Mixed Highlights, Lowlights in Florida's Top Sports Stories of 2013

By: Nancy Smith | Posted: December 28, 2013 3:55 AM
Miami Heat 2013 NBA Finals

Miami Heat, 2013 NBA Champions

Sports made a spectacle of itself nationally in 2013, the good, the bad and the ugly: unprecedented streaks, unparallelled performances, unbelievable debacles. Names of athletes were carved in Olympic record books and on police blotters.

Even Cooperstown -- sick and tired of doping ballplayers -- threw a shutout: No Hall of Fame entrants this year.

In the Sunshine State, sports news was far less heartbreaking than it was elsewhere in the nation -- particularly in Boston, where terrorism struck at the Marathon, bombs exploding at the finish line, killing three and injuring more than 260, including three who lost limbs.

Meanwhile, in Florida ...

Sunshine State News has identified the top nine sports stories generated in Florida during 2013. Have a look:

No. 9: Aaron Hernandez's Long Fall

Aaron Hernandez played college football for the University of Florida, where he was a member of a BCS National Championship team and earned All-American honors. He was drafted by the New England Patriots in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft, and was selected for the Pro Bowl at the end of his second NFL season.

aaron hernandez 2013

Aaron Hernandez in court in Boston

But Hernandez — inked to a five-year, $40 million extension that featured a $12.5 million signing bonus — apparently had a darker side. He slipped his tattooed arms into manacles in the early summer of 2013, charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of a friend, Odin Lloyd. It has been a major story, not just a sports story, across the country.

Hernandez's release from the Patriots meant he automatically forfeited his 2015–2018 salaries, totaling $19.3 million, which were not guaranteed. The Boston Globe reported that the Patriots voided all remaining guarantees, including his 2013 and 2014 salaries, on the grounds that those guarantees were for skill, injury, or salary cap room, and did not include being cut for "conduct detrimental to the best interests of professional football." Furthermore, the Patriots will attempt to withhold $3.25 million of Hernandez's 2012 signing bonus, due to be paid in 2014, and to recoup the signing bonus they have already paid.

UF removed Hernandez's name and likeness from various locations at its football facilities in Gainesville.

No. 8: 11-1 UCF Knights in Fiesta Bowl

The University of Central Florida Knights, winners of the American Athletic Conference title, have earned their first BCS bowl berth -- and it's a major.

UCF Knights Football 2013

The Knights left campus Thursday morning for Arizona, invitees to the Tostito's Fiesta Bowl. They will take on the Big 12 champion Baylor Bears at the University of Phoenix Stadium on New Year’s Day.

In 10 years, UCF head football coach George O'Leary has taken the program from an 0-11 season to this 11-1 campaign. Said O'Leary, "When we showed up 10 years ago, it was a low point. We did what you should do as a coach taking over a program -- you build a foundation. Each year you put some furniture in the building. The big thing is that we have gotten better each year. We have had our ups and downs, but I think that the consistency of the program and the culture of the program is in place to move forward and to continue to get better each and every year."

O’Leary said one of the biggest benefits of winning the AAC's automatic bowl berth is the media coverage leading up to the game and the three or four hours on ESPN on New Year’s night. “You can’t pay for this kind of exposure, the exposure you get from the Fiesta Bowl and the media outlets and ESPN,” O’Leary said. “... We’re looking forward to this and recruiting has greatly benefited from this. We recruit the entire country and we have a lot more people involved because of the national recognition we got this year.”

No. 7: Tampa Gets BCS Championship Game  in 2017

College football's national champion will be decided at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium in 2017, and already the decision -- made earlier this month -- is creating a stir.

Raymond James Stadium

Raymond James Stadium

The championship game could approach the Super Bowl in terms of economic impact and importance on the sports calendar, civic leaders, coaches and college athletic officials said.

“From the moment the discussion began about where to place this event, we have been focused on bringing it to Tampa Bay,” said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, which oversaw the area's bid. “It's going to be special.”

Raymond James Stadium will be expanded to a capacity of about 72,000 for the game, adding seats in the end zones.

The stadium was selected over five other venues -- including Jacksonville and Miami -- for the Jan. 9, 2017, game. Raymond James hosts the Outback Bowl each year and is home to the South Florida Bulls and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The commissioners of the 10 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick voted on the sites.

This will be the first college football title game in Tampa, which has hosted four Super Bowls -- two at Raymond James Stadium.

