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Football in Tampa Bay hasn't always been pretty

1/26/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
TAMPA, Fla. -- There obviously isn't an NFC South team in this Super Bowl, but the fact the game is being played in Tampa gives the division a strong connection to the game. The Buccaneers are the face of the NFL in Tampa Bay -- but it hasn't always been a pretty face.

Here's a look back at the early years of the Bucs:

In the very beginning -- out at that primitive facility alongside a Tampa International Airport runway with rodents scurrying the hallways -- the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a National Football League franchise in name only.

It was 1976 and what showed for the first practice at One Buccaneer Place wasn't pretty. The brand new team, which had joined the league with the Seattle Seahawks, had coach John McKay (who had jumped to NFL riches from the University of Southern California), first-round pick draft Lee Roy Selmon, and ... absolutely nothing else.

"The biggest cast of characters and misfits you've ever seen," jokes current Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, the son of John McKay.

Rich McKay was about to begin his senior year as a quarterback at nearby Tampa Jesuit High School and worked as a ball boy that first season. The high school kid had a résumé as good as some of the players who showed and was healthier than most of them.

Back in those days, the NFL's expansion rules just weren't very friendly. There was no free agency, a resource Carolina and Jacksonville used to build quickly when they joined the league in 1995. The expansion draft wasn't much help either. The Bucs and the Seahawks didn't even get the list of players available until 24 hours before the draft and couldn't bring players in for medical exams.

"Over 50 percent of the guys on the list couldn't even pass a physical," Rich McKay says. "I think if my dad had known what the expansion rules were and how everything was going to be stacked against the team, he probably would have stayed at USC. Seriously, it made no sense to give a city a franchise and then give them absolutely no chance for success."

There was nothing close to success at first, but there was plenty of laughter. The crusty coach McKay -- who won four national titles at USC -- could make things unpleasant, but his acerbic wit also was good for lots of laughs.

Take the time before the start of the Bucs' first season when one of the kickers vying for a roster spot said kicking in front of McKay made him nervous. The media relayed the comment to the coach, who responded with, "Tell him I'm planning to attend all the games this year."

With a cast that included quarterback Steve Spurrier, a former University of Florida star who clashed with McKay, and free spirits Dave Pear at defensive tackle and Richard "Batman" Wood at linebacker, the Bucs weren't dull. They just lacked talent.

That showed as they were shut out in their first two games and five times overall. The team finished 0-14, setting an NFL standard for futility not eclipsed until this past season by the 0-16 Detroit Lions.

"It was a very tough time for my dad and my family," admits Rich McKay. "But it might have been one of the best things to happen to us because we closed ranks and became closer."

With Spurrier gone and new quarterback Gary Huff handing off to rookie tailback Ricky Bell, things didn't get much better in 1977. The losing streak reached 26, and somewhere in that span McKay was asked what he thought about the execution of his team.

"I'm in favor of it," the coach answered very seriously.

Something strange took place late in 1977. On Dec. 11, the Bucs beat the Saints, 33-14, in New Orleans. More than 8,000 fans welcomed the team upon its return to town. A week later, the Buccaneers knocked off St. Louis to end the season with a two-game winning streak.

What happened next was the turning point for the franchise. In April 1978, the Bucs used their first draft pick on Grambling quarterback Doug Williams. Tall, confident, and blessed with a big right arm, Williams and a steadily improving defense made the Bucs respectable right away. They were 4-4 when Williams went down with a broken jaw. Williams had his jaw wired shut and lost 20 pounds; not surprisingly, the team began losing again, too.

In the days before a Dec. 17 game at New Orleans, one of the most fateful decisions in franchise history was made. Williams would come back to play. The wire was removed just before the game and dozens of rubber bands were inserted to hold his jaw in place.

Williams couldn't talk.

"I mumbled the plays in the huddle and grunted the signals at the line of scrimmage," Williams recalled.

The Bucs lost, 17-10, to finish 5-11, but something bigger was won that day.

"From a leadership standpoint, it gave the other guys on the team a belief in me," says Williams. "Now, they could say, 'We've got one tough sucker at quarterback. We've got a leader on offense.'"

That set the scene for a 1979 season that would turn the NFL world upside down and firmly let folks in Tampa reach out and embrace the team. The Bucs won their first five games -- one of those a 21-6 triumph over the six-time defending NFC West champion Los Angeles Rams. Three of the wins came on the road. For the first time ever, the Bucs were able to play football the way McKay wanted.

