Monday, May 26, 2008

Tampa Bay Bandits vs Oakland Invaders, 5/21/83

As the Tampa Bay Bandits approached Week 12 of the inaugural USFL season 25 years ago this week, the team found itself among the elite of the league’s Central Division. Tampa Bay opened the season on a roll with four consecutive victories, averaging 24 points per game along the way. The team then hit its first road-block in Week 5, getting flattened 42-3 by the Chicago Blitz in front of a disbelieving and disgusted home-crowd at Tampa Stadium.

Wins in four of the following six games, however, helped raise Tampa Bay’s record to 8-3 overall. The addition in Week 11 of Gary Anderson, a highly-touted rookie running back from the University of Arkansas, added a new and explosive dimension to an already solid Bandit attack.

Upon Anderson’s arrival in Tampa, head coach Steve Spurrier called him “the most elusive and electrifying runner in pro football.” In his debut against the Arizona Wranglers, Anderson lived up to his billing by scoring a touchdown, rushing for 99 yards, and catching four passes for 54 yards.

The Bandits owned one of the league’s best records despite having gone through three starting quarterbacks. John Reeves, who began the season as the team’s undisputed starter, went down in Week 7 with a fractured wrist. His replacement, Jimmy Jordan, suffered a shoulder injury when he was slammed to the ground by Dupre Marshall of the Oakland Invaders in Week 10. Billy Koonce then replaced Jordan and started the following week against Arizona, but his reign as starting quarterback would also be brief.

Mike Kelley, who relieved Koonce in the first half of the Arizona game, earned the starting nod as Tampa Bay geared up for a rematch against Oakland on May 21, 1983.

Kelley began the season on the Oakland roster, but was cut early on and the former Georgia Tech quarterback soon found a home with the injury-plagued Bandits. His impressive work against Arizona in relief of Koonce – 21 of 39 passing for 239 yards, and one touchdown – boded well as he prepared to face his former team.

The Bandits believed that the Invaders got away with several cheap shots in their meeting on May 8, including the hit that knocked Jimmy Jordan out of the game. Furthermore, Tampa Bay had given up over 400 yards of offense and barely held on to win the game 17-10. The revenge-minded defense thus took out is frustrations on Oakland quarterback Fred Basana, who entered the contest as the league’s top-rated passer with over 2,600 yards and 15 touchdowns.

In front of 43,389 at Tampa Stadium, the Bandits roughed up Besana from start to finish, sacking the quarterback a league-record 10 times on the night. When not making life miserable for Besana, the defense shut down the Oakland running game by limiting the Invaders to 25 total yards on the ground. Ken Times led the charge with three individual sacks, while Mike Goedecker added nine solo tackles for the Bandits.

While the game’s halftime promotion, the “Great Bandit Burn-Out,” promised to burn the mortgage of one lucky winner, quarterback Mike Kelly burned his former team by completing 21 of 40 passes for 307 yards and two touchdowns. His 21-yard touchdown pass to Eric Truvillion capped an eight-play, 80-yard drive on Tampa Bay’s first possession of the game.

Leading 10-3 with time running out in the second quarter, Kelley added another strike to Willie Gillespie from 16 yards out to complete their longest drive of the season, which covered 92 yards over nine plays. This effort would turn out to be Kelley’s finest in a Bandit uniform.
Although Oakland kept him out of the end zone, Gary Anderson still managed over 100 yards of total offense for Tampa Bay, featuring three grabs for 55 yards and 66 yards on 16 carries.

Tampa Bay’s 29-9 victory over Oakland raised their record to 9-3 with six games remaining in the season. Despite their impressive mark, tough contests in the two of the following three weeks against division foes Chicago and Michigan would determine Tampa Bay’s fate as either a playoff contender or pretender in the USFL’s highly competitive Central Division.

Monday, May 19, 2008

UT Football Program Peril, 5/17/63

Although the University of Tampa Spartans would not play their final football game until November 1974, the school's board of trustees made a decision on May 17, 1963, that foreshadowed the demise of the gridiron program. The university, 45 years ago this week, reached a decision to stop awarding scholarships, or "grants-in-aid," to football players. The decision put an immediate cloud over the 1963 season.

University of Tampa president Dr. David Delo said that the Spartans would play in the fall, but beyond that made no guarantees. The uncertainty threatened to send the team's best players scrambling for other programs. Athletic Director Sam Bailey expressed hope that a deep pool of recruits could sustain a roster possibly bereft of scholarship athletes.

William C. MacInnes, the chairman of the board's executive committee, cited financial concerns in his explanation for the decision.

"We discovered that football scholarships were out of proportion to academic scholarships and we saw no way that the sport could pay for itself," MacInnes said. "The receipts have just not carried the program, yet nobody really wanted to give it up."

MacInnes added that other sports at the university could possibly benefit from the new policy. Skepticism prevailed on campus and elsewhere around the city. Nash Higgins, the first football coach in the school's history, felt "distressed" at the news.

"I don't think there is a full appreciation of the educational value of sports and athletics on the part of many educators," Higgins said.

