I can’t say I was ever a die-hard, orange- or pewter-bleeding Bucs fan. I loved them in the '70s, felt indifferent in the '80s, and then rediscovered them in the '90s.
But I know it will never be the same as it was when I was a little kid in 1976.
It was never a love-hate relationship as much as it was a case of “I guess I have to root for somebody since the Colts were stolen from Baltimore.”
When I was a kid, the Colts were my passion, as they were for most of Baltimore.
The franchise tumbled to an ignominious ending when an evil man moved the team during a snowstorm in the middle of the night. I haven’t watched a Colts game since.
As a beat writer for the Jacksonville Jaguars I begged out of only one assignment—when the Jags hosted the former Baltimore Colts.
I can’t look at the horseshoes. Peyton Manning couldn't tie Johnny Unitas’ shoes.
But back to the Bucs.
My parents moved me to Tampa in 1976 when I was a very little kid. It was the Bucs' inaugural season. That team that bordered on comical. Still, the Bucs were exciting if only because they were new in town and so was I.
Imagine Steve Spurrier, John McKay and me making Tampa our new home in the same year. My failures, at least, weren’t in the national news or on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson every night. My only failures were with elementary school girls.
I remember their punter, David Green, coming to talk to our third-grade assembly after the season and showing the Bucs' NFL highlight film with the booming voice of John Facenda. Imagine a highlight film about the worst team ever to take an NFL field. It consisted mostly of good punts. No wonder Green was the speaker.
But you know something? That is my favorite team of all time, and it made me somewhat of a Bucs fan.
Unlike most Bucs fans I long for the days of the Popsicle uniforms (they really weren’t that ugly, were they?). The 1976 team would have lost to the 2008 Detroit Lions by at least a million, but they were fun to watch in a grotesque way.
Start with quarterback Steve Spurrier.
He’s a legend in Florida now, but back then he spent more time looking like a hash mark in old Tampa Stadium, taking beating after beating. The Bucs were outscored 412-125 that first year, and the poundings got worse as the year went on. They didn’t score their first points until the third game (three field goals) and didn’t register a touchdown until Game Four.
The Bucs were Curly to the NFL’s Moe.
Spurrier was mauled, and he didn’t have much help behind him. I remember Parnell Dickinson and former Notre Damer and Pittsburgh Steeler Terry Hanratty taking some snaps and eating a lot of dirt along the way.
I had to look it up to remember that Louis Carter led the team with 521 rushing yards and Morris Owens had a whopping 30 catches to lead the team. Carter and Owens, of course, went on to have long NFL careers with multiple Pro Bowls.
The offense stank, and so did the defense, even though it was clear that Lee Roy Selmon, Batman Wood, and Mark Cotney were the seeds of something special.
The NFL frontloaded the expansion team's schedule with patsies, trying to give the Bucs a chance to win before it was time to take on the big boys. But they didn't win, and they ended the season with blowout losses to Pittsburgh, Oakland, and New England.
And you know something? It was still fun.
At least more fun than the 9-7 or 7-9 seasons that Bucs fans have gotten used to. The imperfection was perfect.
Meanwhile in Baltimore, the Colts were winning their third-straight division title. I missed the Colts but still wore my Bucs jammies to bed every night and waited in line at the mall for Dewey Selmon’s autograph.
There’s something about a lovable loser.
Ask old-time New Yorkers about the 1962 Mets.
Ask any Detroit Lions fan today.
I moved back to Baltimore and watched the Orioles lose the first 21 games of 1988, and that is still my favorite Orioles team of all time. (By the way, does anyone remember that the 1988 Orioles lost 108 games and still had three players elected as starters in the All-Star game?)
Maybe it’s because the Bucs were like most of us. They weren’t perfect. They tried their best and often it simply wasn’t good enough.
In life, you don’t win all the time. You don’t necessarily lose all the time either, but the Bucs I remember as a kid never quit, and there’s something admirable about being down and getting off the canvas to fight again. It’s easy to lose, but it isn’t so easy to lose and rally to fight again.
I was at the last game of the 1976 season, a 31-14 loss to New England. It was the first time I ever made it to a game at The Sombrero. They had been the butt of national jokes all week. Carson and his writers were having a field day, and if ever a team had no chance to win, this was the time.
Yes, the Bucs lost that game to finish at 0-14, but I remember the players running off the field after the game, and I remember Coach John McKay trying to conceal a smile. He had gotten the best out of a team that had no business being on an NFL field.
It was a team that might have gone .500 in the Big Ten that year.
But I don’t think about the losses as much as I remember the way they lost with dignity—and, yes, the dropped passes, the fumbles, the blown coverages, and McKay’s postgame press conferences.
But no one pointed fingers. The Bucs knew they were bad and took their lumps like men.
Bucs fans can have their Super Bowl champs, their NFC South champs, their Richard Williamson, Sam Wyche wilderness years. Give me the 1976 Bucs. They might have been losers on the field, but they won a lot of hearts that year, including mine.
(And remember, they will always be the Baltimore Colts. Give us back our uniforms).