Monday, February 22, 2010

S.O.S. for Spartans football, 2/23/75

With the recruiting period for the 1975 college football season nearly at an end, University of Tampa head coach Dennis Fryzel felt good about his young prospects. The National Letter of Intent day on February 19, 1975, would culminate what he hoped was his best incoming freshman class yet.

On February 12, however, a letter written by the University of Tampa board of trustees finance committee sent shockwaves throughout the community and threatened to destroy Fryzel’s plans for the future.

Faced with a projected $220,000 budget deficit for the 1975-76 academic year, the finance committee determined that the school’s football program – itself facing a $226,000 budget deficit – would have to be eliminated for the overall good of the university. Over the previous nine years, according to the letter, the football program had been subsidized by the trustees to the tune of nearly $1.9 million and continuing to subsidize a money-losing operation would “seriously hamper the high qualitative academic standing which the University enjoys nationally.”

The letter also cited the arrival of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an impending drain on fan support for college football. Interestingly, another reason cited by the trustees was a desire to broaden other athletic pursuits -- particularly co-ed -- at the school. This was based on suggestion by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which believed that “there was an imbalance of football emphasis at the university.”

The letter represented only recommendations by the committee. The findings expressed in the letter allowed the athletic department, business community and other interested parties time to convince the board of trustees to change their minds.

It did not take long for the aftershocks to begin. The Sword and Shield Club – the fundraising arm for University of Tampa athletics – called for an immediate meeting at the Riverside Hilton to discuss plans to save the football program. More than 300 people attended the meeting, raising a quick $22,000 for the program.

The Sword and Shield Club issued a counter-proposal, stating that a group of between 200-500 citizens would offset any deficit incurred by the football program, under the condition that an accounting procedure be established to determine the precise amount of any deficits.

Marvin Scott, who headed up the proposal for the club, said “the only thing that will save the University of Tampa football program is money. In this short period of time, we’ve been able to raise enough to show that there are many who care and want to see this program continue.”

The meeting also served as a forum for many to vent. For some, the timing of the decision was bothersome. Others questioned the validity of the committee’s conclusions regarding the football program as a financial drain.

Fryzel, for one, argued that the program brought in money in 1974. He cited “paper money,” however, as the reason for the program’s deficit.

“We made $629,000 last year, and only budgeted for $475,000,” he said. “When you multiply $2,300 (cost of tuition) times 75 (number of players on scholarship), you’ll find out why we’re operating in the red. This is paper money and I don’t think it should be charged off against us. We should be charged with room and board and books.”

Many, meanwhile, questioned the university’s commitment to athletics and whether donors would feel like making large gifts to a school without a football team.

On February 20, the school acquiesced and postponed a meeting to vote on the finance committee’s recommendations regarding the program. This allowed the Sword and Shield Club, as well as other interested groups, an additional week to formulate their plans to save football.

On February 23, the “Save Our Spartans” (S.O.S.) plan became a reality. In just four days' time, the campaign hoped to generate $200,000 in public pledges. The free use of 62 billboards around the Bay area was aimed at generating rapid awareness and interest in the campaign.

Jim Metcalf, one of the leaders behind the pledge drive, said that one way or another, the university would find out the community’s level of support for keeping the football program.
“The community has a chance to express itself,” he said. “If the community and the university don’t want the program, then it ought to go. We’ll find out this way.”

Monday, February 15, 2010

Catching Up With John Cannon, Part III

John Cannon, a native of Long Branch, New Jersey, joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the team's 4th overall draft pick in the 3rd round of the 1982 draft. The defensive end out of William & Mary recorded 22 sacks in 9 seasons with Tampa Bay. Cannon retired following the 1990 season, but has remained a fixture in the community. Currently a firefighter and paramedic for Tampa Fire Rescue in downtown Tampa, Cannon recently took some time to reflect on his memorable playing career. The following is the last in a three-part interview with John Cannon.

