Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Bucs End 1985 at 2-14, 12/22/85

In 1985, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers seemed condemned to failure right from the very beginning. Few teams ever rebound from a 0-9 start, and the Bucs proved to be no exception.

Even their first victory – a 16-0 triumph at home over the St. Louis Cardinals, and only the second-ever shutout in team history – could not be enjoyed for more than a few days. The next week on the road in the Meadowlands, the Jets handed the Buccaneers one of the worst defeats in franchise history, a 62-28 spanking in which, remarkably, Tampa Bay at one point actually held a 14-0 lead.

Quarterback Steve Young provided a glimmer of hope by winning his first start the following week against the Detroit Lions, a 19-16 overtime victory. Unfortunately, the good times would not last and the Buccaneers dropped their next three games to fall to 2-12 on the season.

On December 15, the smallest crowd to ever see a Buccaneer home game – 25,577 – watched Tampa Bay fall to the almost equally dreadful Indianapolis Colts, 31-23. This set the stage for the season-finale at Tampa Stadium against the Green Bay Packers, in a game that had a considerable amount of importance for the future of the franchise.

By virtue of a league-worst 2-13 record, Tampa Bay had been guaranteed at least the second-overall pick in the 1986 draft. Their Buffalo Bills, with an identical 2-13 record, were out of the running because they had traded their first round pick in 1986 to Cleveland. Win or lose, the Buccaneers needed only a victory by the Atlanta Falcons to ensure the top pick. This meant having first-crack at the Heisman Trophy-winner from Auburn University, running back Bo Jackson.

Despite the big-picture prize that the team could earn with a loss, none of the players wearing orange and white looked at losing as an accomplishment. Jobs were at stake, after all, since few players on the team could consider their job safe going into the following season.

“You either play or you don’t have a job,” Tampa Bay head coach Leeman Bennett said prior to the game. “We want to look presentable. We are all professionals and certainly we want to play our best. It is a matter of pride to finish with a little sweeter taste than on a losing note. One win isn’t going to make everything right, but at least there will be a sweeter taste.”

More like a familiar taste. For the fourteenth time in 1986, the Buccaneers would go home a loser. As always, however, they made it interesting to the very end.

On December 22, a Tampa Stadium crowd of 33,992 came out to see the last chapter of the 1985 season. It started out well enough, with Donald Igwebuike kicking a 33-yard field goal in the first quarter to give Tampa Bay an early 3-0 lead.

The Packers went ahead later in the quarter on a 30-yard touchdown run by wide receiver Phillip Epps that came on a reverse. James Wilder got Tampa Bay back on top in the second quarter, however, scoring on a one-yard touchdown run to give the Bucs a 10-7 lead.

An Al Del Greco 24-yard field goal with just 16 seconds left in the second quarter tied the game 10-10 going into the half.

To their credit, however, the Buccaneers played hard on a day when many could understand if they’d rather be across the street doing their Christmas shopping at the Tampa Bay Center.

Trailing 13-10 going into the third quarter following another Del Greco field goal, the Buccaneers put together their best drive of the day. Quarterback Steve Young engineered a 10-play, 74-yard drive that culminated with a 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jimmie Giles. Tampa Bay took 17-13 lead, but their defense would once again let them down when it mattered most.

Randy Wright, Green Bay’s third-string quarterback, answered Tampa Bay’s best offensive drive with their best of the day as well. Wright put together a 13-play, 73-yard drive that took 6:13 off the clock. The immortal Jessie Clark scored on a 6-yard run to regain the lead for Green Bay, 20-17.

Igwebuike, who on his second extra point of the game set Tampa Bay’s single-season scoring mark with 96 points, had a chance in the fourth quarter to even up the game. Instead, he pushed a 48-yard attempt wide right late in the fourth quarter – his second miss from 40+ yards on the day -- and the game would end with Tampa Bay three points short of taking the game to overtime.

On the bright side, Steve Young had his best statistical game of the season, completing 21 of 37 passes for 277 yards and one touchdown. Despite their record, Young felt optimistic about the team’s future.

“I want to be here,” Young said. “I want to have a career here. I want to help this team fill up this stadium again. James Wilder came up to me after the game and I talked to Jimmie Giles, too, and we are convinced we can do it.”

With Young at quarterback, Wilder at his familiar spot in the backfield, and Giles making big catches for Tampa Bay, Buccaneer fans could only wonder how much better the team might be with the addition of Bo Jackson through the upcoming draft. Yes, the future never looked so bright in Tampa Bay.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bucs Fall to Bears in Finale, 12/20/80

On November 2, 1980, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sported a record of 4-4-1 with seven games remaining. A season which had seen the Bucs sandwich a five-game winless streak between two separate two-game winning streaks could still be salvaged with a strong finish.

At the same point the previous season, the Buccaneers were 7-2 and on their way to winning the NFC Central Division. Although that team would endure a mini-slump en route to clinching the division, the 1980 edition of the Buccaneers shared few similarities with their previous edition.

The defense, which had been such a strength in 1979, failed to dominate opponents or even hold leads. Many wondered if these in fact were the real Buccaneers who had simply over-achieved in 1979.

It began to look that way when Tampa Bay lost five of their next six games to drop to 5-9-1 and completely out of the playoff picture. All that remained was a final home contest against the Chicago Bears to close out the disappointing campaign.

Although they had little left to play for, the Buccaneers had a bit of unfinished business with the Bears. On October 6, the Buccaneers made their first-ever appearance on Monday Night Football at Soldier Field in Chicago. The experience turned out to be less than memorable for the Buccaneers and their national audience.

Despite only trailing 3-0 at the half, the Bucs ultimately fell to the Bears 23-0. Walter Payton rushed for 122 of his 183 total yards in the second half and the Bears sacked Doug Williams four times. Head coach John McKay famously quipped after the game that his team had "set Monday Night Football back 2,000 years."

Then there was the additional matter of a borderline shot levied on tight end Jimmie Giles by hard-hitting Chicago safety Doug Plank. Plank achieved a place in NFL lore when his jersey number -- 46 -- became the root of the so-named "46 defense" developed by Chicago defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. It was his hit on Giles, however, that enraged Tampa Bay quarterback Doug Williams.

Although no penalty was called on the play, Williams believed that Plank had speared Giles with his helmet. For the hit, Plank earned a $750 fine from the league (roughly $1900 in today's dollars). Giles remained in the game, although some speculated that there may have been a long-term impact on his performance.

Prior to the Bears game, Giles had 12 receptions for 222 yards and three touchdowns in four games. Following the Chicago game, Giles had only 19 receptions and one touchdown in 10 games, this after leading the team in receiving with 40 catches and seven touchdowns in 1979. Still, Giles earned ultimate vindication by being named to the NFC's Pro Bowl squad.

While McKay attributed the decline to Giles drawing more attention from opposing defenders, Giles bluntly stated that the hit had nothing to do with his decrease in production.

"If I let one hit stop me or get me scared, I shouldn't be in football," Giles said. "I think I've had a great year compared to last season because I'm getting double-teamed and triple-teamed in certain situations."

While most of the Buccaneers expected that there would be no retaliation in mind towards Plank, defensive lineman David Logan knew the importance of evening the score with the Bears.

"They beat us 23-0," Logan said. "They embarrassed us. We're not just going to go out there and go through the motions and then just get out of town."

On December 20, with John Madden in the house for the nationally-televised Saturday afternoon game on CBS and a sell-out crowd of over 72,000 expected at Tampa Stadium, both the Bears (6-9) and Buccaneers (5-9-1) had plenty of reasons to not just go through the motions.

Although the actual crowd numbered closer to 55,000 fans – resulting in the greatest number of unused tickets in team history at the time -- those in attendance saw a game that epitomized the struggles of Tampa Bay's 1980 campaign. Not that they didn't have their chances, but the Bucs held true to form and self-destructed at the most important time.

Tampa Bay started off strong enough, racing to a 10-0 first quarter lead behind a 33-yard pass from Williams to Gordon Jones and a 27-yard field goal by Garo Yepremian. For the eighth time in 1980, however, the Buccaneers could not hold on to a 10-point lead.

Chicago signal-caller Vince Evans began the Bears comeback with a six-yard touchdown run at the 10:14 mark of the second quarter. He added his second of the game in the third quarter from one yard out just three plays after Tampa Bay's Jerry Eckwood fumbled at his own three-yard line.

