting as the hub. That’s more likely than anything else in the near future.

So when will the Super Bowl come back? When Shad decides it’s a good idea, we’ll host the game again. If it was 19 years between games in Atlanta, that puts us at 2024. Probably not by then, but it’ll happen.

The Hammer Podcast, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Episode 46 – Super Bowl LIII and Boselli Will Get In

Tom and Sam thought the Super Bowl was just fine. And Sam reveals what he can about what happened in the HOF “room.”

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Boselli Misses HOF Selection

No gold jacket for Tony Boselli again this year.

It’s the third year Tony has been among the final fifteen players up for selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. For the second straight year, Boselli made the cut to the 10 finalists but not to the final five and was passed over for entrance to Canton.

The Class of 2019 included three first-time eligible players, safety Ed Reed, tight end Tony Gonzales and cornerback Champ Bailey along with cornerback Ty Law and center Kevin Mawae. All deserving of a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but a somewhat surprising class that includes two corners and a center.

Again this year, I thought Boselli was sixth in the committee voting, and I was surprised by the selection of both Law and Mawae. Perhaps there was a bit of New York bias in the voting as can be the case. Hall of Famer John Randle mentioned that as an impediment to Boselli’s stature among the voters. “If Tony had played in New York or Philly, everybody would know who he is,” he said this week.

Just so the Selection Committee doesn’t have to consider positions in the same order each year, the Hall of Fame staff randomly selects where they’ll be discussed during the meeting. Regardless of when the position is discussed during the meeting, the players in each position are slotted in alphabetical order. Which means Tony Boselli is always the first offensive lineman presented and discussed. Although tackles, guards and centers play very different positions, they’re all considered offensive linemen so they’re thrown into the same pool. I don’t think that’s particularly fair and the Hall staff is considering a complete change to that process, discussing each player randomly. Once Tony’s case is presented and the discussion period ends, there’s no chance to defend his candidacy against the other linemen on the ballot. But nonetheless, it’s how they’re discussed right now. Is that a disadvantage for Tony? Hard to say.

The case I presented for Boselli compared the length of his career to the rest of the Hall, (including tackles) outlined his accomplishments, and highlighted the comments from his competitors. Based on the confidentiality agreement with the Hall of Fame, I can’t reveal the pros and cons of the discourse regarding Tony but the give and take among the Selectors was spirited and thorough. I can tell you that the discussion about Tony was nearly the longest of the day among the Modern Era players being considered, over 26 minutes. Only Ty Law’s Q&A period of 27 minutes was longer. (We did talk about Contributor candidate Gil Brandt for more than a half hour.)

There’s no dispute about Boselli’s greatness. The only question ever raised is about his length of service. Why that’s even in the discussion, I don’t know. Two years ago the Selection Committee chose Terrell Davis from the Modern Era eligible players (78 games) and Kenny Easley from the senior pool (89 games) for induction. Boselli played 97 games, 91 in the regular season plus six in the playoffs. About 12% of the players in the Hall played less than 100 games. Twenty-five percent of tackles in the Hall played 105 games or less. So Boselli checks the boxes when it comes to qualifying.

This year it felt like a competition among the four offensive linemen on this year’s ballot. It’s not supposed to be a competition because they’re all great players and all deserving of induction into the Hall. But it’s rare a bunch of players from one position are put into the Hall in the same year.

And with only five spots available, they all can’t get in the same year. The past two years have included six “first-ballot” Hall of Fame players taking up a majority of the available slots. Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher and Randy Moss were elected in 2018, their first year of eligibility, leaving two slots. This year, Reed, Gonzalez and Bailey did the same. I don’t think “first-ballot” is a thing in football, but a lot of other people do, although it’s a recent phenomenon. Of the “first-ballot” selections to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, forty percent of them have been since the year 2000.

It shouldn’t be about slotting players in the queue or making guys “wait their turn.” It should be about where you see the players who get to the final 15 in the pantheon among the greats of the game. A recent survey among players and coaches chose Boselli as the first among the four linemen on the 2019 ballot but Kevin Mawae was selected, perhaps because he was the only center.

