Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Bucs End 1985 at 2-14, 12/22/85

In 1985, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers seemed condemned to failure right from the very beginning. Few teams ever rebound from a 0-9 start, and the Bucs proved to be no exception.

Even their first victory – a 16-0 triumph at home over the St. Louis Cardinals, and only the second-ever shutout in team history – could not be enjoyed for more than a few days. The next week on the road in the Meadowlands, the Jets handed the Buccaneers one of the worst defeats in franchise history, a 62-28 spanking in which, remarkably, Tampa Bay at one point actually held a 14-0 lead.

Quarterback Steve Young provided a glimmer of hope by winning his first start the following week against the Detroit Lions, a 19-16 overtime victory. Unfortunately, the good times would not last and the Buccaneers dropped their next three games to fall to 2-12 on the season.

On December 15, the smallest crowd to ever see a Buccaneer home game – 25,577 – watched Tampa Bay fall to the almost equally dreadful Indianapolis Colts, 31-23. This set the stage for the season-finale at Tampa Stadium against the Green Bay Packers, in a game that had a considerable amount of importance for the future of the franchise.

By virtue of a league-worst 2-13 record, Tampa Bay had been guaranteed at least the second-overall pick in the 1986 draft. Their Buffalo Bills, with an identical 2-13 record, were out of the running because they had traded their first round pick in 1986 to Cleveland. Win or lose, the Buccaneers needed only a victory by the Atlanta Falcons to ensure the top pick. This meant having first-crack at the Heisman Trophy-winner from Auburn University, running back Bo Jackson.

Despite the big-picture prize that the team could earn with a loss, none of the players wearing orange and white looked at losing as an accomplishment. Jobs were at stake, after all, since few players on the team could consider their job safe going into the following season.

“You either play or you don’t have a job,” Tampa Bay head coach Leeman Bennett said prior to the game. “We want to look presentable. We are all professionals and certainly we want to play our best. It is a matter of pride to finish with a little sweeter taste than on a losing note. One win isn’t going to make everything right, but at least there will be a sweeter taste.”

More like a familiar taste. For the fourteenth time in 1986, the Buccaneers would go home a loser. As always, however, they made it interesting to the very end.

On December 22, a Tampa Stadium crowd of 33,992 came out to see the last chapter of the 1985 season. It started out well enough, with Donald Igwebuike kicking a 33-yard field goal in the first quarter to give Tampa Bay an early 3-0 lead.

The Packers went ahead later in the quarter on a 30-yard touchdown run by wide receiver Phillip Epps that came on a reverse. James Wilder got Tampa Bay back on top in the second quarter, however, scoring on a one-yard touchdown run to give the Bucs a 10-7 lead.

An Al Del Greco 24-yard field goal with just 16 seconds left in the second quarter tied the game 10-10 going into the half.

To their credit, however, the Buccaneers played hard on a day when many could understand if they’d rather be across the street doing their Christmas shopping at the Tampa Bay Center.

Trailing 13-10 going into the third quarter following another Del Greco field goal, the Buccaneers put together their best drive of the day. Quarterback Steve Young engineered a 10-play, 74-yard drive that culminated with a 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jimmie Giles. Tampa Bay took 17-13 lead, but their defense would once again let them down when it mattered most.

Randy Wright, Green Bay’s third-string quarterback, answered Tampa Bay’s best offensive drive with their best of the day as well. Wright put together a 13-play, 73-yard drive that took 6:13 off the clock. The immortal Jessie Clark scored on a 6-yard run to regain the lead for Green Bay, 20-17.

Igwebuike, who on his second extra point of the game set Tampa Bay’s single-season scoring mark with 96 points, had a chance in the fourth quarter to even up the game. Instead, he pushed a 48-yard attempt wide right late in the fourth quarter – his second miss from 40+ yards on the day -- and the game would end with Tampa Bay three points short of taking the game to overtime.

On the bright side, Steve Young had his best statistical game of the season, completing 21 of 37 passes for 277 yards and one touchdown. Despite their record, Young felt optimistic about the team’s future.

“I want to be here,” Young said. “I want to have a career here. I want to help this team fill up this stadium again. James Wilder came up to me after the game and I talked to Jimmie Giles, too, and we are convinced we can do it.”

