When Tampa Bay football came to London
The announcement that the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins will be playing a meaningful regular season game in the United Kingdom next year is good news for many people that I have learned to call friend over the past year. I have no doubt that Paul Stewart, Lee Bromfield and so many other members of the Bucs UK will have a rocking time as the “Gints” and “Phins” battle it out.
The only news that could have been better than this game would have been a match-up between the Buccaneers and just about anybody else in the National Football League. After all the round-trip flights from Heathrow to TIA it would only be sporting for the Buccaneers to meet you guys at Wembley.
The funny thing is, if and when the Buccaneers do play a game in London it will be the second time that a Tampa Bay professional football team took to the “pitch.” Do you remember “Banditball?”
The year was 1984. Reagan and Thatcher were making eyes at each other, Carl Lewis and Mary Lou Retton cleaned up the Soviet-less Los Angeles Olympic Games and in a line I admittedly steal from Homer Simpson, “A maturing Joe Piscopo left ‘Saturday Night Live’ to conquer Hollywood.”
The exhibition game
On July 21 of that year the Tampa Bay Bandits of the United States Football League played a “post-season” exhibition against the Philadelphia Stars at Wembley Stadium. The Stars had just completed a championship season and the Bandits were coming off a 14-4 record that culminated in a first round playoff loss.
You read the record correctly. The USFL played 18 game regular seasons that stretched from right after Valentine's Day past Memorial Day. To put the fourteen wins the Bandits had in 1984 into perspective; it took the Buccaneers from 1983 until midway through the 1987 season to get that many wins. No wonder so many Bay Area fans demanded a “Loser Leave Town” match-up between the Bandits and Bucs.
The Bandits were co-owned by John Bassett and the movie actor Burt Reynolds. Reynolds had great fame from the Smokey and the Bandit movie series and the team name came from that. The Bandits, coached by former Buccaneer quarterback Steve Spurrier ran an early version of the “Fun and Gun” offense that he would install with great success at the University of Florida. It didn’t work so well with the Redskins, but the Bandits ran it to near perfection.
The star name on the Bandit offense was tailback Gary Anderson. Anderson would star with the Chargers of the NFL before ending his career in Tampa Bay as a Buccaneer. Anderson showed some flashes of brilliance with the Bucs, his dash against the Bears in 1991 and his vault into the end zone against the Lions in 1990 come to mind.
But it was in the USFL that Tampa Bay fans saw just how good Anderson was. In 1984 Anderson rushed for 1,008 yards but those stats do not reflect his talent. Anderson was a game-breaker. One of the reasons for Anderson’s pedestrian season total was the fact that fellow running back Greg Boone was solid in his own right, leading the Bandits with 1,009 yards. Boone would also become a future Buc, albeit a “B-Buc” during the 1987 NFL player’s strike.
Future Buc QB
Handing off to Anderson and Boone was future Buccaneer “replacement” quarterback John Reaves. Reaves was one of a handful of future “B-Bucs” to play for the Bandits. Center/Guard Chuck Pitcock, Tackle Rufus Brown, wide receiver Steve Carter and cornerback Jeff George also played at old Tampa Stadium but in the spring rather than fall. One of the more talented receivers on the Bandits, Willie Gillespie, would play a couple of games for the Buccaneers in 1986.
The Bandits were considered one of the most exciting teams in the USFL because of the offensive firepower on their roster and the imaginative play-calling of Spurrier. In 1984 the Bandits had won 14 games but suffered a disappointing first round playoff loss to the Birmingham Stallions (a team that featured Cliff Stoudt at quarterback and former Buffalo Bills star Joe Cribbs at running back). Big things would be expected in 1985, but before heading into an off-season of rest and fine tuning the Bandits flew to London to take on the USFL champion Philadelphia Stars.
Led by former Buccaneer quarterback Chuck Fusina, the Stars were the dominant team of the USFL. In their first season the Stars made the title game only to lose to the Michigan Panthers (led by future Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert). In 1984 the Stars took the title defeating the Arizona Wranglers 23-3 in the USFL Championship Game held at Tampa Stadium.
Just one week later the Stars would meet the Bandits to wrap up the season with an exhibition game. The game was an attempt to get fans in Europe to embrace the USFL as a legitimate football league. The USFL and NFL were in direct competition for players and cash and the USFL wanted to corner the European market if possible so it sent two of its showcase franchises to London.
Vikings and Cardinals
This was a good move on the part of the USFL. The NFL had staged the Global Cup between the average Minnesota Vikings and mediocre St. Louis Cardinals in 1983 but had not scheduled a game in 1984. In fact it would not be until 1986 that the NFL started the American Bowl series of pre-season games featuring elite teams so the USFL saw an opportunity and took advantage of it.
The game counted for little but in and of itself was exciting as the Stars triumphed 24-21. The Bandits may have lost the game but they won the hearts of the fans in attendance through a very shrewd PR move. When the Bandits took the field before kickoff all the Tampa Bay players had Union Jack patches on the shoulders of their jerseys. The fans at Wembley went nuts and cheered every single thing the Bandits did.
The “home field” advantage wasn’t enough to secure a win, but perhaps the Bandits showing helped to make any kind of Tampa Bay football popular in Britain. Who knows, if things had turned out differently you might be reading banditpower.com right now!
1985 would see the Bandits once again fall in the first round of the playoffs and the Stars win a second straight championship. The 1986 season was awaited with anticipation by Bandit fans who were excited by the news that former Florida Gator standout wide receiver Chris Collinsworth had inked a deal to play in Tampa Bay.
Sadly Donald Trump led a few misguided owners into scheduling the 1986 season in the fall, directly competing against the NFL. Television networks backed out, season ticket holders refused to renew and the league folded before the season could start.
The Tampa Bay Bandits lasted only three years, but in their short life they provided a high quality product for a community whose NFL team fell on self-inflicted hard times. And on a sunny summer day in London they brought a taste of Tampa Bay to the United Kingdom. They may have not been the team that lasted, but they did come to London first and hopefully one day the Bucs will follow.
Denis Crawford, February 2007
Additional comments (Paul Stewart)
Although I didn't go to either of these games, I remember the USFL game highlights being shown on BBC Sunday Grandstand, this being the only gridiron coverage ever shown on the channel. Steve Spurrier ran every single trick play in his book during that game with flea-flickers, reverses, hook-and-ladder plays, the lot.
Neither game drew much in the way of attendance to the old Wembley Stadium but both games have now taken their place in the legend of football that is gridiron in the UK.