Lights ... camera. Cotney
This is the second in a series of columns highlighting stories that could not make it into the final copy of “McKay’s Men: The Story of the 1979 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.”
Heading into the season opener against the Detroit Lions in 1979, Mark Cotney carried a reputation as the Buccaneers “Iron Man.” According to a press release in the NFL Gameday program for the opener against Detroit, Cotney was the only Buccaneer to play in each of the franchise’s first 45 games from 1976 to 1979.
Cotney didn’t just play in every game; he played it at an elite level. Cotney’s style was comparable to big named strong safeties of the era such as Charlie Waters and Cliff Harris of the Dallas Cowboys. Cotney intercepted six passes over those three seasons but it was in run defense that he excelled.
John McKay’s 3-4 defensive alignments required the linebackers and safeties to shoot through any gaps in an offensive line and absolutely punish the opposing ball carrier. Cotney meted out 100 tackles in 1978, most of the jarring variety.
The road to Tampa Bay was a long one for Cotney. As a sophomore in an Oklahoma high school he suffered a knee injury and was advised by doctors to give up the sport. Undaunted, Cotney enrolled at New Mexico Highlands (where he made a trip to Tampa Stadium to play against the old University of Tampa Spartans team) before transferring to tiny Cameron State in Oklahoma.
Despite the small size of Cameron State NFL scouts noticed Cotney. He was selected by the Houston Oilers and started the final three games of the 1975 season. Cotney was allocated to Tampa Bay in the 1976 off-season and that is when his career really took off.
Whereas a lot of veterans viewed coming to Tampa Bay as a slap in the face, Cotney embraced the chance. He told an interviewer at the time that he “was honored to be selected.” In McKay’s aggressive defensive system Cotney thrived and became a team leader, culminating in his selection as a team captain for the 1979 season.
Cotney told a reporter during the 1979 season his philosophy of playing against the pass. The quote perfectly captures the style with which he played. “If a receiver catches the ball I try to hit him hard enough to jar it loose.” That may sound brutally simple, but that is only because Cotney simply played a brutal style of defense.
Off the field Cotney also became a “movie star.” The film Semi-Tough was a mediocre 1970’s film based on the Dan Jenkins football novel. In it country western star Kris Kristofferson and Florida State alum Burt Reynolds portray football-playing cads. In one of the football scenes Kristofferson snags a last second pass to win a game. If you look closely you will notice that the defensive back Kristofferson beats is Tampa Bay’s very own Mark Cotney.
Cotney joked before the 1979 season about the action on the set of the film. “We had to go over that play at least a hundred times before they got it right. I don’t think Kristofferson has any athletic skills and Reynolds is a smallish-type player.”
Fortunately for the Buccaneers and their fans Cotney didn’t get beat on the field in 1979. Instead he helped the team go From Worst to First.