Bob Sparks - 3/63 - SaintPetersBlog

Bob Sparks

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

One week out from NFL Draft, Dalvin Cook’s stock is dropping

With the NFL Draft only one week away, former Florida State star Dalvin Cook has gone from arguably the best back in the draft to possibly falling to the second round. After an underwhelming result at the NFL Scouting Combine, Cook’s stock appears to be dropping.

Before the Combine, Cook himself made the case the he was the best running back in the draft. The critics came out soon after, and Cook was no better than the third rated running back.

Florida State’s all-time leading rusher is now in the lower portion of the first round. Some of the mock drafts have him dropping out of the first round altogether.

LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey are now between top five and mid-first round picks ahead of Cook. FSU Coach Jimbo Fisher had a response to the critics.

“Turn the tape on,” said Fisher, quoted in the Orlando Sentinel. “How come all those fast guys couldn’t catch him? How did he run away from all those guys?”

Some discussion among a few scouts involves “off the field” issues with Cook. Some might remember misdemeanor charges in his past, but those were enough to have one NFL scout say he “trusts” Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon over Cook.

For those needing a reminder, Mixon is the guy who knocked out a college coed with one haymaker punch. If trusting Mixon over Cook is a prevailing attitude among the early drafting teams, it goes to show why they are drafting early. Those spots are reserved for losers.

Cook is now projected anywhere from the 15th selection to the second round. Defensive lineman DeMarcus Walker is projected as a second or possibly third round choice.

If he stays in the first round, Cook will be one of a very few from Florida programs who will hear their names called on Thursday night, when the first round will be conducted. Alabama, on the other hand, could have as many as five joining Commissioner Roger Goodell on the stage at Philadelphia City Hall.

The Florida Gators appear to have a first rounder in linebacker Jarrad Davis. Six of seven mock drafts reviewed have him as a late first round selection.

One of those projections had cornerback Teez Tabor and defensive tackle Caleb Brantley going in the first round, but both are more likely to be drafted in the second round on Friday.

Miami tight end David Njoku is likely to go in the second round, but a few believe he has first round potential. Quarterback Brad Kaaya will go no higher than the second round.

Despite the best analysis and projections, plenty of surprises are guaranteed.

 

Tie score in Legislature could leave Tampa Bay Rays big winners

In sports, a tie means no one wins. No one loses, either.

Sometimes, in politics, ties can turn out to be victories.

On Monday, the Florida Senate essentially handed the Tampa Bay Rays a win with a tie, after the Commerce and Tourism Committee voted 3-3 on a bill from Thonotosassa Republican Tom Lee, which prohibited pro sports facilities from using taxpayer funds.

With that, Lee’s bill was officially called out on strikes this Session.

Supporting Lee (who is not on the committee), were Tampa Republican Dana Young, Elkton Republican Travis Hutson, and Miami Democrat Jose Javier Rodriguez.

Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala voted against the bill, joined by Tallahassee Democrat Bill Montford and Panama City Republican George Gainer. Montford is committee chair; Gainer is its vice-chair.

Lee calls using state funds for sports facilities a “giveaway program.” He is looking to repeal the Sports Development Program, established in 2014 to help construct or improve structures.

Despite being a state law, the Legislature has yet to appropriate any funds for the program. Lee sought to get rid of a law that, as he sees it, has set aside $394 million for future use.

If Lee’s bill had somehow made it through (or manages to do so next year), the Rays have no choice but to begin looking even harder for a new home outside Florida.

For those claiming “millionaire, billionaire” owners can build their own stadiums, they can one day see how the Rays are doing in Charlotte, Buffalo, Las Vegas or wherever.

Stadiums are funded a penny at a time, not with $700 million checks. On rare occasions, stadiums are built with private funds.

A rare example is the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, where owner Stan Kroenke appears to be going into hock to the tune of $1 billion.

No one in Florida is going to do that for the Rays. No one.

St. Petersburg, Tampa and Clearwater combined cannot come anywhere near the market and TV money flowing in Los Angeles. The Rays, the local community, and the state represent a three-legged stool necessary as a foundation for a new home to keep the team.

