It was ironic that the Jaguars’ tour for more support came at the same time their former coach Tom Coughlin signed a two-year extension with the Giants — a team he’s won two Super Bowls with in the last five years.
Nonetheless, this isn’t the first time the Jaguars’ franchise has had to battle for attention in this football state.
The NFL had its doubts from the onset that a team in Jacksonville could lure eyes away from the state’s other two pro football teams in Tampa Bay and Miami. Plus, it also had to compete with the Sunshine State’s three major college football teams: Florida, Florida State and Miami. And then there’s Georgia sitting right on top of its head.
But the loyalty throughout the years for those institutions, the professional and collegiate ones, is also the reason why Jacksonville was given a chance when it was widely expected that St. Louis would be the city to join Charlotte as the NFL’s first expansion teams in 20 years. Florida is a football state.
Now, the Jaguars are resting their hopes in Gainesville being the football city that it is before these whispers of moving to L.A. potentially become open discussion.
Only a few hours removed from prized receiver and fifth-overall draft pick Justin Blackmon’s press conference for a second DUI, the organization quickly brushed its shoulders off and presented itself to Gator Nation. Former Gator and Jaguar legend Fred Taylor, ex-Gator and current Jaguars defensive end Jeremy Mincey and new head coach Mike Mularkey, another Florida alum, were among those who arrived in the Jaguars Caravan on Wednesday night.
“I think (the Jaguars can get a foothold in Gainesville). The fan base is tremendous,” Taylor told The Sun’s Robbie Andreu on Wednesday. “…As the organization continues to grow and establish the tradition we’re looking for, a lot of it is going to come from right here in this region, this area. We need the support, definitely.”
New team president Mark Lamping said he hopes the Jaguars can become a bigger part of a population that he says loves its football. The truth is, the city of Jacksonville has already been a big part of it for many years with the Gators’ annual rivalry game with the Bulldogs having been played there since 1933.
And, in turn, the Gators have been a part of the Jaguars’ relatively short history. There have been 10 Florida alums to play for Jacksonville in its 17 years in existence and UF has given the team its best player, Taylor, who’s sandwiched between Hall of Famers Thurman Thomas (14th) and John Riggins (16th) on the all-time rushing list.
As important as Taylor was to the team’s success then, his efforts on Wednesday to rally Jaguars fans in Gator country may turn out to be just as vital to a franchise looking for new life with a new president (Lamping), owner (Shahid Khan) and head coach (Mularkey). Although Gainesville is one of only seven stops for the Caravan on its tour, Lamping said Gainesville is one of the largest markets outside of Jacksonville within reasonable distance.
There’s reason to believe the Jaguars can spark the interest they’re searching for. The fans are there as evidenced by the 72,363 that crammed their stadium, which had a normal capacity of 67,246, to witness their first regular season game in 1995 (a 10-3 loss to the Oilers). There are the 71,139 who attended their first home playoff game in 1998 to see a 25-10 playoff win over the Patriots. And the 75,173 who watched the AFC’s No. 1 seed, the 14-2 Jaguars, drum the Dolphins 62-7 in 1999.
It would’ve been hard to imagine these tough times were coming when about 40,000 diehard Jaguar fans watched their team pull off a playoff upset win over the Broncos 30-27 in Denver from the JumboTrons of then-Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, then slept there until morning came to welcome them home.
The difference now is, those same fans don’t have as much to cheer about.
After four straight playoff appearances from 1996-1999 that included an AFC Championship appearance, the Jaguars have only made the playoffs two of the last 13 years. Since 2000, the team’s biggest win came in 2007 in a thrilling 31-29 win over the Steelers during Wild Card weekend.
I’ve had the privilege of covering Jaguars home games the last two years for The Sun, and I’ve been an NFL fan my whole life. I remember the “Cardiac Cats” setting the record for most wins by an expansion team (along with the Carolina Panthers that same year). The Jaguars made their name heard again the next year when they dealt the fans of their division foe, the Browns, a heartbreaking 24-21 loss, essentially kicking the team out of Cleveland with a game-winning field goal. That same year, they eliminated the Bills and quarterback Jim Kelly in what turned out to be the Hall of Famer’s last game.
With all that said, the Jaguars’ attempts to grab Gainesville’s attention won’t just shed light on Jacksonville’s staying power in the NFL. As unattractive as they may be now, perhaps the team and its former Gators are giving this city a last chance to endorse the closest whiff of pro football it will ever smell.