Championship Win Is Extra Special For McKay
Early Sunday night, there WAS cheering in the press box. And it was OK. Bucs general manager Rich McKay - a ballboy when the franchise was born in 1976, a disgusted fan in the stands when it became a national laughingstock with 14 consecutive losing seasons and, finally, the architect of its emergence as a contender - saw it all happening below on the Veterans Stadium turf.

Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber was returning an interception for a 92-yard touchdown, putting an exclamation point on the Bucs' 27-10 victory against the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game.

``I was yelling, `Don't stop! Keep running! Don't fumble!' '' McKay said in Tampa Bay's jubilant locker room. ``He was at the 50-yard line and I was still screaming. What a moment. I guess you're not supposed to do that in the press box, yelling and screaming. But ... wow! When it becomes real and you know it's actually going to happen, you think of so many things.''

With the Bucs now headed for Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego on Sunday night, McKay thought about his father, John, who left a powerhouse program at the University of Southern California in 1975 to become the Bucs' inaugural coach. The Bucs began 0-26, but McKay saw it through to the 1979 NFC title game, along with two other playoff appearances. ``I'm not good talking about it, but I never liked the perception that this franchise wasn't a good franchise because I felt that was a reflection on him,'' McKay said, his eyes filling as he spoke about his father, who died June 10, 2001. ``He did more here than he was ever given credit for.''

McKay specifically pointed to two men - former Bucs linebacker Hardy Nickerson, who signed as a free agent in 1993, and Coach Tony Dungy, who took the Bucs to four playoff appearances in five seasons before being fired last January. ``They both helped us get over the hump as a franchise,'' McKay said.

As he slowly got dressed and before he boarded the team bus, Bucs safety John Lynch had similar feelings. ``Paul Gruber was here today [as an honorary captain] and boy did his presence put a smile on all of our faces,'' Lynch said. ``I don't want to discount the people in this room, but I find myself thinking about Hardy Nickerson, Martin Mayhew, Rufus Porter, Brad Culpepper ... all these guys who worked so hard to turn this franchise from a laughingstock into a perennial playoff contender. And, of course, Tony [Dungy]. He's such a class act, I guarantee you he's at home right now with a big smile on his face.''

McKay and Lynch wore smiles of their own when told the party already had begun for fans back in Tampa. ``I want our fans to enjoy this all week,'' McKay said. ``Put their flags out, ride in the car and enjoy it. It has been way too long where they didn't have this opportunity. I think so many of the misperceptions of our football team have been erased. They were saying this franchise couldn't win [the NFC title]. We're better than that. We're way better than that. This is the biggest stage you can get. I want our players and our fans to enjoy it.''