Monday, September 27, 2010

Bucs' Comeback Falls Short, 9/28/80

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened their season two weeks ago with a victory at home over the Cleveland Browns. After going winless against the Browns between 1976 and 1995, the Buccaneers have now won three straight against Cleveland.

The second all-time meeting between these two teams occurred 30 years ago, when the Browns came to Tampa for a late-September contest at Tampa Stadium.

Coming off the fantastic 1979 campaign, the Buccaneers had high expectations for 1980. The season started off promising enough, with victories on the road against Cincinnati and at home against the Los Angeles Rams in a rematch of the NFC Championship game.

In Week 3, the Buccaneers dropped a winnable game on the road against Dallas. After leading 17-7, Tampa Bay surrendered 21 unanswered points in a 28-17 loss to the Cowboys.

Still, at 2-1 the Buccaneers seemed poised to have another fine year. The Browns came into the game having struggled their first two weeks -- dropping meetings against New England and Houston – while rebounding for a win in Week 3 against Kansas City.

Prior to the game, Tampa Bay head coach John McKay warned of taking the 1-2 Browns for granted.

“The key word for Cleveland is that they play in a very tough division,” McKay said of the AFC Central Division. “Take them lightly and they can tear us apart. It could be worse than Dallas.”

Prophetic words from McKay, as the Browns indeed had their way with a suddenly porous Buccaneer defense.

On September 28, 1980, in front of crowd of 65,540, the Browns and Bucs did their best to light up the stadium scoreboard.

After taking an early 6-0 lead on a pair of field goals by Garo Yepremian, Tampa Bay’s defense came back to reality after holding Cleveland to only five yards in the first quarter.

Momentum seemed to turn when Tampa Bay passed on a 27-yard field goal attempt, instead going for it on fourth-and-two. The gambit failed and Cleveland marched down the field for their first points of the game, a 35-yard field goal by Don Cockroft to cut the lead in half.

The Buccaneers answered right back, however, on a 41-yard touchdown pass from Doug Williams to Gordon Jones to extend their lead to 13-3. The joy from this scoring drive would prove short-lived.

The league’s top-ranked defense in 1979, Tampa Bay struggled mightily for the rest of the afternoon against a Cleveland passing attack led by quarterback Brian Sipe.

Sipe caught fire in the second quarter, at one point reeling off a Cleveland-record 13-consecutive pass completions, and 18 out of 19 passes overall.

“To be truthful,” Tampa Bay cornerback Danny Reece said after the game, “a lot of those passes were little passes, passes to the backs. But you must give him credit, he found the open spots.”

The comeback began with an 8-yard touchdown run by Charles White to narrow Tampa Bay’s lead to three. On their next offensive possession, Sipe hit running back Calvin Hill for a 3-yard touchdown pass to put the Browns in the lead, 17-13.

More misery for the Buccaneers in the second half, as Sipe continued to have plenty of time in the pocket, while his receivers continued to find holes in the Tampa Bay secondary.

Receiver Ricky Feacher, a graduate of Brooksville-Hernando High School, caught a 13-yard touchdown pass from Sipe in the third quarter, and Calvin Hill added his second touchdown reception in the fourth quarter – this time a 43-yarder – to give Cleveland a commanding 31-13 lead.

As fans started streaming out of Tampa Stadium, however, the Buccaneers began fighting their way back into the game behind the arm of Doug Williams. Although somewhat overshadowed by Sipe’s day, Williams had quite a day of his own. For the second consecutive week, Williams passed for over 300 yards and put Tampa Bay in position for an improbable comeback.

Williams hit Gordon Jones for his second touchdown of the day on a 3-yard pass to cut the lead to 31-20. The Browns added a 36-yard field goal to make it a two-touchdown game, 34-20. Then the dramatics began.

With 45 seconds left in the game, Williams hit running back Jerry Eckwood on a 7-yard touchdown pass to bring Tampa Bay within a touchdown.

