Friday, August 24, 2012

Why Do They Call It That: Tampa Bay Bandits

Here is a link to the WTSP-Channel 10 feature "Why Do They Call It That?" on the Tampa Bay Bandits. I offer my own two cents throughout the segment.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Bulls and Spartans Meet on Hardwood, 2/24/86

Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the first-ever meeting between the University of Tampa and University of South Florida’s men’s basketball teams. Although their campuses are just a little over 10 miles apart, athletically the gap is much larger.

As members of the Big East Conference, the USF Bulls typically play other large NCAA Division I schools in every sport. The UT Spartans, as members of the NCAA Division II Sunshine State Conference, generally play other similarly-sized schools, while occasionally meeting up with Division I competition in certain sports. These contests – however rare -- are beneficial to programs like the Spartans, who can use them as measuring sticks against better competition.

There is less incentive, however, for the Bulls, or other schools from large conferences, to seek out contests against Division II competition. Athletic directors and coaches alike feel there is nothing to be gained, but everything to be lost. It is not unusual, for example, for the top Division II teams to be better than some lower-level Division I teams.

One need only look at USF’s reluctance to make the University of Central Florida an annual match-up on the football field to realize the level of paranoia that goes into scheduling opponents. UCF is a Division I, Conference-USA team, yet they are viewed as a smaller-conference foe. The risk-reward of playing the Knights on an annual basis just does not add up for the decision makers at USF, no matter how exciting such games would be for the fan bases of both schools.

On September 30, 1985, USF and UT both agreed that their two schools would meet on the hardwood for the first time during the upcoming season. The game became a possibility when Ohio State dropped USF from their schedule, creating an open date at the SunDome. The teams previously had no plans of playing each other, but with the chance to create some buzz for basketball in Tampa, administrators from both schools agreed to make it happen on February 24, 1986.

For the Spartans, this game presented an excellent opportunity to showcase their basketball program. The sport had made a comeback at UT in 1983 after being dormant since the end of the 1971 season. The Spartans were immediately competitive, going 20-11 in their first season back on the courts, and then went 23-8 and won the Sunshine State Conference during the 1984-85 campaign.

The Spartans played their share of Division I competition each year, matching up against teams such as Purdue, Florida State, Tulane, Iowa, Oregon and Kansas State. The Spartans beat the Oregon Ducks during the Far West Classic in Tampa, and fell to Kansas State by just one point in an overtime loss. Clearly, the Spartans were no punching bag.

USF head coach Lee Rose knew this, which may have in part explained his lack of enthusiasm for the game.

“He felt there was everything to lose, and nothing to gain,” explains Mick Elliott, who covered the game for the Tampa Tribune. “He also felt it was an insult to his program to have to schedule a Division II, cross-town rival.”

While the Spartans were 21-5 and on a roll heading into the contest, the Bulls were 13-13 and in need of a victory to guarantee at least a .500 season.

The 1985-86 campaign for USF – which would be Rose’s last in Tampa – proved utterly disappointing for a team that had earned three NIT appearances between 1980 and 1985. Rose had a commendable 105-68 mark over his six seasons at USF, but the program just could not get over the hump. Now, the Bulls had to play one of the top teams in Division II basketball in an emotional, special-event atmosphere where anything could happen. To lose on their home court would simply be the final insult.

On paper, the Bulls fielded a taller, heavier, deeper, and stronger team than the Spartans. In order to avoid an upset, the Bulls would have to play with a sense of urgency and match the motivation that the Spartans would bring to the game.

In the end, the game proved to be a mismatch. In front of a season-high crowd of 5,507 at the SunDome, the Bulls applied early defensive pressure and created 11 first half turnovers.

“They came out with a lot of emotion,” USF guard Tommy Tonelli said, “but we forced them into turnovers and made out defense work for us.”

Nerves clearly got the better of the Spartans in the early going. Either rattled by the crowd, the stakes of the game, or just a tenacious South Florida defense, the Spartans were out of their comfort zone from the opening tip-off.

“South Florida did what all Division I schools do to us by coming out with a lot of defensive pressure, and we did what we always do which is rush things and make mistakes,” said UT head coach Richard Schmidt.

After the Spartans scored the first points of the game on a free throw, USF soon jumped out a 19-5 advantage with 12:32 left in the first half and never looked back, taking a 40-24 lead into halftime.

The Spartans made a game of it in the second half, eventually narrowing the USF lead to eight points, but were unable to overcome the Bulls, losing 69-57.