It’s fitting that this year’s annual Selection Committee meeting for the Pro Football Hall of Fame happened on Groundhog Day. For many of the fifteen finalists, it’s the same, year after year. The first Saturday of February they’re in the Super Bowl city, sitting in a hotel suite, waiting for the outcome of the Committee’s deliberations. Will they get the knock on the door and an invitation to football immortality? Or will they answer the phone and hear the message, “Maybe next year?”

I talked with Gary Zimmerman this week, a member of the Hall of Fame Class of 2008 who said, “I feel sorry for those guys who sit there all day waiting for the ‘secret knock.’ My year, I told them no, I went skiing. I figured they’d find me.”

Next year, Troy Polamalu is eligible for the Hall for the first time. He’ll be touted as a lock, taking up one of the five spots available. That might mean 2020 is the right year for Tony. They might even add a class that year to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the NFL. In 2021, Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson and Calvin Johnson will be first year eligible players.

If a player has been a finalist, one of the final 15, twice, he has an 89.2% chance of eventually getting into the Hall. This was Tony’s third straight year as a finalist and I’m confident he’ll be on that list for a fourth year in 2020.

He’ll get in the Hall of Fame. When, based on all of those factors, is anybody’s guess.

The Hammer Podcast, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Episode 45 – Super Bowl Week from Atlanta

Tom and Sam have seen just about everybody associates with Pro Football this week in Atlanta.

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The HOF Case for Tony Boselli

As noted in this column two weeks ago, 2019 is the third consecutive year former Jaguars Tackle Tony Boselli has been named a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

And for the 24th year, I’ll be the Jacksonville representative on the Selection Committee and again I’m charged with presenting the case for Boselli’s credentials to achieve football immortality.

The process starts with a list of the eligible players and coaches being sent to the forty-eight members of the Selection Committee. This year, that list had 102 names at the start. Fifteen of those players have made it as “finalists” and will be discussed by the Committee this Saturday in Atlanta. Only five “Modern Era” players can be inducted each year.

So it’s a tough road to Canton.

In his career, Boselli played 97 games, including six in the playoffs. Two years ago the Selection Committee seemed to put the “length of career” debate to rest by inducting Kenny Easley with 96 games played and Terrell Davis with 78. Thirty-two of the 273 players in the Hall played less than 100 games.

Tony played in what can be called the “Golden Age of Tackles” in the league. His career overlapped fellow tackles Gary Zimmerman, Willie Roaf, Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones and Orlando Pace. All five of those players have a place in Canton. The next tackle the Committee discusses might be Cleveland’s Joe Thomas.

Boselli was named to the All-Decade first team of the ‘90’s, despite only playing half the decade. Zimmerman was the other first team tackle. Willie Roaf was second team. Every other offensive first-team All Decade player of the ‘90’s has been elected to the Hall.

In his playing days, Roaf said he was always watched film of Boselli. “Even though I had two years on him,” Roaf explained, “he was someone I would watch and gauge my game after.”

Anthony Munoz, considered the best left tackle to ever play the game, called Boselli “One of the best offensive tackles I have observed.”

Gil Brandt, on the ballot this year as a contributor, believes Boselli was the best of all of those tackles in the Hall.

“He’s as good as any tackle, Jim Parker, Anthony Munoz, any guys you’ve ever been around,” Brandt said this week. “You can’t play the position any better. All of those guys. Ogden, Jones, Pace. If they were all sitting there, I’d take Boselli.”

“It’s not guess work, it’s police work,” Brandt said pointing to the statistical comparison of Boselli to other great tackles. “We’re not comparing him to if ands or buts, we’re comparing him to great players. “I’d ask anybody, ‘What didn’t they like about Tony Boselli?’”

Everybody from Boselli’s era agrees that he was Hall of Fame material during his playing career. He passes the eye test. If you saw him play, you knew you were watching a special player

There’s not much debate that Boselli is the best player to ever wear a Jaguars uniform. His teammate and best friend Mark Brunell, who had a 19-year NFL career with five teams, puts Boselli in some rarefied air.

“I wouldn’t say Tony was better than Brett Favre, Reggie White or Drew Brees,” Brunell said, “but those are the guys he’s in the conversation with.”

Even his former on-field opponents are staunch voices for Boselli’s Hall of Fame candidacy.

