The early games at Tampa Stadium
On November 4, 1967 Tampa Stadium hosted its first football game, a 38-0 shellacking of the University of Tampa Spartans by a more nationally regarded UT, the Tennessee Volunteers. The fans in the stands may not have liked the result of the game, but the stadium itself was a big hit. The University of Tampa agreed to play as many as seven games a year at the stadium.
In addition to the Tampa Spartans, the University of Florida Gators played a game a year at Tampa Stadium for close to a decade and a half. Their first contest in Tampa Stadium was a thrilling 23-20 victory over the Air Force Academy Falcons in 1968.
Professional football came to Tampa Stadium for the first time in 1968. Tampa entrepreneur Bill Marcum attracted the Atlanta Falcons (there must be something in the water that make Falcons work in Tampa) and Washington Redskins to stage an exhibition game at Tampa Stadium in August of 1968. The purpose of the game was to raise money for the Tampa Jaycees and more than 40,000 spectators watched the Redskins defeat the Falcons 16-14.
The success of the first pre-season game led to more than a dozen pre-season games being played at Tampa Stadium, including the Baltimore Colts playing three of their “home” games there in 1972.
The expansion increased capacity from 46,000 to 72,000 and made Tampa Stadium one of the largest in the National Football League. It also became one of the NFL’s coveted venues. Other major sports were also anxious to use the facility.
Among the major sporting events that took place at Tampa Stadium were:|
- Super Bowls XVIII and XXV
- 1978 AFC-NFC Pro Bowl
- 1984 United States Football League Championship
- Hall of Fame Bowl/Outback Bowl (1986-1997)
In addition to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the following tenants called Tampa Stadium home:
- University of Tampa Spartans football
- Tampa Bay Rowdies NASL franchise
- Tampa Bay Mutiny MLS franchise
- Tampa Bay Bandits USFL franchise
- Periodic Florida Gator football from 1968 to 1984
- The annual gridiron clash between Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M
- University of South Florida Bulls football
The Bucs at Tampa Stadium
The first official Buccaneer game at Tampa Stadium did not go well, but then again very little did in 1976. The 23-0 loss to the San Diego Chargers was one of many shutouts the team would suffer in 1976.
The 1977 season finale against the St. Louis Cardinals came one week after the franchise’s first victory against New Orleans. The 17-7 victory over the Cardinals saw several firsts. It was Tampa Bay’s first win ever at Tampa Stadium, the first time in 1977 the Buccaneers scored a touchdown at home and the first time the Tampa Stadium fans stormed the field to tear down the goalposts.
Arguably the most memorable Buccaneer related moment to occur at Tampa Stadium was Neil O’Donoghue’s winning field goal against the Kansas City Chiefs on December 16th, 1979. The 19-yard field goal defeated the Chiefs 3-0 and propelled the “Worst to First Bucs” into the NFL playoffs. Thanks to my wonderful wife Amy, I have a picture of myself re-creating O’Donoghue’s kick in what I believe to be roughly the same spot. I say thanks to my wife not only for taking the picture but for shrugging off the numerous people who gave us odd looks as they walked by us on the way to Yankees practice at Legends Field across the street.
After more than 20 years of mostly bad football the Buccaneers left Tampa Stadium on a high note. The last game the Buccaneers played in the stadium was a 20-10 victory over the Detroit Lions in the 1997 NFC Wild Card Game. As Mike Alstott barreled 31-yards for the clinching touchdown he did more than leave Detroit defenders in his wake. Alstott’s run exorcised the demons of fourteen straight losing seasons and announced with authority that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were winners again. Aerial shots from blimps and airplanes showed a raucous crowd of over 72,000 cheering on the first playoff team since the early 1980’s. Tampa Stadium was for one day the center of the football universe during its last moments of NFL football.
All Good Things Must Come to an End
Tampa Stadium was both blessed and cursed to be built at the time it was and in the style and shape it took. The concrete super-stadiums of the 1960’s and 1970’s sprouted up in cities across America and Tampa Stadium came to be known as one of the best, feted with Super Bowls and other assorted big games. Sadly, the nation’s concrete super-stadiums did not easily fit into the way America came to watch football in person.
The football game itself became part of a “sporting experience” in the mid 1990’s. Fans expected more than just a game for their ever-increasing ticket prices and owners demanded more revenue producing amenities. Luxury boxes, theatre style seats, entertainment zones, concessions offering menus that looked as though they were meant for the cafeteria of the United Nations, gift-shops the size of Macy’s and other such flub-dubs became the norm in modern stadiums. The super-stadiums, built in an era when people just wanted to watch a game, lacked such extras and quickly fell out of favor.
As the 1990’s progressed it became apparent that Tampa Stadium, re-named Houlihan’s Stadium by the Glazer family in 1995, was not going to last into the 21rst century, at least not as the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The death knell for Tampa Stadium came when the citizens of Tampa voted to build a taxpayer funded stadium. With Raymond James Stadium towering over its shoulder, Tampa Stadium was systematically dismantled in the winter of 1999. The final piece of Tampa Stadium left standing, the luxury suites, was detonated in an explosion witnessed by thousands on April 11, 1999.
Not many people were sad to see Tampa Stadium go. Former St. Petersburg Times columnist Hubert Mizell even wrote an opinion piece that appeared on Bucpower.com asking for the honor of swinging the first wrecking ball. Some of the men that had been there for the groundbreaking ceremony were a little more circumspect about seeing the end of Tampa Stadium.
Terrell Sessums realized the need for a new stadium, but still felt pride in the facility his legislation paved the way for. “Tampa Stadium was still structurally sound but it was not amenable to the addition of skyboxes, lounges and the things that would bring additional revenue. It was also possibly not luxurious enough. It was sort of sad to see the stadium go as it had served real well. I thought it made a useful addition to our community.”
The man who helped bring the NFL to Tampa Bay agreed.
“The new stadium was going to be a lot nicer,” admitted Leonard Levy. “It’s like the printing plant I owned and went to everyday for 47 years that is going to be torn down this year. These things happen. It did a great job for us and it was a good stadium and a lot of people liked it.”
Perhaps the man who oversaw the day-to-day operations of Tampa Stadium said it best when balancing the need for a new stadium against what the old facility meant to the Tampa Bay area.
“Tampa Stadium served its purpose exceedingly well,” said Joe Zalupski. “The byline of a news story has to make it obvious where you are coming from. Now everybody knows were Tampa is and I believe Tampa Stadium had a lot to do with that.”
Tampa Stadium was not a romantic ballpark beloved by the nation like Fenway Park or Lambeau Field. But for over 30 years it was the home for Tampa sports and without it none of what Bay Area sports fans have come to take for granted would exist. Enjoy Raymond James but remember all the “Big Sombrero” gave and the future it provided.
NEXT - The beginnings of the Tampa Bay franchise
Denis Crawford, February 2006