Friday, November 30th will mark twenty-five years since the NFL awarded Jacksonville the league’s 30th franchise. It’s still an amazing, improbable story: Mayor Jake Godbold realized, in the 1970’s, that the people in town didn’t think much of themselves or the city. He believed a pro sports team could change that.
As a reporter following that story, here’s part of what happened that day, 25 years ago.
It was a cold morning in Chicago, November 30, 1993. I had watched ABC’s Nightline the previous evening with Wayne Weaver, then of 9 West shoe fame, and now the new face of Touchdown Jacksonville.
Nightline ran a segment during their show on NFL expansion, outlining how Charlotte had secured a franchise in October and the NFL had tabled the decision on the 30th team until their next meeting, 30 days later.
I had been with Weaver the day the league awarded Charlotte the franchise a month ago and then told him to wait.
He was not happy.
In October at the Chicago Hyatt, Weaver invited me to walk with him to the NFL’s temporary offices where he was to meet with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. As we waited outside the door for Tagliabue, I asked Weaver, “What are you going to tell him?”
Without hesitation, the future Jaguars owner turned to me with a narrow-eyed, unblinking stare and said, “I’m going to ask why we didn’t get what we came here for.”
And with that, the receptionist invited Weaver into the offices. He turned to me and said, “Wait here.” So I sat down, grabbed a newspaper (still popular back then) and settled in for a long wait.
Much to my surprise, it wasn’t more than 15 minutes before Weaver walked back out the door, stern-faced and clearly not happy.
“How’d it go?” I asked somewhat jovially, trying to lighten the mood.
Weaver would have none of it.
“I wanted to know why we didn’t get a NFL franchise and he didn’t have an answer. He said, ‘Be patient,'” Wayne answered as he strode toward the lobby.
There, the other members present from Touchdown Jacksonville were briefed on what the NFL was thinking and what their jobs were for the next 30 days. No matter what was said, it was obvious the league was trying to put a franchise back in St. Louis and avoid Jacksonville. The Cardinals had moved to Phoenix and with the lure of Budweiser and other institutional money in St. Louis, the league wanted a franchise there. The little publicized fact was Weaver’s connection to St. Louis, where he had lived and worked.
But to Jacksonville’s advantage, Weaver turned down the league’s suggestion that he become the principal owner and managing partner in St. Louis instead of Jacksonville.
About 30 days later, we were back in Chicago at the same Hyatt, going through the same song and dance with the NFL owners. Weaver had invited me after the viewing of Nightline to go for a run in the morning.
“Seven AM, in the lobby,” he said.
At seven, I was standing in the lobby in running shorts and long sleeved shirt and a knit hat. Weaver appeared moments later wearing the most beautiful running suit I had ever seen. We headed out into the cold morning, well below freezing, anticipating approximately five miles. We chatted the whole time about how Weaver should present himself to the media when, or if, he got a franchise.
“You’re the shark, we’re the guppies,” I told him. “Move where you want and we’ll follow.”
Then I added, “When you’re up there with the Commissioner, look at the back row where the cameras are. I’ll be standing there pointing into the camera. You look there and you’ll be speaking to all of Jacksonville,” I said with a bit of hyperbole. (In a side note, we stopped at about the three-mile mark of our run to catch our breath and out of a grove of trees, in the suburbs of Chicago, stepped about an 8-point buck, just 10 yards from us. I’m not much for ‘signs’ but I turned to Wayne and quietly said, “You’re getting a team.”)
This time in Chicago, they would award one franchise instead of two. Baltimore was still in the picture with two ownership groups. Memphis still thought they had a shot, but St. Louis and Jacksonville were the front-runners.
Current Jaguars President Mark Lamping knows the inside story of the St. Louis bid. The infighting, the problem with “who’s in charge” that sank their bid. To the public though, they brought in Dan Dierdorf to help make their presentation. Dierdorf, not yet a Pro Football Hall of Fame member (his friend Jack Buck was his biggest patron) might have told the St. Louis story to the NFL owners but in public, he spent most of his time running down Jacksonville. As part of the media in attendance at his press conference, I heard Dierdorf go out of his way several times to outline how Jacksonville couldn’t support a franchise and didn’t deserve one. Perhaps he thought he was doing his job. But at the time, it was unseemly.
