The year was 1969.
Richard Nixon was president. Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. The Concorde made its first test flight. “The Godfather” and “The Peter Principle” topped the best seller lists. “Midnight Cowboy” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” were box office hits. The Woodstock Music and Art Fair happened. The Mets won the World Series.
And the National Football League came to Tampa.
Actually, that August the Washington Redskins and the Atlanta Falcons played an uninspired exhibition game at 2-year-old Tampa Stadium. The capacity crowd of some 42,000 cared less about the caliber of play than about the reality that was unfolding. The NFL had anointed Tampa — even if the game didn’t count in the standings. Never was such a meaningless pre-season game so momentous to a community.
The import of the moment wasn’t lost on a cadre of key Tampans — including Mayor Dick Greco, promoter Bill Marcum, attorney Ed Rood and businessmen Chuck Smith and Leonard Levy. And especially Tom McEwen, the Tampa Tribune’s well connected, activist sports editor. It was McEwen, now retired, who had been instrumental in pushing for Tampa Stadium, without which there would have been no NFL interest of any kind.
To this day, McEwen is recognized for his uniquely invaluable yet controversial role in pushing Tampa’s NFL envelope. It comes with the oxymoronic territory of journalist-lobbyist. McEwen readily acknowledges the duality of his roles and the ethical fallout and once noted: “What I do, I do in good faith for both the paper and the community.” What isn’t up for debate was his catalytic role as a behind-the-scenes expediter and effective opinion-shaper in print and in public speaking.
In the aftermath of that seminal Redskins-Falcons game, McEwen was contacted by Rood. This would directly lead to the formation of the West Coast Pro Football Association, a private group with the avowed purpose of pursuing an expansion NFL franchise for Tampa. The die was cast; a strategy formulated. The campaign was on.
The WCPFA was further encouraged by the NFL’s increasing interest in expansion after the 1970 merger between the NFL and its erstwhile rival, the American Football League. Adding more franchises was one way to defuse bothersome anti-trust issues.
Carrol Rosenbloom, the owner of the Baltimore Colts, and Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, pushed the hardest. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Dan Rooney, son of owner Art Rooney, would eventually chair a formal expansion committee. Those three became influential, insider friends of the Tampa group.
The WCPFA wanted to reinforce this market’s track record of support with more exhibition games at Tampa Stadium. That meant serious networking among owners and league officials. It even meant “bluffing our way” on occasion, admitted McEwen. The WCPFA was on NFL schmooze control. Its main competition: Seattle, Memphis, Phoenix and, for a while, Honolulu.
“Fortunately, we’ve always had good sales people around here,” recently understated Greco.
The year was 1972.
Nixon was re-elected. “The French Connection” won “Best Picture” Oscar. Bobby Fisher routed Boris Spassky for the world chess title. The Dow-Jones Index closed above 1,000 for the first time.
And the Baltimore Colts came to town.
The WCPFA, led by Rood and Marcum, was able to take advantage of a controversy brewing in Baltimore over pre-season games included in season-ticket packages. The group guaranteed the sale of 26,000 three-game packages. Led by Greco and Marcum, who personally hawked tickets at the downtown University Club, the group easily exceeded 26,000.
That impressed Colts’ owner Rosenbloom enough to take his exhibition show on the road — and even intimate that it could be permanent. Doubtless it was classic leverage, but it did prompt lots of “Don’t Tamper With Our Colts!” bumper stickers. It also resulted in an important ally for Tampa.
So taken aback with the reception and support accorded the Colts, Rosenbloom stated that “Another city will get an expansion team first over my dead body.” Ironically, Rosenbloom swapped the Colts for the Los Angeles Rams while in Tampa. His allegiance, however, never wavered.
The year was 1974.
Watergate and impeachment. Debut of “streaking.” “The Sting” named “Best Picture.” Muhammad Ali “rope-a-doped” George Foreman in Zaire. Hank Aaron outhomered Babe Ruth.
And Tampa was awarded an NFL expansion franchise.
A Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce task force, chaired by Levy, was by now the official expansion emissary of the city. “We just went to work,” said Levy. “Did a lot of politicking. And, yes, we had our share of local naysayers. Didn’t exactly have total establishment support. To some, this still looked like a reach for Tampa.”
With McEwen discreetly waiting in the wings, Levy, Greco, Chuck Smith, Tampa Sports Authority Executive Director Joe Zalupski and chamber official Earl Emmons formally pitched the expansion committee of staff people, Tampa-friendly owners and NFL Executive Director Jim Kensil.
“The NFL already had all the demographic data,” recalled Levy. “We talked about the stadium expansion (from 42,000 to 72,000), rental rates and training facilities. I also threw in our positive media. Kensil said, ‘I hope McEwen is part of your team.'”
The date was April 24. The time was 5:03 p.m. The site was New York’s Drake Hotel.
NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle strode to a podium and announced: “The NFL voted today to expand to one city. That’s going to be Tampa, Florida.” Shortly thereafter, Seattle, which had some stadium details to iron out, was also voted in. They were the league’s 27th and 28th franchises.
“You kind of hold your breath until you actually hear the words,” said Levy. The Tampa group, however, had been tipped off via a (Cleveland Browns owner) Art Modell-to-George Steinbrenner-to-Tom McEwen communication. The only sobering note in that evening’s celebration was Greco breaking the news that he would be stepping down to join the DeBartolo organization.
The NFL would subsequently award ownership to Philadelphia builder Tom McCloskey. When his financial wherewithal unraveled, the league granted the, by now, “Tampa Bay” franchise to Hugh Culverhouse, a Jacksonville tax attorney. Culverhouse previously had wanted in on bidding for the Rams, who were subsequently swapped for the Colts franchise. Culverhouse was not pleased and wasn’t subtle about possible legal recourse. He was initially offered Seattle. He wanted Tampa Bay. He got it. For $16 million — $4 million in cash.
The following year “Buccaneers” was chosen as the team nickname. Runnerup: “Sailors.” Later in ’75, the creamsicle color scheme was selected along with the wimpy “Bucco Bruce” logo.
The year was 1976.
America’s Bicentennial. Jimmy Carter elected 39th president. “Rocky” was the movie surprise of the year, while “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” swept all five major Oscar awards. Alex Haley’s “Roots” topped non-fiction lists.
And the Bucs, beginning with a 20-0 loss to the Houston Oilers, went 0-14 to kick off the Blunder Years. Fans found out, however, that a very bad team could still have a very funny coach, John McKay, and a future Hall of Famer, defensive end Lee Roy Selmon.
In year two, the “Go for O” notoriety finally ended at 26 with a 33-14 victory over the New Orleans Saints.
“You know, it helps a community to have an image as winners, but at that time — despite Johnny Carson’s jokes — it didn’t matter that much,” assessed Levy. “I think that brought the area a lot more visibility than had we won a few games.”
Two years later the Bucs, going farther faster than any other expansion team, advanced to the NFC championship game, where they lost, 9-0, to the Rams.
The years were 1980-2002.
Lots of losses. Lots of frustration. Lots of derision. Lots of empty seats. Lots of scenarios.
Eventually, Malcolm Glazer. Tony Dungy. Community Investment Tax. Raymond James Stadiu
m. Pewter power. An 11-6 loss to the Rams for the 1999 NFC Championship.
Then Jon Gruden.
The year is 2003.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in the Super Bowl. Tonight. Enjoy.