Q. How did you reach the decision to retire from the NFL?

A. It started with Coach Ray Perkins getting fired during the 1990 season. I can remember it like it was yesterday. After he was let go, I got the phone call. All during the Perkins era, I was the team's chapel leader. Actually, he asked me after his first year if I would be so kind to head up the team chapel on Sundays before games. We had a good Christian following on the team and had a weekly Bible study at different players' homes. So I was honored by that. It kind of put me in a leadership role as well.

So I was very fond of Coach Perkins. Myself and Randy Grimes -- also known as "Bubba" Grimes -- went over to his house in Avila just to console him, you know. It was emotional because we didn't feel he was given enough time and we wanted to show our support.

In the interim, Coach Williamson took over. We struggled and morale wasn't that good. I had suffered some injuries throughout my career and by 1990 I had become a special teams player and a backup. I fully accepted that. There were some younger guys who were bigger, stronger, faster. I don’t know if they were smarter. I know they didn't work any harder. After a long career, the body can only take so much. For a defense that was on the field quite a bit, and for a player who played whistle to whistle and threw his body around, I was beat up. It was time to say goodbye to that chapter of my life and open up another chapter. Not an easy decision, by any stretch of the imagination.

I knew I wanted to remain in Tampa and had entertained the option of playing somewhere else, but I decided it was time to hang them up. Looking back, you always say, "I wish I could have played a few more years." If I did, I might not have been able to do the things I did in retirement. I took some time off, then went into financial planning with Robert W. Baird & Co. and had a nice career there. After my body healed, I was able to find something else to compete in and that was triathlons.

Q. How did you choose to get involved in triathlons?

A. I grew up as a swimmer, doing that competitively until I was ten years old. Part of the healing process was for me to get back into the pool and swim some laps to help my neck and shoulders. I was pretty banged up, so swimming was a great exercise to help me get on track physically. I met someone at the YMCA who asked if I ever did any biking, and if I was interested to come out to Davis Islands for their bike group on Wednesday nights. I showed up with my bike and got laughed at by a couple seasoned bike riders, or roadies as they call them, but that inspired me to work hard and got proficient at that.

The running part was something I'd always enjoyed and before you knew it, a buddy talked me into doing my first triathlon. I ended up winning my first triathlon in the Clydesdale division, which is the heavyweight division. That feeling of winning after being around a losing football program after nine seasons was exhilarating. It became very addicting, too. It was competitive, it was something I could do as a supplement to my career and I met some great people. Had I tried to play football a couple more years, I might not have been able to have endured. My body might not have recovered enough to experience the triathlon world.

Q. And ending your career when you did enables you to do the job you have now.

A. Absolutely. Obviously you have to be in good physical condition to be a fireman. Staying in shape as an older person afforded me the opportunity to get this job. I was 44 when I was hired as a rookie, one of, if not the oldest rookies, the department has ever hired. The primary reason I got the job is because I kept myself in great physical shape.

My old high school recently had a ceremony to retire my jersey. In my little dog and pony speech, I told the head football coach that all his training -- and he was an advocate of running hills after practice -- has paid off even today when I'm running up the flights of stairs in the Bank of America building. I can see him at the top of the stairs blowing his whistle. I said, "Thanks for making me run a little faster and making me more determined to run to the top." That training which we had 35 years ago, has helped me excel as a stair-climber with Tampa Fire Rescue.

Q. Going back to your playing days, one of the most memorable games of your career came against the Green Bay Packers in 1985, a game know as "The Snow Bowl." What do you remember about that experience?

A. I remember it was cold. (laughs) We got our butts kicked, 21-0. It was hard to see. There was even an Alka-Seltzer commercial made using shots from that game of Steve Young getting slammed into the turf and coming up with snow caked to his facemask. (laughs) I certainly remember that. I remember the wind blowing so hard across the field into our bench that looking over at the bench, some of the players literally had their backs to the field and were huddled around the heaters, not even watching the game. When we were on the field, we couldn't even see the defensive signals coming from our coach on the sidelines.

