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Coaching the game within the game

Buccaneers' special teams coach Rich Bisaccia says he feels there's always something to improve on, even with the Super Bowl champions.

By JOEL POILEY
Published May 9, 2003

TAMPA PALMS - Rich Bisaccia was often right next to head coach Jon Gruden during crucial moments of last season's Buccaneers championship season. But special teams coaches are similar to officials. They don't get noticed unless there's a mistake.

Bucs fans may have forgotten that blocked punt Oakland returned for a touchdown because the Bucs were coasting to their first world championship by 24 points, but the play makes Bisaccia toss and turn at night.

"We were ahead by a large margin, but that play gave Oakland some momentum and got them back in the game for a while," Bisaccia said. "You always feel like there's something to improve on."

That motto carried Bisaccia from nearly 20 years of coaching in college at four schools, the last three at Mississippi, to Tampa with the Bucs. He wasn't seeking a pro job. But when Bisaccia interviewed with Gruden, kindred football spirits meshed.

"The impression I got from Coach Gruden was that everything is crucial," said Bisaccia, 43. "He had a similar spark for the things I have a passion for in life, and that is football and his respect and passion for the game."

Thinking the Bucs were getting a training facility off Morris Bridge Road and Fletcher Avenue, Bisaccia and his family settled in the Asbury section of Tampa Palms.

The training camp deal fell through, but that didn't stop Bisaccia, his wife of 18 years, Jeannie, and three of their children from settling in New Tampa. Their oldest, Michele, is a freshman at Arkansas.

The job has not disappointed him, nor has Gruden.

"It's exciting to be a part of his staff and feed off his energy," he said. And a high energy level is essential. Bisaccia leaves Tampa Palms well before sunrise, arriving at One Buccaneer Place shortly after Gruden appears at 4 a.m. His first meeting of the day is at 8 a.m., and he likes to be ready.

"The difference in pro football is that when you're done about 8 or 9 each night, you don't have two or three hours worth of recruiting calls to make," he said.

Still, there's little time to putter around in New Tampa. Jeanne is the one who volunteers at the children's schools: Lawton Chiles Elementary for 8-year-old Richie and 9-year-old Maddie and Liberty Middle for Elizabeth, 13.

"My dad was a construction worker," Bisaccia said. "When he got home and got out of the car, he looked like he had been beaten with a bat for 10 hours. I'm fortunate in that I love going to work and it's something different every day. It's always exciting and it's always challenging."

It might be easy, in hindsight, to say the Bucs were destined to win the Super Bowl.

But Bisaccia can point to specifics.

He credits Gruden's attention to every detail and planned-to-the-minute practices, crucial for an organization with a new staff and turnover in half its 53-player roster.

"Players gained confidence as the year went on. Not only in separate systems, but in each other. It was all a trust factor for everyone."

He had reason to believe when Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Mike Alstott and Brad Johnson exited Veterans Stadium after defeating Philadelphia for the National Football Conference title.

"They just had an aura about them that said, "Hey, we're not done,' " Bisaccia said. "They were pleased that we beat Philly, but they were very businesslike in approaching the Super Bowl and played with tremendous confidence and poise. It sounds crazy, but it was basically another game for us."

That included Gruden, who praised Bisaccia's work ethic and said he enjoys their brainstorming sessions.

"Rich Bisaccia is an excellent football coach, who I really enjoy working with," Gruden said. "He is a hard worker, extremely detail oriented and has a vast knowledge of the game. He has played a tremendous role in this organization's success."

In his work with special teams, Bisaccia is especially pleased to have earned the trust of All-Pro starters such as linebacker Derrick Brooks and cornerback Ronde Barber. They are the kamikaze pilots of football, running downfield at full steam into violent collisions with blockers while targeting a kick returner with sprinter speed.

This game within a game fascinates Bisaccia.

"There is so much scheming (game planning) going on where other teams are looking at your punt team, your kickoff team, your extra point team, that we're looking for players that can make plays in open space, which is the hardest thing to do in football," said Bisaccia, known for his innovative kick return blocking formations.

"In the pros, your starters on offense and defense don't play that much on special teams, so it's very exciting because you have to blend all these players together to find the right mix of guys to execute in your kicking game."

Like Gruden, Bisaccia sees this as more than a job.

"You only play 16 games, so there's an urgency there that makes football unique," he said, sipping iced tea from a football shaped glass. "Other sports, you play the next day or two days later. We have that full week to swallow it up, chew it up, dissect it and get ready for the next one."

Bisaccia was born in Yonkers, N.Y., and raised in Connecticut. He and Jeanne, 40, met while both attended Yankton College in South Dakota in the early 1980s. She's used to the nomadic lifestyle of coaches. But moving is not so easy on the children.

"They don't want to move when you first tell them," she said. "But we tell them it's going to be a new adventure and you'll meet new people just like you did here. This is the first planned community we've lived in, with a pool, a rec center and playground, so it's been good for them to make friends and meet people."

When the Bucs game plan is implemented, Bisaccia's week tapers off, allowing for a date night on Friday. Saturday afternoons are family time during the season before Bisaccia rejoins the team for final meetings at night.

While he hasn't seen much of Tampa, he has tasted its enthusiasm for the Bucs.

"It's been everything I hoped it would be and more," Bisaccia said.

"To be around the greatest athletes in the world, and seeing their work ethic, it's incredible to be a part of this. And to be in a pro town like Tampa, where it's like a college atmosphere and the stadium is packed, and working with Coach Gruden, who has a great passion for football, it's right where I want to be."

[Last modified May 8, 2003, 11:32:47]

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