Big League City! 100 Years of Football in Jacksonville

July 21, 2014 31 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Big League City! 100 Years of Football in Jacksonville, the new book by Metro Jacksonville member Ken Bowen, chronicles Jacksonville’s unmatched gridiron fervor, from Florida’s first college football game held in the wake of the Great Fire of 1901, to the birth of the Florida-Georgia game and the Gator Bowl Classic, to the numerous professional teams from long-forgotten leagues that have called Jacksonville home, through the new era of Jaguars football currently underway. Years in the making with research drawn from thousands of sources and featuring an exclusive foreword written by Jaguars owner Shad Khan, Big League City! is the most in-depth book ever written on Jacksonville’s football history.

Jacksonville Sharks on defense. Image courtesy of WFL

The Sharks held their preseason training camp at Stetson University, in Fran Monaco’s hometown of Deland. 114 players attended, at a cost of nearly $250,000 to Monaco. Players were housed in the university’s dorm rooms and fraternity houses and ate three meals a day in the school’s dining hall. Monaco held a press conference at his restaurant, Log Cabin, and hinted that his restaurant partner Dick Butkus might also be interested in investing in the Sharks. “It will be Dick’s personal decision whether he joins us in the future,” Monaco told reporters. “Needless to say, I’d love to have him.” Following the training camp, the final Sharks roster featured an over 40 players with previous professional experience.

Monaco's Sharks – draped in black and silver uniforms inspired by the NFL's Oakland Raiders – opened the 1974 WFL season at home against the New York Stars.  59,112 rabid Jacksonville fans packed the Gator Bowl for the “nationally televised” contest. Gary Davidson calls it one of his favorite moments in league history.

Opening night wasn’t without its problems, however. Shortly after halftime, the stadium's generator caught fire, cutting off power to the field lights for over twenty minutes. Shrouded in darkness, Bud Asher wondered if the outage wasn't a sign of trouble ahead. When the lights came back on, Sharks guard O.Z. White recovered a fumble, leading Jacksonville to a 14-7 a victory in their inaugural game.

Waving the WFL's signature gold and orange ball above his head, Sharks linebacker Rich Thomann soaked in the cheers from the massive Gator Bowl crowd, shouting, “I don't think Notre Dame has a greater spirit than the Jacksonville Sharks!”

The team drew another massive crowd of 46,780 for their second home game, a contest that featured an omen ever more unsettling than the blackout. Early in the third quarter, a thunderous boom sounded outside the stadium. Mid-play, a cargo ship anchored in the St. Johns River had exploded into flames. Fans flocked to the top of the stadium to watch firefighters battle the blaze as the Sharks fought a losing battle against the Southern California Sun down below on the field.

Though losses would continue to pile up as the season progressed, local support for the franchise continued to be impressive. Former Jacksonville Sharks running back Tommy Durrance remembers, “We had 30,000 or 40,000 fans a game; they really enjoyed the team and the players. The town didn't have any professional sports teams, and when the WFL came to town the fans went wild.”

One of the most memorable, if not surreal, moments in franchise history came on August 9, 1974, when the Sharks hosted the Hawaiians at the Gator Bowl. 43,869 fans flocked to the stadium in hopes of seeing the 1-3 Sharks pick up an important home win. When it came time for the game to begin, instead of the customary kickoff music, the Gator Bowl’s audio switched to a breaking news report from Washington. Over 40,000 stunned Jacksonville fans listened in silence over tinny stadium speakers as President Richard Nixon announced to the nation that he would be resigning his post as President. Slowly, the crowd erupted into applause. A photo of Jacksonville Sharks cheerleaders weeping in the aftermath of Nixon’s resignation made the national news wire and appeared in dozens of newspapers across the country the next day.

Jacksonville Sharks cheerleaders react to President Nixon's resignation. Image courtesy of United Press.

As the season progressed, the Sharks continued to enjoy strong turnouts at the Gator Bowl. Unfortunately, the validity of the Sharks’ impressive attendance numbers would soon come into question.

Controversy erupted when reports leaked that, at the suggestion of the league, many WFL teams – including the Jacksonville Sharks – were giving away tens of thousands of free tickets in an effort to inflate their attendance figures. For the Sharks’ first two home games alone, Monaco and his wife had quietly distributed over 30,000 free tickets and 14,000 deeply discounted tickets to local supermarkets and youth sports leagues. When questioned by reporters, an increasingly tense Monaco did not deny the allegations, angrily defending the free ticket distribution as a promotional tactic. "Why shouldn't I be allowed to let in the youth of Jacksonville," he said. "Let's not forget that it's my money, my worry, and my expenses going into this venture."

Though league owners certainly had the right to hand out free tickets if they chose, the WFL found itself caught in a lie after repeatedly denying that any ticket papering had taken place. A more established league may have been able to deflect the incident, but for the upstart WFL, it was an instant credibility killer.

The Sharks averaged over 33,000 fans a game, but the team operated deeply in the red, often not collecting enough at the gate to even cover the Gator Bowl’s minimum $7,500 rental fee (season ticket sales were not included in gate receipts). With revenue not coming in like expected, Monaco was forced to personally bankroll nearly $2 million in team payroll out of his own savings account. Other WFL franchises were under similar financial strain, a situation made worse by the WFL front office's poor financial management, lack of transparency, and unequal treatment of franchise owners.

Sharks head coach Bud Asher  knew something was wrong when Monaco pulled him aside one afternoon after practice to ask for a $27,000 loan to help cover team payroll for the week. The loan, Monaco assured Asher, would be promptly paid back out of gate receipts for the next Sharks home game. Asher agreed to lend Monaco the money, and 48 hours later, he was fired by Monaco. Multiple rumors persisted as to why Asher was fired by the Sharks, with some even suggesting that Asher was fired because of his constant complaints about Douglas Monaco’s poodle.

In actuality, two assistant coaches and five players had secretly gone to Monaco's home in Deland to complain about Asher. One assistant coach in particular, former Kansas City Chief's Hall of Fame defensive back Johnny Robinson, had butted heads with Asher from day one. And players didn’t respect Asher's football resume and felt he treated them like a high school squad rather than a group of professional athletes. Asher argued that between having to mediate silly fights between team members and combat Monaco's constant meddling with play calling, there wasn't much time left to actually coach the team.

When Monaco was asked by a Gainesville Sun reporter about his previous statements that Asher would be his head coach as long as he owned the franchise, Monaco growled, "It's none of your damn business," and attempted to have the reporter barred from the Gator Bowl's press box.

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