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.

By late August, the writing was on the wall for the Sharks.  Players had not been paid in over a month, and attendance was sagging league-wide. Former Jacksonville Sharks running back Tommy Durrance noted in an interview with the WFL Charlotte Hornets fan page just how bad things had gotten both on and off the field:

“I remember one game vividly. JFK Stadium, Philadelphia... We had traveled up there and when we landed at the airport… there were all these school busses lined up to take us to the stadium. So, here we are, grown men, lining up to pile into these school buses. I'm in my seat and I look out the window and over across the parking lot there is Fran Monaco and his whole entourage getting into a couple of big white stretch limousines. We hadn't been paid in four or five weeks, and to see them climbing into these big luxury cars...well, some guys didn't take to kindly to that. There were some harsh words.

When we got to the stadium it was huge. It held over 100,000 fans. We learned that there had been a horse show there the night before, the Royal Lipizzan Stallions, and the field was all torn up and there were big piles of horse manure all over it...and that's how we played the game that night. Running and tackling through all of that. There was probably 3,000 or 4,000 people in the stands and they were all sitting behind our bench. All night long these drunk guys would curse us out and throw beer cans at us- it was something. Fans would come down on to the field, come up behind the bench and steal things and then run back up into the stands. All night long this sort of stuff went on. We ended up tied at the end of the game and went into overtime. The overtime period went on forever- we eventually lost 41-22, and the game ended at about 1 or 2 in the morning. I remember walking off the field that night- I was beat.”

In early September, a nervous, increasingly desperate Monaco attempted to sell the Sharks. First to Atlanta, and then Washington, and then Cleveland. Investors in all three cities expressed initial interest, but were quickly scared off by Monaco's $4.5 million asking price.

“I've tried my dead level best to do all I can to keep this team afloat,” Monaco told reporters, cryptically adding, “You believe in God, don't you? Then say a little prayer for us.”

When all hope seemed lost, a potential miracle investor surfaced. New York stockbroker William Pease allegedly met the Sharks on their charter flight back from Philadelphia with a $2.5 million check in hand.  Monaco was prepared to sell partial, if not full, ownership of the franchise. Unfortunately, William Pease had made enemies in several states, including Florida, allegedly swindling two men in a land deal. An FBI investigation into his business affairs led to 20 charges being filed against Pease, causing WFL Commissioner Gary Davidson to wipe his hands of him entirely, declaring, “As far as the WFL is concerned, there is not now, nor has there ever been any relationship whatsoever between us and William Pease.” An alternate $350,000 offer, fronted by Dick Butkus, was turned down by Davidson for being too low.

With families to feed and no paychecks coming in, Sharks players finally reached their breaking point. The team wrote a letter to the WFL Commissioner detailing their situation and demanding the back pay they were owed. Though payroll was Monaco's responsibility, player contracts were bonded by the WFL, guaranteeing player salaries from the league even if a franchise was to fold. If Sharks players did not receive payment in full, they threatened, the team would not travel to their next game in California. They also reserved the right to begin picketing WFL games if necessary.

The league was left with no choice but to expel Fran Monaco from the WFL and take over operations of the Sharks in September. Monaco, who had lost nearly $2.7 million on the Sharks, declared bankruptcy and was ordered by a Florida bankruptcy court to shutter his four laboratories and surrender the keys to the state. When the WFL was unable to find a credible buyer for the Sharks, the team's remaining games (including three home games that season ticket holders had already paid for) were canceled and the team was annexed from the league. The WFL’s championship game, The World Bowl, which Monaco had successfully lobbied to be held in the Gator Bowl rather than in Hawaii, Southern California, Memphis, or Birmingham, was stripped from Jacksonville and relocated to Alabama. On the eve of the Sharks dissolution, WFL Commissioner Gary Davidson told reporters, “Present ownership has been unable to meet financial obligations for several weeks and the league can no longer carry the team’s operation and player contracts.”

What was perhaps most impressive about the Sharks brief run in Jacksonville was the fierce loyalty the team inspired from its fans. Despite the circus surrounding the franchise, locals stuck by the team until the bitter end. The Sharks routinely drew large, enthusiastic crowds to their home games. And players repaid the city for its support by never letting outside influences affect their performance on the field. Even when owed over $250,000 in back pay, Jacksonville players still fought for every last yard, and appeared visibly devastated by close losses up until the very end of the team's existence.

