Monday, December 28, 2009

NFL Playoffs Come to Tampa Bay, 12/29/79

As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers near the finish line of one of the worst seasons in franchise history, a fan’s thoughts may wander back to happier, simpler times.

In 1979, Tampa Bay shocked the NFL by racing to a 5-0 start. Coming off a 5-11 record in 1978, the Buccaneers were at least seen as a team going in the right direction. Still, few could have anticipated such a staggering start. Amazingly, after five weeks the Buccaneers were the only undefeated team in the league.

“No one gave the Bucs a chance at anything,” says Dick Crippen, a former member of the Buccaneers broadcast crew, “yet somehow in training camp, they got the idea they could win.”

Win they did. The Buccaneers finished with a 10-6 record and won the NFC Central Division. This set up a divisional playoff showdown against the Philadelphia Eagles on December 29 at Tampa Stadium.

Former Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez had just entered office as the Buccaneers began their climb in the standings. By late December, Buccaneer mania had clearly run wild on the community.

“The city became alive with talk, preparation, shopping for playoff memorabilia, and trying to get playoff tickets,” Martinez recalls.

The success of the team, in turn, gave Tampa a unique opportunity to showcase itself on a national stage. This would be the first game in team history to be broadcast on national television.

“Tampa was marketing itself nationally and internationally as a place to do business, work and play,” Martinez says. “The playoff game gave us center stage during the run up to the game and the game itself.

“It's great for a community to have a big topic, like the Bucs, to talk about in addition to weather, politics, etc. Having big-time sports gives a community a sense of place and pride. Once the Bucs got their winning ways, Johnny Carson picked on something else, game attendance went up and the players stopped fighting being part of the Bucs organization.”

Much like the Buccaneers in 1979, up until 2008 the Tampa Bay Rays were a team that knew nothing but losing. Making the playoffs and winning the American League East division were considered such major accomplishments that reaching the World Series was gravy. In both instances, players and fans had cause to slip into “happy to be there” mode.

“Like the Rays in 2008, the Bucs were 'The Little Engine That Could,' Crippen says. “When the fans heard that the Eagles would be the opponent, I think many of them figured it had been a great ride and were just proud the Bucs made the playoffs.”

The Eagles, despite making the playoffs as a wild card, at 11-5 actually had a better record than Tampa Bay and were considered a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

“All the experts had Philadelphia going to the Super Bowl, and I think they were even a favorite to win it,” recalls radio personality Jack Harris, then a member of the Buccaneers broadcast crew. “We were supposed to be just a bump on their way to being champions. I don’t think anyone gave us much of a chance.”

True enough, the Eagles were installed as a four-point favorite despite being the road team. Because of Tampa Bay boasted the league's top-ranked defense, most prognosticators anticipated a close game no matter the outcome. Brent Musberger, host of “The NFL Today” on CBS, proved to be one of the few exceptions in predicting a 21-point Philadelphia victory.

Bucs coach John McKay anticipated a much-closer and low-scoring contest. He also said that to win, the Bucs would have to pass the ball effectively and often.

“Just taking the ball and driving it on them, I don’t think you are going to do that,” he said. “I just don’t see anybody doing that.”

Whether McKay truly believed that or just said it as a ruse, the Buccaneers did the exact opposite on their opening drive of the game. On a day officially proclaimed by Mayor Martinez as “Tampa Bay Buccaneers Day,” it turned out to be Ricky Bell Day at Tampa Stadium.

On a clock-chewing, morale-boosting opening drive, the Buccaneers controlled the ball for 9:25, marching 80 yards down the field for a touchdown. Bell , the workhorse on this drive and on the day, got into the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the Philadelphia four yard line to give Tampa Bay the early lead.

This would be just the beginning. With his team leading 10-0 in the second quarter, Bell scored his second rushing touchdown of the day, a one-yard run to give the underdog Buccaneers a three-score lead.

Tampa Bay ’s defense lived up to its billing as well, bullying and harassing quarterback Ron Jaworski all afternoon, limiting him to 15 completions on 39 attempts. The league’s top defense held Pro Bowl running back Wilbur Montgomery to just 35 yards on 13 carries. The hard-hitting secondary and linebacker corps, in the meantime, forced drops on catchable balls and held star wide receiver Harold Carmichael to just three receptions.

