Monday, December 31, 2007

Red Grange Busted in Temple Terrace, 1/3/26

On the first weekend of 1926, Harold “Red” Grange would leave his mark on Tampa history in more ways than one. On New Year’s Day, Grange and his Chicago Bears stormed into Tampa’s Plant Field for an exhibition game against Jim Thorpe and the Tampa Cardinals. Grange, nicknamed the “Galloping Ghost,” dazzled a crowd of 7,000 fans with a 70-yard run for a touchdown in a 17-3 triumph over the Cardinals.

His stay in Tampa would also include a stop at the Temple Terrace Country Club on January 3 for an event to kick off the winter golf season. The match featured British Open champ Jim Barnes paired with future U.S. Open winner Johnny Farrell against Gordon Gibbons, the amateur champion of Florida, and Lawrence Sherill, the amateur champion of Tampa. Not surprisingly, Barnes and Farrell won the match with a best-ball score of 69, shooting par or better on 17 of the 18 holes.

Later that day, Grange, Barnes and Farrell would become forever linked for more than just participating in sporting exhibitions in Tampa. After leaving the Temple Terrace Country Club, a Packard automobile driven by Grange exceeded the posted speed limit while en route to an orange grove. A motorcycle cop pulled over the luxury vehicle, whose occupants included Barnes and Farrell, as well as Olympic silver medal-winning swimmer Helen Wainwright, and the owner of the vehicle, Joe Mickler. An intrepid photographer who had just finished snapping photos of the athletes came upon the scene and took one final image for posterity.
Grange would leave Tampa with more than just a traffic ticket, however, as he also purchased $15,000 worth of property on the Forest Hills Golf and Country Club, the present-day site of the Babe Zaharias Country Club.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Buccaneers Turn A Corner, 8/31/97

As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers prepare to face the San Francisco 49ers this Sunday, one can't help but marvel on how far the Bucs have come since a pivotal meeting between these teams 10 years ago. Once upon a time, the Buccaneers were considered the laughingstock of pro football. From 1983-96, the Bucs endured 14 straight losing seasons – including 13 with 10 or more losses.

By 1997, however, Bucs fans finally had reason for wary optimism. Tony Dungy, then entering his second season as head coach, led Tampa Bay to a 6-10 record in 1996, but more importantly instilled a new attitude in the locker room, inspiring loyalty and devotion from his players. Tampa Bay finished the 1996 season on a hot streak, wining five of its last seven games, and hoped to carry that momentum into the next year’s season opener at home against the San Francisco 49ers.

On Aug. 31, 1997, the Bucs were starkly different than the 49ers. As the “Team of the Eighties,” the 49ers won four Super Bowls in that decade, and were only a season removed from a fifth championship in 1995. While the Bucs struggled, the 49ers made the playoffs in 14 of 16 years with only one losing season.

From 1983-94, San Francisco defeated Tampa Bay in nine consecutive meetings by an average more than two touchdowns. In the face of history and a formidable 49ers roster, even the most optimistic of Bucs fans could not have expected much against San Francisco.

But the 49ers found out on their first offensive possession that they were not facing the same old Bucs. Just as Tampa Bay finally shed its orange and white colors for a more modern red and pewter design, so too it shed a longstanding reputation as a pushover.

On the game’s first series, defensive tackle Warren Sapp set the tone by sacking future Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young for an 11-yard loss. Young suffered a concussion when linebacker Hardy Nickerson’s knee struck his head at the end of the play, knocking off his block figuratively and his helmet literally. The 62,000-strong crowd rocked Houlihan’s Stadium, appreciating the rare opportunity to witness its team push around the 49ers for once.

Things got worse for San Francisco in the second quarter, when a Sapp hit forced Jerry Rice, arguably the greatest receiver of all time, to exit the game with a serious knee injury. While Sapp’s dominant 11-tackle, 2½-sack performance signaled a new era in Bucs defense, the all-around effort of Mike Alstott helped forge a new identity for Tampa Bay’s offense.

The second-year fullback out of Purdue burst onto the scene in 1996 as a punishing runner whose quick moves and knack for catching passes out of the backfield made him a weapon unlike any in Tampa Bay history. Against the 49ers, Alstott amassed 119 all-purpose yards and played a significant role in a second-half Bucs comeback. Alstott’s bruising running style resonated with Bucs fans, who for too long saw their team get flattened by the opposition. With Alstott, Tampa Bay finally had someone to run through and over the opposition.