After the game, the showers ran out of hot water. The only good thing was I didn't sweat a heck of a lot because it was so darned cold. The last thing I recall about that trip was just getting out of town. We had an escort because all the highways were closed due to the snow. The airport is closed, because it's snowing like the dickens. We load up on the airplane and the captain comes on and says they are plowing the runways, deicing the wings, and believe it or not conditions are favorable for us taking off even though the airport is closed and we're under blizzard-like conditions. We were like, "What? What is he talking about?"

I don't know if this is fact or not, but I believe one player opted to get off the plane and spend the night. He just didn't feel like it was safe to take off. I think that happened, I don't know proof positive, but believe me it crossed all of our minds. When we took off, I've never heard a commercial or chartered airline so quiet, or a group of people so quiet, as I did during that takeoff. It's still snowing and it's dark outside, so you couldn't see anything. All you could do was pray. It seemed like it took us a long time to get to a safe ceiling. Once we finally did and the captain came on to tell us we were clear, everyone started clapping.

Q. Last question. Is there anyone in your career who you played against -- a Walter Payton, a Joe Montana, a Dan Marino -- who you look back at now and say, "I was really lucky to play against this guy, or it was really fun to play against that guy."

A. Great question. I'm going to start this by saying I feel so fortunate and extremely blessed to have had the opportunity to have experience competing with and against so many incredibly talented NFL players. It still to me is almost surreal. I can't name just one player. I've been fortunate to play against so many good ones.

Walter Payton, God rest his soul. Probably the best overall running back ever to play the game. Joe Montana, a tremendous talent. Barry Sanders, incredible talent. It's safe to say that I probably made his highlight film once or twice. There were many a time he'd juke me out of my jockstrap in the backfield. The guy could change direction and speed on a dime.

Then you have Jim McMahon, Joe Theismann, John Riggins and Earl Campbell, holy smokes. I played against Earl my rookie year in a preseason game, and I went to hit him, and ended up five yards away on my back. He just ran over me. The list goes on and on.

But I think more important than the names I named, without a doubt is being blessed and being grateful for the opportunity to play with, and get to know, the many players of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I have the utmost respect for each and every one of my teammates. That truly is what kept me waking up in the morning and having a positive attitude going to work. There were a lot of guys there that I believed in and enjoyed playing with who helped motivate me, and keep me motivated, throughout my career.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Catching Up With John Cannon, Part II

John Cannon, a native of Long Branch, New Jersey, joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the team's 4th overall draft pick in the 3rd round of the 1982 draft. The defensive end out of William & Mary recorded 22 sacks in 9 seasons with Tampa Bay. Cannon retired following the 1990 season, but has remained a fixture in the community. Currently a firefighter and paramedic for Tampa Fire Rescue in downtown Tampa, Cannon recently took some time to reflect on his memorable playing career. The following is the second of a three-part interview with John Cannon.

Q. The 1983 season had to be a disheartening experience, as Tampa Bay went 2-14 in the first year of post-Doug Williams football. Was there more to the 1983 season than not having Williams or did the record really come down to his absence?

A. You lose your quarterback, it's not different than losing your CEO or president. Doug had been a part of the fiber of the Bucs for years. Looking back on it, we struggled with our next handful of quarterbacks that really didn't play to the level that Doug did. There was a lot of controversy in the media about why he wasn't re-signed.

As a player, I was hyper-focused just on doing my job, being part of the solution and not part of the problem, so I tried not to get involved in those politics. Now being out of the game for a while, I can say that certainly was a major turning point for some of those lean years in the 1980s.

Q. What was your take on the hiring of Leeman Bennett over Wayne Fontes as John McKay's replacement in 1985?

A. I tried not to get too emotionally involved in the decisions I had no control over. I can tell you this though: Leeman Bennett was a wonderful human being. Personally, I really liked Leeman Bennett. He reminded me a lot of my dad. I enjoyed playing for him, although ultimately when you're losing there's not a lot of enjoyment regardless of the coach. I think his demise was that he surrounded himself with his friends as coaches, and not necessarily the best available coaches.

