An interview with Tampa sports reporting legend Gary Shelton
This interview took place in June 2011. Buccaneer fans will know him as the long-time lead sports columnist for The Tampa Bay Times and he has been writing about the Bucs for nearly 20 years. |
His views on games have been appearing on BUCPOWER since we started our game analysis screens and in 2009, he came across the Atlantic to cover the Bucs at Wembley and interviewed some British fan in a piece that made the front page of the whole paper.
What is your background in journalism - how did you end up where you are now?
The short version is that I graduated from Auburn University and the Don Shula School of Having My Face Yelled into. Way back when dinosaurs were puppies, I finished my first two years of college and didn’t have any money to go on. So I worked in small newspapers in Georgia for six years (first paycheck: $16. Ten hours over two weeks at $1.60 an hour) trying to learn what adjectives were for and why.
Eventually, I was offered a job in Columbus, Ga., where I could finish my classes and work full-time. It was a great experience, because we covered pro sports in Atlanta and the four colleges (Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Georgia Tech) near us.
Those were the years that Bo Jackson and Herschel Walker were playing and Bear Bryant was coaching, so the experience was amazing. Your buddy Mick Luckhurst, a terrific guy, played for the Falcons in those years. I went to work for the Miami Herald in 1984, and my second year there, I was the beat writer covering the Dolphins. Don Shula and Dan Marino were fresh off the Super Bowl, so I learned a lot about high standards.
In 1990, I went to the St. Pete Times to cover the NFL. Two years after that, I became a columnist and began to anger people. But an old friend of mine in the business once said this: “If two people always agree, then one of them is not necessary.’’
Funny. I never meant to stay in Tampa Bay. But the Times is a great place to work, and the area is a great place to raise a family. I suspect the readers are stuck with me now.
How long have you been writing about the Buccaneers?
Forever, it seems. I didn’t do a lot with the Bucs in ’90 and ’91, but I remember making Ray Perkins furious when I wrote he had overpaid for Chris Chandler. And he did. In ’92, I became to write columns on almost every Bucs’ game. I missed one game this year, because the Rays were in the playoffs, but I haven’t missed many. During the bad years, I watched so many that my eyes hurt.
Is it easier to write about a team that is winning or one that is struggling?
Either way, it isn’t exactly like being a coal miner. My own children can't believe they pay me to watch a game and write about it. It’s easier to be snarky and call for people’s heads when a team is struggling, but winning teams are happier, and players seem to cooperate more when they’re winning. So you could argue either side.
I’ll say this, though. There is nothing like writing for a team that is a serious championship caliber team, because every word you write is read, dissected and debated. And that’ the most fun part about writing – getting read.
I remember the NFC title game in 2002 when the Bucs beat the Eagles. Like most of America, I picked the Eagles to win. To most readers, that wasn’t a big deal – heck, the whole world was picking the Eagles. They were home, and they had worn out the Bucs the previous two seasons.
But people were offended that both John Romano and I picked Philly, as if we had betrayed the city. To me, that showed that a lot of new people were suddenly reading about the Bucs. And that was cool. I’ve always said this, I don’t pull for teams. I pull for stories. And down deep, I like it when good guys succeed. So there were a lot of players and scouts and coaches to feel good for when the Bucs were really, really good.
The different head coaches you have worked with, what were they like?
Put them all together, and you’d have a great sitcom. There have been so many dynamic personalities.
Ray Perkins was a bully, like a lot of NFL coaches, but if you stood up to him, he seemed to have more respect for you. I remember when I first got to St. Pete to cover the NFL. Rick Stroud was moving over from the colleges to the Bucs’ beat and we decided to take Perkins to lunch to get to know him.
Ray came into the restaurant with Rick Odioso, the old Bucs public relations director. The waiter came over and asked for our order, and Perkins gave him the death stare and said “Which is your best sandwich? I mean, your best sandwich?’’ The guy mentioned this one and that, and that one and this, and on and on. When he was done, Perkins glared at him for a minute and said “I’ll have the nachos.’’
Richard Williamson was a decent guy, but I’ll never think of him as a guy who should have been a head coach. Of course, coaching the Bucs in those days was like throwing rocks against a grizzly. He never had a chance. But I remember asking this: Would any college team in the state have hired Williamson? No, they wouldn’t have. And the Bucs shouldn’t have, either.
Sam Wyche was the most reactionary man I’ve ever met. He’d change everything every week, including the way the team lined up for the National Anthem. He once held us in a press conference when the locker room was open (and players were available to be interviewed) to tell us the real meaning of Christmas. But you know what? As a guy, I thought Sam was terrific. I still do. We talk 1-2 times a year, and if you avoid politics, it’s always enlightening and always fun.
Tony Dungy is every ounce of what people think of him. He’s a terrific guy. I once swore when I didn’t realize he was standing behind him, and when I saw him, I felt a quarter-of-an-inch tall. He was the kind of guy who could make you feel like a 5-year-old who had misbehaved. And when he won his Super Bowl with the Colts, it was hard not to feel good for him.
