When Bucs blew it by drafting Bo Jackson

Published April 24 2015
Updated April 26 2015

TAMPA — The Bucs were on the clock, picking No. 1 overall after a disappointing 2-14 season and looking hard at the confident, talented Heisman winner from Bessemer, Ala., who was also a gifted baseball prospect.

It sounds like Jameis Winston, but regardless of how you think he'll pan out as the Bucs' likely pick Thursday, it certainly should end up better than 1986. That year, the Bucs had the top pick and used it on Auburn running back Bo Jackson, against his specific warning. He never signed and never played a down for the team, which would go another 11 seasons before it next made the playoffs in 1997.

"I told (owner) Hugh Culverhouse, 'You draft me if you want,' " Jackson recalled in a 2012 ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about his career. " 'You're going to waste a draft pick. I promise you that.' "

Nearly 30 years later, the unraveling of Vincent Edward "Bo" Jackson and the Bucs is legend and considered one of the franchise's biggest fumbles. Many still say it could have been avoided if the Bucs had only listened.

"The first thing that was strange to me is they never called me and asked me, never said one word to me about Vincent," said former Auburn coach Pat Dye, 75 and retired since 1992.

Just by persuading Jackson to play football at Auburn, Dye knew well that he could turn down a tempting offer. In 1982, coming off a World Series appearance, the Yankees drafted Jackson in the second round out of high school, "offered him a bunch of money, and he turned that down, too."

Dye barely remembers the name of Culverhouse — he calls him "Holshauser" and "Householder" before being reminded — but remembers well that he was an Alabama graduate, a friend of Bear Bryant's, someone who flew up to Auburn to meet with Jackson and for whatever reason, talked a lot about the Crimson Tide beating the Tigers the year before.

"He probably was arrogant enough to think that if they drafted him No. 1, he'd get him to sign," Dye said. "What he didn't know is you don't force Bo to do anything. You've got to make it his idea."

The Bucs unwittingly fell out of Jackson's favor a month earlier, when they sent Culverhouse's jet to pick him up for a physical and a visit. Team officials said they had checked with the NCAA and SEC, but the conference didn't let athletes be professionals in one sport and amateurs in another. Because of the flight, Jackson was ruled ineligible halfway through his baseball season at Auburn, and despite the Bucs' efforts to help him appeal, he was convinced the team had scuttled his collegiate baseball career on purpose.

"I think it was all a plot now, just to get me ineligible from baseball because they saw the season I was having and they thought they were going to lose me to baseball," Jackson said in the ESPN documentary. "(Like) 'If we declare him ineligible, then we've got him.' "

Had the Bucs or Jackson told Auburn baseball coach Hal Baird about the flight ahead of time, he might have flagged the SEC rule, fearing the worst when Jackson told him his expenses on the trip had been paid. Baird, also retired now, last week called the SEC's decision to rule him ineligible "a regrettable and shameful action," and one that drove a wedge between Jackson and Culverhouse, who died in 1994.

"He became very disenchanted with the Culverhouse operation," Baird said. "If you know Bo Jackson, he's nothing if not a man of principle. Once it got in his mind that that might have been calculated, he was never playing a snap for them."

Jackson, 52, declined to be interviewed for this story, citing a busy schedule, but Dye said the Bucs had no chance once Jackson had decided the flight to Tampa was a tactical move.

"That did more damage than anything. That killed any chance Tampa had of signing him," he said. "He'd have not played professional football at all before he went to Tampa Bay."

Jackson held true to his word and didn't sign, and he was taken in the fourth round of the baseball draft by the Royals, signing for much less money. He was in the majors by Sept. 2, five days before the Bucs' season opener.

A year later, when Tampa Bay's rights to him had expired, the Raiders drafted him in the seventh round, smartly offering to let him join them after baseball season, and he played parts of four years with Oakland before a hip injury ended his NFL career early in 1990. The same injury limited him in baseball, but he went on to hit 141 home runs with the Royals, White Sox and Angels.

That the Bucs missed out on perhaps a generation's most famous two-sport athlete could have been avoided, to be sure. Baird said he talked to many NFL and MLB teams in the spring of 1986, evaluating Jackson and how big a threat the other sport was toward a pro career. The Bucs weren't one of those teams, however, and he said the Bucs' mistake wasn't underestimating baseball in the equation, but underestimating Jackson.

"It wouldn't have made much sense to an NFL person that he would consider baseball under the (financial) circumstances," Baird said. "But if you know Bo, and he said he was going to look at baseball, you would have done well to respect that. He's just an honest guy that way."

With Winston, the Bucs haven't made the same mistake.

After another 2-14 season and again holding the No. 1 overall pick on Thursday, the Bucs thoroughly checked out the two-sport star from Bessemer, talking to his college football and baseball coaches and many others.

Winston, who didn't play baseball this spring to focus on the draft, has made clear his interest in coming to Tampa and playing for the Bucs.

If the Bucs pick him, he'll come.

Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] and (813) 226-3346. Follow @gregauman.

     
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