Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer dies

Malcolm Glazer once didn't know much about football. But his ownership lifted a struggling team — and the city of Tampa.
Published May 28 2014
Updated May 29 2014

The night was cold, and the hour was growing late. And yet no one standing shoulder to shoulder in the bleachers of Raymond James Stadium seemed to pay it any mind.

At that point, the Buccaneers had been Super Bowl champions a little less than 24 hours, and yet more than 60,000 fans had flocked to the stadium on short notice that Monday evening in 2003 to welcome their team home from San Diego.

When finally the Bucs arrived and the cheers began to soar — cheers forged by decades of losses, heartbreak, blunders and ridicule — it was this sprite of a man in a tweed coat and reddish beard who was holding a trophy above his head and leading a swaggering group of conquerors onto the field.

This was Malcolm Glazer at the pinnacle of his success in Tampa Bay.

Previous years hadn't always been smooth for the Bucs owner, and subsequent days would grow rocky too. But that moment is what bay area fans will likely always recall when thinking about the man who rescued a franchise once at risk of disappearing.

Malcolm Glazer, who had been in declining health for a number of years after suffering two strokes, died Wednesday morning. He was 85.

"He was responsible, I think, for the Buccaneers turning the corner,'' said Jon Gruden, who was head coach of the Super Bowl team. "He improved everything about the organization, from their image to their colors to their reputation. They became a global franchise after winning the Super Bowl. He deserves a tremendous amount of credit.''

The Bucs franchise, which has been run in recent years by three of Mr. Glazer's sons, is expected to remain under the family's ownership.

Little was known about Mr. Glazer when he first came to Tampa Bay's attention in 1994 as a potential buyer of the team that had, arguably, the NFL's worst reputation.

He had grown up as one of seven children in Rochester, N.Y., and took over his family's watch repair business at age 15 when his father died. A tireless worker, Mr. Glazer soon began investing in real estate and would eventually amass a fortune valued today at $4 billion, including the Bucs and famed soccer team Manchester United of England.

His business portfolio would eventually include restaurant chains, TV stations and large chunks of the Harley Davidson motorcycle company that he tried to purchase in an unfriendly takeover.

"He was shy, he was quiet, he was unassuming as billionaires go,'' Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "His story was a true rags-to-riches. It was an American success story.''

When previous Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse died in 1994, the franchise was in complete disarray. The team had a historic streak of losing seasons, and then-Tampa Stadium was routinely half-empty. Some potential local buyers emerged but their offer was well below market value, and there was growing concern the team would be bought by Orioles owner Peter Angelos and moved to Baltimore.

When Glazer, who lived in Palm Beach, offered what was then a record amount of $192 million for a sports franchise, it effectively saved the Bucs in Tampa Bay.

"He took a chance on this team,'' said Bucs Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks, who was drafted the same year Mr. Glazer assumed control. "He bought this team when people were saying it was probably one of the worst decisions he could make.''

His role as savior was quickly in doubt as Mr. Glazer seemed to suggest the team could be moved to Orlando if a new stadium was not built. His hardball tactics, which served him well in his business ventures, went a long way toward getting Raymond James Stadium built and solidifying the team's finances for years to come.

He briefly flirted with big-name hires before giving Tony Dungy his first shot at being a head coach in 1996, a move that would ultimately change the team's fortunes.

Mr. Glazer also began to spend freely to acquire coveted players such as Keyshawn Johnson, Simeon Rice and Brad Johnson, along with Gruden as coach in 2002.

"Malcolm Glazer was the guiding force behind the building of a Super Bowl-champion organization,'' NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "His dedication to the community was evident in all he did.''

His run of success with the Bucs declined dramatically with the firing of Gruden after the 2008 season. The turn in fortunes could even be traced back a few years earlier when the family purchased Manchester United, one of the world's most valuable franchises, for more than $1.4 billion.

While the soccer team has gone on to win a number of league titles, the Bucs have gone six seasons without making the playoffs and have not won a postseason game since the Super Bowl over Oakland in January 2003.

But to put his stewardship in perspective, Mr. Glazer owned the Bucs for exactly half of the franchise's existence. Tampa Bay was 87-204-1 with three playoff appearances in the 19 years before his arrival. The Bucs went 146-158 with seven playoff appearances in the 19 years since Mr. Glazer purchased the team.

"The first thing that comes to mind is how successful he was at everything he touched,'' said former Bucs general manager Rich McKay. "People don't realize how many different businesses he was in, and every one of them was successful, whether it was retail, apartments, the Bucs, owning television stations.''

He rarely appeared in public and granted interviews even less frequently. Associates say he was devoted to his wife, Linda, and six children and did not often venture far from his Palm Beach home. After two strokes in 2006, Mr. Glazer became even more reclusive.

"He and his wife really raised a very close-knit family that sticks together and they all get along,'' said former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. "They're very, very family-oriented. I give the parents a lot of credit for that.''

Even as he withdrew from the public eye, Mr. Glazer's influence in Tampa Bay has grown beyond the football field. The Glazer Family Foundation has given millions to charities, including the children's museum in Tampa that bears the family's name.

"Malcolm Glazer was one of the most unique people I've ever known,'' said Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan. "He seemed to have a mosaic of disparate talents and traits. Undeniably he has made an incredible impact on Tampa Bay through the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and as the benefactor of our children's museum. Both legacies are equally meaningful and very, very appreciated.''

Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco frequently sat with Mr. Glazer in his suite at Bucs games and said he was a remarkably reserved and soft-spoken man who did not seem to have much more than a casual sports fan's grasp of football. They once were discussing an athlete who was buying tennis shoes for underprivileged children, and Mr. Glazer began telling the story of desperately wanting a new pair of shoes as a child.

When his mother could finally afford a pair, she bought them too large. So Mr. Glazer filled the toes of the shoes with paper and would remove pieces of paper as his feet grew.

He told Greco that he thought about that every time he bought a pair of expensive shoes.

"This guy was an unusual person,'' Greco said. "He didn't fit what you'd think a sports personality would be. Everybody expects somebody in sports to be loud and boisterous and say funny things.

"Mr. Glazer was not a sports person at all. He didn't know much about football. He just knew business. And to him, it was a business.''

Mr. Glazer is survived by his wife, Linda, sons Avram, Kevin, Bryan, Joel and Ed and daughter Darcie and 14 grandchildren.

Times staff writers Richard Danielson, Jamal Thalji, Matt Baker, Greg Auman, Stephen F. Holder and Sue Carlton contributed to this report.