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On November 30th, 1993, Jacksonville, Florida was awarded the NFL’s 30th franchise. Local reporters still remember it as the most electric night in city history. Fireworks exploded over the St. Johns River, the party at the Jacksonville Landing lasted until daybreak, and future mayor John Delaney ran through his downtown office shouting “Big League City!” Though many in the national media considered Jacksonville’s improbable expansion victory over St. Louis, Oakland, and Baltimore to be one of the greatest upsets in sports history, to locals, it was truly the culmination of their city’s century-long love affair with the sport of football.

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.

What follows in an excerpt from Big League City! , detailing the meteoric rise and chaotic fall of Jacksonville’s first true professional football team, the Jacksonville Sharks of the turbulent World Football League. Though the Sharks were short-lived, this 1974 franchise served as an important stepping stone toward Jacksonville winning an NFL expansion franchise two decades later.?

Jacksonville’s World Football League Sharks

Images courtesy of WFLFilms.com

The worst day of Fran Monaco’s life began like any other. The 5’-2” Florida businessman rolled out of a hotel bed in Houston, enjoyed a light breakfast with his beloved wife Douglas, and readied himself for a weekend of Super Bowl festivities in Texas. Monaco loved football, and was fortunate enough to have traveled to every Super Bowl to date after his lucrative collection of medical supply laboratories in Deland had made him a millionaire several times over. Monaco had even partnered with Chicago Bears legend Dick Butkus to open a central Florida steakhouse, Log Cabin, several years earlier, where he frequently rubbed elbows with the NFL’s elite.

Yes, in January 1974, Fran Monaco was on top of the world.

That night, as Monaco mingled with friends at a Houston Super Bowl party, a stranger approached from the shadows. Perhaps Monaco was targeted, or perhaps he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, but soon, the mysterious gentleman would present him with an offer that would, within one year, not only cost Monaco his reputation and fortune, but would also bring his wife to death’s door.

Years later, when recalling that evening, Monaco said with a broken voice, “I wish I had never gone to Houston that January… but I did.”

The stranger’s offer was simple:

Get in on the ground floor of the forthcoming World Football League. Purchase a franchise while prices were low, and become rich, famous, and powerful beyond your wildest dreams. The stranger’s proposition was risky. The WFL’s business plan was constantly changing, and the league’s financing was so tenuous that St. Petersburg’s Evening Independent joked, “The World Football League has an easier time finding players than accountants.”

Monaco’s interest was piqued, however, and he was quickly referred up the ladder to other WFL investors who formally offered him a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to purchase one of the league’s first twelve franchises. For a mere $450,000, Monaco would gain exclusive territorial rights over Florida and could locate his franchise anywhere in the state that he chose.

Monaco probably should have thought it over a little bit longer and heeded the advice of his inner circle, but the lure of professional sports ownership was simply too great. “Look, my CPA and my lawyer both advised me against building the Deland laboratory. Now I have three,” he told reporters. Within six short months of that unfortunate evening, Monaco’s Jacksonville franchise would play its first home game at the Gator Bowl.

Jacksonville’s first pro football franchise – the Jacksonville Sharks – arrived with great fanfare that spring. Fireworks, balloons, and confetti marked the occasion. For a city that had suffered through 50 years of failed attempts to lure pro football to downtown’s north bank, the Sharks were a godsend. Jacksonville Mayor Hans Tanzler called it, “a dream come true.”

A short 14 weeks later, that dream would descend into nightmare.

The Sharks would be repossessed by the WFL. Fran Monaco would be forced into bankruptcy and thrown out of the league. The teams’ only potential investor was blacklisted by the WFL and later arraigned on over 20 federal charges, including five counts of grand larceny. Players would go without pay. The head coach would sue the franchise. And creditors would swoop in to take the few tangible assets the Sharks had left, including helmets, pads, jerseys, blocking sleds, and tackling dummies.

In fact, the franchise’s tenure in the city can perhaps best be summed up by once hopeful Mayor Tanzler’s simple words on the team in the fall of 1974:

“The situation is a disgrace.”

