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Buccaneers’ History: Actual Pirate Inspires Bucs’ Beginnings

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Real meaning behind the swashbuckling team name

Tampa is located on Florida's western shore of the Gulf of Mexico. There are several large cities other than the city of Tampa that make up the region commonly known as “Tampa Bay:” Clearwater, Bradenton, Largo, St. Petersburg, Dunedin, Pinellas Park and Tarpon Springs. This particular portion of Florida cuts out into a huge body of water which extends over 400 square miles and is coined “Tampa Bay.” In fact, the Port of Tampa is currently the largest in the state of Florida and the 16th-largest port in the United States.

“Tampa Bay” is not an actual city but simply a label commonly used for the region it represents, as well as the body of water’s actual title.

Thus, with so many cities in such a compressed area, every sports team has simply called themselves Tampa Bay such as the NHL’s Lightning, the Arena League’s Storm or the Rowdies of the defunct North American Soccer League among others.

As a part of the merger between the American Football League (AFL) and the NFL in 1970, the league announced it would expand from their current lineup of 26 teams to 32 clubs in the next decade although no timetable was agreed upon for when the other six teams would join. In order to give the Miami Dolphins a natural rival, Tampa had been on the AFL’s expansion shortlist before the two leagues merged.

There was also talk of a new pro football entity called the “Trans-America Football League” that was set to award Tampa a franchise, but the league never formally developed.

Tampa Attempts To Get NFL Team

After the merger, a group of Tampa businessmen had conversations with Buffalo Bills’ owner Ralph Wilson about buying that franchise. Wilson was having problems getting a new stadium built since the current War Memorial Stadium, built in 1938, was old and antiquated and devoid of modern conveniences and features. Plus, it only held 47,000 seats. The new merger mandated that all stadiums hold a minimum of 50,000 patrons.

The Tampa contingency would definitely relocate the club to Central Florida. Meanwhile, Wilson told the City of Buffalo he would give them one more season before he made his decision regarding remaining in western New York or selling. His tactics succeeded. In 1973, the 71,608-seat Rich Stadium opened in Orchard Park, N.Y.

Meanwhile, Tampa, Memphis and Seattle were actively seeking an existing NFL franchise with several groups in talks with the Boston Patriots, who were having their own stadium issues. However, after the 1973 season, the NFL made an announcement that the league would commence the process of adding the first expansion clubs by granting two new franchises into the fold.

In the April 24, 1974, edition of the St. Petersburg Times, an article ran about Tampa being granted the first of the two NFL expansion franchises to construction company mogul Tom McCloskey. Shortly thereafter Seattle was named as the other city. In December of the same year, McCloskey cited economic reasons which required him to drop the franchise bid. Overnight things were in limbo as to whether Tampa would still be the next NFL team or if the league might give their slot to another city.

In the interim, tax attorney Hugh Culverhouse of Jacksonville, Florida had attempted to purchase the Los Angeles Rams and had a deal struck with Rams’ owner Dan Reeves for $17 million. Later, however, Reeves sold the club for $19 million to Robert Irsay. Culverhouse sued but relented his lawsuit when the league guaranteed him an upcoming expansion club. He was first offered the Seattle team but turned it down because of the East Coast/West Coast situation. When McCloskey backed out, Tampa was a natural fit.

Culverhouse would quickly become one of the most influential owners in the league. After he was named to the NFL Executive Committee, he helped solve both the 1982 and 1987 player strikes. He would become known as a player’s owner and consistently would not interfere with the men he hired to run and coach the organization.

Buccaneers” was submitted during a name-the-team contest and from there, an advisory board selected the team name from over 400 nickname possibilities. But the actual meaning of the pirate moniker goes much deeper than that.

Bucs Land A Trophy At Head Coach

John McKay was hired as the franchise’s first head coach. A highly-successful college coach at the University of Southern California, McKay had numerous NFL coaching offers over the years from the likes of the New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns, and his hometown Los Angeles Rams. While at USC he had captured four national championships and nine conference titles. He took the Bucs’ job mainly because he could become the architect of the franchise’s beginnings and announced the club would be competitive within five years.

To say that things did not go as planned in Tampa for Coach McKay would be an understatement. At the time, the process to stock an expansion club was done mainly with a veteran reallocation draft that consisted of other team’s castoffs.

The Buccaneers went 0-14 their first season and became the 11th NFL club to go winless with zero ties in a season (minimum six games played) and set a league record for most losses in a single season.

The offense in Tampa was horrid with the defensive play not much better. Missed tackles seemed to be a team motto along with the inability to score points and consistent turnovers.

McKay would provide a bevy of sound bites for reporters during that maiden season. When asked how he felt about the execution of the offense, he stated he was in favor of it. Grilled about the team’s offensive line, he stated, “We didn’t block but we made up for it by not tackling.”

After another loss he told the media, “You guys don’t know the difference between a football and a bunch of bananas.” At the following week’s press conference after yet another loss, the podium was full of bananas. McKay stepped up to the microphone and stated, “You guys don’t know the difference between a football and a Mercedes-Benz.”

Tampa’s first win did not come until Week 13 of the 1977 season after an 0-12 start that included six shutouts. In 1979, the franchise went 10-6-0 and won the Central Division. They then defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional playoff game before losing 9-0 to the Rams in the NFC Championship Game. Another division crown came in 1981. The Bucs went 13-28-0 McKay’s last three seasons, after which he resigned his position.

In 2010, Coach McKay was inducted into the team’s “Ring of Honor.”

Actual Pirates Mark The Area

Florida’s western coast (including Tampa Bay) was invaded almost annually during the late 18th and early 19th centuries by a former Spanish naval officer-turned pirate named Jose’ Gaspar, commonly called Gasparilla. Gaspar and his cronies would raid, pillage and destroy while taking what they wanted.

He had served in the Spanish Navy and became a lieutenant. After the Spanish fleet was defeated by the British in one battle, he and other survivors were reprimanded and demoted then placed on another ship for another excursion. Disenchanted, he convinced most of the crew to hold a mutiny against a totalitarian captain, stole the vessel and sailed off to gain his own fortune in piracy.

This act made Gaspar a traitor, a robber -- and now a pirate.

Gaspar and his men actually made their hideout in Port Charlotte, Fla., another large bay just south of Tampa Bay and north of Fort Myers. The raiding of established settlements, towns and especially lucrative merchant ships would occur for the next 38 years which made him and his men very wealthy.

Gaspar’s death came about when an American ship sank his ship and the Pirate captain wrapped the anchor around his body and descended into the sea yelling he would never surrender. An eyewitness to this, John Gomez, recorded the events as he saw it and thus began the legend of Gasparilla.

Everyone who lives in the Tampa Bay area is familiar with the name of Gasparilla. So when the expansion team was announced many of the team name entries were based around this famous swashbuckler such as Outlaws, Pirates, Marine Raiders, Rowdies, Avengers, Bandits and of course Buccaneers. “Rowdies” would become the team name of the NASL club while “Bandits” was later chosen for the United States Football League squad in 1984.

Today, the "Gasparilla Pirate Festival" held in January is celebrated annually and draws almost 500,000 partiers. This event, which began in 1904, is the Bay Area’s version of Mardi Gras with of course a Pirate theme. “The Pirates of the Caribbean” ride opened in 1973 just down the road in Orlando at Disney World.

The original uniform colors of the Buccaneers also have meaning behind them. The orange was to symbolize the citrus industry so prevalent in Central Florida and the red for the sun’s warmth and Pirates’ blood.

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association