Fran Monaco was never a particularly likable man. He stalked the sidelines during games with his poodle, barking orders to coaches and players. He was arrogant with the local media, complaining constantly about what he perceived as a lack of coverage. And he bashed Jacksonville fans for their lack of support, even when 60,000 fans would show up for two home games in less than a week.

Monaco certainly deserves a share of the blame for the Sharks’ rapid implosion. Sharks advertising manager John Gain put it rather bluntly when he stated “We had a man who had no absolutely no business making executive decisions. If you want to know what killed the Sharks, it was lack of management and lack of dollars. I don’t think anybody really knows how much money we lost. We had no bookkeeper, no ticket manager, no nothing. It was a family operation run out of a cigar box. Trouble is, the box was always empty.”

But Monaco often receives sole blame for running the Sharks into the ground when the truth is, there was plenty of blame to go around. The WFL deliberately misled Monaco about the financial solvency of several of his fellow owners, leaving him and the other owners to foot the bill when those franchises folded. In fact, four of the league’s franchises were secretly given away by Gary Davidson for free. “I paid for mine,” Monaco said. “And I have the receipt to prove it.” The territorial rights for Florida that Monaco paid dearly for when he purchased a franchise were never enforced by the league, and Monaco didn’t receive a dime of the $800,000 royalty he was promised when Orlando was given a team. And Jacksonville itself had cut off a vital revenue stream for Monaco – over half a million dollars, he estimated –  by caving to local religious influence and making the Sharks the only franchise in the WFL prohibited from selling beer at their home games.

In the end though, it was Fran Monaco that lost everything.

He lost his businesses.

He lost his good name.

And worst of all, stress and tension from the Sharks’ deterioration caused a complete breakdown of his beloved wife's health, leaving her hospitalized for months at Duke University's medical center.

Reflecting back on his decision to purchase the Sharks, Monaco said softly, “I wish the year 1974 had never come around on the calendar.”

“I had an application in for an NFL club,” he added. “I wish I'd waited. I wish I hadn't even gone to Houston that January. But I did.”

“Never in my life have I had a bad name.  I'd always worked hard, paid my bills, and enjoyed a good reputation. And then this happened," he said, his voice trailing off.

 "It truly has been like a nightmare.”

Article by Ken Bowen

Author's Note:

Author Ken Bowen

I’m not exaggerating when I say that, without Metro Jacksonville, Big League City! would have never been written. Since moving to Jacksonville in 2006, this incredible site and the wonderful people that both run and populate it have instilled in me a true love and appreciation of our great city. We all share the common goal of utilizing our unique talents in whatever way we can in order to help Jacksonville reach its full potential as a world class city, and part of that goal has to involve fully embracing and celebrating our rich history. Big League City! is my small way of contributing to that cause.

Big League City! is a 460 page love letter to Jacksonville, densely packed with small details and stories that have not been widely reported anywhere else. In addition to being the most definitive history of football in Jacksonville ever written, the book celebrates all aspects of life in Jacksonville over the last century. If you are interested in the biggest sports superstars in American history, Big League City! details Jacksonville cameos of athletes like Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Michael Jordan, and Lebron James. If you are interested in music, Big League City! chronicles legendary Jacksonville performances by artists as diverse as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Luciano Pavarotti, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley, and Garth Brooks, and also features the most detailed history of the Jacksonville Coliseum ever published. Inside my book, you’ll find fascinating details about the design and construction of some of the city’s most iconic architecture, a timeline of Jacksonville’s infamous civil rights clashes, and even a brief history of the University of North Florida. In short, Big League City! is a book will make everyone who reads it just a little bit prouder, more appreciative, and informed about this great city that we all share.

Big League City! 100 Years of Football in Jacksonville is available now at Hard copy buyers receive the Kindle e-book for free. Big League City! is also available at Barnes N’,, and in select locations around Jacksonville.

Further information, a detailed description of the book’s contents, and endorsements from advance readers such as former mayor John Delaney, the Times-Union’s Ryan O’Halloran, Metro Jacksonville’s Ennis Davis, and everyone’s favorite mascot Curtis “Jaxson de Ville” Dvorak, please visit the Amazon page linked below.

Order Your Copy of Big League City! Here

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