But I criticized Tony, too. I never thought his offensive staff here was good enough. This is worth noting. When he went to Indy, none of the assistants he brought with him had as good a job as they had in Tampa Bay.
For those who still want to fight the “Dungy or Gruden’’ wars about the Super Bowl, I always say this: It took both men to get there. I don’t think Gruden could have built the team, and I don’t think Dungy could have pushed that Bucs’ team over the top. What’s wrong with sharing credit.
Jon Gruden was a hoot. That’s going to surprise people, because I was very critical of Gruden. He wasn’t developing young players, and it wasn’t going to end well no matter when it ended. But as an interview, Jon was terrific. Bright, funny, quotable enough to write half of your story for you.
For all the criticism, Jon never said a word to me except “you keep doing what you do.’’ He got it. Of course, not everyone did. One year, the Bucs were 0-4, and I wrote a piece on how the Allen-Gruden partnership wasn’t working. One of Gruden’s quality control guys walked up to me in the locker room and said “I read what you wrote, and it was lies. It was all lies.’’ My response was to say “I thought I got the part about being 0-4 right.’’
Raheem? I thought he was the best coach in the NFL last year (with Mike McCarthy). This team follows him the way the Scots followed William Wallace. I spent a great weekend before Raheem's first year in Irvington, NJ, his hometown. I got to know his parents and his friends and his old coaches.
Can you be a friend to a player and still write about them?
No, not really. I think you can be friendly, and I think you can have a great working relationship, and I think you can build a mutual respect. But you don’t go to dinner with the families with these guys. You don’t buy a time-share with them. Because there may always come the day when you have to say they shouldn't play anymore.
For instance, I like Ronde Barber a lot, and I think he’s had one of the great careers of all time. And if we run into each other – it happened at the Masters once – we’ll stop and chat for a few minutes. But is he going to come and see my daughter player soccer? Of course not.
Over the years, I think I’ve built a good working relationship with most of the great Bucs. Lee Roy and Doug and Warrick and Mike and John and Derrick. I wish nothing but the best for any of them. But friends? I don’t think that’s the meaning of the word. (For the record, I’ve almost always gotten along really well with Warren Sapp.)
Has anyone really got upset with anything you have written?
Absolutely. Raheem told me a half-dozen times this year that he was angry at me. Sapp got ticked when I wrote that Regan Upshaw “had one more sack than a dead man.’’ After I ripped the Bucs once, Dungy told me I got votes for a game ball. No one likes bad reviews. They have every right to get mad. But my job is to write the truth, and sometimes, the truth is painful.
Who was the best player to interview?
Sapp. We used to do these hour-long interviews, he and I, and he was intensely bright and howlingly funny. Once, we got in a loud argument in an interview. He said Tampa Bay hated him, and I pointed out all the kids who were wearing No. 99 jerseys. I really do think Warren could have owned Tampa Bay if he had shared that part of his personality.
Simeon Rice was fun, too. He was absolutely from outer space. He once said solemnly that there was no I in team, but there was an “m” and an “e.’’ “Without me this IS no team,’’ he said.
Brad Culpepper, great interview. Ronde, great interview. Hardy Nickerson, very good. Dilfer, great interview. Late in his career, Warrick Dunn was amazing. Tony Mayberry was good. Jeff Faine is good. I even had a great interview with Booker Reese in prison once.
You know who was a terrific guy and interview? Byron Leftwich. And yet, Tampa Bay seemed to dislike him long before he proved he couldn't play.
And the worst?
Alvin Harper was awful. Dwight Smith was bad. I never had any luck with Anthony McFarland, although some found him to be very good.
What were your opinions on the 2010 Bucs?
I thought they were terrific over-achievers. I’ve written it before, but I picked them to win six games, and I thought I was being nice. I really thought they wouldn’t win more than five. Not only that, but this was a young, budding team. Before they’re done, Freeman, Williams and Blount could be the best Bucs ever to play their positions. I think Freeman is there already, and he’s 22. Sometimes, low expectations are a good thing. Next year, it changes. People will expect the Bucs to make a run at the playoffs, and a winning record won’t be enough.
And looking back to the Wembley trip, what did you enjoy most about a weekend in London?
Are you kidding? It was the deadlines. Nothing like having five hours to write a game column.
I love England. As you know, my mom is from over there, and it’s always fun to get an assignment (Wimbledon, which we don’t cover any more, etc.) over there. It was fun to test the air at Wembley, and to look around and see all the English fans in their American football jerseys. I think most Americans would be surprised to see how much English fans know about this sport, and how much they care. Obviously, that’s because BUCPOWER.COM has done such a good job educating them.
And I hear Wembley led to an award for you ...
One of the columns I did before the game was in the package that won an award for me. It was the one you ribbed me a bit for – the one that said you guys gave us the Beatles and Shakespeare and James Bond, and this was how we repaid you.
That was one of the five columns that was included in the package that won the Best Columnist of the Year award for APSE. It was the second time I won it – and the sixth time I’ve been in the Top 10. In a way, I am indebted to the Wembley game.