It was a physical, low-scoring game filled with mistakes and miscues by both teams. In the end, the Bucs proved to be the clutch team that day, overcoming a six-point fourth-quarter deficit. They took the lead on a 1-yard touchdown pass from Trent Dilfer to tight end Dave Moore. An interception on the 49ers’ ensuing series set up Tampa Bay’s final points of the game, a 34-yard field goal by Michael Husted for a winning score of 13-6.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Bucs fans reacted with a mixture of exuberance and confusion at what they had witnessed. Never before had the Buccaneers defeated the 49ers in Tampa Bay. Never before had the Buccaneers dominated an opponent with a pedigree like the 49ers. Not since a 10-3 loss in 1991 to New Orleans Saints had the 49ers been held without a touchdown. Quite simply, it was one of the most unexpected, yet satisfying victories in franchise history.

Today, that game is remembered as a landmark for an organization entering its greatest era of prosperity. In 1997, the Bucs raced to a 5-0 start, finishing with a 10-6 record and a playoff berth. Tampa Bay capped one of the most successful seasons in franchise history with a first-round victory over Detroit in the final game at Houlihan’s Stadium.

Even though the Bucs fell a week later in Green Bay, the once-laughable organization had clearly turned the corner. Between 1997 and 2002, the hard-nosed Bucs enjoyed five playoff appearances, two division titles and a Super Bowl championship to finally shed their laughingstock label once and for all.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Volunteers Christen Tampa Stadium, 11/4/67

Tampa Stadium, November 4, 1967. As the University of Tennessee prepares to visit Tampa for the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day, it's worth remembering that 40 years ago the Vols helped open the new Tampa Stadium against the University of Tampa Spartans. Although the third-ranked Vols defeated the Spartans 38-0, a crowd of over 27,000 enjoyed the debut of Tampa's $4 million showcase stadium. While the original Tampa Stadium is long gone -- having been replaced by Raymond James Stadium in 1998 -- the opening of the stadium represents one of the most significant moments in Tampa sports history.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Buccaneers 1st Ever Win, 12/11/77

“Losing to the Bucs would be a disgrace.”

“I’ve got nothing to say.”

-- New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie Manning before and after losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

By the final month of 1977, the nearly 2-year-old Tampa Bay Buccaneers remained winless after 26 games. Suffice it to say, they needed no extra motivation as they sought their first victory. Nonetheless, the quarterback of the New Orleans Saints -- who by the late 1970s had yet to enjoy a winning season -- served up his gem for the Bucs to use as bulletin-board fodder.

The ’Aints were in the midst of another disappointing campaign when the Bucs rolled into the Superdome for an afternoon game on Dec. 11, 1977. After four straight weeks of tough, respectable outings by the Bucs defense, Manning’s comment struck a nerve with coach John McKay and his proud defenders. A mediocre quarterback’s quip appeared to provide whatever spark was lacking in every previous game played by the fledgling Tampa Bay franchise.

Bucs defensive end Lee Roy Selmon, an eventual Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee who would tally three sacks in the game, rattled Manning early with a punishing hit that sent the signal-caller sprawling to the synthetic turf. The Tampa Bay defense ruled the day, recording five sacks, six interceptions and scoring three touchdowns en route to the biggest -- and first -- win in the history of the franchise, a 33-14 laugher.

Not only was the point total more than half the Bucs’ output for the entire season, but the 33 points symbolized almost two years’ worth of frustration. The Bucs didn’t merely squeeze out a close win by a couple of points -- they won a road game in a decisive fashion, leaving no doubt their darkest days were over.

It’s clear from the reaction after the game that Manning’s jab had an impact on the Bucs, and they weren’t about to let him forget it. Lee Roy Selmon’s loquacious brother, linebacker Dewey Selmon, offered several bon mots in the Bucs’ locker room, from “(Manning) has his disgrace now and he can sit on it,” to “It’s a case of respect. When a man says that, it’s like ... well, it’s like somebody has been talking bad about your momma.”

A jubilant McKay agreed with Manning’s comment, after all: “He said it would be a disgrace to lose to us, and, it is.”

As many had warned for months, losing to the Bucs would result in a shame and indignity no team wanted to accept. General managers, coaches and players long had referred to the Bucs, without a hint of irony, as the most feared team in the league. Frustrated Bucs players, such as running back Anthony Davis, bemoaned that opponents played every game as if it were the Super Bowl to avoid being “the first.” Gil Brandt, an executive for the Dallas Cowboys, remarked that when the Bucs win a game, “it’s going to be a terrible thing to the team that loses. ... The publicity and the reaction of the fans around that city will really be something.”

