Monday, January 25, 2010

Leeman Bennett Era Begins, 1/23/85

With the departure of Head Coach John McKay following the 1984 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers spent the first few weeks of 1985 searching for his replacement.

Owner Hugh Culverhouse had a deep pool of coaching talent available from which to select McKay's successor. Among the hot assistant coaches around the league rumored to be in line for a head gig were Buddy Ryan of the Chicago Bears, George Seifert of the San Francisco 49ers and Joe Bugel of the Washington Redskins. All three would eventually become head coaches in the NFL, but not in 1985 and not with Tampa Bay.

Among the first coaches he interviewed was former Oklahoma State University head coach Jim Stanley, who had most recently led the Michigan Panthers to the 1983 USFL championship. Culverhouse also met with former New England Patriots head coach Ron Meyer, who won the AFC Coach of the Year award in 1982. Meyer had a reputation for turning around downtrodden programs, as proved by his track record with Patriots, as well as head coaching stints with the University of Las Vegas-Nevada and Southern Methodist University.

Culverhouse also met with Leeman Bennett, formerly head coach of the Atlanta Falcons from 1977-82. Despite leading Atlanta to three playoff berths -- including a 12-4 record and NFC West title in 1980 -- Bennett was fired from his job after a 5-4 finish in the strike-shortened season of 1982. Out of coaching altogether for two years, Bennett had been selling recreational vehicles in Atlanta when Culverhouse came calling.

One of the most logical candidates for the job, however, had been at One Buc Place all along. An assistant coach on defense since 1976, Wayne Fontes had seen it all in Tampa: the 26-game losing streak, the remarkable turnaround in 1979 and three trips to the postseason.

Every coach interviewed for the job wanted to become head coach in Tampa Bay, but Fontes really wanted the job. Fontes followed John McKay to Tampa from the University of Southern California to serve as a defensive backs coach, and eventually worked his way up to defensive coordinator. Given his nearly 15-year association with McKay, the new team president, one might assume the "heir-apparent" Fontes would have an edge on all other candidates.

Some speculated that rather than help, the association with McKay might negatively impact his chances and that Fontes would just been seen as "McKay's boy." Others thought that the Buccaneers needed to hire an experienced head coach, a proven winner who wouldn't need on-the-job training.

As the search neared a conclusion, Fontes and Bennett were the only candidates to meet for two interviews with Culverhouse. Clearly, these were his finalists for the job. On January 23, 1985, Culverhouse made his decision.

Rather than going with the in-house favorite in Fontes, Culverhouse selected Bennett to become the second head coach in franchise history.

"He has an upbeat attitude," Culverhouse said of Bennett. "He is a positive person. He lives in an air of confidence, and his record proves what he can do."

Bennett was at his home in Atlanta trying to thaw out frozen water pipes when Culverhouse called to offer him the head coaching job. Bennett flew to Tampa that night for his first press conference as coach of the Buccaneers.

Although Culverhouse signed Bennett to a five-year contract, he made clear that he would not be nearly as patient as he was with McKay.

"We may not be winners the first year," Culverhouse said, adding, "One thing we all agree on is anything less than winning the Super Bowl is considered a failure."

Another thing Bennett made clear right away was that, for their own best interests, Fontes would not be retained in any coaching capacity. Defensive players loyal to Fontes were quick to express their disappointment in his being passed over for the job, but were careful not to disrespect the incoming coach.

"I kind of feel bad for Wayne," said linebacker Scot Brantley. "I was kind of pulling for him as everyone was in a special way. But if it wasn't going to be Wayne, my No. 1 pick would have been Leeman Bennett. I understand he's real personable and that his wife and family are super people."

Defensive back Mark Cotney also expressed an allegiance to Fontes and desire to see him in charge of the team.

"I feel bad for him because I know how bad he wanted the job. He paid his dues along the way. I don't know much about coach Bennett, but what small information I know is all very favorable."

On Bennett's first full day as head coach, Fontes stopped by One Buc Place to say his goodbyes and offer best wishes to his rival for the job.

"I just want to shake Leeman's hand and congratulate him first," Fontes said. "He is a fine man."