Although the Bears held a 14-10 lead, the Buccaneers had time to mount a comeback. A Yepremian field goal from 26 yards out cut the lead to 14-13 with 10:38 left in the fourth quarter. The fun, however, was just about to begin.

On their next drive, Williams connected with rookie wide receiver Kevin House on a 61-yard completion to the Bears 16, but House got careless with the ball and cornerback Terry Schmidt forced a fumble. The ball then bounced down to the 4-yard line where it was recovered by Doug Plank to kill the drive.

After forcing a Chicago punt, the Bucs had another golden opportunity when Williams connected with Giles across the middle inside the Bears 20. Turning to run towards the end zone, however, Giles fumbled after a big hit by rookie linebacker Otis Wilson. Again, the Bears recovered inside their own 5 to end a potential Buccaneer scoring drive.

Tampa Bay forced another Bears punt and had one final chance to win the game, driving down to the Chicago 15. From there, Yepremian would attempt a 32-yard field goal, surely an automatic kick for one of the most accurate kickers in the NFL.

Instead, the kick never had a chance due to a high snap by George Yarno. Holder Tom Blanchard got the ball down, but Chicago's Al Harris - a 6'5" Monster of the Midway -- got his hands up and blocked the potential game-winning kick to preserve the 14-13 lead for the Bears.

The Buccaneers battled and put up a better fight than during their Monday night meltdown in Chicago, but the missed opportunities and turnovers epitomized their wasted season.
McKay, for one, could not understand how his team could be completely undone by the late fumbles.

"It is absolutely ridiculous," he said. "In professional football, when you are paid the money they are paid here, you should not drop the football. It's disgusting, ridiculous, and has no part in the game."

In short, a fitting end to the one of the most disappointing seasons in team history.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sun Dome Finally Opens, 12/2/80

Last week, the University of South Florida marked the 40th anniversary of the first intercollegiate men’s basketball game in school history. When the basketball program began in 1970, however, it had yet to find a suitable place to call home. At the time, the only venue on campus to watch basketball was a 1,500-seat gym more suitable for pick-up games and intramural competitions than spectator sports.

In the beginning, the Golden Brahmans -- as the Bulls were known in those days -- played against community college and freshman teams. The team called Curtis Hixon Hall, located on Ashley Drive and some 10 miles south of the school's campus, its temporary home. During the first decade of the program, USF would also host "home" games at the Ft. Homer Hesterly Armory, the Civic Center in Lakeland and the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg. This would change once and for all with the construction of a multipurpose arena located on the southeast corner of the school's campus.

In 1977, the Florida Board of Regents agreed to approve funding for the 10,000-seat facility that would serve as home for USF's basketball programs. Ground-breaking for the $7 million arena took place late in 1977, with a targeted opening date of fall 1979.

Not all was perfect with the Sun Dome – as it eventually would be named -- as construction problems and cost overruns delayed the project. By March 1980, the roof had been completely installed, but the building remained a work in progress.

With the third floor still under repair, a capacity of 6,000 fans per game would initially be allowed into a building designed to hold 10,000. The show had no choice but to go on, however, as the Sun Dome would be open for business, ready or not.

Although the Bulls officially opened the Sun Dome against the Florida A&M Rattlers on November 29 – a 65-63 defeat in front of 5,213 fans – the official dedication of the new building would not come until December 2 in a nationally-televised game on ESPN against the Duke Blue Devils.

The Blue Devils were led by Mike Krzyzewski, in his first season at Duke after serving as head coach at Army from 1975-1980. The Bulls had a new coach as well, with Lee Rose coming to USF from Purdue where he compiled a 50-18 record in two seasons. Rose had a proven record of success, having taken two different schools (Purdue and UNC-Charlotte) to the Final Four in a five-year span.

Rose would have his work cut out for him in trying to prepare his Bulls for the heavily-favored Blue Devils. With the national spotlight on their team and new building, the Bulls could be forgiven if they suffered a bit of stage fright, which is exactly what happened.

Before they knew what hit them, the USF-record crowd of 6,030 found the home team down 21-6 after Duke went on a 19-point run in a span of about five minutes. The Bulls clawed their way back into the game, however, with a spurt of their own.

Contributions from Tony Grier, Willie Redden and Rob Rutledge helped bring USF within two points of Duke, 28-26, with 2:55 left in the half. After trailing by 19 early, the Bulls were fortunate to only be down by seven points at the half 39-32.

Duke refused to let up in the second half, shooting 71% from the field. Despite USF’s best efforts, they simply could not match Duke basket- for-basket.

Despite having outscored the Blue Devils 66-62 after trailing 19-6, USF fell to Duke 83-72. The Bulls fought hard against a college powerhouse and showed plenty of promise for the season ahead, though the outcome hardly mattered in the grand scheme of things.

“It was great to finally get a place to call home,” says former USF play-by-play announcer Jack Harris. “Opening the Sun Dome was a tremendous step forward for the basketball program.”

Monday, December 6, 2010

Birth of a Basketball Program, 12/4/70

On June 12, 1969, the University of South Florida announced that the school would begin playing intercollegiate men's basketball beginning with the 1970-71 season. This week, the university celebrates the 40th anniversary of the first game in school history.

Although today the school is a proud member of the Big East conference, USF did not jump into the deep end of college basketball right away. Instead, the school would begin by fielding only a freshman team. Games against junior colleges and other freshman teams would have to come before they could reasonably take on similar-sized universities.

It was, of course, an extraordinary effort to make it to that point. The university president, John S. Allen, made himself perfectly clear on his lack of enthusiasm for intercollegiate sports, once vowing that USF would never field a football team. Other administrators and even faculty members voiced their concerns about having an intercollegiate sports program.

Frank Winkles, a member of the student senate who worked tirelessly to bring basketball to USF, recalls that Allen thought sports would compromise his grand vision for USF.

"Allen wanted to have what he called a 'scholastic' university," Winkles says. "There weren't going to be intercollegiate sports, especially football and basketball. He was very much opposed to them."

When the State Board of Regents put their seal of approval on the basketball program in July, the countdown to tip-off could officially begin. This meant finding a head coach to put together a program and start recruiting players.

Dick Bowers, the head of the school's physical education department, hired Don Williams from Milliken University in Illinois to lead the program.

Williams, who had coached basketball at Hillsborough High from 1953 to 1962, set his sights high right from the start.

"This is a major college and it is the aim of every coach to take his team and his school to the top, and no where short of it," he said. "We will go just as far as the philosophy of this school will allow us."

Williams brought in Hillsborough High head coach Bob Shriver to be his top assistant, reuniting the duo who had worked together during Williams’ tenure with the Terriers.

While Williams and Shriver worked hard to build a team together, USF experienced a change at the top when, on July 4, 1970, John Allen resigned as president. When Dr. Harris Dean took over as the acting-president, it became clear that the man who fought for so many years to stifle intercollegiate sports at USF would not be around to see the first basketball game in school history.

The big day came on December 4 against the freshman team from the University of Florida. Without an on-campus facility large enough to host a game, the Bulls were forced to seek refuge in downtown Tampa at the Curtis Hixon Convention Center. University officials were hopeful for a crowd around 2,000-3,000. Instead, they got 4,500.

Dean and Winkles were both on-hand for the historic game and took part in a ceremonial tip-off at center court prior to the game.

On their opening possession, John Kiser scored the first basket in USF history -- a free throw -- to give the Brahmans a 1-0 lead. Tommy Davis hit the first field goal a few minutes later on a jump shot. With the scored notched at 7-7, Lear put USF ahead with his second basket and the Brahmans wouldn't relinquish the lead again.

USF took the lead into the half and the Brahmans were ahead by ten points, 43-33. Although they were outscored 45-42 in the second half, USF held on for an 85-78 victory.

Bill Lear, the Indiana native and first player to sign a scholarship with USF, led all scorers with 21 points, while Kiser dominated underneath with 17 rebounds.

The following week, Williams received a letter from Dean congratulating his team on the victory.

"Not only were you magnificent as a team," Dean wrote, "but the whole affair seemed to represent a new dedication to accomplishment at USF."

These were baby steps for the burgeoning university, and although the game was not officially recognized by the NCAA nor acknowledged in the USF record books, nobody can ever take away the moment 40 years ago when USF basketball went from dream to reality.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Seminoles Fall to Houston at Stadium, 11/26/70

Leading up to their November 26, 1970, showdown against the Houston Cougars at Tampa Stadium, the Florida State Seminoles found themselves in the running for a berth in the Peach Bowl.