On the other side, Doug Williams had an efficient, if not spectacular, game at quarterback -- 7-15 for 132 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT – but managed the offense and made key throws at the right time. Bell simply had a monster performance with an NFL-record 38 carries, rushing for 142 yards and two touchdowns.

Despite a late rally, the Buccaneers held on for a 24-17 victory in a game that really wasn’t as close as the score indicated. Tampa Bay dominated on both sides of the ball and left no doubt as to which was the better team. The victory sent Tampa Stadium into what Crippen calls a state of “delirium.”

“When the Bucs ended up beating the Eagles, the euphoria set in and the fans believed anything was possible,” he says. “Everyone believed the team was capable of going all the way.”

Harris recalls how being the underdog in the game made the outcome that much sweeter.

“Consequently, it was almost like a Super Bowl win,” he says. “We had beaten the best team arguably in the NFL, and no one expected it. I think the unexpected wins are the best ones.

“But again, almost all the wins that season were pretty much unexpected, which tends to heighten the level of elation on the part of fans and players alike, almost exponentially.”

That afternoon, the Buccaneers earned the respect of the Philadelphia Eagles and, finally, the nation. Losing the following week to the Los Angeles Rams, while disappointing, did nothing to diminish the good feelings engendered by the Buccaneers, who thirty years ago this week, were indeed the toast of the town.

Monday, December 21, 2009

McKay Leaves With a Win, 12/16/84

Despite a disappointing 5-10 record, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers headed into their season finale twenty five years ago with something left to accomplish. With a playoff berth and a winning record long since out of reach, the Buccaneers could still end the season on a positive note: sending off coach John McKay with a win.

On Nov. 5, the day after a last-second loss to the Minnesota Vikings, McKay announced 1984 would be his final season on the sidelines. In the game at Minnesota, Vikings kicker Jan Stenerud broke a 24-24 tie on a 53-yard field goal with just two seconds left, sending the Bucs to their fourth consecutive defeat. This proved too much for McKay.

“When Stenerud hit that long field goal,” McKay said, “I said, ‘That’s as much as I can take.’”

The Buccaneers followed his announcement by dropping three of the next four games, ending any chance of making the playoffs or even finishing at .500. Still, coming off a 23-6 home win against Atlanta in Week 15, the Bucs had a chance to end McKay’s coaching career on an up note with a win over the 7-8 New York Jets.

Such circumstances hardly seemed appropriate for one of the legendary coaches in the history of football. As head coach of the University of Southern California Trojans from 1960-75, he won nine Pacific-8 Conference championships and four national championships (1962, 1967, 1972, 1974).

A winner of 127 games at the college level – with only 40 losses – many expected that success would translate to the pro level when he took over as first head coach of the Buccaneers in 1976.

We all know that did not happen, especially in the beginning. McKay received a most-humbling welcome to professional football, losing his first 26 games. Still, by his fourth season he had turned the Buccaneers into a winner and came within one game of going to the Super Bowl.

From 1979-82, McKay coached Tampa Bay to two NFC Central titles and three playoff appearances. A 2-14 season in 1983 was a huge step back for the organization, but McKay anticipated big things in 1984 and proclaimed it the most-talented Buccaneer squad ever.

Instead, the team underachieved despite having arguably one of the best offensive seasons in franchise history. Tampa Bay also had trouble winning close games, dropping seven of their games by seven points or fewer. So in many ways, 1984 had to be one of McKay’s most frustrating seasons, knowing his team was just good enough to lose when it mattered most. Still, the Bucs would find a way to come through for McKay one final time.

In front of 43,817 at Tampa Stadium on Dec. 16, 1984, the John McKay era ended not with a whimper, but with one of the most controversial conclusions in Buccaneer history. The fourth quarter, in particular, lives in infamy because of running back James Wilder’s pursuit of an NFL record.

Entering the game, Wilder needed 178 total yards to break Los Angeles Rams’ running back Eric Dickerson’s newly established record for all-purpose yards in a season (2,244). Wilder’s 4-yard touchdown run with 1:21 left in the game left him 15 yards short of O.J. Simpson for 2nd place on the list and 16 yards behind Dickerson. His touchdown set off a bizarre series of events still unmatched to this day.

Despite holding a 41-14 lead, on the ensuing kickoff McKay called for Obed Ariri to attempt an onside kick. A successful recovery represented Tampa Bay ’s best hope for getting Wilder in a position to break the record. Ariri’s first two attempts were voided by penalties, and finally on the third attempt, New York’s Russell Carter recovered the ball on Tampa Bay’s 35-yard line.

