Monday, January 19, 2009

McEnroe Plays at Bayfront, 1/20/84

In the days leading up to Super Bowl XVIII twenty-five years ago, some of the biggest names in sports came to the Tampa Bay area. One athlete in particular had nothing to do with football, but was more well-known than game participants Joe Theismann, John Riggins, or Marcus Allen combined.

Known just as much for his on-court temper tantrums as his serve-and-volley prowess, John McEnroe had no equal in all of tennis in terms of star power. McEnroe brought his larger-than-life personality to the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg as part of the “Tennis over America” tour for a match against Guillermo Villas on the evening of January 20, 1984.

Although he only captured six singles titles in 1983 -- including one Grand Slam (Wimbledon) -- McEnroe stormed into 1984 with a major victory over one of his biggest rivals. Earlier in the week, McEnroe officially claimed the No. 1 ranking in men’s tennis with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Ivan Lendl in the final of the Volvo Masters championship at Madison Square Garden.

Vilas, in the meantime, spent the days prior to the event appealing his suspension by the Men’s International Professional Tennis Council. The first South American male to win a Grand Slam title (the 1977 French Open), Vilas was charged with accepting an illegal $60,000 guarantee to play a tournament in the Netherlands. The council slapped Vilas with a $20,000 fine and a one-year suspension from the tour.

Vilas lost his appeal as the council review board found him guilty of soliciting and accepting guarantee money to play in the tournament, a violation of rules which only allowed players to compete for prize money. The council lifted his suspension, however, citing a career of “exemplary” conduct as part of their decision.

The words “exemplary” and “conduct” were two words rarely used together in any sentence written about McEnroe. As he neared his 25th birthday, the star sometimes known as the “Super Brat” hoped to shed his rambunctious reputation.

“My 1984 resolution is to get away from that (controversy) a little bit,” McEnroe said. “I have a hot temper and I know it. It’s really pretty difficult to turn it off and on at will, but I’m trying.”

McEnroe seemed to try pretty hard to control his temper and concentrate on his tennis during the match against Vilas. The two players had participated in the on-and-off traveling show together since 1981 and had faced off in over 40 such events. The evening, after all, was just as much about putting on a show for the crowd nearly 5,500-strong than anything else. To that end, disco lights and a fog machine provided the special effects as McEnroe and Vilas took the court to the song “Eye of the Tiger.”

Perhaps in a relaxed mood early on in the match, McEnroe played to the crowd throughout the first set. Ever the showman, he mixed an assortment of pantomimes and facial expressions with feigned outrage at line calls that went against him.

After jumping out to an early 3-1 lead, Vilas rallied to take five of the next six games to capture the first set. As if realizing he needed to shift to another gear, McEnroe broke Vilas’s serve twice in the second set en route to winning the set 6-2.

The third set proved to be a repeat as McEnroe held serve and again broke a worn-down Vilas twice to capture the set and win the match 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.

The evening continued with a special celebrity doubles match with Tom Cousineau of the Cleveland Browns and, a slightly lesser known celebrity in Phil Scott, the manager of the Bayfront Center. Scott filled in at the last minute for Hugh Green of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In the end, the crowd enjoyed the exhibition, got three quality sets from two of tennis’s best players, and saw McEnroe receive a wristwatch for winning the match.

After leaving St. Petersburg, McEnroe went on to have the most successful year of his career, compiling an 82-3 record. McEnroe won a career-high 13 singles titles in 1984, including Wimbledon and U.S. Open championships.

Towards the end of the year at a tournament in Stockholm, Sweden, McEnroe uttered the now infamous line directed at the chair umpire, “Answer my question, jerk!” before dramatically slamming his racket into a courtside juice cart. Despite an unprecedented run of success in 1984, alas, McEnroe could not keep his New Year’s resolution to shy away from controversy.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Can-Am Bowl II, 1/6/79

In early 1979, the Harrison Ford film "Force Ten from Navarone" continued playing in local movie houses for the third week in a row. The film's tagline -- "The Odds Against Them Were 10,000 to 1" -- easily could have referred to the team of Canadian college football All-Stars squaring off against their American counterparts at Tampa Stadium on January 6, 1979.

In the second annual Canadian-American Bowl, the game featured the top seniors from Canada and, well, a few of the pretty good ones from the United States. In a rematch of the 1978 contest won 22-7 by the United States, Team Canada came in seeking redemption as a 12-point underdog.

The Tampa Bay area, too, had a chance for redemption. A year prior, the game featured the worst weather imaginable for a "showcase" game: a monsoon-like downpour on a cold and windy day. Only 11,000 officially attended the previous game, but thousands high-tailed early it to the drier confines of the Tampa Bay Center.

With favorable weather on tap for the rematch, game organizer Sam Bailey predicted better crowds and a better experience for anyone interested in attending the game, not to mention those watching around the United States and Canada.

"I'm just hoping that people will see what a fine day it is, wake up and come on out to the game," Bailey said. "We'd sure like to get 20,000. It is a fun thing, an interesting affair, and it's the only game in town."

With the average ticket price just over $6 (roughly $17 in today's dollars), certainly football-hungry fans would show up on a beautiful January day. As in the 1978 contest, the game was played under mostly Canadian rules, which featured quirks such as unlimited motion before a snap on offense, three downs instead of four to get a first down, 12 players to a side instead of 11 and the ever-popular rouge – a one-point bonuse awarded to the kicking team for tackling a returner in his own end zone on a kickoff or punt.

The American team, led by former University of Tampa head coach Fred Pancoast, hoped to make a statement against the Canadians, proving that the relatively close contest the year before was merely a fluke. The Canadians, with eight returning players from the prior contest, sought to avenge their nation's pride in a game broadcast on the government network in Canada. This would be no easy challenge against a highly-motivated American squad.

