The JACKSONVILLE SHARKS could serve as the prototypical WFL franchise, demonstrating what was done correctly and the many areas of inadequacy that led to the demise of the team. The “good” included a professional coaching staff despite the appearance of ineptitude, many excellent players with a steely willingness to play hard through thick and thin, a professional playing venue, and solid community backing. The bad was encapsulated in the ownership’s inexperience, lack of preparedness, and absence of proper financing. Owner Fran Monaco has been described as “diminutive” with the implication that his drive to succeed in some way was attached to his lack of physical stature. Certainly it was important that he be able to top off his thriving string of medical diagnostic laboratories and medical supply mini-empire with the label of “Pro Football Owner.” He co-owned a DeLand, Florida steakhouse with Chicago Bear great Dick Butkus and thus was introduced to the world of pro football. In central Florida Monaco may have been a financial heavy hitter but he was not in a position to assume the costs of pro football ownership. His coach Bud Asher has through the years, been held to ridicule as a “former New Smyrna Beach High School coach” who was anointed as a pro coach to head this franchise, one that was initially tagged for Tampa. Asher however, had the pedigree of having worked with Sid Gillman and as a scout for Al Davis and his opinion on football personnel was highly respected. He had successfully coached two Florida franchises to championships in the Southern Football League and knew his way around a winning program. He also had some decent assistant coaches. Johnny Robinson, former KC Chief great and Hall Of Fame defensive back, Charlie Tate, the former University Of Miami head coach and most recently a New Orleans Saints assistant, and Howard Tippett, a long time assistant and coordinator at a string of southern powerhouses gave the Sharks good on-the-field knowledge. Asher was no one’s fool either as he held a law degree, was a city judge, and had reportedly already amassed his own fortune in real estate and motel ownership. Certainly the Sharks had the biggest, toughest, and most football accomplished equipment manager in Ronnie Butkus, Dick’s older brother who had been a standout at the University Of Illinois and had a brief stint with the St. Louis Cardinals. Jacksonville’s famed Gator Bowl, seating 70,000 plus was a terrific venue for this football-crazed part of Florida. Asher’s acumen helped to bring in a team with a strong southern flavor sure to attract those fans. Some of the better ones included running back Tommy Durrence, an All SEC performer from the University Of Florida who was a Daytona Beach local; tight end Dennis Hughes, and fullback Rickey Lake from Georgia; quarterback Kay Stephenson from Florida; and Jacksonville native Alvin Wyatt who had just wrapped up a five year NFL career.
Unfortunately, the huge attendance figures that were registered after the Sharks first two home games reflected a problem that had been discovered in a few of the other WFL cities. The raucous crowd of 59,110 fans that had attended the first game against the New York Stars, filling the Gator Bowl with cheers and boisterous applause and similar throng of 46,780 that came for the second home game against the Southern California Sun included less than 10,000 paying fans. Monaco and his trusted second-in-command, his wife Douglas, had papered the house with supermarket giveaways and free tickets to every civic organization within fifty miles of Jacksonville. Before this fact was revealed and while Asher prepared his 2-4 team for the Birmingham Americans, Monaco hit him up for a $28,000.00 “temporary” loan to make good on their payroll obligations. Believing that the team was playing “good football” and noting the enthusiastic home field attendance Asher took Monaco’s postdated check, to be drawn against the upcoming gate receipts as collateral. Within twenty-four hours Asher had been fired as head coach by Monaco and replaced by Tate. Asher did not earn his own significant amount of money by being anyone’s dummy. He also did his business with the same bank as the Sharks and through a bank executive, arranged to cash Monaco’s check the moment the gate receipts were deposited and thus Asher had immediate repayment of his loan. By August, Monaco’s money had run out. With players threatening to walk out after a month of non-payment of salaries, the league took over operation of the Sharks on September 22nd. Asher was still owed $82,000.00 on his contract and filed for a judgment against Monaco who responded by declaring bankruptcy. By October 9th, despite the best efforts of the players and coaches, the Jacksonville Sharks were “suspended” after compiling a 4-10 record. Despite what appeared to be a dismal won-lost ledger, the Sharks played exciting football with many of the losses by a few points that came in the waning moments of each game.
From the ashes of the Sharks came another WFL venture the following season and the continuation of a number of the football careers. Asher returned to NFL scouting and a very successful stint as a Florida high school coach. He topped this off with two terms as Mayor of Daytona Beach, making national headlines for not allowing rapper Eminem to perform within his city’s limits due to “profane lyrics.” Stephenson became the head coach of the Buffalo Bills. Keith Krepfle enjoyed seven good years with the Eagles at tight end and another with the Falcons. While most of the Sharks began and ended their pro careers in the WFL, some former NFL performers completed their playing days with the Sharks including Frank Cornish, Ron Lamb, Solomon Brannan, and Ike Lassiter. Defensive back Alvin Wyatt was certainly hoping for more. He had been an effective punt returner with the Raiders, then spent three years with the Bills. As a Jacksonville native who lived in the Daytona Beach area, he became the leader of the secondary for what he saw as his hometown team and electrified the crowd on opening night against the Stars as he scored on an 87 yard punt return.
Though Davidson supposedly designed all of the WFL uniforms, the Shark uniforms were reportedly modeled after the Oakland Raiders, a tribute to Al Davis because Asher respected him to such a great degree. The outfit was sharp and crisp with silver helmets, a white stripe flanked by black stripes, and an animated swimming shark on the sides of the helmet. With silver pants lined with a thick white stripe outlined with black, and black jerseys, white numbers trimmed in silver and white and silver sleeve stripes, the Sharks cut a professional and bold figure on the field. Their ultimate failure was due more to the ineptitude of ownership and administration than their level of play or the ability of the coaching staff. The fans of Jacksonville supported them and wanted a pro football team, spurring the populace on to another plunge with the WFL in 1975, acceptance of the USFL Bulls, and eventually the formation of the NFL Jaguars. Had the ownership been prepared to properly fund a professional operation and the WFL had a viable financial structure, the Sharks could have been successful.
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