Tampa's NFL Powerbroker: Tom McEwen Was Just That and a Whole Lot More

Tom EdringtonSenior Writer IJune 6, 2011

Malio Iavarone, John McKay, George Steinbrenner and Tom McEwen at Malio's, Tampa sports epicenter.
Malio Iavarone, John McKay, George Steinbrenner and Tom McEwen at Malio's, Tampa sports epicenter.

Tampa lost the ultimate sports power broker on Sunday.

Our city lost the man who put this town on the national sports map.

We lost Tom McEwen, sports editor and writer extraordinaire but most of all, he wielded power in the world of sports like no writer did back then or has since. He is the reason we have the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and if you are a fan of the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons or the Carolina Panthers, he's a huge reason you have your teams as well.

He died at home, he was 88.

If you are a fan of the New York Yankees, well, suffice to say that McEwen was the late George Steinbrenner's best friend and the reason the Yankees spring train here in Tampa.

Most of all, McEwen was the ultimate center of sports influence here: He's the reason we have the Tampa Bay Lightning in the NHL, the reason there are Tampa Bay Rays over in St. Petersburg and the reason that the University of South Florida now has a pretty good Division I college football team.

Steve Spurrier loved McEwen, heck McEwen got him his first head-coaching gig here with the old Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL.

For as long as anyone can remember, he was the Sports Editor of The Tampa Tribune. He was the Godfather of any and everything sports related in Tampa.

I know because I was one of his crew, one of his guys. He hired me and gave me my first big job, made me one of his own, one of his boys. He taught me the importance of the story, how to get it, and how to write it fast, as we had a thing called "deadlines" back in those golden days of sports journalism.

McEwen was a combination writer, politician and deal-maker. There was NO ONE back then he didn't know. He had a rolodex like no other.

He was well known in the NFL offices in New York. He worked behind the scenes to get NFL teams in New Orleans and Atlanta, knowing full well it would only help land one eventually here in Tampa.

I was with him there in the old sports department offices in the ancient building that was eventually replaced by new luxurious quarters. But it was the old building that had the mystique, the atmosphere of old time "newspapering."

It was a tense day in 1976 when the NFL was about to announce its two newest franchises. We knew Tampa would get the call. McEwen was confident that the group back by local businessman Harry Mangurian would be awarded the franchise.

When the call came, it was chaos. Some guy named Tom McCloskey in Philadelphia was tabbed to own the Tampa Bay franchise. Confusion ensued. McEwen never heard of the guy. It was an all-out, mad scramble.

Just when the confusion reached epic proportions, we got word that this Philadelphia guy did what no one had ever done. He passed on owning an NFL team.

More confusion. McEwen was going nuts, but in a calm way. Finally it was a Jacksonville attorney named Hugh Culverhouse who emerged. "We gotta get hold of Culverhouse," McEwen blurted, frustrated at the goings-on.

I calmly dialed directory assistance, Jacksonville. "Culverhouse law firm please," I asked. "Would that be Culverhouse, Botts, Mills and Cone," the operator inquired. "That will do nicely," I said.

Wrote the number down, dialed it, got their operator. "Hugh Culverhouse's office please," I asked.

Call was transferred. "Mr. Culverhouse's office, this is Mrs. Alexander...."

I explained everything nicely to Mrs. Alexander and she had Culverhouse on the phone with me in less than 30 seconds. I introduced myself, told him that Tom McEwen was dying to talk to him."

"Hey McEwen, I've got Hugh Culverhouse on line two for you."

"Edrington, how the hell did you do that?" McEwen blurted.

Just smiled at him.

I'd often call him "Que-in" and we laughed a lot. He taught me a lot and I made sure I learned a lot.

He took me a lot of places I'd never dreamed I'd go. Huge college football venues, the Masters, the Augusta National Golf Club, inside the clubhouse, and more places too numerous to mention.

Met sports people I'd only dream of seeing. It would take an hour to list them.

For a decade it was an experience like no other.

McEwen knew everyone and everyone knew McEwen, except for one guy, one night, driving back from a University of Florida football game in Gainesville.

I drove up but McEwen drove back, his wife Linda and children Gabby and Lissy asleep in the back seat of the car.

Suddenly there are blue lights and a big ole state trooper pulled McEwen over. Asked for his license. I'm biting my tongue to keep from laughing.

What happened next was epic.

McEwen hit him with the "Do you know who I am?" query.

The trooper glances at his license and says, sure, "You're Tom Mc-Queen." I really had to hold myself down after that one. He handed McEwen his speeding ticket and we got back on the road to Tampa.

McEwen glanced and me and blurted, "Edrington, don't say a word."

Which made me really struggle to hold back my laughter. I did value my job.

You can bet that ticket got shredded on Monday morning. You see, McEwen knew the Governor, the State Attorney General and everyone else in Tallahassee, even the commander of the State Highway Patrol.

Yes, McEwen is the one guy who really did know everyone. He knew virtually every NFL owner on a first-name basis and was very close with then-commissioner Pete Rozelle.

McEwen's funeral on Friday will be a sellout. Sadly, the only person who could really eulogize him would have been Tom himself.

Yes Tom, everyone knew who you were.

And I can only think of nine words left to say:

"Thanks Tom McEwen, for the time of my life."

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