By Bryan Burwell
Of the Post-Dispatch
02/02/2005


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Consider this a cautionary tale, St. Louis:

Please don't be a pinata.

In a little more than eight weeks, the eyes of the sports world will be focused on us when the NCAA men's basketball Final Four comes to the Edward Jones Dome. And that means that the American sporting press will be descending on our fair city, and let me tell you that these people can be a mean and ornery bunch.

My ink-stained colleagues arrived in Jacksonville five days ago to cover the Super Bowl and have spent nearly every waking moment just savaging the city. In print and over the airwaves, the out-of-town media have been crushing this sleepy Southern town like a giant pinata, mocking it for essentially being too big to be a town and too small to be a Super Bowl city.

They are complaining about the weather (constant, miserable, all-day drizzle and temperatures in the high 30s). They are complaining about the traffic (some genius decided to block off most of the downtown streets and the main bridge that takes you across the river to the other side of town where several hotels and good restaurants are). They say it smells. They say it is Newark, N.J., with palm trees.

They say Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver must have some incredibly compromising photos of NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue to get the commish to agree to bring the biggest annual event in American sports to the second-smallest market in the league.


But I'm not about to join in on the Jacksonville bashing, because the last time I checked, it's been awhile since anyone was mistaking St. Louis for Paris. I come here today not to bash Jacksonville but to help the STL avoid the same wretched and embarrassing fate when we put on our Final Four hosting hats in April.

I am looking at what is happening here to Jacksonville - and particularly how they are handling (mishandling?) their moment on the biggest stage in American sports. And now I'm here to offer some very important, helpful hints so that the 'Lou can avoid the same sort of media bashing that Jacksonville is getting.

And it all comes down to this, St. Louis:

Please, don't be a pinata.

The biggest mistake Jacksonville made is apologizing for being a Super Bowl city. This town has the biggest inferiority complex this side of Kansas City. Wherever you go around town, all these well-meaning, kind folks with these syrupy sweet drawls will come up to you under the guise of Southern hospitality and ask you the same question:

"So, whadda y'all think of Jacksonville?"

It happens in the hotel bar. It happens in fine restaurants. It happens just walking down the street. But they're not really asking a question. They're actually begging for approval. They're not really asking you what you think of them so much as they're beseeching you to pat them on their heads and reassure them that they're doing a good job. They want you to say something nice about their fair city, and they'll be devastated if you don't. They are so paranoid, so sensitive, so incredibly tense about their approval rating from all us free-loading, cynical outsiders that it's almost neurotic.

They are so concerned that if they do a bad job that the Super Bowl will never come back again.

Well, guess what, Jacksonville? The Super Bowl isn't ever coming back here again!!!!!!

That ship sailed a long time ago. The NFL gave you this game for the same reason it gave Detroit next year's game. It was a big thank-you kiss to the city fathers for using public funds to pay for new stadiums.


But as I said, I'm not here to bash you. I like you. I like your proximity to all those golf courses that dot the coastline, like Sawgrass and Amelia Island. But you need to just embrace who you are and stop trying to make people love you.

In other words, you need to be more like Detroit. Detroit, site of next year's Super Bowl XL, has taken on the civic attitude I'd like St. Louis to adopt when everyone comes to town for the Final Four.

The folks from the Detroit organizing committee have a booth set up here inside the media center, and their attitude by contrast to Jacksonville is quite refreshing. The big flat-screen television that hangs above the burning fireplace in this ersatz living room shows a video of dog-sled racing, ice sculptures, snowmen and everything else that makes you think Detroit will be a winter wonderland when the football world descends on it next year. They're not hiding their obvious flaws. They're celebrating them.

"Hey, we're Detroit," one of the Motor City representatives told me. "You wanna insult us? Go ahead. What can you possibly say about us that hasn't already been said? That's our attitude. Is it going to be cold when you come to town next year? Of course it is. But you know what? We're still going to show you a good time. We don't fear the cold. We embrace it."

On Thursday in the media center, the Jacksonville folks served us fresh-squeezed orange juice and decorated the media work area with potted sea grass, palm trees and big mounds of sand, trying desperately to make us forget that it was actually 38 degrees outdoors and raining.

The Detroit folks, on the other hand, had two giant silver vats of piping hot chocolate at our service all day long, which, considering the circumstances, was a lot more useful to everyone shivering in all the warm-weather clothes we all stupidly wore down here.

And even though they don't "officially" have this motto scrawled on the logo for Super Bowl XL, the folks from Motown do have an unofficial motto befitting the spirit of their hardscrabble town:

"We're Detroit. It's gonna be cold. Bring a bleepin' overcoat!"

Now that's what I'm talking about.