The Leeman Bennett interview - part 2
Denis Crawford continues his interview with the most unsuccessful coach in franchise history with a look at Leeman's arrival in Tampa in January 1985 and his first season with the Buccaneers.
For a few years Bennett worked in vehicle sales and then late in 1984 he received a phone call from Hugh Culverhouse gauging his interest in a return to coaching. “He called me out of the clear blue,” Bennett said. Before agreeing to return to football, Bennett did a lot of thinking.
“I had heard good things from John McKay about Hugh Culverhouse. I also felt that Hugh Culverhouse had stayed with John for a long time, perhaps longer than most owners would have. The job was in the South and in the NFL. I was missing the NFL and decided if the opportunity came, I would get back in.”
For the second time in his career, Bennett took over a team with little talent and a defeatist mentality. From the beginning however, things did not work as well for him as they did in Atlanta. “First I needed to sell the players on the idea that we could win,” Bennett said as he recounted his “To-Do” list on arriving in Tampa. “They had to have an understanding that we could win.”
“Secondly, we had to upgrade the personnel because the personnel had gotten to a point where there just wasn’t any. We had two or three good players. One was Lee Roy Selmon but he ended up having to retire (due to a back injury), and the other was James Wilder but he had been used so often he was on the edge of being overcome.”
In his first season, the Buccaneers played competitively for the most part but lost 14 of 16 contests. The first game was a microcosm of the season as the Bucs raced ahead of the eventual World Champion Chicago Bears before losing 38-28. The Bucs would play the Bears tough a second time before losing 27-19. Close losses to the Rams, Giants, and Dolphins, all playoff teams, were frustrating. “Players go out and give effort and play as hard as they can for thirty minutes, but then by the time the game is over there are enough weaknesses that the other team can come back,” is how Bennett viewed those games.
In 1985 the Buccaneers also lost in some monumental blowouts with odd circumstances beyond Bennett’s control. The first was a 62-28 loss to the New York Jets in payback for the “Buccaneer Flop” in 1984. In the Flop game, John McKay had ordered his defense to intentionally let the Jets score so Tampa Bay could give James Wilder a chance to set an NFL record. The Jets vowed revenge and even though McKay was safely in retirement, they had their vengeance against Bennett.
“Anytime you allow that many points it upsets you,” is all Bennett really wanted to say about that game. “Anytime you get beat like that it upsets you. In fact, I put that game so far out of my mind I don’t really remember it. But anytime you get embarrassed like that it is upsetting.”
Later that season the Bucs lost to the Packers 21-0 in the infamous Snow Bowl game. Bennett had a better view than the fans in the stand but not by much. “I remember the Snow Game. It was snowing so hard you had trouble seeing anybody on the other side of the field. I can remember at one time I only thought we had ten men on the field because we had on white uniforms and it was snowing so hard. That was a miserable game. There is no question about it”
“In a lot of those northern cities, it is kind of interesting when they give you a wake-up call. The gal on the phone said, ‘Good morning Coach Bennett. It is two degrees above zero and we expect four inches of snow on the ground at game time. The wind chill factor will be minus fourteen, have an enjoyable day. When you are a warm weather franchise (playing in snow) that plays with your mindset.”
After the conclusion of the 1985 season the Buccaneers were granted the number one draft choice due to possessing the worst record in the NFL. Most people assumed the Buccaneers would draft Bo Jackson, the Heisman Trophy winning running back from Auburn. Jackson had other ideas. After warning the Bucs not to draft him, Jackson bolted to the Kansas City Royals to play baseball.
Jackson’s decision to spurn the Bucs and football to take up Major League Baseball has become legendary and at the time shocked the sporting public. But Coach Bennett knew it was coming, but his advice to management went unheeded. “Hugh Culverhouse and I flew to Auburn to speak with Bo,” Bennett said. “Hugh talked a lot about his ties with the University of Alabama and I don’t think Bo really liked that conversation. You have to understand the rivalry between Auburn and Alabama.”
Upon arriving back in Tampa, Bennett told Culverhouse that he didn’t think the Bucs should spend the number one draft choice on a player that obviously did not want to play for them, but his opinion was ignored.
“Mr. Culverhouse told me that if we drafted him (Jackson), we would sign him. He told me, ‘Don’t worry about it, I will sign him.’ Of course when the time came that didn’t happen. Bo was clearly the best in the draft, there is no question about that. But by the same token, if you’re not going to be able so sign him there is no sense in drafting him.”
By not signing Bo or trading the number one pick for a bevy of other selections the Buccaneer franchise was set further back and Leeman Bennett was left holding the bag. Another personnel decision in 1986 would also prove unpopular, but this decision was one that Bennett felt needed to be made for the good of the team.
During the 1986 season Bennett released tight end Jimmie Giles, wide receiver Kevin House and running back Ron Springs, all popular players. “They had been there for a long time and had been productive in the eyes of the fans,” Bennett said in recalling the decision. “My thinking was they were not as productive as they needed to be. I felt they were on the end of their careers and not performing as they needed to be.”
Bennett also intimated that the veterans were not providing the leadership he felt the younger players needed. While Bennett felt he had valid reasons to exercise his right as coach, he still had to withstand a barrage of negative reaction from the fans and local media. “I couldn’t worry about what the media said. You have to do what you think is in the best interest of your team. I couldn’t look back on ‘Well, I could have done this or I could have done that,” it’s done”
Bennett also had to preside over a quarterback controversy involving a future Hall of Famer and a popular journeyman. Leading the way for the Buccaneers during Bennett’s two seasons was quarterback Steve DeBerg, a man that had been beaten out in San Francisco by Joe Montana and Denver by John Elway. A solid passer, DeBerg was chosen by Bennett over future Hall of Famer Steve Young. According to Bennett, that is because Young just wasn’t ready.
While it has become popular to criticize Bennett in hindsight for failing to capitalize on having a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback on his roster, history has proven the wisdom of his decision. In 1987 the Bucs would trade Young to the San Francisco 49ers. San Francisco head coach Bill Walsh would also sit Young down for a while to try and tame his passion for running first, passing second.
“Steve Young was not ready to play at that time. He sat on the bench in San Francisco a few years and learned that way. When he was in Tampa he wasn’t ready to play. He would much rather run than throw because the athletes were so much faster and he thought his legs could carry him. That’s not going to work for a long period of time in the NFL. So, for the most part Steve DeBerg was our quarterback. Steve DeBerg was a tough competitor who tried to do what you wanted him to do. Not a great quarterback in all honesty, but a guy who would fight you.”