Monday, October 25, 2010

Catching Up With The Fabulous Sports Babe

Radio personality Nanci Donnellan, better known to her legions of fans as “The Fabulous Sports Babe,” began her career here in the Tampa Bay area in 1982. After moves that took her to Seattle, Bristol, Conn., and New York City, the Babe took several years off from broadcasting earlier in the decade, but she is once again a fixture on the local airwaves. Always opinionated and willing to tell it like it is, the Babe can be heard weekdays on WHBO 1040-AM from 12-3 p.m. She recently took some time to talk about the changes in sports radio, the issue of local baseball attendance, and some fond memories involving the late George Steinbrenner.

Q. What was the climate like for sports radio when you first started in this market?

A. I don't know that we actually had a climate for it in the early 1980s. I started off with a sports show at an all-news/talk radio station, WPLP. Then in 1990, I put WFNS on the air. We changed the Plant City station and turned it into sports radio. That was the first all-sports radio station here in Tampa for sure.

Q. How has the scene evolved over the last 20 years?

A. It's evolved in that we have three all-sports stations now. They each offer different things, that's for sure. Sports is huge and much more popular now than it was 20 years ago with the advent of 24-hour networks, and the growing popularity of football. In baseball, you used to have a Saturday afternoon game. Now, you have multiple games every night that you can tune into. With football, on Sunday you could watch the game at 1 and the game at 4. Now you can watch every stinkin' one of them, which is the way it should be. We should be able to get whatever game we want.

Q. Back when WFNS got started, there were no blogs, no Twitter, no message boards. Now, there are numerous ways for fans to have their opinions heard that don't necessarily involve calling the radio station.

A. Radio used to be where you could express your opinions. You couldn't very well talk back to the TV, but as you said, people have turned into bloggers. Now even a regular fan can take the time a couple times a week to really expound on what they're feeling. I think it's great. I think it's wonderful.

Q. Some print reporters might take a differing view and say that kind of cuts into what they're doing, but you're saying it's a good thing that more people have a voice.

A. Absolutely, I think it is. I understand what newspaper reporters are saying. We've seen it already in television. Look how squashed the sports reports are on television. They used to be "X" amount of minutes long and you're lucky if you get three minutes now. Even in my business, there's so much syndication now. It's funny, when I was doing syndication 15 years ago I was on 300 radio stations across the country. That was a fairly new phenomenon, especially to that degree. Now, one of the main reasons that I'm here is that I really feel the local fan has been completely under-served. I'm really glad to see that more and more local talk is back.

Q. How about your show, is it more focused on local or national sports?

A. I've always taken both. One of the main things for me here is that this is a Tampa Bay radio station and we are going to talk about Tampa Bay. Now, if there's a big issue that is a national issue, obviously it relates to us. But by and large, I'm talking about the Rays and the Bucs and the Lightning and college football.

Q. Baseball was a big part of your show going back to the 1980s and the original effort to bring a team to this area. Would you have ever thought that we'd still be debating the location of the stadium?

A. No, but it has been my experience of being in this business in different locations that everyone complains about their stadium, everyone threatens to move, and they always get a new stadium and don't move. I think this obsession with attacking the fans in the end will backfire heavily on the ownership of the Rays.

Q. Would it be a different story if the stadium were in Tampa or is it the economic climate?

A. If Tropicana Field had been built in Tampa, they would be complaining about the stadium anyways. As far as people going, the ownership's total disregard for the economy here is somewhat surprising. They have no respect for what the average working person here is going through.

Q. And this area has been hit as hard as any in the country.

A. And the ownership of the Tampa Bay Rays either doesn’t know it or really don't care.

Q. Going back to 2008, what were your emotions on that season knowing how long and arduous the journey was just to bring baseball here.

A. I spent that whole season saying, "I don't buy it. Wait 'til Memorial Day. Wait 'til the All-Star break. Wait 'til August.” And it wasn't really until they were in the playoffs that I was ready to say they were for real. I believed in them and thought they were good -- I thought they were very lucky -- and that was fine. There were a lot of home runs in the bottom of the 8th and bottom of the 9th innings and it was very exciting. For someone who had season tickets for as long as I did, and to have seen so much bad baseball, it was incredible.

