Roughly thirty-six and a half years ago, in January 1980, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers played the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game. The Bucs would lose 9-0 on field goals, in what by all accounts was a boring contest, but this was a team, and a season, steeped in franchise lore. Imagine: the Bucs had entered 1979 with a three-year record of 7-37. They were, at the time, the only team to have ever gone “O-for-a season,” and had recently lost a mind-boggling twenty-six games in a row. But somehow, to the euphoria of Bucs fans everywhere, there they were, one game from the Super Bowl.
However, in retrospect, it’s easy to see how the once hapless Bucs—the “Yucks” we called them—got good. They had a solid offense, led most notably by a tough-as-nails quarterback named Doug Williams, among others, and one of the best defenses to ever play in the league. Think Lee Roy Selmon, David Lewis, Mark Cotney, Cecil Johnson, Dewey Selmon, and Richard “Batman” Wood. Yet, what struck me, as a writer, wasn’t the story of worst-to-first; it was the story of how, in going 10-6 and winning the NFC Central Division title and upsetting the Philadelphia Eagles in the playoffs, the suddenly upstart Bucs had brought the Bay Area together.
In fact, as I read various newspaper accounts of the Bucs’ 1979 playoff run, I was amazed at how similar Bucs fans were to Americans of all stripes, when, just two weeks later, the underdog U.S. hockey team defeated the Soviets 4-3 in the “Miracle on Ice.” As one reporter described it, there was “a strange sense of elation . . . unlike anything I could remember in a half century of sports. It was almost like Christmas or the day World War II ended…The high price of gas was forgotten, and it seemed good to be alive. More important, it was great to be an American.” Although, admittedly, the vaunted “Miracle on Ice” was a far greater accomplishment than the Bucs’ 1979 playoff run, for the first time maybe ever, as Tampa Bay met Los Angeles in the 1980 NFC Championship Game, it was great to be a Buc.
I pick up the story below on pages 172-75 of my new book, The Yucks: Two Years in Tampa with the Losingest Team in NFL History:
Even so, the press called Tampa Bay’s victory [over the Eagles] “shocking,” “astonishing,” “stunning,” “amazing,” or, as the New York Times put it, a “wonderment.” “Don’t laugh,” it wrote, “but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are one win away from the Super Bowl. . . . The National Football League’s greatest contribution to national humor, a team that lost its first twenty-six games and gained more punch lines than yards, qualified for the National Football Conference championship game.” The shock soon went global. In Tehran, Iran, American hostages entering their second month of captivity were visited and given news updates by Rev. William Howard, the leader of an ecumenical delegation, who said many of them “were surprised to learn that Tampa Bay was in the running.”
One team that wasn’t in the running was the Dallas Cowboys, the preseason NFC favorite upset 21–19 by the Rams. Since Tampa Bay had beaten the Rams and had a better record (10-6 versus 9-7), it would now host the NFC Championship Game at home. “Don’t pinch yourself,” wrote journalist Jack Gurney, “and don’t blink. This might not be happening.” In fact, “there are no adjectives left to describe the meteoric rise in the fortunes of this young Buccaneer franchise. . . . It has happened so fast, heads in the Tampa Bay area are spinning.”
In fact, they were spinning, in one instance due to carbon monoxide poisoning. In January 1980, as five thousand people braved 30-degree temperatures while waiting forty-eight hours in a ticket line, a group of four Buc fans nearly died after falling asleep in a car with the engine running. When paramedics revived the fans, they refused a trip to the hospital, to keep their spots in line. Police in dozens of communities reported hectic but still orderly scenes at Bay Area ticket outlets, but, as a precaution, escorted Tampa Stadium ticket vendors away from the facility once tickets ran out.
In all, the Bucs sold 28,000 tickets—the rest going to 44,000 season-ticket holders—in four and a half hours. At Tampa Stadium, at department stores in St. Petersburg, Bradenton, Sarasota, and Lakeland, at banks in Venice, at nonprofits in Clearwater and Spring Hill, and at sporting goods stores in Ocala, among others, the scene was essentially the same: Bucs fans spending the night, with blankets and bonfires and space heaters, waiting for tickets. Russell Rine, who’d driven fifty miles into Tampa to sit for two days, told the Tampa Tribune, “I vowed that if the Bucs made the playoffs they deserved my support. So here I am. . . . I haven’t been bored a bit. I’m just enjoying these people and making friends. Besides, I’ve got this bottle of Jack Daniel’s. . . . This is going to be the baddest party in the state of Florida tonight.”
Without a doubt, the once-woeful Bucs, now heroes in 1979, had brought the Bay Area together. People spoke of “Bucs Fever” and “Bucs Mania” and everyone, everywhere, wore orange. Through Christmas and New Year’s, the most-requested song on Tampa-area radio stations was the team’s unofficial fight song, “Hey Hey, Tampa Bay!” which got more requests than Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” or the Rupert Holmes hit “Escape (The Piña Colada Song.)” In Sarasota, a city sixty miles to the south of Tampa, Mayor Fred Soto declared December 31, 1979, to January 6, 1980, “Tampa Bay Buccaneer Week.” The team held a pep rally, complete with an autograph session and a cheerleading performance by the Swashbucklers, at a mall in St. Petersburg. “Never has Tampa been so united,” declared an article in the Tampa Tribune titled “Buccaneer Fever Sweeps Tampa Bay.” “Ask a cab driver, a doctor, a postman, a garbage collector, a lawyer, a child, a clerk, a retired person from Michigan. They’re all talking Buccaneers.”
A week earlier, at the start of the Eagles game, CBS announcer Jack Whitaker put it best: “John McKay is the only professional coach ever to survive a twenty six-game losing streak, the only coach to go from nothing in four years to a playoff. And in the process, the Tampa Bay Bucs have solidified the towns that fringe on the edge of Tampa Bay” and “these communities now share something else than just a drive to the airport.”
As the Bucs took the field against the Rams, fans on one side of Tampa Stadium yelled “TAMPAAAA!!!” while fans on the other side yelled “BAAAYYYY!!!” “TAMPAAAA!!!” “BAAAYYYY!!!” “TAMPAAAA!!!” “BAAAYYYY!!!” It was mesmerizing. And though the upstart Bucs lost 9–0, and were outrun, out-hit, and out-possessioned by a better football team, the fans gave the Buccaneers a last-minute standing ovation. They even yelled “TAMPAAAA!!!” “BAAAYYYY!!!” as Rams quarterback Vince Ferragamo downed the ball and the Rams ran out the clock.