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Farewell to charm?

These are not the same, familiar Bucs. And not just because the team's GM and many players are different. After a 7-9 season, change was necessary. But Bucs fans do not necessarily agree with the manner. Or lack of manners.

DAVE SCHEIBER
Published May 23, 2004

On a balmy Sunday evening, hundreds of VIP guests packed a massive tent on the well-manicured lawn of Old Memorial Golf Club in Tampa.

Past and present NFL stars had come to enjoy a lavish pairings party for Derrick Brooks' annual Celebrity Golf Classic, teeing off the next morning.

Invitees to the exclusive event, closed to the media, enjoyed dinner and drinks and a charity auction held by the Bucs linebacker. Deion Sanders was on hand to emcee from a stage in the middle of the tent, filled with a host of Bucs, including coach Jon Gruden.

In the midst of the party, exactly three weeks ago, some of those in the audience recall how Gruden was on stage to help with the auction.

All eyes were on the charismatic coach when an unexpected guest arrived. A roar of cheers and applause rippled through the tent, as those in attendance diverted their attention from Gruden and rose from their seats in a standing ovation.

Old No. 47, John Lynch, was back in town.

Suddenly, the bash had morphed into a metaphor for the recent strife engulfing the Bucs: the parting with familiar ties to the past, the onset of big changes that have created a big chill with many fans and a distinct air of community disillusionment with a new Buc way of doing business.

The applause continued, and Gruden joined in the chorus of affection with a "Hey, I love you, John."

But there simply was no getting around it: The man on stage had been upstaged by the man off it - one of the franchise's most popular players, and the guy Gruden and new Bucs general manager Bruce Allen had released barely two months before.

Despite the awkward moment, Lynch and Gruden embraced and shared some conversation - the first time the coach had spoken to his ex-defensive captain since before the release - and the celebratory mood of the night continued.

Still, the scene symbolized how much things have changed for Gruden and Tampa Bay in 14 months, with one ex-Buc the linchpin of fan discontent.

"It's not fun to cheer for them anymore," says longtime Bucs supporter Orrin Gowen of St. Petersburg. "Gruden was king of the world not long ago, but he seems to be going out of his way to just throw it all away."

A coach tries to right the champions' ship

Two seasons ago, Gruden was the golden child of Tampa Bay, with the sandy-haired surfer looks and the Chucky doll facial scrunch.

He was the offensive-minded boy genius pried away from the Raiders in a dramatic, after-midnight deal, helping the Glazer family save face after losing out on much-coveted Bill Parcells.

The almost-hometown kid who then returned to the city of his teens and brought the Bucs their only Super Bowl title in his first try - beating his old team and boss, Al Davis, in the process.

Talk about a storybook script.

But then, who could have guessed how quickly the Super Bowl luster would fade with last year's 7-9 season and the sudden, forceful way Gruden began to assert his authority, hoping to save the listing Buccaneers ship.

In short order, he began swinging his saber at everyone not rolling in the same direction, pushing familiar names off the Bucs plank.

Gone was controversial Pro Bowl wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, fired in midseason for rubbing Gruden the wrong way one too many times.

Gone was longtime general manager Rich McKay, forced out after opposing Gruden on player personnel decisions once too often, then re-emerging as GM with conference-rival Atlanta just one week later.

Gone was sometimes troublesome All-Pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp, whose brashness had come to symbolize the punishing Bucs defense, but whom the Bucs made no effort to retain as a free agent.

And gone was Lynch. Without ceremony.

In fact, it turns out the Devil Rays had planned to stage one for him. Just days after news of his release, the Rays decided they wanted Lynch to throw out the first pitch at their Tropicana Field opener.

Since Lynch was under contract to the Bucs while he shopped for a new team, the Rays called the Buccaneers front office as a courtesy, to make sure it was okay to tap Lynch to do the honors. Rays fans, many of whom are Bucs fans, undoubtedly would have showered Lynch with love.

But it never happened. The Bucs conveyed the message that they would be uncomfortable with Lynch throwing out the first pitch. Fortunately for the Rays, the next day, St. Petersburg boxer Winky Wright won the junior middleweight title and emerged as a great choice to toss out the first pitch.

The Rays would not confirm or deny the report.

The Bucs, for their part, say they hear no shortage of positive fan sentiment.