Here’s where things got interesting. New York knew the Buccaneers wanted the ball back, and with barely a minute left in the game, the Bucs could only regain possession on a punt, turnover or safety. Set up with excellent field position, a punt by the Jets seemed unlikely, so the Buccaneers' best bet was for New York to score.

The ensuing drive gave new meaning to the term “prevent defense.” Back-to-back completions moved the ball to the Tampa Bay 9-yard line with 1:07 left in the game. On the next play, safety Mark Cotney tackled running back Johnny Hector at the 2 and then, realizing his “mistake,” immediately called timeout. There would be no such confusion on the following play.

Hector again took the handoff, but this he time encountered nothing but backpedaling linemen, giving him an unmolested run into the end zone.

“We tried to make it look inconspicuous,” linebacker Scot Brantley said after the game, “but I guess we didn’t succeed. The Jets knew what was going on.”

New York knew and was not pleased. The Jets countered by attempting an onside kick of their own. George Peebles recovered Pat Lahey’s attempt, however, at the New York 45, giving Wilder one last shot at the record.

The Jets, who had been focused on shutting down Wilder for most of the fourth quarter, were not about to let him have an easy path to the record, especially after Tampa Bay’s flop-play on defense.

On Tampa Bay’s three final offensive plays, Wilder was tackled for a loss of 2, ran for a gain of 2 and was held for no gain on the last play of the game. With nearly ever defender committed to stopping him – and only him – on the play, Wilder never had a chance.

After the game, several Jets immediately directed their ire towards McKay, lobbing obscenities at him as he left the field. New York coach Joe Walton had harsh words for McKay following the game as well.

“The way it ended was a total embarrassment to the NFL,” he said. “It set football back 20 years and was completely uncalled for.”

McKay refused to apologize, saying he did what he did in the best interests of Wilder and the fans. The fans, who stayed to the end hoping to see history, showed their displeasure with New York by showering the team with a mixture of boos and debris as they exited toward the locker room.

It was appropriate that McKay left the game in a style befitting a man who never much cared what his critics said about him: defiant to the very end, and ultimately, a winner.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Ali Denied Chance to Fight in Tampa, 12/11/69

As the turbulent 1960s neared a conclusion, the city of Tampa – which had been mostly removed from the major upheaval faced by other large cities during the decade – had to contend with one last issue of cultural importance.

Perhaps never before, and certainly never since, have sports and politics been so intertwined as in the career of boxer Muhammad Ali. One cannot speak of his boxing career without noting the social, cultural and political impact. Likewise, one cannot mention his place in boxing history without acknowledging how the divisiveness of his personal politics affected his career in the ring.

A refresher: In 1967, Ali – who changed his name from Cassius Clay after joining the Nation of Islam in 1964 -- refused to be drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces due to his religious convictions and opposition to the Vietnam War. Although today Ali is generally a sympathetic figure, well-respected and admired, it’s worth remembering how public opinion about him has changed over time.

His association with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad made him a lightning rod for controversy during the heart of the civil rights movement. His views on the Vietnam War, and his famous reason for not having a quarrel with the Viet Cong, provoked outrage from those who didn’t understand what made him so different from other Americans subject to the draft.

Arrested, stripped of his heavyweight title, found of guilty of draft evasion and denied a boxing license, Ali found himself at a career impasse as the decade came to a close.

It just wouldn’t have been a proper sendoff to the 1960s had sports and politics not intersected yet again. Over the course of several days in December 1969, Tampa served as the battleground for one more cultural tug-of-war with Muhammad Ali at the forefront.

On December 9, 1969, news broke that local businessman and promoter Ron Gorton had arranged to stage a bout between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali at the 46,477-seat Tampa Stadium on February 16, 1970. Gorton, executive director of the Lions Club American Bowl game, called the potential fight “the biggest sports thing to ever hit Tampa.”

He was right. A heavyweight title fight at Tampa Stadium would have been seen by hundreds of millions around the world and easily would have been the most significant sporting event in the city’s pre-Super Bowl hosting history. One could argue Tampa wasn’t officially a big-time city until acquiring a pro football franchise in the mid-1970s. This boxing match, however, might well have been the event to put Tampa on the map.

The likelihood of the fight taking place cleared an enormous hurdle when the Tampa Boxing Commission unanimously voted to license the fight.