Nonetheless, the presentations concluded and the different city representatives were sent to separate suites on the 25th floor of one of the Hyatt’s adjacent towers.
Weaver invited everybody along who looked like a familiar face from Jacksonville. Ensconced in the suite, the league sent instructions to sit tight while the owners voted. They’d let us know the outcome.
So along with several other media members, I settled in with TD Jax members like Tom Petway and Chick Sheerer and waited. I was looking at the plans HOK had proposed for stadium improvement with Petway when a security guard started to sweep through the suite saying, “Media out!”
I grabbed the plans, put them in front of my face and turned on the couch to look at Petway. He just smiled as the guard walked by.
Hearing “But Kouvaris is still in there,” from Gene Frenette of the Times-Union as the door closed only heightened my sense that I was in the right place at the right time. The news business is very competitive.
Suddenly, bursting through the front door was Ron Weaver, a Jacksonville local and Wayne’s brother who had brought Weaver to the table as the principal owner the league was looking for. TD Jax had put together enough money but the league didn’t want to deal with a committee. They wanted one person, and Weaver was that guy.
I jumped out of my seat and found myself in a circle with Ron, Weaver, his wife Delores, and David Seldin of TD Jax and the potential Jaguars President.
“You’re getting an NFL team,” Ron blurted out to his brother, red-faced with excitement.
Out of turn, I asked, “How do you know that?”
Ron turned to me and said, “Because I just ran into the finance committee chairman in the hallway and he said we were the choice.”
Everybody knew the full NFL Owners membership had never turned down a recommendation from the finance or expansion committee so this seemed to be it: the dream coming true.
“I should go,” I said to Seldin as I turned away, shook both Wayne’s and Ron’s hands, and hugged Delores. Seldin agreed and I walked to the sofa to gather my things.
In 1993, mobile phone technology was not what it is now and at the time, I carried one of those phones everybody makes fun of: big, bulky, looked like the son of something the GIs carried in WWII.
My boss, Nancy Shafran, and I, along with a high-level officer of TD Jacksonville, had arranged a code word, “Tangerine” to tip us off if Jacksonville were to be awarded the franchise.
As I carefully put the antenna up to the window to see if I had service, I dialed Shafran’s private number. When she answered, I simply said, “Tangerine.”
“Really? Are you sure?” Shafran said excitedly.
Before I could answer, the other phone in her office rang and she told me to hold on. In something that seemed surreal at the time, I heard a familiar voice say from the other room of the suite: “Tangerine.” It was our source, confirming what I had just told her.
We quickly formulated a plan, I said my goodbyes and headed to the ballroom where the announcement would be made.
As I approached the elevator, a young producer from our competition at the time stepped out of one of the two elevators and asked, “Where is everybody?”
“Down that hall,” I motioned to her, knowing full well the numerous security guards wouldn’t let her approach the Jacksonville suite.
As she walked off, I stepped into her elevator and hit every floor’s button and jumped out as the door closed. I then grabbed the other elevator and hit, “1.” Before the doors opened, I hit every floor’s button on that panel as well, figuring it would buy us some time.
I knew we were right, and wanted us to be first, an important element in the news business. As I mentioned, it’s competitive.
I briskly walked to the ballroom where my colleague Tom Wills was just about to go on the air with a live report.
On the way, I walked by a small room that had boxes of t-shirts and hats with “Baltimore Bombers” and other contenders emblazoned on the front. The one that was missing was “Jacksonville Jaguars,” confirming what I already knew.
As I entered the ballroom, I looked to Tom, shaking my head in disbelief, and said, “We’re getting a team.”
“If you’re sure, let’s go with it,” Tom said. I’ve always appreciated the trust he had in me at that moment, literally putting his credibility on the line just on my word.
In seconds we were on the air announcing that shortly, the NFL would award the 30th franchise to Jacksonville.
Sure enough, Tagliabue announced Jacksonville would be awarded the franchise and bedlam ensued at home.
Tom flew back on one of the two private planes Touchdown Jacksonville had brought to Chicago with Petway, Weaver, and several others. I was assigned to stay in Chicago and report from there. In a bit of irony, the plane Tom and Weaver were on had a flat tire and it took a while for them to fix it and get back to Jacksonville.
It didn’t matter, though. The people in Jacksonville knew: the team had already arrived.