ATLANTA — For the past several weeks, new Bucs coach Dirk Koetter tried to downplay it.
No big deal, he shrugged. Just one game. Just another NFL game.
Every time he was asked about his NFL head coaching debut, Koetter turned into the Heisman Trophy, deflecting questions with a perfect verbal stiff-arm.
Never mind that he waited until age 57 for his chance. Never mind that this coach's son followed the same lonely, nomadic career his father had before reaching the top of his profession.
For Dirk Koetter, this was no big deal.
Except it was.
When it was all done, after the Bucs had defeated the Falcons 31-24 on Sunday, Koetter finally gave in.
His eyes welled up when he talked about how Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston handed him the game ball moments after the victory. Then, later, off to the side after he had addressed the media, he smiled when asked just how cool it was to win his first game.
"Yeah," Koetter said.
Did he get emotional when Winston handed him the ball?
"Ha, I did," Koetter said. "Yeah, I did. I tend to get emotional."
So, Dirk, just admit it. It's a big deal.
"I'm 1-0," Koetter said. "I might retire right now."
Tell you what else is a big deal, an even bigger deal than Koetter starting his head coaching career 1-0. It's the Bucs starting the season 1-0.
If the Bucs are going to do anything this season, winning Sunday's game was imperative. Not quite a must-win, but pretty darn close.
The Falcons are no great shakes. This was a winnable game. And though the victory guarantees nothing, a loss would have set an ugly tone. It would have left players and fans alike worried that another crummy season was in store.
At least now there's some encouragement that the Bucs won a game they needed to win if they hope to turn the franchise around and become truly competitive.
A loss wouldn't have been the end of the world. But a victory in their first game meant everything to the Bucs.
And, yeah, to Koetter, too.
"Coach Koetter is one of the coolest people I've ever met in my life."
Know who said that? Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the same Austin Seferian-Jenkins who was kicked out of a practice by Koetter early in the summer. The same ASJ who was publicly called out by Koetter for not playing well enough to earn first-team reps in the preseason.
And the same ASJ who made a spectacular touchdown catch in Sunday's victory.
He even called Koetter a "father figure." What does that tell you about how the players feel about Koetter?
"He doesn't always see eye to eye (with you), but he's going to look out for the best for you, even if you don't see it," Seferian-Jenkins said. "I'm happy we could get a win for him. I know I would do anything for him right now, and I think that resonates through the team, that they would do anything for him, too."
It started with the Bucs giving him a victory.
It ended with Winston giving him the game ball in an emotional celebration.
"A lot was said," Winston said. "We were just happy to get that win for our coach. … It was very important for us to make him feel that this moment was very special."
Of course it was special, even if Koetter didn't think it would be.
"I'm so happy for Dirk," said defensive coordinator Mike Smith, who coached with Koetter in Atlanta. "He has handled this team unbelievably through this offseason."
Smith pointed out that a lot of coaches want to be 1-0 right now. And after this weekend, half the teams in the league wish they were 1-0.
"Let's do it 15 more times this year," Koetter said.
That's what he told his team. That was how excited he was. And how important the win was.
"Right now, this is what we have to do," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "This game is over. Clock ticks zero and it's over. Now we move on to Arizona. We beat Atlanta, but … now we have to move on to the next one. We have to have that mentality. We have to move on to the next game."
But it sure feels better to move on to the next game with a 1-0 record. For the Bucs. And Koetter, too.
After all, this was a pretty big deal.
Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] or (727) 893-8544. He can be heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-AM 620 .