The first time, he walked into a mess. Who knew Hardy Nickerson would do so much to change things?
Back then, the losing had gone on for a while. The franchise seemed lost. There seemed to be no hope, no faith, no belief. And no one mentioned the word playoffs.
Yeah, 20 years ago, it was a lot like, well, now.
All of which makes it a fine time to bring back an old warhorse.
Give credit to new coach Lovie Smith. When he named Nickerson as his linebackers coach last week, he got it right.
Right about now, the Bucs could use a little of the old fire. They could use the energy. They could use a lesson or two from a man who doesn't back down.
And if Hardy can teach it to his group — the Hardy Boys — then all the better.
"I'm so excited,'' Nickerson was saying by phone from California. "I know that last season was a tough season, but the roster has a number of great players. I think you know that Lovie is a great coach. Most of all, he's a winner.
"That's the main thing I'm excited about. I get to implement his plan.''
Nickerson is 48 now, and his approach will be different. He will be a teacher, a mentor, rather than an on-the-field leader. And that's fine with Nickerson, too.
Back in 2007, when Nickerson coached linebackers for the Bears under Smith, he loved it. But after a year, Nickerson had to step away because of health issues with his late mother-in-law. "It tore me up to leave,'' he said. "But it was something I had to do.''
Now, he is back in the league. And maybe a bit of the old Nickerson attitude remains.
You remember, don't you?
Nickerson was an excellent player for the Bucs. He made five Pro Bowls in his seven seasons, and after he retired, he received consideration for the Hall of Fame. (He was a semifinalist in 2008.)
But Nickerson meant more than just his play. He was fire and attitude and competitiveness and leadership, and the franchise learned all of those from him.
When you talk about great leaders in Tampa Bay history, Nickerson is one of the first you think of. He changed the atmosphere of the team as soon as he walked through the door, a fierce, prideful man who fought losing as hard as anyone.
He was Dave Andreychuk, and he was James Shields, and he was Derrick Brooks. He was a player whose inner spark spread like wildfire.
Yeah, the Bucs could use a little of that now. All they can get.
With Nickerson, the stories always begin in the weight room. He was in his first offseason, and the team was working out in the weight room. Nickerson noticed that defensive end Keith McCants wasn't working particularly hard, and he got in McCants' face because of it. Soon, McCants was gone.
"We had a little dustup,'' Nickerson says now. "The first thing I noticed was that being there was enough for some players. It wasn't enough for me. I wanted to win.''
And so Nickerson attacked the game with as cantankerous an attitude as the team had seen in some time.
His first time on the field, in a preseason game against Denver, Nickerson was ejected for shoving guard Doug Widell (who was also ejected) in a statement-making move.
He took a swing at Green Bay's Frank Winters. He tussled with San Francisco's William Floyd — and, regrettably, spat at him. He tried to fight Chicago kicker Kevin Butler, who had taunted the Bucs' bench.
For Nickerson, it was a mission. To change things. To show up. To make people notice. Over his years here, Nickerson left a footprint. He helped guide this team from 5-11 to the NFC title game.
"I think I was the kind of player who got every ounce of talent out of his body,'' Nickerson said. "I was always trying to be the best player I could be.''
Once, Nickerson described his lather before games. He said he would scream or make dinosaur noises or bark.
"I would bark?''
That's what you said back then.
"Bark? I said that?''
You said that.
He laughs louder: "You know, these days, you forget some of the things from back then. I do remember I would get worked up for games.''
Now, of course, the trick is for him to transfer his bark, and his bite, to Lavonte David and Mason Foster and the rest of the linebackers. A coach can't motivate the way another player can. But be assured that Nickerson will light a fire for those guys, too.
The Bucs could use it. It has been 11 seasons since the team won a playoff game. The team has had a losing record in four of its past five seasons.
These days, the Bucs are an afterthought of a franchise, a team that hasn't mattered for a very long time.
Smith, and the rest of his assistants, are here to change that.
"I don't have enough words to express what kind of guy and what kind of coach Lovie is,'' Nickerson said. "I have the utmost amount of respect for him. He is a teacher, a mentor, a motivator. He has all those qualities that attract players. He's a great man.''
Ah, but is he bigger than losing? Is he bigger than the lost momentum of a franchise? Is he bigger than years spent watching the playoffs?
And if he needs it, maybe he can get a spark from Nickerson.