No. 6: Catching a Whiff of Professional Soccer

Professional soccer is poised and ready to pounce on Florida, say the sport's Sunshine State supporters, and 2013 was a pivotal year to make it happen.

An 18,000-seat soccer stadium will soon be part of downtown Orlando's landscape — home to what promises to be the city's second major-league sports franchise, as early as 2015.

Orlando Soccer promotion

In a raucous celebration in October, a crowd of more than 200 people chanted, "We are going MLS!" as soon as Orange County commissioners voted 5-2 to pitch in $20 million in tourist taxes as the county's share of the $84 million stadium.

The stadium's approval all but guarantees the city will win a Major League Soccer franchise — in the same year the Orlando Magic is celebrating its 25th season.

The new soccer team will adopt the name and colors of the town's minor-league team, the purple-clad Orlando City Lions.

The Orlando City Soccer Club has been in discussions with MLS executives, who said a new franchise would come here if a soccer-specific stadium were built.

Jacksonville, through newly established Sunshine Soccer Group, tried valiantly during the summer to compete for a Florida MLS franchise. The North American Soccer League’s board of directors is considering the addition of an expansion team in 2015.

David Beckham

David Beckham, right, watching the Miami Heat May 30 / Credit: Reuters

Meanwhile, international soccer star and former England team captain David Beckham announced to the world in a BBC interview that he is "committed to the MLS, committed to growing 'football' in the U.S." ... and he's made up his mind Miami is where he wants his involvement to be.

As Sunshine State News reported in June, the 38-year-old's option to purchase a franchise is part of the financial package he negotiated when he joined LA Galaxy as a player in 2007.

Beckham's opportunity specified buying an MLS expansion team at a reduced cost, reportedly $25 million instead of the going rate of $100 million.

Beckham reportedly is looking to raise several hundred million dollars of investment to fund the setup costs, including putting together the squad of players and building a stadium.

His business partner is Simon Fuller, the “American Idol” creator and driving force in franchise negotiations with MLS. Fuller will be a significant shareholder, a source close to the negotiations says. Beckham is looking to sell stakes in the team to other investors, and has already had expressions of interest from businessmen globally.

One of them likely will be Marcelo Claure, the Bolivian billionaire owner of Brightstar Communications. Beckham sat courtside during Game 5 of the Miami Heat-Indiana Pacers playoffs as Claure's guest. It was soccer-savvy Claure, with connections to Barcelona Football Club, who tried in 2009 to bring an MLS team to Miami -- and he admits he still wants to.

Beckham has said he would like the team to debut in three years, meaning it would likely be playing in an existing stadium.

At present there are 19 MLS teams. League Commissioner Don Garber hopes to expand that number to 24 by the 2020 season. A 20th team is already in place to begin playing in 2015 after Premier League club Manchester City and its partner, the New York Yankees, paid an expansion fee of $100 million to launch New York City FC.

Tim Tebow

Tim Tebow

No. 5: Tim Tebow, 3 and Out?

Tim Tebow, one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the position at the University of Florida -- beloved as much for his character and Christian principles as for his prowess on the gridiron -- discovered he was well and truly no longer worshipped at the altar of the NFL.

After he had been virtually abandoned by the Denver Broncos, and following his failed experiment with the New York Jets, the New England Patriots cut Tebow from the squad even before the start of the 2013 season.

Action star Chuck Norris lobbied hard but unsuccessfully for Tebow's hometown Jacksonville Jaguars to sign him. And Tebow rebuffed an overture from the L.A. Kiss arena league team. The last publicized possibility for the quarterback was believed to be an offer of a four-month contract from the Italian league Milano Seamen. Or the broadcast booth. Opportunities evaporated in 2013 for UF hero Tim Tebow.

FGCU Eagles 2013

FGCU Eagles in the NCAA Tournament

No. 4: OMG! FGCU!

For three precious weeks last spring during the NCAA Tournament, the place the basketball universe now calls "Dunk City" mesmerized the world. The Florida Gold Coast University Eagles performed feats of derring-do -- high-flying acrobatics, no-look passes, mystifying alley-oops that left two strong opponents shaking their heads.

In their NCAA Tournament debut, the 15th-seeded Eagles -- the most Cinderella of all Cinderella teams -- upset 2nd-seeded Georgetown 78–68. It was the third time in two years and seventh time overall that a 15th seed had upset a 2nd seed. With a third round 81-71 win over San Diego State, FGCU became the first 15th seed to win two games in a tournament to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

Hard work and dunk-a-thon-style notoriety pays off: After the season, the University of Southern California made Eagles head coach Andy Enfield an offer he couldn't refuse. And who could? Enfield is gone now -- coaching the Trojans for $1 million a year.

