Monday, January 14, 2008

Can-Am Bowl I, 1/8/78

On Jan. 8, 1978, Tampa Stadium played host to an event unprecedented in the history of football. The Can-Am Bowl, an All-Star game pitting collegians from the United States and Canada against each other, was especially unique since the game was played by Canadian football rules. For one afternoon, top seniors from major American universities would play football against the top seniors and underclassmen from Canada. The city of Tampa, of all places, served as the battleground to finally settle the age-old debate of football superiority between these two border nations.

Actually, the disparity in football talent between Canada and the United States could not have been greater at the time. Team Canada just hoped to field a competitive team, while the American athletes hoped to avoid the humiliation of an upset loss to the Canadians. Jack Zilly, coach of Team USA, cautioned against underestimating the team from Canada, but added, “It would be embarrassing to go back to Tennessee, Alabama, Stanford, or where the players are from, if you have been beaten."

Increasing the angst of the Americans were the quirky Canadian rules. For example, teams would have only three downs to gain 10 yards, meaning "every offensive play in Canada is designed to go 10," according to Sam Bailey, the Can-Am Bowl’s executive director and former University of Tampa head coach.

Additionally, the field would be lengthened from 100 to 110 yards and widened from 53 to 60 feet. Larger fields meant larger teams as well, with the addition of one offensive and defensive player to each side of the line of scrimmage. It wasn't uncommon for a Canadian offense to feature four -- yes, four -- running backs on a given play. Throw in unlimited motion in the backfield, and one can imagine the headaches experienced by American coaches readying a game plan for their team of collegians, -- who had played football their entire lives by completely different rules.

"With the rules as we have them set up," Bailey said, "it should make for a good, competitive game, the kind fans like to see. After all, football is football."

In a surprise to no one, the United States prevailed over the Canadians by a score of 22-7. Rather than being a wide-open shootout, however, the game was a defensive struggle. In fact, Team Canada, not the U.S., was be responsible for the only offensive touchdown of the game, a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter to avoid a shutout and cap the game's scoring.

The U.S. put up the majority of its points on a pair of interceptions returned for touchdowns. In the second quarter, Vanderbilt cornerback Bernard Wilson picked off a pass by Arcadia University’s Bob Cameron and returned it 44 yards for the game's first touchdown. Wilson’s score followed a U.S. field goal and two "rouges," one-point bonuses awarded to the kicking team for tackling a returner in his own end zone on a kickoff or punt. Colorado State punter Mike Deutsch recorded two rouges in a span of two minutes and two seconds for the Americans.

"On the first rouge, I didn't know at first I had scored a point," he said. "I knew something had happened and then they flashed the point on the scoreboard. All I could say was wow.”

Georgia linebacker Ben Zambiasi added to the Americans’ lead with a 10-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter. The extra point put the U.S. ahead 22-0. Coincidentally, Zambiasi went on to have a successful 11-year career in the professional Canadian Football League. An eight-time CFL All-Star who played in four Grey Cup championship games and won one, he was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2004. And Cameron, Canada’s beleaguered quarterback that day, eventually won three Grey Cups and still holds the CFL record for most career punting yards.

Another interesting tidbit about the game was not apparent at the time, but the American squad featured two athletes who became well-known to Tampa football fans: Missouri’s Jim Leavitt and Bruce Allen from the University of Richmond. Leavitt, now head coach at the University of South Florida, made his mark in college as a linebacker. Allen, son of Hall of Fame Redskins and Rams coach George Allen, shared punting duties for the U.S. squad and connected on field goals of 23 and 25 yards.

Twenty-five years later, however, the game is more likely to be remembered for the steady downpour of rain than for any on-field performance. An 11,000-strong crowd attended the game, but by the end the rain had driven away all but a few thousand -- mostly Canadian -- diehards.

"What do I remember most about the game? The rain was the biggest problem," Sam Bailey recently recalled. "It wasn't totally unsuccessful, but it didn't do as well as we thought we could."

The game continued in various incarnations for three years after the first Can-Am Bowl, eventually turning into an exhibition between two Canadian squads.

In 1986, however, Tampa Stadium became a big-time bowl destination as host of the Hall of Fame Bowl, the first major college bowl game to be played in Tampa.

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for the memories!I remeber watching this game as a 14 year old on T.V. in Hamilton,Ontario.Canada.The Canadian quarterback (Bob Cameron)was an alum of my High School and Ben Zambiasi did go on to have a great career with the Hamilton Tiger Cats.I watched him many times at Ivor Wynne Stadium. It would great if they revived this game.Canadian university football has improved greatly since then,there are several CIS players now playing in the NFL

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  2. Thanks for the story, I was 12 when this game was played, and my memory of it was more like a dream. Although the rules favoured Canada, we didn't perform that badly considering how strong American football is.

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  3. As a loyal Canadian Football fan and loyal traveler to the Tampa Bay area, this is a game that would fun to watch at Raymond James Stadium in Feb or March. Thousands of Canuck snowbirds travel to Florida in winter to escape snow and catch a spring training ball game or two. It would be a great tourist event and I'm sure the local football fans would get a kick out of it. I don't even think we would have to limit it to college players. Perhaps recently retired players from the NFL and CFL could play as well. Wouldn't it be a great experience for a 20 year old Canadian college QB handed off to Michael "Pinball" Clemons (who's from Dunedin and a new Canadian citizen). Or if an American college defensine tackle lined up beside Bruce Smith. This is assuming that current players from the 2 leagues wouldn't play due to their pro contracts. In addition, local players from the USF Bulls or the Bucs could be invited to play. I wouldn't be surprised if 20,000 showed up, if it were well marketed. But maybe I'm just an optimist. George (argogeorge@hotmail.com)

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  4. thankyou ; that gave me forgotten memories as i played in that game and then in 1980 the grey cup as well; it won,t surprise many of you that we who played back then have very few memories now.

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    1. Would love to talk to you more about this. If you see this please send me an e-mail so we can touch base: tampasportshistory@gmail.com. Thanks for reading.

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  5. anonymous says ; i played against ben zambiasi in the can am ; and with him for the cats in 80 ; he was a fierce competitor and became good friends; pc35

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