Urban Meyer - Jaguars

A Galaxy of Difference

About every third time Jaguars Head Coach Urban Meyer meets with the media, he references how he’s learning the pro game. He admits he is surprised by some things and has hired a staff full of coaches with NFL experience to shepherd him through the process.

While I admire the transparency, never Meyer’s strong suit, just how many things are different between the NFL and the college game? And at what point can it make a difference between wins and losses?

In the first ever Jaguars game at home in 1995 against the Houston Oilers, some of the nuanced differences between the two games were on full display.

“Will the chain gang please report to the field,” the PA announcer said as the teams lined up for the second half kickoff. The guys holding “the sticks” had done so many college games at our stadium it caught them off guard how quickly the NFL halftime goes.

Officially, the mid-game break in the NFL is twelve minutes from the time the last coach or player leaves the field. The game is run by television, and they have a schedule to keep. In college, the halftime is scheduled for fifteen minutes and often last up to twenty. The chain gang was still sitting in the lunchroom while the referee was ready to blow the whistle.

When you look at a drive sheet from an NFL game, you can see where the outcome turns on just a couple of plays. That’s new for Meyer.

“I can’t stand bad plays,” he said after the Jaguars first exhibition loss to the Browns. “It is even magnified now because you just don’t have that many plays.”

Last year NFL teams averaged between sixty and seventy offensive plays per game. The Jaguars averaged just over sixty-two, seventh fewest in the league. College offenses can average more than eighty snaps. Clemson had just over seventy-eight plays on average last year, fifteenth most among college teams.

“I remember looking up and was like, my gosh, we’re in the middle of the second quarter and we’ve had three drives,” Meyer said, admitting to being surprised Saturday night. “In college, you have three drives in the first quarter or four if you are really cooking. I knew that, but now that I did it, it’s on you quick.”

Meyer has spoken often about the roster limitations in the NFL and having to cut nearly half of the players who are in camp to get down to fifty-three on opening day. The Jaguars staff meets regularly about “roster management” and Meyer admitted having that limitation led to the Jaguars cutting Tim Tebow.

“It comes down (to that) because we expect to be very good on special teams,” he said, explaining that special teamers have to both block and tackle, things Tim hadn’t done in a while. “The tight end position is one of those (positions) and tailback. If you can’t contribute on special teams, that’s a tough go.”

It will be different for Meyer when he walks on the field at Houston on September 12th if only for the amount of talent on every roster in the league. For the first time in his coaching career, probably since he left Utah in 2004, Meyer will not have the best team on the field. Certainly, at least in his first year here, every time Meyer steps through the tunnel, the team on the other sideline will be at least as talented as the Jaguars.

In addition, at every college stop, Meyer had eighty or ninety players to choose from on Saturday. On NFL Sunday’s, he’ll have about half that number. And just getting down to a game day roster is full of difficult decisions.

“I’ve been warned by colleagues that you know that’s going to be a tough deal,” he explained. “I just start thinking about these guys careers. We can’t be wrong. It’s not fair to that player.”

More than once Meyer has lamented the size of the roster and with cuts looming in the near future, he admits he’ll be leaning on the coaches on his staff who have been around the league.

“How do you actually practice with fifty-three veteran players?” he asked. “I can handle the college game pretty good. It’s a little different animal here. Those are all things I don’t think college guys know. College guys know how to motivate and run an organization. But for that kind of intricacies (practice plans, roster management), you need to have people around you. And I do.”

While the transition from the college to pro game is littered with coaches who didn’t make it, there are some who have adapted with great success. Tom Coughlin was a winner at Boston College before taking the Jaguars job. Barry Switzer, Jim Harbaugh, Bill Walsh, and Pete Carroll all had success at both levels. Jimmy Johnson might be the most successful coach who’s won championships in college and in the NFL.

“There’s not a world of difference, there’s a galaxy of difference,” Johnson told a Miami newspaper before his induction this year into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “As a college coach, I was a mentor, I was kind of a father figure, I did a tremendous amount of counseling with the players.”

Johnson believes players in the professional game are motivated and dictated by financial pressures, creating a completely different coach/player relationship.

And he agreed, sometimes you just “out-talent’ the other team in college.

“Sometimes I didn’t even need to show up we had so much talent,” he said of his time at the University of Miami. “You’re gonna have to be at your best for maybe three games a year (in college). In professional football, it’s really a different world.”

While college coaches have massive staffs, hold sway over the school at large, and make significantly more money than their bosses, they also must deal with academics, alumni and growing young men.