Passing Lee’s bill would have removed one the stool’s three legs, as well as any real chance for the Rays to remain in Florida.

Stuart Sternberg and his partners cannot privately fund a new stadium, nor can they continue to operate in a 20th-century facility. It’s that simple.

Monday’s vote keeps alive a chance this team can get a facility that lets them, at a minimum, remain financially competitive with rivals. Pulling the state out of the process sends an unmistakable message to Major League Baseball that Florida’s elected leaders, especially those from Tampa Bay, cares little about baseball in the region.

While the final score was 3-3, there will be no extra innings this year, at least not for this bill. The Rays left the field as big winners.

And the Rays left the field big winners.

Frank Vogel to next Magic GM: “I can get along with anyone”

A difficult year is behind the Orlando Magic. For the fifth consecutive season they failed to make the playoffs.

During that span, the team had its worst five-year period ever with a record of 132-278. That cost General Manager Rob Hennigan and Assistant General Manager Scott Perry their jobs.

Orlando Coach Frank Vogel can certainly relate to being fired. Just 11 months ago, he was looking for a job after being let go by the Indiana Pacers after his team lost a tough, 7-game playoff series to Bismack Biyombo and the Toronto Raptors. Expectations are a bit higher with the Pacers.

The hopes were reasonably high in Orlando this season. They won 35 games last season and even with first-year Coach Scott Skiles’ departure, the front office thought the playoffs was a reasonable expectation. This year’s final spot in the Eastern Conference went to the 41-41 Chicago Bulls.

Hennigan brought in two high-profile players in Serge Ibaka and Biyombo to get them over the top. We now know that was an abject failure.

While Vogel should be safe for at least another year, one is never certain until the new general manager agrees or CEO Alex Martins says “give Vogel another year.”

During his final interview of the season, Vogel did not shy away from giving thumbs up on the two personnel moves. While both were in the works when Vogel arrived, he voiced support for both, while softly sharing his disappointment for what Orlando gave up.

“Everybody knows my affinity for Victor Oladipo; he was one of the reasons I took the job,” Vogel said. “(His style of play) is how I had success in the past, but even though the league was changing (to a faster pace), I thought that move would be a successful one, but it didn’t turn out that way.”

So now the search is underway for a new general manager and an assistant. The NBA Draft is only two months away, but Martins admits it could be June before a successor is named.

Perhaps the perfect candidate is currently an assistant general manager with one of 16 teams in the playoffs. If that person comes from a team that makes the NBA Finals, that hire could come literally days before the draft begins.

Whomever it turns out to be, Vogel is making a subtle case for keeping him around. In addition to sharing the support he has with team ownership, Vogel made it clear the new boss will find a head coach that wants to be partner with him.

“I’ve got a lot of trust in Alex Martins and the DeVos family,” Vogel said. “They’ve shown me an incredible amount of support and belief in me. I trust he is going to make a great choice in whoever he brings in here. I like to think of myself as easy to work with; I can get along with anyone and hopefully that’s the case with whoever they bring in.”

Marco Rubio looking for a landlord willing to take a chance

In Tampa and Jacksonville, Sen. Marco Rubio or his staff does not hold office hours. Office hours require an office to do that.

Two months ago, Florida’s junior senator had seven locations around the state and one in Washington, D.C. designed to help constituents with issues involving their government. Only five exist now in Florida.

The reason?

Last month Rubio’s Tampa landlord decided not to renew his office lease due to the massive disruptions caused by “protestors.” A few weeks before, the leaseholder of the senator’s Jacksonville office also gave him the boot for the same reason.

“A professional office building is not the place for that,” said Jude Williams, President of America’s Capital Partners, the Tampa building landlord. “I understand their cause, but at the end of the day it was a security concern for us.”

This tired act of petulance forced Rubio’s staff to deal with constituents by telephone, mail or email. Until new offices are located, the public had better get used to impersonal service.

The First Amendment is sacred, but in this case someone exercising their rights trampled on the rights of other Floridians. To whom do they go for redress? Certainly not their senator.