J. Crockett Farnell, the Hillsborough County Superintendent of Schools and a former Spartan football player, called the move a "sad mistake" that would have a great impact on the university. Farnell could not have been more correct.

For years, big-time football programs refused invitations to play the Spartans in Tampa. Why? The football team's stadium, Phillips Field, closer resembled a high school field than the home of a legitimate college program. Factor in a limited seating capacity with an outdated stadium and it's not hard to see why the university elders doubted the football program's economic viability.

The possibility existed of building a new, permanent home for the football team. A stadium would once again allow the university to attract big-time opponents, and maybe host an NFL exhibition game in the summer. The idea that had gathered some steam among the movers and shakers in the business community would become a reality in 1967.

Rather than a blessing, however, life in Tampa Stadium and as an NCAA Division I program created even more expenses and threatened the long-term financial stability of the university. On February 27, 1975, university trustees decided once and for all to end football at the University of Tampa.

The football program, today extinct with little chance of ever being revived, still managed to survive a full decade beyond its projected expiration date. In fact, the program thrived during its final seasons. From 1968-1974, the Spartans never had a losing season and sported a .722 overall winning percentage. A victory in the 1972 Tangerine Bowl over Kent State capped a 10-2 season and proved to be one of the program’s finest hours.

No one close to the team in those dark days of May 1963, however, could have predicted a future filled with winning seasons, bowl triumphs, and the likes of John Matuszak and Freddie Solomon bringing the university one final taste of gridiron glory.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Team Florida vs Soviet Union, 5/13/83

Gordon Gibbons, head coach of the men's basketball team at Clayton State University in Georgia, still recalls details of the game as if it were played yesterday. In a lifetime of memorable championship games, this exhibition basketball contest still stands out twenty five years later.

"Their overall size. Five seven-footers. Every guard six-foot-six or six-foot-seven," Gibbons says. "They were a huge team."

On May 13, 1983, the Soviet Union Junior National Team made Tampa its fourth stop on an 11-city, 15-day tour of the United States. Their opponent for the exhibition at the USF Sun Dome: Team Florida, a 19-and-under AAU team helmed by Gibbons and stocked with some of the state's top prospects.

"When we put the team together, we wanted to do it big time," Gibbons recalls. "Expose basketball in the state and get the top players. It snowballed from there."

The coach points out that in the 1980s, long before the University of Florida won back-to-back NCAA basketball championships, basketball in this state wasn't taken seriously.

"Florida basketball hadn't been anything prior to Team Florida," Gibbons says. "Team Florida made basketball in this state. We felt like the quality of basketball here had been underexposed, and was one of the best kept secrets in the country. There was no question though about the talent on our roster."

The roster included six players whose distinguished college careers would help them earn selection in the NBA draft: Ronnie Murphy, Randy
Allen, Ricky Blanton, Andrew Moten, Frank Ford, and Will Perdue.

The Soviets, no slouches themselves, featured a talented team that included future NBA draftees and 1988 Olympic gold medalists Valery Tikhonenko and Aleksandr Volkov.
Joel Canfall, who played guard for USF, believed wholeheartedly that Team Florida could match up with the Soviets.

"I bet we have just as much skill, if not more, than (they) do," Canfall said prior to the game. "We don't know that much about what we're getting into here, but we're not intimidated by them."

If they weren't intimidated, Gibbons still made sure that his team respected the Soviets going into the game.

"Our biggest challenge was at that point in time, American kids didn't respect the quality of international basketball," Gibbons says. "They didn't think that a bunch of big white guys from Europe would be very good."

Prior to the team's arrival in Tampa, Gibbons and his coaching staff scouted a game in New York between the Soviets and the New York Riverside Hawks, a renowned team that featured future NBA stars Kenny Smith and Olden Polynice. Although the Soviets lost by 17 points, they left quite an impression on the Team Florida staff.

"They were quick and fast," Gibbons says. "It really surprised me how well they passed and handled the ball. They were physical and could fast break better than I expected. I told the team when we got back, 'Hey, these guys are real good.' So there's no way I was going to let us take them lightly."

A crowd of 3,500 at the Sun Dome watched the Soviets race out to an early 22-10 lead. While Team Florida struggled to find its rhythm on offense, the Soviets were patient and controlled the tempo of the game. Eventually, Team Florida's full court attack would wear down the Soviets.

Trailing 56-48 with just over 13 minutes left in the game, Team Florida mounted a comeback behind the strength of guard Frank Ford. The future Auburn University standout scored eight points on a 13-0 run that propelled Team Florida to a 61-56 lead. Team Florida would never trail again in the game.

Ford scored a game-high 31 points and registered 11 rebounds in a performance neither the Soviets, nor Gibbons, would forget.

"Ford was unbelievable," Gibbons recalls. "He out-quicked their big guys around the basket and was such a great offensive rebounder. He was the difference in that game."

The game remained in doubt until the final minute, but guard Jimmy McCrimmon stole a pass from Igor Kornishin and finished off the game with a slam dunk to provide the final margin in a 82-76 victory.

Ford earned Most Valuable Player honors for leading Team Florida to the win over the Soviets. Battered and bruised after the game, Ford said that he had "never played against any team that big. It was very physical, but I just think we had more adrenalin flowing."