In the NFL they’re coaching adults. They have to deal with one person: The Owner.

And they have one job: Win.

“He doesn’t need to know what the goals and ambitions of these young men are,” Barry Switzer told Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times. “He doesn’t need to know [a player’s] mother. He doesn’t need to know if he had a father in the home, or if he had any siblings. All those things are irrelevant. That player might be in camp one day and on the waiver wire the next one, and the coach will never speak to him or see him again the rest of his life.

“A college coach sees every player — when you recruit a player, you’ve got him for life. You can wrap that up with one sentence.”
About a month ago, Meyer revealed that he doesn’t expect to change much from his days at Florida and Ohio State.

“I think you win for your coach and the coaches coach for their players,” he said of his philosophy. “I know they get paid now and I’ve heard all about “pro.” I don’t necessarily buy that. I believe in relationships. I believe that these are not number 75 or number 72, they’re people and that’s one of the reasons we’ve had success over the years.”

Will that work in the NFL? Will grown men buy into that when their livelihood is on the line? Will Meyer see it differently as his NFL career progresses?
Barry Switzer has lived through it:

“The job of a professional coach is to win football games with 53 players, and his only goal is the Super Bowl.”

Bobby Bowden

Bowden Stories

This week, reminiscing with friends about things that happened in the thirty years I knew Bobby Bowden, there was story after story, one funnier than the next.

The one common thread in all of them?

Everybody talked about the man, not the coach.

And everybody has a Bobby Bowden story.

Rather than tell you mine, which you’ve probably already heard a hundred times, here are a few of those from friends who either had a chance encounter or spent their careers at Bobby’s side.

Perhaps no one outside of his family spent more time with Bobby or knew him better than Gene Deckerhoff. The Jacksonville native was part of the broadcast team for all thirty-four years of Bowden’s career at Florida State. Starting by hosting the pregame show and taking over the play-by-play in 1979, Gene was with Bowden through every up and down, on and off the field.

“I didn’t know it but when I first moved to Tallahassee, I rented the house Bobby built when he was an assistant here under Bill Peterson,” Deckerhoff said this week.

As you can imagine, my conversation with Gene, whom I’ve known for forty years, went on for a while talking about Bobby. But I was able to nail him down to one story that really stuck with him.

“I had asked Bobby to go to Jacksonville early one morning to do some commercials for our sponsors on the radio broadcast. He left here at six on a plane to get there by eight. But when he arrived, nothing was set up, so he took a nap on the couch and waited. I had told him he’d by home by two.”

In the meantime, Deckerhoff was in Tampa and had been offered a chance to do the play-by-play for the Buccaneers. The Bucs realized they needed a well-known, recognizable voice to connect with the fans after a lot of losses in their history. He had gotten permission from Hootie Ingram (the athletic director) and Andy Miller (the head of Seminole Boosters who ran the radio network) but felt like he needed Bobby’s permission before he could take the job.

“About seven o’clock that night I called his house,” Gene recalled. “I was thinking he’d be home and Ann answered and said he wasn’t there, but she heard some commotion in the driveway, and she thought it might be Bobby. I heard her say ‘Gene’s on the phone,’ since I rarely called him at home.”

“He told me the story of the day and I thought based on that kind of day it was this might not go well. But when I told him about the offer he said, ‘Can you still do ours?” I told him I could, based on the Bucs schedule and being able to drive and fly from the Seminole games on Saturday to Bucs games on Sunday. Then I explained that it meant that sometimes with FSU playing night games we’d have to tape his coach’s show at two or three in the morning at the TV station.”

“Well, that’s no problem,” Bobby said. “I’ll just be asleep on the couch over there and you wake me up when the commercials are over, and we’ll tape the show.”

“I was shocked, but I shouldn’t have been. I’ve never met anybody who was as honest and faithful as Bobby Bowden. I’ve been blessed to work with him and with Tony Dungy in Tampa for six years who was the same way. One guy born in Michigan and the other in Alabama, but they were two peas from the same pod. No way Bobby has that kind of success as a coach, the enduring love of his players, and a marriage that lasted seventy-two years without being as honest and loving as he was.”

If you know anything about the Seminoles and you live in Jacksonville, you know Max Zahn. Max has had a variety of positions with Seminole Boosters and got to know Bobby over the years, especially when he was asked to run Bowden’s ‘Spring Golf Tour’ for a while throughout the state. Max didn’t hesitate when I asked him for his favorite Bobby story.