Unfortunately for New Orleans, the one thing worse than being a city with an 0-26 team is a city whose squad allows a winless team its first victory. What followed in the Big Easy was expected and appropriate. Saints coach Hank Stram, later enshrined in the Hall of Fame for his earlier coaching prowess with the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs, earned a dubious distinction on that December day -- he was the first coach in history to explain a loss to Tampa Bay. Stram called it his lowest feeling as a head coach and that his team was “strangled by the trauma,” as he expressed embarrassment on behalf of the organization and its fans.

New Orleans States-Item sportswriter Peter Finney compared the Saints’ loss to historic disasters, such as a 1737 earthquake in India that killed 300,000. “Keep this in mind,” he wrote, “when you contemplate the score – Tampa Bay 33, New Orleans 14.” In his monologue while serving as guest host on The Tonight Show, Bill Cosby directed the laughs, for a change, to a different port city. “Shame is falling on New Orleans,” Cosby said. “There’ll be no Mardi Gras. No crawfish. No bread pudding. Let us all hear it for Tampa Bay.”

The fallout from the game sent shockwaves across America. When the final score was announced in stadiums from Los Angeles to Foxboro, Mass., fans erupted with cheers and standing ovations.

Playing off his titular character in the movie “Oh, God!,” George Burns sent a telegram to McKay which read, “Taking care of the Bucs was the toughest job of my career. Do me a favor and win number two on your own.” Not to be outdone, the White House even issued an official reaction, comparing President Carter’s “underdog status” to the trials and tribulations of the Buccaneers.

It was in Tampa, however, where the reaction was the loudest and most heartfelt. The scene outside the team’s headquarters near the airport reflected the relief and joy felt by the community. While the Bucs’ marching band provided the soundtrack, the team’s cheerleaders -- the Swashbucklers -- danced for the enthusiastic crowd on the roof of the Airport-Resort Hotel. A throng of more than 8,000 eagerly anticipated the team’s return from New Orleans and braved cold weather. Then, shortly before 9 p.m., pandemonium ensued as the team buses arrived.

Long the symbol of the franchise’s ineptitude and failure, on this night McKay became the main object of the crowd’s adoration. Ever the showman, he climbed atop a car to address the fans. During an impromptu speech in which he tweaked his supposed lack of humility, McKay deemed the Bucs’ inaugural triumph the “greatest win in the history of the world.” To the thousands surrounding him, McKay proclaimed, “There’s never been a better defensive player than Lee Roy Selmon!” The crowd cheered loudly as he continued: “There’s never been a better nose guard than Dave Pear!”

Buccaneer fans again roared their approval, and the noise reached a crescendo when McKay said, “And there’s never been a better head coach than John McKay!”

Monday, December 3, 2007

Lightning Strikes in Tampa Bay, Fall 1992

In the days before the St. Pete Times Forum, the team played in a glorified barn called Expo Hall. Before Brad Richards, there was the original No. 19, Brian Bradley. Before the team ever won a Stanley Cup, it played a woman, Manon Rheaume, in goal during an exhibition game.

As Archie Bunker would say, "Those were the days."

Fifteen years ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning were brand new and enjoying their status as a sports novelty in the Bay area. The National Hockey League awarded an expansion franchise to the Tampa Bay Hockey Group -- led by Hall of Famer Phil Esposito -- on Dec. 6, 1990. Less than two years later, Esposito built a franchise from the ground up that would exceed everyone's expectations during its inaugural season.

When the Lightning arrived on the scene in the fall of 1992, the Bay area was a vastly different place than today. The Buccaneers still were an orange-clad punch line, baseball fans hoped Vince Naimoli would relocate the Giants from San Francisco and anyone who predicted the University of South Florida’s football team could be ranked second in the nation would have been a candidate for a relaxing stay in Chatahoochee.

The Lightning arrived at the perfect time -- think of them as a buffet table on ice for a community starved for an exciting and competitive sports franchise.

From the start, fans of the Lightning knew to expect the unexpected, starting with the Rheaume experiment during training camp. Esposito, always colorful, defended her presence and said he would put skates on a horse if he knew it could stop a puck.

Rheaume won over the fans and media with her captivating personality, then acquitted herself nicely with a seven-save performance against the St. Louis Blues in an exhibition game, becoming the first woman to play in an NHL game.

The Lightning kept the surprises coming on opening night, Oct. 7, 1992, against the defending Campbell Conference champion Chicago Blackhawks. Despite the presence of actor Alan Thicke, the Lightning would experience few, if any, growing pains on that night.

Behind four goals by forward Chris Kontos, Tampa Bay shocked the hockey world and dazzled the home crowd by soundly defeating Chicago, 7-3. It was one of the most impressive debuts by any expansion team in any sport, and the win proved to be anything but a fluke during the first two months of the season.