Jaguars’ fans will remember Boselli waving Hall of Famer Jason Taylor to the other end of the field on national television.

“Boselli beat me down on a Monday night,” Taylor recalls. “An epic beat down. Surprising it didn’t knock me into retirement.”

“Pass rushing is an art, some people don’t understand that,” Hall of Famer John Randle said. “He had versatility of (Gary) Zimmerman and (Walter) Jones. He was really patient, that’s what makes the great ones. The great ones are there and whatever you want to do, they’re just saying ‘I’m going to wait for you to come to me.’”

“I’d go against Walter Jones in practice (in Seattle) and Gary Zimmerman and Randall McDaniel (in Minnesota). They’re so patient. I watched tape of the week before when he went against Bruce Smith. I watched it and Bruce tried to make him move and Tony was such a strong guy he could absorb him. You had to come at him full bore.”

“He had great feet. Like a great dancer. He never got crossed over, he had the versatility of Willie Roaf, he could take you just with his feet.”

“I like how he was old school. First off, he was so big it was like wrestling with a big bear. When you got into him, you see that in the movies, he would just cover you up like a blanket. I had to take off quick and get to that point on the outside shoulder to try to make him do something. If he beat you there, he’d shove you by. It just didn’t work out. If you got there, he’d just adjust his feet and take you on.”

“He had the mindset. You couldn’t acknowledge he got the best of you. He was a quiet talker. You’d see a DB come up to the line and you could tell Tony was talking to him, telling him to get out of there. He’d try to get you out of your game.”

Former Giants quarterback and current CBS broadcaster Phil Simms remembers Tom Coughlin telling him he was going to put Boselli on Derrick Thomas and he’d handle him.

“I thought that was crazy,” Sims said. “But as we broadcast the game the next day, Tony Boselli dominated Derrick Thomas from start to finish. Tony Boselli was as dominating an offensive lineman that I have ever seen.”

As the first pick in Seattle out of FSU, Hall of Famer Walter Jones said he wore 71 specifically because of Boselli.

“I’ve never told anybody this,” Jones said this week while traveling. “But I went in the equipment room and I told them ‘I want to wear 71.’ I wanted to do it right. I told the people in Seattle I wanted to be what Tony was for the Jaguars: That left tackle they built the franchise around. He set the tone for who we wanted to be. Even how he wore the uniform. I wanted to look like that when they took my picture out there as a left tackle. I watched that matchup he had with Bruce Smith. I wanted to be that guy.”

“If Hall of Famers had a vote, I’d vote for him this year,” Jones added. “If I was starting a team, I’d start with Tony. I know the other offensive linemen on the ballot. They were all great players but I’d start with Tony.”

Gary Zimmerman, the other All-Decade tackle of the ‘90’s said Boselli had the special skills necessary to be at the top of the game.

“My career overlapped Tony only two years but I was always impressed with what a great technician he was,” he said. “He had great, what I call, “flowing feet.” He could always get himself back into position. He had that patience that allowed him to absorb whatever was coming at him.”

Zimmerman then laughed at the current process the goes on all day and culminates with a television show in the evening.

“I feel sorry for those guys now, sitting around waiting for the secret knock. I went skiing.”

And John Randle brought up the unspoken part of Tony’s career.

“The market he was in plays a part,” John admitted. “If he was in a different market, if he was in Philly or New York, everybody would know about Tony. He was up there with the best of them.”

With Champ Bailey, Ed Reed and Tony Gonzalez being hailed as first –ballot selections for the Class of 2019 that would leave two open spots this year for 12 remaining candidates. Boselli is one of four offensive linemen among the finalists. If you do get into “the room,” you have about an eight-eight percent chance of eventually getting into the Hall.

So for Tony, like everybody else, it’s a tough road to Canton.

How The Patriots Do It

In the past eighteen years, the New England Patriots have won sixteen AFC East titles. They haven’t had a losing season. They’ve played in twelve AFC Championship Games including eight in a row from 2011 to 2018—and won eight of them.

How is it that New England has that kind of sustained success that most NFL teams, including the Jaguars, can’t find?

Is it a product of the culture in New England? Bill Belichick? Or is Tom Brady just that good?

