As if losing out to Charlotte were not bad enough

December 01, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

OK, which is it -- funny nose and glasses or a bag over the head? I mean, how can we show our faces in public now?

Jacksonville?

We lose the NFL expansion race to Jacksonville?

This is no longer about football. It's about civic pride. Do we have any left?

OK, losing to Charlotte was embarrassing enough. But Charlotte was emblematic of the New South and had lots of banks and, I don't know, it was perceived to be a hot city, particularly if your idea of a night out on the town is to stand in front of an automatic teller machine.

But Jacksonville? Jacksonville makes Charlotte look like Paris. People in Jacksonville -- or, as it is often called, the Gary, Indiana, of the South -- dream of someday saving enough money to visit Charlotte.

Can somebody explain to me what happened? Was the NFL looking for a small, dumpy city with no TV market, no sports history and a decrepit stadium?

The official explanation was that they really like the NFL in Jacksonville, and, besides, you can't have too many franchises in the South, given the great lack of Stuckey's restaurants elsewhere.

Jacksonville? Why not Biloxi, Miss.?

Jackson Hole. Jackson Square. Jackson Browne, maybe. Not Jacksonville. Couldn't be.

As it happens, I have some inside information on what took place behind closed doors yesterday. A source very close to the owners told me one of three things must have happened:

* After several rounds of Budweisers, they picked the name out of a hat.

* In the middle of the meeting, shoe magnate and now Jacksonville team owner J. Wayne Weaver shouted out: "Free pumps for everyone."

* It's a wild practical joke on the part of the zany NFL owners, and tomorrow they'll name the real winner.

There has to be some logic behind the NFL's decision.

Did we just not do enough in Baltimore to impress the NFL? As far as I can tell, the only other thing we could have done was to knock down the statue of George Washington and replace it with one of NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

I'm trying to get this into my head. Jacksonville. Jacksonville. Jacksonville. Still doesn't work.

What were the criteria?

Jacksonville is the largest American city outside Alaska. That's in square miles. Montana is big in much the same way.

If you're counting actual people, the town is about 40 percent the size of Baltimore or St Louis. And geography couldn't have helped them. They're now the third team in Florida and in competition with Atlanta and Charlotte for the rest of the Southern market.

Baltimore and St. Louis were apparently too big. It's a good thing New York and L.A. already have teams. In the next expansion race, look for Bangor, Maine, and Fresno, Calif.

Let me tell you about Jacksonville. It is to Florida as a trailer park is to the Plaza. It's the place you drive through, or, if you're lucky, around. Jacksonville is on the way to somewhere else.

It's right on I-95, and the biggest problem with living there is the whiplash effect as the cars whiz by, heading toward Miami, which is 350 miles to the south.

Yes, Florida is America's vacationland. Bring your bathing suit, tanning oil and, of course, a flak jacket.

But when you think of Florida, you think Miami, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Daytona Beach, Boca Raton, West Palm, Tampa, St. Pete, St. Augustine, a few other saints and a lot of other beaches.

You never think Jacksonville, which should be in Georgia. Of course, some people stop there. I once stopped there, to ask directions to Disney World.

Jacksonville doesn't even get the idea of Florida. It's chilly in the winter, nightly temperatures dipping into the low 40s.

Jacksonville is meant to be someplace not quite good enough. In fact, I think that's the town's motto.

The city first got our attention back in '79 when Bob Irsay, riding in a helicopter, landed in the middle of the Gator Bowl (when it's refurbished and made larger, will they call it the Alligator Bowl?) to the delight of 50,000 cheering people. That's when Jacksonville tried to steal our (then) Colts. The mayor called it the greatest event in the city's history. Sadly, it was.

Until now. Now, they've got an NFL team. We don't.

Which means, either we're crazy or the NFL is.

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