“Every time we play a Division I team,” Schmidt said, “it usually takes us 10 to 15 minutes to get used to it. Once we got over that, I think we probably outplayed them, or at least played as well as they did.”

This would not be the last time these teams crossed paths. The all-around success of the first meeting prompted the two schools to schedule more games in the future.

“There was some real sizzle to it,” Elliott recalls. “The Tribune promoted the heck out of the game, and it was probably the best atmosphere that season for a USF home game.”

In their next meeting on December 3, 1986, the Bulls – led by first-year coach Bobby Paschal – were throttled by the Spartans 82-75 in a game that was never as close as the final score indicated. The Spartans led by 18 at halftime, and by as many as 20 in the second half, proving that they were not just a good Division II team, but a very good basketball team.

“The Spartans owned that game,” Elliott says. “They absolutely embarrassed South Florida. It was humbling for the Bulls, and especially for Paschal right out of the gate.”

The two schools played again two more times – the last coming in 1989 – with each team winning once to leave the all-time series at 2-2.

From all indications, this is one record that will stand the test of time. Even though Elliott says that college basketball in this area benefited from this brief rivalry, he would caution against fans of either team hoping for a fifth game to break the tie.

“I’ll go out on a limb,” he says, “and predict that they’ll never play again.”

Monday, January 24, 2011

Catching Up With Larry Hirsch

Larry Hirsch, whose voice is familiar to anyone who followed the Lightning in the 1990s, handled radio broadcast duties for the team from 1993-1999. His signature "Yes, sir!" calls for goals captured the imagination of Lightning fans during the team's playoff run during the 1995-96 season. Hirsch recently took some time to reflect on his years with the club and set the record straight on the circumstances of his dismissal from the Lightning.

Q. One of the reasons Lighting fans connected with you was because of your enthusiasm, particularly in your description of fights. Can you talk about why those calls became so memorable?

A. The fighting element has always been part of the game of hockey. Where some people frown upon that, I've never looked at fighting in the game as something that was bad. I thought it was something that was part of the game because of the way it is played.

I'll give you a great example with the Lightning. The Lightning had a player by the name of Rudy Poeschek. Rudy was their first folk hero. He was a tough guy, but he was a great guy, too. Rudy took it upon himself to stand up for his teammates. He would take on all comers, and he won most, if not all of his fights.

Well, his fights became -- and I guess my calls of his fights became so popular -- that his agent called me up one day and asked if I could send him a montage of his fights. No problem. The great ending to that story is the three of us met after an exhibition game after I had sent him the tapes. I looked at Rudy and said, "Well Rudy, I guess I made you popular, huh?" He looked at me and said, "No, Larry, I think it worked the other way!"

I think what really turned it here was a fight one night in 1993 against the Florida Panthers. Rudy was involved in that against a guy named Paul Laus. I did my best Howard Cosell, "And down goes Laus!" People loved it.

The calls of the fights were always part of a promise that I made to the fans before every game that I'm going to put you in Row A, Seat 1, just like you were there. The wonderful thing about radio is that you can't see what's going on, but you can visualize it if it is laid out that way for you. I tried to let you know everything that was going on, so that when two guys squared off, I'd say, "The gloves are off, Poeschek is on your left, Laus is on your right," and everything that happened, I would just tell you like you were there.

Q. The 1996 playoffs were really when your calls started to take on a life of their own. Talk about what made that series so memorable.

A. What made that series so intense was that the Philadelphia Flyers were one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup, or to at least come out of the East. The Lightning turned things around after getting clobbered in Game 1, 7-3. In Game 2, the Lightning beat the Flyers 2-1 in sudden death. They scored a goal late in the game, and actually, that was the game Darren Puppa hurt his back. The Flyers had a power play early in overtime, and Puppa just stood on his ear. There were scrambles, you know the way the Flyers would go to the net to upset the goaltender, pound him and so forth. I think that's where Darren suffered his eventual debilitating back injury. Well, the Lightning were able to survive the power play, and then Brian Bellows went up the ice and scored the winner. That shocked everybody. The Flyers were more or less expected to sweep the Lightning.