So, who are the protestors and what are they protesting?

“A variety of progressive groups who oppose Donald Trump’s agenda” was the description assigned to them by the Tampa Bay Times. In an article about the situation, the Times reported the agitators (you’ve got to know who and what you’re protesting to be assigned the “protestor” moniker) and more from around the country are coached on how to protest with legislator’s offices being among the desired locations.

The irony here is some of those now without a place to go for direct help from their senator may actually agree with their political views regarding Trump. We have recently learned of alternative places to meet constituents.

How do office hours at Starbucks sound? Rubio’s two-person Tampa staff is meeting with some constituents in “coffee shops and libraries.”

That would be comical if it were not so ridiculous.

The Times told the story of a meeting between David Higgins of the progressive group Indivisible FL-13. Higgins wished to personally deliver a letter urging Rubio to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia, so a meeting was arranged in a St. Petersburg public library.

Hopefully Higgins was mollified by Rubio’s harsh statements on Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Senator’s active participation in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s bi-partisan investigation into the very issue discussed at the library.

Meanwhile, the office protestors have moved to the highly-visible intersection of Dale Mabry Highway and Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa, where they should have been all along. Just so traffic is not impeded, they have found the ideal spot to share their view of just what a bad guy Donald Trump is with thousands of people as they pass by.

Higgins asked Rubio staffer Shauna Johnson why they have not yet found another office. She responded that would-be landlords have a problem with why they were kicked out of their previous location. When Higgins asked for that reason, Johnson simply responded, “protests.”

A senator or congressman’s office is there for all constituents, not just for a select few malcontents. Other building tenants, who also pay taxes and provide livelihoods for employees, have the right to go to and from work without having to be part of a circus.

For Rubio’s constituents in the Tampa Bay area who merely want access to their government, here’s hoping a landlord will take a chance. For those who want to carry signs and chant, the corner of Dale Mabry and Kennedy is lovely this time of year.

Chris Chiozza, Christian Laettner and the forgotten supporting actors

Christian Laettner, meet Chris Chiozza. Your contributions to March Madness lore may be 25 years apart, but the memories will go on for far longer.

Laettner, who was already well-known, made “The Shot,” in 1992 that kept Duke’s hopes alive for a repeat championship, which they won. Chiozza, a popular figure on the Florida campus, but relatively unknown elsewhere, sent the Gators to the Elite 8 on Friday with “The Shot 2.”

One should be careful before making comparisons between that legendary game between the Blue Devils and Kentucky, but Friday’s game can be compared favorably. It should be remembered that a quarter century ago, Duke was no more a dominant power than Florida is today.

At the time of Laettner’s heroics, the Blue Devils possessed one national title, accomplished the previous year. He gave them the chance to repeat, which they did. Florida has two titles and Chiozza’s running three-pointer kept the Gators hopes alive for winning a third.

Quick quiz: who is the last school to win back-to-back national titles? For those outside of Gainesville, the answer is the Florida Gators in 2006 and 2007. Those teams were the first to accomplish the feat since Laettner’s teams.

Friday’s game may not have matched the level of talent and execution of two teams playing at the very top of their games in 1992, but it was EVERY BIT as compelling. For example, Florida overcame a double-digit first half deficit to take the lead by halftime.

Not to be outdone, the Badgers also overcame a 10-point, second-half deficit to regain the lead. Twice.

“What a wonderful college basketball game to be a part of,” said Gators Coach Mike White. “I’m so proud of our guys; I can’t even put it into words.”

Such history-making shots understandably dwarf everything else that happened during the game or other contributors to the victory.

Who remembers Grant Hill as the one making the length-of-the-court pass to Laettner, or Laettner stomping on Kentucky’s Aminu Timberlake while the latter was on his back under the Duke basket?

From Friday night, who remembers that KeVaughn Allen set an all-time tournament scoring record for a Gator with 35 points? Who needs a reminder about “The Block” by Canyon Barry on Khalil Iverson with only 34 seconds remaining in overtime?