Now, I think the bar has been set and we have come to have certain expectations. I don't think that going to the World Series or deep into the playoffs necessarily has to be the expectation, but you expect a team that's good and no longer a joke. I don't expect them to fall back to that. Of course, based on Sternberg's whining about how he doesn't have any money, it may very well go back to that.

Q. Your thoughts on the passing this year of George Steinbrenner.

A. The bottom line is this: if there’s no George Steinbrenner, there’s no baseball in this town. People can say what they want, but George is the one that opened the door for baseball to come here. I talked to Vince Naimoli the day George died and he talked about how instrumental George was in helping bring baseball here.

A quick story on George. One summer on my show, we got a phone call from a George in Tampa. We didn't think anything of it, so I put him on. It was George Steinbrenner calling me. So every 4th of July – which was his birthday -- we'd get a call from George and it became a tradition. Then he invited me to Yankee Stadium for a playoff game one year to sit in his box, which was really an incredible experience. I remember how cordial he was, and that was a really impressionable point for me.

I remember a few years ago, there was a soccer team of teenagers from somewhere in South America. They were in Florida playing different teams, and something happened with either the airline or travel agency they booked their tickets through, and they were stranded in Orlando. There was a story about it, and you can guess who wrote the check to put them on a plane home to South America. That's the kind of person he was, the kind of thing he would do for people, and one of the reasons why he’s going to be so missed.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Bucs Throw Away Win Against L.A., 10/13/85

On October 9, 1985, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers parted ways with linebacker Hugh Green, who was the team's first overall selection in the 1981 draft. The disgruntled Green -- a two-time Pro Bowler for the Buccaneers -- had recently made his unhappiness known around One Buc Place, skipping a practice and criticizing the team's defensive scheme.

Green and his agent essentially demanded that owner Hugh Culverhouse trade him to another team. Unable to swing a deal that involved two first round draft picks for Green, the Buccaneers were able to find a willing partner in the Miami Dolphins, who instead sent Tampa Bay first and second round picks in the 1986 draft.

The Green drama provided a bridge between two significant weeks in the 1985 season for Tampa Bay. The previous Sunday, the undefeated Chicago Bears shuffled into Tampa Stadium, and despite trailing 12-3 at the half, upended the winless Buccaneers, 27-19.

Tampa Bay would face another undefeated team at home the coming Sunday against the 5-0 Los Angeles Rams, but this time without one of their defensive stars.

The loss of Green -- unquestionably the team's best linebacker -- could not have come at more inopportune time as the Buccaneers had to find a way to slow down superstar running back Eric Dickerson. The owner of the league's single-season rushing record with 2,105 yards in 1984, Dickerson had an outstanding game against Tampa Bay that season with 191 yards rushing and three touchdowns in L.A.'s 34-33 victory over the Buccaneers.

Would history repeat itself against a thin Buccaneer defense? If anything, Tampa Bay's defense would rise to new heights.

On October 13 in front of just 39,607 at Tampa Stadium, the 0-5 Buccaneers gave the Rams all they could handle.

James Wilder -- the other star running back in the game -- opened the scoring for Tampa Bay with a 1-yard touchdown run. A fake field goal helped set up the score, as holder Alan Risher called an audible prior to the snap and ran 10 yards to the Tampa Bay 2 for a first down.

Trailing 7-0 after the first quarter, the Rams then scored back-to-back touchdowns to take the lead. A 23-yard touchdown pass to Bobby Duckworth from Dieter Brock evened the score at 7 a piece. A Nolan Cromwell interception of Steve DeBerg set up the next Rams score, a 6-yard run by Dickerson to give his team a 14-7 lead.

The Buccaneers would fight back, however, with 17 unanswered points to close the second quarter. Donald Igwebuike's first field goal of the day, a 34-yarder, narrowed the score to 14-10, and Chris Lindstrom's fumble recovery at the L.A. 29-yard line set the stage for a 17-yard pass from Steve DeBerg to Kevin House to give Tampa Bay a 17-14 lead.

Igwebuike later nailed a 49-yard field goal as time expired in the half to extend the lead by six, 20-14, over the undefeated Rams.