Wayne Fontes was our defensive coordinator, and there was a big campaign -- not official, of course -- for him to get the job. He was well-liked by all the players. He was a very energetic, infectious person to be around. Would the history of the franchise had changed if Fontes had been selected as head coach? I'm not so sure that would have happened, but then again, who really knows? He eventually had success as head coach in Detroit, so he could have led us to more victories in Tampa. It's just hard to speculate.

Q. And what about Bennett's successor, Ray Perkins? Can you talk about what three-a-days during training camp were like starting in 1987?

A. Let me preface this by saying that Ray Perkins is a coach that I truly admired and respected. I also felt like he wasn't given enough time to turn the program around. That being said, I felt like my playing style, attitude and work ethic fit in perfectly with his coaching style.

During that first year, he tried to find players that were selfless, worked hard, were dedicated, had a lot of self-discipline and were willing to lay it all on the line. Those three-a-day practices were grueling, probably the most physically demanding experience that I have ever gone through. I believe his full intention with that training camp was for him to see who he could go to war with. We knew from his reputation that he was a no-nonsense coach, and that the three-a-days would be grueling.

It seemed like training camp was eight weeks long that summer. You didn't take it one day at a time, like a normal training camp, but one practice at a time. There was a lot of contact, a lot of running, a very physically demanding camp. Looking back on it, I'm proud -- as I'm sure are all the other players who made it through that camp -- that we did something not a lot of football players could do.

Coach Perkins remained a tough, hard-nosed coach throughout the regular season, as far as practices went. There was standing joke that because practices were so intense, that a game was actually like a day off, to a certain degree. We'd practice hard and maintain the hitting aspect late into the season. I don't know how fresh we were for the games, especially his first year. Sometimes on Sunday I didn't feel fresh because of the workload we had during the week. There might be a lot of evidence that our practice schedule contributed to lackluster performances during the second half of seasons.

Q. What do you recall about the 1987 players' strike?

A. First of all, I was the team's union rep at the time. I represented our team's players against management, the owners. It was an honor to be in that position. That being said, I was hesitant at first because Hugh Culverhouse was president of the management council for the owners. Whether coincidence or not, Buccaneer player reps were in that position one year and then traded or cut the following year. (laughs) When asked to do it, I was a little bit tentative to say the least. Still, I was honored and willing to let the cards fall where they may.

That being said, it was a very difficult time. The owners tried to break the union by bringing in scab players to cross the picket lines. We knew as players that it certainly would weaken our posturing for what we were trying to get accomplished - free agency most of all at that time. We also knew that there would be temptations by guys, who maybe went through training camp but were cut, to play for an NFL team. Quite honestly, I can't say that I blamed any one of them for crossing the picket line to play. Had I been in that situation -- and I tended to be a company man -- I can't say what I would have done.

I remember that we went out to picket the team hotel prior to the first game. We wanted to make it a point to have every one of those players look us directly in the eye, because they were making it hard for us to get accomplished what we've worked so hard for and deserved. My position being a leadership position, I took the posture and stance that we had to stay united and that were against the scab players. In my heart of hearts, however, I don't resent any one of those players who crossed the line.

Q. And you seemed to survive the curse by staying around for three more years.

A. Yeah, how about that? (laughs) I did. I can remember several times during that year in particular having face-to-face meetings with Hugh Culverhouse in his office. I remember going into his beautiful office overlooking the Howard Frankland Bridge. We'd have these conversations and I'd be very close-lipped, knowing of his position on the management council. I kept it very generic, but I thought for sure about that revolving door.

Q. So what about Hugh Culverhouse? As a player, did you see a different side of him, or is he everything the public has been led to believe?

A. I guess you'd have to define everything that the public has been led to believe.

Q. The word on the street has always been that he wasn't a very good owner and didn't spend money on the team.

A. I assumed you were going to say what you just said. I wasn't blind or deaf to the fact that was his reputation. Did I see a different side? Not so much when I was playing. It wasn't until later in my career and after the fact that I realized Mr. Culverhouse wasn't willing to keep up with the salary demands of the blue-chip players we needed as an organization to be a winning football team. Little things, too. In our locker room, we had a pay phone and a soda machine.

