Bucs' success ends years of shame for Hugh Culverhouse Jr.
By JEFF TESTERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2003
TAMPA -- In the final minutes of Sunday's NFC Championship Game, Hugh Culverhouse Jr. found his eyes filling with tears.
The legacy of the lousiest football franchise in America was being stood on its head.
The Culverhouse curse was over. The team called the Yuks had finally found respectability. The Tampa Bay Bucs, an embarrassing creamsicle-colored late-night joke under Hugh Culverhouse Sr., were going to the Super Bowl.
"I was screaming and yelling and crying all at the same time," Culverhouse Jr. said this week. "It felt good. The Bucs gave me what I wanted: vindication. This gets rid of years of shame.
"But I felt sad at the same time," he said. "It would have been good to own them like they are now: a winner."
Culverhouse, 53, is a Miami attorney who oversees the 6,500-acre Palmer Ranch in Sarasota. He is a CPA with an MBA from NYU. He also is the son of an NFL team owner known for his tight-fistedness.
"Dad always wanted to be a winner," said Culverhouse Jr. "But he couldn't get over this fatal personality flaw. He was cheap."
Culverhouse Sr. was a shrewd tax lawyer who amassed a 37-company, $381-million estate before his death from lung cancer at 75 in 1994. After paying $16-million for the expansion Bucs in 1974, he used the team as a bank, siphoning cash off the franchise and funneling it to other investments.
His frugality combined with management miscues to produce a team that made the name Culverhouse abhorrent to local football fans.
The club traded away Steve Young, who went on to become a Super Bowl MVP for the San Francisco 49ers. Culverhouse chased away Doug Williams, later a Super Bowl MVP for the Washington Redskins.
He wasted a No. 1 draft pick on future Raider star Bo Jackson even after Jackson declared he would never suit up for the Bucs. He hired as coach Leeman Bennett, who compiled a 4-28 record and is best remembered for his success as an RV salesman.
"I remember that billboard a radio station put up near the stadium with a picture of Dad and a gigantic golden screw through Dad's head," Culverhouse Jr. recalled. "That made me sick. But it was true. Dad just wouldn't loosen up the purse strings to bring home a winner."
The Culverhouse curse was foretold, perhaps, by the timing of his best move: the hiring of coaching legend John McKay. The contract was signed in 1975 -- on Halloween.
The club redefined NFL futility with an 0-26 start. Asked about the Bucs' execution following a particularly inept performance, McKay gave his most famous comeback: "I'm all for it."
"For years, I was afraid to go into a 7-Eleven because I was afraid I would be recognized as a Culverhouse," said Culverhouse Jr. "I was like the boy named Sue."
Fortunes changed for a time when the Bucs spent a first-round draft pick on Williams. Black quarterbacks didn't start in the NFL, but McKay wanted the Grambling star. The Bucs rode Williams' arm to the NFC Championship Game in 1979 and to two more playoff appearances.
In 1983, Williams asked for a raise from $120,000 to $600,000 a year. Culverhouse Sr. stood firm at $400,000. Williams jumped to the United States Football League. A skein of 14 consecutive losing seasons ensued for the Bucs.
Culverhouse Jr. still winces at the thought. Last year, he dug into his own pocket and offered an atonement for his father's sin: a $1-million gift to the Grambling State University football program, where Williams is coach.
"He deserved better," Culverhouse Jr. said. "I hope one day he gets a head coaching job in the NFL."
Culverhouse Jr. said he never knew until his father's death how the Culverhouse fortune was being spent.
"Even when I sat on the NFL's Finance Committee I was prevented from seeing the financial numbers on the Bucs," he said. "But my eyes opened up after Dad's death."
The first thing that got his attention was the balance sheet. Despite playing in a dinosaur of a stadium, the Bucs had made $11.3-million in 1993 by keeping payroll low. But an NFL salary cap was kicking in that would push payroll up $12-million and leave the Bucs in the red.
After Culverhouse Sr.'s death, control of the team -- and the rest of the Culverhouse estate -- was placed in the hands of trustees Steve Story, Jack Donlan and Fred Cone. Culverhouse Jr. said he had to "plant an atomic bomb" under the trustees to get them to put the team on the auction block.
"Any idiot could see we were heading for bankruptcy," he said. "And with the old stadium, you couldn't raise ticket prices. You had to sell."
Palm Beach businessman Malcolm Glazer bid $192-million, the most ever paid for a pro team, a stunning 1,100 percent markup from the team's price tag 20 years before.
The Culverhouse-Bucs era was over, but a sensational battle for the family fortune was getting under way.
In February 1996, Culverhouse Sr.'s widow, Joy McCann Culverhouse, went to court to challenge a trust set up a year before his death. She claimed she had been tricked into signing away marital assets held in the trust by a husband bent on divorcing her to marry a younger mistress.
The estate case grew to thousands of steamy pages. According to documents, he had an affair with Susan Brinkley, wife of longtime ABC newscaster David Brinkley, sometimes taking liaisons on the Palmer Ranch during hunting excursions.
He showered gifts on Charlton Ford, a former receptionist who acknowledged having a problem with cocaine and tranquilizers. There were diamond earrings, a $6,000 gold bracelet, a mink coat, a $135,000 townhouse, Waterford crystal, a new Ford Taurus. Culverhouse inquired about undoing a vasectomy so he could have children with his mistress.
The heirs were outraged, especially to learn that the trustees had covered up the affairs. Story admitted arranging a secret $150,000 palimony payment to one mistress and paying psychiatric bills out of his own pocket for another.
In a 1997 settlement, Mrs. Culverhouse took away almost $36-million, plus income from the trust that has hovered near $7-million a year.
Married for 52 years, she said she never had an inkling of her husband's infidelities.
"I'd love to dig him up out of his grave so I could shoot him three times," the slender widow told a reporter after the settlement.
Today, Mrs. Culverhouse, 82, still lives in two adjoining condos at the top of the Monte Carlo Towers on Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa. The one-time champion golfer has given up the game after a series of hip replacements, but still sees every Bucs game from a luxury suite she got in the settlement.
Two years ago, she married Dr. Robert Daugherty, then 67, who had just taken the job of dean of the University of South Florida Medical School. She has donated more than $15-million to programs at the university.
"We're much better off now than when we had the Bucs," said Culverhouse Jr. "Hell, Mom could buy her own team if she wanted one. "She has a staff of 10, bigger than Dad's staff was. She works with her investments and is heavy into her charitable contributions. She is in terrific health. And as far as the Bucs, she's elated!"
During the years his father owned the Bucs, Culverhouse Jr. developed a relationship with Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis. He said he has a ton of Raider shirts and hats and follows that team closely.
"It's no contest," he said. "I just want the Bucs to win. I don't care if it's 2-0 and time runs out. I'll be screaming so loud they may want to put me in a hospital.
"I hope every fan in Tampa Bay feels just the way I do."
-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.