In the days before 70 teams went to bowl games, the 7-3 Seminoles were on the outside looking in for a berth in either the Liberty Bowl or Peach Bowl, the only two bowls that remained unfilled.
To get to Atlanta, however, the Seminoles had to beat a very good, very dangerous Houston Cougar squad.

The Cougars entered the game at 6-3 -- a slight step down from the 1969 season which featured a 9-2 record and a Bluebonnet Bowl victory -- but had lost two close games at Oklahoma State and Ole Miss. They were certainly not a team Florida State could take for granted.

The game would serve as somewhat of a "Thanksgiving Night" bowl game for both teams and be televised by ABC in prime time for a national audience. With the Detroit Lion and Dallas Cowboy games already wrapped up, the Seminoles and Cougars would have the undivided attention of stuffed and sleepy football fans around the country.
Unfortunately, organizers of the game were less optimistic about selling the game to the local audience for many reasons.

In 1970, the Seminoles did not have the broad following of the Florida Gators, particularly in the Tampa Bay area. The Seminoles had only been playing football since 1947, while the Gators had a football tradition dating back to 1904. The "Big Three" as we know them today -- Florida, Florida State and Miami -- did not exist. The Florida Gators simply dominated the college football landscape.

The fact that the game was televised seemed to deter local fans from attending, as well as fans from Tallahassee who would otherwise have needed to drive down to see the game.
Also, the game had been moved from its originally scheduled October date, sandwiching it right between University of Tampa home games against Vanderbilt and Florida A&M. The Spartans were enjoying a tremendous season at 9-1, and local football fans might not have wanted to pay for three games in seven days.

Only 18,053 fans -- some 17,000 less than the desired attendance mark -- came out to Tampa Stadium, while an estimated 30 million watched the game at home. Not a single person could rightly claim to not be entertained by what they saw.

The Cougars struck first, marching 65 yards on seven plays to open the game. Houston quarterback Gary "Moon" Mullins connected with Elmo Wright on a 12-yard pass to give Houston the lead, but Florida State blocked the extra point attempt to make the score 6-0.

The Seminoles matched Houston with a 12-yard touchdown pass of their own, this one coming from Tommy Warren to Rhett Dawson with 0:54 seconds left in the first quarter to give Florida State a 7-6 lead.

After forcing a Houston punt, James Jarrett capped a 66-yard, 14-play drive with a 1-yard touchdown run to make the score 14-6 in favor of the Seminoles.
A Tom Mozisek 2-yard touchdown run for Houston narrowed the score to 14-12, but Florida State immediately answered with a 65-yard touchdown strike from Warren to Barry Smith, extending the Seminole lead to 21-12.

An unsuspecting Florida State took the lead into the break, completely unaware of what awaited them in the second half.

Midway through the third quarter, a heads up play by the Cougars changed the momentum of the game. After intercepting a Florida State pass at the Houston 30, Charles Ford ran another 50 yards to the Seminole 20-yard-line. Before being brought down, however, he pitched the ball to teammate Frank Ditta, who took it the rest of the way for a touchdown. Houston again failed on the point-after-attempt and trailed Florida State by three, 21-18.

It would not matter, however, as the Cougars were only getting started. Houston would go ahead for good on their next possession, scoring on a 2-yard run by Mozisek to take a 25-21 lead as the third quarter came to a close.

The entire fourth quarter belong to Houston. After Mullins hit Mike Parrott on a 25-yard strike to extend their lead to 32-21, the Cougars were literally off and running. Mozisek got into the end zone again, this time on a 70-yard run, and in one of the most memorable moments of the game, Cougar Nick Holm intercepted a Tommy Warren pass and appeared end zone bound.
Seminole Dan Whitehurst, however, had other ideas.

From his spot near midfield on the Florida State sideline, Whitehurst decided he had seen enough. As Holm approached, Whitehurst extended his foot onto the playing field to trip the Houston cornerback. His attempt succeeded, and a certain Houston touchdown turned into a 15-yard penalty on Florida State and the ball placed on the 35-yard-line.

"What's 15 yards when you're 30 points behind," Whitehurst said after the game, although the Seminole were only trailing by 18 at the time. "I just knew I had to stop him, and figured if I tripped him the ref might not see it."

Florida State head coach Bill Peterson said after the game that he couldn't be too mad at Whitehurst because he felt like doing it himself. Houston would punch it in on another Elmo Wright receiving touchdown to take a 46-21 lead, and they would add one more on a Joe Depain run from one-yard out to provide the final points in a 53-21 rout.

Along with suffering the indignity of a 32-point defeat, the Seminoles played their way right out of bowl consideration. Peterson summed it up best in the end, saying, "They just gave us a good country beating."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Rick Casares the Gator, ca. 1951-53

Earlier this year, the Tampa Bay History Center received a large gift of original drawings, prints, and materials from the family of the late Tampa Tribune artist Lamar Sparkman. Among the countless wonderful artifacts in the collection are a few hundred photographs that Sparkman took of his subjects prior to drawing them for the newspaper.

Some gems recently uncovered include a series of photographs taken of local football star Rick Casares. The Jefferson High School standout led the Dragons to two city titles (1947, 1949) playing fullback while earning All-American, All-State and All-Southern honors as a senior. He went on to star as a two-sport athlete at the University of Florida in football and basketball from 1951-1953. The Chicago Bears drafted Casares in 1955, and he eventually became the team’s all-time leading rusher before being eclipsed by Walter Payton.

In this photograph, Casares is joined at Florida Field by University of Florida head football coach Bob Woodruff, who coached the Gators from 1950-1959. The highlight of both of their careers at Florida came in the Gator Bowl on January 1, 1953. Casares scored the first touchdown of the game on a two-yard run and kicked two extra points as the Gators defeated Tulsa 14-13 for their first-ever bowl game victory.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Gator/Spartan Twin-Bill at Stadium, 11/14/70

In 1969, Tampa Stadium hosted a doubleheader featuring the University of Florida against Tulane, followed by the University of Tampa against Tulsa. A total of 55,553 fans turned out for the "Super Saturday" games, and the event proved to be so successful that organizers tried the concept again on November 14, 1970.

This time, the 6-3 Florida Gators would square off against the 2-7 Kentucky Wildcats. The Wildcats were technically the home team since the game was moved from Lexington, thanks in large part to the efforts of local attorney Tom MacDonald of the West Coast Bowl Association. This would be the first Southeastern Conference game played in Tampa since the two teams faced each other at Phillips Field in 1949, a contest won 35-0 by the Paul "Bear" Bryant coached Wildcats.

As in 1969, the game would be a homecoming for Florida's starting quarterback John Reaves. Against the Green Wave the previous year, the Robinson High graduate led the Gators to a late come-from-behind 18-17 victory.

In the nightcap, the 8-0 University of Tampa Spartans would play host to the 5-4 Bengals of Idaho State. The Spartans -- ranked No. 1 in the nation among small colleges -- entered the game in pursuit of a school-record ninth consecutive victory. Running back Leon McQuay had something special to play for as well, coming into the game with 72 total points on the season.

After scoring five touchdowns the previous week against Southwestern Louisiana, McQuay needed only two touchdowns to break the record for points scored by a Spartan in a single season held by Charlie Harris (84 points in 1952).

The Gators and Wildcats opened the day of football at Tampa Stadium with an early afternoon kickoff. In front of 44,312 fans, the Gators and Wildcats both got off to slow starts.
Jim Getzen put the Gators on the board in the first quarter with a 29-yard field goal to give Florida an early 3-0 lead. Kentucky answered back with three of their own, courtesy of a 33-yarder by Bob Jones to even the score at 3-3 in the second quarter.

Gator partisans must have felt nervous later in the second when Kentucky running back Houston Hogg scored from eight yards out to put the Wildcats up by a touchdown.
With 17 seconds left in the half, Reaves put his Gators back in the game by connecting with Willie Jackson on a 70-yard touchdown strike. The Gators and Wildcats went into the locker room tied 10-10.

In the third quarter, the Gators kept Kentucky out of the end zone with a huge goal line stand, forcing the Wildcats to settle for a field goal. Kentucky took a 13-10 lead, but it would be short-lived.

Reaves tossed his second touchdown of the day -- this time to Jim Yancey from 10 yards out -- to give Florida their first lead of the game, 17-13.

With the game's outcome still in doubt, Reaves led Florida on an 80-yard, fourth quarter drive to put the game out of reach. Reaves' second touchdown pass of the game to Yancey, a 14-yarder, capped the drive and gave Florida a 24-13 lead which would end up as the final score.