“It was 1988 when we went up to play South Carolina in Columbia,” he explained. “I drove up in a van with some guys including Tom Turnage, John Martin, and Bob Cosgrove, who recruited Edgar Bennett and LeRoy Butler, and a couple other guys.

“We beat them 59-0 and one of our guys knew somebody from South Carolina who had a tailgate in the parking lot after the game. We had one van from Jacksonville in the middle of the parking lot and we thought no way they’d welcome us there, but they didn’t care. We were having a great time when two state trooper patrol cars and two buses went by.”

Bobby Bowden“One guy had a rubber chicken, and we were all getting ready to take a picture with the chicken. A highway patrolwoman stopped and wanted to know what was going on. That’s when Bobby jumps out of one of the patrol cars and comes running over and says; You guys from Jacksonville have all the fun.’ And asked to get in the picture. He was such a fun and humble person. He had integrity and character. He changed people’s lives just by living the way he did.”

With a daughter at Florida State, my friend Leon Crimmins was just being a ‘Seminole Dad’ one weekend in Tallahassee as he and his wife were visiting. His daughter had heard that Bobby was going to do the sermon at a local church on Sunday and suggested they go.

“We went to the Celebration Baptist Church the next morning,” Leon explained. “And Bowden gave the sermon, a combination of motivational football coach and Baptist preacher. He was awesome! The congregation was so fired up they looked like they could go play a game. He ended by glancing at his watch and said, “Hey, let’s have a quick prayer and get out of here and beat the Catholics to breakfast.’ The place cracked up, but it was obvious they loved him deeply.”

As a football player at FSU, Todd Fordham spent five years in Tallahassee under ‘Coach Bowden.’ He was a redshirt his first year, played some as a redshirt freshman and started the following three season, being named captain his senior year. In that role he met with Bobby regularly and said Bowden always listened and usually was supportive of whatever request the players had adding, ‘As long as we do it as a team.’

In all his time with the ‘Noles and with Bowden, it was an off-the-field, moment that has stuck with Fordham when I asked him for a Bobby Bowden story.

“When I was coming out of a small Georgia town to play football (Tifton, Ga) I was in awe of FSU and what they were about. We’re going through football camp my freshman year, and it wasn’t easy under coach Bowden. It was hot and tough. We get to Saturday after a hard practice and he got the team together and said “Men, tomorrow is one of the most important days of the year. I want everybody on those buses tomorrow morning and on time.’ We got on the busses Sunday morning and went to two different churches. The first one we went to was Bethel AME. We all got off the busses and Coach Bowden was adamant that we’re going to go do something together. He wanted us to sit as a team. We’d be there together. You didn’t miss that. Every year. Only if you had some family issue and then your mom or dad had to call him to talk about it. I’ve never forgotten that.”

“A majority of people who talk about Coach Bowden, they talk about what kind of man he was. They talk about his faith. He was a great coach but to see what kind of man he was . . . it was always about other folks.”

Bowden earned Todd’s respect early and it carried through his senior year.

“I was a captain in fall camp of my senior year. It was hot, and it got a little chippy. I was egging on a couple of guys who were having a little skirmish on the goal line. Coach Bowden came over and grabbed me by the arm and said, ‘Todd, don’t encourage that.’ He really got on me, and I didn’t even know he saw me!”

For the forty years I’ve known Dan St. John he’s been one of the biggest Seminole fans I know. It makes sense since he went to school there, played some baseball there and stayed close with Mike Martin. With his success in the advertising business, he’s supported the University in a lot of different ways.

In the late 1970’s, early in his advertising career, Dan had negotiated a contract with the regional Ford dealers. He had the idea to regionalize the Ford sponsorship thinking college football was the way to do it.

“It’s big in the south of course,” he told me this week. “But we had to get all of the coaches involved. So, we got Bobby, Charley Pell, and Vince Dooley onboard. The hardest thing was to work around the three of their schedules. We decided we needed to get out of town, or we wouldn’t have a moment’s peace if people found out we were going to have the three of them together.”

“We ended up shooting in Charlotte, North Carolina and we had some location shoots out of town. It was a big production. We had wardrobe, make up, grips, sound people, lighting guys. We had a motor home for the coaches to get out of the heat and relax.”

“Everybody’s going in and out of the motor home to check on them when a couple of the make-up people came over and said, ‘Charley is up front, Vince and Bobby were in the back yucking it up, having a big time. Why isn’t Charley involved?”

