Monday, May 24, 2010

Rowdies Avenge Soccer Bowl '79, 5/18/80

On September 8, 1979, the Vancouver Whitecaps defeated the Tampa Bay Rowdies 2-1 in the Soccer Bowl '79 championship game. For the second straight season, the Rowdies fell just short of a North American Soccer League championship.

They would not have to wait very long, however, for their first crack at avenging that defeat to Vancouver.

In a nationally televised showdown on ABC -- with a special in-stadium appearance by the San Diego Chicken -- the Rowdies hosted the Whitecaps at Tampa Stadium on May 18, 1980.

While the names of the teams were the same, both Tampa Bay and Vancouver bore little resemblance to the teams that faced off in Giants Stadium eight months earlier. With the Rowdies at 5-3 and the defending champions a mere 4-5, the matchup proved somewhat less glamorous than their previous contest. Injuries had taken an early toll on the Rowdies, while the Whitecaps had struggled with some high-priced new talent.

The Rowdies were hopeful that new acquisition Manny Andruszewski could have an immediate impact. A noted defensive specialist, the Rowdies acquired him from Southampton Football Club in the English First Division. Andruszewski had previously played for the Rowdies in 1979 while on loan from Southampton. On May 16, the Rowdies purchased the 23-year-old fullback's contract outright, a transaction rumored to have cost $250,000 ($642,493 in today's dollars).

He made his Tampa debut almost exactly one year earlier in a sweltering home contest against the New York Cosmos. His first experience in Florida weather proved memorable, as he needed to get iced down at the half to combat his 103-degree body temperature.

On another hot and humid day, the Rowdies welcomed back another important player as well: Oscar Fabbiani. Known as the "Big O," Fabbiani had been sidelined with an injured ankle since an April 20 game against the Cosmos in New York. Injuries to Fabbiani, Wes McLeod and Peter Anderson had contributed to the team's recent lack of scoring punch. Teams could also concentrate on shutting down Steve Wegerle and Neill Roberts without the presence of an additional scoring threat such as Fabbiani.

In front of 27,504 fans at a sweltering Tampa Stadium -- the gametime temperature was 93 degrees -- the Rowdies regained that scoring punch thanks in large part to Fabbiani.

The Rowdies energized the crowd early with two goals in the game's first 15 minutes. Peter Baralic set up the first goal in the 9th minute with a nifty pass to Steve Wegerle, who weaved through three defenders before putting the ball in the back of the net. For Wegerle, it was his fourth goal of the season, and just the start of what striker Neill Roberts called a "classic" performance.

"It was the best display I've ever seen in the NASL," Roberts said of Wegerle following the game.

Barely more than 5 minutes later, Oscar Fabbiani celebrated his return to the lineup by putting a penalty kick past Bruce Grobbelaar to make the score 2-0.

Despite trailing by two goals, Vancouver would not go away quietly. Trevor Whymark, who tallied both of Vancouver's Soccer Bowl '79 goals against the Rowdies, beat Winston DuBose in the 26th minute to make it a 2-1 game.

The Whitecaps would eventually even the score early in the second half. Bob Boltho beat DuBose inside the near post, putting it just over his shoulder to tie the game 2-2.

To curb Vancouver's momentum, Tampa Bay head coach Gordon Jago moved Andruszewski from fullback to midfield to shadow Vancouver midfielder and English soccer legend Alan Ball. The move worked, as Tampa Bay successfully stifled the Vancouver attack and created an opening for the eventual game-winning goal.

In the 73rd minute, team captain Jan Van Der Veen found an opening in the middle near the penalty box, and rather than taking a shot on goal, dished off to Fabbiani on his left. Fabbiani made a move around one defender and then slipped the ball past Grobbelaar for the deciding goal, his second of the game. Not a bad performance for someone playing in his first full game in nearly eight months.

"That was a world-class goal," Ball said after the game. "And it took a world-class goal to beat us."

The Rowdies would hold on for a 3-2 victory over the Whitecaps, an important win that while not offering complete redemption for Soccer Bowl '79, instilled the Rowdies with a renewed sense of swagger.

"The result today and the manner of it will be a confidence builder," said Jago. "This was a good side we beat."