Allen’s offense was desperately needed. If Barry does not do what he did, the Badgers go up by four points and make Chiozza’s moment in history a highly unlikely event.

What about poor Zak Showalter of Wisconsin? After sending the game to overtime, he breaks into the “Discount Double-Check” gesture while pointing at its creator, Aaron Rodgers, sitting in the stands.

Or perhaps Showalter’s teammate Nigel Hayes? After struggling mightily at the free throw line all night, Hayes hit the two that seemingly won the game for the Badgers with four seconds left.

The headlines were already being written until Chiozza blew up the story.

Yes, this was unquestionably a legendary game, but not enough saw it. While it was still early evening in March 1992 when Laettner broke Kentucky hearts, it was almost 1 a.m. when Chiozza’s dagger had the same effect in cheese country.

If you were still awake, you saw something special. The best news is you get to see them play for a trip to the Final Four on Sunday against conference foe South Carolina.

Friday’s game will be tough to top.

 

Can Gators display the patience needed to take down Wisconsin?

As the Florida Gators prepare to take on the Wisconsin Badgers in Friday night’s Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden, an old saying applies to Florida players, coaches and fans: Patience is a virtue.

But that is what is required to play against the well-coached, disciplined Badger team.

On defense, eighth-seeded Wisconsin plays tough and aggressively, hoping to force undisciplined teams into taking quick shots. On offense, they are not afraid to run the shot clock down to the last five seconds before winding up with a shot from the paint or a three-pointer from sharpshooters like Bronson Koenig and D’Mitrik Trice.

Both of these areas present challenges for the fourth-seeded Gators. Both were problems for the tournament’s top team, evidenced by Wisconsin’s 65-62 upset of Villanova.

On paper, Florida matches up well. Offensive stats are nearly identical.

Florida has played strong defense this season and is capable of giving Wisconsin plenty of problems. After some early season shortcomings, the Gators have come together on the defensive end, including creating turnovers into baskets on the offensive end.

“It’s why we continue to improve, even this late in the year, on the defensive end,” said Gators’ Head Coach Mike White, the SEC Coach of the Year.

Three things to feel good about Friday’s game.

  1. Devin Robinson’s inspired play in the tournament. He can cause a lot of problems for the Badgers inside and outside.
  2. Wisconsin is similar to Virginia. Although the Badgers are a bit better offensively, they play a methodical style of basketball, which worked out great for Florida last week.
  3. Florida’s advantage in free throw shooting could help them win a close game.

Three things to be concerned about

  1. If Florida’s first few shots do not fall, can they avoid falling into Wisconsin’s hands by putting up quick shots?
  2. If Florida loses discipline late in the shot clock on defense and lets Koenig or Trice get free, look out.
  3. If Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes get Robinson and Kevarrius Hayes in foul trouble, they could dominate inside, especially without the injured John Egbunu.

Intangibles: In a word, experience. Wisconsin starts four seniors who have played in two Final Fours. Happ, a sophomore, is the only underclassman.

Kasey Hill is the only Gator who has played in a Final Four (2014), let alone the Sweet 16. It would be great to have senior Egbunu, but…

White has already shown he is among the best in his profession. So has Wisconsin’s Greg Gard.

It will be decided on the court starting Friday night around 10:00 p.m.

 

Despite horrible weekend, ACC still basketball’s best league

ACC fans, or supporters of schools outside of the SEC, often grumble about the “best conference by far” tag often given to the SEC by football pundits. Each time an SEC team loses a bowl game or a head-to-head matchup with one of the outsiders, the derision often follows.

Conversely, SEC basketball fans, or supporters of other power conferences outside of the ACC, are equally uncertain that conference is that much better than the others.

The ACC put eight teams into the NCAA Tournament field this year, including Florida State as a third seed in the West region. Of those eight, Duke and Louisville were seeded second, while Virginia and Notre Dame each earned five seeds.

North Carolina was one of the tournament’s four top seeds. Clearly, the selection committee was high on the ACC.

