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So who's laughing now?

By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 26, 2003

They first made their mark on America's consciousness more than a quarter century ago, a frequent Johnny Carson punchline on the Tonight Show.

Now, after 26 years of jokes, pratfalls and painfully close brushes with fame, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the booking they've always wanted: a debut appearance on tonight's show.

The Super Bowl.

Finally, they have a chance to make a new and lasting mark on the national stage. And this time, the intro goes more like Heeeeere's Jonny, as in Coach Jon Gruden, who has guided the franchise to the brightest of NFL spotlights.

For most of their torturous journey, it seemed the Bucs might never get to the big game.

This, after all, is the club that redefined futility with its legendary 0-26 start, a record that should be safe for the ages. So bad were the Bucs that opposing teams feared being the first to lose to them.

The club's most entertaining feature may have been the biting one-liners of late head coach John McKay. For example, placekicking hopeful Pete Rajecki told reporters in '76 that McKay's presence made him nervous. The coach responded: "Tell Mr. Rajecki I plan to attend all games."

While the Bucs enjoyed some early success -- even making it to the 1979 NFC title game -- they generally were an on-going NFL Follies, more painful than funny to watch.

Roll the videotape:

-- Bucs defenders purposely stand still on a play in 1984 to let an opponent score.

-- Head coach Leeman Bennett shows up at a 1986 press conference, unaware that owner Hugh Culverhouse is about to fire him.

-- Offensive lineman Ron Heller yells "Don't quit!" to teammates during a 1987 road loss. Head coach Ray Perkins hears only "Quit!" and punches Heller's helmet, injuring his thumb.

-- Head coach Sam Wyche, displeased with his team's performance in the second half of several 1992 games, orders his players off the practice field and into the locker room to practice their halftime routine.

The lowlights just kept coming, especially during the Dark Ages of 1985-1995. With Bennett, Perkins, Richard Williamson and Wyche at the helm, the Bucs played 176 games.

They lost 125 of them.

But we all know the next chapter: Tony Dungy, hired as head coach by new owner Malcolm Glazer in 1996, turned the tide. With the Glazers pumping in cash, the Bucs became winners under Dungy, and champions under Gruden.

But first came the Blunder Years.

In the beginning....

It was Halloween 1975.

The Bucs began to take shape as Culverhouse hired McKay away from the University of Southern California, where the feisty coach had amassed four national titles.

"John McKay never, never considered himself a pro coach," says former St. Petersburg Times sports columnist Hubert Mizell. "He was a college guy who couldn't pass on the money and a chance to show the NFL jerks a thing or two. He developed an immediate dislike for what he considered "the old pros.' "

The Bucs struggled from the outset, on the field and at the gate. You couldn't give tickets away, with some 30,000 seats usually empty in 70,000-seat Tampa Stadium.

Finally, on Dec. 11, 1977, Tampa Bay beat the Saints 33-14 in New Orleans for its first victory. Eight thousand fans mobbed the players when they returned home that night.

"In their infancy, they were the worst team in pro sports," says Mike Tierney, a sports writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who covered the beat for the Times from 1978-82. "They were coached by a decorated college guy adjusting to new surroundings and were cursed by the football gods who helped them discover new and innovative ways to lose every Sunday."

The Bucs made several noteworthy draft picks early on. Their first was to take Oklahoma defensive end Lee Roy Selmon, the only Buc in the Hall of Fame. They also passed on taking future Hall of Fame tailback Earl Campbell. Instead, they traded their No. 1 pick to draft quarterback Doug Williams and acquire tight end Jimmie Giles -- building a new foundation.

Giles once said it would be fun to play for an expansion team. But when Oilers head coach Bum Phillips told him he was heading to 2-26 Tampa Bay, Giles was stunned:

"I remember Bum came up to me and told me I'd been traded and then he told me where and I said, "Aww, Bum, not Tampa Bay.' "

From Worst to First: 1979-82

Life was about to change dramatically.

In 1979, the Bucs jumped off to a 5-0 start, fueled by a powerhouse defense. The offense vanished in the stretch as the team lost six of its next 10 games. Irate fans got down on Williams' frequent misfires.

"Send Williams to Iran," went one popular line. "He'll overthrow the Ayatollah."

Needing one more win to clinch the division, the Bucs slogged to a 3-0 victory over Kansas City in torrential downpour at Tampa Stadium. Then came their stunning home upset of the favored Philadelphia Eagles, propelling them into the NFC championship game in Tampa, one step from the Super Bowl in only their fourth season.

