Editor's Note: Page 2 contributor Pat Toomay played for the last team to go winless through an entire NFL season, the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As the Detroit Lions, who are now 1-13, approached the Bucs' infamous mark, we asked Pat to reflect on what it was like to go 0-14.
"Bucs Fever" was the slogan that whipped up enthusiasm in Tampa for the city's new pro football team. It was 1976, and plastered on billboards and on the sides of city buses, featured in radio and TV ads, the words were everywhere, exhorting fans to buy their tickets now or risk missing out on the action. The fans jumped at the opportunity. As spring became summer, ticket sales surged. Anticipation mounted. But then the season opened. The expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers were worse than anyone imagined.
Injuries were part of our problem. Talent, of course, was another part, but it was impossible to tell how untalented we were because everybody was already hurt. Ten weeks of two-a-days were the culprit. We continued to hit in practice as the season wore on. By the end of the year, 21 players were on injured reserve; 18 had knee surgery. Our sidelines looked like a Civil War infirmary.
Ten weeks of two-a-days! Slogging through endless scrimmages in the brutal South Florida heat, players' shoes would squish with sweat as they straggled off the fields to immerse themselves in vats full of ice set up in the showers. Hot-cold-hot. Sweat-shiver-sweat. It was like Chinese water torture. Shuddering from this torment, food was impossible to keep down. Close your eyes for a nap and the next practice was upon you in an instant. Leg-dead and bone-tired, we opened the season. Down we went.
On a good team, a defense is on the field from 30 to 50 plays a game. In Tampa, we couldn't quite stop anybody, so often we were out there for 90 plays or more. In effect, we played two seasons in one. Down we went, suffering injury after injury.
As I leaned into the huddle before the first play of our final game, I realized that only two players were there who had started the season -- myself and safety Ken Stone. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, we were both out of Vanderbilt, a small, private institution whose insistence on competing against the heavyweights of the SEC had given us plenty of practice in the art of surviving abuse. A truck driver was playing one tackle. A construction worker was playing the other. The outside linebacker was a 180-pound former safety recruited off the streets of Watts named Psycho Sims. The nickname was apt. You had to be psycho to play linebacker in the NFL at 180.
And of course -- God love 'em -- there were the fans, whose twisted but unwavering support buoyed us to the end. In fact, it was toward the end, when it finally became clear that we were never going to beat anyone, that the first of those special placards appeared. In the beginning there were just a few, but by the final game, among the forty or so thousand who made it that day, the signs were everywhere, all imploring us to "GO FOR 0." A more heartfelt expression of encouragement has never been offered an NFL team. By the end of that afternoon, having succeeded in preserving that goose egg, only a few of us realized that we'd also achieved a kind of reverse immortality. 0-14. By late '77, 0-26. A record of futility unlikely ever to be eclipsed, although today's Lions made a run. By then, in the eyes of almost everyone, "Bucs Fever" had become a fatal disease.
|After going winless in 1976, the Bucs drafted Ricky Bell with the No. 1 pick in 1977 ... and then lost their first 12 games of '77.|
After that last game, as I made my way to the players' parking lot, I had to laugh, because the lot looked like the staging area for a bunch of Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl. My own plan was to cross the state line by midnight and to be back in Dallas by the following morning, there to be reunited with my wife and son, who had fled Tampa in disgrace the previous week. So my car was packed and ready. But other players had had the same idea, so the lot was full of loaded U-Hauls, station wagons with bulging luggage racks, pickups hauling flatbed trailers heaped with furniture and other household stuff. The diaspora couldn't be accomplished quickly enough.
If it was bad for us, it was worse for our coach, former USC legend, John McKay. Poor John. With his floppy golf hat, orange windbreaker and ever-present cigar, he had created a lot of the problems himself by announcing when he took the job that he could coach the NFL from his armchair watching it on TV. Bad idea. The league is fond of humiliating arrogance, so no quarter was given.
No call ever went our way. Even in the Expansion Bowl, as it was trumpeted -- which was played in Tampa against the other new team that year, the Seattle Seahawks -- even then, we couldn't get a break. The Seahawks' coaching staff was made up of old-line NFLers, while the Bucs were a bunch of cocky college upstarts. Thirty penalties were called that day. Late in the third quarter, the flag tally was 20 to two against the Bucs. We lost 13-10.
|Bucs coach John McKay, the former head man at USC, got no mercy during his first season in the NFL.|
The biggest debacle was the game in Denver. John Ralston, the Broncos coach, was McKay's Pac-8 rival when he manned the helm at Stanford, so McKay was keen for a win. Late in the third quarter, we were up 13-10. It should have been 17-10, but Bucs linebacker Calvin Peterson, having intercepted a pass, was in the clear, sprinting for the end zone, when his bum knee buckled. Untouched, he crumpled in a heap. We settled for a field goal.