We literally had to have change to make a phone call or buy a drink. We were charged for little things like our sweatpants when the weather got colder. They took money out of our paychecks. Things like that don't show a true commitment to winning.

From his perspective, he was a businessman and he could make the same amount of money back then -- and I don't fault him for this -- by winning or losing because of the shared revenue amongst the 28 teams. Whether or not the Bucs were Super Bowl contenders or bottom of the division, he would get his equal 1/28th of the pie, and the lower his payroll, the more that went to the bottom line. That was his mentality. I understood that later on in my career, and certainly when I was done playing, and heard stories from players who had played elsewhere.

As a person, I never had a problem with him. He was my boss and I respected him. I enjoyed being in the presence of his wife as well. She went on to be very philanthropic. In my estimation, they were good people, maybe a little different. They had good qualities though, and I'm the type who likes to find good qualities in everybody.

Part three of the three-part interview will run in next week’s edition of La Gaceta.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Catching Up with John Cannon, Part I

John Cannon, a native of Long Branch, New Jersey, joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the team's 4th overall draft pick in the 3rd round of the 1982 draft. The defensive end out of William & Mary recorded 22 sacks in 9 seasons with Tampa Bay. Cannon retired following the 1990 season, but has remained a fixture in the community. Currently a firefighter and paramedic for Tampa Fire Rescue in downtown Tampa, Cannon recently took some time to reflect on his memorable playing career. The following is the first of a three-part interview with John Cannon.

Q. What was your awareness of the Buccaneers coming out of college?

A. Very limited exposure. I grew up as a Giants fan, and going to school in Williamsburg, Virginia, I was there with a bunch of Redskins fans. We didn't get to see a lot of the Buccaneer games. The only exposure we did get was that they were struggling as a franchise and had goofy looking uniforms. Quite honestly, I didn't feel that way, but that was the consensus of the general public.

I watched them play on TV a handful of times, was delighted when they got their first win just like everybody else, and from a personal standpoint, never really dreamed that I'd someday be wearing the orange uniform and playing for the Buccaneers.

Q. What do you recall about your draft day experience?

A. I guess everyone that puts on a football uniform probably dreams of the playing in the NFL. My senior year at William and Mary, I had a knee injury. I was touted as an All-American candidate as a defensive lineman, and it was at that time the dream of playing in the NFL, because of all my hard work, was close to becoming a reality. Then because of the knee injury, it seemed like it was all shattered. This just made me work that much harder in my rehab.

At the time of the draft, I was going through finals at school. Back then, only the first three rounds or so were televised on ESPN. I lived in the fraternity house, and I had five finals that I had to take that week, so I was studying hard for that. I gave all the teams that were interested, including Tampa Bay, a few phone numbers where I could be reached. There were two phones in the house: a pay phone and a house phone. I was pretty much there by myself studying, and I had a group of friends in an apartment watching the draft. They told me they'd give me a shout if they heard or saw anything on ESPN. I was told that I could be drafted anywhere between the 3rd round or getting a free agent tryout. My hopes were obviously big, but I was trying to focus on studying.

Later in the afternoon, not too long after ESPN's coverage had ended, the pay phone at the house rings. I wasn't too quick to get up and answer it. I figured, if nobody answers and then the other phone rings, then maybe somebody really wants to get in touch with me. Sure enough, pay phone stops ringing and the other phone rang. I jumped up, grabbed the phone, answered it, and it was Jill Hobbs from the Buccaneers. She said, "We want to congratulate you on being drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the third round." I was in shock, and thought it was a joke, honestly. (laughs) I thought it was my sister playing a joke on me, so I said "Who is this, really?" She said, "Here I'll give you somebody who is a little more convincing."