On the ensuing kickoff, the Buccaneers successfully recovered an onsides kick attempt by Yepremian to earn one last chance.

With no time outs remaining and already in Cleveland territory, Williams passed the ball over the middle to tight end Jimmie Giles at the Browns’ 20. Giles was immediately met by two Cleveland defenders, and the Buccaneers were unable to run another play. The clock expired and any hopes for a miraculous comeback were dashed as the Browns held on in a 34-27 victory.

After the game, there was plenty of blame to go around the Tama Bay locker room. The defense, for getting carved up by Sipe, and the offense, for botching the final play of the game, shared equal blame in the eyes of their head coach.

“A statement,” said John McKay in his post-game comments. “Our offense was inept and our defense was terrible. It was hard to tell which was worse. Our pass defense was horrible. We looked like we were playing in cement.”

McKay lofted several more bon mots, calling the decision on the final play “idiotic,” saying in reference to Sipe that “he was lofting balloons to start the game and we were acting like they were guided missiles,” and in an overall assessment of his team’s state of mind, “I think it is manure that we are a team that continually makes mental errors.”

While both teams left Tampa Stadium with matching 2-2 records, they were clearly headed in different directions.

Cleveland would win nine of their next twelve games en route to the playoffs, while the Buccaneers could look forward to a total of three more victories the rest of the season, a disappointing follow-up to the magical season of 1979.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Catching Up With Mike Connell

Mike Connell, an original member of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, played with the team from 1975-1984 and became one of the most popular players in franchise history. Joining the squad as an 18-year-old from South Africa in 1975, Connell earned the nickname “Iron Mike” for participating in over 25,000 minutes of play over the course of a career spent entirely in Tampa. Connell saw it all as a member of the Rowdies, and recently took some time to reflect on his playing days and thoughts on Tampa as a potential World Cup host city.

Q. What comes to mind when you think of the 1975 season?

A. That first year 1975, head coach Eddie Firmani had arranged for me to come over. My first memory from that year is getting stuck at the Miami airport because I didn't have a visa to get into the country. I was held up there for five or six hours while they sorted it out. Then I came up to Tampa, settled down at the Spanish Oaks apartments in Town ‘n’ Country. It was January, so most of the players hadn't arrived yet. We only had about eight players in at that time, mostly Americans.

At the time, not many people knew soccer in Tampa. They just knew we were these funny guys with funny accents in funny uniforms. Eddie Firmani was critical in bringing together characters who bought into the concept of being successful in Tampa. It was a one-shot deal. The success of the Rowdies really comes down to one year: 1975. If we're not successful in 1975, then the magic doesn't happen.

I remember in those first games, they only used to open up one side of Tampa Stadium. There were no end zones yet. Francisco Marcos, our Director of Public Relations, had the idea to build life-size cutouts of people sitting in the stands. So, on the empty side you had these cutouts of families, and then just one guy. (laughs) I mean when you think of where we were at that time to where we ended up, with 60,000 people at games...

Q. What were your immediate impressions of Tampa?

A. It was smaller than what I grew up in. I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, a major city. Tampa was just a little town when I came here. The guys on the team all stayed at the same apartment complex, so we were all convenient to one another. We built our own little social group. Between the apartments, practice, the pub, the pizza place, we basically did everything as a group. I was single, young, 18-years old, so the old married guys would have me over. It was a protective gang of guys that enjoyed being with one another and playing the game. As far as the town was concerned, I knew Town ‘n’ Country, and I knew USF, and the road between. That was it.

Q. Did you get a lot of playing time as a rookie?

A. Oh yeah, I played in all the games. I broke my toe so I was out for a few games towards the end of the season, but I was ready by the playoffs. You know, at that time there were not restrictions on foreigners. We were all foreigners. I was playing with players from the top divisions of England. When we played Portland in the final, their entire team was made up of English players. As an accomplishment for me, it was good. I didn't have that chance in South Africa . At the time, South Africa was banned from international soccer because of apartheid. I never had the opportunity to play against international players until I came here.