Then the roof fell in. The Broncos began their comeback with a 71-yard touchdown pass to Haven Moses. On our next possession, Denver's Randy Gradishar ran an interception back for another touchdown. Then our quarterback was sacked and fumbled. After a two-play drive, the Broncos scored again. Our next possession yielded another interception returned for another score. Then a fumble was picked up and lateraled, resulting in yet another score. All told, the Broncos, in little more than a quarter, rang up 38 unanswered points. For 21 of those points our defense was on the field for a total of two plays. Final: Denver in a sidesplitter, 48-13.
After the game, upset over a fourth-quarter run-up-the-score Broncos' reverse, McKay, in his press conference, called Denver offensive coordinator Max Corley "a prick." "He was a prick when I knew him at Oregon, he's a prick now and he'll always be a prick," McKay told the assembled reporters. When, the following week, Time magazine reported that it was Ralston whom McKay had called a prick, our coach laughed. "I would have called him a prick," he told a Tampa columnist. "But a prick has a head."
But that came later. Back at Mile High, in attempt to escape the embarrassment of the loss, our buses departed for the airport in a rush. In our haste to evacuate, however, our owner and his wife were left standing in the stadium parking lot, waving futilely, their luggage in a heap at their feet. Eventually, the equipment truck brought them out. Still, they were fuming when they boarded the plane. Heads, we knew, would roll.
Our plane. That was another Buc debacle. While most NFL teams flew standard commercial airline charters, we had a better way. The Buc way. It seems that McKay was friends with the owner of McCulloch, the chain-saw company. In addition to which, Mr. McCulloch owned an old Boeing 707 that he was more than eager to lease. So it came to pass that we chartered McCulloch's rattletrap 707. In the vast enterprise of McCulloch International Airlines, it was the only plane in the fleet.
We might have been the only customer. Our practice field was situated at the edge of the airport, so we could see the old dog sitting out there, day after day, week after week, its tires going flat, its cabin glowing orange in the fiery heat.
The plane, which vibrated fiercely in flight, is the setting of my most enduring Buc memory. It was late in the season, Thanksgiving weekend, and we had to go out and play the Super Bowl-bound Raiders in Oakland. So we made the six-hour flight, got hammered by the Raiders 49-16, and headed home. We were 0-12 now, bound for 0-14 glory.
Because of the time change we didn't get back to Tampa until 4 a.m. The pilot parked the plane in its usual desolate spot; the ground crew rolled out the stairs. Trailing the ground crew, taking up a position at the foot of the stairs, were three members of the Bucs Booster Club, two carrying a huge Bucs banner, all of them drunk. As the stewardess pushed open the door and the team began to descend, the drunkest of the three stepped in front of the two holding the banner.
"What have we got?" the leader yelled at his cohorts.
||The Bucs stop here
||How bad were the 1976 Bucs? The numbers don't lie:
||Times shut out
"Bucs Fever!" came the shouted reply.
"What have we got?"
"BUCS FEVER!" they shouted, louder.
And so it went, the resurrected slogan resounding through the dreary night as the 0-12 bedraggled troops trudged off the plane. Among them: hobbled rookie but future Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon. Future Packers Super Bowl architect Ron Wolf. Future Lions head coach Wayne Fontes. And of course our redoubtable quarterback, Steve Spurrier, now widely acknowledged as the most astute football mind in the college game.
So Bucs Fever wasn't fatal, after all. In fact, for some, it might even have been a kind of weird elixir. I know it was for me. Even now, when the besotted boosters visit in dreams, they always make me laugh. Because I had it then, and I've got it now. A lifelong malady never to be shaken, bringing with it lessons on irony and time and perspective and some further, harder-to-specify point that puts an odd but illuminating halo on winning and losing. It's a dizzying whorl of memory as gratifying as any of my Super Bowls, of which there were two.
Here they come again, and I am glad to see them: "What have we got?"
Former NFL defensive end Pat Toomay played in the league for 10 years (1970-79) with the Cowboys, Bills, Bucs and Raiders. He is the author of two books, The Crunch and the novel On Any Given Sunday. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Before he became the head coach at Florida, Steve Spurrier was the quarterback for perhaps the worst NFL team ever.||
THE WORST EVER?