Monday, November 23, 2009

Tampa's First Winless Season, 11/18/49

Before defeating the Green Bay Packers two weekends ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers seemed destined to endure the indignity of another winless season.

It would have been the second time the franchise failed to win a game during the course of a season, the first of course coming in 1976 -- the team's inaugural campaign -- when the Buccaneers went 0-14.

That miserable season was not the first time, however, local football fans had to endure a "perfect" season. A now long-forgotten edition of the Tampa Spartans provided such a season 60 years ago.

Heading into their final game of the season on Nov. 18, 1949, the Spartans owned a dismal 0-7 record. All year long, the Spartans were plagued by a lack of offense. The team scored a season-high 19 points in a Sept. 30 contest against Milligan College, but averaged just nine points per game.

The defense, meanwhile, fared no better in surrendering a staggering 36 points per game. The team allowed 100 points alone during the first two weeks of the season, highlighted by a 70-6 whitewashing at the hands of Memphis State.

The Spartans, led by second-year head coach Mike Gaddis, limped back into Tampa to prepare for their season finale on the heels of a 46-7 drubbing at Delta State in Cleveland, Miss. The team had quite a task at hand in preparing to play the Florida State Seminoles. The Seminoles, making their inaugural visit to Tampa, arrived with a 6-1 mark and were smarting from their first defeat the prior week to the Livingston State Teachers, a 13-6 setback.

The Seminoles, however, were the class of the Dixie Conference, a collection of small schools such as Millsaps, Stetson, Howard College (now Stamford University) and Mississippi College. A win against Tampa would guarantee Florida State a second consecutive conference championship, while a loss for Tampa would guarantee the program the first winless season in its 13-year history.

Florida State also made news during the week leading up to the game based on a future engagement in the city of Tampa. The Seminoles voted unanimously to accept a bid to play in the Shrine Cigar Bowl at Phillips Field. While the team had not yet been formally offered an invitation by selection committee chairman J. Rex Farrior, the team voted in preparation for that eventuality. Nothing short of a staggering upset to the Spartans could stand in the way of Florida State coming back to play at Phillips Field on Jan. 2, 1950.

The Seminoles first had to deal with the matter at hand of avoiding an upset against the Spartans. On a chilly November night, a season-high crowd of 4,000 turned out to Phillips Field for the Homecoming Weekend contest. Those who came to see the Spartans fight hard and give their best did not leave disappointed. Neither did the Florida State backers who hoped to see their team emerge with a victory.

The Spartans played Florida State to a scoreless tie after one quarter, but turnovers plagued both teams and neither could gain traction offensively.

The Seminoles were first to capitalize, however, taking advantage of an interception by Tampa's Jerry Jackson. Norman Eubanks scored on a 60-yard run a few plays later to give Florida State a 7-0 lead. Following an exchange of punts, a Buddy Strauss touchdown dive from the goal line upped the lead to 13-0, and Florida State took a 20-0 lead into the half after another Tampa interception set up halfback Wyatt Parish's 20-yard dash to the end zone.

The Spartans threatened to make a game of it in the third quarter as its defense kept them alive. Tailback Gene King scored on a fourth-and-goal attempt from the 1 to bring Tampa within two scores, 20-7.

That is as close as the Spartans would get, however, as Florida State iced the game with two fourth quarter touchdowns en route to a 34-7 triumph. The Spartans committed seven turnovers for the game, dooming them to defeat and the dreaded winless season.

Fortunately for the University of Tampa, it would be the only winless season in the program's history, and brighter days would lie ahead with the hiring of Marcelino Huerta as head coach in 1952.

As for Florida State, they accepted an invitation to play in the Shrine Cigar Bowl against Wofford College. The Seminoles capped their 9-1 season with a 19-6 triumph, a memorable outcome to the first bowl appearance in the rich history of Florida State football.

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