The beginnings of the Buccaneer franchise
The first victory in Tampa Bay Buccaneer history occurred on December 11, 1977 in New Orleans. A little over a month later the Dallas Cowboys would defeat the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XII on the same field. The Cowboys celebration was probably muted compared to the way the Tampa Bay players responded to their 33-14 triumph over the Saints. The victory also led to a legendary airborne party on the team charter flying back to Tampa, but I’ll cover that in a future article.
What may not be generally known is that in the decade and a half prior to the start of the 1976 season, the Tampa Bay community secured victory after victory in their quest to win an NFL expansion franchise. After a rough start, the mission of bringing NFL football to Tampa got on a roll that rivaled that of the 2002 Super Bowl champion Bucs. This is the story of the winning streak that occurred before the infamous 0-26 run of 1976 and 1977.
A Rough Start
Much like the original Buccaneers, the quest for a football team in Tampa Bay suffered a series of losses, but nowhere near the scope of the on-field product. In 1961 Tampa mayor Julian Lane commissioned a study to see if a new football stadium could be built in the city. The study showed that building a stadium was not a popular idea at the time and the project was shelved.
The lack of a stadium did not keep the American Football League from coming to Tampa in 1964. In the early days of the AFL, teams from the league barnstormed the country playing exhibition games to try and help with marketing versus the more established NFL. The Buffalo Bills defeated the New York Titans 26-13 at the University of Tampa’s Phillips Field. The small stadium was only half-filled, no doubt causing the AFL’s leaders to assume that Tampa was not too interested in their league.
The next AFL experience with the Tampa Bay area was even worse. The expansion Miami Dolphins opened training camp at Boca Ciega High School on St. Petersburg Beach and were shocked at what they found. The high school field was new sod laid over a base of ground up seashells. The effect of being tackled on such a field was brutal. Running back Rick Casares told the Miami Herald’s Greg Cote, “The toughest competition we had was that field. We tried not to hit the ground, because you would get cut up by the seashells.”
Additional indignities the Dolphins suffered on St. Pete Beach was being housed in a hotel next door to the old Sea World aquarium where the players were kept awake all hours of the night by barking seals. The Dolphins bolted Tampa Bay after less than a month and didn’t come back again until years later.
Going For It With Authority
It could be argued that the bad experiences of the AFL in Tampa Bay could be traced to the fact that the community lacked a first rate stadium. Undaunted by the 1961 stadium commission’s findings, Hillsborough County’s representative to the Florida House Terrell Sessums drafted a bill to create the Tampa Sports Authority on March 5, 1965.
With civic leaders supporting him Sessums was able to see his proposed legislation passed by the Florida House. But the governor of Florida, Hayden Burns, stated that he was going to veto the bill because he felt it was unconstitutional. “The governor said he was going to veto the bill because he should be the one to name members of the authority and that they could not be named in the bill,” Sessums said. “I pointed out that I thought it was constitutional and suggested that the governor have it reviewed by the Attorney General in an advisory opinion.”
Sessums may have been a relative newcomer to Tallahassee, but he certainly knew how to play the political game of hardball. Not being a supporter of the governor, Sessums was not intimidated and stood toe to toe with the executive office. “I talked to one of the governor’s floor leaders in the House and told him I had a dilemma. I told him the governor was thinking of vetoing the bill and that in some ways I would love for him to veto it because in the forthcoming election we could really clean his clock in our part of the state because it was a popular piece of legislation.”
“My friend made a beeline to the governor and told him the political risk of vetoing the legislation. The next day the governor called and told me it was okay and we should all come down and have our pictures taken at a bill signing ceremony.”
And with that May 28, 1965 bill signing, the Tampa Sports Authority was born.
The Stadium is The Key
The legislation that created the Tampa Sports Authority also gave the TSA property located between North Dale Mabry Highway and Himes Avenue. With the ability to sell bonds, the TSA was able to raise funds for the construction of a football stadium. Completion of Tampa Stadium occurred in 1967.
The University of Tampa Spartan football team was the primary tenant of Tampa Stadium. In order for the stadium to pay for itself however, other teams would need to play at the facility. One such team was the University of Florida Gators. Unfortunately, the Gators got a case of cold feet and attempted to pull out of their commitment to play the Air Force Academy in 1968. “UF tried to renege because they decided they didn’t want to play an extra road game,” Sessums said.
Tampa Bay area leaders met in a closed-door session with UF officials and according to Mr. Sessums made clear what UF was endangering by their actions. “They were told that if they didn’t play this game they better never ask for another dollar.”
Needless to say the Gators agreed to play the game. During the contest the Air Force mascot elected to make Tampa his permanent home. “When they launched the Falcon at halftime, he flew off never to be seen again,” Mr. Sessums recalled with a laugh.
The Air Force Falcon wasn’t the only bird of prey to visit Tampa in 1968. A group of them from Atlanta also came to town and the success of their game would make many in Tampa feel that they could support their own professional football team.
Local entrepreneur Bill Marcum invited the National Football League to play a game in Tampa Stadium. Billed as the NFL Suncoast Classic with proceeds going to the Tampa Jaycees, the contest between the Atlanta Falcons and Washington Redskins was played before a sell-out crowd. The initial game was such a success that Bill Marcum promoted several more games at Tampa Stadium with furniture magnate Harry Mangurian as a financial backer. Between 1968 and 1971 teams such as the Minnesota Vikings, Boston Patriots, Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers played August exhibitions at Tampa Stadium. All the games played to either sell-outs or near capacity crowds with a 1971 contest featuring Joe Namath and the New York Jets setting an attendance record of 51,000.
We Can Do This
According to Leonard Levy the success of the exhibition games changed the minds of many Tampa Bay civic leaders as far as being an NFL city was concerned. Originally Tampa Stadium was built for college football, but the sell-out of games between out of market teams made some feel Tampa should have a team of its own. “In 1966 we weren’t even thinking of being an NFL city. It wasn’t until about 1969 that we thought we might have a chance to get one. The success of the pre-season games was a big factor.”
Stadium director Joe Zalupski was in charge of managing Tampa Stadium during these events and recalls the summers of 1968 to 1972 as being a very busy time. “We hosted more pre-season NFL games than any other site in the United States except those that already had a franchise.”
Zalupski further explained that the pre-season games were proof of Tampa’s emergence as a national city. “The economic evolution of Tampa had begun. We were rising as a television market. Growth occurred by leaps and bounds.”
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