Q. Talk about the role your wife played in making predictions during that series. That started in Game 2, right?

A. Well, my wife would call me to ask if I was doing alright. She'd say, "Larry, you're just going crazy tonight, are you okay?" This was before overtime started, and she said "Don't worry about it, I have a really strong feeling the Lightning are going to win this game." So, sure enough they win the game. We go back to the ThunderDome for the next one. If you remember that game, the Lightning were down a couple of goals in the 3rd period. Rob Zamuner got one, and then with a few minutes left the Lightning were pressing, and Brian Bellows got one in off a rebound to tie things up with under two minutes left. The crowd's going bananas, I'm going bananas, the "Chief" Bobby Taylor is going bananas. I mean, I'm really huffing and puffing. There's like 200 pounds of adrenaline going through my body.

During the overtime break, "Chief" is doing an interview and I go to sit down. I'm sweating, I'm breathing hard, drinking some water, and my wife sees me and asks if I'm alright. I say, "Yeah, I'm just trying to calm down here." She says, "Larry, just between you and me I've got that strange feeling again." I looked at her and said, "No, Susan, let's just quit while we're ahead here."

She said, "No, Larry I'm telling you right now the Lightning are winning this game. Not only that, but Selivanov is scoring the goal."

I get back on the air, and I related the story to "Chief." I said that she told me the other night when I spoke to her before overtime that the Lightning were going to win the game. So I said to him, "Chief, she's part Gypsy, so I have to listen to her. Not only did she say the Lightning are going to win, she even gave me the goal scorer: Alex Selivanov."

Well the "Chief" says, "Larry, if that comes true you ought to take her to Vegas."

Sure enough, overtime begins, and Bill Houlder -- I'll never forget it -- he held the puck above the right circle, he let a shot go, there was a save, and there's Alexander Selivanov. He just ripped the rebound in and I went nuts. "Yes sir, yes sir, yes sir! Selivanov, Selivanov!" Then I ended the call by saying, "I'm taking my wife to Vegas!" We replayed the scenario after the game, after everything had calmed down, and the press here picked up on it. News stations literally came down to our house, but they didn't want to interview me, they wanted to interview my wife! The wanted lottery numbers, whatever. I'll tell you, here is the great ending to that story.

Everyone wanted to know what was going to happen in the next game. So I said, "Susan, we've played this out. Let's not do this anymore, let's quit while we're ahead. No predictions, no nothing, we'll just keep it amongst ourselves."

She said that she had a feeling, and what she would do is write a player's name on a piece of paper, put it in a bag, and place it inside my jacket pocket for that game. Anyway, the next game was a bummer, the Lightning lost, it was terrible. The Lightning scored only one goal in that game, a 4-1 loss. The next morning at home, I'm cleaning out the jacket I had worn the night before and I took out the bag. I opened up the piece of paper, and I like I said the Lightning only scored one goal that night. The goal scorer was Petr Klima. The name on the paper? Peter Klima. I've sort of been marching two steps behind my wife ever since.

Q. So did you eventually take your wife to Las Vegas?

A. Yes, and we won!

Q. How far do you think that Lightning team could have gone if Puppa hadn't gotten hurt?

A. I agree with Phil Esposito, who said that it would have gone to seven games. In a seventh game, you never know. The way Puppa was playing, when you have a hot goaltender, you can go a long way. Even though he got whacked in that first game, the way he played in Game 2 was just incredible. Absolutely incredible. I think if he would have remained in net, the series would have gone to seven games. I think the Lightning had a great chance of advancing with a healthy Darren Puppa.

Q. To what do you attribute the drop-off that followed in the next few seasons?

A. What you can say in general is that the team entered a period of instability and unrest. Number one, the Japanese owners wanted to sell the team and were actively pursuing a buyer. Number two, Terry Crisp was fired. Instability. When Crisp left, here comes Jacques Demers and a whole new scenario. It took time for Demers to do what he wanted to do, and that's when they got Vinny Lecavalier, and then Art Williams came along and called him the "Michael Jordan of hockey."

Art didn't know anything about hockey, the guy who was the team president (Billy McGehee) didn't know anything about hockey, it became a very, very tough situation. There was such instability. There were new players coming in and out, and when Art came in, that first year was horrendous. Absolutely, positively horrendous. It was a combination of those perfect storms unfortunately that led to the downfall of those years.

Q. The stories about Art Williams are legendary, but could you have ever imagined that his season as owner would be so disruptive?