Reaves' three touchdown passes allowed him to tie former Gator Steve Spurrier for the school record of 36 career touchdown passes. Like Reaves, Leon McQuay of Tampa would also have a record-setting day.

In the evening contest, the Spartans had a far easier time putting away their opponent than Florida did with Kentucky. In front of very respectable crowd of 20,238, the Spartans put on a clinic for the team from Idaho.

As a team, the Spartans rushed for 465 yards and scored 10 touchdowns en route to a 68-7 shellacking of the Bengals.

"We just did everything right," said Spartan head coach Fran Curci.

McQuay carried the ball only 16 times, but he ran for 213 yards and scored three touchdowns, enough to propel him into sole possession of first place for most points scored in a season by a Spartan.

The enjoyment of the day for the event organizers and fans of the Gators and Spartans became subdued later in the evening, however, as the news came out that a plane carrying the Marshall University football team had crashed in West Virginia, killing all 75 people on board. Dave and Rick Bankston, who played linebacker for the Spartans, had an older brother on Marshall’s freshman football coaching staff. They were relieved to find out that their brother -- who sometimes traveled with the varsity team -- had not been on the trip.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Rehe Captures Florida Federal Open, 11/10/85

Organizers of the Florida Federal Tennis Open knew they were going to have a challenge marketing the event in 1985.

Some of the biggest names in women’s tennis had all politely declined to enter the tournament. Martina Navratilova – winner of the 1983 Florida Federal – skipped the 1984 event and had no intention of returning in 1985. Other top-ranked women skipping the tournament were Pam Shriver, Hana Mandlikova, Claudia Kohde-Kilsch, Zina Garrison, Helena Sukova, and Manuela Maleeva.

A rising star on the women’s tour, 16-year-old German Steffi Graf, likewise withdrew prior to the start of the tournament.

Then, just a week before the tournament began, the last of the dominoes fell: Chris Evert Lloyd. The winner of 18 Grand Slam events withdrew from the tournament in Largo due to a knee injury and the demands of a heavy travel schedule.

“I’m disappointed,” tournament co-director Barry Siegel said. “I certainly won’t lie about it.”

Still, Siegel and others had reasons to be enthusiastic about the upcoming tournament. Being held for the first time at the Bardmoor Country Club in Largo, the tournament lineup may not have been big on star-power, but it was loaded with fresh talent.

“It’s a good field,” Siegel said. “The best way to describe the field is that these are the top players of the future of women’s tennis.”

Among these in the field were Largo’s own Bonnie Gadusek, the tournament’s top seed and the 10th ranked player in the world. Michelle Torres, the winner of the 1984 Florida Federal Open, returned to defend her title, and Kathy Rinaldi, who in August beat Graf to capture the A&P Tennis Classic championship in Mahawh, New Jersey, was the 11th ranked player in the world and one of the top young players in the game.

Carling Bassett, a finalist the previous year, returned to the tournament, and a promising pair of 14-year-olds -- Gabriela Sabatini and Mary Jo Fernandez – were each considered rising stars.

First-round play opened on November 4, as the top-seeded Gadusek earned a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Caroline Kuhlman. Seventh-seeded Terry Phelps ousted Gabriella Mosca, a 15-year-old Argentinian who took Chris Evert Lloyd’s place in the draw. It took Phelps only 38 minutes to overwhelm Mosca, who only won two points the entire second set. Pam Casale, one of the fiercest competitors on the tour, made quick work of the up-and-coming Fernandez, 6-2, 6-3.
While Bassett and Sabatini both won their first round matches, two other top seeds were not so lucky.

Gadusek, the No. 1 seed, suffered a humiliating defeat to Lisa Bonder, 3-6, 6-1, 6-1. Gadusek credited her problems to effect of the damp weather on her strings.

“My strings were getting loose because of the dampness and humidity,” she said. “I lost feeling in the ball and I didn’t get it back.”

Bonder, for her part, almost didn’t finish the match.

“I was nervous and cold, and I think I ate too many raisins," she said. “I almost died right there on the court.”

Rinaldi, the No. 2 seed, never even set foot on the court, as she withdrew due to a severe case of tonsillitis. Her last-minute replacement, Amy Holton of Sarasota, went down 6-1, 6-1 to the defending champion Torres.

Sabatini, Bassett, Torres and Casale all breezed through the second round to set up some interesting quarterfinals match-ups.

Casale fell to the No. 3 seed Sabatini 6-0, 6-1, in a 52-minute match, and Bassett took care of unseeded Grace Kim, 6-2, 7-5. The Lisa Bonder-Ann White match, however, proved to be one of the more interesting matches in the tournament.

Bonder accused White, who won the match 6-2, 6-4, of using intimidation tactics during a let-call at 2-2 of the first set. White argued for two minutes that there was no let on her serve. The delay seemingly zapped Bonder’s focus.

“Anne’s very intimidating,” she said. “She gave me some mean stares and she growled. The whole thing was intimidating.”

An exhausted Michelle Torres – who the day before needed three hours to get past her opponent – fell meekly to Stephanie Rehe, 6-1, 6-2.

In the semis, Rehe continued her winning ways with a gutsy 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Bassett. The 16-year-old Rehe, who turned pro just two months earlier, wrestled the match away from Bassett by overcoming nine game-points trailing 2-1 in the third set. The game lasted 22 minutes and took 32 points to settle, ending when Bassett pushed a volley long.
Sabatini cruised into the finals with a 6-1, 6-2 dismantling of White.

“I was embarrassingly bad today,” White said. “When things go bad, they go really bad.”

Although the crowd may have preferred seeing Sabatini play her doubles partner Bassett in the finals, Rehe’s victory set up an extremely compelling final between two players who had just turned pro in 1985. The two delivered a thrilling finale to the tournament in front of a crowd of 5,176.

Trailing the 12th ranked player in the world by a score of 4-2 in the third set, Rehe rallied to win three straight games and held on to capture the match 6-4, 6-7, 7-5. Sabatini admitted to playing nervous, and it showed, as she sprayed an uncharacteristic 48 unforced errors.

Despite the lack of “big name” talent, the tournament proved to be a resounding success. Nearly 26,000 people attended the tournament, 5,000 more than had attended the previous year at the Innisbrook Resort.

As for Rehe and Sabatini, what could have been the start of a great rivalry never materialized. Although Rehe climbed to as high as No. 10 in the world by 1989, a serious back injury put her on the shelf for a year, and just eight years after her victory in Largo, she would be out of the game permanently.

Sabatini, on the other hand, became one of the best players of her generation. The winner of the 1990 U.S. Open, Sabatini earned induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2006.

Monday, November 1, 2010

John McKay Hired in Tampa Bay, 10/31/75

By late October 1975, fans of Tampa Bay's new professional football team had to be wondering when their first head coach would be hired. With the first exhibition game just nine months out, the Buccaneers still had no players and only a hint of who would be leading the team into battle.

Speculation had been running rampant since July when Tampa Tribune columnist Tom McEwen confirmed that University of Southern California head coach John McKay had been offered the job by Buccaneer's owner Hugh Culverhouse.

A winner of four national championships with USC, McKay admitted to having interest in the Tampa Bay position and that it was the only job outside of USC he had under consideration. In other words, he would either coach the Trojans for another five to six years or become the first head coach in Buccaneer history.

"Tampa is the only place in which I am interested," McKay said. "My wife and I haven't worked this hard to get where we are to talk of going to some cold climate."

On Halloween, the announcement became official that John McKay would become vice president and head coach of the Buccaneers. Although USC made a serious play to keep McKay in Los Angeles, Culverhouse evidently lured McKay to Tampa with a five-year contract, which included a house, an insurance policy, transportation and full authority over hiring of his coaching staff.

The deal -- worth between $1.5 and $2 million ($5.9 million in today's dollars) -- represented an exorbitant amount to pay a head coach at the time. Consider that in 2009, the Sports Business Daily estimated the average salary of an NFL head coach at $2.5 million per year. McKay may have had some misgivings about leaving a comfortable situation behind, but in Tampa he had a chance at long-term financial security.

In McKay, Culverhouse seemingly had his target in mind from the beginning, never seriously considering any other coaches. The only credible name to surface other than McKay was that of his close friend, former Notre Dame head coach Ara Parseghian. Culverhouse and Parseghian never talked, however, and no offers were ever made.

In the weeks prior to the announcement, Culverhouse went on the record and said, "I'm not interested in anybody but John McKay. We want him and him alone. I just believe he would be perfect for the Tampa job."