With Young at quarterback, Wilder at his familiar spot in the backfield, and Giles making big catches for Tampa Bay, Buccaneer fans could only wonder how much better the team might be with the addition of Bo Jackson through the upcoming draft. Yes, the future never looked so bright in Tampa Bay.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bucs Fall to Bears in Finale, 12/20/80

On November 2, 1980, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sported a record of 4-4-1 with seven games remaining. A season which had seen the Bucs sandwich a five-game winless streak between two separate two-game winning streaks could still be salvaged with a strong finish.

At the same point the previous season, the Buccaneers were 7-2 and on their way to winning the NFC Central Division. Although that team would endure a mini-slump en route to clinching the division, the 1980 edition of the Buccaneers shared few similarities with their previous edition.

The defense, which had been such a strength in 1979, failed to dominate opponents or even hold leads. Many wondered if these in fact were the real Buccaneers who had simply over-achieved in 1979.

It began to look that way when Tampa Bay lost five of their next six games to drop to 5-9-1 and completely out of the playoff picture. All that remained was a final home contest against the Chicago Bears to close out the disappointing campaign.

Although they had little left to play for, the Buccaneers had a bit of unfinished business with the Bears. On October 6, the Buccaneers made their first-ever appearance on Monday Night Football at Soldier Field in Chicago. The experience turned out to be less than memorable for the Buccaneers and their national audience.

Despite only trailing 3-0 at the half, the Bucs ultimately fell to the Bears 23-0. Walter Payton rushed for 122 of his 183 total yards in the second half and the Bears sacked Doug Williams four times. Head coach John McKay famously quipped after the game that his team had "set Monday Night Football back 2,000 years."

Then there was the additional matter of a borderline shot levied on tight end Jimmie Giles by hard-hitting Chicago safety Doug Plank. Plank achieved a place in NFL lore when his jersey number -- 46 -- became the root of the so-named "46 defense" developed by Chicago defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. It was his hit on Giles, however, that enraged Tampa Bay quarterback Doug Williams.

Although no penalty was called on the play, Williams believed that Plank had speared Giles with his helmet. For the hit, Plank earned a $750 fine from the league (roughly $1900 in today's dollars). Giles remained in the game, although some speculated that there may have been a long-term impact on his performance.

Prior to the Bears game, Giles had 12 receptions for 222 yards and three touchdowns in four games. Following the Chicago game, Giles had only 19 receptions and one touchdown in 10 games, this after leading the team in receiving with 40 catches and seven touchdowns in 1979. Still, Giles earned ultimate vindication by being named to the NFC's Pro Bowl squad.

While McKay attributed the decline to Giles drawing more attention from opposing defenders, Giles bluntly stated that the hit had nothing to do with his decrease in production.

"If I let one hit stop me or get me scared, I shouldn't be in football," Giles said. "I think I've had a great year compared to last season because I'm getting double-teamed and triple-teamed in certain situations."

While most of the Buccaneers expected that there would be no retaliation in mind towards Plank, defensive lineman David Logan knew the importance of evening the score with the Bears.

"They beat us 23-0," Logan said. "They embarrassed us. We're not just going to go out there and go through the motions and then just get out of town."

On December 20, with John Madden in the house for the nationally-televised Saturday afternoon game on CBS and a sell-out crowd of over 72,000 expected at Tampa Stadium, both the Bears (6-9) and Buccaneers (5-9-1) had plenty of reasons to not just go through the motions.

Although the actual crowd numbered closer to 55,000 fans – resulting in the greatest number of unused tickets in team history at the time -- those in attendance saw a game that epitomized the struggles of Tampa Bay's 1980 campaign. Not that they didn't have their chances, but the Bucs held true to form and self-destructed at the most important time.

Tampa Bay started off strong enough, racing to a 10-0 first quarter lead behind a 33-yard pass from Williams to Gordon Jones and a 27-yard field goal by Garo Yepremian. For the eighth time in 1980, however, the Buccaneers could not hold on to a 10-point lead.

Chicago signal-caller Vince Evans began the Bears comeback with a six-yard touchdown run at the 10:14 mark of the second quarter. He added his second of the game in the third quarter from one yard out just three plays after Tampa Bay's Jerry Eckwood fumbled at his own three-yard line.