So she put coach Abe Gibron on the phone, God rest his soul. Abe was always gruff, and he was like, "Cannon! This is coach Gibron. We drafted you in the third round, we expect big things from you. You better be in shape. Rookie camp starts next week." (laughs)

That was basically the gist of it. I just kept saying, "Yes sir, yes sir, yes sir!" Then he gave the phone back to Jill and we went from there. But that phone call changed my life. That phone call introduced me to Tampa. I came down, having to rearrange my finals to come down for rookie camp, which was a long weekend back then. I came back to school, finished my finals, graduated, then drove back down about a month before training camp.

It was just incredible to be thought that highly of that I was going to be a professional athlete. Once I got the phone call I did some research on the team, and saw the names Lee Roy Selmon, Doug Williams, James Wilder, David Logan, Richard "Batman" Wood, all these guys that I was going to be competing with to play in the NFL. If that's not motivating, I don't know what is.

I can remember my very first practice. My dad, God rest his soul, was a tremendous fan, so he was very curious as to how it went. I said I worked hard, but one of my coaches said that I must be a twin, because one of me couldn't be so darned stupid. (laughs) Dad told me to keep trying and that the coach probably tells all the rookies that. Sure enough by my second year I learned that was just Abe's way of communicating.

Q. Your first season in 1982 featured a 57-day players' strike. How did that impact you as a rookie?

A. The strike really hampered us, especially since I had worked so hard to make the team. All I knew to do was hang out with some of the guys and work out every single day. We had organized team workouts at Jesuit High School. Fortunately for me, I wasn't one that would spend a lot of money. I'm sort of frugal. I even am to this day. It just allows me to spend more money on family and friends. That's what I tell people, anyway. (laughs)

I still had my old car from college. Financially, where it might have been more difficult on some older players who were relying on those game checks, I had my signing bonus -- little as it was -- to carry me through. So it wasn't a financial struggle, but an emotional one. I worked so hard to get here and I wondered if I was ever going to play.

The strike was trying, but you look back on it in history, and part of the reason that players today have some of the great benefits they have are because of players like myself and those before me who thought it was important to fight for those rights. I certainly believe players today appreciate that and understand the sacrifices we made for the betterment of NFL players in general.

Q. What do you make of the efforts by people like Mike Ditka to raise money for former players who do not enjoy the same financial or medical benefits available to today's football players?

A. I support his efforts. Maybe there's been some people who have neglected, for whatever reason, to take care of the retired players. The pension, compared to other leagues, really isn't suitable for a financially sound retirement. Ditka's efforts certainly have made the news and he's made some pretty good headway into that. There are active players who understand the importance of taking care of the older guys, so hopefully things will change for the better.

Q. After the strike ended, the Buccaneers rebounded from an 0-2 start by winning five of their next seven games.

A. Sure enough, after the strike we ended up at 5-4 and qualifying for the playoffs. We went to Dallas for that game and it didn't work out too well for us.

Being Lee Roy's backup, I didn't see a lot of playing time, but would get called in on third down situations. I think late in the first quarter, Lee Roy goes down with an ankle injury and is limping off the field. I remember this like it was yesterday. I was standing on the sideline next to Wayne Fontes, who was the defensive coordinator. I start getting ready to put my helmet on and my mouthpiece in, and Wayne grabs me. He kind of looked at me, then looked around to see if there's anyone else, and said, "Who's Selmon's backup?" I told him that I was Lee Roy's backup. He looked me in the eyes, and kind of sighed, and said "Get in there and don't screw anything up." (laughs)

So I go running in there, and I knew exactly where they were coming on the first play, and I believe I made the tackle. I was in there for three or four plays before they were able to tape Lee Roy up and send him back in there. I think I earned some respect from my coaching staff and teammates by filling in for Lee Roy the best that I could.

I also had half a sack that day on Danny White from coming in on third down situations. It was a nationally televised game, so I was a big celebrity when I went home after the holidays to see my family and friends. Unfortunately, that was the last playoff experience I had. (laughs)

Part two of a three-part interview will run in next week’s edition of La Gaceta.