Bennett called Fontes "a real class man" and said that he appreciated his well-wishes. He would need all the help and best wishes he could get that year, as Bucs fans know all too well. The Leeman Bennett era had officially begun in Tampa Bay.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Chip Conner Ousted at USF, 1/15/80

Due to the recent firing of head coach Jim Leavitt, the University of South Florida football program finds itself at a crossroads. This week 30 years ago, the basketball program was in a similar situation: looking to find a new head coach and right a sinking ship.

On January 13, 1980, the Bulls traveled to Mobile, Alabama, to play in a regionally televised game against the defending Sun Belt Conference champions, the University of South Alabama. A rare TV appearance afforded the 4-7 Bulls a chance to answer critics who said the team played too soft and without emotion, and were just plain poorly prepared.

Instead, the Bulls seemed to confirm those criticisms by laying an absolute egg, dropping an 84-55 contest that was not even as close as the 29-point deficit might indicate. Head coach Chip Conner, who called the game "the worst we've played all year for 40 minutes," seemed to believe his team had quit playing hard in the second half.

After the game, the embattled Conner was despondent and dejected, unsure of his own future or of how to fix his team. His words were spoken by a man all too aware of his impending fate.

"I am at the low point of my life," he said. "I have never felt worse than I do right now. If they were to go ahead and fire me, based on today's performance, I couldn't blame them."

Of his team, Conner said, "I just can't seem to evoke any emotion in them. They just don't fight back. I can't understand how they can go out on the court like they did today and just get intimidated the way they were. I can't understand how they can play with no intensity."

He cited a lack of chemistry, experience and leadership among his players as reasons for the Bulls struggles.

"There are going to be some changes," Conner said. "I can promise you that." He could not have been more correct.

On January 15, university president John Lott Brown also came to the decision that a change had to be made, and that Conner would not be part of the solution. Dan Walbolt, vice president of student affairs, announced the decision to terminate Conner after four seasons in which he posted an overall 59-62 mark.

The change came not only because of the team's poor record, but because of the effect it had on attendance and overall interest in the program.

"It is apparent to me," Walbolt said, "that we have lost a significant amount of community and university support for our basketball team, and that we must make immediate efforts to regain that support. We have been concerned about the fact that our team has not performed as well as we hoped and expected."

The Bulls were expected to contend for the Sun Belt championship during the 1979-80 season. Coming off a second-place 14-14 finish the previous year, and with several key players returning, the team severely underachieved to open the season. Blowout losses to North Carolina, Florida State and Auburn, while disappointing, were somewhat understandable. Losses to schools like the University of Richmond and Florida Southern College, however, were not so easily excused. The crushing loss to South Alabama -- a game Walboldt called a "disgrace" -- proved to be the tipping point for Conner's career at USF.

In the wake of the well-liked Conner's firing, his former players came to his defense. Tony Grier objected to the decision, saying, "He wasn't given a chance. I think it stinks."

Hiram Green expressed disappointment at losing a coach the players felt close to: "He was a great man and we all had respect for him. I didn't expect anything to happen like this."

The university chose assistant coach Gordon Gibbons as Conner's replacement on an interim basis. The day after Conner's ousting, the Bulls responded to the change in a manner that hinted at a reversal in fortunes.

In front of 1,008 fans at Curtis Hixon Hall, the Bulls rallied from an 11-point second-half deficit to top the University of New Orleans, 70-67. The team hustled, played with emotion and refused to quit. Did the team turn a corner that night? Not exactly.

The Bulls would go on to drop their next 12 games, and not win again until Feb. 18 against Stetson. USF finished the season 1-13 in the Sun Belt Conference and 6-21 overall, by any measure the worst campaign in the nine-year history of the program.

Better times were just around the corner, however, as the hiring of Purdue's Lee Rose for the following season -- as well as the long-awaited opening of the Sun Dome -- signaled the beginning of a new and exciting era in South Florida basketball.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Solomon Shines at All-American Bowl, 1/5/75

In the 7th annual Lions American Bowl on January 5, 1975, the South all-stars came into the game as a 14-point underdog against the best of the North. Winless in the series since 1970, few gave the South a chance. Even so, the South did have a chance because of a weapon on their roster known all-too-well to football fans in Tampa: quarterback Freddie Solomon.