If Ford seemed like a player on a mission, it’s because in order to play in the game Ford had to miss out on another very important event.

"I had to miss my senior prom and was kind of upset," Ford recently said. "I’d just started dating a young lady and it was all set up. Then the game came along, and you just couldn’t miss it because it was the Russians coming to town. Who wouldn’t want to play for the pride of the U.S.A.?"

Despite being played prior to the end of the Cold War, the game featured no animosity or ill feelings by either team. On the contrary, Gibbons remembers a feeling of sportsmanship by both sides that transcended ideology.

"The neatest thing I remember about the experience was the respect the players had for each other. It wasn't like 'They're Russians! They're Commies!' Sports transcends that a bit."
"After the game, our teams got together at their hotel. The players hung out watching television, and our coaching staff met with theirs to talk, with help of their interpreter of course. It was kind of cool."

The Soviet team's brief exposure to Florida included such quintessentially American activities like lunch at McDonald's and a day trip to Disney World. Later that summer, Gibbons returned the favor and embarked on a 15-day tour of the Soviet Union with an AAU All-Star team. In a career that is fast approaching the 400-win mark, where does his stint as coach of this international team rank?

"It was a really great experience for all of us and something I know I'll never forget."

Monday, May 5, 2008

Catching Up With Dave Martinez

A member of the original Tampa Bay Devil Rays roster, Dave Martinez has returned to the organization this season as bench coach for Manager Joe Maddon. As a player, Martinez spent 17 seasons in the big leagues with eight different teams from 1986-2001. A veteran of 1,919 games, Martinez collected 1,599 hits and hit .276 over his career. The starting right fielder for Tampa Bay from 1998-2000, Martinez recorded the first hit (a single) in team history as well as the team’s first inside-the-park home run. Known throughout his career as a student of the game, Martinez brings an optimistic spirit, as well as his baseball expertise, to Tampa Bay’s coaching staff.

Q. Going back to the winter of 1997, how did you make the decision to sign a free agent contract with Tampa Bay?

A. Well, I've lived here in this area for over 17 years. I've made my home here, so I wanted to be part of something new. That was a big attraction for me and my family.

Q. You provided some excitement on Opening Day by getting the first hit in team history. What are your memories of that game?

A. I remember the thrill of running out onto the field for the first time. It was such a huge honor to be on the team that finally brought baseball to the area. I felt glad to be a part of it. The attendance that day was the most people that have ever been in here, so you couldn't believe the electricity in the air.

Q. Were you able to keep the ball?

A. No, but they retrieved it from the field and sent it to the Hall of Fame. So that's pretty cool!

Q. How would you characterize the teams that you played on here from 1998-2000?

A. In the beginning, we knew it would take some time to develop our young players, so they brought in veterans like me, Wade Boggs, and Fred McGriff. It was a combination of youth and experience.

You know, we would have done a lot better if we hadn't had so many injuries. That first year, Wilson Alvarez got hurt and missed two months. I went down with a hip flexor injury in July that put me out for the season. The next year we lost Quinton McCracken, Tony Saunders, and a few others to serious injuries. That really set the team back.

Q. In July of 1998, you hit the first inside-the-park home run in team history off New York Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu. What do you remember about that historic at-bat?

A. Well, I hit the ball deep to left-center. Their centerfielder, Chad Curtis, tried to make a diving catch, but he missed and it got by him. So I was off to the races. I was so tired at the end I kind of did a half-slide, half-fall into home plate.

Q. In May of 2000, you were traded by Tampa Bay to the Chicago Cubs. Before the season ended, you were traded again to the Texas Rangers, and from there to the Toronto Blue Jays. What was that season like for you?

A. I'll just say it was an experience. My family and I basically lived out of our suitcases that entire summer. But it wasn't that bad, because I made friendships with teammates who I'm still in touch with to this day. As long as I've been given the opportunity to wear a big league uniform, it really hasn't mattered where I was playing. I've been traded many times throughout my career, and while the first one is the hardest, you get used to it and realize it is part of the business. I just can't believe so many teams wanted me!

Q. You played under Don Zimmer in 1988 as a member of the Chicago Cubs. Twenty years later you are colleagues here in Tampa Bay, where he serves on the coaching staff as a senior advisor. What is your relationship like with him?

A. Even before he was my manager, he was my third base coach when I broke in with Chicago in 1986. I just have the utmost respect for the man. I've sat with him many times to try and pick his brain. He is extremely knowledgeable about the game.

Q. Talk about your role as bench coach for Joe Maddon.

A. He's also a very knowledgeable guy and someone who devotes so much detail to everything about the game. What I bring to the table is my experience as a player, so I want to do anything that can help him do his job better. When he got the job, he called and asked if I wanted to help as an instructor during Spring Training. I did that for two years, and then filled in for George Hendrick as first base coach for a few weeks last season following his knee surgery. Right now I’m happy to be back in the game and enjoy being around the guys. Tom Foley, our third base coach and a former teammate of mine in Montreal, ride to the stadium together every day and he's made the transition a lot easier. This isn't where I saw myself when I retired, but it is a lot of fun and I’m grateful for this opportunity.