Monday, May 17, 2010

Catching Up With Mark Robinson

Mark Robinson, a graduate of Penn State, played for seven seasons as a safety in the NFL. Originally a fourth round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 1984, Robinson came to Tampa Bay via trade in 1988. He spent three seasons as a Buccaneer, eventually becoming a leader in the secondary and a team captain. Today, Robinson can be seen analyzing football on Bright House Sports Network and heard on the radio providing color commentary for University of South Florida football games. Robinson recently took some time to reflect on his football career and some memorable moments here in Tampa.

Q. What are your memories of the national championship game against Georgia in January 1983?

A. That game -- the Sugar Bowl -- was one of the most mentally draining games I ever played. Because of the amount of buildup and pressure surrounding a game of that magnitude, it really did help keep things in perspective. I remember sitting in front of my locker afterwards and there were reporters sticking microphones in my face. I was so tired that I couldn't even talk. It allowed me down the line to remember how far that you could push yourself physically and mentally, which you need to do to make that big play in a situation when you can win it all.

It's funny, a lot of people get into pressure situations -- even on the pro level -- and they are scared to make a play. You'd be surprised. I can remember standing in a huddle, it we're going up against John Elway in the fourth quarter. He's driving down the field and a couple of the guys are looking around like, "I hope he doesn't pass it my way" or "I hope they don't run it at me." It really flabbergasted me. As an athlete, you prepare your whole life for those moments. Those are the times you want to see how you measure up and put your best foot forward.

Before the game, one of our coaches came into the locker room, telling us how we were going to stop Herschel Walker. He said that we were going to make him bounce to the outside. Then he looked me in the eyes and said, "Robbie, clean him up!"

I was so stoked and excited because he put it in my lap. I was glad to have been given that opportunity.

Q. Given your experience playing big games in college, did you find yourself prepared for the NFL?

A. I thought I was, but you don't realize the drastic difference going from college to the pros. That's why I a lot of great college players don't make it in the NFL. Think of Archie Griffin, for example. A two-time Heisman Trophy winner and what did he ever do in the pros? It took me a while to figure out how to be a student of the game.

I was one of those players who worked hard. I'd come in to practice early and I would give you 160%, but when it's time to go, it's time to go. After practice, I'd shower and be one of the first people out of the locker room. One day I started thinking, "Why am I not starting?" So I started watching safety Deron Cherry after practice to see what he did. He'd shower up and then go into the meeting room. I was like, "He's watching film and they're not even asking him to watch film?" (laughs) I didn't quite understand it. Then I started paying attention, and even when I got into the meeting room I didn't know what he was looking for, but I picked up on it. I learned so much from Deron. Did he take me under his wing? Not really, but eventually he understood that I had to come in the game as a nickel back and contribute. He needed me to play at a high level. Eventually that's how you win respect. Then, they start to help you. Many veterans will turn away from you if you're not willing to put in the effort.

Q. Were you shocked to be traded to the Buccaneers in 1988?

A. Oh, without a doubt. My wife and I had just poured the foundation for our new house on March 31. The next day, I went to work out and got called into the head coach's office. He says, "Mark, we've traded you to Tampa." I'm like, it's April 1st. (laughs) Frank Gansz was a motivator, but he was kind of a jokester too, so I thought it had to be an April Fool's joke. No, it was real. I got traded for Steve DeBerg. Kansas City needed a quarterback. Then I came and met Mr. Ray Perkins. (laughs) And he was a piece of work. Oh man.

Q. Talk about your first experience in one of his infamous training camps.

A. It was grueling or whatever you want to say about three-a-day practices out in the heat. Coach Perkins was a hard worker. The first thing I say about him is that you've got to respect the time he put into his profession. If I ever faulted Coach Perkins, I would say that he wasn't flexible. Some coaches are just that way.

I remember one time at camp we were on the field running gassers in groups. Gassers are running drills when you run from the end zone out to the 10 yard line, touch the line and come back, then out to the 20, touch the line and come back, and so on. I was one of those players who'd run and touch just past the yard line. After our second one of these, I’ll never forget, Coach Perkins said, "Alright, line up and run it again. Robinson missed the line." I looked at him with this scowl because I didn't want to be called out in front of my peers. That lowered him in my book because I knew I did it right. We ended up running four or five gassers, and I remember after practice I wanted to take my equipment off and quit. I'd already earned a graduate degree, and I didn't want to put myself through something like this. Don't lie about me in front of my peers. My buddy, Harry Hamilton, looked at me and said, "Robbie, I know you touched the line. Don't even think twice about it. Don't let him pull you down as a professional." That's something I'll never forget at a time in my career when I was trying to make my name with a new team.

