TAMPA — Once, they were Spartans.
But when nearly 100 former University of Tampa football players gathered during a March 25 reunion at the school's Vaughn Center — ranging from a lone player in 1950 to a dozen or so representing the final team in 1974 — one thing became clear.
"We are still Spartans,'' former UT defensive back Rick Thomas said. "And we always will be.''
For many Tampa Bay area sports fans, it's a hopelessly dated reference. After all, the last UT Spartan football game was nearly 43 years ago — before there were Buccaneers, Rays, Lightning, Rowdies or much of anything else on the local sports scene.
"It almost sounds like a cliche to say, 'You had to be there,'" former UT wide receiver Ricky Rivas said. "But really, you had to be. It was special. The sights and sounds are still in my mind. The feeling is still deep in my heart.''
After the Phillips Field era, the final eight seasons of Spartan football were played at the old Tampa Stadium, a 46,481-seat structure with two free-standing sides. With future professional football stars such as John Matuszak (the No. 1 overall pick in the 1973 draft), Leon McQuay, Freddie Solomon and Noah Jackson leading the way, the Spartans were the big game in town.
Following the 1972 season, UT (10-2) defeated Kent State at the Tangerine Bowl. Kent State featured future Pro Football Hall of Famer Jack Lambert at middle linebacker and had Nick Saban, now the Alabama coach, in the defensive backfield.
With school enrollment hovering around 1,300 students, the Spartans defeated much bigger programs — such as their victories against SEC member Mississippi State and Miami (at the Orange Bowl) — to develop a giant-killing reputation.
UT dropped football in 1975 because school president B.D. Owens and the board of trustees feared it might face bankruptcy with continued support of the program.
The school is a much different place now.
It has an enrollment of about 8,500 student and a $270-million operating budget. More than 40 building projects implemented during the tenure of UT president Ron Vaughn have modernized the campus.
The Spartans, playing at the NCAA Division II level in the Sunshine State Conference, have won 15 national championships (baseball, men's and women's soccer, volleyball and golf).
Each of UT's student-athletes gets an orientation in the UT Athletic Hall of Fame area, which is still dominated by former football players.
"These football players are still part of the fabric of our university,'' UT athletic director Larry Marfise said. "They're still somewhat bitter that it ended the way it did. I'd feel the same way if my alma mater dropped football.
"But these guys did a great job building a foundation for us. We talk to all of our student athletes about our history and football is such a huge part of that.''
It's mostly confined to the history pages.
Many UT students — and sports fans in the Tampa Bay area — are unaware that the Spartans once played football in a significant way.
"We have no football homecoming to go to, so over time, things have faded and we've lost touch with a lot of people,'' former Spartans tight end Vin Hoover said. "It doesn't take long to get the old feelings back. As we get older, we get a little better, a little faster. We're in a unique situation with our football program just halting so abruptly. I think it makes us look back with even more fond memories.''
At the reunion, former players and cheerleaders pored over copies of UT yearbooks and articles from the Minaret, the school's student newspaper. They smiled while holding ticket stubs to old games and checking out other memorabilia.
"I'm looking at these guys here and I can't believe how old they're looking,'' chuckled former middle linebacker Randy True, who showed up in his old UT letter jacket (still fits) and sported a 1972 Tangerine Bowl watch (still runs).
"We shared some really great memories," True said. "We were on the cutting edge. We beat some good teams even though we were a very small school. But we played in the big stadium and it was really something. They took away the program. They can't take away our memories.''
UT billed the gathering as the "last'' reunion for football. Indeed, big names such as Matuszak, Solomon and Coach Dennis Fryzel have died. The ranks are thinning.
But there's already talk of another reunion — as early as next year.
"A lot of time has passed, but in a way no time has passed,'' said former Spartans center Fletcher Carr, who became a college football assistant and led Arizona State to the 1988 national championship in wrestling. "I remember the big moments. I also remember just the excitement of getting ready for the games. Those days won't be forgotten.''
Vaughn, the school president, said he doesn't want them to be forgotten.
"You are always part of the University of Tampa family,'' Vaughn told the group. "The bonds are strong. Thank you for keeping up that spirit and keeping the University of Tampa in your hearts.''
Once, they were Spartans.
Now and forever, they will always be Spartans.
Contact Joey Johnston at [email protected]