Mining for hidden gems
Many years ago baseball executive Branch Rickey was asked for his perspective on the perpetually woeful Chicago Cubs. “There is an artistry in ineptitude, too, you know,” the Hall of Famer said.
There is an artistry in ineptitude, too, you know.
That one quote had a profound impact on my life. When I read that sentence in Peter Golenbock’s book Wrigleyville, I felt as though Branch Rickey was reaching across time and space to personally tell me that the stories of those at the bottom of the standings were just as fascinating as those at the top.
Of course I had an inkling of that considering I grew up in Tampa, Florida during the Hugh Culverhouse era of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
As a child I witnessed my hometown team lose almost 200 games between 1976 and 1994. The Buccaneers set an NFL record by losing their first 26-games in a row. Tampa Bay set another record by losing ten or more games in a season twelve years in a row.
Needless to say many writers, particularly Tampa Bay sportswriters, made easy sport of the Buccaneers, making them a source of punchlines. In the major Bay Area newspapers, insults were hurled and blame was assigned as loss after loss was chronicled for posterity.
In covering the Buccaneers in that manner however, many of those same writers overlooked the perspective offered up by Branch Rickey long before the Buccaneers were born:
There is an artistry in ineptitude, too, you know.
So much emphasis had been placed on the horrible won-loss record of the Buccaneers of that era that some of the most intriguing characters in National Football League history were in danger of being anonymous forever. But in the spirit of turning Branch Rickey’s words into a historical research method, these characters can be reintroduced to everyone. They are examples of the hidden gems of sports history.
The first hidden gem is John McKay
When John McKay was hired by the Buccaneers in 1975 it sent shockwaves across the football landscape. In the 1970’s McKay was synonymous with college football. In fifteen years at the University of Southern California, McKay’s teams had won four national championships and he was considered the best in the business.
Contemporaries such as “Bear” Bryant, Joe Paterno and Ara Parseghian had said no to NFL offers, but McKay was growing bored in Los Angeles and he desired a new challenge. The Herculean task of building an expansion NFL franchise from the ground up certainly qualified as a challenge.
McKay’s decision was met with laughter in NFL circles. The conventional wisdom was the professional game was too complicated for a college coach to succeed and that McKay would be in over his head. John McKay didn’t accept that argument. When asked what he thought it would take to succeed as a professional coach, he answered: “The same thing it takes in college and Pop Warner football: Good Players. I’ve coached in four college all-star games and I’ve never been amazed by the pro coaches. They’ve never been amazed by me either.”
Unimpressed by what he saw in the NFL, McKay announced that he intended to run the same offensive and defensive systems he had at USC. McKay’s offenses had perfected the I-formation. McKay’s version of the I saw the running backs standing upright in the backfield rather than in a three-point stance so they could read the defense.
Instead of “running to daylight” as Lombardi’s Packers had done, McKay wanted his runners to know where the hole in the defense would be before the snap. Known as “Student Body Left” and “Student Body Right,” McKay’s power sweep was unstoppable.
On defense, McKay wanted speed so he used an unusual alignment of three defensive lineman and four linebackers. The 3-4 defense, while not McKay’s invention, became associated with USC. Both systems were not common to the NFL and were mocked when the Buccaneers unveiled them in 1976.
The Buccaneers could not make any system work as they lost their first 26 games in a row. Many of McKay’s fellow NFL coaches relished running up the score. In a 48-13 loss to Denver, Bronco coach John Ralston continued to try scoring as the game wound down. If the scores weren’t bad enough, the personal attacks on McKay had to test him. “Sooner or later McKay has got to learn that his old Southern Cal offense won’t work in this league,” a Redskins player said. “NFL defense are just too fast,” wrote a columnist. Cries of “Throw McKay in the Bay” were heard throughout Tampa Stadium.
The only thing that seemed to work in Tampa Bay was McKay’s sense of humor. When asked what he thought about the execution of his offense by a reporter, McKay replied “I’m all for it.” When he came into the locker room following a 42-0 loss to Pittsburgh, McKay reportedly said to his team, “Those of you that need showers, take ‘em.”
But in 1979 John McKay got the last laugh. Given three years to gel, his defensive players executed the 3-4 defense to perfection. In 1979 the Buccaneers led the NFL in every important defensive statistic, higher even than the famous Steel Curtain in Pittsburgh, Doomsday Defense in Dallas and Orange Crush in Denver.
On offense, Ricky Bell ran out of the I-formation for more than 1,200 yards The Bucs improbable playoff appearance gave rise to the phrase “From Worst to First.” The Buccaneers fell short of a Super Bowl that year but they did become the youngest team to win a playoff game.
McKay would ultimately retire with twice as many losses as wins, but his successful run from 1979-1982 proved the following:
- A college coach could win in the NFL, paving the way for the likes of Jimmy Johnson, Bobby Ross and Barry Switzer.
- The 3-4 defense could succeed. In the 1980’s even the Pittsburgh Steelers, architects of the Steel Curtain would transition to a 3-4.
- NFL defenses were not too fast for the I-Formation. In addition to Ricky Bell, James Wilder would post 1,000 yard seasons in Tampa Bay, earning Pro Bowl honors in the process.
When John McKay died in 2001 the obituaries documented his four national titles at USC. When it came to his time in Tampa Bay, they tended to focus on the 26-game losing streak and McKay’s famous sense of humor. To me that was a crime. The losing streak, while historic, was not McKay’s defining NFL achievement. That is what prompted me to write McKay’s Men.