Q. The Buccaneers had a tough season in 1989, finishing with a 5-11 record, but two of the wins came against Chicago. How great did that feel to knock off the Bears twice in one season and record an interception in both games?

A. The Bears were a special team, one that you always marked with an asterisk on the schedule. I remember the interception against them in Tampa Stadium because it came on a broken play. I was all the way on the other side of the field. Their quarterback, Mike Tomczak, started scrambling, and as a defensive back when that happens, you're looking to match up. He was rolling to his right, and, looking from his vantage point, I was on the left side of the field. I can't remember his name, but I saw the wide receiver cutting across the field. A lot of times when a quarterback scrambles like that, he’s looking to throw the ball towards the sidelines. They figure if they throw it to the middle of the field, it's probably going to get intercepted. I dropped my coverage on the other and said, "There it is. That's it."
I started running across the field, and Tomczak doesn't realize where I am. The other safety had gone deep to take away the long ball, but I started running across anticipating where the throw was going. I cut in front of the receiver and I picked it off on the sideline. It was one of those moments that are a big play in the game. We ended up winning 42-35. I have a color picture that the team photographers took of that play. He printed up a bunch of those and I've been using them when I autograph pictures.

Q. You've been with the USF Bulls radio broadcast crew since 1997. With all the changes around the program, what do you expect out of the team in 2010?

A. Well, the new coach Skip Holtz is a dynamic guy. We share similar philosophies in football. He came into this situation with an open mind. He didn't come in and try to force the players into a new system. He wanted to see their strengths first and coach to those strengths before making up his mind. That's the perfect thing to do. In this day and age, you've got to be able to look at talent and put guys in position to make plays.

B.J. Daniels is going to be a great quarterback. He has tremendous arm strength and as he improves, his decision making process will get even better. He understands the game, he understands coverages, and could have a very special year. They have a good young program and I'm really excited about the coming season.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Remembering the Tampa Tarpons

Although this sparse crowd might outnumber some weekday baseball games at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, this group of hearty fans appear to be taking in some summer afternoon baseball at Al Lopez Field.

The minor league Tampa Tarpons began playing at Al Lopez Field in 1957 as members of the Florida State League and enjoyed an affiliation with the Cincinnati Reds from 1961-1987. Tampa captured the league title in their inaugural season of 1957 as well as four years later in 1961, when they were led by a young Pete Rose. Rose hit .331 that season and registered 30 triples, a league record which stands to this day.

Other notable Tampa Tarpon alumni included several key cogs in the 1970s “Big Red Machine” such as Ken Griffey, Sr., Johnny Bench, Dan Driessen, Rawly Eastwick, and Dave Concepcion. Several members of the 1990 World Series champion Cincinnati Reds such as Tom Browning, Rob Dibble, and Paul O’Neill also spent some time wearing the red and white at Al Lopez Field in the early 1980s.

Today, Raymond James Stadium – home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and University of South Florida Bulls -- occupies the former site of Al Lopez Field.

Monday, May 3, 2010

USFL Votes to End Spring Football, 4/29/85

In the recent ESPN documentary “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL,” director Mike Tollin postulates that the demise of the league came about by the hands of Donald Trump.

It was Trump, Tollin says, who led the effort to move the USFL to the fall and engage in head-to-head competition with the NFL, rather than remain a spring league. Trump, who viewed spring football as “small potatoes,” believed the only way to achieve lasting success would be to directly challenge the NFL.

This week 25 years ago, Trump and almost every other owner in the USFL got their wish and decided to leave spring behind and begin playing fall football in 1986. One owner in particular – the Tampa Bay Bandits managing general partner John Bassett – decided early on that he would not be joining them.

By April 29, 1985, when the owners voted to move to the fall, Bassett had long since made up his mind about keeping the USFL a spring league. And if the USFL did not want to remain in the spring, well then, Bassett was fully prepared to start a new league that would.