“I laughed and said, ‘Because Vince and Bobby don’t play each other.’ But that was pure Bobby. We worked with him for ten years and he was the most generous and thoughtful and kind person and big celebrity I ever worked with. People talk about being a great coach, but he was always humble about it.”

While Matt Kingston was a student at Florida, I was lucky enough to have him as an intern in the TV station’s sports department before he graduated. His internship was a rousing success and we jumped at the chance to hire him as soon as he finished school. We worked together for eighteen years, traveling all over to cover sporting events and he remains one of my closest friends. But it was before we met that his Bobby Bowden story happened.

“I was working at a TV station in Gainesville while I was in school and they sent me to the FSU football media day on a Saturday morning in Tallahassee,” Matt said. “I went by myself into a big room, set up and had the players and coaches come through one-by-one.”

“When Bobby got to me the Assistant Sports information Director introduced me saying, ‘Coach, this is Matt Kingston from Gainesville.’ ‘Gainesville?’ Bobby said. ‘Who let him in?’”

“I was already nervous, and I wasn’t sure whether he was serious or not. He must have sensed my nervousness, so he said, ‘Matt, how old are you?’ ‘Twenty-two,’ I said. ‘And how tall are you?’ he asked. ‘I’m five-six Coach.’ ‘Well let’s see!”

And with that he motioned for me to come closer.

“Let’s go back-to-back,’ he said and pulled me by the arm. We went back-to-back and he asked the guy with him, ‘Who’s taller?’

“’I think you have him by about a half inch Coach,’ the assistant said. ‘I don’t win many of those!’ Bobby exclaimed. He sat down and said with a laugh, “I always thought there were a few smart people in Gainesville.” I’m a huge Gator fan but I’ve been a Bobby Bowden fan ever since that day.”

My longtime producer/photographer and close friend and confidant, Kevin Talley reminded me of an interview we did after a game in Tallahassee with Bobby after Tamarick Vanover had two long kickoff returns in 1992 against Florida.

“You asked Bobby how fast Vanover was,” Kevin recalled. “And without skipping a beat Bobby said, ‘I don’t know, but he’s faster than whatever’s chasing him.”

As lucky as I was to report on and get to know Bobby Bowden over three decades, I have dozens of stories, most of them you’ve probably heard.

But two really stick out.

When he was done with his press conference following his final game, January 1, 2010, in the Gator Bowl against West Virginia, he and Ann were walking up the aisle accepting handshakes and congratulations from the assembled media.

I was standing in the back with the photographers as I always do, and as Bobby got to the door, he looked over at me and smiled. I nodded a quick “hi” and he stopped and walked through the maze of TV cameras to get to me.

He put his hand out and said, “Hey, Sam,” not using his regular, “Hey buddy,” that he saved for everybody. There was something in his voice that was especially warm and welcoming, not an easy thing to achieve in a big room full of people.

“That was something,” I said of the ‘Noles 33-21 win over the Mountaineers in the rain. “And a great run,” I added.

“You know Ann?” Bobby said as he pointed to his wife right behind him.

“Of course,” I said, knowing, polite as always, he’d introduced me to Ann about a hundred times.

As we shook hands, he put his left hand on my shoulder and said, “I’ll see you soon.”

“Absolutely,” I said.

And a story I’ve never told before:

Bobby Bowden & Sam KouvarisWe once played golf at Deerwood during his annual spring tour in the late ‘80’s. We rode in the same cart and over the course of five hours together, we talked a lot about football, my short college football career, family, and faith and discovered we were fraternity brothers. We hit some good and some bad shots over eighteen holes as usual.

When we finished, we were straightening out the cart and the clubs before everybody was trying to get a piece of him. Bobby put his hand out and said, “I really enjoyed that.” “Not as much as I did,” I quickly answered.

And then he leaned in, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You should have played for me.”

I was so stunned I think I managed an “I should have,” as he was escorted away.

I thought it might have been the highest compliment I’ve ever gotten, and I’ve never forgotten that.

Nor him.

2020 Tokyo Olympics

Watch The Olympics!

Flipping through the channels the other night I came across some diving. Any other time in the last four years I’d have kept searching. But not this year. This year is the Olympic Year. And I unapologetically think the Olympics are great.

I’ve been to a couple of Olympics. I took my kids to Atlanta in 1996 to experience the competition and the mixing of cultures and people that goes along with the Games. I’d always wanted to see a Winter Olympics in Europe, so in 2006, I accompanied my brother to the Games in Torino, Italy. It was everything I had hoped. People from all over the world gathered in one spot, watching, learning, interacting and proudly supporting their country and the athletes wearing their flag.

