Monday, April 26, 2010

Rowdies Post Win in Tampa Debut, 4/26/75

Last week, the most recent edition of the Tampa Bay Rowdies played their first regular season game, a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace Baltimore. The newly formed entry into the United Soccer Federation Division-2 Pro League hopes to pick up where the original Rowdies left off, establishing a winning tradition on the field and a fan-friendly reputation off of it.

It was 35 years ago this week that the original Tampa Bay Rowdies began preparing for their regular season opener against the Rochester Lancers as an expansion member of the North American Soccer League. Preceding the arrival of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by a full year, the Rowdies thus became the area’s first professional franchise to take to the field.

Unlike football, however, soccer had no tradition of being played or closely followed in this area. The suburbs had yet to become dotted with soccer complexes and high school football fields were still being used for one thing only: football.

Establishing soccer would take a keen marketing effort, and if the Rowdies became known for one thing early in their existence it was for their clever marketing.

“Soccer Is A Kick In The Grass” became the team’s first marketing slogan and quickly captured the attention of local sports fans. With a group of cheerleaders known as the “Wowdies,” a fan-base dubbed the “Fannies,” and even a memorable theme song, few stones were left uncovered by Rowdies owner George Strawbridge and General Manager Beau Rogers to take an unknown product and promote it to the public.

A brief two-game indoor tournament in March 1975 helped whet the area’s appetite for soccer, but before the outdoor season began players were already conducting clinics with thousands of youngsters and making promotional appearances throughout the community.
For anyone skeptical about the game, head coach Eddie Firmani promised the fans – or “Fannies” -- a fast-paced, high-energy product.

“We will give you action, we will not dilly-dally,” Firmani said. “For example, our intervals will be but 10 minutes. At Miami recently, why their interval (halftime) was 20 bloody minutes. An outrage! I say rest for 10 and then on with the game.”

Promises of good times and entertainment were all well and good, but the Rowdies also needed good players to field a competitive team. As with their marketing efforts, the Rowdies were well-covered in that department.

For an expansion team, the Rowdies were loaded with talent. Firmani, formerly an assistant with Crystal Palace of England’s second division, brought three talented players from that team with him to Tampa: Stewart Jump, Mark Lindsay, and Paul Hammond.

John Sissons, who at 19-years-old became the youngest player to score a goal in an FA Cup Final in 1964, came to Tampa Bay from the Chelsea Football Club to provide veteran leadership.

The Rowdies lucked out in the NASL draft as well, selecting Farrukh Quraishi with their number one overall pick. Quraishi won the Hermann Trophy in 1974 – soccer’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy – as the nation’s best college player and would go on to have a stellar career with the Rowdies.

The New York Times picked the Rowdies to win the league’s Eastern Division, while the Tampa Tribune boldly pegged the Rowdies to win the league championship.
If the first game was any indication, both newspapers might be proved correct.

On April 26, 1975, in front of 12,133 “Fannies” at Tampa Stadium, the Rowdies did not disappoint. Derek Smethurst scored the first goal in Stadium history at the 13:51 mark of the first half, converting a three-on-one break to give Tampa Bay an early 1-0 lead.
Rochester answered back at 27:59 on a short-range goal by Tommy Ord to even up the score at 1-1.

The 41-year-old Firmani delighted the Tampa Stadium crowd when he entered the game with 20 minutes remaining in the second half. With some holes in the roster due to several players still being involved in playoff games back in Europe, earlier in the week Firmani added himself to the roster to give his team some depth.

Firmani – nicknamed “The Golden Turkey” – did not score, but he nearly landed the first punch in team history when he took a swing at a Rochester defender. He later admitted that he entered the game with hopes of inspiring his team.

In overtime, it took just 3:45 for the Rowdies to end the contest as reserve defender Alex Pringle beat Rochester goalie Ardo Perri for the winner.

“Defenders don’t score very often you know,” Pringle said after the game. “I enjoy it anytime I get a chance.”

His game-winner, which came on a rebound from John Boyle’s corner kick, would be the first and only goal of Pringle’s 37-game career with the Rowdies.

With a victory and better-than-anticipated crowd in hand, Tampa Bay owner George Strawbridge could not have been more pleased afterwards.

“We are thrilled with it (size of the crowd),” he said. “People thought we had rocks in our head when we said we were bringing soccer to this area. It shows what fine promotion in a fine sports area can do.”