Since he planned on retaining his duties at USC until the end of their season, McKay did not leave Los Angeles immediately and come to Tampa. There was also the small matter of a game that night against the University of California. Instead, his first interview with the local media came over the telephone.

In one of the first of thousands of quips to come during his time in Tampa, the notorious cigar aficionado McKay said that he "took the job because of the Tampa cigars."

He explained his decision to leave the comforts of USC as part of a desire to try something new.

"I've been a college coach, either an assistant of the head man, for 27 years now," McKay said, "and I figured that was enough. My family is grown and I thought I might enough the challenge.

Tampa Bay's Vice President of Football Operations Ron Wolf said that he could not have been happier at the chance to work with McKay.

"He gives us instant credibility," Wolf said. "He also gives you something to write about. This man coaches a team that currently has more players in the National Football League (36) than anyone else."

The reaction to McKay's hire outside of Tampa was uniformly positive.

Parseghian said that, "Tampa has itself one heckuva head coach and it makes for a beautiful marriage."

Cincinnati Bengals head coach Paul Brown described the signing a "fine start for Tampa Bay" and called McKay "a very worthy addition" to the NFL.

Denver Broncos head coach John Ralston -- who coached against McKay at Stanford -- said that the Buccaneers "just couldn't pick a more qualified person."

Dan Rooney, general manager of the Pittsburgh Steelers, called the Tampa Bay's signing of McKay "a step towards becoming one of the great pro franchises in the NFL."

On a day with so much excitement and optimism, nobody could have anticipated how brief a honeymoon it would be for McKay as a head coach in the NFL. He would find out soon enough that nothing in his illustrious college career could have prepared him for life as head coach of the expansion Buccaneers.

Time would certainly prove, however, that he was the right man for the job. McKay eventually orchestrated one of the most stunning turnarounds in league history, bringing Tampa Bay within one game of the Super Bowl in just the team’s fourth season. On December 5, the Buccaneers will recognize McKay’s contributions to the franchise as he becomes the team’s second Ring of Honor inductee alongside Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Catching Up With The Fabulous Sports Babe

Radio personality Nanci Donnellan, better known to her legions of fans as “The Fabulous Sports Babe,” began her career here in the Tampa Bay area in 1982. After moves that took her to Seattle, Bristol, Conn., and New York City, the Babe took several years off from broadcasting earlier in the decade, but she is once again a fixture on the local airwaves. Always opinionated and willing to tell it like it is, the Babe can be heard weekdays on WHBO 1040-AM from 12-3 p.m. She recently took some time to talk about the changes in sports radio, the issue of local baseball attendance, and some fond memories involving the late George Steinbrenner.

Q. What was the climate like for sports radio when you first started in this market?

A. I don't know that we actually had a climate for it in the early 1980s. I started off with a sports show at an all-news/talk radio station, WPLP. Then in 1990, I put WFNS on the air. We changed the Plant City station and turned it into sports radio. That was the first all-sports radio station here in Tampa for sure.

Q. How has the scene evolved over the last 20 years?

A. It's evolved in that we have three all-sports stations now. They each offer different things, that's for sure. Sports is huge and much more popular now than it was 20 years ago with the advent of 24-hour networks, and the growing popularity of football. In baseball, you used to have a Saturday afternoon game. Now, you have multiple games every night that you can tune into. With football, on Sunday you could watch the game at 1 and the game at 4. Now you can watch every stinkin' one of them, which is the way it should be. We should be able to get whatever game we want.

Q. Back when WFNS got started, there were no blogs, no Twitter, no message boards. Now, there are numerous ways for fans to have their opinions heard that don't necessarily involve calling the radio station.

A. Radio used to be where you could express your opinions. You couldn't very well talk back to the TV, but as you said, people have turned into bloggers. Now even a regular fan can take the time a couple times a week to really expound on what they're feeling. I think it's great. I think it's wonderful.

Q. Some print reporters might take a differing view and say that kind of cuts into what they're doing, but you're saying it's a good thing that more people have a voice.

A. Absolutely, I think it is. I understand what newspaper reporters are saying. We've seen it already in television. Look how squashed the sports reports are on television. They used to be "X" amount of minutes long and you're lucky if you get three minutes now. Even in my business, there's so much syndication now. It's funny, when I was doing syndication 15 years ago I was on 300 radio stations across the country. That was a fairly new phenomenon, especially to that degree. Now, one of the main reasons that I'm here is that I really feel the local fan has been completely under-served. I'm really glad to see that more and more local talk is back.

Q. How about your show, is it more focused on local or national sports?

A. I've always taken both. One of the main things for me here is that this is a Tampa Bay radio station and we are going to talk about Tampa Bay. Now, if there's a big issue that is a national issue, obviously it relates to us. But by and large, I'm talking about the Rays and the Bucs and the Lightning and college football.

Q. Baseball was a big part of your show going back to the 1980s and the original effort to bring a team to this area. Would you have ever thought that we'd still be debating the location of the stadium?

A. No, but it has been my experience of being in this business in different locations that everyone complains about their stadium, everyone threatens to move, and they always get a new stadium and don't move. I think this obsession with attacking the fans in the end will backfire heavily on the ownership of the Rays.

Q. Would it be a different story if the stadium were in Tampa or is it the economic climate?

A. If Tropicana Field had been built in Tampa, they would be complaining about the stadium anyways. As far as people going, the ownership's total disregard for the economy here is somewhat surprising. They have no respect for what the average working person here is going through.

Q. And this area has been hit as hard as any in the country.

A. And the ownership of the Tampa Bay Rays either doesn’t know it or really don't care.

Q. Going back to 2008, what were your emotions on that season knowing how long and arduous the journey was just to bring baseball here.

A. I spent that whole season saying, "I don't buy it. Wait 'til Memorial Day. Wait 'til the All-Star break. Wait 'til August.” And it wasn't really until they were in the playoffs that I was ready to say they were for real. I believed in them and thought they were good -- I thought they were very lucky -- and that was fine. There were a lot of home runs in the bottom of the 8th and bottom of the 9th innings and it was very exciting. For someone who had season tickets for as long as I did, and to have seen so much bad baseball, it was incredible.

Now, I think the bar has been set and we have come to have certain expectations. I don't think that going to the World Series or deep into the playoffs necessarily has to be the expectation, but you expect a team that's good and no longer a joke. I don't expect them to fall back to that. Of course, based on Sternberg's whining about how he doesn't have any money, it may very well go back to that.

Q. Your thoughts on the passing this year of George Steinbrenner.

A. The bottom line is this: if there’s no George Steinbrenner, there’s no baseball in this town. People can say what they want, but George is the one that opened the door for baseball to come here. I talked to Vince Naimoli the day George died and he talked about how instrumental George was in helping bring baseball here.

A quick story on George. One summer on my show, we got a phone call from a George in Tampa. We didn't think anything of it, so I put him on. It was George Steinbrenner calling me. So every 4th of July – which was his birthday -- we'd get a call from George and it became a tradition. Then he invited me to Yankee Stadium for a playoff game one year to sit in his box, which was really an incredible experience. I remember how cordial he was, and that was a really impressionable point for me.

I remember a few years ago, there was a soccer team of teenagers from somewhere in South America. They were in Florida playing different teams, and something happened with either the airline or travel agency they booked their tickets through, and they were stranded in Orlando. There was a story about it, and you can guess who wrote the check to put them on a plane home to South America. That's the kind of person he was, the kind of thing he would do for people, and one of the reasons why he’s going to be so missed.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Bucs Throw Away Win Against L.A., 10/13/85

On October 9, 1985, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers parted ways with linebacker Hugh Green, who was the team's first overall selection in the 1981 draft. The disgruntled Green -- a two-time Pro Bowler for the Buccaneers -- had recently made his unhappiness known around One Buc Place, skipping a practice and criticizing the team's defensive scheme.

Green and his agent essentially demanded that owner Hugh Culverhouse trade him to another team. Unable to swing a deal that involved two first round draft picks for Green, the Buccaneers were able to find a willing partner in the Miami Dolphins, who instead sent Tampa Bay first and second round picks in the 1986 draft.

The Green drama provided a bridge between two significant weeks in the 1985 season for Tampa Bay. The previous Sunday, the undefeated Chicago Bears shuffled into Tampa Stadium, and despite trailing 12-3 at the half, upended the winless Buccaneers, 27-19.

Tampa Bay would face another undefeated team at home the coming Sunday against the 5-0 Los Angeles Rams, but this time without one of their defensive stars.