We all know the difference between a manager and a leader. A manager pours over schedules and assigns the extra work to their staff. The leader just gets the job done and takes the extra work on themselves. A manager bad-mouths the competition and complains about the past. A leader looks inward for answers and has vision for the future.

That’s how a culture in any organization, including an NFL team gets built.

Do you think Bill Belichick is the first to leave the office every day? Does he worry about the schedule? Say anything about the competition? Dwell on the past?

None of that.

Former Jaguars Fred Taylor and Kyle Brady ended their careers with the Patriots. They both admit the culture in Jacksonville and New England were unique and successful in their own right during their playing careers.

“A high attention to detail,” Brady says he noticed as soon as he got to New England. “Practices were tough. I tell people you were more aware of the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses then they were aware of their own.”

For the Patriots, Taylor says it’s the precision they expect, at all times, from the professional football players in their employ.

“Through precision, and total confidence on game day they’re able to play fast,” he explained this week.

“First time we did 9 on 7, I thought, “What’s this? It’s patty cake, patty cake.’ I was used to real “thud” in that practice period. But it was proper technique, proper pad placement, and proper hand placement. It was a level of precision that everybody understood. They practice that and they’re coached so well to understand the situation during the game.”

Taylor got a real taste of the precision and intensity in New England in his third preseason game with the Patriots.

“We were playing the Redskins and I was the tight end in the formation. I ran a “y hook” on third-and-2 and did a sight read on the SAM linebacker covering me. He was playing outside technique so I made an adjustment that we ran in practice and hooked inside. Tom threw the ball to the outside and it was incomplete. I went to the sideline and he was on me immediately so hard that the QB coach had to get him off me. I sat down on the bench and said to Kevin Faulk, ‘It’s preseason, right?’ And he said, ‘It’s like that here.’”

“Tom later came back and apologized because it was something they discussed in the meeting room the night before with Kevin but not with me. Kevin was a late scratch so I never got the message.”

“It starts with Brady,” Kyle said about his time in New England. “He’s fanatical about winning.”

But it’s not just about the talent at quarterback.

“When I got there they had won three AFC Championships,” the Jaguars tight end said about his 13th, and final year in the NFL with the Patriots. “I expected them to be resting on their laurels. But their work ethic, from the veterans on down was amazing. In the weight room, film study. They have leaders that are dialed into that philosophy.”

But how is it that they can just ramp it up year after year and remain among the elite teams in the league?

“No FA or rookie was going to come in there and change that culture,” Kyle explained. “It was going to change you or you’d be gone. Randy Moss fell into that culture and had unbelievable success. They put his locker right next to Tom’s and it was basically a tutorial every day. He loved it.”

When the Jaguars practiced with the Patriots last year during the preseason in New England, you could see the expectation Patriots players and coaches had of themselves. If there was in incomplete pass during any offensive drill, everybody on that field dropped to the ground and did the number of pushups of the quarterback who threw the pass. Not too many times did they do twelve pushups. But whenever the ball was on the ground, everybody, including Belichick dropped and started doing pushups. If you’re the guy holding the clipboard and the head coach is over there doing pushups, you’re quickly on the ground.

“The intensity part naturally flows,” Fred said about the whole “vibe” around the Patriots. “They have guys who play above the x’s and o’s. Tom is great obviously, a pleasure to share a backfield with him. It flows from Belichick and Tom. Tom is Bill on the field. It’s the perfect situation with both of them. They want to win.”

Both Taylor and Brady agreed that even in winning, the Patriots look forward. Not a lot of celebrating or pats on the back.

“Bill would go over what we did right, then he’d move on,” Fred explained. “They don’t blow you up.”

“This is what we do, we make plays, that’s what expected,” Kyle said of the attitude after wins. “There’s not a lot of verbal praise. But they’d do different things. You’d come in on Monday morning after a win, and you’d walk down the hallway on the way to the locker room by Belichick’s office and they had the big photos on the walls already changed out from yesterday’s win. You’d see yourself scoring or a linebacker making a big hit. I don’t know how they did that but it was pretty cool.”

Playing a nearly perfect game last week against the Chargers; the Patriots put their precision on display. If it was 3rd and 5, the receivers were at least 5 ½ yards downfield. Not 4 ½. They were precise in their planning and their execution.