Lessons to be learned from the past as the new Tampa Bay Rowdies attempt to reintroduce soccer onto the local sports scene.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Bandits Monday Night Showdown, 4/15/85

Through seven weeks of the 1985 USFL campaign, the Tampa Bay Bandits were one of the league’s hottest teams with a 5-2 record. Since their 50-28 defeat to the Houston Gamblers in Week 2, the Tampa Bay Bandits had reeled off four wins in five games. In their only loss of that stretch -- a 4-point setback to the New Jersey Generals -- Tampa Bay quarterback John Reaves threw for over 400 yards, but a Herschel Walker touchdown with just 24 seconds left gave New Jersey the victory.

Coming to town to try and slow down the Bandits would be the Denver Gold, who were also 5-2 and likewise known for their offensive prowess. Led by Head Coach “Mouse” Davis, considered the “godfather” of the run-and-shoot offense, the Gold presented an opportunity at redemption for Tampa Bay, whose defense struggled facing the run-and-shoot earlier in the year against Houston. They also presented an opportunity for more frustration, as the Gold put up nearly 500 yards of total offense a week earlier against the Arizona Outlaws, owners of the top-ranked defense in the league.

In the meantime, Steve Spurrier’s high-flying offense had been hitting on all cylinders, averaging a league-high 28.5 points per game. Spurrier, who seemed skeptical of the run-and-shoot, scoffed at the idea of his top-ranked offense taking a backseat to anyone.

“Mouse and his people think the only way to stop it (their offense) is to stop themselves,” he said. “We think the same way about our offense.”

Never one to mince words, Spurrier described the run-and-shoot as a boring offense, saying that he didn’t know if “the fans really want to see a team throw every down.”

He added, “I like to see a Gary Anderson run the sweep play, watch the offensive lineman block and see play-action passes and those things.”

Davis naturally disagreed with Spurrier’s assessment of his offense, saying, “Different strokes for different folks. People get more excited about it, and the fact that it is also very productive.”

Making their only Monday night appearance of the season, on April 15, 1985, the Bandits played to a season-high crowd of 54,267 at Tampa Stadium. The Bandits, who in previous weeks seemed to score at will, initially struggled against Denver’s defense. After Tampa Bay’s first possession resulted in a punt, the Gold capitalized with a 22-yard field goal just 3:54 into the game to take a 3-0 lead.

Surprisingly, this score would hold up for the rest of the first quarter.
The Bandits answered with a field goal of their own by Zenon Andrusyshyn just over a minute into the second quarter to tie the game, 3-3.

Following a missed field goal attempt by Denver, Tampa Bay finally got their offense untracked. The Bandits marched 63 yards in 12 plays, taking 6:41 off the clock, en route to a one-yard touchdown plunge by Gary Anderson. For Anderson, it was his 14th touchdown of the season and seventh in three games. Unfortunately for Anderson and the Bandits, he would suffer a sprained right foot late in the first half and be unavailable for the rest of the game.

Leading 10-3, the Bandits stifled Denver’s next possession, intercepting quarterback Vince Evans in the end zone. Adding injury to insult, Evans dislocated the ring finger on his throwing hand and would not return to action.

Tampa Bay took two plays to capitalize on the turnover, as Reaves found wide receiver Spencer Jackson on a 61-yard touchdown strike to give the Bandits a 17-3 lead with 29 seconds remaining in the half.

On the ensuing kickoff, Tampa Bay forced a fumble by Lonnie Turner and recovered the ball at the Denver 30. Andrusyshyn kicked a 24-yard field goal as time expired to give Tampa Bay a 20-3 lead after one half.

The Bandits had to feel good about their chances, holding the league’s fifth-ranked offense to a field goal and knocking their starting quarterback out of the game. Denver responded, however, under backup quarterback Bob “The Goose” Gagliano. It only took two offensive drives to get Denver right back in the game.

Gagliano led the Gold on an eight-play, 78-yard drive to open the half, which culminated in a 7-yard touchdown pass to Marc Lewis to cut Tampa Bay’s lead in half.

A fumble by John Reaves on Tampa Bay’s following possession quickly turned into seven more points for Denver. Capitalizing on the turnover, Bill Johnson scored on a 23-yard run to cap a 62-yard drive, narrowing Tampa Bay’s lead to 20-17.

With momentum clearly in hand, Denver had another golden opportunity when Reaves threw his only pick of the game on Tampa Bay’s next possession. Brian Speelman could have tied the game for Denver with 12 seconds left in the third quarter, but his miss of a 39-yard field goal attempt re-energized the Bandits.

An 11-play, 78-yard drive by Tampa Bay followed the missed goal, capped by fullback Greg Boone’s first touchdown of the season. His 12-yard run helped extend Tampa Bay’s lead to a more comfortable 27-17.

The Gold put up a late rally, but Dwayne Anderson forced a Denver fumble deep in Bandit territory to snuff out a potential scoring drive with 6:52 left in the game. The Bandits basically ran out the clock the rest of the way, adding a rushing touchdown by Ricky Williams with :48 seconds left, to ice the game, 33-17.

