Monday, June 14, 2010

The End of "Banditball," 6/15/85

On March 6, 1983, football fans in the Tampa Bay area were officially introduced to a new product. The Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL were brash, exciting, and advertised as “All the Fun the Law Allows.”

In their first regular season game, the Bandits defeated the Boston Breakers 21-17 in front of a crowd of 42,437 at Tampa Stadium. The era of “Banditball” had begun. Just slightly over two years later, this enjoyable era of spring football was about to come to a premature end.

As the 1985 season drew to a close, the Bandits were a franchise in a state of disarray. Its managing general partner, John Bassett, had been waging a losing battle against inoperable brain tumors and no longer had day-to-day involvement with the franchise. In fact, Bassett had no intention of owning the team beyond the 1985 season.

Even the Bandits -- a model franchise on and off the field -- were not immune to the financial difficulties facing the troubled USFL. On June 12, Bandit management had to call in letters of credit from its limited partners for $200,000 each. Still, the team was better off financially than any other team in the league. As general manager Ralph Campbell described them, they were the best of the worst.

No one was quite sure, however, what would happen to the team after the season. Numerous options were on the table for the franchise. The team could be sold and moved to another market, merged with an existing team, or remain in Tampa under new ownership and play again in the fall of 1986. Due to Bassett’s failing health, his idea to form a new spring league was simply no longer on the table.

On the field, the Bandits had once owned a league-leading 9-3 record and seemed to be the class of the USFL. After a franchise-worst four-game losing streak, however, a trip to the playoffs was no longer even a foregone conclusion.

Injuries and locker room disruptions also played a part in the team’s sudden demise.
The Bandits, never a dominant team on defense, could not overcome injuries to key defensive players such as Fred Nordgren and Kelly Kirchbaum.

On the other side of the ball, Eric Truvillion, the team’s all-time leading receiver, became the star of an ongoing drama between himself and head coach Steve Spurrier. It finally came to a head on June 13 when the Bandits deactivated Truvillion from the roster, effectively ending his career in Tampa Bay.

“If you feel like you have a player who is disruptive,” Spurrier said, “you remove him, and that’s what has happened. Something that had been going on for a long time finally came to a head.”

Remarkably, the Bandits could still lose their two remaining games, and with one loss by the Jacksonville Bulls, sneak into the playoffs. Even more remarkably, the Bandits were still in a position to host a playoff game based on the USFL’s prerogative to award home-field advantage based on attendance. The Bandits ranked second in the entire league, trailing only Jacksonville.

The Birmingham Stallions, with a league-best 12-4 mark, came riding into Tampa for the last regular season game – and potentially final ever Bandits game -- at Tampa Stadium on June 15, 1985.

On “Fan Appreciation Night,” the Bandits gave the roughly 24,000 who showed up some positives lasting images to remember, although the team struggled to put up any points for most of the first half.

An 11-play, 92 yard drive culminated in a three-yard touchdown toss from Birmingham’s Cliff Stoudt to Jim Smith midway through the first quarter. This accounted for the only scoring until the final minute of a half which had featured an assortment of turnovers, missed field goals, punts, and stalled drives.

Trailing 7-0 with 1:51 left, Bandit quarterback John Reaves engineered a perfect two-minute drill, taking his team seven plays for a game-tying touchdown. Reaves found receiver Spencer Jackson in the end zone from five yards out to send the Bandits into the locker tied 7-7 at the half.

In the third quarter, the Bandits intercepted Stoudt three times, and were able to convert the second pick into go-ahead points. A 34-yard field goal by Zenon Andrusyshyn at 7:18 of the third quarter gave Tampa Bay a 10-7 lead.

Stoudt’s third interception – and second of the game by Dwayne Anderson – led to a 12-yard rushing touchdown by Gary Anderson at the 1:09 mark of the third quarter. Heading into the final quarter of USFL football at Tampa Stadium, the Bandits held a 17-7 lead.

The defense, which had given up 132 points during the team’s four-game losing streak, had somehow held Birmingham to just seven points despite losing battles in time of possession, total yardage, and first downs. Turnovers proved the difference, as Tampa Bay produced five interceptions and made other critical stops to snuff out Birmingham drives. The Stallions would not get on the board again until the waning seconds of the game, an ultimately meaningless touchdown pass that narrowed the final score to 17-14.

This game marked the only time in team history that the Bandits won at Tampa Stadium by scoring fewer than 19 points.

“It was the first time in three years we beat a good team and really didn’t play well on offense,” Spurrier said after the game. “Obviously the name ‘Banditball’ turned into defense tonight.”

With a playoff berth assured through victory and a Jacksonville loss, the Bandits closed out the regular season the following weekend with a disheartening loss on the road to the Baltimore Stars. Turnovers on their first four possessions – and six overall – doomed the Bandits to a 38-10 defeat.

Tampa Bay finished the season with a 10-8 mark, the worst of any qualifying playoff team. Despite their stellar home attendance marks, the league sent the Bandits to the west coast for their first-round playoff game against the Oakland Invaders.

A crowd of just under 20,000 fans watched the Bandits play valiantly, but ultimately fall to the top-ranked Invaders, 30-27.

Out of the playoffs and with an ultimately doomed future, the curtain had finally come down on the memorable three-year run of “Banditball.”

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