TAMPA - It happened the minute Doug Williams walked through the doors of the locker room Thursday at One Buc Place.
The names over the wooden stalls had changed and the new coats of paint on the wall were a different color. But in an instant, the senses were stimulated and the mind began playing its tricks.
The years that had added a few pounds and reduced his hairline melted away and he began to notice the blare of a stereo that pounded out a beat heard only in his head.
"All I could think of was 1979," Williams said. "That was a great year for us. Every morning we would come to practice and (former Bucs linebacker Richard) "Batman' Wood was in there playing a tape and that tape said, Ain't No Stopping Us Now. And I could hear the tape walking in that locker room, I could hear that tape playing now."
But something always had stopped Williams from coming back to the Bucs.
For years, it was the scorn he felt for miserly owner Hugh Culverhouse and contract negotiations that turned bitter in 1983, forcing Williams to leave the team he led and loved.
"The feeling was one of disgust," former tight end Jimmie Giles said. "This guy was the quarterback. He was the leader of our ballclub. He was the man. If they weren't going to pay him, they weren't going to pay me. Once he left, all hope was lost for us."
After 21 years, Williams finally returned Thursday to the Buccaneers. Can hope be far behind?
Not according to Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen, the men who enticed Williams to leave his head coaching job after six years at Grambling State to work in the Bucs pro personnel department.
"This is great because it reminded me of my roots, because I started here," said Williams, 48. "It hurt when I left because it was almost like you couldn't go back to your past and I think every man should be able to go back where you started and feel comfortable wherever he goes. When I first left, it didn't feel that way.
"All the ghosts, if they're in this building, we need to get them out."
When Williams looked out at the assemblage of cameras, microphones and notepads during a news conference Thursday, he didn't see ghosts. Instead, seated in the front row were former Buccaneers Giles, Wood and quarterback Parnell Dickinson.
Williams, a first-round pick out of Grambling in 1978, led the Bucs to the playoffs three times, including a loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the 1979 NFC Championship game. But the nasty contract dispute after the '82 season resulted in him signing with the Oklahoma Outlaws of the USFL.
"What he accomplished here was truly remarkable when you look at what happened here before his arrival and what happened after he left," said general manager Allen.
The Bucs traded Williams' rights to the Washington Redskins in 1986 and two years later, he led Washington to a 42-10 rout of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII. A back injury forced his retirement in 1989.
The next year, he chronicled his feelings in an autobiography entitled Quarterblack: Shattering the NFL Myth.
"That amazes me. I wrote a book and everything and people say he was bitter," Williams said. "Was Jim McMahon bitter when he wrote his book? Nobody said that about Jim. That don't necessarily mean you're bitter because you're getting stuff off your chest. I think it's good when you get stuff off your chest."
In his heart, Williams had never left Tampa Bay. His mind-set began to change when the team was sold to Malcolm Glazer and the new ownership brought renewed interest to the former Bucs quarterback.
Tony Dungy invited Williams back to training camp in 1997 and offered him a position on his coaching staff, which he declined. Maybe Williams' presence was felt. The Bucs returned to the playoffs that season.
"It wasn't the death of (Culverhouse), I think it was more or less the ownership change," Williams said of his change of heart regarding the Bucs. "And of course, when they brought Tony Dungy in, that had a lot to do with it, too. I became a Buc fan then and when Gruden came in, I became more of a Buc fan.
"But when the ownership changed and those coaches came in, my mentality changed and I felt part of the organization again."
Williams was on the sideline when the Bucs lost to the Rams in the NFC Championship game in 1999. He was at home in Louisiana rooting for them two years ago when the Bucs beat Philadelphia in the conference championship and routed the Raiders to win Super Bowl XXXVII. "I probably threw more passes than Brad Johnson did that day," he said.
"This is a situation a lot of people don't understand and Jimmie Giles and I were talking about it at breakfast," Williams said. "I went to Chaneyville High School, went to Grambling and ended up in Tampa. Then I went to coach at Chaneyville High School, coached at Grambling, now back to Tampa. That's a double circle. That doesn't happen anymore."
Williams' new duties will be to work under Bucs pro personnel director Mark Dominic, breaking down film and analyzing talent for the free-agency signing period, which begins March3. He hopes to learn every aspect of the football operation, from the scouting department to the salary cap.
Gruden joked he wished Williams could still play. But Williams' vantage point will no longer be from field level.
"No, I'm going to be up with Bruce (Allen)," Williams said. "I'm going to get out of Jon's way. I don't want Jon to turn to me and say, "Who in the hell brought that guy in?"'
Credit Gruden for bringing Williams in after approaching him with the idea at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., last month. Wednesday night, their dinner with Bruce Allen at Fleming's was interrupted by well-wishers, including Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
"That's a great feeling when you can go somewhere and people think of you as part of this city and say, "Welcome home,"' Williams said. "It feels good to know that I can still say I have a home in Tampa."
As for the long-rumored curse many Tampa Bay fans thought Williams placed on the Bucs?
"Curse? Let me ask you a question," Williams said. "When I left, how many games did they win? If I had put a curse on them, I can promise you they wouldn't have won any."
THE ROAD BACK
Where Doug Williams has been in the years since he last wore a Bucs uniform