Monday, December 15, 2008

Super Soccer Weekend, 12/10/78

In recent years, the Tampa Bay area has become accustomed to hosting major sporting events. This community has hosted the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup Finals, the World Series, the Outback Bowl, the NCAA Final Four, and many other contests of significance. In the late 1970s, however, the Tampa Bay area had yet to prove itself as a player on the national scene.

The popularity of the Tampa Bay Rowdies – the area’s first professional franchise -- helped put Tampa Bay on the fast-track towards hosting major events. The Rowdies’ success led some to believe that Tampa could soon become the soccer capital of the United States.

In 1978, Sports Tampa Inc., a group led by local attorneys Tom Singletary and Robert Tropp, sought to capitalize on the popularity of the Rowdies by organizing a “Super Soccer Weekend,” a two-day tournament in early December which would feature four regional winners from around the country to determine the NCAA Division I soccer champion.

The impetus to host this event began when Singletary ran into a newspaper friend while walking on Franklin Street in downtown Tampa. A casual remark about how Tampa was becoming a “sports capital” led to a phone call several days later.

“He called and told me the NCAA was looking for a site for its soccer championship,” Singletary said. “I thought it was a natural for Tampa.”

Ralph McFillen, Assistant Director of Events for the NCAA, had several requirements that needed to be met in order for Sports Tampa to host this event. The tournament had to be in a warm weather site, the stadium needed to be large enough to potentially grow with the event, the playing surface needed to be grass, and the area had to be a hotbed of soccer interest.

The Tampa Bay area fit all the requirements. With the rabid following the Rowdies enjoyed, as well as the growth of youth soccer and adult recreational leagues throughout the region, there was no reason to believe such an event could fail to attract soccer fans.

McFillen attended a Rowdies game in person during August of 1978 and became convinced. In September, the NCAA awarded Sports Tampa the tournament for at least one year, with options for an additional two years. Singletary could not have been more pleased.

“We felt people wanted to see good soccer,” Singletary said, “not just professional soccer. It’s going to catch on in the schools and its going to be here permanently.”

Still, the group had a serious disadvantage in promoting the event with less than two months to rally local sponsorships and drum up support. Nobody knew which teams would be playing in the tournament either, so that made raising money and interest extremely difficult. The organizers did not find out which teams would be coming to town until nine days before the actual event.

Then things started breaking Sports Tampa’s way. Anheuser-Busch, Maas Brothers, University Toyota, and General Telephone all stepped forward as major sponsors for the tournament. The group couldn’t have selected any better teams for the tournament either, as for the first time ever, the four top-ranked teams in the nation – the University of San Francisco, Clemson University, Indiana University, and Philadelphia Textile (now Philadelphia University) – all advanced to the semifinals.

An extremely impressive foursome, the teams came to Tampa with combined records of 82-2-1. The San Francisco Dons, winners of three NCAA titles overall and back-to-back winners in 1975 and 1976, entered as the favorites even though their only loss came early in the season to top-ranked Indiana.

San Francisco would get a chance at revenge in the championship game. In the semifinals, the Dons defeated Clemson, while Indiana topped Philadelphia to set up a rematch. In Tampa Stadium on December 10, 1978, roughly 4,500 fans braved the cold and windy weather to see the Dons defeat the Hoosiers 2-0 to capture their school’s fourth national title.

Despite the high-caliber of teams in the tournament, it seemed as though the lack of time to prepare for the event hurt Tampa Sports, particularly in the area of advanced ticket sales. Overall, fewer than 10,000 fans showed up for the two-day event.

Today, those in attendance cannot even claim that they were able to see a national champion crowned. The University of San Francisco later had its title vacated because they used an ineligible player in the game, a cruel final twist to a weekend that ultimately failed to live up to its potential.

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