Gary Davidson, founder of the WFL, was no stranger to pioneering new sports leagues. His American Basketball Association and World Hockey Association both proved incredibly successful, with several teams from each respective league eventually merging into the NBA and NHL. Davidson’s goal with the WFL was to field professional football teams in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, with future expansion teams ultimately being added in Europe and Asia.

At the time, the NFL had the lowest pay scale of any of the four major sports, and Davidson believed that if the WFL could offer higher salaries than his competition (sometimes even in the form of multi-million dollar personal service contracts guaranteed even if the league were to fold), players may be persuaded to jump ship from the NFL. Davidson assembled a group of investors and began making preliminary plans for his new league.

The WFL’s unique game ball.

Had the WFL launched in 1975 as Davidson originally intended, perhaps the league would have lasted longer than a year and a half. Instead, a strike by the NFL Players Association in July 1974 coupled with rumors that another upstart league was in the planning stages forced Davidson into launching a year earlier than he had originally intended. “Gary, your concept is good, but your timing is terrible,” Davidson recalls being told by a wealthy investor. That summer, the economy was in the gutter, with a prime interest rate of 15%, widespread oil embargos, some of the highest foreclosure rates in U.S. history, and a Dow Jones Industrial Average hovering near 550.

Twelve franchises, all within the United States, were established in time for the 1974 season, and a $1.5 million television contract was signed with a patchwork of regional networks. Sports Illustrated readied a major feature on the new league, and shot a magazine cover featuring Gary Davidson along with two Honolulu Hawaiians players, Calvin Hill and Ted Kwalick. Minutes after the magazine went to print, Hank Aaron hit his 714th home run. The cover was quickly changed, but the few prints that survive are among the rarest in sports magazine history.

Monaco originally favored Tampa for his WFL franchise, but NFL expansion into Florida’s Bay Area led to his decision that the new team would call Jacksonville’s Gator Bowl its home. “In selecting Jacksonville as the home of the Sharks,” Monaco said, “I took many factors into consideration. Two of the foremost reasons are the fans of Jacksonville and the great Gator Bowl facility, which is surely one of the finest stadiums in the nation.”

The Florida Tourist Board was outraged by Monaco’s decision to call his franchise the Sharks, fearing the name may be detrimental to tourism at Florida’s beaches. The Board aggressively petitioned for a name change, suggesting alternates such as the Stingrays and the Suns, but Monaco refused, insisting that his team would only be known as the Jacksonville Sharks.

Monaco appointed his wife Douglas as second in command for the Sharks. What she lacked in football experience, she more than made up for with her love of dogs. Douglas Monaco’s habit of spending home games walking her poodle up and down the sideline in front of the Sharks bench proved particularly infuriating to the team’s coaching staff.

Bud Asher, a personal friend of Fran Monaco’s that he described as “a combination of Vince Lombardi and Don Schula,” would serve as the inaugural head coach of the Jacksonville Sharks. In addition to his successful run coaching the Southern Professional Football League’s Daytona Beach Thunderbirds, Asher’s eclectic resume also included stints as talent scout for the Oakland Raiders, municipal judge, owner of several hotels and a geriatric hospital, and former coach of a New Smyrna Beach high school football team. Locals were unimpressed with Asher, soundly booing him during pregame introductions, but Monaco repeatedly stressed that as long as there were Jacksonville Sharks, Bud Asher would be his coach.

Two weeks before the season began, the WFL finalized a 19-week, 20-game regular season for each franchise, with games taking place between July and November. Most games would be held on Wednesday nights (or Sunday for the league’s Hawaii franchise), and a special nationally televised game would be take place each Thursday night.

Jacksonville Sharks on defense. Image courtesy of WFL Films.com

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.

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.”</i>

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 Amazon.com. Hard copy buyers receive the Kindle e-book for free. Big League City! is also available at Barnes N’ Noble.com, Books-A-Million.com, 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