"Some of the writing in your newspaper might not be real positive, but a lot of the support we've had internally and from outsiders has been tremendous," Gruden says. "You have to weigh that a little bit. Nobody liked losing John Lynch. Not me. Not anybody. But sometimes change is part of this game."

Changing of the guard

When Lynch finally did get his sendoff, McKay and Warren showed up. But it was WQYK radio personality Dave McKay, as emcee, and country artists, the Warren Brothers, providing the music.

And it was a hockey venue, not a football field.

The surprise farewell party, arranged by a friend, took place early this month at the Lightning's arena, on the patio of the St. Pete Times Forum. No Bucs brass was on hand, but Tampa mayor Pam Iorio, former mayor Dick Greco, plenty of ex-teammates and retired general Tommy Franks were all there, heaping praise on Lynch as hundreds of fans in No. 47 jerseys cheered.

The event soothed some of his hurt. The five-time Pro Bowl safety had maintained he still could make a big contribution to the Bucs, after offseason neck surgery to repair an injury that plagued him in 2003. He dreamed of retiring as a Buc in a community that viewed him as an upstanding citizen as well as a tough football player.

In his first conversation with Allen, however, Lynch learned he no longer was in the Bucs' plans.

Instead, he would receive no offer and represent $4.2-million in salary cap savings to the Bucs, allowing them to pursue an array of other signings.

The upshot of it all: The area that had grown so attached to its homegrown football heroes, watching them blossom from draft picks to stars, feeling a deep connection to them, faced a new, less-cozy reality.

Those feel-good ties to the old Tony Dungy regime of 1996-2002 were effectively severed amid the unexpected, injury-plagued tumble last season. Meanwhile, Gruden moved fast to transform the organization into the image he wanted it to be - taking not only a page of the "Just win, baby" philosophy of Oakland's maverick owner Davis, but taking along the Raiders' senior assistant, too.

Literally within hours of Tampa Bay's season-ending loss, Allen was on a flight to Palm Beach to meet with owner Malcolm Glazer and his sons about rejoining Gruden, as GM of the Bucs.

So the Raiders tandem is reunited, seemingly embracing some of the blunt, independent ways of the Oakland franchise they left behind. This is Gruden's team now. He and Allen have brought in 21 new players in an attempt to return the Bucs to their championship form.

If that means signing a player such as defensive tackle Darrell Russell, suspended twice by the league for violating its substance abuse policy and who once was charged in connection with a sexual assault, so be it. (Russell was accused of being an accomplice in the drugging of a woman and with videotaping the assault by two of his friends; the 25 felony counts against the three were dropped due to lack of evidence).

If it means standing by running back Michael Pittman, who recently spent two weeks in jail on a felony charge stemming from a domestic incident, it's done. (Pittman was accused of using his Hummer in 2003 to ram a Mercedes-Benz that carried his wife, their 2-year-old son and a babysitter. He was suspended for one game in 2001 after a similar arrest on a misdemeanor charge and could face a multiple-game NFL suspension now.) This begs the questions: Has the golden boy coach lost some of his shine in quest of another shimmering Lombardi Trophy? Does the organization seem a bit ruthless?

And will any of this matter if they win again?

"All that it comes down to is how the team does on the field," says Ken Herock, a former player personnel director of the Bucs, the Raiders and the Falcons and who now runs Pro Prep, a Georgia company that prepares top prospects for the draft.

"Hey, listen, if you fix it, you'd better win. Because if you fix it and don't win, then you're really going to be in trouble."

Angry words from fans over a new Buc brand

It's difficult to get a scientific reading on fan sentiment. But in the weeks after Lynch's release and in the wake of Russell's signing soon after, the intensity of opinions expressed in letters to the editor and on local sports talk airwaves was off the charts.

"It's hard to define where the line is, but I know when it's been crossed, and these people seem to me to have just trampled all over it," says Gowen.

"Darrell Russell is the most egregious example. He has every right to straighten out his life. That doesn't mean he has every right to do it for a lot of money in the NFL and have a jersey that says Tampa Bay on it and have me root for him."

Allen's comment to the media that former President Clinton "did worse things than Darrell Russell" triggered a flurry of angry responses.

"What is that supposed to mean?" asks Martin Altner, 57, of Safety Harbor. "That comment was insulting to me as an American."

