Bucs' standards sink even lower
How's that for openers? Since last season, the Bucs have changed 50 percent of their players, 100 percent of their coaches and their ballpark's name. But none of their results. Tony Dungy waited 15 years for this? He overpaid NFL dues, amassing a reputation for defensive excellence, keeping the faith that a head-coaching opportunity would come. Sunday was a beginning. Sunday was a disaster.

Dungy is getting his chance in pro football's poorest neighborhood, taking over a Tampa Bay team with 13 straight losing seasons and a woozy woeful 94-214-1 record since its 1976 baptismal. But it is an opportunity. Sad Sundays are long-running habit at Tampa Stadium. But, as Tony took charge in an old Super Bowl house that Bucs ownership calls Houlihan's and wants to tear down, up jumps the devil in the form of the most lopsided opening-day clobbering in Tampa history, a 34-3 embarrassment against Green Bay.

Bucs hopes against the Pack, hovering somewhere between frail and unrealistic, would miserably implode at the shank of the first half. Tampa Bay stuck out a glass jaw. Green Bay landed a Mike Tyson double hammer, scoring 14 points in the concluding, devastating 100 seconds. Pack went up 24-3; out of sight as far as the offensively impotent Bucs are concerned.

Just when you think the Bucs can't get any worse, they do. This was a massive mess-up even by their tattered standards. Before his Tampa Bay pupils came out for the third quarter, a non-shouting Dungy told players, "Keep your heads up. We're going to go out and play Buc football." Unfortunately, they did. Or at least a bungling brand of Buc football the Big Sombrero has begrudgingly tolerated during those 13 seasons of infamy.

Trent Dilfer's passing became more antsy, more scattergun and more booed. Alvin Harper, a lousy investment of 1929 Wall Street proportions, allowed one throw to glance off his hands for an early interception and then, after catching a pass deeper in the afternoon, got smacked by Packers and fumbled.

It got all-around ugly. "We don't have the type of talent to make lots of mistakes and still win," Dungy said in the greatest understatement since Marie Antoinette said she felt a little pain in the neck. "I don't think we're shellshocked. We'll bounce back." Tony will sift through the cinders today, trying to make some progress in giving new and sweeter meaning to the term "Buc football."

Over the 20 years, I have seen a lot of Tampa Bay head coaches, from John McKay to Sam Wyche, step to a post-game podium, trying to explain a lot of losses. But never have I experienced the compassion I felt Sunday for Tony Dungy. This is an admirable fellow. A solid coach universally embraced in his profession. Getting a long-craved inaugural Sunday as an NFL head coach, knowing there is a Tuesday vote ahead on a new stadium and the Bucs' very existence in Tampa Bay; seeing three hours that would give even a saint a throbbing headache.

His players felt pain for Dungy, which can be rare in modern, big-money relationships between athletes and bosses. "I was sitting here telling Charles Dimry that," said Bucs safety Todd Scott, who played under defensive coordinator Dungy with the Vikings. "Man, I feel so bad for Tony. " This shouldn't have any bearing on what people think of him or his coaching job or his staff or whatever. I don't care who you play, if we play like we did, you're not going to beat anyone. Amen!

Next shot for Dungy comes Sunday, on the road against the 0-1 Lions. By then, we'll have the verdict in Tuesday's tax vote in Hillsborough County. Six days ahead, we'll know a lot more about this forever-troubled NFL franchise and its rookie head coach, a gentleman who absolutely deserves better. We can get on with future meanings "Buc football," however different they will be.

Can't get worse, right? Can't get worse, Tampa Bay prays.

Hubert Mizell, The St.Petersburg Times 1996