Q. I always ask former Rowdies about the bond between the team and its fans. The level of interaction is just something you don't see anymore.

A. Well, you never see it. Again, we were a bunch of foreign guys who'd show up to after-game parties and hang out with the fans, or go to pub nights with the fans. It was the closest you could come in this country to a college fan. It's not the sport that drives them, so much as it is being part of the University of Florida , or Florida State, or Notre Dame. Even today -- and I've been out of the game 25 years -- people still remember the relationship to the team. To us, the magic was that the fans believed they were part of the success.

We started getting away from that relationship by bringing in players from other teams or professionals from Europe. They weren't used to the personal appearances, so we began to separate from the fans and tended to be a little more aloof. But when it comes to Tampa, anybody that grew up with the Rowdies will tell you about the relationship they had with the team. We run into people who are 40 years old and they were your fan, and they used to love you. When I see people or talk to people now, they remember it as if it was yesterday. When you go to a Rowdies game and people come up to you, you're stunned. One, that they've recognized you, and two, that their memory of the time is so vivid.

Q. The 1980 season, which I've written about a few times this year, was kind of up-and-down, but you had that amazing semifinal game against San Diego. You blew them out 6-0, then played to a 1-1 tie in the mini-game, and then lost in a shootout. That had to be devastating.

A. They had beaten us 6-3 before that in San Diego. Looking back, I know the exact moment that Hugo Sanchez scored the tying goal in the mini-game. I know it because I was involved in it, marking him at the time. We had won shootouts before, but this one went the other way. Losing at home was tough because it was in front of our fans.

Looking back, that really was the beginning of the change. When we didn't get to the final that year -- which is what we always expected to do -- the change came. They got rid of players, they brought in new ones, and by then we started losing our identity.

Q. What do you remember about some of the international teams you played at Tampa Stadium ?

A. The trouble with playing in America was that we were isolated from world soccer. The newspapers never covered English soccer, we didn't have the Fox soccer channel, we didn't have the Internet. When we played teams like Manchester United or Nottingham Forrest, we never really knew exactly who they were or their stature. Now you look back and go, "Oh, ****."

But for me as a kid coming out of South Africa -- and not being able to play against international teams -- the opportunity to play against teams like Manchester United was very special. I remember that game, I scored in that game, I had a fantastic game against them. But I never thought ... you know, now, I would say I want to go play for them. The Rowdies were so big at the time, I didn't have the ambition to say that. I regret it now because I think they deserved a lot more respect.

Q. You were nicknamed "Iron Mike." Talk about how you were able to stay in such condition and health to never miss any games.

A. Well, I was a smart player. I stayed out of trouble. Even as a defender, I was more of an intercepter of the ball, reading the game, as opposed to just flying into tackles and doing that kind of stuff. I was lucky, I had no major injuries. Unlike today where you watch a game and people are diving, to us at the time -- and it really doesn't matter who it was -- showing weakness is what we didn't want to do. I think maybe we tended to play through things. Our seasons were pretty evenly paced. We had one or two games a week, a practice, so you had time to recover. All those factors were important.

Q. Since you went home this summer for the World Cup, I have to ask your thoughts on Tampa as a potential World Cup city down the road.

A. To me, the gateway to soccer in this country is through Tampa. You know, 35 years ago when people mentioned American soccer in Europe, it was Tampa that they spoke about. Not the New York Cosmos, but the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Because of that, I don't believe there should be anything that happens in soccer that doesn't involve Tampa. We deserve to be a World Cup site. If they just look at it from a soccer point of view -- heritage, passion, tradition -- Tampa should be a no-brainer.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Gators Tackle Golden Bears, 9/13/80

For “Gator Nation,” the last two decades have been like something out of a dream. The homecoming of Steve Spurrier in 1990, eight Southeastern Conference Titles, three National Championships, and iconic players such as Heisman Trophy winners Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow.