The loss of Green -- unquestionably the team's best linebacker -- could not have come at more inopportune time as the Buccaneers had to find a way to slow down superstar running back Eric Dickerson. The owner of the league's single-season rushing record with 2,105 yards in 1984, Dickerson had an outstanding game against Tampa Bay that season with 191 yards rushing and three touchdowns in L.A.'s 34-33 victory over the Buccaneers.

Would history repeat itself against a thin Buccaneer defense? If anything, Tampa Bay's defense would rise to new heights.

On October 13 in front of just 39,607 at Tampa Stadium, the 0-5 Buccaneers gave the Rams all they could handle.

James Wilder -- the other star running back in the game -- opened the scoring for Tampa Bay with a 1-yard touchdown run. A fake field goal helped set up the score, as holder Alan Risher called an audible prior to the snap and ran 10 yards to the Tampa Bay 2 for a first down.

Trailing 7-0 after the first quarter, the Rams then scored back-to-back touchdowns to take the lead. A 23-yard touchdown pass to Bobby Duckworth from Dieter Brock evened the score at 7 a piece. A Nolan Cromwell interception of Steve DeBerg set up the next Rams score, a 6-yard run by Dickerson to give his team a 14-7 lead.

The Buccaneers would fight back, however, with 17 unanswered points to close the second quarter. Donald Igwebuike's first field goal of the day, a 34-yarder, narrowed the score to 14-10, and Chris Lindstrom's fumble recovery at the L.A. 29-yard line set the stage for a 17-yard pass from Steve DeBerg to Kevin House to give Tampa Bay a 17-14 lead.

Igwebuike later nailed a 49-yard field goal as time expired in the half to extend the lead by six, 20-14, over the undefeated Rams.

Tampa Bay had a chance to blow the game open in the third quarter when linebacker Keith Browner intercepted Brock. On his way into the end zone for a sure touchdown, Browner fumbled at the 3-yard line, however, and the ball bounced out of the end zone for a touchback, giving the Rams new life.

Los Angeles took advantage and controlled the rest of the third quarter, allowing Tampa Bay just six total yards of offense. Mike Lansford chipped in a 27-yard field goal to narrow the score to 20-17, and Carl Eckern intercepted a DeBerg pass and ran it in 33 yards for the go-ahead score.

By this point, the boo-birds were out at Tampa Stadium and calling for DeBerg's backup, Steve Young, with chants of "We Want Young!"

DeBerg responded by putting the Buccaneers back on top 1:47 into in the fourth quarter. A beautiful 13-yard pass from DeBerg to Gerald Carter gave Tampa Bay a 27-24 lead and, once again, a major upset seemed to be in the works.

Rams cornerback LeRoy Irvin, however, made the play of the game to prevent that from happening. Irvin snagged an underthrown pass from DeBerg to Theo Bell and returned it 34 yards for the game-winning touchdown.

Now trailing 31-27, DeBerg's first pass of the ensuing drive was again picked off by Ivory, sealing Tampa Bay's fate. His fourth interception of the game had cost the Buccaneers any chance of making a late comeback.

Defense made the difference on the day for the Rams, as they held Tampa Bay to 210 total yards and forced five turnovers. Wilder, who scored Tampa Bay's first touchdown, was held to 49 yards on 24 carries on the day.

The final score belied how well the Buccaneer defense played. Tampa Bay barely felt the loss of Hugh Green, sacking Dieter Brock seven times, recovering three fumbles, and essentially neutralizing Dickerson, holding him to 75 yards on 25 carries.

Critical turnovers by the offense, and the inability to open holes for Wilder to run, clearly cost the Buccaneers a chance at an upset.

There would be fewer and fewer chances as the season progressed. The Buccaneers nearly shocked the Dolphins at Miami the following week in a 41-38 loss, but Tampa Bay would fall to 0-9 before winning their first game against the St. Louis Cardinals on November 10.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Death of "Chelo" Huerta, 10/8/85

On September 21, 2010, the Tampa sports community lost a giant when Sam Bailey, the former University of Tampa football coach and athletic director, died at the age of 86. It seems sadly appropriate that his death would fall so close to the 25th anniversary of the passing of his colleague and fellow Tampa sports icon, Marcelino "Chelo" Huerta, Jr.

On the evening of October 8, 1985, Huerta attended a regularly scheduled meeting of the Tampa Sports Club at the Holiday Inn on Cypress. Accompanied by his son-in-law Andy Alfonso, the two chatted that night with friends such as Bernie and David Epstein, E.C. Smith, and another former football coach, Fran Curci.

Just three-and-a-half hours after parting ways, Huerta suffered a fatal heart attack. Doctors worked on Huerta for just over two hours, but were unable to save him. One of the most vibrant and beloved men in all of Tampa had died just three weeks shy of his 62nd birthday on October 31.

Although of short and stocky build, Huerta had a distinguished athletic career at Hillsborough High School. In addition to being student body president, Huerta also served as captain of the football team and earned all-state honors as an offensive lineman.

Like so many men of his age, Huerta volunteered for military service during World War II. A proud patriot, Huerta served as a decorated B-24 Liberator pilot in the European Theatre and eventually achieved the rank of 1st Lieutenant during his active service from 1943-45.

Following his discharge from the United States Army Air Force, Huerta made up for lost time by enrolling at the University of Florida. While in Gainesville, Huerta played football for the Gators during a dubious time in their history.

The so-called "Golden Era of Florida Football" featured a 0-13 losing streak from 1946-47 matched only in futility perhaps by the winless Gators of 1979.

Huerta's love of the game led him back to Tampa, where in 1950 Frank Sinkwich hired Chelo on as an assistant coach for the University of Tampa Spartans. It was there that Huerta met the man who would become such a big part of his life, fellow assistant coach Sam Bailey.

It would be a short apprenticeship under Sinkwich, as Huerta took over as the head coach in 1952, a position he held until 1961. He then spent three seasons as the head coach of Wichita State (1962-1965), earning Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year honors in 1963, followed by three seasons at Parsons College (1966-1968) before leaving the world of coaching and returning home to Tampa.

Beginning in 1969, Huerta became involved with the MacDonald Training Center, serving as its Executive Vice President. The facility, with its programs for individuals with developmental disabilities, became the passion of Huerta's post-football life.

At the time of his death, the MacDonald Center was in the process of moving from the Westshore area to a new facility on the campus of the University of South Florida.

"That was Chelo's dream project," said Jerry Fogarty, the MacDonald Training Center's chairman of the board. "How painful the thought that he will not be here to see it through."

As one might expect of the Tampa Sports Club Citizen of the Year in 1969 and the Outstanding Young Man of Tampa in 1954, friends and colleagues effusively praised the late Huerta.

"He was small in size, but he was a giant in his nerve and in his achievements," said Gator teammate Jimmy Kynes. "His loss is beyond estimate."

"No one on this earth ever helped me more," said Rick Nafe, the former operations director for the Tampa Sports Authority. "To me he was like a coach, father and good friend. I was privileged to sit at his right hand."

His close friend George Levy, however, may have said it best.

"There was only one Chelo. There cannot be another. A big slice of this town left us this week."

Monday, October 4, 2010

Catching Up with Mark Carrier

Mark Carrier, a third round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1987, is Tampa Bay's most prolific receiver of all-time. He still owns the most 100-yard receiving games in team history (15), and the single-game receiving yardage record (212). A Buccaneer from 1987-1992, Carrier played 12 seasons in the NFL and finished his career with 8,763 yards and 48 touchdowns. Carrier can now be heard weekdays alongside Ronnie Lane on WHBO 1040-AM from 3-7 p.m. He recently took some time to talk about his Buccaneer days and his new career behind the microphone.

Q. Take us back to your rookie training camp under Ray Perkins. What was that like?

A. It was a camp that I never expected. Prior to coming into the league and watching football, or seeing depictions of football practices on television, I had a different expectation. Once I got here, I guess reality set in. I was dumbfounded, and found myself thinking, "This is not what I saw on television!" It was a rude awakening for me.

It was his first year, my first year, and I want to say we had something like 20 draft picks that year. I truly believe his goal was to rebuild the team from scratch and get guys in place who he felt fit his plan. If they didn't fit his plan, he was going to do anything in his power to keep them off the team. I think the three-a-day training camp was how he felt he could see who was mentally and physically tough enough to go through it.