That book chronicled McKay’s first playoff appearance and the impact his methods had on the NFL. Three years after the book came out the Buccaneer franchise honored McKay’s team by wearing uniforms from that era. I cannot take credit for the throwback jerseys, but I’ll happily take credit for the further reconsideration of John McKay’s legacy. That is a privileged side benefit of mining for a hidden gem.
The second hidden gem is Hugh Culverhouse
If you want to start a series of brain seizures in the Tampa Bay area mention the name Hugh Franklin Culverhouse, Sr. The owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1976 until his death in 1994, Culverhouse was portrayed as a villainous figure in Tampa Bay. A man with a well-deserved reputation for, let’s call it excessive frugality, Culverhouse’s teams struggled mightily on the field but did well on the balance sheet. In fact during Culverhouse’s tenure the Buccaneers were among the most-profitable franchises in the NFL despite being its worst on-field product.
It would be easy to accept the conventional wisdom that Hugh Culverhouse was just a miserly owner. However, to do that would be to miss out on the story of the second most powerful man in the NFL during the 1970’s and 1980’s, a man who many in the NFL called “Vice-Commissioner.”
The story of how Culverhouse came into the NFL is a fascinating hidden gem all by itself. In 1972 Culverhouse put in a $17 million bid to purchase the Los Angeles Rams from the estate of Dan Reeves. According to Culverhouse, the Rams accepted his bid. Unbeknownst to Culverhouse, Baltimore Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom was pulling off a deal in which he loaned Chicago air conditioning magnate Bob Irsay $4 million so Irsay could put up a $19 million bid for the Rams.
The men handling the Dan Reeves estate, seeing they could pull in an additional $2 million, threw Culverhouse to the side and sold the Rams to Irsay. In turn Irsay traded the entire Rams franchise to Rosenbloom in exchange for the entire Colts franchise. It was an unprecedented franchise swap but the NFL quickly approved the deal.
Culverhouse had made his fortune as the nation’s pre-eminent tax lawyer and he quickly filed a suit against Rosenbloom, Irsay and the entire National Football League citing the Sherman Ant-Trust Act. The case never made it to trial. According to Culverhouse’s son, Hugh Jr., the NFL told Culverhouse if he dropped the suit he would be given an NFL franchise when the league expanded in 1974 and voila, Culverhouse becomes owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Culverhouse quickly ingratiated himself within the NFL power structure. First he offered to do the taxes for all the NFL franchises, for a fee of course. This provided Culverhouse with detailed financial information on every owner and team. What he saw appalled him.
The NFL at the time was filled with family run operations that had borrowed heavily to keep themselves in the NFL game. When Culverhouse was appointed head of the NFL Finance Committee one of his first steps was to impose a debt ceiling on all franchises. No owner was allowed to borrow more than $35 million against the value of his team. This kept the NFL free of the threat of seeing a franchise “repossessed” by a bank as had almost happened in New England, Cleveland and Philadelphia.
When Culverhouse was appointed to the NFL Management Council, one of his first duties was to interview Jack Donlan of National Airlines to be lead negotiator during the 1982 collective bargaining session with the Players Association. Culverhouse knew a strike was a possibility and that Jack Donlan had a reputation as a strike and union buster.
Culverhouse liked what Donlan could bring to the table and recommended his hiring. The decision bore fruit, when the players did walk out, Donlan held the line and after 57 days the players came crawling back poorer than when the strike began. Thanks to a line of credit Hugh Culverhouse had arranged, none of the NFL owners suffered disastrous losses due to the stoppage.
These series of moves placed Culverhouse behind only Pete Rozelle in the NFL power structure. His influence only continued to grow. Shortly after the 1982 strike, Culverhouse was named Chair of the Management Council. When the NFL defended itself against an anti-trust lawsuit filed by the United States Football League, some in the NFL wanted to settle and agree to merge a couple of USFL teams. Culverhouse refused and encouraged others to hold the line.
The USFL ultimately won, but were only awarded three dollars, vindicating Culverhouse’s stance. When the NFLPA walked out for a second time in 1987, Culverhouse was one of the champions of replacement players, a group of scab players that kept the season going while the regulars walked the picket line. The use of replacements crushed the union.
When Culverhouse died in 1994 he left behind a legacy of bad football and ill will. However, a little bit of research and interviews provided a much fuller profile of the man at the helm of the Buccaneer ship. It would be difficult to find a decision affecting the NFL in the late 1970’s or 1980’s, whether in a court room or in a board room, that wasn’t initiated, executed or approved by Hugh Culverhouse.
Culverhouse’s heretofore untold story is the definition of a hidden gem. I am also proud to be in the process of bringing the full Culverhouse story to light in a book I am in the process of finishing.
There are countless hidden gems out there among us. Rich veins of stories that can be tapped by all of us for the enjoyment of others. I chose the Tampa Bay Buccaneers because they are the franchise of my childhood. But there are many others.
I propose to you that every franchise in sports has a compelling story to tell regardless of championship pedigree. We as writers just have to take the time to find them. Just because a team is not memorable for its on-field endeavors doesn’t mean the team is not filled with memorable characters.
Just keep the words of Branch Rickey in mind, “There is an artistry in ineptitude, too, you know.”