None of the current players who will suit up this weekend against the University of South Florida Bulls, however, are old enough to remember a time when the Gators spent a season as the dregs of college football. In 1979, the Gators finished with a dreadful 0-10-1 record under first-year head coach Charley Pell. That season is still the university’s standard for futility, rivaled only by a 0-9 mark in 1946.

The opening of the 1980 season offered new hope, however, and a showdown at Tampa Stadium against the University of California Golden Bears on September 13 presented the first opportunity for the Gators to wash the taste of the 1979 season from their mouths.

Sophomore Bob Hewko – in his first-ever start – got the nod at starting quarterback from Pell over incumbent Larry Ochab.

“Ochab will be our backup and we’ll use him as the situation warrants,” Pell said. “We’re starting Hewko and we’re prepared to go with him the entire game. We have all the confidence in the world in Bob.”

On the other side of the ball, the Gators had to contend with Cal’s senior quarterback Rich Campbell, one of the most prolific passers in all of college football. Pell admitted that it would be almost impossible to stop Campbell, but that the Gators simply hoped to keep the ball away from Cal’s offense.

“If we can do that,” he said, “not give up the big play and have a sound kicking game, we’ll do alright.”

In front of 41, 388 at Tampa Stadium, the Gators did more than just alright: they managed to steal the show from Campbell and the Golden Bears.

Living up to the hype that accompanied his appearance in Tampa, Campbell set a then-NCAA single-game pass completion record by connecting on 43 of 53 attempts for 421 yards. Still for all Campbell’s passing heroics, the Gators were the better team on this day.

Florida jumped out to a fast start in the first quarter. On Florida’s first possession of the game, tailback Doug Kellon capped a seven-play, 52-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run to give his team the early lead. The defense forced California to punt and recovered a fumble, setting up two Brian Clark field goals, and at the end of the first quarter, the Gators held a 13-0 lead.
Just as Florida dominated the first quarter, Cal took the game over in the second on the strength of Campbell’s arm. On one of his record-tying 19 second quarter pass completions, Campbell connected on a 24-yard touchdown strike to Dave Lewis, and Mike Luckhurst added field goals of 42 and 30 yards to even up the score 13-13 at the half.

Despite having squandered the early advantage, Pell commented after the game that the Gators were in a pretty favorable position.

“I had told them we might even be behind at the half,” Pell said, “but when it was tied, heck, that we like being ahead.”

The Gators came out in the second half playing like a team determined to win, while the Golden Bears played like a team determined to give the game away.

Florida capitalized on three Cal turnovers in the quarter – converting all three into touchdowns – and turned the game into a rout. Hewko connected with tight end Chris Faulkner for a nine-yard touchdown pass with 5:49 left in the third to give the Gators a 20-13 lead. In the next five minutes, the Gators added two more touchdowns, a 3-yard run by James Jones and a 20-yard pass from Hewko to Curt Garrett to widen their lead to 34-13.

Fullback Terry Williams added the game’s final insult to Cal on a 2-yard touchdown run just two minutes into the fourth quarter for the deciding 41-13 margin.

After 13-consecutive losses, the Gators not only snapped the streak but did so in decisive fashion. Although Campbell moved down the field with easy, the Florida defense forced four fumbles, intercepted one pass, and generated 17 points off Cal mistakes.

As for the offense, the Gators managed to generate more points in one afternoon (41) than they did through the first six weeks of the 1979 season (40). While Hewko did not dazzle when compared to Campbell, he turned in an efficient start, completing 10 of 16 passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns.

Pell called the game the “greatest single victory” he’d ever been associated with.

There were many more victories to come for Pell in his time at the University of Florida, particularly in 1980. The Gators would win six of their first seven games en route to an 8-4 finish, capped by a Tangerine Bowl victory in Orlando over the University of Maryland. This marked the first time in college football history that a team followed a winless season with a bowl appearance the next season.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Redskins Win One for Lombardi, 9/5/70

Recently there has been much debate about the merit of adding two additional games to the NFL’s 16-game regular season schedule. Proponents of this idea say this could be done by reducing the preseason by two games. The preseason, they say, is already too long with four and sometimes five games scheduled, and the risk of injury too great for an essentially meaningless game.