Despite the win and having held Denver’s vaunted offense to under 400 total net yards, Spurrier felt less than pleased with what he called his team’s lack of killer instinct in letting Denver creep back into the game.

“Mediocre teams let up and we hope not to be mediocre,” he said. “We’ve still got a long way to go as a championship team. We can’t put anybody away.”

Still, at 6-2 the Bandits were riding high atop the USFL standings. Few people, except perhaps their naturally cautious head coach, could have anticipated the pitfalls awaiting this team in the final 10 weeks of the season.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Catching Up With Dick Crippen

A legend in local sports broadcasting, Dick Crippen has been part of the fabric of the Tampa Bay area for five decades. A familiar face to viewers of both Channel 10 and Channel 8, Crippen’s voice could be heard for 17 seasons as part of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers radio team and as the P.A. announcer for the Tampa Bay Rowdies during their heyday. Since 2000, Crippen has served as a senior advisor for the Tampa Bay Rays and has remained involved with the community, serving on various charitable boards throughout the area. Crippen recently sat down to talk about his broadcasting career and some of the memorable people and events he has covered.

Q. Dick, talk about your broadcast roots in the Tampa Bay area and some of your stops along the way.

A. I came here on a partial scholarship to the University of Tampa to run WTUM-FM, which was at the time an over the air broadcast for the university. I guess about three weeks after I got here, I ended up working at WDAE, which back then was downtown and a music station. I did the early morning shift on the air from 6-7 a.m., and then closing the station down at night. That kind of got me into the market.

Dr. Stephen Speronis at the University of Tampa, he was doing one of the public service programs on Sunday morning at Channel 8, and he heard that they were looking for a booth announcer. He put my name in, and next thing I know I had a job there doing booth announcing. You’d literally sit in a booth and when the slide came up, you’d go “WFLA-TV, Channel 8.” (laughs) That was it, and it was ideal for a college student because I’d be able to study in between. But they also trained me to do weather. They had two at the time and wanted a third.

Then I went into radio for a few years, working at WINQ at the old Hillsboro Hotel. I was production manager there when the sheriff actually locked the doors on the place for non-payment, or something like that. I went to work one morning, it was all bolted up and I couldn’t get in, so that was the end of that job. I worked at WILZ on Teirra Verde, and then in 1965 was hired as the first weather man at Channel 10. I worked in weather there for one year. I also owned a semi-pro football team in St. Pete and did the track announcing at Sunshine Speedway, so when the sports director left to run for city council in Tampa, they asked if for $5 more a week I’d like to take his job. I took the $5 and the rest, as they say, is history. I stayed at Channel 10 for 16 years, and then in 1981 moved over to Channel 8 as sports director, where I stayed until New Year’s Eve of 1999. It’s been a blessed career.

Q. What was the sports landscape like when you first came to Tampa?

A. Very, very empty. When I first started doing sports, I would search high and low to find a story. Obviously we had high school, Spring Training, and the University of Tampa, but there was not much going on here. No pro activity, really, until they started holding exhibition football games. Then later on of course, we had done so well in putting on these games that the NFL awarded this area a franchise. That’s the only time that ever happened where a franchise was awarded to an area rather than an owner.

Q. We had the build-up of almost a decade towards getting an NFL team, and then with the arrival of the Rowdies in 1975, it must have made for some pretty exciting times.

A. You know, the Rowdies were to this day the best example of sports marketing I’ve ever seen. If you really study the situation, the kids got so into the Rowdies that they brought their parents. We’d pull 25-30,000 people for a soccer game, and for big games against the New York Cosmos with Pele, we’d sell 55,000 tickets.

Then that theme song, it sounded like it was recorded in an English pub! “The Rowdies run here, the Rowdies run there, they kick the ball around!” You could just see them toasting with their beer mugs and all that stuff. (laughs) Everyone knew that song, everyone responded to it, and we just had a ball.

Living through the Bucs going 0-26 to start made it interesting to watch. I used to tell people that I’d take 5 thesauruses with me to the press box just to try and describe what I was seeing down there. Going through the McKay years, I was fortunate to become a friend of his and enjoyed that friendship tremendously.

To go from 0-26 to within one game of the Super Bowl -- what I still think is the fastest turn-around of any NFL team -- was just amazing. It was an exciting time to put it mildly. Coming home from that first win in New Orleans was one of the most unforgettable moments of my career. We had like 10,000 people at One Buccaneer Place, if you can imagine that.

