It was a frigidly cold evening. By Tampa standards, it was downright arctic. We were in the endzone section. I was 24 and I barely remembered the last time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made the playoffs. See, the Bucs hadn’t been to the playoffs since I was 9 years old.
Year after year I told my friends – THIS ONE – This one is the year that the Bucs do it. They laughed and mocked. Bucco Bruce was called all sorts of names that couldn’t be printed in today’s PC society.
I wore the pastel orange like a badge of honor – but even I was skeptical about the young coach the new owners, the Glazers, had just hired.
I was as unsure of this guy as I was the Glazers themselves, who immediately demanded a new stadium or threatened to move the franchise to Baltimore.
I remember the first game Tony coached for the Bucs. It was a week before the referendum on the new stadium. Many said the Bucs had to upset the Green Bay Packers in their home opener or the referendum was doomed to fail and the Bucs would be relocating. It typical Bucs fashion, they were crushed 34-3 as Brett Favre threw four touchdown passes.
As Bucs fans, we were resigned to the end. Then an early Christmas miracle happened and somehow, the Community Investment Tax narrowly passed, saving the franchise for the Tampa Bay area,
Yet, they were still the creamsicle, downtrodden Bucs. The 1996 season was as pretty much all of them had been. Tampa Bay was a woeful 1-8 and mired in a three-game losing skid. Many wondered if Dungy would go beyond this first season, after all, the team he inherited from Sam Wyche was 7-9 the previous year.
Then, the Bucs upset the Oakland Raiders in overtime. It seemed like your typical, fluky Bucs win…but they followed it up with a win in San Diego – on the west coast! Their first in…maybe forever? Then another. Three straight wins!
The Bucs would go on to win 5 of their last 7 and you could feel the confidence rising in the team. They believed their time had finally arrived. They just had to prove it.
Of course, the Bucs were picked to finish last in 1997. It was a safe bet. Death. Taxes. A Bucs losing season.
I was the ever optimist, believing in the momentum talk of the previous year. And hey, look at those new snazzy uniforms. Bucco Bruce was sent to Davey Jones’ Locker in Tampa Bay and Pewter Power had arrived.
When the Bucs destroyed the 49ers season by taking out Jerry Rice and Steve Young and beating San Francisco 13-6, it was a signal that something was certainly different.
Trent Dilfer actually played well, they had Thunder and Lightning (Alstott and Dunn) and the defense was awesome, like we hadn’t seen it since Lee Roy made his Sundays in opponents backfields.
The Bucs raced to a 5-0 start – meaning Tampa Bay had won 10 of the last 12. The Bucs? Winning 10 of their last 12 games? What is going on here?
Three straight losses brought back the “Same Old Bucs” naysayers – the joke was, the Bucs won their first 5 and will lose their last 11.
But no, not these Bucs – not under this coach. Tampa Bay won four of their next five and finally….after 15 years of frustration, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were winners, clinching a winning season and moving to 9-4.
It seems meaningless to many fans now – but for those of us who lived through the lost decade and half of “Yucks” football, it meant the world.
The team exhaled…a little too much, dropping their next two games. They were in the playoffs, but certainly didn’t want to go in on a three-game skid, plus – what would be better than a home playoff game in Tampa for the first time since 1979?
A punt returner named Karl “The Truth” Williams (not the boxer, but the nickname came from the boxer), had a punt return for a touchdown and caught a touchdown pass from Dilfer in the Bucs win over the hated Chicago Bears in season finale, clinching the team’s first double-digit winning season in nearly 20 years.
10-6. The Bucs. My Bucs were 10-6 and going to host Barry Sanders and the Detroit Lions in the playoffs.
We stood in line for hours, wrapped around the old Sombrero for a chance for playoff tickets. My mom is a bigger diehard than I am (if you can believe it) and she was over the moon with the chance to see the Bucs in a playoff game. There was no way we would be denied tickets. We were going.
Then we were there, that cold, frigid evening. Mike Alstott rumbled over the Lions and the defense bottled up Barry – whom I still believe is the greatest running back I’ve ever seen – and Tampa Bay shocked the world one more time, beating the Lions 20-10. It ranks right up there in my greatest sports spectating moments. Right up there with You Go Joe, The Dagger’s In and the Lightning winning the Stanley Cup.
It was the beginning of the first extended period of winning in franchise history. Tony Dungy and Rich McKay were the architects, identifying the talented players already on the roster who were playing in wrong positions like Lynch and added to that talent with a wealth of great drafts. Tony got his team to believe that just because no one expects anything of you, it doesn’t mean you have to live up to that persona.
He got them to believe in their talent. Moreover, he got them to believe it could be done – that you could win, go to the playoffs – even win a Super Bowl – in Tampa Bay.
Before Tony Dungy, Tampa Bay was a cesspool of broken dreams. It was where players went to go to wind down their careers or a stopping point to greatness elsewhere. The Bucs were the NFL’s minor league team.
Tony changed all that.
With his belief in God, in his players and in his philosophy, Dungy became a Hall of Fame coach. He won a Super Bowl with the Colts and set the stage for the Bucs’ championship.
Without him, there would be no Super Bowl trophy at One Buc Palace.
Hell, there probably wouldn’t be a One Buc Palace, either. That’s the funny thing. The players today have it easy compared to those young Bucs under Dungy. They didn’t have to practice in the fumes of jet fuel in the tiniest, most dank woodshed of a practice facility in the league.
Tony made them not care about any of that. Just play football. Win games. No excuses, no explanations.
Thank you, Tony Dungy, for 1997 and everything else. Congratulations on your Ring of Honor induction. In my opinion, no one deserves it more.
Much of the preceding article was originally written by me on BucsNation as Tony was being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August of 2016. It’s as appropriate now as it was then. We at WhatTheBuc.Net celebrate the induction of Tony Dungy into the Buccaneers’ Ring of Honor.