The star quarterback from the University of Tampa would play the last game of his amateur career on the same field where he left an indelible mark on the sport. It would give Solomon -- an almost-certain first-round NFL Draft pick -- one final chance to showcase his skills.

His athleticism and talent were never in question among pro scouts, some of whom dubbed him the best "pure athlete" in the draft. Blessed with blazing speed, Solomon could outrun anyone on the football field. He left his opponents, as well as opposing coaches, in awe.

Miami Hurricanes head coach Pete Elliott described Solomon's running as "out of this world" and called him "one of the finest football players I have ever seen."

His own coach, Dennis Fryzell, said that he "wouldn't trade Fred Solomon for any quarterback in the country."

Still, he had some doubters. One opposing coach said that he did not regard Solomon as a "complete quarterback" or a "sophisticated passer." Even admirers like Elliott, however, couldn't resist the occasional backhanded compliment towards Solomon.

"The greatest sight is to see Freddie drop back to pass," Elliott once said, "and then pass."
Yes, even as Solomon set the NCAA record for rushing yards by a quarterback, there were doubts.

As he prepared to turn pro, many scouts and front office executives questioned whether his skills would translate at the quarterback position in the NFL. They wondered if he'd be better off as a wide receiver, running back -- or even a defensive back.

By his own admission, Solomon acknowledged he was not a traditional drop-back passer.

"All I want," Solomon said, "is the respect of being drafted as a quarterback and the chance to see if I can play it. I think I can. If somebody would take me and work with me this offseason on the drop-back technique, I know I could do it."

If Solomon's goal was to use the Lions American Bowl to showcase his quarterbacking potential, he should have considered the game a rousing success.

In front of an announced crowd of 19,240 at Tampa Stadium, the South defied the odds and triumphed over the North, 28-22. How the South won, however, is more interesting than the fact that it actually won. Solomon almost singlehandedly delivered the victory for his team.

He led the South on all four of their touchdown drives -- covering 70, 65, 68, and 50 yards -- even while splitting time at quarterback with Rockey Felker of Mississippi State and Chris Kupec of North Carolina.

Although his passing stats on the day were on the low end -- 3 of 3 for 66 yards and one touchdown -- when given the opportunity he made two critical passes on what turned out to be the game-winning drive. Solomon connected on pass plays of 24 and 26 yards to University of Florida receiver Lee McGriff, the latter coming with 15 seconds left in the game to break a 22-22 tie.

"I've felt all along that I could pass," Solomon said. "I hope I made a believer of some people today."

Solomon also gained 45 yards on the ground and scored two rushing touchdowns, including a dazzling eight-yard run that showcased his speed and athleticism.

"We ran the wide veer to the left," he said of the play. "Their defense had it stacked up, so I turned the other way, and ran for daylight."

For his efforts, Solomon earned the South's MVP award. Moreover, Solomon proved his abilities under center.

"I hope that what I did at the end of the game will make believers out of some of those people," he said. "Sure I want to play quarterback in the pros. If I can't, I'll just have to do something else."

Solomon made enough of an impression over the course of his college career to be selected in the 2nd round of the 1975 draft by the Miami Dolphins. He was not drafted, however, to play quarterback. Miami drafted Solomon with the idea of converting him into a wide receiver and kick returner.

Over the course of an 11-year pro career -- three with Miami and eight with San Francisco -- Solomon proved he could play those positions, too. He amassed 48 offensive touchdowns and five on special teams while becoming one of Joe Montana's favorite targets.

The native South Carolinian known around these parts as "Fabulous Freddie" provided football fans with thrills for four great seasons at the University of Tampa. The NFL may not have been ready for his style of quarterback play back then, but years later the popular use of Wildcat formations have proved that his athletic skills weren't just a passing fad.

Monday, January 4, 2010

All-American Bowl Drama, 1/3/70

As 1969 turned into 1970, the city of Tampa prepared to host the second annual Lions Club All-American Bowl at Tampa Stadium. Just hours into the new decade, however, an unanticipated controversy threatened to overshadow the event.

Organizers of the game, as well as coaches, players, and fans, were stunned to find out that four of the five African-American players representing the South team had quit and decide to leave town. Without even checking out of their hotel or informing the bowl organizers, the players took their belongings from their rooms at the Sheraton Motor Inn on Ashley Drive and left in the early morning hours.