“Did I ever jump off the 10-meter platform when we swam in the Olympic pool in Munich,” I asked my favorite Jaguar fan in the other room a couple of nights ago.

As she walked in behind me, she saw I was watching diving. I turned back as she deadpanned, “Probably,” and left the room.

Watching the Olympics gives me the chance to see all kinds of sports I don’t see, nor do I care about at any other time. I’ll watch rowing, trampoline, all kinds of stuff I wouldn’t stop the clicker for on any other night.

“You know we’re watching very large men in spandex,” one of my friends said with a laugh as we watched the shot-put finals. Yet another sport I usually don’t stop to watch, but in this case with two Americans at the top, we were all very quiet until the cheers that followed the final throw with the gold and silver secured.

There are plenty of people who are purposely not watching the Olympics, mostly for political reasons. I’ve got plenty of political opinions, and if some of the athletes in the Games are using the competition as a political platform, I just don’t watch.

There have been a few of those, but there’s also been plenty of patriotic pride at these Games across all countries. Watching the Aussies celebrate their swimming success or the Jamaicans their prowess on the track always makes me smile.

In 1968, I didn’t ignore the political demonstration of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City. I had a chance to tell Smith that when we were part of the same Bob Hayes Hall of Fame induction class. As a 12-year-old in Baltimore growing up among many different races and religions, I told Smith he introduced me to the fact that in places outside of my neighborhood, not everybody was getting a fair shot.

“Then it was worth it,” he said with a laugh. I’m not sure if he laughed because he was kidding me, or he meant it, but it sure made an impression on me.

Seeing Grant Holloway wrap himself in the American Flag after winning Silver in the 110-meter hurdles made me think of what Smith said to me, and how that fits in to today’s narrative.

I laughed at Kevin Hart and his soliloquy about the men’s 4×100 relay and how we “Can’t carry a stick around the track without dropping it. And the US haven’t won this race in twenty years. Why? It’s the damn Jamaicans that’s why!”

It wasn’t funny when the American team finished sixth in their heat, missing the finals. They didn’t drop the baton, but it was a bad exchange that cost them the 2/10ths of a second and a top three finish. Analyst and Olympian Ato Boldon (who does a really nice job at the Games) explained why the Japanese and the Chinese always seem to make the final and the US struggles in that event. He revealed that they pick their four guys for the race, and they practice all year. It’s technical and it shows. The US uses a “best four” philosophy and the four guys in the final might be running together for the first time EVER! Fast or not, that’s a recipe for disaster.

We’ve joked in our family for years that we’ll never know if our kids would have been champion swimmers because 5:30 AM practices weren’t going to be part of our household routine.

Lucky for all of us, it was part of Caleb Dressel and Ryan Murphy’s daily commitment. I’ve watched and covered both of their careers as a reporter since they were kids. I know how proud I felt to watch them both shine in Tokyo so I can only imagine how their families felt.

It was great to see Caleb listed with all the other great Olympians who have dominated the medal count in their sport at one Olympics. And I was glad to see Eric Heiden included in that group. His five individual speed skating gold medals in 1980 at Lake Placid, in my opinion, is the greatest achievement in Olympic history. He won the sprint AND the marathon and broke a world record by more than six seconds. Amazing.

Have you noticed there’s always a lot of crying at the Olympics? Winners cry, losers cry, families, coaches and spectators cry. It chokes me up a bit as well, maybe because as a sports reporter I always think about the amount of work they put in to get to that moment. And to have it all pay off, it’s no wonder people start crying.

It’s probably the only time every four years I watch swimming. It’s impressive how the television technology has changed the viewing experience of that sport. In water cameras, video from a robot alongside the pool and the extensive graphics have added to that television experience. Rowdy Gaines, an Olympian, brings a real-world perspective to the competition. He knows the sport and the athletes but is still a big fan and it shows. And the addition of Michael Phelps to the broadcast was a real plus.

Never a great interview as a competitor, Phelps sitting beside Mike Tirico brought that rare combination of being a fan and being the greatest ever at the same time. He had some insight that wasn’t too technical but gave us a glimpse of all the big, and little things it takes to be at the top of that game.

And do you think Tirico wearing those microphones on his shirt looks goofy and out of place? Here he is on a beautiful, multi-million dollar set, with custom-made clothes and he’s got this giant black dot in the middle of his shirt? Engineers have told me for years that those mics are omni-directional so moving them a few inches over to his lapel won’t affect the quality of the sound and it sure would look a lot better.