“If I have to,” he said, “I will form that new spring league. We will play as we do now, except when baseball starts we will always play in the evenings, mostly Friday and Saturday nights. There will be no live TV in a town with a home team playing and all away games will be televised back to the home town, like we wanted originally.”

Television proved to be both a blessing and a curse to the USFL. In the summer of 1982, ABC helped create the USFL as a way to satisfy America’s craving for football, as well as to fill some programming during the spring and early summer months. The league and ABC were joined at the hip, as the network provided operating capital to owners to make sure the league stayed afloat. Ratings were good at first, but by the league’s third and final year in 1985, ABC had shown signs that they would not be on board with the USFL whether it remained in the spring or moved to the fall.

This would have left ESPN -- which in 1985 had not yet become the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” it is today – as the league’s lone broadcast outlet.

Also hurting the league were rules mandated by both ABC and ESPN prohibiting blackouts of local games. In other words, whether 5,000 or 55,000 fans showed up to watch a game at Los Angeles Coliseum, the L.A. Express would be televised locally. Despite having a glut of future NFL talent spread throughout the league, attendance suffered in many of the USFL’s major markets and several franchises were more concerned with meeting payroll than wins or losses.

The Bandits, however, were the exception to the rule. Under Bassett, the Bandits were a model franchise on and off the field. Buoyed by a competitive and exciting product, the Bandits were consistently at the top of the league in attendance and fan support. Between 1983 and 1984, their co-tenant at Tampa Stadium, the Buccaneers, won a total of eight games. During their existence from 1983 to 1985, the Tampa Bay Bandits won 35 games and made two playoff appearances.

Fans fell in love with a winner and the Bandits found a comfortable niche in the spring. In this pre-Lightning, pre-Rays market, the Bandits shared the stage with only the Rowdies, who by then had begun their slide into mediocrity. Moving the USFL to the fall, Bassett argued, would put the Bandits in direct competition with high school, college and professional football.

“Who in their right mind would put another team in Tampa? I wouldn’t,” Bassett said. “You’d have to be a raving lunatic to do that.”

Other owners who did not share in Bassett’s success story felt no particular allegiance to the idea of spring football. The Bandits, for all of their successes, were not making money, and the majority of teams in the USFL were not breaking even.

For owners who spent money like drunken sailors in ill-advised bidding wars against the NFL for top-flight collegiate talent – the names Herschel Walker, Doug Flutie and Steve Young come to mind -- moving to the fall represented a chance to make some real money. Filing an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL – which enjoyed broadcast contracts with all three major networks -- would supposedly clear the way for the USFL to land a lucrative network deal of their own. For proponents of the move, in an ideal world the USFL would never play a down of football in the fall. The NFL would simply make their wildest dreams come true by merging with the USFL and absorbing several teams, making everyone very wealthy in the process.

Bassett believed none of this would ever happen, and along with Denver Gold owner Doug Spedding, vowed to vote against the move to fall. In a 12-2 vote on April 29, the USFL upheld their intention to play fall football beginning in September 1986. For his part, Bassett vowed to start a new spring football league with his Bandits as the flagship franchise.

The USFL, however, claimed that they owned the Bandits logo and that its roster was an “asset of the league.” If Bassett truly wanted to make a go of a new league, which he envisioned as an international league with teams in Mexico City and London, he would have to leave “Banditball” behind and start over. Few USFL owners believed his league had any chance of happening, much less succeeding.

With football stadiums across America sitting empty, a $1.7 billion antitrust lawsuit filed by the USFL against the NFL reached federal court in spring 1986. In July, a jury concluded that the NFL was, in fact, a “duly adjudicated illegal monopoly” and guilty of using predatory tactics. The jury, however, also concluded that the USFL’s own mismanagement, not the NFL, forced the league off television, and that the USFL changed its original business plan to directly compete with the NFL and force a merger. Finally, the jury awarded the USFL $1 in damages, which was later tripled, with interest, to $3.76 - that's right, three dollars and 76 cents.

Despite the merging of franchises in preparation for a fall season that would never come, the USFL essentially ceased to exist after the trial.

While Bassett’s predictions for the USFL’s fate were ultimately realized, sadly he did not live long enough to see the result. In failing health, he sold his stake in the Bandits and gave up plans for a new spring league. Bassett died in May 1986, after a nearly year-long battle with brain cancer.