But the Bucs fell flat with a heartbreaking 9-0 defeat to the Los Angeles Rams, losing Williams and Selmon to injury.

"They would have had to play the Super Bowl without Williams or Selmon, so it could have been one of the all-time Super Bowl wipeouts," says former public relations director Rick Odioso. "But what people forget is that at this time, the Bucs were regarded as a model expansion franchise. In an era with no free agency, to get to the '79 championship game in four years was one of the great NFL feats ever."

Williams agrees.

"If we'd have made it in '79, it would have been more amazing than now, because of the time -- four years," says Williams. "Also, compare ownership of this team and our team, and it's even more amazing. The Glazers are willing to pay for what they want. Where back in our era, we got there with an owner who was only about making money for himself."

Attitude problems and suspicions of substance abuse clouded the 1980 Bucs, who faltered to 5-10-1. But they rebounded in '81 and won the division.

The Bucs got off to a rocky start in '82, frantically trading a future first-round pick to get a second-round pick, then using it on all-time Buc bust Booker Reese. But in the strike-shortened season, Williams directed one frantic comeback after the next, as the Bucs won five of six to make the playoffs.

The team's future looked bright. Tampa was hosting the next Super Bowl, and the Bucs looked like a good bet to get there.

But it was all about to unravel.

Collapse, Part 1: 1983

Volumes have been written about Williams' contract dispute with Culverhouse, months after the quarterback's wife died of a brain tumor. The owner's failure to sign Williams over a reported $200,000 sent the team into a tailspin.

The Reign of Error was under way.

Williams had been the emotional leader of the team. His passing could be erratic, but he could carry the Bucs with his strong arm and gutsy play.

To replace him, McKay orchestrated a trade that sent a No. 1 pick to Cincinnati in exchange for the Throwin' Samoan, Jack Thompson, the Bengals' backup quarterback.

Thompson never was accepted by many players.

"Doug was a beloved member of the team, and I had not asked to be traded to the Bucs," says Thompson, a Seattle-area mortgage banker. "But I learned a lot. How situations can get out of control. My teammates were pretty ticked I was brought in to supplant Doug."

At first, Thompson even lost out to fan favorite Jerry Golsteyn, who started as the '83 season began.

It was a pitiful debut. Three starting linemen went down to injury on one series. Mistakes abounded. The next morning, the headline in the Times summed up the sorry state of affairs: Lions 11, Bucs nothing.

They lost their first nine games. And nothing epitomized the season more than Week 5 in Green Bay. The Bucs trailed 49-7 at halftime, an NFL record for most points scored in a half. After the 55-14 defeat, a Milwaukee reporter asked McKay to assess the Bucs. The coach replied: "Get the hell away from me before I punch you in the mouth."

Not long after, fans began showing up at Tampa Stadium wearing brown paper bags over their heads. Banners declared "The Yucs," "The Sucks" and "Throw McKay in the Bay."

Before the season finale, kicker Bill Capece was demoted for botching a potential victory over the Packers. "Capece is kaput," declared McKay.

At 2-14, so were the Bucs.

Collapse -- The Sequel: 1984

These Bucs were better. They finished 6-10, and could easily have won 10. But they were plagued by odd, last-minute collapses, like the time quarterback Steve DeBerg tripped over an offensive lineman's foot at the Kansas City 8, foiling a win.

Or the car crash on Dale Mabry Highway, which knocked All-Pro linebacker Hugh Green out for most of the season with an eye and wrist injury.

In the Bucs' next-to-last game, only 33,808 fans showed up to watch them beat Atlanta. It was the smallest home crowd to date, even smaller than the crowds drawn by the Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer team in the early '80s.

The season was perhaps best defined by what stands as the most bizarre sequence in team history. Opponents saw it as an NFL low-point. But for the Bucs, and their fans, it somehow fit the strange world that had become their norm.

It was McKay's last game as head coach, and a chance for tailback James Wilder to break the NFL record for total yards from scrimmage. As the fourth quarter approached, Wilder trailed Eric Dickerson's mark by only 39 yards.

The New York Jets wanted to ruin Wilder's fun. But McKay and the Bucs were determined. As the game wound down, Wilder still needed 16 yards.

Fans screamed "Wilder! Wilder!" The sound system blared Born to Be Wild and Born To Run. With a minute to play, the Jets had the ball at the Tampa Bay 2. The Bucs wanted the ball back immediately to give Wilder one last-ditch shot.