It’s part of the everyday landscape when reviewing the Patriots success to cite Belichick’s “Do your job!” philosophy. But on the door of their facility it also says, “Ignore the noise.” When it comes to winning football games, nothing outside these doors matters.

Just about any organization can take a lesson from that.

Pro Football Hall the Toughest

This is my 24th year on the Selection Committee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  It’ll be the third straight year I’ve presented Tony Boselli’s case as a candidate for induction into Canton.

This year, 102 former players were nominated for the Class of 2019. That list was sent to the 48 members of the selection committee. Those selectors represent the 32 NFL teams, the Pro Football Writers Association, at-large journalists who cover professional football, and two current members of the Hall. The list has grown with NFL expansion as well as the desire of the Hall’s Board of Directors to include more “national” broadcasters and writers who don’t necessarily cover one team.

When I first joined the committee in 1995 there were thirty-two selectors. At the time, pro football coverage was still dominated by the “legacy” writers and broadcasters of the game. Jack Buck, Will McDonough, Edwin Pope, Tom McEwen, John Steadman and Furman Bisher were all regulars. They were a tight knit group who traveled together, drank together and had definite opinions about who was worthy of induction to the Hall.

There wasn’t really a hierarchy, but certain members provided a little more clout than others. It always helped a candidate if they spoke up on their behalf. And almost always sank their candidacy if a negative opinion was offered.

There’s a confidentiality agreement that goes along with being a member of the Selection Committee, so I’m limited as to what I can say about what happens in those meetings. But I can tell you the meetings are thorough and honest.  And whittling the list down to just five inductees each year is very difficult.

Two things were certain in the early years of my membership: As the new guy I’d get lobbied by some other members to be a part of their cause and Jack Buck would always end the meeting with a hilarious, profane joke.

The average age on the committee was 56 years old in the late nineties. It relied on some statistical analysis, but mostly on the “eye” test: Either a guy was a Hall of Famer or he wasn’t.

Now, the committee is younger, more broadly informed about everything that goes along with pro football and while the “eye” test is still a good gauge, statistics have a larger role in a player’s career and his candidacy for the Hall.

From the 102 on the original list this year, the members of the committee were asked to cut that list to 25, and then to 15 via email. In the vernacular of the committee, they get “into the room.” We’ll meet in Atlanta on Super Bowl Saturday to discuss those fifteen finalists as well as the two contributors and the one senior candidate.

The meeting used to start around 7AM and ended at noon because that’s when the press conference was scheduled for the announcement. Over the years the announcement has been pushed back to accommodate the meeting, and television. They used to serve coffee and pastries before we got going. Now the Hall of Fame staff provides two full meals.

Each player is presented to the committee by the media member from the city where he played the majority of his career. The presentations are supposed to last about 5 minutes.

Once the presentations have ended, a vote is taken to cut from 15 to ten, and then from ten to five. Even after going through the gauntlet to get to the final five, those five are subjected to an up or down vote. Eighty percent approval of the committee is necessary for election to the Hall.

I used to sit at the meetings between Furman Bisher of Atlanta, Tom McEwen of Tampa and Edwin Pope of Miami. Furman loved to talk about golf in North Florida, which courses he liked and what PGA TOUR players he had no use for. He joked that he talked about golf since he didn’t have any Falcons to present to the selectors for the Hall.

I can remember Furman making presentations for Deion Sanders and Claude Humphrey as players who spent parts of their career in Atlanta. By contrast, it seemed that Edwin was up and down in every meeting presenting the numerous Miami Dolphins who had made it into the final fifteen.

Boselli has made the first cut to 10 but has been eliminated in the cut to five twice. Sometimes that means a player has the support of a big part of the committee, other times it doesn’t. Sometimes there’s carry-over, sometimes there isn’t.

Will that matter? No prediction here out of respect for the entire process but I do think Boselli belongs in the Hall based on the criteria presented. With fifteen worthy players, including four offensive linemen on the ballot, for only five spots, the competition, like every year, is very tough.

 

 

The Hammer Podcast, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Episode 40 – Quiet Time Doesn’t Nothing’s Happening

NFL Playoffs bring out the best, and worst in teams. And Clemson will be around as long as Dabo is running the show.

