It is an exciting time to be a Bucs fan.
An exciting brand of offense from head coach Dirk Koetter.
Dare I say a franchise quarterback in Jameis Winston?
A defense that was as good as any in the NFL for a stretch last year.
A new speedy receiver.
A 9-7 record last season, with more weapons on both sides of the ball for 2017.
A draft still to come.
While I am as optimistic about this year any season since I started covering the team full time for PewterReport.com in 2011, I still miss the old days. Not necessarily the 0-26 start. Or the Leeman Bennett, Ray Perkins, and Richard Williamson years.
But I do miss the “old head ball coach.”
John McKay was a part of my youth. And as I spend another day on this earth, one day close to leaving it, I, like many of you, start romanticizing the past.
We love nostalgia. Or at least I do. I was seven years old when I watched my first Bucs game with my Dad. The year was 1977 and this orange and white clad group of misfits went to New Orleans and won their first game.
Saints head coach Hank Stram got his pink slip the next day.
A week later the team won its second game in franchise history, and the first at Tampa Stadium.
The fans tore down the goal posts.
Cardinals coach Don Coryell got his walking papers following the game.
I was hooked.
In 1978 I saw the Buccaneers draft an African-American quarterback. It wasn’t nearly as popular as the Winston selection. Far from it. This was still the Deep South in the late ’70s, less than a generation after segregation.
McKay stood by his quarterback. Once even attempting to go into the stands to defend Doug Williams from a drunk fan’s racial slur following a Bucs’ loss.
And it paid off. A year later the Buccaneers were a playoff team, going 10-6 and came within 9-0 points of playing in the Super Bowl in 1979.
Tampa Bay ended up making the playoffs two more times, in 1981 and in 1982, but the Williams contract disaster doomed the Bucs, and McKay. Following his third playoff appearance in the previous four seasons, thrifty Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse allowed Williams to walk, and the Bucs’ first legitimate quarterback took his talent to the new USFL, then later back to the NFL, becoming the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl leading the Redskins to an NFL championship in 1987.
The Bucs, and McKay, were never the same until many years later. The loss of Williams began a 15-year stretch of playoff-less futility for Tampa Bay.
A 2-14 1983 season and a 6-10 1984 followup year helped McKay decide to retire as the Bucs head coach and he spent a short time as the team’s president. The next several years were spent on the golf course. Diabetes eventually caught up to the old ball coach and McKay passed away June 10, 2001 at age 77.
And with his passing, so did part of my youth.
Sundays praying my parents didn’t want to go out to dinner after church so I could get home and listen to the games on the radio, of if by chance they sold out their home game that week, watch it on TV.
The memory of that 1979 Saturday afternoon playoff game against the Eagles. We came to my grandmother’s house to watch the game because she had a color television and we didn’t.
As I type this I sit in the same living room that I watched that game 37 years ago.
Getting my homework and bath done early on Monday evenings so I could watch the John McKay Show with Randy Scott on Channel 44.
Backyard neighborhood football games where I was Williams when on offense, and Mark Cotney on defense.
My Bucs long-sleeved, footy pajamas with my terrycloth robe I got from Sears Town in Lakeland when I was 10 years old.
My very first Bucs home game in 1981 when the Bucs hosted the Broncos and lost 24-7.
I remember virtually every minute of that day.
The bus we took from Brandon to the stadium – $3 round trip.
The smell of the tailgate parties.
The aroma of the Tampa cigars from the fans in the stands.
The large Marlboro Man ad next to the scoreboard.
The Bucs lone score coming on a Cedric Brown interception return for a touchdown.
The fight song playing over the loudspeakers.
Spending the whole day with my dad.
I am not sure I stopped smiling the whole day.
I am smiling as I type this.
McKay and his once laughable Bucs went from being a nearly nightly joke on the Johnny Carson Show, to a team to be reckoned with. And through the thick and think, McKay’s dry, sarcastic humor keep beat reporters on their toes and at times in stitches with his memorable on-liners.
Some of my favorite quips from coach compiled by former Tampa Tribune sportswriter Joey Johnston:
On Bucs place-kicker Pete Rajecki, who said he became nervous when McKay watched him kick: “Please inform Mr. Rajecki that I plan to attend all games.”
Addressing his players after an uninspiring effort: “Anyone who needs a shower, take one.”
After another uninspiring effort: “We didn’t tackle well today. But we made up for it by not blocking.”
Asked where he stood on an upcoming game at Pittsburgh: “With Custer.”
After being told his teams didn’t play with emotion: “Emotion is overrated. My wife is very emotional. She can’t play worth a damn.”
While McKay finished his Bucs tenure with a nine-year record of 44-88-1, those who were around at the time know how important he was and what he was able to accomplish in a short time. Building an expansion team was much different in 1976 than it was for the last round of NFL expansion.
Fortunately the Glazer family recognized McKay’s accomplishments and his name adorns the wall of Raymond James Stadium as he was inducted in the Bucs Ring of Honor in 2010.
And now, as a credentialed media member covering the team for every home game during the season, when I sit in my assigned press box seat, I see the name McKay on the wall and my mind goes back in time.
A time of my youth.
A time of my early teenage years.
A time to a fall Sunday afternoon in 1981 with my Dad, where I was safe, and where everything in the world was right, at least for that one day.
And if I try really hard, I can see a white haired gentleman on the sideline, arms folded and wearing his famous signature bucket hat, patting his No. 12 jersey wearing quarterback on the back after a touchdown pass.
Tonight the old fight song still rings in my head.
B-U-C-C-A-N-E-E-R-S, GO BUCS! Hey, hey Tampa Bay, the Bucs know how to shine!
Thanks for the memories, Coach McKay.
And thanks for all you did to help build a football team to respectability and make Tampa proud.