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."

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