It was not that long ago, however, when the preseason consisted of six games and the regular season of only 14. Professional football had not yet become the year-round business it is today, nor had contracts escalated to the point where owners had to worry about paying guaranteed money to an injured player.

Today, there are more risks than rewards to be had in playing exhibition football, but 40 years ago this week the Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins threw caution to the wind just like 24 other teams and prepared for their fifth of six preseason games.

The Redskins came to town sporting a 3-1 record, while the Dolphins, under first-year head coach Don Shula, were a perfect 4-0.

The main storyline leading up to the game in Tampa, however, focused less on the teams than on the health of ailing Washington Redskins head coach Vince Lombardi. After stepping down as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers following the 1967 season, Lombardi spent a season as the team’s general manager before taking over as the head coach of the Redskins. He promptly turned around a franchise that had not finished above .500 since 1955, going 7-5-2 in his first season with the team

Then in June 1970, doctors diagnosed Lombardi with cancer. It did not take long to realize that he would no longer be able to coach his team. As the preseason progressed, Lombardi’s conditioned worsened. Bill Austin, Lombardi’s protégé of nearly 14 years, took over the head coaching duties.

While Austin prepared his team for the game in Tampa against the Dolphins, Lombardi fell into a coma while on his death bed at Georgetown University Hospital. On September 3, 1970, Lombardi died at the age of 57, just two months since his diagnosis.

“He had a covenant with greatness, more than any man I have ever known,” said Redskins President Edward Bennett Williams. “He was committed to excellence in everything he attempted.”

Don Shula, who in many ways was Lombardi’s heir apparent, called his death “a great loss to pro football. I feel it has been a real privilege to have been on the same field coaching against him.”

The upcoming game on September 5 – at a time of mourning not just for Redskin fans or Packer fans, but for any fan of football – took on secondary importance, even by preseason standards. Still, there was vital work to be done on the field and Lombardi would not have wanted it any other way.

In front of a surprisingly pro-Washington crowd of 37,151, the Dolphins and Redskins showed up at Tampa Stadium practically in mid-season form. Miami, in particular, played especially sharp in the early-going.

Third-year fullback Larry Csonka scored two rushing touchdowns for Miami in the first four minutes of the game to give the Dolphins a 14-0 lead.

Following a pair of field goals that narrowed Miami’s lead to 14-6, the Redskins wrestled momentum away from Miami by intercepting former University of Tampa quarterback Jesse Kaye twice in the second quarter. The second pick led to a nine-yard touchdown run by Charley Harraway to cut the lead to 14-13 at the half.

A fake punt at midfield by Dolphin punter Larry Seiple led to Miami’s next touchdown. After Seiple raced 33 yards to the 17, it took only three plays before quarterback Bob Griese ran it in from one yard out, extending Miami’s lead to 21-13.

This would be the extent of Miami’s scoring, however, as the rest of the game belonged to Washington.

A 47-yard field goal by Curt Knight cut the lead to 21-16 with 1:35 left in the third quarter. Quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, who played the entire game for Washington, engineered a game-winning, 52-yard drive with 8:40 remaining in the contest. Larry Brown capped the drive with a punishing 10-yard run for the score, giving Washington their first lead of the day, 23-21.
A late 10-yard field goal following Griese’s first interception of the preseason sealed the game and gave Washington a 26-21 victory.

The Redskins dedicated their win to Lombardi and Bill Austin saved the game ball for his widow, Marie. Jurgensen said after that it wasn’t enough for the team to just play the game in Lombardi’s honor.

“He would have wanted us to win it.”

It was Lombardi, after all, who famously said, “If winning isn't everything, why do they keep score?