Many public officials came out in support of the event, even if they did not openly agree with or like Ali personally. For his part, Gorton clarified that as a veteran he disagreed with Ali’s politics, but he thought Ali deserved a chance to lose his title in a ring rather than a courtroom.
Leonard Levy, vice-chairman of the Tampa Sports Authority, declined to publicly reveal his personal feelings on Ali, but said: “If all regulatory bodies approve this, then who are we to say that they can’t use (Tampa Stadium)?”

Boxing and Wrestling Commission chairman Eddie Flynn, like Ali an Olympic gold medal-winning boxer, said he would be happy to see the fight happen. He cited an obligation to bondholders to help pay off debt on Tampa Stadium, while bringing sporting events to this area that would meet the public’s approval. The fight could almost certainly help accomplish the former, but not the latter.

The public backlash against the event started almost immediately.

Tampa City Council voted unanimously in opposition to any fight involving Ali, while acknowledging it had no legal recourse to stop the bout.

In his Tampa Tribune column, Tom McEwen accurately predicted that only public opinion could stop the fight from happening. The court of public opinion turned quickly and dramatically against the fight, and even previous supporters began running for cover.

Mayor Dick Greco carefully toed the line, initially saying that while he and others may disagree with Ali’s politics, that did not necessarily merit a reason to ban the fight. The following day, however, Greco became convinced from an overwhelming number of phone calls to his office that residents of this area would never approve of the fight. He also took much stronger stand, as well.

“As for me, I am bound by law and what’s legal,” he said, “but I would not myself buy a ticket that would help contribute to (Ali's) financial well-being, and I’m a boxing fan. I hope the sports authority and boxing commission, who are the only bodies with jurisdiction here, will give the matter serious thought.”

The Tampa Tribune, in an editorial entitled “We Object – Conscientiously,” cited a moral imperative in stopping the fight. The editorial also mocked Ali for claims that boxing violated the teachings of Islam, then suddenly changing heart based on a $300,000 fight guarantee.

Politicians throughout the state weighed in on the fight, which became a hot-button political issue because of the involvement of Florida Gov. Claude Kirk. The Republican governor made headlines early for his enthusiastic public endorsement of Tampa as host for the fight. In the spirit of bipartisan cooperation, both Republicans and Democrats took turns in denouncing Kirk and Ali.

U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons (D-Tampa) announced he was “personally repulsed by Ali and his willful failure to serve his country,” but that hosting the fight was a matter for locals to decide.

U.S. Rep William Cramer (R-St. Petersburg) called Kirk’s actions a “shocking disgrace,” while U.S. Rep. Paul Rogers (D-West Palm Beach) called Kirk’s actions “most unfortunate.”

“Ali’s convictions,” Rogers said, “demand that he not be granted a license anywhere.”

On the morning of December 11, the Tampa Sports Authority dashed Ali’s chances of fighting in Tampa by voting to deny Gorton’s request to rent Tampa Stadium. The Sports Authority cited the public good, as in protection of the facility and its attendees, as the primary reason for denying use of the Stadium. Frank Neff, a member of the special events committee, referenced riots during the 1968 Democratic Convention: “If we do not turn Ali down, we can expect a situation here that would make Chicago seem mild.”

By December 12, the once enthusiastic Kirk had changed his mind, too. Endorsing the fight proved to be a surprisingly bold – some might call reckless -- move politically for Kirk, Florida’s first Republican governor since 1877. Whatever his initial motives, be they political, financial or just a desire to see Frazier whip Ali in the ring, Kirk let Ali have it in a written statement.

“It comes as a surprise to me that a man who lacks the courage to fight for his country could have the guts to get into the ring," Kirk said. “I see no reason why an alleged draft dodger should be in a position to lay claim to any title.”

Without political cover from Kirk, any chances of the fight taking place in Florida were effectively over. Gorton tried wooing Orlando into hosting the fight, but that option encountered a public death too.

In the end, Tampa proved no different from the other cities and states during this period that refused to sanction Ali. Opposition to Ali the man – his beliefs, his values, his actions – overrode the sporting interest or financial windfalls such a fight would invariably produce.
McEwen called Ali a “protester in a time of protest.” The prevalent attitude in Tampa, as well, could be accurately seen as reflective of its time.