The Lightning started 9-8-2, and briefly enjoyed a stay in first place. From Nov. 3-16, Tampa Bay went on a season-high six-game unbeaten streak, wining five and tying once.

The streak featured one of the most exciting games of the season, a 6-5 overtime victory over the Islanders in New York. Lightning defenseman Doug Crossman registered three goals, including the game-winner, and added three assists. Crossman’s six points that night remain the single-game mark for a Tampa Bay defenseman.

From the first game, the Lightning defied the cliches that accompany expansion franchises. Unlike many fledgling teams that struggle to score, the Lightning averaged nearly four goals per game through the first 19 games. Plus, Tampa Bay did not experience its first shutout until the 35th game of the season, a 2-0 setback to the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 18.

The Lightning played exciting hockey, even in defeat. Of Tampa Bay’s first eight losses, six were by just one goal. Instead of being a punching bag for the NHL, the Lightning, with their mixture of veterans and young talent, earned a reputation as one of the hardest-working teams in the league.

On Nov. 9, the Lightning earned a standing ovation after a 5-1 drubbing of the Rangers. Amazingly, the game was played in Madison Square Garden and the ovation was courtesy of a New York crowd.

During that inaugural season, fans immediately embraced the team's first superstar, center Brian Bradley. A castoff from the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, Bradley found his calling in Tampa Bay by tallying 42 goals and 44 assists in 80 games, and led the team in almost every major offensive category. Additionally, Bradley earned a selection to the Campbell Conference squad for the All-Star game, as well as team MVP honors at the end of the season.

Eventually, the rest of the league caught up to the Lightning and the inevitable slumps and losing streaks followed. Still, the Lightning provided Tampa fans with a successful and memorable inaugural season.

The team finished with 23 wins and 53 total points, 14 more than the San Jose Sharks recorded in their expansion season of 1991.

Esposito called the Lightning's 53 points "incredible," and who could argue with his choice of words. The success of the 1992-93 Lightning helped build the strong bond that exists between the team and its fans.

It began with that first game against Chicago in 1992 and culminated with the Lightning’s greatest triumph, the 2004 Stanley Cup victory over the Calgary Flames.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Turkey Bowl in Tampa, 11/23/67

Yankees-Red Sox. Michigan-Ohio State. Coke-Pepsi. Aniston-Jolie.

Heated rivals all, but frankly those feuds are child's play compared to the bitter rivalry that once took place annually on Thanksgiving Day in Tampa: Hillsborough vs. Plant.

Forty years ago, the Hillsborough Terriers and Plant Panthers had their 40th meeting on the gridiron. The clash was extra special because it was held for the first time at the newly opened Tampa Stadium. A then-record 16,500 fans were there, making it the most-attended high school football game in Tampa's history.

With a 7-3 record, Henry B. Plant High School entered the contest reeling from a defeat the previous week to King, a 6-0 setback that cost the Panthers a share of the city and Western Conference championships. In addition, the Panthers lost offensive standout Tommy Trent to a broken collarbone suffered during practice. Trent had scored eight touchdowns for the Panthers during the season, and his contributions would be sorely missed against Hillsborough High School.

Meanwhile, the Terriers entered the game with a two-game losing streak and their own set of problems. The day before the game, Hillsborough Coach Bernie Wilson wrestled with allowing two Terriers to play. Split end Ronnie Rodgers -- a potential All-America candidate -- and defensive standout Gene Brito had been suspended from the team for skipping class without permission. A unanimous team vote allowed them to play in the game, and the Terriers agreed to obey certain punishment standards in the future.

The game played out as defensive struggle. Plant's stingy defense forced Hillsborough quarterback Cecil Kent into three first-half interceptions. Chris Anderson provided Plant's only score of the game on a four-yard touchdown run with 2:46 left in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead.

Hillsborough's defense, which allowed 101 yards on the ground in the first half, rose to the challenge in the second half, allowing only five rushing yards. Trailing by seven near the end of the third quarter, the Terriers put together a 56-yard drive on the back of senior running back Roger McKinney, who carried five times for 49 yards during that series. Cecil Kent capped the drive with a two-yard touchdown run and the extra point tied the score, 7-7.

Late in the fourth quarter, Hillsborough’s Don Lynn blocked a punt by Plant’s Gary Segar, putting the Terriers at the Panthers’ 44 yard line. Hillsborough advanced to the 15 before calling on its star running back one more time.

With 5:48 remaining, McKinney's 25-yard field goal -- the first of his career -- sailed over the crossbar with little room to spare, giving Hillsborough a 10-7 lead. His superlative performance occurred despite twice leaving the field with leg cramps. After the game, McKinney gave credit to the wind for assisting on his game-winning kick.