"You can't fake class," says St. Petersburg's Bud Risser, 61, a Bucs season-ticket holder from the charter season in 1976. "You can't fake caring about people. That stuff either exists or it doesn't. I guess the bottom line is now that they've brought Russell in and treated Lynch the way they have, I'm beginning to understand who they are, no matter who they say they are. And I'm embarrassed for this area, 'cause we deserve better than this."

Risser says he's reluctant to give up his season tickets because a regime change in the future might make him want to come back, leaving him stuck at the end of a very long season-ticket waiting list.

"I haven't decided whether to sell them or not," he says. "All I know is that I'm normally excited about the Bucs this time of year. Right now, I feel like my sister is marrying some guy I don't like, but I have to go to the wedding."

Not everyone agrees.

"John Lynch was a heck of a player and a man," says Rick Falkenstein, a manager of the Hurricane Restaurant on Pass-a-Grille who helped out with a huge Bucs booster club in the 1980s. "But as the years went on, he lost a step. Look at last year and the year before. He's a very smart and kind man, but he was slowing down, and that can cost you games."

Falkenstein says all the changes haven't dampened his optimism for this season. But change isn't always received well. Consider the case of New Coke in 1985: Coca Cola bigwigs tinkered with the tastes of their loyal clientele and learned people liked the old formula a lot more. Are the Bucs adjusting their brand now?

If so, how will the New Bucs flavor fly?

"If there's a corporate brand or identity in the NFL it tends to be that of the coach," says Wayne Garcia, a partner in the public affairs and communications consulting firm of Garcia, Mackin and Associates in Tampa. "I think what you're seeing is sort of a classic repositioning and re-branding of what it means to be a Buc - from Tony Dungy, who represented the kinder, gentler, involved-in-the-community, feel-good (approach) with those kind of players. Jon Gruden's public persona is more of a take-no-prisoners, winning-is-everything kind of approach.

"Where it will really shake out is if they win. The perception that the team has changed in a fundamental way in terms of its character will mean absolutely nothing, because in pro sports, especially in the NFL, when you win it really doesn't quite matter how you do it. And all will be forgiven."

As for Lynch, Garcia gives low marks for the way the departure was handled. "From a pure public relations standpoint, you could say that wasn't handled the best way, because you could have given him a glorious sendoff. But when you're creating a new brand, there's something to be said for "The past is the past, and the future is the future.' "

The Raider Way

Or perhaps it's "The future is now."

The phrase was made famous by Allen's legendary coaching father, George Allen, when he transformed the Redskins into winners in the 1970s.

The phrase is one Gruden seems to live by.

It's no secret that he favors older free agents over rookies, a Raider trademark. Al Davis and Co. are famous for leaving no stones unturned in search of players. They often bring in one-time pedigree types near the end of their careers, sign them to long-term contracts with low base salaries, and stretch out the impact on the salary cap (one of Allen's strengths).

Plenty of veterans really want to play for Gruden, who still has the Super Bowl aura, and readily accept modest or bare-minimum deals on the Bucs' terms.

The philosophy is win for today and worry about tomorrow later; in stark contrast to the grow-as-a-family style of the old Bucs under McKay, who declined to be interviewed for this story. The new family is heavy on ex-Raiders. Beyond Gruden and Allen, there are running back Charlie Garner, offensive tackle Matt Stinchcomb, re-signed tight end Rickey Dudley, and Russell, who essentially replaces Sapp, now playing for Oakland.

Meanwhile, the Bucs have grown older. In fact, nine of their 11 offensive starters are over 30. But after last year's disappointment, Gruden is more impatient than ever.

"Jon is totally obsessed," says Joe Theismann, former Redskins quarterback and ESPN analyst. "He never looks back. The only time he looks back is when he looks at film to see how he can get better."

His vision of how to get better often conflicted with McKay's. They clashed increasingly over personnel decisions last season, with a well-publicized disagreement over whether to sign future of Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith in late March 2003.

Gruden wanted Smith. McKay felt bringing in the the ex-Cowboys standout as a backup, and paying him a minimum salary, could be a distraction. "There was a power struggle going on there," said Smith, who backed away from the Bucs and signed with the Cardinals. Soon after, Gruden professed his support for McKay at the Devil Rays' home opener of 2003, where the two threw out the ceremonial first pitches. ("I have a lot of respect for ... Rich to keep me in line.").

