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.

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