No. 3: FSU Football's Fabulous Undefeated Season

With a quarterback as dominant as Jameis Winston, it's easy to overlook the accomplishment of the rest of the 2013 Seminoles. But football is a team sport, and no one player wins alone.

florida state football team 2013

Undefeated for the first time since 1999 and state champions for the third time in four years, the Seminoles (12-0, 8-0 ACC and winners of ACC championship game against Duke) even took out the Gators of the SEC, dominating their rival 37-7.

Their season-long intimidating play earned them a chance to play Auburn for the BCS national championship Jan. 6 in Pasadena, Calif.

The Seminoles set the ACC single-season scoring record with 607 points. Their streak of 11 consecutive games scoring 40 points or more ties Texas' 2005 single-season FBS record.

“We finished the season off the right way,” said Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher after the Seminoles defeated the Gators. “I’m proud of the way we competed today.

All year Florida State was adept at staying focused, even against lesser opponents.

The Seminoles led the nation with 23 interceptions and have more players with an interception (16) than receptions (15). They have given up more than 14 points just twice all season and have won their last four regular-season games by a combined score of 235-27.

Jameis Winston with the Heisman Trophy

Jameis Winston with his Heisman Trophy

No. 2 Jameis Winston Wins the Heisman Trophy

FSU's Jameis Winston was awarded the Heisman Trophy on Dec. 14, beating out quarterbacks A.J. McCarron, Jordan Lynch, and previous winner Johnny Manziel, as well as running backs Tre Mason and Andre Williams. It was a landslide win. He became the second freshman to win the award, after Manziel. Winston was also the youngest to win the award, at 19 years and 342 days.

In Winston's college debut, he completed 25 of 27 passes with four passing touchdowns along with a rushing touchdown against the University of Pittsburgh.

Winston finished his freshman season with 3,820 passing yards and 38 passing touchdowns, which set an ACC record and a Division I Football Bowl Subdivision freshman record. He led his team to an undefeated 13–0 season, winning the ACC championship and a spot in the BCS National Championship Game Jan. 6 -- his 20th birthday.

From a highly publicized quarterback competition in fall camp to a dominant debut on national TV to the media scrutiny during a sexual assault investigation in November, "Famous Jameis" has been the talk of college football, and his teammates have helped insulate him from the outside pressure.

Winston has been described as goofy, confident, intelligent, complex and a fierce competitor. He is a football star and a baseball standout.

Winston's selection as Heisman winner came with a controversial overtone. The New York City award ceremony followed a turbulent month in which a sexual assault investigation involving Winston -- one that had began in 2012 -- surfaced publicly. Winston's lawyer said the sex was consensual. Florida State Attorney William Meggs declined to charge Winston the week prior to the Heisman ceremony, saying there was insufficient evidence to go to trial. But the quarterback felt let down and said so, because he never got the declaration of innocence and exoneration he wanted.

No. 1. Miami Heat Repeat as NBA Champs

Miami's secret weapon was sheer determination -- and maybe destiny was on their side, too. Though the San Antonio Spurs came oh-so-close, Ray Allen flipped in a second-chance game winner from 3-point range, 5 seconds on the clock, to send Game 6 into overtime. The Heat won that one, and next game it took OT again, but Lebron James and the magicians from Miami claimed the NBA championship for the second year running.

Miami Heat 2013

Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh

Despite the presence of the Heat's "Big Three," it was Mario Chalmers who delivered one of the most devastating blows in the seventh round of the classic Finals bout. With time winding down in the third quarter and the Spurs holding a narrow 71-69 lead, Chalmers put the Heat ahead for good with a deep, 3-point shot that just beat the buzzer.

"It feels great, a dream come true," Chalmers told Rachel Nichols of ESPN of his second championship in the champagne-soaked Heat locker room after the win. "We worked hard to get to this point. We had to leave it all on the court tonight."

Winning in 2013 wasn't just about the Heat's stars either.

Miami's starters ranked second in offensive rating, first in field-goal percentage, first in both effective field-goal percentage, and first in true-shooting percentage.

Miami's reserves ranked first in offensive rating, second in field-goal percentage, first in effective field-goal percentage, and second in true-shooting percentage.

This Miami Heat team is looking for a "threepeat" in 2014.



Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423 


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