"We played aggressively on defense," says Williams. "On offense, we'd hand the ball to the tailback [Bell, who rushed for a career-high 1,263 yards] and take an occasional shot with a pass.

"Coach McKay had a little slogan at the end of his pregame speech, 'Just keep it close and Dougy will find a way to win it in the end.'"

More often than not, Williams did. On the other side of the ball, Selmon was a dominant force. He was piling up sacks that eventually made him the franchise's first Hall of Famer.

"Lee Roy might have been the nicest defensive lineman to ever play the game," insists Williams. "I've never seen a guy so humble and soft-spoken who played the game the way he played it. Watching Lee Roy defeat double teams all day -- he probably weighed about 245 pounds with a crescent wrench taped to him -- to see the power, the quickness, and the explosion in his body, you wonder how he did it."

There was plenty more. Tampa Bay fans today think of John Lynch as the standard a
t safety. But the early Bucs had a big hitter in Mark Cotney, and scouts and coaches from those days will tell you that Dewey Selmon, Lee Roy's older brother, was one of the most underrated linebackers ever. The Bucs' 1979 defense allowed just 237 points, fewest in the league.

In the locker room each day, Wood pulled out a boom box and played "Ain't No Stopping Us Now," and players truly believed there wasn't. They strolled through the schedule, building a 9-3 record, and it came down to needing one win in their final four games to earn the first playoff berth in franchise history.

They lost the first three. That set up a final game at home with Kansas City. It rained heavily and the only points scored came on a field goal -- by Tampa Bay. The Bucs were 10-6 and NFC Central Division champions.

"That turned out to be one of the greatest days ever for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers because we had come from 0-26 to the playoffs in two years," Williams says with pride.

In the divisional playoffs, the Bucs drew a home game against Philadelphia.

"We're in the playoffs, playing at home, and we're the underdogs," Williams says. "The Eagles [who reached the Super Bowl one year later] had Ron Jaworski, Harold Carmichael, Wilbert Montgomery, and the whole gang. We didn't have a prayer. [But] we found a way to pull that game off."

The defense came through, Bell ran for 142 yards and two touchdowns, and as McKay probably predicted, "Dougy found a way to win it in the end." Williams hit Jimmie Giles with a 9-yard touchdown pass that proved the difference in the Bucs' 24-17 victory.

"I've been fortunate enough to play in some big games, but when I look back, I always say my biggest game in Tampa was the Philadelphia game," Williams says. "It put us on the map at that particular time because nobody expected Tampa Bay to beat the Philadelphia Eagles."

All that remained between the Bucs and the Super Bowl was a game against the Rams. That's when the magic ran out. Los Angeles won, 9-0, on three Frank Corral field goals.

"Our defense played lights out," Williams says. "Giles scored a touchdown that was called back. We couldn't put ourselves into position to score and get to that next level. If we had made the Super Bowl, it would have been the greatest feat in football history."

Tampa Bay fans would have to wait until Jan. 26, 2003 -- Super Bowl XXXVII against the Raiders -- for that to happen.

After the NFC Championship Game loss to the Rams, there were two more good seasons. The Bucs went 10-6 and made the playoffs in 1981. In the strike-shortened 1982 season finale, Williams rallied the team to a win against Chicago that secured a playoff spot. Nobody knew it at the time, but Williams had just played his final home game in Tampa Bay. He lost his wife to a brain tumor that offseason and contract negotiations with then-owner Hugh Culverhouse turned ugly.

"It wasn't about Doug Williams," says Williams, who jumped to the rival United States Football League. "It should have been about the team. I don't think the people running the front office at that time understood the chemistry in the locker room."

Things quickly spiraled downward. The Bucs drafted two-sport phenom Bo Jackson in 1983, but he refused to play for the team. Williams eventually landed back in the NFL with the Redskins and led them to the Super Bowl XXI title. He later coached at Grambling, but in 2004 when the Bucs came calling for him to join their personnel department, he returned to the place he never wanted to leave.

"When the Glazers bought the team and [coach] Tony Dungy came here, it all became more important to me because I finally was made to feel like I was part of the history," says Williams, now the team's personnel executive. "There was a renewed spirit and pride of having been a Buccaneer. To come back and work here has made it that much sweeter."