The head in the New York Times on Dec. 1, 1993:
“NFL Expansion Surprise: Jacksonville Jaguars.”
Surprise? It was a shock then and remains — 25 years later, as the Jaguars prepare to face the New England Patriots in Foxboro Sunday in the AFC title game — a mistake that destroyed football in one city and set the NFL up as a mom-and-pop corner grocery in a city that had no business getting an NFL franchise.
Those few Jaguars fans who have shown up in recent years at the EverBank Field to sit in seats that weren’t covered over to avoid pictures of an empty stadium can thank one man in particular for football in Jacksonville — the late Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke.
It was Cooke’s pressure on former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue — a Redskins season ticket holder — that ultimately led to the league bypassing a strong Baltimore expansion bid and instead choosing a minor league city (a city that’s lost numerous home dates in recent years in favor of the NFL’s plan to play games in London).
That set off a chain of events that led Art Modell to move the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore three years later, ripping apart one of the strongest NFL cities in the league in Cleveland, which still hasn’t recovered despite being awarded its own expansion franchise in 1999.
This was the reaction when Tagliabue announced that Jacksonville would be awarded the NFL’s second expansion bid in 1993. A month earlier, one team had already been named, the Carolina Panthers.
“In a totally unexpected move, the National Football League awarded an expansion franchise today to Jacksonville, Fla., a city that only last summer dropped out of the bidding and as recently as a month ago was considered a long shot behind St. Louis and Baltimore,” the New York Times reported.
It was unexpected because at the time, Baltimore had 2.4 million metropolitan area residents, compared to less than 1 million for Jacksonville. It was expected because Baltimore was 22nd television market in the country, compared to 54th for Jacksonville.
Then again, Baltimore didn’t have two of the biggest fans they needed — Tagliabue and another little-known Redskins fan at NFL headquarters growing up — ironically, a former Baltimore Colts fan named Roger Goodell.
Turns out Tagliabue and Goodell were big Jacksonville Jaguars fans.
“Jacksonville was apparently aided greatly by strong recent support from such league officials as Tagliabue; Neil Austrian, the president, and Roger Goodell, the vice president for operations. It also benefited from the negatives associated with the other bidding cities,” the Times reported.
The biggest negative? Jack Kent Cooke and the Washington Redskins.
It was no secret that privately Cooke had opposed the return of NFL football to Baltimore after the Colts left town in 1984. That opposition ramped up when it appeared Baltimore was on the brink of getting an expansion team in 1993 — the same time Cooke was making plans for a new Redskins stadium in Laurel, Maryland, just north of the District.
Jon Morgan, in his excellent book, “Glory for Sale: Fans, Dollars and the new NFL,” wrote that several days before the final owners meeting on the second expansion franchise, Cooke wrote to Tagliabue saying he had “given up trying to build a stadium in Washington or Virginia. Laurel was now his preferred option. And, he noted, about half of his season-ticket holders lived in Maryland.
Tagliabue read Cooke’s letter to the owners’ expansion and finance committees the day of the vote.
“The message had to be clear,” Morgan wrote. “Putting a team in his backyard, even his newly designated backyard, would violate whatever … code of loyalty still existed among owners.”
As we know, Cooke’s Laurel bid failed and he settled on the Landover, Md., site that is now FedEx Field — likely in its final years as the Redskins home.
Ironically, it was the presence of FedEx Field that finally helped Baltimore secure a franchise when the Browns moved to Baltimore in 1996. Cooke had threatened to oppose the move, but then-governor Parris Glendening countered by threatening to pull the $70 million the state pledged for infrastructure costs for Cooke’s new stadium.
Meanwhile, while Jacksonville fans have resurfaced with their team’s postseason success, it is a tenuous revival. After a 3-2 record in five games this season, including a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, they had their lowest attendance —56,000 — since owner Shad Khan purchased the team in 2011.
• Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.
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