With the table set for an entertaining afternoon of football, a lackluster crowd of 11,033 -- a figure somewhere between the 14,000 tickets sold and the 8,000 or so spotted in the stands -- attended the game at Tampa Stadium. Those who came -- particularly the majority of fans waving the Maple Leaf -- enjoyed a closely contested first half.

Despite a touchdown just over three minutes into the game, the Americans appeared tentative early on and not entirely aware of the subtle differences in rules. Team Canada capitalized on a Team USA fumble that would have been blown dead under American rules, and two plays later the team from the Great White North scored its first touchdown to notch the game at 7. Pancoast had anticipated that his team might get off to a slow start.

"I figured we would have trouble in the beginning and they would come out emotionally fired up," he said.

Team Canada then added the game's first and only rouge with 8:52 left in the half to take an 8-7 lead. It was Team Canada's first lead in either of the two games, but it would prove to be short-lived.

With just 23 seconds left in the half, Martin Cox of Vanderbilt made a diving catch in the end zone on a 34-yard pass from Dave Marler of Missippi State to give his team a 14-8 lead at the half.

The two connected again on Team USA's first drive of the second half, this time from 36 yards out to cap a nine-play, 75-yard drive.

With a 21-8 lead, Team USA poured it on courtesy of a 58-yard punt return touchdown by Ira Matthews of Wisconsin. Dave Rader of Tulsa added a touchdown pass on the first play of the fourth quarter to cap the day's scoring for the Americans.

Team Canada added a meaningless touchdown with just under two minutes left in the game to complete the 34-14 outcome.

Pancoast praised his team's performance afterwards, pointing out they hadn't spent much time together.

"I'm proud of our kids," the winning coach said. "We had only been together three days and they did a good job. I can't ask for any more than that."

Game organizer Sam Bailey, however, wanted more than he got in terms of attendance for a game with a suddenly uncertain future.

"We had a good game, good weather, generally a good show," Bailey said. "Just not enough people, again."

Monday, January 5, 2009

American Bowl Debuts, 1/4/69

As 1969 began, Tampa Stadium had just completed its first full year of operation. The stadium played host that year to high school and college football games, and hosted an NFL exhibtion game as well.

The first major event of 1969 to be held at the stadium would be the first annual American Bowl. The game, sponsored by the West Coast Lions Club, would feature all-star college football players from programs around the country.

The game truly showcased a who's who list of college standouts who would go on to future glory in the NFL. The North squad featured Notre Dame linebacker Bob Kuechenberg, Kansas quarterback Bobby Douglass, and Penn State tight end Ted Kwalik, while the South team touted University of Florida running back and Tampa-product Larry Smith, University of Miami defensive end Ted Hendricks and running back Eugene "Mercury" Morris from West Texas State.

The coaching staffs of both teams were no slouches, either. Legendary Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Paul "Bear" Bryant led the South squad, where he was joined by Ray Graves of the University of Florida, Fran Curci of the University of Tampa and College Football Hall of Famer Frank Broyles from the University of Arkansas.

The North was led by Purdue coach and 1988 College Football Hall of Fame inductee Jack Mollenkopf. His staff included coaches Pepper Rodgers of Kansas and Navy's Lee Corso.

At a Lions Club luncheon during the week, Mollenkopf praised the event and local hospitality.

"I've been to a number of bowl games and postseason all-star games," he said. "But I have never, ever seen so many great players in one place as we have here, nor such sound arrangements."

As a representative of the North, however, he cautioned his own squad that all goodwill would likely become irrelevant come game time.

"A word of warning: Saturday at 1 o'clock, you will all become damn yankees," Mollenkopf said.

Clearly, of the 16,380 in attendance on the afternoon of Jan. 4, 1969, a majority were rooting for the team representing a South squad - which boasted representatives from four Florida schools and several of the Southeastern Conference's top programs.

Although an estimated 20 million fans tuned in to watch the broadcast of the game, several factors perhaps affected the overall stadium attendance. Windy and rainy conditions on the day of the game nearly eliminated all walk-up ticket sales. In addition, a costly $7.50 ticket (nearly $42 in today's dollars) convinced an untold number of fans to watch the game on television, since there was no local blackout of the game.

A first-class halftime show featuring the Marching Southerners and Marching Ballerinas from Jacksonville State University, as well as the Kilgore (Texas) College Rangerettes, dazzled the drenched spectators.

In addition, Tampa Mayor Dick Greco presented the "American of the Year Award" to veteran Charles Woods, who suffered severe burns in a plane crash during World War II.

The game itself proved worthy of an all-star contest. The North owned a 21-0 lead by the third quarter behind the arms of Bobby Douglass and Greg Cook of the Cincinnati Bearcats. Douglass threw a touchdown pass and ran for another, compiling 111 all-purpose yards en route to being named the game's most valuable player.

With the win seemingly in hand, at one point television cameras panned to the North's sideline and captured Jack Mollenkopf coaching from the comfort of a chair.

On the opposing sideline, Bear Bryant rallied his troops and almost engineered a triumphant comeback. The South rallied for 15 points in the fourth quarter on touchdowns by running backs Dickie Lyons and Mercury Morris, but came up just short and lost to the North by a score of 21-15.

For Bryant, he lost for the second time in one week in the state of Florida - the University of Missouri had defeated his Alabama squad 35-10 in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 28.

"I wouldn't have thought that could happen," the proud coach said, "and I don't particularly like it."

Despite a few small glitches, the game was an overall success and set the table for a string of Lions Club-sponsored American Bowls that would continue until 1977.