Despite this, only North Carolina was able to survive the first weekend. FSU was sent home in embarrassing fashion by 11th seeded Xavier, but the Seminoles and their fans were far from alone in their despair.

Duke’s upset at the hands of South Carolina of the SEC was clearly unexpected. The ACC’s other huge casualty was Michigan’s upset of Louisville.

The Florida Gators became the second SEC team to take down one of the ACC’s elite. After completely throttling Virginia, Florida expected to face the tournament’s top seed, Villanova, Friday in New York. That will now be Wisconsin after the Badgers bounced the Wildcats from the tournament.

With only North Carolina left to carry the ACC banner, the SEC, Big 10, Big 12 and Pac 12 all have three teams playing this weekend. The Big East has two and the West Coast has one.

Having said all of that, it is not accurate to say the ACC is anything but college basketball’s strongest conference. Despite going 7-8 in the first weekend of the tournament, the top-to-bottom strength of the league is there for all to see.

The eight teams making it into the NCAA tournament can be favorably matched against the top eight teams of any other league. There can be little argument there. Don’t forget that six ACC teams reached the Sweet 16 just a year ago and two (North Carolina and Syracuse) made it to the Final Four.

By comparison, look at SEC football. This year, they placed 12 teams in bowl games, including the College Football Playoffs.

Yes, they had a losing record of 6-7 during the post season, which includes Alabama’s loss to Clemson in the championship game. With all due respect to Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney, that does not mean there are 10 or 12 teams from any conference that line up better than the top 10 or 12 teams from the SEC. The league was 9-2 in the post season last year.

Despite the ACC bloodbath this past weekend, it would shock no one if the Tar Heels were the ones to cut down the nets in Glendale Ariz. on April 3.

Overpowering performance shows Gators belong in Sweet 16

If the Florida Gators play like they did on Saturday, they have a chance to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Florida smothered the beleaguered Virginia Cavaliers, 65-39 in a second round game at the Amway Center in Orlando.

This game was expected to be a defensive-oriented contest since neither team was known as offensive juggernauts. Florida has shown the ability to post big wins when they shoot around 50 percent. Three straight 30-point blowouts and a 22-point smashing of Kentucky are good examples.

Saturday’s game looked a lot like those four. The Gators hit 46 percent of their shots, including 38 percent of their three-point attempts. ,Devin Robinson, who had an outstanding two days in Orlando, and Justin Leon posted double-doubles.

The Cavaliers, even on the few occasions they were open, struggled mightily. They clanked 70 percent of their shots, 14 of their 15 three-point attempts.

Holding any major college team to 39 points isn’t easy, let alone the big stage of the Big Dance. It was a performance worthy of a Sweet 16 team – Florida’s next destination – or maybe even a Final Four participant.

“We’ve played really well at times this year,” said Florida Coach Mike White. “We’ve added a couple of wrinkles and got rid of a couple of wrinkles.”

Going into Saturday, the Gators thought that a victory over Virginia would give them a crack at the tournament’s top seed, defending champion Villanova. Instead, they will face eighth-seeded (the selection committee made a big mistake) Wisconsin in the East Region semi-finals in New York.

The Badgers are similar to Virginia in preferring a deliberate style of play, but the Wisconsin offense is better than Virginia’s. It promises to be hand-to-hand combat.

Whatever the style of play, White is just happy his team will still be practicing this week.

“We’re not done playing,” he said. “We’re excited about next weekend.”

FSU no match for Xavier’s excellence

Florida State’s outstanding season is over. It didn’t just end, it came crashing down with a thud on Saturday. The Xavier Musketeers, losers of 13 games this season, bludgeoned the Seminoles 91-66 in the NCAA Tournament second round at the Amway Center in Orlando.

Those who might not have seen the game might make the assumption that Florida State did not show up to play. That would be an unfair assumption to both Florida State and Xavier.

The Musketeers, who at one time lost six games in a row in February, got their act together late in the season and came into the tournament as winners of four of their last five. One of those victories against Butler, the South Region’s fourth seed. They beat a very good Maryland team in the first round.