Although the Bears held a 14-10 lead, the Buccaneers had time to mount a comeback. A Yepremian field goal from 26 yards out cut the lead to 14-13 with 10:38 left in the fourth quarter. The fun, however, was just about to begin.

On their next drive, Williams connected with rookie wide receiver Kevin House on a 61-yard completion to the Bears 16, but House got careless with the ball and cornerback Terry Schmidt forced a fumble. The ball then bounced down to the 4-yard line where it was recovered by Doug Plank to kill the drive.

After forcing a Chicago punt, the Bucs had another golden opportunity when Williams connected with Giles across the middle inside the Bears 20. Turning to run towards the end zone, however, Giles fumbled after a big hit by rookie linebacker Otis Wilson. Again, the Bears recovered inside their own 5 to end a potential Buccaneer scoring drive.

Tampa Bay forced another Bears punt and had one final chance to win the game, driving down to the Chicago 15. From there, Yepremian would attempt a 32-yard field goal, surely an automatic kick for one of the most accurate kickers in the NFL.

Instead, the kick never had a chance due to a high snap by George Yarno. Holder Tom Blanchard got the ball down, but Chicago's Al Harris - a 6'5" Monster of the Midway -- got his hands up and blocked the potential game-winning kick to preserve the 14-13 lead for the Bears.

The Buccaneers battled and put up a better fight than during their Monday night meltdown in Chicago, but the missed opportunities and turnovers epitomized their wasted season.
McKay, for one, could not understand how his team could be completely undone by the late fumbles.

"It is absolutely ridiculous," he said. "In professional football, when you are paid the money they are paid here, you should not drop the football. It's disgusting, ridiculous, and has no part in the game."

In short, a fitting end to the one of the most disappointing seasons in team history.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sun Dome Finally Opens, 12/2/80

Last week, the University of South Florida marked the 40th anniversary of the first intercollegiate men’s basketball game in school history. When the basketball program began in 1970, however, it had yet to find a suitable place to call home. At the time, the only venue on campus to watch basketball was a 1,500-seat gym more suitable for pick-up games and intramural competitions than spectator sports.

In the beginning, the Golden Brahmans -- as the Bulls were known in those days -- played against community college and freshman teams. The team called Curtis Hixon Hall, located on Ashley Drive and some 10 miles south of the school's campus, its temporary home. During the first decade of the program, USF would also host "home" games at the Ft. Homer Hesterly Armory, the Civic Center in Lakeland and the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg. This would change once and for all with the construction of a multipurpose arena located on the southeast corner of the school's campus.

In 1977, the Florida Board of Regents agreed to approve funding for the 10,000-seat facility that would serve as home for USF's basketball programs. Ground-breaking for the $7 million arena took place late in 1977, with a targeted opening date of fall 1979.

Not all was perfect with the Sun Dome – as it eventually would be named -- as construction problems and cost overruns delayed the project. By March 1980, the roof had been completely installed, but the building remained a work in progress.

With the third floor still under repair, a capacity of 6,000 fans per game would initially be allowed into a building designed to hold 10,000. The show had no choice but to go on, however, as the Sun Dome would be open for business, ready or not.

Although the Bulls officially opened the Sun Dome against the Florida A&M Rattlers on November 29 – a 65-63 defeat in front of 5,213 fans – the official dedication of the new building would not come until December 2 in a nationally-televised game on ESPN against the Duke Blue Devils.

The Blue Devils were led by Mike Krzyzewski, in his first season at Duke after serving as head coach at Army from 1975-1980. The Bulls had a new coach as well, with Lee Rose coming to USF from Purdue where he compiled a 50-18 record in two seasons. Rose had a proven record of success, having taken two different schools (Purdue and UNC-Charlotte) to the Final Four in a five-year span.

Rose would have his work cut out for him in trying to prepare his Bulls for the heavily-favored Blue Devils. With the national spotlight on their team and new building, the Bulls could be forgiven if they suffered a bit of stage fright, which is exactly what happened.

Before they knew what hit them, the USF-record crowd of 6,030 found the home team down 21-6 after Duke went on a 19-point run in a span of about five minutes. The Bulls clawed their way back into the game, however, with a spurt of their own.