"The wind was blowing from the right to the left so I kicked it to the right, and the wind did the rest," he said.

In his final high school game, McKinney accounted for 151 total yards and the game-deciding points. The senior finished his Hillsborough career by running 20 times for 151 yards on the day. The Western Conference and city scoring champion in 1967, McKinney no doubt cherished his records that year, but as the clock showed goose eggs that afternoon, he likely took great pride in one other achievement. In three years of high school football with the Hillsborough Terriers, he never knew the sting of defeat against the Plant Panthers

Monday, November 19, 2007

Tony Saunders Joins the Devil Rays, 11/18/97

This month, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as we knew them ceased to exist – they will heretofore be known as the Tampa Bay Rays. It’s hard to believe that 10 years ago this week, not only were the Rays devils, but the team had no players – at least, not at the major league level. That’s why Nov. 18, 1997, should hold special significance as the day the Tampa Bay Devil Rays finally acquired major leaguers.

It was the day fans had longed for since March 9, 1995, when Major League Baseball announced that two new franchises would be placed in Phoenix and St. Petersburg starting in 1998. Up until November 1997, both franchises stockpiled their minor league systems with free agents and amateur draft picks. The expansion draft, however, presented the first opportunity to acquire bonafide major leaguers, and gave fans the chance to see the team’s Opening Day roster take shape.

With their first pick, the Devil Rays selected Anthony “Tony” Saunders, a coveted left-handed starting pitcher from the Florida Marlins. During his rookie season of 1997, Saunders went 4-6 and struck out 102 batters in a little more than 111 innings pitched, playing a key role in the Marlins’ first-ever World Series championship. Devil Rays General Manager Chuck LaMar likened Saunders’ changeup to that of another lefty, Tom Glavine, who has won two Cy Young Awards and more than 300 games. Conventional wisdom held that Saunders too would eventually become a dominant starter and assume the role of staff ace for the Devil Rays. Fate had other things in mind, however, for Saunders and Tampa Bay.

The term “hard-luck” barely even begins to describe Saunders’ debut season with the Devil Rays. He had the unfortunate distinction of winning just one of his first 19 starts, losing his first 12 overall at Tropicana Field. Even by the standards of an expansion team, Saunders seemed to get a raw deal whenever he took the mound. Despite a team-high 20 quality starts, no pitcher in the American League received worse run support in 1998 than Saunders. The Devil Rays, whose 620 runs were the fewest in the American League since 1992, scored two or fewer runs in 15 of Saunders’ 31 starts that season.

Saunders hoped to rebound from his dismal 1998 record of 6-15 with a breakout season in 1999. On April 22, he pitched one of his best games as a Devil Ray, a 1-0 victory over Baltimore in which he came within four outs of a no-hitter – despite plunking a batter and walking seven. The victory capped a three-game sweep of the Orioles, helping the second-year Devil Rays emerge as a surprise team in the American League East. The Devil Rays raced to a 22-20 start, and on May 21 found themselves only two games out of first place.

On May 26, Saunders took the hill against the visiting Texas Rangers. Facing Juan Gonzalez in the third inning, Saunders delivered a 3-and-2 fastball that went at least 10 feet wide of the plate. To those in attendance and watching on television, it quickly became apparent that what just transpired was more than a wild pitch. Saunders’ humerus bone – which runs from the shoulder to the elbow – shattered as he released the ball, leaving his left arm dangling grotesquely to the side. The sound of his arm breaking, followed by his screams of agonizing pain, are sounds those in attendance that day at Tropicana Field will never forget.

Tragically, history would repeat itself on Aug. 24, 2000. During the fifth start of his rehabilitation, Saunders broke his left arm again while pitching for the minor league St. Petersburg Devil Rays. This appeared to be the end of his career and soon after he took a job in Tampa Bay’s front office job as assistant to scouting and player development. Saunders officially retired from baseball in 2005 after an abbreviated comeback attempt with the Orioles in spring training.

Despite the disappointing trajectory of his career, it would be difficult to argue against Tampa Bay’s selection of Saunders. After all, who could have predicted that Saunders would only win just nine of his 40 starts for the Devil Rays? On that November day in 1997, his future, and that of the Rays, looked as bright as the team’s multi-colored logo. Few could have predicted the misfortunes that were ahead for Saunders, both in terms of his injuries and the shortness of his career.

As for Tampa Bay, after 10 seasons the newly renamed Rays appear to have finally found another staff ace on whom to pin their hopes. He’s another young lefty, just like Saunders, by the name of Scott Kazmir.