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!”

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