Q. How did you personally adapt to the rigors of camp?

A. It was tough for me, but I think I was able to adapt quicker because I wasn't one of the veterans who had been exposed to a different camp. Therefore, it was a culture-shock for them. For me, being accustomed to working hard I was able to deal with it better. Being young helped of course, and I didn't know truly what to expect. It was a tough camp, a tough season, it was the year of the strike. A lot of things were going on that first season.

Q. What kind of impact did the strike have on you as a rookie?

A. To be honest with you, after going through the grueling three-a-days of camp, the one advantage of the strike was my body getting a chance to rest a little bit. With all the hard work in that heat, my body was tired. It was brutal. If I could take anything positive from that strike, it gave me the chance to rejuvenate my body.

Other than that, it was particularly tough as a rookie coming into the league when you've not been exposed to what the strike is all about. It was the veteran players who knew what was going on, and had a better idea of why were striking. We as rookies had to learn as we went from what we had heard and read. It was eye-opening for me. Veteran players who had been in the league nine or ten years were talking about the things they wanted for the future, knowing their careers were ending in the next year or two. I could not appreciate it as much back then because they had gone through some of the things I had not been exposed to yet.

Q. That season you had a breakout game against New Orleans, setting a team-record for receiving yards (212) in a game. That had to be extra special coming in your home state of Louisiana.

A. I can't remember if I bought 30 or 40 tickets for that game, but it was my first time returning home. I grew up in Louisiana, went to school in Louisiana, cheered for the Saints as a child, even during the bad days of Archie Manning and Chuck Muncie. Quite frankly, anybody who grows up playing football in Louisiana would love to play football for the Saints. That's the nature of the beast out there. I was trying to put on a show for my family and friends who had come to the game, but also for the New Orleans Saints who had not drafted me. I went to school an hour away, but they chose to go in a different direction. I wanted to show them what they passed up.

Q. You came in as a rookie alongside Vinny Testaverde, and would play with him again later in Cleveland. Can you talk about how your careers intertwined?

A. One of the things that happened by getting drafted together is that we developed a chemistry. The coaches knew they weren't going to start him right away, but still we got in a lot of work together during training camp. That New Orleans game was actually his first game as a starter. All of the stuff we had been working on came together that day. It got to the point where I could depend on him, and he could depend on me. We were able to be successful and put up good numbers from then on.

As far as Cleveland goes, it wasn't planned out. It just happened to be that way and worked out to where we were able to hook up together for a couple more years.

Q. 1989 seems to be the defining year of your career, getting named to the Pro Bowl and being named the team MVP. How did it all come together for you that season?

A. That was a season where everything fell into place. I felt comfortable with the system, comfortable with Vinny, and more secure with my role and what my expectations were. I had the opportunity to make plays, and the coaches began to believe in me. The confidence built in me from them. Vinny and I had been playing together for three years by them, so we knew each other like the backs of our hands.

Q. That season the team finished 5-11, and if not for a couple of last-minute losses, could have had a winning record. What do you recall as the difference that year?

A. That was so long ago and so many losses ago. (laughs) I think back then, we were still trying to learn how to win and I think we were on the edge for a lot of games, but we could never get to the point where we could close out games. Like you said, we were 5-11, but we weren't a 5-11 team.

When you get into a habit of losing, it's hard to sometimes get out of those ruts, so to speak. Just like it seems when you are winning, the ball bounces the right way. When you're losing, it's just the opposite. It seems to be contagious and goes from one week to another.

Q. Going to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl had to make up for some of the disappointment, right?

A. That is probably one of my best memories. I ended up having a great year. 86 catches, I think. Initially, I wasn't going to go to the Pro Bowl because they had voted in John Taylor from San Francisco. He had 26 less catches and a few hundred less yards. But when you look at San Francisco and you see them every week them on television, it becomes a popularity contest. I understood the nature of the business. As it happened, he could not go. I was the first alternate, so I was able to take his place. It was gratifying because all of the hard work that I put in had paid off. It's one thing to play against the caliber of some of those guys, but to then go to practicing with and playing with them was a thrill for me.

Q. You came within one game of a Super Bowl in 1996 as a member of the Panthers. After all the losing years in Tampa, how special was that season for you?

A. Well, my second season in Cleveland we made the playoffs. That was my first-ever experience in the playoffs. I tell these young guys all the time that it took me eight years to get to the playoffs. Some guys come into the league and get into the playoffs their first or second year. That's very rare and shouldn't be taken for granted. Just getting a taste of the playoffs was great.

With Carolina, that was a season unlike any other. It was only our second year of existence. It reminds me of that Sylvester Stallone movie "The Expendables" because we were a group of older guys that came from different teams. We were either left unprotected or released by our former teams and then taken by the Panthers. We were The Expendables. We came together and were actually a game away from hosting the NFC Championship Game. If Green Bay had lost in the divisional round, we'd have had the championship game at home which would have made a world of difference. Going up to play in Green Bay seemed like it was 20 degrees below zero. I viewed that as the coldest day in the history of the world for me. It really was. Fighting those elements, never getting on track as a team, and finding ourselves in a hole right away kind of spoiled our chances. But just the experience of getting there was gratifying for me.

Q. How did you get involved with your new radio show?

A. It's by freak accident that it happened. About two months ago, I was very blessed and fortunate to be inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. I'm flying back to Tampa from the ceremony, and at the airport I run into Ronnie Lane. We talked for a few minutes, and he told me he was back in town trying to get a new radio show going. Then he asked if I would be interested in joining him. I said sure, and that's how it came together.

It's a new experience. I'm still feeling my way a little bit, but with each passing day I get more comfortable and relaxed. I've always been on the other side of the mic! So it's been interesting. As a sports fanatic, I like the fact that now I can talk about sports all day. Being able to do that is a piece of cake, really.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Bucs' Comeback Falls Short, 9/28/80

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened their season two weeks ago with a victory at home over the Cleveland Browns. After going winless against the Browns between 1976 and 1995, the Buccaneers have now won three straight against Cleveland.

The second all-time meeting between these two teams occurred 30 years ago, when the Browns came to Tampa for a late-September contest at Tampa Stadium.

Coming off the fantastic 1979 campaign, the Buccaneers had high expectations for 1980. The season started off promising enough, with victories on the road against Cincinnati and at home against the Los Angeles Rams in a rematch of the NFC Championship game.

In Week 3, the Buccaneers dropped a winnable game on the road against Dallas. After leading 17-7, Tampa Bay surrendered 21 unanswered points in a 28-17 loss to the Cowboys.

Still, at 2-1 the Buccaneers seemed poised to have another fine year. The Browns came into the game having struggled their first two weeks -- dropping meetings against New England and Houston – while rebounding for a win in Week 3 against Kansas City.

Prior to the game, Tampa Bay head coach John McKay warned of taking the 1-2 Browns for granted.

“The key word for Cleveland is that they play in a very tough division,” McKay said of the AFC Central Division. “Take them lightly and they can tear us apart. It could be worse than Dallas.”

Prophetic words from McKay, as the Browns indeed had their way with a suddenly porous Buccaneer defense.

On September 28, 1980, in front of crowd of 65,540, the Browns and Bucs did their best to light up the stadium scoreboard.

After taking an early 6-0 lead on a pair of field goals by Garo Yepremian, Tampa Bay’s defense came back to reality after holding Cleveland to only five yards in the first quarter.

Momentum seemed to turn when Tampa Bay passed on a 27-yard field goal attempt, instead going for it on fourth-and-two. The gambit failed and Cleveland marched down the field for their first points of the game, a 35-yard field goal by Don Cockroft to cut the lead in half.

The Buccaneers answered right back, however, on a 41-yard touchdown pass from Doug Williams to Gordon Jones to extend their lead to 13-3. The joy from this scoring drive would prove short-lived.

The league’s top-ranked defense in 1979, Tampa Bay struggled mightily for the rest of the afternoon against a Cleveland passing attack led by quarterback Brian Sipe.

Sipe caught fire in the second quarter, at one point reeling off a Cleveland-record 13-consecutive pass completions, and 18 out of 19 passes overall.

“To be truthful,” Tampa Bay cornerback Danny Reece said after the game, “a lot of those passes were little passes, passes to the backs. But you must give him credit, he found the open spots.”

The comeback began with an 8-yard touchdown run by Charles White to narrow Tampa Bay’s lead to three. On their next offensive possession, Sipe hit running back Calvin Hill for a 3-yard touchdown pass to put the Browns in the lead, 17-13.

More misery for the Buccaneers in the second half, as Sipe continued to have plenty of time in the pocket, while his receivers continued to find holes in the Tampa Bay secondary.

