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Friday, October 16, 2009
Who runs this town? (Part 5)

By Cameron Martin
Special to Page 2

OK, we're in the homestretch. Earlier we visited the East, West, Midwest and Central regions, asking, "Who runs this town?" When fans agreed with our answers, we received love letters and care packages. When they didn't, we received hate mail and directions to hell.

Nevertheless, we press on.

We finish today with the South, where Chipper Jones, Dan Marino, Mark Brunell, Chris Paul, Jeff Fisher, Jimmie Johnson and Lee Roy Selmon have all left prodigious marks -- yet still fall short of running their towns.

In Atlanta, Miami, Jacksonville, New Orleans, Nashville, Charlotte and Tampa, this is who we got:

Tampa Bay

Runs it: Evan Longoria
Runners-up: Lee Roy Selmon, Martin St. Louis

When the Detroit Lions finished last year 0-16, Tampa Bay lost its distinction as the worst team in NFL history, since its inaugural team (1976) was forced to play only 14 games. Not to be outdone, diehard Bucs fans were quick to point out that Tampa Bay lost its first 26 NFL games (over two seasons), a feat that can't be challenged until the NFL expands again.

Touché, Tampa fans, touché.

Led by future Hall of Fame defensive end Lee Roy Selmon, the Bucs won two NFC Central titles back in the day (1979 and 1981), then didn't win another division title for 18 years. They were the only major sports team in Tampa during that entire period, but shame wasn't a very good incentive.

Bigger Bucs personalities came down the pike -- Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch -- but the 2002 Super Bowl win did not eclipse the legend of Selmon, the only NFL Hall of Famer to spend his best years in Tampa.

Still, Lee Roy represents the past -- a largely ignominious, sherbet past, at that -- while Evan Longoria represents a better tomorrow for Tampa sports.

As a rookie in 2008, he was the Final Vote winner for the American League All-Star team and went on to win the American League Rookie of the Year award while leading the Rays to their first playoff appearance and pennant in team history, a storybook season from a historic also-ran franchise.

In 2009, Longoria was elected to start in the All-Star Game -- ahead of perennial vote-hogger Alex Rodriguez, who fell out of favor in many fans' eyes when he disguised himself as an Oompa-Loompa to discuss his past steroid use with Peter Gammons.

Atlanta

Runs it: Georgia and Georgia Tech
Runners-up: Chipper Jones, Hank Aaron

Atlanta is a great sports city, particularly if you enjoy rooting for football also-rans in the SEC and ACC. Year in and year out, Georgia and Georgia Tech fill those roles admirably.

Georgia won an undisputed national title in 1980 but lays claim to parts of four others, which is one of the cute, endearing things about college football: No one double-checks anything.

Georgia Tech, meanwhile, won a share of the national championship in 1990. And people older than 70 fondly look back on their other three titles, in 1917, 1928 and 1952.

If the Braves had managed to win more than one World Series during Chipper Jones' career, fans might have looked back on those teams as winners, not yearly postseason disappointments.

Luckily, people still listen to Hank Aaron -- except when he's telling them that Barry Bonds is the real home run king.

Miami

Runs it: Dwyane Wade
Runner up: Dan Marino

Sometimes it's hard to believe it's been 35 years since the Dolphins won a Super Bowl, but then you try to brainstorm the greatest moments in recent Dolphins history, and both involve Dan Marino -- first, fake-spiking the ball against the Jets on "Monday Night Football"; and second, asking Jim Carrey at the end of "Ace Ventura" whether he has any more gum, which elicits the response, "That's none of your damn business, and I'll thank you to stay out of my personal affairs."

Until football -- either the Dolphins or The U -- returns to sustained prominence, Dwyane Wade runs Miami. If Wade, who already has one NBA ring, has a brain in his head (or anywhere else, for that matter), he won't leave the scantily clad environs of South Beach when he becomes a free agent.

Jacksonville

Runs it: Tim Tebow
Runners up: Mere mortals

Tebow, who was raised in Jacksonville, could be the starting quarterback for the NFL's Jaguars right now, which would attract his legion of fans and allow the team to remove the tarps that cover the empty seats in the upper reaches of the stadium. At least for the first few games.

No one knows whether Tebow is a viable NFL quarterback. But absent some irrefutable proof, the folks in Jacksonville believe he is. Allow them their delusions; it's the polite thing to do.

New Orleans

Runs it: Drew Brees
Runner up: Chris Paul

The Saints are one of only five teams never to have played in a Super Bowl (Browns, Jaguars, Lions, Texans), so it was a big deal when Brees and the team advanced to their first NFC Championship Game in 2006, the same season they returned to a Superdome severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Brees, who nearly eclipsed Dan Marino's yardage record last season, won the 2008 NFL Offensive Player of the Year award and has the Saints looking like Super Bowl contenders again this season. Some people in Bristol, Conn., are still ticked off that he tried to drive a Mardi Gras float into ESPN headquarters, but fans in New Orleans have never loved him more.

Nashville

Runs it: Jeff Fisher
Runner up: Lane Kiffin

As a Vanderbilt graduate, I am pained to admit this, but Lane Kiffin is the most important college coach in Nashville, since the University of Tennessee has an outside chance of winning the SEC or a national championship every few years, and my alma mater never does.

If I were being completely honest, I'd probably say Jeff Fisher ranks below Kiffin in the pecking order in Nashville. But complete honesty is overrated.

Charlotte

Runs it: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Runners up: Jimmie Johnson, Michael Jordan

The future seat of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, scheduled to open in 2010, Charlotte is the epicenter of American racing, and nearby Concord (20 miles away) is the home of Lowe's Motor Speedway, Hendrick Motorsports and the West Cabarrus YMCA, which Dale Earnhardt Jr. speeds by all the time.

(Seriously, slow down, man. People live in these neighborhoods.)

Some will tell you that Jimmie Johnson is the real king of Charlotte, since he's won three straight Sprint Cup titles. But those people are self-loathing Southerners who ought to burn their eyes out for rooting for a California transplant.

Cam Martin is a contributor to Page 2. He previously worked for the Greenwich (Conn.) Time and the Stamford (Conn.) Advocate and has written online for CBS Sports and Comcast SportsNet New England. You can contact him at cdavidmartin@yahoo.com.