Florida State, on the other hand, was never able to regain the magic after a 12-game winning streak ended. Five double-digit losses came as the result of poor shooting (especially free throws), poor defense, turnovers, and lack of preparation.

Only one of those factors, poor shooting, came into play in the FSU’s largest loss of the season. Xavier, superbly coached by Chris Mack, was that good.

The Seminoles committed only nine turnovers, a respectable amount against an aggressive defense. They made 14 of 19 free throws, a respectable 74 percent.

They pressured the Xavier ball handlers. FSU’s best player, Dwayne Bacon was aggressive, but also shared the ball.

So how on earth did FSU get swamped by 25 points? The Musketeers, who jumped on the Seminoles early and never let up, deserve all of the credit.

“They were just all over the place,” said Bacon. “We would nip at the lead, then they kept making big shots. They made big shots all night.”

Xavier passed the ball (20 assists on 30 made shots) and got inside, but also shot exceptionally well from the outside, making 11 of 17 three-point attempts. MTSU shot 57 percent from the game.

The Seminoles, quite simply, shot miserably. They only made 40 percent of their shots, and made only four of 21 three-point attempts.

Firing up so many bricks prevented the Seminoles from setting up their defense after made baskets. Xavier had no such difficulties.

For those who think the Seminoles, blew it, you are close, but not in the way you think. While several Musketeers played extremely well, guard Trevon Bluiett was simply sensational.

He scored 21 of his 29 points in the second half. Bluiett made three-pointers, layups, jumpers and 10 of 14 free throws. He also had six rebounds and three assists.

Bacon, in what may be his last game in a Seminole uniform, had 20 points while Xavier Rathan-Mayes added 16. Jonathan Isaac, who will almost certainly depart for the NBA, had eight.

In the end, Leonard Hamilton’s best team finished on a huge downer. It’s a safe prediction the “fire Leonard Hamilton” crowd is already organizing.

For the rest of Seminole fans, it was a fun year.

Devin Robinson, others step up to help Gators avoid upset

Listening to the “experts,” the Florida Gators sounded like underdogs to East Tennessee State heading into Thursday’s NCAA Tournament first round game at the Amway Center in Orlando. Despite being a 10-point favorite with odds makers, several pundits had the fourth-seeded Gators on “upset alert” against the 13th seed Buccaneers.

To be sure, the pressure is on the higher seed in games like these. Double-digit seeds have low expectations.

Since 1985, 13th seeds have beaten fourth seeds 26 times. With that in mind, plus the fact the Gators were on a three-game losing streak and were missing center John Egbunu, perhaps there was reason for Florida to among those considered vulnerable.

Sometimes this Gator team has a great deal of difficulty shooting the ball, or will turn it over too often. What they have shown is a respectable degree of mental toughness to be called upon when things are not going their way.

Along with missing the injured Egbunu, sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen struggled mightily, making only one of 11 shots from the floor and scoring just seven points.

Canyon Barry, the SEC’s 6th Man of the Year, made only one of four shots and also scored only seven points. The Gators also turned the ball over 15 times.

Yet, they found a way to win.

Junior forward Devin Robinson filled in the gaps by tying his career high with 24 points. Kasey Hill, not known as a strong outside shooter, scored 14 points on five of eight shooting. Kevarrius Hayes, filling in for Egbunu, scored seven points, but had a game-high six steals.

“That’s kind of who we are,” said Gators Coach Mike White. “KeVaughn’s not hanging his head right now. KeVaughn is happy we won. Devin would be the same way if KeVaughn were sitting here (in the interview room) right now.”

Robinson helped lead the offensively struggling Gators from a five-point lead midway through the second half into a double digit lead they would not relinquish. The defense played a huge role in building that lead by creating turnovers and holding the Buccaneers to 40 percent shooting.

Next up is the fifth-seeded Virginia Cavaliers, who rallied from a 15-point deficit to down North Carolina Wilmington in Thursday’s first game at the Amway Center. Perhaps the Vaughn that Florida is used to seeing will emerge.

If not, someone else will probably step up. With a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line, White and the Gator faithful certainly hope so.

 

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