The Early History of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers football team is a celebrated NFL franchise with a history that goes back more than forty years. In the early 1960s, Tampa, Florida, was a small but growing city in a larger but still growing region. City leaders decided to upgrade its sports stadium to attract large sporting events and accelerate its growth.
The idea floated by local business leaders was a simple one. Tampa’s existing sports stadium facility was woefully inadequate, and the area’s small size kept national recognized sports programs, both college and professional, from traveling there to play their games. If Tampa wanted to be a player on the national scene — and it did, it needed a stadium to draw in teams — and fans.
On May 28, 1965, Florida governor Haydon Burns signed a bill into law that started Tampa Stadium’s construction. With an initial seat capacity of 46,477, the stadium was built for the University of Tampa Spartans football team. The underlying hope was that it would eventually become the home of a professional football team.
The $4.1 million structure’s first sporting event was a game between the Spartans and University of Tennessee Volunteers held on November 4, 1967. Tampa Bay lost the game 38–0. The stadium was a big hit — but could it bring in NFL football? The region was soon to find out.
The exhibition games that started it all
Throughout 1968–1969 local Tampa Bay entrepreneur Bill Marcum secured a series of NFL exhibition games at Tampa Stadium. The hope was to show the potential viability of a professional football franchise on Florida’s west coast. They were a success beyond the wildest imagination of everyone involved. On August 10, 1968, the first exhibition game drew 41,651 fans, more than double the amount anticipated.
Those games not only put Tampa Bay on the shortlist for an NFL expansion franchise but convinced the local community that a team could flourish in the area.
In that era, the NFL played some of its exhibition games on a barnstorming schedule. They traveled to other cities to play opposing teams. Tampa drew fans into the seats regardless of the game, never having less than 30,000 pay to see a game. It was proving to be an emerging market that would do well with a team of its own.
Tampa Bay's push for a NFL team
In the early 1970s, Leonard Levy was named as Chairman of Tampa’s NFL Task Force Committee. The committee’s sole purpose was to bring an expansion team to Tampa. Levy, understanding that the city of Tampa — seen as small (but growing) was not enough of a draw on its own, advanced the idea that the Tampa Bay area was pushing for a new team.
The Baltimore Colts, due in no small part to their inadequate stadium, were considering changes cities, and the city of Tampa intrigued them. They held workouts and practices there throughout 1972, establishing something akin to a home-away-from-home. Whether it was leverage to get its facilities improved in Baltimore or actual intent to consider relocating to Tampa, the Colts never came.
Early 1974 saw five cities vying to be home to one of two soon-to-be available NFL expansion franchises. Representatives in Memphis, TN, Honolulu, HI, Phoenix, AZ, Seattle, WA, and Tampa, FL all waited to hear if their efforts to land a team was successful.
In April of 1974, after years of meetings with owners of each of the other twenty-six teams in the league, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, local Tampa community leaders, and Levy flew to New York. On April 24, at 5 pm, Rozelle announced the NFL would add a franchise in Tampa and one other location to be named later (Seattle) at the cost of $16.2 million each. The teams were scheduled to begin play in the 1976 season.
The Tampa Bay team was the league’s twenty-seventh franchise and was scheduled to play its first season in the AFC West.
Building the team
Philadelphia construction magnate Tom McCloskey was first awarded the franchise in October 1974 but backed out shortly after a press conference the following month — likely for personal reasons. One month later, Hugh Culverhouse, a tax attorney from Jacksonville, FL, became the league’s second choice owner. He’d initially turned down the opportunity to own the Seattle expansion team but jumped at the chance to own the Tampa Bay one.
Bill Marcum was Culverhouse’s first hire.
Former USC coach John McKay was hired to be the team’s first head coach. He was a celebrated coach in the college football ranks but had never taken an NFL team’s reins. McKay became known for his quips as he struggled to keep his sense of humor as his team prepared for its inaugural season. He knew they’d be bad; he just didn’t know how bad they’d end up.
“We didn’t block real good, but we made up for it by not tackling”
~ Coach John McKay
WFLA sponsored a name-the-team contest, and participants submitted over 600 names. There were several interesting choices, including ‘Barracudas,’ ‘Sea Gulls,’ ‘Godfathers,’ ‘Aquanuts,’ ‘Florida Fruits,’ and the ‘Tampa Suns of Beaches.’ Team officials eventually chose the name ‘Buccaneers.’ The league approved the name in Feb of 1975.
League announced the team colors in June 1975 — soft orange, red, and white. An image by award-winning Tampa Tribune artist Lamar Sparkman depicting a handsome Buccaneer, wearing a plumed hat, boldly winking and clenching a dagger between his teeth, was chosen as the team’s logo.
Before the newly-named Buccaneers arrived, Tampa Stadium underwent an extensive expansion project throughout 1975. Over 27,000 seats were added by completely enclosing the previously open endzones, making the facility one of the largest venues in the NFL. The construction was barely finished by the time of the Bucs’ first pre-season home game.
Bring on the Buccaneers
The Buccaneers’ first regular-season home game was held on September 19, 1976, when the home team lost to the San Diego Chargers 23–0. That would become a trend that stretched over multiple seasons.
Starting from nothing at that time in the NFL was difficult. You were pretty much on your own. There was no free agent market — no bonus draft picks. Expansion teams played with mostly cast-offs from other organizations. The Buccaneers suited up over 140 players to try and find someone — anyone — that could play professional football.
Their first-ever college draft pick was DE/DT Lee Roy Selmon from the University of Oklahoma, chosen first overall in the 1976 draft. Selmon played nine years, all with the Buccaneers, and was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995.
A record setting losing streak
Selmon’s greatness couldn’t keep the team from losing. The 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers were terrible, widely regarded as the worst team in the history of the NFL. On top of losing twenty-six games in a row (including every game of the 1976 season), they were the only team in league history to end a season with more players on injured reserve than touchdowns scored.
Nationally, they were known as the ‘Yucks’ or the ‘Sucks.’ Johnny Carson, the long-time host of the Tonight Show, regularly made them the butt of jokes during television broadcasts. In response, fans of the team started a ‘Sack Johnny’ campaign.
Despite constant failures on the field and their perception as losers off of it, the fans came out to Tampa Stadium in droves to support their team. The average home attendance in 1976 was 44,000 per game, a number that rose the following seasons.
The streak is broken
On December 11, during the thirteenth week of the 1977 NFL season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did something they had never before accomplished. They won a game, beating the New Orleans Saints by a score of 33–14. Saints head coach Hank Schramm called the loss the lowlight of his coaching career. The following day he was fired by the team’s owner.
They would not win a game on their home field until defeating the St. Louis Cardinals on December 18, 1977, the season’s last game. Jubilant fans swarmed the Tampa Stadium turf and tore down the goalposts.
It was a long ride to get to that first professional football game and an even longer one to get that first win. As expected, over time, the Buccaneers eventually helped to put the area on the map and were, to no small degree, responsible for the Rays baseball team and Lightning hockey team in the area.
The Buccaneers entered the league as laughingstocks, and minus a handful of good seasons the team did very little to change that belief over its history. They’ve had great players, even Hall of Fame worthy ones, but until recently could never put together an extended streak of sustainable greatness.
With that in mind, today’s team, although linked in the annals of history, is a far cry from the 1976 Buccaneers team. It is likely much closer to what the early backers had hoped to see.