When the Jet tailback took the handoff, Tampa Bay defenders simply stood still -- even backpedaled -- as the player raced past them to score.

Wilder got his shot, and still fell 15 yards short. The Bucs won, handily. But chaos ensued.

"You're a f------ embarrassment to the National Football League," Jet quarterback Pat Ryan shouted in McKay's face, one of several Jets who screamed at McKay as he left the field for the last time.

"Shocking," McKay deadpanned in usual form after the game, "just shocking to hear such language on a football field."

Beasley Reece, one of the consistent bright spots for the Bucs in those two seasons, remembers the stand-still play well. He laughs at the memory.

"I actually played in a game where the coaching staff told me to let the opposing running back score, so that James Wilder could get the ball in the final seconds and break the record," says Reece, now a sports anchor at KYW-TV in Philadelphia. "That's so against what you're taught, but that's the kind of things that happened with the Buccaneers!"

The Wasteland: 1985-1995

This was the era when Bo said no.

In an embarrassing blow to the franchise, their No. 1 pick in 1986, Auburn running back Bo Jackson, spurned the lowly Bucs for baseball. They had wasted the top pick.

Some like to say the Bucs were being punished by the curse of Doug Williams.

One thing is certain: Not signing him triggered a chain reaction of costly moves to find a quarterback.

An array of top draft picks and trades were spent on the search, as Thompson led to DeBerg, to a young Steve Young, to Vinny Testaverde, to Chris Chandler to Craig Erickson to Trent Dilfer.

In true Buc tradition, many ex-Tampa Bay quarterbacks went on to stardom elsewhere. Williams, Young and Dilfer won Super Bowls, Chandler played in one, Testaverde reached the AFC title game.

One is headed for the Hall of Fame, but only after an inauspicious beginning.

When Steve Young arrived in Tampa in 1985, he unassumingly caught a ride from the airport in a reporter's beat-up Sentra. Later, he would often swing by the press room, asking a few Times writers how they thought he was doing and whether Bennett might start him soon.

Once in the starter's role, Young scrambled for his life. Then, in 1987, Perkins traded the future superstar to San Francisco to make room for Testaverde. His take: "I've got a lot of respect for Steve Young. Not that he's a great quarterback. He hasn't proven that yet ... "

And he might never have with Perkins, proclaimed by Culverhouse as "My Vince Lombardi." Culverhouse was dead wrong on that count, as he was with all his head coaches in this span.

He hired Bennett, who had been out of football several years selling RVs in Atlanta. He hired Perkins right off the bat, refusing to consider Steve Spurrier because Spurrier had shown up the Bucs while coaching the rival USFL's Tampa Bay Bandits. He hired Wyche, fired after a 3-13 season in Cincinnati.

At one point in 1989, a local radio station put up billboards with a screw next to Culverhouse's name. The owner once replied: "It doesn't matter how many times they paint billboards that say, "Screw you, Culverhouse.' Just win, baby, and everything will be all right."

But win they didn't. After a promising 5-2 start in 1995, they lost seven of their last nine games. Hugh Culverhouse Jr. pulls no punches in reviewing his late father's coaching choices.

"Ray Perkins was probably one of the best eaters of chocolate-covered peanuts ever. Could he communicate with his players? No. Did he insult them? Yes.

"My dad said he spent the entire night talking to him and I said, "Dad, you're hiring a guy after you spent the whole night talking to him? Isn't there a better way to do this?' "

Culverhouse Jr. said it was typical of the way his father did business.

"Kind of like hiring the fellow from Cincinnati," he says. "Sam Wyche was a nice guy who could tell a great joke. But did the players respect him, play for him? No. Richard (Williamson) was a nice guy, but is he Chucky?"

Changing of the guard: 1996-present

Gone are the cream-sicle orange uniforms and winking pirate logo -- replaced by bolder pewter and red, and a menacing skull and crossbones.

Tony Dungy arrived in '96 and quickly built a defense, and an new era of respect.

Gruden has added offensive balance and a fiery attitude. And now, a franchise and a community can finally savor new heights.

"I don't think there's a fan base in the nation that deserves this more than the Buccaneer fans," says Reece. "They have been through such an embarrassing run of futility. They -- we -- have been the butt of so many jokes over the years, for them finally to make it to the Big One is so great.

"All you have to do is get to the Super Bowl one time, and you have respect forever."

--Times staff writer Bruce Lowitt contributed to this story.

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