A. The problem with Art was that he wanted to be part of the process, sort of hands-on, but he had a guy at president whose experience running clubs basically came down to his experience in Arena Football and didn't know anything about hockey. We sort of had to sit on the side here, and that was the time when they fired me. McGee said he wanted to renew my contract, and the next thing I know, he calls me up after speaking to my lawyer and says they're not re-hiring me. This was before the 1998-99 season started, and literally, the town of Tampa saved my job. It was four days of hell. I never went to sleep, I was left out in the cold. I had a family to support, everything like that. Fortunately,after talking to a number of people in the community during that time, Art listened and we had a meeting. Not only did he bring me back, he gave me a big raise, and knew that I would be an integral part of the organization in terms of what I had to do. But really, when Art came in and bought the club from the Japanese, that's when the real trouble there started for me.

Q. What was the turning point during Art Williams' tenure as owner of the Lightning where you began to wonder about your place in the organization?

A. During that year, there was a thing that happened with me. The Lightning were on a losing-streak, had lost 11 of 14 games. It was depressing. There were rumors about Art becoming disenchanted and so forth. We went to play a game up in Washington. Billy McGehee was with us for that trip and he ended up in my broadcast booth that night. The Lightning scored the first goal in that game. The Capitals scored eight goals in the second period and won 10-1. If it wasn't the low, it was one of the lowest times of that year. I went back to my hotel room and I said to myself, "We've got to do something here." I went to bed, and then I woke up very early in the morning with a great idea.

We would be playing Philadelphia in a couple of weeks. I went to Billy McGehee and told him I had an idea. The season was really bad, I said, we're not getting any better, we have a lot of injuries, it was just horrible, and morale around the office was terrible. Why don't we take the next two weeks, I told him, and use the next several games as a lead up to the game against Philadelphia at the Ice Palace. Let's recreate that playoff feeling, and have one game where we can sell out the place. Really build up the Flyer game, and for once, show Art what this thing can be.

Billy said, "Terrific, Larry. That's a great idea. We're having a staff meeting when we get back. Why don't you present this?"

I told him, "Wait a minute. Hold on, Billy. I'm giving you the idea. You're the public relations guy. You come up with all these great ideas. You do it. You're the team president, you delegate it. I'll help you in any way I possibly can radio-wise, promotion-wise and everything like that."

He said, "No, Larry. You do it. I can't do it with the enthusiasm you do."

I said, "Billy, I'd rather not do it because I'm just the radio guy."

The last thing he said was "don't worry about it." Reluctantly, I agreed. I walked into that meeting. Billy sees me in the back of the room and introduces me. I go up and I made a terrible mistake. I said, "Look. Times are tough here, the team is struggling, and we're having a hard time selling tickets. It's kind of like having four flat tires stuck in the mud. We're not going anywhere."

Then I started to talk about the Flyer game. Jacques Demers became very distressed, very upset. The entire coaching staff was there and then they walked out. From there, the whole meeting blew up. It was then that I realized maybe Billy was making me the scapegoat here. I went up to Billy later that day and handed him my resignation. I told him, "This is the last time you're going to **** with me. You're not going to do this to me. I'm insulted, I feel bad, and I really tried to do something here to bring light to a very bad season here. I hear Art may be selling the club, and what did you do? You made a fool out of me."

The players, the coaches would not talk to me because the coaches were so-called "insulted." I could not do any interviews with players. All of a sudden I went from being a really nice guy that you'd go up to and laugh with to being the Devil. I felt really bad. I went on the air to apologize. Not that anybody told me to, but I did it because it came out in the papers. It was horrible.

To make a long story short, they sold out that Flyer game because they did what I told them. They sold it out and the Lightning won that night. It was an unbelievable night, as if the 1996 playoffs were being recreated. The Lightning had a horrible team. The Flyers should have killed them. I went nuts that night on the radio, and after the game, the players heard some of it. I went down to the locker room, the goalkeeper for the Lightning, Corey Schwab, calls me over. He says to me, "Larry, I heard what happened. There was nothing between the players and you. We were told by management, blah, blah blah. I know you went through a tough time." What do you think he did?

Q. He gave you the puck?

A. He gave me the game puck. That's exactly right. He couldn't have done anything better. It's one of the greatest stories of my times here and I'll never forget it. I still have the puck, which he signed. Schwaby played a great game that night. It became worth it all. It was their way of saying thank you for trying to create a night where they could shine during a terrible season.

Q. What was Jacques' objection to it?

A. I never really knew, but Jacques was a very emotional guy. This hurt me because I knew Jacques when he was coaching the Indianapolis Racers of the old World Hockey Association. When he came to Tampa, I was telling everybody what kind of a person he was: very enthusiastic, a great guy to talk to, a motivator.