The players – Ron Shaklin and Glenn Holloway of North Texas State, Arthur James of East Texas State, and Ron Gardin of Arizona – had been involved in a dispute at the Sheraton on New Year’s Eve. According to hotel manager Louis Hautzig, the players tried entering private parties in the hotel and were asked to leave the ballrooms by security. Shanklin, for his part, offered a different account of the events.

He said that the players – just curious about the evening’s events going on in the hotel -- were grabbed forcefully by security and wrestled out of the room. Holloway had also complained to Shanklin of rude treatment by a waitress in the hotel coffee shop.

Clearly, the racial undertones were impossible to ignore. The players felt discriminated against and chose to deal with it by leaving town. What in actuality may have been a failed attempt at party-crashing and a random case of bad service, to those players seemed like something much more sinister.

This disturbance marred what had been an otherwise pleasant and harmonious week of events leading up to the bowl game on Jan. 3. Organizers were excited that the game – featuring top-shelf talent players -- would be broadcast to a nation-wide audience. Unlike the previous year, the game achieved official certification from the NCAA. This enabled player participation from Big Ten schools such as Ohio State, Iowa, and Purdue.

The North squad came in armed with talent from some of the best schools in the country. Starting at quarterback would be Dennis Shaw of San Diego State, who led the nation in total offense in 1969. Winners the previous year, the North was installed as a 13-point favorite over the South. Few could have anticipated how the game eventually played out.

In front of 17,642 fans on a cold and gloomy day, the South rose to the level of the heavily-favored North. That is, at least, after a rock first half in which the North raced out to a two-touchdown lead. After spotting the South an early three points, the North rallied behind a 52-yard touchdown pass from Shaw to Jerry Hendren, a 2-yard touchdown run by Bob Anderson, and a field goal by Jim O’ Brien to take a 17-3 lead into the half.

The South turned the game’s momentum around in the third quarter, when North quarterback Gary Baxter of the Air Force fumbled a snap on forth down at the South’s 26.

Florida State quarterback Bill Cappleman led the comeback for the South by connecting with Dennis Hughes of Georgia on a 27-yard touchdown in the third quarter to cut the lead to 17-9.
Larry Stegent of Texas A&M – who’d rush for 114 yards on the day and earn the game’s M.V.P. honors -- scored from five yards out with just over nine minutes left in the game. A successful two-point conversion toss by Cappleman notched the game 17-17.

It didn't take long for the North to get back on top, as Shaw connected with Hendren again, this time on a 72-yarder to give his team a six-point lead. He bobbled the snap on the extra point attempt, however, and his pass attempt into the end zone fell incomplete, leaving his team ahead by a count of 23-17.

Cappleman answered right back just three minutes later for the South, hitting Eddie Ray of LSU on a 48-yard touchdown pass with 4:24 left in the game. Kicker John Riley of Auburn added the extra point, giving the South a one-point lead.

With the North driving towards the winning score, a controversial call with just 1:46 left in the game proved to be a turning point in the game. On second and goal from the four, Shaw found tight end Jim McFarland of Nebraska in the back of the end zone for what would have been the go-ahead touchdown. End zone markings, of all things, may have contributed to the decision by back judge Whib Robertson – a junior high school principal during the week -- to call the pass incomplete.

A full yard of green grass sandwiched between the decorative white end zone paint and the back line is where McFarland said his feet landed. The referee, perhaps confused by the field markings, called him out of bounds.

“I’ve never seen a field marked like this,” North head coach Duffy Daugherty said after the game. “There should be a different color designating the end line.”

McFarland said that game film would prove he came down in bounds. Shaw, for his part, flippantly suggested that the game ball be awarded to the officials.

Still, the North had a chance to take the lead on a field goal attempt by Jim O’Brien of the University of Cincinnati, but his kick went wide and the South held on for an improbable 24-23 victory.

Although he missed on the final kick of his college career, O’Brien found redemption one year later. The goat of the 1970 All-American Bowl, as a member of the Baltimore Colts, O'Brien kicked the game-winning field goal in Super Bowl V to give his team a 16-13 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.