Bucs fans, I’m debuting a new column called Bucs Throwback Thursday where I take a stroll down memory lane and offer up my own personal insight and anecdotes on days gone by in Tampa Bay football history. Let me know what you think of the Bucs Throwback Thursday column in the article comments – and be sure to return next week for the latest edition.
Each week before offering up a new Bucs Throwback Thursday, I pay my respects to the late, great former sports editor of The Tampa Tribune, Tom McEwen, who often started his column “Breakfast Bonus” describing a large southern-style breakfast in detail before turning the column back to sports. I loved reading the menu – but loved reading his wit and wisdom even more. So here we go.
Over your breakfast of chilled grapefruit wedges sprinkled with a little sugar to calm the bitterness, three pancakes topped with butter and banana slices, two slices of toast, barely browned and covered in homemade strawberry jam made with fresh Wish Farm Plant City strawberries and a cup of black coffee with local palmetto honey for sweetener, here is this week’s Throwback Thursday column.
Last week in the debut of Throwback Thursday, I took a stroll down memory lane from the time I began watching the Buccaneers in 1977 up until Tony Dungy arrived. There were several bleak years during that period sprinkled with a handful of good times.
The bad certainly outweighed the good as most “76ers,” as Scott Reynolds likes to call the old-school fans, who started following the team at its inception in 1976, would agree. But the Bucs’ fortunes were about to change and culminate with something most of those “76ers” never believed would ever be possible – a world championship.
As a Seminoles fan I was conflicted in the winter of 1996 when I read that Tampa Bay’s new owner, Malcom Glazer, wanted to possibly bring in Florida’s Steve Spurrier to succeed Sam Wyche. There were also rumors former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson was being pursued. That was an easy choice in my mind. It had to be Johnson, a Super Bowl-winning coach with the Dallas Cowboys.
Well, both Spurrier and Johnson declined the job, and Glazer had to go back to the drawing board.
A few new names started popping up as potential candidates, the least interesting, in my mind at the time, was Vikings defensive coordinator Tony Dungy. To go from exciting coaches like Johnson, who won Super Bowls, and Spurrier, who won a college football national championship, to Dungy?
Let the snoring begin.
Yet Glazer and then general manager Rich McKay in fact did hire Dungy, the team’s third choice, on January 22, 1996.
Here we go again, several more years of mediocrity. At this point I actually thought to myself, maybe they can get Wyche back. There was little to no buzz with the Dungy hire that offseason.
Tampa Bay did re-sign Pro Bowl middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson and spent two first-round picks on Regan Upshaw and Marcus Jones, both decent players, but it was the next two draft picks that became a central part of the eventual turnaround for Tampa Bay. Fullback Mike Alstott was taken in the second round, followed by cornerback Donnie Abraham in the third round in the 1996 draft.
Both were key contributors right away. Alstott would finish his Bucs career as the team’s second all-time leading rusher (5,088 yards) and top touchdown producer (71). Alstott, a five-time Pro Bowler, would also score Tampa Bay’s first touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVII. Abraham made it to one Pro Bowl and finished his time in Tampa Bay as the Bucs’ all-time leading interceptor (31) until Ronde Barber eventually surpassed him.
That 1996 season started as bad anyone could have imagined. Five straight losses to open the season turned into losing seven of the team’s first eight games. The 1-8 Buccaneers were going nowhere – at least from the outside perspective. This was bad. Would Dungy even get a second year?
The Raiders came to town next and Al Davis and his track suit and sunglasses with the gold chains hung from his head inside the Tampa Stadium press box. At some point in the game Davis and I both ended up in the press box restroom at side-by-side urinals and of course following “man protocol,” I kept my eyes straight ahead. At some point, I glanced down and noticed my suede buck shoes had been sprinkled on.
There was only one culprit. But what do you say to a legendary, Hall of Fame NFL owner? I decided to keep my mouth shut. Thinking about it now, I wish I had kept those shoes. Who knows if there is some sort of sports DNA collector’s market out there.
Back to the Raiders game, Oakland kicker Cole Ford had a chance to win in at the end of regulation but shanked a 28-yard field goal left. I was standing underneath that goal post and couldn’t believe my eyes. Back then the media was allowed down on the field when there was eight minutes left in the fourth quarter. That isn’t the case these days, as rumor has it Bucs director of security Andres Trescastro has armed drones trained on the tunnels looking for any media who doesn’t have clearance and tries to sneak onto the field. Okay, that last part may not be true.
Eventually the Buccaneers got the win with a Michael Husted field goal and perhaps there was a glimmer of hope in this disastrous Bucs season.
That glimmer of hope turned into an explosion of rainbows the next week when Tampa Bay traveled to the West Coast – a place that hadn’t been kind to the Buccaneers in their history – to take on a very good San Diego Chargers team at Jack Murphy Stadium. Keep Jack Murphy in mind for later. A bit of foreshadowing.
Legend has it Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks were sitting in their hotel room watching some of the pregame shows and happened to be watching ESPN’s NFL Sunday Countdown with Chris Berman, who jokingly referred to the Buccaneers as the “Yucs.” Sapp and Brooks looked and each other and decided, it stops today. And it did. The Bucs, after falling behind early 14-0, came back and beat the Chargers, 25-17.
That game turned around not only a season, but a long stretch of futility. Tampa Bay finished the season 5-2 to close out the season with a 6-10 record. While it was one game less than they had won the previous year under Wyche, there was an excitement brewing in Tampa Bay. It really felt a lot like the 1978 Bucs that won just five games that year, but had the building blocks in place that catapulted the team to the playoffs in 1979.
The similarities between 1978 and 1996 continued the following year as the Bucs started the 1997 season off with five straight wins and won their division with a 10-6 record and making the playoffs. I was in the stadium for that playoff win in 1997 as the Bucs hosted the Detroit Lions in what was then called Houlihan’s Stadium. By the way, why name a stadium after after a restaurant chain that didn’t even have one in Tampa? I am 49 years and still have yet to ever come across a Houlihan’s. Zayre’s or Allied Discount Tire Stadium would have made more sense back then, honestly.
The Bucs’ resurgence led by Dungy was now in full effect, and six years later, the Buccaneers hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in San Diego – at Jack Murphy Stadium.
And while Dungy wasn’t standing on the sideline that Sunday evening in San Diego, the change in culture, the hiring of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, among a numbers of other things Dungy brought to the team certainly played into the Buccaneers winning their first NFL championship.
The blueprint was laid, the foundation was built and we all reaped the rewards of Dungy’s guidance. And thank goodness we never saw the “Ol’ Ball Coach” and his visor, or “Mr. Aqua Net” and his perfectly coifed hair roaming the sidelines for the Buccaneers or we might still be waiting on that first Super Bowl win.
Here is a great Buccaneers YouTube video for those who weren’t around in 1996 or didn’t follow the team back then. It’s a fun trip down memory lane.