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The Hammer Podcast, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Episode 39 – Culture Change Starts at the Top

As they move into the off-season, the Jaguars are trying to change the locker room culture. They can’t do much before they make a decision on the quarterback.

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Jaguars “Can’t Miss” Offseason

Last week’s column about the Jaguars future elicited the full gamut of responses. From “I agree” to “stop drinking and writing,” fans are clearly passionate about what the team should do going forward. A friend of mine once said, “When the reader agrees with you, they’re brilliant. When they disagree, you’re an idiot.” My favorite was “You make a lot of good points but the p****ed off side of me says fire them all.” Because that’s the emotional sentiment of a large part of the Jaguars fan base.

Either way, the Jaguars offseason moves have started with keeping the top brass and firing four assistant coaches, all in positions that underperformed this year.

It’s an important year for everybody involved with the football side of the Jaguars, from the top down. While Tom Coughlin, Dave Caldwell and Doug Marrone have been given a vote of confidence by Owner Shad Khan, another year like this one and they’re all gone.

It’s not the 5-11 record that’s so galling; it’s how they got there after an appearance in the AFC Championship game the year before. Yes, injuries played a large part in the Jaguars downfall on offense, but did the lack of production on that side of the ball cause so much locker room discord that the team became totally dysfunctional?

There was a screaming match in the locker room between defensive and offensive players following the loss to Houston at home in week seven. It went on for a while; forcing the Jaguars PR staff to push the media back out into the hallway past the normal “cooling off” post-game period.

So does all of what happened this year impact the decision-making in the offseason? If the team’s commitment to Blake Bortles is perceived as a lack of commitment to winning in the locker room, will that force their hand when deciding about what to do at quarterback?

While the player’s pettiness, lack of leadership and inability to handle success contributed to the Jaguars 2018 downfall, Coughlin has to shoulder some of the blame as well. Dave Caldwell is handling the day-to-day operations as General Manager, but nothing is happening without Coughlin’s approval. Same with Marrone. He might be making the calls as the Head Coach but he’s not doing anything without running it by Coughlin first.

“We believe in the player,” is how Coughlin characterized their commitment to Blake and not addressing the quarterback position in the last couple of years outside of Tanner Lee with their sixth round pick in 2018.

I’m not a fan of where you look at who they could have picked instead of whom they did. The draft picks and the free agent signings were made based on what they already had on the team and what they thought would augment their success. You can’t cherry pick in each draft who they might have taken without looking at the whole picture.

The extension given to Bortles colored their decisions across the board and if they think that’s the problem, they only have one year to fix it. If the players on the team don’t believe in Blake, the brass has to know that and make their decisions accordingly.

In his first stint at running the Jaguars, Coughlin had full control, running the personnel and football operations as the head coach and the general manager. Wayne Weaver has said his biggest mistake as Jaguars owner was getting rid of Coughlin but that’s a bit of revisionist history. Nobody was going to buy a ticket to a Tom Coughlin-coached team at the time and Weaver never broached splitting the job up as an idea. Doubtful Coughlin would have gone for it, but eventually he did take the head-coaching job with the Giants, working with General Managers Ernie Acorsi and Jerry Reese. Two Super Bowl victories followed.

As the Jaguars personnel chief this time around, Coughlin’s drafts have been spotty. With the jury still out on Leonard Fournette and Cam Robinson injured, Dede Westbrook appears to be the only emerging star from Tom’s 2017 picks. Taking Taven Bryan with the first pick in 2018 was adding to an already perceived strength on the defensive line. Bryan wasn’t an impact player, as you would expect a first round selection to be, getting his only sack of the year in the season finale at Houston. Perhaps DJ Chark becomes the playmaker the Jaguars need, but that didn’t happen in 2018. Ronnie Harrison, Will Richardson, Leon Jacobs and Logan Cooke could all become regular starters in Jacksonville.

This is a “can’t miss” offseason. As in, the Jaguars “can’t miss” at all across the board in the draft or in free agency. While all decisions will be made based on what they’re going to do at quarterback, their subsequent moves will determine the near future success, or lack of it for the Jaguars. They can’t take any flyers, or have the luxury of adding to an already strong position group. Without immediate impact from the players acquired in this offseason, they’ll have to blow the whole thing up and start over again.