Tampa Bay had a chance to blow the game open in the third quarter when linebacker Keith Browner intercepted Brock. On his way into the end zone for a sure touchdown, Browner fumbled at the 3-yard line, however, and the ball bounced out of the end zone for a touchback, giving the Rams new life.

Los Angeles took advantage and controlled the rest of the third quarter, allowing Tampa Bay just six total yards of offense. Mike Lansford chipped in a 27-yard field goal to narrow the score to 20-17, and Carl Eckern intercepted a DeBerg pass and ran it in 33 yards for the go-ahead score.

By this point, the boo-birds were out at Tampa Stadium and calling for DeBerg's backup, Steve Young, with chants of "We Want Young!"

DeBerg responded by putting the Buccaneers back on top 1:47 into in the fourth quarter. A beautiful 13-yard pass from DeBerg to Gerald Carter gave Tampa Bay a 27-24 lead and, once again, a major upset seemed to be in the works.

Rams cornerback LeRoy Irvin, however, made the play of the game to prevent that from happening. Irvin snagged an underthrown pass from DeBerg to Theo Bell and returned it 34 yards for the game-winning touchdown.

Now trailing 31-27, DeBerg's first pass of the ensuing drive was again picked off by Ivory, sealing Tampa Bay's fate. His fourth interception of the game had cost the Buccaneers any chance of making a late comeback.

Defense made the difference on the day for the Rams, as they held Tampa Bay to 210 total yards and forced five turnovers. Wilder, who scored Tampa Bay's first touchdown, was held to 49 yards on 24 carries on the day.

The final score belied how well the Buccaneer defense played. Tampa Bay barely felt the loss of Hugh Green, sacking Dieter Brock seven times, recovering three fumbles, and essentially neutralizing Dickerson, holding him to 75 yards on 25 carries.

Critical turnovers by the offense, and the inability to open holes for Wilder to run, clearly cost the Buccaneers a chance at an upset.

There would be fewer and fewer chances as the season progressed. The Buccaneers nearly shocked the Dolphins at Miami the following week in a 41-38 loss, but Tampa Bay would fall to 0-9 before winning their first game against the St. Louis Cardinals on November 10.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Death of "Chelo" Huerta, 10/8/85

On September 21, 2010, the Tampa sports community lost a giant when Sam Bailey, the former University of Tampa football coach and athletic director, died at the age of 86. It seems sadly appropriate that his death would fall so close to the 25th anniversary of the passing of his colleague and fellow Tampa sports icon, Marcelino "Chelo" Huerta, Jr.

On the evening of October 8, 1985, Huerta attended a regularly scheduled meeting of the Tampa Sports Club at the Holiday Inn on Cypress. Accompanied by his son-in-law Andy Alfonso, the two chatted that night with friends such as Bernie and David Epstein, E.C. Smith, and another former football coach, Fran Curci.

Just three-and-a-half hours after parting ways, Huerta suffered a fatal heart attack. Doctors worked on Huerta for just over two hours, but were unable to save him. One of the most vibrant and beloved men in all of Tampa had died just three weeks shy of his 62nd birthday on October 31.

Although of short and stocky build, Huerta had a distinguished athletic career at Hillsborough High School. In addition to being student body president, Huerta also served as captain of the football team and earned all-state honors as an offensive lineman.

Like so many men of his age, Huerta volunteered for military service during World War II. A proud patriot, Huerta served as a decorated B-24 Liberator pilot in the European Theatre and eventually achieved the rank of 1st Lieutenant during his active service from 1943-45.

Following his discharge from the United States Army Air Force, Huerta made up for lost time by enrolling at the University of Florida. While in Gainesville, Huerta played football for the Gators during a dubious time in their history.

The so-called "Golden Era of Florida Football" featured a 0-13 losing streak from 1946-47 matched only in futility perhaps by the winless Gators of 1979.

Huerta's love of the game led him back to Tampa, where in 1950 Frank Sinkwich hired Chelo on as an assistant coach for the University of Tampa Spartans. It was there that Huerta met the man who would become such a big part of his life, fellow assistant coach Sam Bailey.

