Monday, July 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Jones: 'The Yucks' chronicles when Bucs were bad and special

When it comes to writing about sports teams, you want one of two things:

Special good or special bad.

Mediocrity is boring, but a team being really good or really bad makes for solid story­telling.

And memorable stories are what you get with one of sports' most memorable teams: the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In those days, they were affectionately known as "The Yucks,'' which also happens to be the name of a book written by Florida native Jason Vuic, who will appear this weekend at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading.

Vuic, 44, grew up in Punta Gorda during the time when 1-75 didn't go as far as south as Alligator Alley. His parents were Dolphins fans. His dad went to the first Dolphins practice in 1960.

But Jason was a Bucs fan. As a kid, he and his family would pile in the car at 8 on a Sunday morning, drive the Tamiami Trail, watch the Bucs in the scorching heat and get home after dark, sunburned and exhausted.

But it was worth it, even as the Bucs lost week after week.

"I remember around 1981 or 1982 that the Bucs came to my school for a charity basketball game,'' Vuic said. "I met Doug Williams and thought it was the greatest thing in the world.''

Vuic's love for the Bucs has never waned, even as his life has led him far from Tampa Bay. He went to school at Wake Forest, then got a doctorate in European history at Indiana University. He eventually landed in then-Yugoslavia.

Weary of the unrest in that part of the world, Vuic got the writing bug and turned his attention to something silly: the Yugo, perhaps the worst car in the history of cars.

No wonder Vuic chose to write about the NFL's biggest lemon: the Yucks, the team that lost 26 in a row to start the franchise.

"I always had the idea to write about the Bucs,'' Vuic said. "I like losers more than winners. I don't want to read about the genius of Bill Belichick anymore. Or the Mannings. This Bucs team was special.''

Special bad.

Yet there was something endearing about that era that Vuic perfectly captures in his equally endearing book.

After a brief history of the Bucs' beginnings — from Tampa leaders such as Leonard Levy and former Tampa Tribune sports editor/columnist Tom McEwen to the often-overlooked Bill Marcum — Vuic gets into their first two seasons.

And you can't talk about those seasons without a heavy dose of their first coach, John McKay.

When I suggested to Vuic that McKay is the protagonist of his book, Vuic quickly said, "The protagonist and the antagonist.''

McKay, Vuic explained, could be incredibly warm and friendly with Bucs staff, from ball boys to trainers. At the same time, he could be incredibly cruel and biting with players.

"He could cut you with a word,'' Vuic said. "Just bring you to your knees.''

Vuic describes — and writes in his book — how McKay was the man most responsible for the Bucs being so bad in their first two seasons but was most responsible for them being so good soon thereafter, reaching the NFC Championship Game in 1979, their fourth season.

"They were horrible for so long because he had a plan,'' Vuic said. "And he did what he said he was going to do.''

That downtrodden period makes up the bulk of Vuic's book and is another reminder of just how iconic those teams were. As Vuic points out, the 1970s featured a handful of legendary teams, including the Dolphins, Steelers, Cowboys and Raiders.

"The Bucs are on that list, too,'' Vuic said.

A perfect example, as Vuic writes in his book, is how the Bucs became a running joke for then-Tonight Show host Johnny Carson. For those not old enough to remember, Carson might have been the biggest thing going on television at the time. Being the punch line to a Carson joke was like becoming a topic today on Saturday Night Live.

Eventually, the Bucs' cult status ended when they won just enough games to no longer be lovable losers. They went from the worst team in the NFL to, like, the fifth-worst team. No longer special bad, and no longer all that interesting.

They went on to win the Super Bowl in the 2002 season, a moment more meaningful for fans of the Yucks. "I was living in Ohio then,'' Vuic said. "I lifted my window in a snow storm and yelled out. I couldn't believe it.''

That team was special good.

These days, the Bucs are struggling again. Bad football is usually bad for business. Unless you write a book about bad football. Vuic's book is about bad football.

And it's very good.

     
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