Receiver Ricky Feacher, a graduate of Brooksville-Hernando High School, caught a 13-yard touchdown pass from Sipe in the third quarter, and Calvin Hill added his second touchdown reception in the fourth quarter – this time a 43-yarder – to give Cleveland a commanding 31-13 lead.

As fans started streaming out of Tampa Stadium, however, the Buccaneers began fighting their way back into the game behind the arm of Doug Williams. Although somewhat overshadowed by Sipe’s day, Williams had quite a day of his own. For the second consecutive week, Williams passed for over 300 yards and put Tampa Bay in position for an improbable comeback.

Williams hit Gordon Jones for his second touchdown of the day on a 3-yard pass to cut the lead to 31-20. The Browns added a 36-yard field goal to make it a two-touchdown game, 34-20. Then the dramatics began.

With 45 seconds left in the game, Williams hit running back Jerry Eckwood on a 7-yard touchdown pass to bring Tampa Bay within a touchdown.

On the ensuing kickoff, the Buccaneers successfully recovered an onsides kick attempt by Yepremian to earn one last chance.

With no time outs remaining and already in Cleveland territory, Williams passed the ball over the middle to tight end Jimmie Giles at the Browns’ 20. Giles was immediately met by two Cleveland defenders, and the Buccaneers were unable to run another play. The clock expired and any hopes for a miraculous comeback were dashed as the Browns held on in a 34-27 victory.

After the game, there was plenty of blame to go around the Tama Bay locker room. The defense, for getting carved up by Sipe, and the offense, for botching the final play of the game, shared equal blame in the eyes of their head coach.

“A statement,” said John McKay in his post-game comments. “Our offense was inept and our defense was terrible. It was hard to tell which was worse. Our pass defense was horrible. We looked like we were playing in cement.”

McKay lofted several more bon mots, calling the decision on the final play “idiotic,” saying in reference to Sipe that “he was lofting balloons to start the game and we were acting like they were guided missiles,” and in an overall assessment of his team’s state of mind, “I think it is manure that we are a team that continually makes mental errors.”

While both teams left Tampa Stadium with matching 2-2 records, they were clearly headed in different directions.

Cleveland would win nine of their next twelve games en route to the playoffs, while the Buccaneers could look forward to a total of three more victories the rest of the season, a disappointing follow-up to the magical season of 1979.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Catching Up With Mike Connell

Mike Connell, an original member of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, played with the team from 1975-1984 and became one of the most popular players in franchise history. Joining the squad as an 18-year-old from South Africa in 1975, Connell earned the nickname “Iron Mike” for participating in over 25,000 minutes of play over the course of a career spent entirely in Tampa. Connell saw it all as a member of the Rowdies, and recently took some time to reflect on his playing days and thoughts on Tampa as a potential World Cup host city.

Q. What comes to mind when you think of the 1975 season?

A. That first year 1975, head coach Eddie Firmani had arranged for me to come over. My first memory from that year is getting stuck at the Miami airport because I didn't have a visa to get into the country. I was held up there for five or six hours while they sorted it out. Then I came up to Tampa, settled down at the Spanish Oaks apartments in Town ‘n’ Country. It was January, so most of the players hadn't arrived yet. We only had about eight players in at that time, mostly Americans.

At the time, not many people knew soccer in Tampa. They just knew we were these funny guys with funny accents in funny uniforms. Eddie Firmani was critical in bringing together characters who bought into the concept of being successful in Tampa. It was a one-shot deal. The success of the Rowdies really comes down to one year: 1975. If we're not successful in 1975, then the magic doesn't happen.

I remember in those first games, they only used to open up one side of Tampa Stadium. There were no end zones yet. Francisco Marcos, our Director of Public Relations, had the idea to build life-size cutouts of people sitting in the stands. So, on the empty side you had these cutouts of families, and then just one guy. (laughs) I mean when you think of where we were at that time to where we ended up, with 60,000 people at games...

Q. What were your immediate impressions of Tampa?

A. It was smaller than what I grew up in. I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, a major city. Tampa was just a little town when I came here. The guys on the team all stayed at the same apartment complex, so we were all convenient to one another. We built our own little social group. Between the apartments, practice, the pub, the pizza place, we basically did everything as a group. I was single, young, 18-years old, so the old married guys would have me over. It was a protective gang of guys that enjoyed being with one another and playing the game. As far as the town was concerned, I knew Town ‘n’ Country, and I knew USF, and the road between. That was it.

Q. Did you get a lot of playing time as a rookie?

A. Oh yeah, I played in all the games. I broke my toe so I was out for a few games towards the end of the season, but I was ready by the playoffs. You know, at that time there were not restrictions on foreigners. We were all foreigners. I was playing with players from the top divisions of England. When we played Portland in the final, their entire team was made up of English players. As an accomplishment for me, it was good. I didn't have that chance in South Africa . At the time, South Africa was banned from international soccer because of apartheid. I never had the opportunity to play against international players until I came here.

Q. I always ask former Rowdies about the bond between the team and its fans. The level of interaction is just something you don't see anymore.

A. Well, you never see it. Again, we were a bunch of foreign guys who'd show up to after-game parties and hang out with the fans, or go to pub nights with the fans. It was the closest you could come in this country to a college fan. It's not the sport that drives them, so much as it is being part of the University of Florida , or Florida State, or Notre Dame. Even today -- and I've been out of the game 25 years -- people still remember the relationship to the team. To us, the magic was that the fans believed they were part of the success.

We started getting away from that relationship by bringing in players from other teams or professionals from Europe. They weren't used to the personal appearances, so we began to separate from the fans and tended to be a little more aloof. But when it comes to Tampa, anybody that grew up with the Rowdies will tell you about the relationship they had with the team. We run into people who are 40 years old and they were your fan, and they used to love you. When I see people or talk to people now, they remember it as if it was yesterday. When you go to a Rowdies game and people come up to you, you're stunned. One, that they've recognized you, and two, that their memory of the time is so vivid.

Q. The 1980 season, which I've written about a few times this year, was kind of up-and-down, but you had that amazing semifinal game against San Diego. You blew them out 6-0, then played to a 1-1 tie in the mini-game, and then lost in a shootout. That had to be devastating.

A. They had beaten us 6-3 before that in San Diego. Looking back, I know the exact moment that Hugo Sanchez scored the tying goal in the mini-game. I know it because I was involved in it, marking him at the time. We had won shootouts before, but this one went the other way. Losing at home was tough because it was in front of our fans.

Looking back, that really was the beginning of the change. When we didn't get to the final that year -- which is what we always expected to do -- the change came. They got rid of players, they brought in new ones, and by then we started losing our identity.

Q. What do you remember about some of the international teams you played at Tampa Stadium ?

A. The trouble with playing in America was that we were isolated from world soccer. The newspapers never covered English soccer, we didn't have the Fox soccer channel, we didn't have the Internet. When we played teams like Manchester United or Nottingham Forrest, we never really knew exactly who they were or their stature. Now you look back and go, "Oh, ****."

But for me as a kid coming out of South Africa -- and not being able to play against international teams -- the opportunity to play against teams like Manchester United was very special. I remember that game, I scored in that game, I had a fantastic game against them. But I never thought ... you know, now, I would say I want to go play for them. The Rowdies were so big at the time, I didn't have the ambition to say that. I regret it now because I think they deserved a lot more respect.

Q. You were nicknamed "Iron Mike." Talk about how you were able to stay in such condition and health to never miss any games.

A. Well, I was a smart player. I stayed out of trouble. Even as a defender, I was more of an intercepter of the ball, reading the game, as opposed to just flying into tackles and doing that kind of stuff. I was lucky, I had no major injuries. Unlike today where you watch a game and people are diving, to us at the time -- and it really doesn't matter who it was -- showing weakness is what we didn't want to do. I think maybe we tended to play through things. Our seasons were pretty evenly paced. We had one or two games a week, a practice, so you had time to recover. All those factors were important.

Q. Since you went home this summer for the World Cup, I have to ask your thoughts on Tampa as a potential World Cup city down the road.

A. To me, the gateway to soccer in this country is through Tampa. You know, 35 years ago when people mentioned American soccer in Europe, it was Tampa that they spoke about. Not the New York Cosmos, but the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Because of that, I don't believe there should be anything that happens in soccer that doesn't involve Tampa. We deserve to be a World Cup site. If they just look at it from a soccer point of view -- heritage, passion, tradition -- Tampa should be a no-brainer.