It would be a short apprenticeship under Sinkwich, as Huerta took over as the head coach in 1952, a position he held until 1961. He then spent three seasons as the head coach of Wichita State (1962-1965), earning Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year honors in 1963, followed by three seasons at Parsons College (1966-1968) before leaving the world of coaching and returning home to Tampa.

Beginning in 1969, Huerta became involved with the MacDonald Training Center, serving as its Executive Vice President. The facility, with its programs for individuals with developmental disabilities, became the passion of Huerta's post-football life.

At the time of his death, the MacDonald Center was in the process of moving from the Westshore area to a new facility on the campus of the University of South Florida.

"That was Chelo's dream project," said Jerry Fogarty, the MacDonald Training Center's chairman of the board. "How painful the thought that he will not be here to see it through."

As one might expect of the Tampa Sports Club Citizen of the Year in 1969 and the Outstanding Young Man of Tampa in 1954, friends and colleagues effusively praised the late Huerta.

"He was small in size, but he was a giant in his nerve and in his achievements," said Gator teammate Jimmy Kynes. "His loss is beyond estimate."

"No one on this earth ever helped me more," said Rick Nafe, the former operations director for the Tampa Sports Authority. "To me he was like a coach, father and good friend. I was privileged to sit at his right hand."

His close friend George Levy, however, may have said it best.

"There was only one Chelo. There cannot be another. A big slice of this town left us this week."

Monday, October 4, 2010

Catching Up with Mark Carrier

Mark Carrier, a third round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1987, is Tampa Bay's most prolific receiver of all-time. He still owns the most 100-yard receiving games in team history (15), and the single-game receiving yardage record (212). A Buccaneer from 1987-1992, Carrier played 12 seasons in the NFL and finished his career with 8,763 yards and 48 touchdowns. Carrier can now be heard weekdays alongside Ronnie Lane on WHBO 1040-AM from 3-7 p.m. He recently took some time to talk about his Buccaneer days and his new career behind the microphone.

Q. Take us back to your rookie training camp under Ray Perkins. What was that like?

A. It was a camp that I never expected. Prior to coming into the league and watching football, or seeing depictions of football practices on television, I had a different expectation. Once I got here, I guess reality set in. I was dumbfounded, and found myself thinking, "This is not what I saw on television!" It was a rude awakening for me.

It was his first year, my first year, and I want to say we had something like 20 draft picks that year. I truly believe his goal was to rebuild the team from scratch and get guys in place who he felt fit his plan. If they didn't fit his plan, he was going to do anything in his power to keep them off the team. I think the three-a-day training camp was how he felt he could see who was mentally and physically tough enough to go through it.

Q. How did you personally adapt to the rigors of camp?

A. It was tough for me, but I think I was able to adapt quicker because I wasn't one of the veterans who had been exposed to a different camp. Therefore, it was a culture-shock for them. For me, being accustomed to working hard I was able to deal with it better. Being young helped of course, and I didn't know truly what to expect. It was a tough camp, a tough season, it was the year of the strike. A lot of things were going on that first season.

Q. What kind of impact did the strike have on you as a rookie?

A. To be honest with you, after going through the grueling three-a-days of camp, the one advantage of the strike was my body getting a chance to rest a little bit. With all the hard work in that heat, my body was tired. It was brutal. If I could take anything positive from that strike, it gave me the chance to rejuvenate my body.

Other than that, it was particularly tough as a rookie coming into the league when you've not been exposed to what the strike is all about. It was the veteran players who knew what was going on, and had a better idea of why were striking. We as rookies had to learn as we went from what we had heard and read. It was eye-opening for me. Veteran players who had been in the league nine or ten years were talking about the things they wanted for the future, knowing their careers were ending in the next year or two. I could not appreciate it as much back then because they had gone through some of the things I had not been exposed to yet.

Q. That season you had a breakout game against New Orleans, setting a team-record for receiving yards (212) in a game. That had to be extra special coming in your home state of Louisiana.

A. I can't remember if I bought 30 or 40 tickets for that game, but it was my first time returning home. I grew up in Louisiana, went to school in Louisiana, cheered for the Saints as a child, even during the bad days of Archie Manning and Chuck Muncie. Quite frankly, anybody who grows up playing football in Louisiana would love to play football for the Saints. That's the nature of the beast out there. I was trying to put on a show for my family and friends who had come to the game, but also for the New Orleans Saints who had not drafted me. I went to school an hour away, but they chose to go in a different direction. I wanted to show them what they passed up.

