The Buccaneers' practice sites
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in the midst of constructing what will be the third jewel in a Triple Crown of state of the art facilities. Ground was broken last year on a new training complex that will replace quaint but outdated One Buccaneer Place. The new complex is being built on the site of the old Tampa Bay Center Mall across Himes Avenue from Raymond James Stadium.
Combined with Raymond James Stadium and the team’s summer headquarters at the Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, the new training facility means the Buccaneers will have a veritable palace for every aspect of their football enterprise. Except when they have to play in Jacksonville, but you can’t have everything.
I view these developments with a somewhat melancholy eye. I do not begrudge the Buccaneers their new digs, but I have to admit I will miss One Buccaneer Place. Its demise while necessary continues the erasure of the sites where I came of age as a football fan.
On a recent trip to Tampa I took time out from meeting with family to visit the sites of where I first came in contact with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As I drove from point to point I couldn’t help but remember what it was like to be a teenager in Tampa during the eighties, listening to the radio and watching the Bucs practice and play. In this first of two parts, I will look at the places that the Buccaneers have used as training facilities. In the second part I will fondly recall the dearly departed Tampa Stadium.
Today the Bucs hold training camp at the Disney Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando. I have never seen this facility but I understand it is one of the best such training sites in the world. It is also used by the Atlanta Braves as a spring training base. While in Orlando fans have the benefit of being able to move from watching Chris Simms to being entertained by the Seven Dwarves, who I believe once lined up as the front defensive wall of the Arizona Cardinals in the mid 1990’s. Buccaneer training camp is now part of a total sports “experience,” but at one time it was the best way to spend a muggy July and August afternoon in Tampa Bay.
The day-to-day practices of the team have always been held at One Buccaneer Place. On property located right next to the runway of Tampa International Airport, One Buc was also the site of the first training camp in Buccaneer history. The players and coaches stayed at the Hall of Fame Inn, a hotel next-door, and trained on the practice field behind One Buc. Jets preparing for take-off were literally on the other side of the cyclone fence, so while the early Bucs may have had a hard time with a lot of things on offense, crowd noise should not have been one of them.
The first year the Bucs were in existence over 140 hopefuls for a roster spot made their way through One Buc, many only getting a brief glance from head coach John McKay. It was often said that a prospective Buccaneer could land at TIA, have breakfast, try out, be cut and fly out again without ever leaving sight of the runway.
The building itself is rather unassuming. A low-slung, one story structure that houses offices, weight room and a dressing room. When One Buccaneer Place was built in the mid-seventies, it was hailed as one of the best team headquarters in the NFL. Coach John McKay raved about the facility telling reporters, “Whoever did this knew what he was doing. It is absolutely fabulous and fantastic. Now, if we can just put a team together that is worthy of the facility.”
Over the years as the needs of a National Football League team have increased, portable trailers have been added to provide additional office space. Sadly, the result has been to make what was once a showplace look like a public housing project. To me One Buc still has a lot of charms, one in particular will always mean a great deal to me.
As a radio journalist intern in the early 1990’s what I liked most about One Buccaneer Place was the back porch. It was small breezeway between the locker room and the practice field and this is where the press contingent would witness practice and interview players. This is where I had the chance to interview Sam Wyche, John Lynch, and Chidi Ahanatou during my stint as a field reporter for the now defunct WFNS all sports station in Tampa.
I doubt any of these men will ever remember me, but I will always remember the look of horror on John Lynch’s face when I asked him if he would like to have a cheering section in the stands called “The Lynch Mob.” I was too young, dumb and full of adrenaline to realize that a name like that in the Deep South would have unfortunate connotations. Now I can look back on it and smile, like I do about most things that happened at One Buccaneer Place.
Throughout the first twenty-some years of the franchise the Buccaneers would hold training camp either at One Buccaneer Place or Pepin-Rood Stadium on the campus of the University of Tampa. The UT campus is one of the prettiest spots in Tampa and also the most historical.
The administration building is the former Tampa Bay Hotel. Built by nineteenth century railroad magnate Henry Plant, the Tampa Bay Hotel was one of the first structures built in the area and attracted tourists by the thousands that would come to call Tampa home. Among the most famous guests was future president Theodore Roosevelt who stayed at the hotel while training his famous Rough Riders regiment for battle against the Spanish on the isle of Cuba.
Directly behind the old Tampa Bay Hotel is Pepin Rood Stadium. Pepin Rood has been used by a variety of University of Tampa Spartan athletic teams. Spartan is also a good word to describe the practice fields. The grandstands and playing surface lacked any type of modern day amenities whatsoever. At least the players and spectators had a breathtaking view of the Tampa skyline across the Hillsborough River rather than the TIA tarmac. The only activities going on at Pepin Rood Stadium were football drills in all their mundane glory.
I remember driving across the Bay from my home in Largo to watch the training camps of Ray Perkins. Perkins became notorious during his first training camp in 1987 for subjecting his team to three-a-day practice sessions. Traditionally, NFL teams practice once in the morning and once in the afternoon.
Perkins had his team practice a third time in early evening in the oppressive Tampa Bay heat and humidity. As I sat in the stands with fellow Buc fans, I noticed that most of the players were leaving the field about as slowly as my old Toyota Corolla on the Gandy Bridge. We would see the same lethargy on the field during the 1987 season as well. To this day I believe I saw the seeds of a bad finish to the 1987 season on a few August days that summer as the legs of the players evaporated into the thick air.
Pepin Rood still exists but has been altered significantly since the Buccaneers moved training camp to Orlando. Only a small portion of the grandstand remains and a good deal of the practice fields have been paved over and converted to university buildings. Enough remains however so that when I stopped by on an early Sunday morning I could almost hear Ray Perkins’ southern drawl calling out for a series of up-downs and see Vinny Testaverde in his red practice jersey throwing spiral after spiral to Mark Carrier during seven-on-seven drills.
Seeing the track reminded me of all the times fans were allowed down to meet the players going to and from practice. I was never keen on autographs, but I did love getting the chance to talk to Harry Hamilton, Ervin Randle and John Cannon among others.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the eighties and early-nineties may not have been a very good team, but thanks to One Buccaneer Place and Pepin Rood Stadium fans were able to get up close and personal with them. That closeness helped form a bond between team and community that weathered many a storm until Super Bowl XXVII.
These places will be missed but hopefully the new headquarters in Tampa and the Wide World of Sports complex will foster the same close relationship between the new generation of Buccaneer fans and their team.