And then there were the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The franchise set an NFL record for futility by losing its first 26 regular-season games before winning its final two contests in 1977. They were the butt of jokes and a go-to punchline for Tonight Show host Johnny Carson.
In 1976, Tampa Bay did not score until its third game and did not have a touchdown until Week 4. They lost by more than a touchdown 11 times and were ravaged by injuries, sending 17 players to injured reserve. They were last in points scored, touchdowns and rushing touchdowns. The NFL did the Bucs no favors by stocking the expansion draft with old and lame football players.
Jason Vuic brings back those memories — painful, humorous and otherwise — in a well-researched, engagingly funny new book. The Yucks: Two Years in Tampa with the Losingest Team in NFL History (Simon & Schuster; hardback; $26; 239 pages) is crisply written and a fun read. Longtime Tampa Bay fans will remember the old stories and the reporters who covered the team. Vuic builds upon his extensive research, interviewing former players, coaches, journalists, politicians, businessmen and other Tampa-area movers and shakers. Not only does he write about football, Vuic also explores the economic impact the team had on the area.
After all, nobody had heard of Tampa Bay when the franchise was awarded by the NFL in April 1974. “Tampa Bay” was a body of water, with two distinct rivals — Tampa and St. Petersburg — on either side of the bay. Tampa was the Cigar City, a rough-and-tumble, blue-collar metropolis that was a crime reporter’s dream. St. Petersburg, with its elderly population, was called “God’s Waiting Room.” The Bucs would be the first instance of mutual cooperation between the two cities, or “unity in the community,” as the late local broadcaster Chris Thomas used to say.
Intentionally or not, The Yucks parallels Promises to Keep by Bill Braucher, a 1972 book by the Miami Herald sportswriter that chronicled the early years of the Miami Dolphins. Both teams had tight-fisted owners (Hugh Culverhouse and Joe Robbie), painful losses and head coaches whose sons were on the team’s first-year roster (J.J. McKay and George Wilson Jr.).
Vuic is an unabashed fan of the Bucs and has rooted for Tampa Bay since 1982, when he was a 9-year-old and met quarterback Doug Williams during a charity basketball game in Punta Gorda, a 90-minute drive south of Tampa.
Vuic’s sources read like a who’s who of Tampa Bay media since 1976. This is not meant to be all-inclusive, but the talent of the journalists I am going to mention was — and is, in some cases — indescribably good. Forgive my indulgence in giving them a shout-out, as several were colleagues through the years.
Tampa Tribune sources included editor/columnist Tom McEwen; reporters Jim Selman, Chris Harry, Joey Johnston, Ira Kaufman, Tom Ford, and Pat Yasinskas; and columnists Martin Fennelly and Joe Henderson. The St. Petersburg Times sources included columnist Hubert Mizell (who Vuic also interviewed in 2011), Bruce Lowitt, Ron Martz, Ray Holliman, Rick Stroud, John Romano and Tom Jones. There also was Bob Chick from the St. Petersburg Evening Independent, and Patrick Zier of the Lakeland Ledger.
Electronic media included Jack Harris (also interviewed by Vuic), Andy Hardy and Dick Crippen.
Vuic is used to writing about disasters. In 2011 he wrote The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History. As it turns out, the Bucs were the NFL’s version of the Yugo, from their creamsicle uniforms to Bucco Bruce, the winking pirate depicted on the team’s helmets.
Vuic is accurate in his characterization of the Bucs’ first coach, John McKay. McKay won four national titles at Southern Cal and was a proponent of the I-formation — “Student Body Left” or “Student Body Right” were his trademark offensive plays in college — but that offensive scheme did not work in the NFL. Vuic describes McKay as “autocratic, sarcastic, and mean,” who was aloof to his players, even cutting one player who complained about the coach’s cigar smoke. To the media, he was a godsend, because his glib, witty and sarcastic quips made for great copy.
“Well, we didn’t block,” he said after his pro coaching debut in 1976. “But we made up for it by not tackling.”
Vuic also delves into the history of what has been called McKay's iconic quote.
"What did you think of your team's execution, Coach?"
"I'm all for it."
He was also stubborn, insisting on two-a-day drills in sweltering Florida weather during the Bucs’ inaugural training camp. McKay’s version of Bear Bryant’s Junction Boys didn’t work. One journalist described him as a cross between Richard Nixon and Captain Queeg.
It got so bad, reporters were writing leads before the games were played. By 1977, it had gotten so bad that some members of the marketing department at Busch Gardens came up with a “Go for O!” T-shirt.
“The shirts were a huge hit,” Vuic writes.
Vuic called Culverhouse “an exceptionally hands-on” owner. And frugal. He made a point of showing off a second-hand sofa during a tour of One Buc Place, and told reporters the walls were painted white so when players watched film, they didn’t need a screen.
The reason the Bucs were lovable losers, Vuic asserts, is not because fans like them. It's due to the fact that fans love it when losers beat the odds.
Football fans — and Tampa Bay fans — will enjoy this book. The Bucs have tasted glory since those inglorious first two years, going to three NFC title games and winning Super Bowl XXXVII in January 2003. But there has been more heartache than happiness at One Buc Place through the years, and Vuic captures the growing pains of the franchise perfectly. It’s an endearing, but accurate look at the early days of the Bucs.