Q. You mentioned John McKay. What comes to mind when you think about covering him for those years?

A. He’d keep me in stitches in the press conferences. He had the quickest wit of any coach, for sure. Here’s a personal story with him. I learned very early with John that you don’t challenge him. In other words, he’s the coach. What I’d do is say something like, “You know there are a lot of people, and they wonder why you’re not using your tight end more.” I’d frame it third person. One day he’s out on the practice field and signals me to come over. So he’s there and he’s got his floppy hat and sunglasses on, he’s twirling his cigar, and he puts his arm across my shoulder and starts walking towards the locker room with me. He says, “Dickie, I just want you to know something.” He’s twirling his cigar, and takes it out, looks at me and says, “I know who THEY are.” (laughs) That’s the way he was and he was laughing as much as I was at it. He knew where I was coming from. He was very special and it was really a ball working with him.

Q. Can you talk about the way local coverage of sports has changed from your time in broadcasting?

A. It has become very different. At the time I covered, we were trying to get a lot of these franchises in, build the sports scene in the Tampa Bay area, so I think the coverage was a lot less neutral. Let me put it this way. I was accused, when I worked for the Bucs, of being a homer. I always told people this. Let’s suppose the Bucs and Dolphins are playing. Both teams are covered in the market on radio. If you’re a Buccaneer fan, why would you listen to the Dolphins coverage, and vice versa? I’ve always felt that you don’t have to sugarcoat your coverage. You don’t need to misrepresent it, but I also don’t believe that you have to dig and find things that are wrong. I think if the negative is there, fine.

Q. Is there a story or episode that comes to mind?

A. I’ll tell you a real battle for me, and this was tough. When I covered Dwight Gooden, I got to know his parents really well. I knew that they watched my show. Obviously, I liked Dwight and knew the coverage was probably biased because he was a hometown kid. The first time – and I do say now the first time – when he got picked up for drugs in New York, it broke my heart to get on the air and have that footage. I had to do it, but it broke my heart to put that on because I knew his parents were watching.

I was always very careful, when let’s say, a top wide receiver from the Dallas Cowboys -- to pick a team -- got arrested for cocaine. I’d think twice about putting it on the six o’clock news. Not because it wasn’t news, but because it did not necessarily affect the local area. I was also concerned about the example it would set to some kid who was trying to make a football team. He might say, “I know it’s wrong, but this guy is a top receiver, and this is what he did. So maybe that’s the secret.”

I always had that in my mind that there were people watching that could be influenced, especially kids, and tried to frame it in a way that we wouldn’t get that negative message as a positive. It bothers me when I hear a story reported without that kind of thinking behind it.

Q. In what other ways has the business change?

A. Sports casting has really changed on the news side. Channel 8 is down to one guy. They’re stripping back so much that we’re missing the local side of coverage. I miss the inspirational stories, the kids that are overcoming things, kids that are doing great. Those are the stories I loved to do. To be honest with you, I never dreamed of going into sports broadcasting. I really don’t care about stats, but I do care about the makeup of the athlete. I care about what makes the athlete tick. I love the psychology behind it.

I mean 0-26. Do you have any idea what it took for those guys to go out there and play every week? They had it in their minds they could win even when they were losing. In 2008 here with the Rays, as in 1979, I lived through “The Little Engine That Could.” Because sometime in 2008, this Rays team came together – I think it was the result of two fights, one with the Yankees and one with the Red Sox – and decided they could win. To me, that’s sports! That’s believing! “I think I can, I think I can.” So I feel very fortunate that I had all those years covering great sports, and in 2008 got to be part of a team that went to a championship. I had to remind myself that no, I’m not covering this from the outside: I’m a part of it. That’s something I’ll never forget.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Helen Wainwright at the Regatta, 1926

This photograph features Olympic swimming champion Helen Wainwright trying out a different kind of sport on the newly constructed tennis courts on Davis Islands in March 1926.

Wainwright earned renown as a two-time Summer Olympics medal winner. In the 1920 games in Antwerp, Belgium, she won a silver medal in the 3 metre springboard diving competition, and in the 1924 games in Paris she won a silver medal in the 400 metre freestyle event.

The native-New Yorker came to Tampa to serve as the chairperson of the water sports meet during the 2nd Annual Tampa Bay Regatta. In this role, Wainwright presided over sail boat, canoe, outboard motor and aquaplane races, as well as canoe tilting and aquaplane acrobatics. She also participated in Tampa Bay-bie races, which contested using 150-horse power mahogany speed boats 21 feet in length.

The Tampa Bay Regatta, which ran from March 4-6, was touted as "one of the most elaborate programs of races ever planned for Florida." The races were conducted on a two and on-half mile course located on the west side of Davis Islands in Tampa Bay. The event proved quite successful in its inaugural year of 1925 as over 10,000 spectators attended the three days of races.