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A lot changed around Tampa Bay in the last 20 months

By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2003


It was enriching, rolling into the Tampa Bay area 20 months after relocating to Virginia. Observing, hearing and feeling the evolutions of a community.

What a knockout, seeing the realization of gushing potential in downtown St. Pete. In 20 months since I moved away, more towers of residential elegance arose, framing a precious waterfront. Big boats bobbed. BayWalk buzzed. For a weekend, worldly race cars roared.

Clearly, it's a 21st century catalyst, with another 20 months sure to deliver even more bright, successful, energetic people to urban homes, offering a wealth of daily treasures within a gorgeous walk.

Sleepy town no more.

Wheeling east, as the tumult of Super Bowl XXXVIII settled into a rich simmer, my Tampa Bay comeback tour headed for One Buccaneer Place, where for 25 seasons I interviewed and dissected far too many bad teams and doomed coaches.

But now, happy One Buc switchboard voices answer, "World champion Buccaneers." Down the hall, I shook hands with Monte Kiffin; the millionth congrats for the lord of Bucs defense.

Moving on to the less-than-fancy office from where boss jocks named Dungy, Wyche, Perkins and McKay have operated; entering what is now the darkened, videotape-clogged throne of Jon Gruden.

King of Tampa Bay.

His dad, Jim, an old coach, has been my a friend for 20 years. But, until now, I never really knew Jon. Like most everybody, I would be wowed, charmed and entertained.

Gruden is 39 but so embraces the past he could be 93. No need to explain it was an old newspaper columnist dropping by. Forty-five minutes of spirited exchange would show that Jon, in some ways, knows me better than I know myself.

Often, when a fresh hero hits town, the scheme is to sweep away history. Because it's not the new stud's deal. Gruden, though, is vigorous youth with vast appreciation for what has gone on before; like some hot contemporary artist who openly hugs old masters as well as many who have tried.

With an unsubsiding smile, and no Chucky sneers, Gruden was voracious to talk old Bucs, from their 0-26 begining to the repetitive 2-14 frights of the '80s, to the promise of Tony Dungy's reign that pushed Tampa Bay close but not quite into a Super Bowl.

Two years ago, when Jon was coaching Oakland in the playoffs, his dad told me a terrific story of how the feisty son, as a 20-year-old University of Dayton quarterback, was given an inglorious summer heave-ho from One Buc Place.

In our tete-a-tete, Jon confirmed every sentence; showing up at the NFL shop where Jim was an early-1980s assistant to John McKay; being told by Phil Krueger, henchman for then-owner Hugh Culverhouse, that no outsiders were allowed to watch those weakling Bucs practice.

Scrappy kid met the challenge.

"Yep, I made my way to the old Hall of Fame Inn next door, slipped past the front desk and found stairs to the roof," Jon recalled. There, lying on belly, with maybe four dollars in his undergraduate jeans, Gruden spent an hour spying on the Bucs' workout.

"Who could've imagined," I asked Jon, "that the turned-away kid, stealing views of those bad Bucs, would be the coach who a generation later prodded the long-lousy franchise to Super Bowl delight?" Gruden's grin became even more voluminous.

Next day, I was at the training base of a Tampa Bay pro sports team now struggling like those battered Bucs of yore.

Spring is a time for baseball hope, from Florida to Arizona, but for the Rays the hope is that they won't drop 100 games, won't again finish in the AL East dungeon and will begin emergence from a messy past.

Gruden pushed the Bucs to optimum accomplishment, so Devil Rays afficinados hope their new chief, Lou Piniella, can pull a Chucky. If anybody can, Lou can. But the question is, can anybody?

But there has been no baseball Dungy to amass roster strength, laying a stout foundation from which there can be a leap to greatness. This isn't quite oranges and tangelos; in many ways, the crawling D-Rays are not like the smacked-around Bucs of the past.

In the NFL, every franchise gets the same annual windfall from network TV; all working with the same player funds, which $75-million. Baseball is horribly out of financial balance. With the Yankees able to spend $140-mil on talent, how do the Rays come close at barely over $20-mil?

They don't.

Piniella's best hope is to pick, from a less-than-imposing pool, a team that plays hard all the time, shows marvelous attitude and hustles to a few unexpected wins even against the Yanks, Red Sox, Braves and Angels.

It's a sweet place, Tampa Bay, with celebrations of the present along with the hopes and challenges ahead. Be proud of your homeland. I am.

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