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Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris comfortable with growing fame

SARASOTA — He ambled into the room with the same effervescent smile and the trademark happy-to-see-you expression.

In some respects, nothing is different for Raheem Morris. But then you notice the gawkers, the finger-pointing, fans wanting to share personal memories. That's when it becomes obvious everything has changed.

Ladies and gentlemen: Raheem Morris, sudden celebrity.

After skyrocketing from the Buccaneers' defensive backs coach to the team's head coach in a monthlong span, Morris still isn't accustomed to all of this business. But as he arrived Friday evening at the Ritz-Carlton on tree-lined Bayfront Drive for the Dick Vitale Gala, he walked into a ballroom and mingled with the likes of Rick Pitino, Urban Meyer and Vinny Lecavalier, and Morris still commanded a comparable amount of attention.

Flashbulbs popped. Media encircled him. And, yet, the man seemed oblivious to it all.

"I'm just here to support the event," said Morris, 32. "I'm here to represent the Tampa Bay Buccaneers."

And, boy, does he ever. In the NFL, the coach is the face of the franchise. It's an enormous responsibility even for the most prepared individual, much less for one who was a position coach as recently as December.

But Morris takes the job in stride.

"You don't make it bigger than it is," he said. "I don't want to be this figurehead that nobody sees around town. That's not me. You just have to make good decisions about how late you stay out (laughs). If President Obama can sit at a ball game and drink a beer, then so can Raheem Morris."

That said, Morris isn't yet a household name in every corner. Pitino, Louisville's iconic basketball coach, admittedly didn't recognize Morris' name at first mention.

"So, he's the head coach now?" Pitino said, just to double check.

The evening's host, Vitale — who helps fund cancer research in memory of his long-gone friend, Jim Valvano — penned a moving column for ESPN.com about the event's cause. In it, Vitale referred to one "Rahim Morris" as a guest. No word on whether "Rahim" showed.

But Raheem did, and though he is still an unknown to many, he can't hide from the fact he is much more well-known now than just a few months ago.

Told of Morris' predicament and sudden ascent, Pitino could relate, recalling his experience of being hired to coach the New York Knicks in 1987 at age 35.

"In New York, I tried to blend in, but of course, that's the media capital," Pitino said. "But up there, you had the Rangers, the Giants, the Jets, the Mets, the theatre, all that. He's probably going to stick out a little more in Tampa."

And the more recognizable Morris becomes, the longer grocery trips are likely to take. Running errands can slow to a crawl. Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan can tell Morris all about it.

"He's going to have to get used to signing autographs and being stopped when you go places and being recognized," said Donovan, who joined Pitino as an honoree. "It's gonna happen."

Morris, people person that he is, loves every minute of it.

"I'm going to the grocery store, I'm shaking hands, I give them all love," he said. "Those are our fans. Those are our people. They support me, and I'll support them."

The job comes with perks. Lines are largely a thing of the past for him now. Dinner reservations are a cinch. But Morris turns to what he considers a more important subject.

"You want to be out there in the community," he said. "You kind of have a role now where you can influence some people. This year, I want to go out and dedicate myself to the education of the youth in the Tampa Bay area. … I went over to Middleton (High) to talk to those kids about the importance of the FCAT (exam). That stuff is what it's all about."

At that point, Morris slipped away to shake more hands and meet more strangers in the crowded lobby. And with every step, he looked more and more like someone who belonged.

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris comfortable with growing fame 05/15/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 15, 2009 11:02pm]
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