Forty years ago this November, in 1976, the 0-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers played the 4-4 Denver Broncos on the road. At the time—and no, this isn’t a typo—the Bucs and Broncos were both members of the AFC West, because the NFL had decided that for the 1976 and 1977 seasons, the expansion Bucs would play at least one game against every team in the league. Therefore, in 1976, they played an AFC-only schedule as members of the AFC West, then in 1977, jumped divisions to a play an NFC-only slate as members of the NFC Central. (They also played the Seattle Seahawks, the league’s other expansion franchise, both years).
As expected, the Bucs’ one and only AFC schedule had been a tough one. They’d been shellacked at Baltimore and beaten badly by several other teams, but it was in Denver that the wheels came off. Leading 13-10 in the third, the Bucs would give up an astonishing 38 points in 9 minutes, a near-NFL record, to lose the contest 48-13. Bucs’ coach John McKay then challenged Broncos’ coach John Ralston to a fight, and was so enraged, reportedly, that after the game he gave players just fifteen minutes to make it to the bus. The only problem? He left Hugh Culverhouse, the team’s owner, standing in the parking lot. It was not a good day.
I pick up the story below on pages 85-87 of my new book, The Yucks: Two Years in Tampa with the Losingest Team in NFL History:
The futility of the Bucs’ first season was epitomized on November 7, 1976. On a beautiful day at Denver’s Mile High Stadium, kicker Dave Green booted through a 35-yard field goal, giving the Buccaneers a 13–10 lead. At 0-8, the Bucs were seventeen-point underdogs, but surprisingly led the Broncos with 4:07 left in the third. This was a winnable game. Unfortunately, the Broncos scored thirty-eight points in nine minutes. They managed two interception returns, a fumble return, a 71-yard pass, a 9-yard run, and a field goal to suddenly crush the Bucs 48–13. That’s thirty-eight points in nine minutes. The NFL record, to that point, was forty-one points in a quarter. Denver had three defensive touchdowns, but John McKay accused Broncos coach John Ralston of running up the score. The two men had known each other in college. From 1963 to 1971, Ralston had coached at Stanford, where he was 2-7 versus McKay but had beaten the USC coach his last two years.
McKay hated him for it. “He’s a prick,” said the Buccaneer coach after the game. “He always was a prick. I hope he gets fired.” Standing on the sidelines, McKay pointed at Ralston and cursed. He then refused to shake hands. Back in the locker room, the seething coach was so mad that he gave players just fifteen minutes to shower, collect their things, and make it to the bus. They all made it, miraculously, but a person in the traveling party who didn’t was owner Hugh Culverhouse, who ran through the parking lot throwing rocks at the bus and yelling “Stop! Stop! I own the team!”
That was McKay: acerbic, imperious, “a cross,” wrote one journalist, “between Richard Nixon and Captain Queeg.” On Mondays, McKay hosted the McKay television show, where he and Tampa’s WTVT Channel 13 sports director Andy Hardy reviewed “highlights” from the previous day’s game. Hardy wore an orange Buccaneers blazer. The carpet was orange. There was a desk and two chairs and on the wall above the set was “Bucco Bruce,” the team’s mascot. McKay did no preparation; each week he came to the studio in a gray Cadillac Seville driven by team assistant Dick Beam. When he walked in, the show began. Hardy: “So, Coach, there were bad snaps on both extra-point attempts against the Dolphins. I’m sure we don’t want to throw blame on anybody, but . . .” McKay: “Yes, I do, Andy. One snap was high, the other was on the ground. We have a center who should be able to do better than that.” Hardy: “Steve Spurrier showed he could run with the football on that play.” McKay: “There’s no law that says a quarterback can’t run, Andy.” Often, McKay answered questions with “Of course, Andy, you won’t understand this, but . . .” It went on all season long.
“That’s just the way he was,” says former WTVT sportscaster Pete Johnson, who worked with Hardy. “The station tried to improve the show by interviewing players or coaches, or introducing backstories, but McKay wouldn’t let them. He also refused a hairstylist and a makeup artist, and wouldn’t do a run-through.” Worst of all, insists Johnson, McKay was “chippy with Andy,” who feared that bored or annoyed viewers would switch to Channel 44, WTVT’s rival station, instead of watching the show.