R.I.P. Ed Austin – A Man of Integrity

Posted: April 27, 2011 in Jacksonville Jaguars, NFL teams, sports, sports teams
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It’s easy to talk about being a man of principle. The word integrity is used much too often in a me-first world where greed is, unfortunately, a way of life.

Both principle and integrity were lost last Saturday night when Ed Austin passed away in his sleep at the age of 84. The former Jacksonville mayor had both in abundance. Never did he reveal them more than in the summer of 1993 when he was our mayor.

It was during that summer when the biggest story on the First Coast was whether or not Jacksonville had a chance to get an NFL franchise. Touchdown Jacksonville had been in existence for more than a decade but its effort looked to be futile until a shoe salesman from Columbus, Ga., Wayne Weaver, joined the group. He was the man with enough money to have a controlling interest in an NFL franchise, something the current team owners at the time said was a must. Once Weaver came onboard, the biggest issue for Jacksonville was having an NFL-caliber stadium. The old Gator Bowl was a relic. There was talk of renovating the stadium, but everyone knew that meant practically building a new stadium. The estimated price was $125 million, a huge figure at the time.

No one wanted an NFL franchise for Jacksonville more than Mayor Austin. A former jock at Duke, Austin loved sports and he loved Jacksonville. He knew how much an NFL team would do for the city. He knew it would attract more businesses. He knew it would energize our city. He knew it would raise our self esteem, something that was badly needed. Jacksonville was known then as “the city that stinks”. It was considered more as part of South Georgia than as the gateway to Florida.

The news media beat the drums for a new stadium. Weaver and his colleagues insisted Jacksonville was on the verge of getting a team if the Gator Bowl was converted into an NFL palace. Even the biggest skeptics among us dared dream the impossible dream. The day in 1979 called “Colt Fever” — when then Baltimore Colts owner Robert Irsay landed on the Gator Bowl turf in a helicopter to the roar of an estimated 55,000 football fanatics — seemed to be light years in the past.

Weaver and then Touchdown Jacksonville President David Seldin began negotiations with the city to renovate the Gator Bowl. Keep in mind this was at a time when cities rolled over for pro sports team owners, willing to do almost anything to get a team. Weaver and Seldin, naturally, wanted the city – the taxpayers – to pick up most of the cost. Austin and the city council were willing partners.

Then negotiations hit a snag. A big snag. Weaver wanted the city to be responsible for part of the $125 million plus any overrun cost. The city council and Austin said no. They insisted the city’s liability have a cap. It was the right thing to do, but Austin and some council members were vilified by the media and many of our citizens (i.e. voters). It was said Austin was singled handily killing Jacksonville’s dream. Weaver publicly said negotiations were dead and Touchdown would not pursue getting an NFL franchise.

As much as Austin wanted a team, as much as he knew how much it would do for our city, he refused to be part of handing anyone a blank check to the taxpayers’ bank account. He knew how unpopular his stance was. He knew he’d taken on the role of villain. He knew his days in politics likely were over.

But he stood his ground. It would have been easy for him to roll over and let some future mayor deal with the problems. I thought at the time he looked even taller than his 6-foot-4 frame.

The next 7 to 10 days were dominated by water-cooler talk of how the dream had turned into a nightmare. Austin, however, didn’t give up. He worked tirelessly behind closed doors and finally a deal was struck. The city would take some responsibility for overrun costs but there would be a cap.

Weaver announced Touchdown Jacksonville was back in business. Austin went to work. He, along with then Times-Union publisher Carl Cannon and many other business leaders, helped put together a 10-day blitz to secure commitments for 10,000 club seats. He was part of a five-man committee that made Jacksonville’s official pitch to the NFL expansion committee.

Chet Fussman, executive sports editor of the Times-Union, wrote earlier this week how excited Austin was Nov. 30, 1993 when our city was awarded an NFL franchise, beating out Baltimore and St. Louis. Fussman quoted Seldin as saying, “He (Austin) jumped in the air numerous times, punching his fists in the air and twirling around. He was overjoyed.”

Austin’s long public career – public defender, state attorney and mayor – included many accomplishments from fighting organized crime to improving Jacksonville’s parks and recreation facilities. He mentored many of those who have gone on to lead our city. I considered him a friend although most of our conservations involved good natured kidding about him being a “Dukie” and me being a Tar Heel.

Indeed, his legacy touches many things, but I’ll always remember him most for sticking to his principles and showing the integrity we crave in our public servants when Jacksonville became a big league sports city. A lot of people played major roles in Jacksonville becoming an NFL city. Weaver, Seldin, former Mayor Jake Godbold, Rick Callett, Tom Petway, Ron Weaver and others deserve a lot credit.

And Ed Austin.

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