When that happened, I kind of believe -- I want to believe -- that when Art Williams brought me back after Billy McGehee tried to fire me, that it embarrassed him. I told Art during our meeting that I'm not trying to embarrass Billy. But Billy said some unkind things about me, and I always believed that the meeting was a set up for me. I think it was Billy's chance to get back at me for that particular embarrassment. Now, I can't prove that. But if you look at Jacques, he felt that the four flat tires comment was an insult to his hockey team. It wasn't. It was my analysis of the situation. We're stuck in the mud here and we gotta get out. Jacques took that as an insult. Rick Paterson was one of the coaches, and I'd know him for a long time, and he wouldn't talk to me. I couldn't understand it. It went from being one of the worst times to one of the best things that ever happened to me here because of that puck and what Schwaby and the players did that night. The players liked me. How could they not like me? I had their back all the time. But, if you think that episode was bad, what happened with Palace Sports and Entertainment made that look like a day in the country.

Q. What happened when they took over?

A. This is exactly what happened. You're hearing it from the horse's mouth. Palace Sports and Entertainment buys the team from Art Williams in 1999. I only had a one-year contract at the time. I signed my first multi-year contract when the Lightning brought me down here because I wanted it for my family. I talked to Art about doing another multi-year contract. He said to me, "Larry, let's wait until this thing settles down. I'm going to have this team for at least three years. Let me settle things down and we'll do a multi-year next year." I always take a man for his word, and after coming off of those terrible four days at the beginning, I was just happy to have my job. Well, p.s., he sells the team! At the time of the Flyer game, the rumors had come out that he was selling the Lightning. I wanted him to see for one night how great this thing can be, because he really did like having the team.

So he sells the team to Palace Sports & Entertainment. They come in here and have a press conference announcing their intention to buy the club. Bill Davidson and Tom Wilson. The one thing I noticed in Tom Wilson's bio when I read it was that he had a career as a B-actor. There's nothing more lethal than having the president of a sports organization who is a B-actor, because on one-hand he could talk very gracefully, and on the other hand he could B.S. you to death.

So they have the press conference, but it took quite a few months to finalize that deal. Now I had a new owner to deal with. All that Art told me went down the drain. There were three clubs in the NHL that were interested in my services. I told them I was under contract with the Lightning until August. Legally I couldn't do anything, but we had new management so I was going to find out very quickly their intentions.

I called up Ron Campbell and we set up a meeting. He said we're putting the finishing touches on everything and when we're done we'll get back in touch. Two weeks go by and I hadn't heard anything. I'm getting nervous. This is in June, and I've got three teams after me.
On Sunday June 20, I get a call from the Vice President of Sales & Marketing, a man who is now the president of the Florida Panthers: Michael Yormark. This was on Father's Day. Yormark says to me, "Congratulations Larry, I'm sorry it took this long. We're going to bring you in for orientation. Everything is fine. Ron told me to give you a call." So great. With that, on Monday I called the other teams to tell them I'd be staying with the Lightning.

Two weeks later, I hear about a season-ticket holders meeting at the Ice Palace with the new management. I did not know about this. That's when I said, "Uh-oh." Rick Peckham knew about it, Bobby Taylor knew about, but I didn't know about it. Are you kidding me? So I went that night with my wife. There's about 7,000 people there. After Tom Wilson gives his b.s. speech, there's a question-and-answer session. The second question was, "Is Larry Hirsch coming back?" In front of thousands of people, Tom Wilson said, "You want him back, of course we're bringing him back." Then everybody cheered.

A few days later they introduced Steve Ludzik as head coach, and after that they told that I was not being retained, that they'd be bringing in their own broadcaster from Detroit. That turned into a very contentious 10-days between me and PS&E. I wanted to hold my own press conference to explain why I wasn't coming back. They used Steve Duemig as a poison dart on me. It was terrible.

I couldn't sue them, because my contract was up. But the one thing that this very ruthless organization didn't want was bad publicity. What they ended up doing was giving me compensation, but I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement. The compensation wasn't what I wanted, but I had to have it for my family. Then that was it.

It hurts, but I still live here in Tampa. I still have my home here. A lot of that is due to the testimonial of the people here and the way they've treated me. People still come up to me and say "we miss you." I just want to say that I genuinely and humbly thank all the fans here for how they have treated me and my family, and continue to do so. That's why we are proud members of this community, and why we'll never forget them.