It's not the first time Gruden's words didn't match his actions. "I'm on record saying I really like Brad Johnson, and I think he's a hell of a football player," Gruden said in January, denying reports that he was interested in Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell, who was about to become a free agent, and possible Oakland free agent Rich Gannon.

But two months later came the flirtation with free-agent quarterback Jeff Garcia of the 49ers, who was reportedly close to signing a lucrative, multi-year deal with the Bucs before abruptly signing with the Browns. It was hardly a big vote of confidence for Johnson. Gruden has said he's simply trying to bring in the best players he can to compete and make the Bucs better. He's always looking for an edge, and his edge is never sitting still, never being satisfied.

At the NFL meetings after the Bucs' Super Bowl win, he didn't seem able to enjoy the glory, appearing visibly uncomfortable with all the back-slapping and attention from colleagues. "I hate it," he remarked. "I feel like a big, fat, red tomato and everybody wants to take a bite out of me."

He was right. His Bucs soon would be bitten hard.

The business of football

Gruden's new edge is the firm control he has now.

As coach, he decides what he wants, and Allen is there to carry it out. But John Lynch Sr., a radio station owner in San Diego, is not at all happy about the treatment he feels his son received from Allen.

"I don't think this would ever have happened if Rich McKay had stayed as GM," he says. "I think that No. 1, he had a true appreciation for John's role in the community, and I think he takes that into consideration when making decisions. Now, certainly, Bruce Allen and Jon Gruden, it's their call and they can make whatever football decisions they think are best.

"I personally feel that John played a huge role in turning around the Bucs with his leadership, and they're going to miss it desperately."

Lynch Sr. doesn't like the Raider-esque tendencies he's sensing at One Buc Place, either.

"Bruce Allen has been at the right hand of Al Davis all these years, and I just think it's the wrong way to operate as an individual and an organization," he says.

The elder Lynch has carried Chargers broadcasts for 20 years and says he's intimately aware of the Raider ways: "And what you've got in Tampa now is Raiders East. I've seen the kind of people and players and the maverick approach to football the Raiders have demonstrated. We as a family place a lot on integrity, and I just don't think there's a whole lot of integrity shown here.

"Clearly, if they wanted to cut John, there was a way to do it in a professional manner. At the end of the day, it may work out for John. But I think it was handled very poorly, and I think Bruce Allen underestimated the reaction in the community."

Not so, says Allen: "It's a passionate fan base, and I've seen that same reaction when Emmitt Smith left Dallas, when Sonny Jurgensen left the Redskins and Johnny Unitas left Baltimore. Each case had a different twist to it, but I'm glad fans love their players."

Allen also says that not all the facts on the Bucs' side have come out, but "I don't want to hurt anyone's thoughts or feelings about John. My conversations with players, I keep confidential," even if it means he personally takes the heat.

Allen did say there were three elements in the discussion with Lynch: health, playing status and economics, but no common ground could be found.

"(John) had his opportunity to stay here," says Gruden, "but he chose to move on for what he perceived to be a better opportunity."

Counters his father: "I think John would have played for next to minimum with incentives, just to complete his career there. He was just anxious to get the team back to the Super Bowl."

Ron Wolf, retired general manager of the championship Packers who helped oversee the formation of the Bucs, sees it differently from a distance.

"I wouldn't think there's too much to worry about with (Gruden and Allen), because they seem to work well together," he says. "And Gruden's track record speaks for itself."

Lynch, meanwhile, has maintained a positive outlook and still thinks highly of Gruden as a coach and motivator. At his farewell, he talked about how the party had created closure, and how odd it would be to have to tackle Mike Alstott in the fourth week of the season in Tampa.

Said Alstott: "It's sad. We've grown up as a family together. I've grown up as a professional under his wing. There will never be another John Lynch."

It might be summed up best by a scene in The Godfather Part II, when Lee Strasberg's character tells Al Pacino's about the riddance of a well-liked colleague: "This is the business we've chosen."

Many league observers say what happened to Lynch is just the nature of the game and happens to fan favorites year in, year out.

Still, does the organization - run by Glazer owners renowned for their sometimes clumsily executed business tactics (such as the handling of Dungy's firing) - have a colder feel to it now?

"Definitely, but for us, I think that's kind of how it is all the time," says cornerback Ronde Barber.

"We all want to love our players for the length of their careers and everything else. But you know, it's still a business."

Times staff writer Rick Stroud and research librarian John Martin contributed to this story.

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