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Big Sombrero

[Times files, 1995: Maurice Rivenbark]
To see a QuickTime movie of the past and future stadium click here.
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© St. Petersburg Times, published September 18, 1998

Please invite me to the big knockdown of the Big Sombrero. Can I throw out the first wrecking ball? Memories are rich. Nostalgia ample. But the demolition of Houlihan's Stadium (nee Tampa Stadium) belongs not in the emotional league of flattening, say, Ebbets Field in Brooklyn or old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland.

Still, as an outmoded blob of steel becomes passe on Dale Mabry Highway, my mind does click with cherished recollections. Mental videotapes. Nothing bigger than Super Bowl XXV, with Desert Storm so entwined into the American consciousness. Whitney Houston's anthem, the mega-security, mass waving of little U.S. flags, a thundering flyover by our jets of war and even a colossal football occurance with Scott Norwood's errant kick allowing the Giants to beat Buffalo.

Closing my eyes, thinking back, I see Lee Roy Selmon earning his place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Doug Williams lofting a bomb to Jimmie Giles. Hardy Nickerson sacking then flexing. Also, prior to his 49ers wide-receiver days, "Fast Freddie" Solomon darting, ducking, dashing and creating as quarterback of the UT Spartans.

Remember them?

Big Sombrero was also home to Super Bowl XVIII, when the Raiders were champs and living in Los Angeles. But, above all, are 22 sporadically enjoyable but predominantly fruitless seasons of the Buccaneers. John McKay coaching the originals, with tipped-down golf hat and fired-up wisecracks.

Built with 46,000 seats in 1967 for University of Tampa games, a generation later the facility was 60 percent bigger and had become the cradle of USF football.

Pro football was hardly a local fantasy 31 years ago, but Tampa Stadium proponents expressed hunger for an NCAA postseason game, like the Orange Bowl in Miami and Jacksonville's Gator Bowl. Eventually, the Outback Bowl became a prized tenant.

Soccer is a long-running tenant, but sadly, the modern MLS Mutiny has not matched the community captivation of the Tampa Bay Rowdies a generation ago. When turnstiles spun with 26,000 per game. Coming to see Pele and his New York Cosmos or a fierce downstate NASL rival from Fort Lauderdale.

In the '90s, shortcomings of Tampa/Houlihan's Stadium became increasingly evident. Shinier, more patron-friendly football palaces were appearing in Miami, Jacksonville, Charlotte and Atlanta. Big Sombrero seemed to get hotter, stickier, more uncomfortable and less of a jewel of municipal pride.

There was a mighty fight. New stadiums cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Taxpayers are difficult to convince. It took a threat of losing to the Bucs to Baltimore or Cleveland or some other NFL-seeking place. Emotions became inflamed. There was screaming ugliness. Even a former Tampa mayor spending his own fortune in a silly, hopeless attempt to block the building of a new stadium. But the outcome, a remarkable new sporting place with the bought-and-paid-for name of Raymond James, seems to be worth it.

Someday, they may tear down Fenway Park in Boston, akin to what happened to Ebbets in Brooklyn. You can bet the Green Monster, the towering homer wall, will be hacked into a million little swatches. To be sold at maybe $200 per. Or even $500. Such things are treasured. Collected. A century from now, somebody will be scalping a chunk of the Monster for a hundred grand or so.

I'm not much of a collector. To me, Big Sombrero is not worth such frenzied bother. No more than my old '60 stick-shift Ford when I bought a new Dodge. I could be wrong. Perhaps some woman in Lutz will want a slab of aluminum bench, like the one in Section KK where she sat for Bucs games. Some guy in Pinellas Park may crave the burned-out bulbs from one of the lousiest scoreboards on NFL earth. A kid in Bradenton could come after a square yard of midfield sod for replanting and honoring in his back yard.

Maybe the old joint is more of a collectible than I think. I'd sooner blow it to rubble, making room for new Bucs practice fields and a few parking places. I've always got those videotapes in my mind.

Nice to know you, Raymond.

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