Q. You came in as a rookie alongside Vinny Testaverde, and would play with him again later in Cleveland. Can you talk about how your careers intertwined?

A. One of the things that happened by getting drafted together is that we developed a chemistry. The coaches knew they weren't going to start him right away, but still we got in a lot of work together during training camp. That New Orleans game was actually his first game as a starter. All of the stuff we had been working on came together that day. It got to the point where I could depend on him, and he could depend on me. We were able to be successful and put up good numbers from then on.

As far as Cleveland goes, it wasn't planned out. It just happened to be that way and worked out to where we were able to hook up together for a couple more years.

Q. 1989 seems to be the defining year of your career, getting named to the Pro Bowl and being named the team MVP. How did it all come together for you that season?

A. That was a season where everything fell into place. I felt comfortable with the system, comfortable with Vinny, and more secure with my role and what my expectations were. I had the opportunity to make plays, and the coaches began to believe in me. The confidence built in me from them. Vinny and I had been playing together for three years by them, so we knew each other like the backs of our hands.

Q. That season the team finished 5-11, and if not for a couple of last-minute losses, could have had a winning record. What do you recall as the difference that year?

A. That was so long ago and so many losses ago. (laughs) I think back then, we were still trying to learn how to win and I think we were on the edge for a lot of games, but we could never get to the point where we could close out games. Like you said, we were 5-11, but we weren't a 5-11 team.

When you get into a habit of losing, it's hard to sometimes get out of those ruts, so to speak. Just like it seems when you are winning, the ball bounces the right way. When you're losing, it's just the opposite. It seems to be contagious and goes from one week to another.

Q. Going to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl had to make up for some of the disappointment, right?

A. That is probably one of my best memories. I ended up having a great year. 86 catches, I think. Initially, I wasn't going to go to the Pro Bowl because they had voted in John Taylor from San Francisco. He had 26 less catches and a few hundred less yards. But when you look at San Francisco and you see them every week them on television, it becomes a popularity contest. I understood the nature of the business. As it happened, he could not go. I was the first alternate, so I was able to take his place. It was gratifying because all of the hard work that I put in had paid off. It's one thing to play against the caliber of some of those guys, but to then go to practicing with and playing with them was a thrill for me.

Q. You came within one game of a Super Bowl in 1996 as a member of the Panthers. After all the losing years in Tampa, how special was that season for you?

A. Well, my second season in Cleveland we made the playoffs. That was my first-ever experience in the playoffs. I tell these young guys all the time that it took me eight years to get to the playoffs. Some guys come into the league and get into the playoffs their first or second year. That's very rare and shouldn't be taken for granted. Just getting a taste of the playoffs was great.

With Carolina, that was a season unlike any other. It was only our second year of existence. It reminds me of that Sylvester Stallone movie "The Expendables" because we were a group of older guys that came from different teams. We were either left unprotected or released by our former teams and then taken by the Panthers. We were The Expendables. We came together and were actually a game away from hosting the NFC Championship Game. If Green Bay had lost in the divisional round, we'd have had the championship game at home which would have made a world of difference. Going up to play in Green Bay seemed like it was 20 degrees below zero. I viewed that as the coldest day in the history of the world for me. It really was. Fighting those elements, never getting on track as a team, and finding ourselves in a hole right away kind of spoiled our chances. But just the experience of getting there was gratifying for me.

Q. How did you get involved with your new radio show?

A. It's by freak accident that it happened. About two months ago, I was very blessed and fortunate to be inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. I'm flying back to Tampa from the ceremony, and at the airport I run into Ronnie Lane. We talked for a few minutes, and he told me he was back in town trying to get a new radio show going. Then he asked if I would be interested in joining him. I said sure, and that's how it came together.

It's a new experience. I'm still feeling my way a little bit, but with each passing day I get more comfortable and relaxed. I've always been on the other side of the mic! So it's been interesting. As a sports fanatic, I like the fact that now I can talk about sports all day. Being able to do that is a piece of cake, really.