It would take 15 months before Ali and Frazier finally met in the ring, a bout at New York’s Madison Square Garden dubbed “The Fight of the Century.” Frazier retained his belt in a unanimous decision, an outcome that surely pleased Kirk, who had failed in his bid to win re-election the previous November.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Brandon Make Run for State Title, 12/5/69

On December 5, 1969, Tampa Stadium served as the site for a district battle between two unbeaten teams each seeking their first state title.

Clearwater (10-0) hoped to return to the state Class AA finals for the first time since 1964. Brandon (8-0-2) sported the best record in its relatively short history and were on unfamiliar ground. At stake in this contest, a trip to the state semifinals.

The two schools were quite a contrast in styles. Brandon made their mark in 1969 on defense, shutting out eight of their ten opponents. The Eagles allowed only three touchdowns the entire season, but were not quite the scoring machine, either. Brandon averaged just 15.9 points per game, and recorded two scoreless ties against Hillsborough and Plant.

Clearwater, meanwhile, rolled up the points, scoring 323 points in 10 games. Its defense, by contrast, gave up an average of 11.2 points per game.

Clearly, Brandon's defense would have to carry the day against the potent Tornadoes offense. The two teams slogged it out in the game's opening quarter, playing to a scoreless tie through the first 12 minutes. A huge play on special teams by Brandon, however, helped open the scoring in the second quarter.

Return man John Rayburn brought a punt back deep into Clearwater territory early in the quarter to set up Brandon with terrific field position at the Tornadoes 20. Running back Lane Exum carried on each of the next five plays, finally capitalizing from one yard out to give Brandon a 7-0 lead.

The defense then proceeded to blow the game wide open for the Eagles. An interception by Larry Bass on the next Tornadoes possession once again set up Brandon in Clearwater territory at the 47. This time, Rayburn found his way into the end zone on an eight-yard run to extend Brandon's lead to 14-0.

On the ensuing drive, John Lacer picked off an errant screen pass by Clearwater quarterback Frank Duncan and returned it 14 yards for Brandon's third touchdown of the quarter. A missed extra point left the score 20-0 in favor of Brandon.

The Eagles essentially shut down Clearwater's vaunted offense all game long. Brandon surrendered just 43 yards rushing -- 21 on one play in the third quarter. The Tornadoes were able to throw the ball somewhat successfully, gaining 130 yards through the air, but had four passes intercepted.

On the other side of the ball, Brandon was able to control the clock by running the football while completely eschewing their passing attack. The Eagles' 217 yards of total offense came entirely on the ground. Quarterbacks John Snowden and Mike Burnett attempted five passes between them but failed to complete a single one.

It didn't matter, however, as Brandon's defensive domination kept Clearwater off the board with the exception of a third-quarter touchdown run, a fourth-and-goal scamper from the 1 by Tyson Sever. The Eagles held on from there to capture a 20-6 victory over the Tornadoes.

The win propelled Brandon into a semifinals showdown in the Orange Bowl against Miami Jackson High School (11-0). In Jackson, Brandon would face a similarly defensive-minded team that had shut out five opponents during the season.

A mere 6,000 fans showed up for the contest in the 75,000-seat Orange Bowl on Dec. 12. Those in attendance saw a hard-fought 7-6 triumph by Brandon.

Lane Exum scored Brandon's lone touchdown in the second quarter and the Eagles carried a 7-0 lead into the fourth quarter. Brandon's defense characteristically saved the day when it mattered most.

A touchdown by running back Moses Moore brought Jackson within one point. The Generals chose to go for two -- and the lead -- instead of kicking. Brandon's Jim Dorsey sacked quarterback Willie Hayes back at the 20 to preserve the lead and ultimately the win for the Eagles.

With the victory, Brandon joined Robinson High (1963) as the only Class AA Tampa-area schools to have reached a state playoff final in football.

The Eagles' dream run finally reached an end at the hands of Leon High School (12-0) on December 19 in the Class AA championship game. In front of 20,000 at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Leon High rushed for 245 yards and overcame a 14-7 deficit, rallying in the second half to defeat the Eagles, 24-14. For the second week in a row, the once stout (but perhaps fatigued) Brandon defense surrendered more than 200 yards on the ground.

While the loss ruined Brandon's hopes for a championship and an undefeated season, the Eagles finished 10-1-2 and produced one of their most memorable seasons ever.

"It's welded the entire community together, having this fine winning football team," Brandon Principal Lyle Flagg said 40 years ago. "Our winning tradition has begun."