Contributions from Tony Grier, Willie Redden and Rob Rutledge helped bring USF within two points of Duke, 28-26, with 2:55 left in the half. After trailing by 19 early, the Bulls were fortunate to only be down by seven points at the half 39-32.

Duke refused to let up in the second half, shooting 71% from the field. Despite USF’s best efforts, they simply could not match Duke basket- for-basket.

Despite having outscored the Blue Devils 66-62 after trailing 19-6, USF fell to Duke 83-72. The Bulls fought hard against a college powerhouse and showed plenty of promise for the season ahead, though the outcome hardly mattered in the grand scheme of things.

“It was great to finally get a place to call home,” says former USF play-by-play announcer Jack Harris. “Opening the Sun Dome was a tremendous step forward for the basketball program.”

Monday, December 6, 2010

Birth of a Basketball Program, 12/4/70

On June 12, 1969, the University of South Florida announced that the school would begin playing intercollegiate men's basketball beginning with the 1970-71 season. This week, the university celebrates the 40th anniversary of the first game in school history.

Although today the school is a proud member of the Big East conference, USF did not jump into the deep end of college basketball right away. Instead, the school would begin by fielding only a freshman team. Games against junior colleges and other freshman teams would have to come before they could reasonably take on similar-sized universities.

It was, of course, an extraordinary effort to make it to that point. The university president, John S. Allen, made himself perfectly clear on his lack of enthusiasm for intercollegiate sports, once vowing that USF would never field a football team. Other administrators and even faculty members voiced their concerns about having an intercollegiate sports program.

Frank Winkles, a member of the student senate who worked tirelessly to bring basketball to USF, recalls that Allen thought sports would compromise his grand vision for USF.

"Allen wanted to have what he called a 'scholastic' university," Winkles says. "There weren't going to be intercollegiate sports, especially football and basketball. He was very much opposed to them."

When the State Board of Regents put their seal of approval on the basketball program in July, the countdown to tip-off could officially begin. This meant finding a head coach to put together a program and start recruiting players.

Dick Bowers, the head of the school's physical education department, hired Don Williams from Milliken University in Illinois to lead the program.

Williams, who had coached basketball at Hillsborough High from 1953 to 1962, set his sights high right from the start.

"This is a major college and it is the aim of every coach to take his team and his school to the top, and no where short of it," he said. "We will go just as far as the philosophy of this school will allow us."

Williams brought in Hillsborough High head coach Bob Shriver to be his top assistant, reuniting the duo who had worked together during Williams’ tenure with the Terriers.

While Williams and Shriver worked hard to build a team together, USF experienced a change at the top when, on July 4, 1970, John Allen resigned as president. When Dr. Harris Dean took over as the acting-president, it became clear that the man who fought for so many years to stifle intercollegiate sports at USF would not be around to see the first basketball game in school history.

The big day came on December 4 against the freshman team from the University of Florida. Without an on-campus facility large enough to host a game, the Bulls were forced to seek refuge in downtown Tampa at the Curtis Hixon Convention Center. University officials were hopeful for a crowd around 2,000-3,000. Instead, they got 4,500.

Dean and Winkles were both on-hand for the historic game and took part in a ceremonial tip-off at center court prior to the game.

On their opening possession, John Kiser scored the first basket in USF history -- a free throw -- to give the Brahmans a 1-0 lead. Tommy Davis hit the first field goal a few minutes later on a jump shot. With the scored notched at 7-7, Lear put USF ahead with his second basket and the Brahmans wouldn't relinquish the lead again.

USF took the lead into the half and the Brahmans were ahead by ten points, 43-33. Although they were outscored 45-42 in the second half, USF held on for an 85-78 victory.

Bill Lear, the Indiana native and first player to sign a scholarship with USF, led all scorers with 21 points, while Kiser dominated underneath with 17 rebounds.

The following week, Williams received a letter from Dean congratulating his team on the victory.

"Not only were you magnificent as a team," Dean wrote, "but the whole affair seemed to represent a new dedication to accomplishment at USF."

These were baby steps for the burgeoning university, and although the game was not officially recognized by the NCAA nor acknowledged in the USF record books, nobody can ever take away the moment 40 years ago when USF basketball went from dream to reality.