The first lesson Jeff Vinik must learn about being a sports owner in Tampa Bay is a painful one. Man, does the Lightning's new owner have some small shoes to fill. Around here, we have had a lot more owners to endure than embrace. We have seen penny-pinchers and profiteers, braggarts and blowhards, cowboys and con artists. We have been promised tomorrow by men who have repeated yesterday. That's the amazing thing about Tampa Bay's sports barons. So many of them, it seems, have been competing for the title of worst owner ever. Looking back, so many of them have an argument for winning it. So who have been Tampa Bay's best sports owners? Who have been the worst? Not counting Vinik, who just got here, here's a look, from best to worst.
1. The Glazer family, Buccaneers
True, the popularity of the Glazers has faded lately. All you have to do is look at the empty seats in Raymond James Stadium to see that. The Bucs haven't won a playoff game since the Super Bowl in January 2003, and they have been so far under the salary cap, they need an elevator to go to the bank.
For all the criticism, however, the Glazers have won a Super Bowl, and they've had seven playoff seasons. On a franchise that made only three playoff appearances in the 19 years before they arrived, that's enough to keep them at No. 1.
Still, wouldn't it be nice if the Glazers worked harder toward replicating their run of 1997-2002? In those six seasons, the Bucs made five playoffs, largely because they weren't shy about spending the money to add a Simeon Rice, a Brad Johnson or a Keyshawn Johnson.
2. Stuart Sternberg, Rays
Sternberg owns the area's hottest team, and another trip to the playoffs would bolster his claim on the No. 1 spot.
The Rays have had the two best finishes in franchise history in the past two seasons, including a trip to the World Series in 2008. Considering the Rays play in professional sports' toughest division and that baseball has the fewest number of teams reach the postseason of any major sport, that is an impressive accomplishment.
There are those who have not warmed to Sternberg because of his desire for a new stadium or because he has acknowledged he will reduce payroll after this season. Still, considering how much of a payroll deficit his teams have overcome, it's hard to criticize him too harshly.
3. Bill Davidson, Lightning
Davidson wasn't exactly the most passionate owner Tampa Bay has seen. But what his Palace Sports & Entertainment conglomerate gave the Lightning that no previous ownership had was stability. Davidson let his front-office people do their jobs, and because of it, the Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004.
Even in the final years of Davidson's ownership, when the payroll tightened, those who ran the Lightning believed if they could talk to Davidson face-to-face, he would spend money.
4. John Bassett, Bandits
Say what you will about the USFL not being on par with the NFL (and it wasn't), a lot of great players stopped by. And a lot of Tampa Bay fans had a lot of fun watching it.
Sports Illustrated once referred to Bassett as "the people's owner'' and his team as "the people's team.'' In three years the Bandits were 35-19 and reached the playoffs twice.
If it had been left to Bassett, the USFL would have played in the spring forever and the Bandits might be on the verge of another new season.
5. George Strawbridge, Rowdies
Again, don't talk of what the NASL was not. Remember it for what it was. Fun.
It was the Rowdies who won Tampa Bay's first pro sports championship (1975). That was one of three times the team played for the title. In all, the Rowdies won five division titles.
True, they had three losing seasons in Strawbridge's final three years of ownership, but he still finished with a record of 138-20.
6. Vince Naimoli, Devil Rays
He brought baseball to Tampa Bay. More than anything else, more than the losing seasons, more than the Hit Show, that should be Naimoli's legacy. He brought the ball to the park.
Did Naimoli step on toes? Yes. Was he prone to anger? You betcha. Did his teams lose too often? Sure. Still, a lot of people failed in their attempts to bring baseball to the area. Naimoli didn't.
7. Takashi Okubo, Lightning
Okubo, the principal partner of Japanese company Kokusai Green, did a lot of things wrong. Under him and his company, the Lightning lost games. Trades were blocked. The franchise was left more than $100 million in debt. For all those reasons, I was tempted to list Okubo as the worst Lightning owner.
Then I talked to Lightning founder Phil Esposito, the man whose blood pressure Okubo and his company increased.
"They tried to kill me,'' Esposito said, "but without their money, we don't get a team. And they did get the building (the St. Pete Times Forum) built.''
Maybe. But 19-plus years after Tampa Bay was awarded the franchise, Esposito still hasn't met Okubo. (NHL commissioner Gary Bettman met him once). And it was Kokusai Green that allowed the Maloof family to run the Lightning (including engineering trades) when the family was considering buying the team.
8. Art Williams, Lightning
Poor Art. An owner has never come in with more bluster. Williams showed up on his first day talking about "studs and duds'' and winning championships. Nineteen wins and $20 million in losses later, Williams left so fast, he left skid marks. How bad was Williams? Have you heard of another owner who referred to his players as "pansies''? Give him credit for this much, however. He cleared a lot of debt from the Lightning before he left.
9. Oren Koules and Len Barrie, Lightning
In the end, the legacy of Koules, top left, and Barrie will be that of bad blood, bad trades and bad contracts. They were the cowboys, as coined by former coach John Tortorella. They traded Dan Boyle and Brad Richards. They hired Barry Melrose as coach, and they fired him after 16 games. They overpaid for Andrej Meszaros. They finished last and next-to-last. Most of all, they argued. In the end, the NHL was passing out deadlines and gag orders to deal with them.
10. Hugh Culverhouse, Buccaneers
If this list was 20 owners long, it's fair to assume Culverhouse would still be last. I almost ranked him behind Tom McCloskey, the Philadelphia businessman who was first awarded Tampa Bay's NFL franchise but balked at the payment schedule six weeks later.
Culverhouse was the owner who wouldn't pay Doug Williams, who didn't sign Bo Jackson, who was left at the altar by Bill Parcells.
In a league that does as much as any to help its bad teams (revenue sharing, scheduling, the draft), his record was 81-194-1. In his last 13 seasons of ownership, his team lost 10 or more games in each.
To be fair, Culverhouse's team did win one playoff game in 19 years. Judging from his payroll, he preferred the money.
Correction: A photo that ran with this column incorrectly identified Joel Kassewitz, Avie Glazer and Joel Glazer.
Gary Shelton can be reached at [email protected].com.