JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Jacksonville Jaguars are headed in a completely new direction.
And Los Angeles doesn’t appear to be the destination.
Team owner Wayne Weaver fired longtime coach Jack Del Rio on Tuesday after a 3-8 start and agreed to sell the Jaguars to Illinois businessman Shahid Khan. Weaver named defensive coordinator Mel Tucker the interim coach and gave general manager Gene Smith a three-year contract extension, putting him in charge of the coaching search.
The moves marked the most significant changes for the small-market franchise since its inception in 1993.
“It’s the right thing at the right time and for the right reasons,” Weaver said. “We deserve better; the community deserves better. We’ve been very average over the last few years. I take responsibility for a lot of that, making mistakes in some personnel things, but look positive ahead that this team is not far away from being a very competitive football team.”
Forbes reported the sale to be worth $760 million.
Weaver, who will turn 77 in January, had been looking for an “exit strategy” for years, wanting to find someone to buy the team and keep it in Jacksonville. He had tears in his eyes several times as he announced his impending departure.
“It’s a little bittersweet, honestly, that it came as soon as it did,” Weaver said. “But the main motivation for the exit strategy was to find someone that has the same passion about the NFL, had the same passion about football in Jacksonville as we do, and I found that person.”
Khan, 61, believes he is the right choice, too.
“Wayne’s legacy will be lasting, and I will always be grateful for Wayne’s trust and confidence in my commitment to the Jaguars, the NFL and the people of the Jacksonville community,” Khan said in a statement.
Born in Pakistan, Khan left home at age 16 to attend the University of Illinois. He graduated in 1971, a year after he started working for Flex-N-Gate Corp. in Urbana, Ill. He purchased the company in 1980. Today, Flex-N-Gate is a major manufacturer of bumper systems for pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles built in North America.
Khan tried to buy controlling interest in the St. Louis Rams last year.
His purchase of the Jaguars is subject to NFL approval. League owners will vote to ratify the deal Dec. 14, and if it passes, would become official Jan. 4.
The Jaguars could have a new coach in place before then.
“There’s a lot of good things that will happen in the future,” Smith said.
Del Rio’s job security had been tenuous since Weaver said the coach needed to make the playoffs to secure a 10th season in Jacksonville. The Jaguars were essentially eliminated with Sunday’s 20-13 loss to AFC South-leading Houston.
“It’s the nature of the beast,” tight end Marcedes Lewis said. “Change is good sometimes. Obviously, it’s an unfortunate situation. … This is the NFL and unfortunate things happen sometimes.”
The timing of the move made sense since the Jaguars are struggling to sell tickets and host a Monday night game against San Diego. The team needs to sell about 9,000 tickets to avoid a local television blackout for a prime-time game.
Making a coaching change could boost sales.
Del Rio leaves with a 69-73 record, including 1-2 in two playoffs appearances. The Jaguars didn’t win the AFC South in any of his nine seasons.
Weaver gave Del Rio a four-year extension worth $21 million after Jacksonville won a playoff game following the 2007 season. The team stumbled to a 5-11 finish the following season, and Weaver overhauled the roster but decided to keep Del Rio.
Weaver considered firing Del Rio again after last season, but kept him partly because of the uncertainty surrounding the NFL lockout. Weaver refused to give contract extensions to any of Del Rio’s assistants, putting everyone on alert that this was a win-or-else season.
Del Rio told The Associated Press in a text message that his family was “blessed with nine good years” in Jacksonville.
Fans would disagree.
They will remember Del Rio’s tenure as one that lasted too long and was filled with quarterback chaos, inconsistency, staff turnover and late-season collapses. There also was the decision to place an ax and a wooden stump in the locker room to remind players to “keep chopping wood.” It backfired miserably when punter Chris Hanson accidentally hacked into his leg and was placed on injured reserve.
This season, Del Rio released veteran quarterback David Garrard five days before the season opener, then benched journeyman Luke McCown after two games. He turned things over to rookie Blaine Gabbert, who has panicked under pressure, misfired on short throws and shown little progress in nine starts.
Del Rio also botched quarterback decisions involving Mark Brunell and Byron Leftwich in 2003, and Leftwich and Garrard in 2007.
Equally troubling, Del Rio showed a penchant for throwing players and assistants under the bus. Del Rio fired 19 assistant coaches during his tenure, creating enough tension that could make it tough for him to get another job in the league.
The Jaguars owe Del Rio about $5.6 million for the final year of his contract.
Del Rio met with Weaver early Tuesday and then held one final team meeting.
“He just said that he’s spent a lot of time here, obviously devoted a lot of time and energy here, but it was unfortunate that he wasn’t able to win a championship,” linebacker Paul Posluszny said. “So it was time for a change, time for someone else to have a shot.
“I don’t know what else can top a day like this.”