Putting themselves into play as a potential Super bowl site, North Florida and the city of Jacksonville were complete unknowns. In the early 80’s then-Mayor Jake Godbold courted the NFL, even hosting a “Colts Fever” rally at the old Gator Bowl in 1979. Fifty-thousand people showed up for a hot dog and a Coke to see Colts owner Robert Irsay fly onto the floor of the Gator Bowl to wave and say “I might .”
Unknown to most people was the conversation between Godbold and Irsay as they exited the World War II construction era stadium. “If I come here, you’ll have to tear this thing down,” said steel expert Irsay. Godbold was a little taken aback. After all, the stadium was Jacksonville’s primary resource in their effort to lure a team. Irsay did move, to Indianapolis, and Jacksonville did build a new stadium, for an expansion team instead of a relocation.
After an inferior Cincinnati Bengals team beat San Diego in the AFC Championship game at home in sub-zero weather, there was a movement a foot in the NFL to play the championship games at neutral sites. Although the idea never flew, Jacksonville was asked several times to make a preliminary Super Bowl bid, actually angling as a potential championship game site.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse was a huge proponent of Jacksonville. I ran into him at the Tampa airport one night and he engaged me in a conversation about the city’s potential. We talked for a half hour about what could be done based on the political and social landscape surrounding the city at the time. Culverhouse liked Jacksonville, had lived in North Florida, and was the city’s biggest ally. (Even though when awarded an NFL franchise, he put it in Tampa.)
Godbold was a visionary as the mayor, and fulfilled the requirement of also holding the unofficial office of “best friend of the city.” He was encumbered by a lack of resources, and a lack of full support of some movers and shakers in Jacksonville who wanted to remain a sleepy South Georgia stop-over. Jacksonville had barely over 200-thousand residents when Godbold began his NFL quest. His dalliance with the USFL was a year late because he heeded the warning of a local columnist to stay away from the rogue league for fear it would anger the imperial NFL.
To my surprise, Mayor Godbold pulled me into the NFL owners’ meeting room when Jacksonville was asked to make their Super Bowl bid presentation. (Obviously before they had rules about this stuff) Jake was persuasive, and the presentation was slick. The normal questions about hotel rooms were raised, and Culverhouse slowly stood and gave a testimonial about Godbold’s commitment, Jacksonville’s potential and how the city could be always counted on to be a ‘friend” to the league. It was pretty heady stuff, but nothing got done.
Actually the Michael Jackson tour deal did get done at those meetings. I was walking down the hall of the hotel in Washington, D.C. with Jake when we ran into Billy Sullivan, the owner of the New England Patriots. “How about holding a Jackson’s concert in Jacksonville,” Sullivan asked, half joking. Godbold asked me what I knew about Michael Jackson, then the hottest performer on the planet and he said, “wait right here.” Twenty-five minutes later, Godbold emerged from a room with Sullivan and whispered to me, “the deal’s done, we’re getting the Jackson’s at the Gator Bowl for three shows. Do you think that’s good?” I laughed out loud, told the Mayor he was a genius and immediately called the newsroom.
Larry Jaffe was the point man for Godbold and the city of Jacksonville in its bid to get in front of the NFL. Jaffe was at a preliminary meeting with league officials in San Francisco when he and his associates came up with the idea of cruise ships on the river to supplement the hotel rooms. During a meeting with Pete Roselle’s top assistant Don Weiss, and the Special projects coordinator, Jim Steeg, whose job it is to run the Super Bowl, Jaffe laid out his plan and received the appropriately polite response. As Weiss and Steeg got up to leave, Jaffe blurted out, “has anybody told you about the cruise ships?” Simultaneously, Weiss and Steeg sat back down and asked “what cruise ships?” Jaffe explained the idea to augment the city with hotel rooms provided by cruise ships, and the idea was born. It wasn’t universally accepted, and in fact it was ridiculed at the time both within and outside the NFL. The success of cruise ships as “floating hosts’ at the Barcelona and Sydney Olympics made them a viable option for Jacksonville’s Super Bowl bid. The city was making inroads, but neither a team nor the Super Bowl seemed on the horizon.
Still, some city leaders persevered.
Godbold called me during the inaugural USFL season to ask, “Did we miss something here?” “Yes,” I replied, “but you can fix it.”
Six weeks later, my phone rang again, it was the Mayor saying he had somebody he wanted me to talk with.
“Hi Sam, this is Fred Bullard,” said the voice on the other end.
“Mr. Bullard, are you going to try and put a USFL team here?” I asked.
“Not try,” he replied, “it’s going to happen.”
“Don’t jerk us around,” I snapped into the phone. (I’m pretty embarrassed by this now but I was young and stupid at the time. I’m just not young anymore)
“We’ve been jerked around enough, don’t lead us down some path that comes up empty because we’re really not going to like it.”
“Don’t worry,” Bullard allowed.
“Do you have this kind of money Mr. Bullard?” I demanded.
“It’s going to take something like $13 million to get this thing done” (Perhaps I should have had my head examined immediately afterwards)
“I think we can handle it,” was the coolly confident response.
Jacksonville had just gone through a protracted flirtation with John Mecom, the owner of the New Orleans Saints. Moving the Saints to Jacksonville was all but a done deal, but Mecom wanted out from under some of his losing buildings and other properties in Louisiana. In one meeting, a local businessman threw his checkbook on the table and said, “I’ll write a check for $50 million right now for the team, you can keep the rest.” Mecom was looking for about $75 million for the whole deal. He mulled it over and eventually rejected the partial sell off, selling the team to car dealer Tom Benson.
So Bullard brought an expansion USFL team to town, climbing on the roof of some television satellite production facility in Denver with me and Larry Csonka, his General Manager, to make the formal announcement. The USFL Bulls were snake bit on the field, but fans showed up, and the NFL noticed. From that wasteland that had the PGA TOUR headquarters and little else, an identity was emerging. Passionate about sports when the product was legitimate and willing to go the extra mile to get things done.
Getting an NFL franchise turned out to be a compilation of a lot of things, not the least of those the involvement of Wayne Weaver. Mayor Ed Austin and some of the heavyweights in town tried to kill the deal off, but it seemed to have a life of it’s own. The dream, the idea of moving to the top rung among cities wouldn’t go away. Even at the last minute, the NFL owners asked Weaver if he wouldn’t really rather be an owner in St. Louis. He declined, citing the contract and committment he made to Jacksonville. His popularity among the owners was the deciding factor to bring a team to Jacksonville.
Now, the NFL will bring it’s biggest showcase to town. All from the seeds of one man and one dream. Jake Godbold always believed, and wanted people to feel better about themselves and the place they lived. He knew about the quality of life and couldn’t figure out why people were so down on his town.
It’s a long way from the “City that stinks” to “Super Bowl XXXIX.”