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Top 10 Tampa Bay area sports stories of the decade

Here are our picks for the top 10 Tampa Bay area sports stories of the decade.

Bucs win the Super Bowl

For long-suffering fans of the Tampa Bay Yucks, this was one of those rub-your-eyes, pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming moments. The franchise best known for an NFL-record 26-game losing streak and humiliating seasons under a revolving door of coaches such as Leeman Bennett, Ray Perkins, Richard Williamson and Sam Wyche had a new claim to fame: a Vince Lombardi Trophy. Not only did the Bucs win Super Bowl XXXVII over the Oakland Raiders on Jan. 26, 2003, they won in a rout, burying one of the league's most famous franchises 48-21.

Ronde Barber leads the Bucs to the Super Bowl

Some will argue that the Bucs beating the Eagles 27-10 to win the 2002 NFC championship belongs lower on the list. We gave half a thought to making it the best moment of the decade, and arguably the greatest moment in Tampa Bay sports history. Those who had been around for the wear-a-bag-over-your-head days of the Bucs argue that just reaching the Super Bowl seemed beyond the realm of possibility, so the excitement of making it there equaled — and for some, surpassed — winning it. And a Super Bowl victory would not have been possible without an unexpected victory in Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, a house of horrors for previous Bucs teams. As Ronde Barber raced down the sideline on a 92-yard interception return for a touchdown to seal the victory, Bucs fans let loose with a celebration that was 27 years in the making.

Lightning wins Stanley Cup

Almost as improbable as the Bucs winning the Super Bowl, the once sad-sack Lightning won the most famous trophy in sports when it beat the Calgary Flames in seven games to win the 2004 Stanley Cup. The Lightning was in its 12th season and only a few years removed from being one of the worst organizations in sports. A franchise best remembered for an owner some claim never existed and a faulty fax machine, the Lightning became NHL champs thanks to young superstars such as Vinny Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis and Brad Richards, veterans such as Dave Andreychuk and Tim Taylor, and a fiery coach named John Tortorella as it beat the Flames 2-1 in a thrilling seventh game in Tampa.

The Rays reach the World Series

The image still burns fresh: second baseman Akinori Iwamura scooping up the grounder, racing to second for the final out and then jumping in the air as the Rays completed an incredible worst-to-first run in 2008 by winning the American League pennant. This was like the Washington Generals beating the Globetrotters, or Wile E. Coyote catching the Road Runner: It never seemed even remotely possible. Before 2008, the Rays had 10 consecutive losing seasons and had never lost fewer than 91 games. But in a season full of miracle comebacks, the Rays beat the rival Red Sox in a heart-stopping seven-game series, capped by Matt Garza's sensational pitching performance in Game 7, to reach baseball's Fall Classic.

Tony Dungy fired/ Jon Gruden hired

One of the most beloved figures in Tampa Bay sports history, Tony Dungy put the Bucs on the winning track, but he didn't go the distance. Despite three consecutive playoff appearances (and four overall), Dungy was fired on Jan. 14, 2002, two days after a first-round playoff loss to the Eagles for the second consecutive season. The search to replace him took two months and ran through several near misses before the Bucs hired Raiders coach Jon Gruden, but only after giving the Raiders two first-round draft picks, two second-round picks and $8 million.

Jon Gruden/ Bruce Allen fired

In 2008, Jon Gruden's Bucs were 9-3 and seemed poised for a playoff appearance, which would've been the fourth in Gruden's seven years in Tampa Bay. But a four-game losing streak to close the season not only cost the Bucs a postseason spot (leaving the team without a playoff victory since its Super Bowl championship in 2003), it cost Gruden his job. And general manager Bruce Allen his. In a stunning move on the evening of Jan. 16, 2009, Gruden and Allen were dismissed. Raheem Morris, the Bucs' defensive backs coach who had been recently promoted to defensive coordinator, was named to replace him. Mark Dominik was named to replace Allen.

The Rays lose in the World Series

As magical as the Rays' 2008 season was, it could not have ended in a colder or more anticlimactic fashion. In the World Series, it took eight days to play five games, including three days to play Game 5 alone. For the Rays, it seemed longer, as their bats inexplicably turned as cold as the weather in Philadelphia. After splitting the first two games at home, the Rays were swept in Philadelphia, where rain and blustery conditions made the final three games miserable. Game 5 started on Oct. 27 and wasn't finished until Oct. 29. Not that the finale was worth waiting for; the Phils won the Series with a 4-3 victory.

USF football rises to No. 2 in the polls

It was a perfect storm because of a slew of stunning upsets around the country. But on Oct. 14, 2007, the USF Bulls, in their 11th season as a football program (seventh in Division I-A), rose to No. 2 in the polls behind Ohio State. The Bulls occupied a spot normally reserved for the legendary names in college football — the Southern Cals, the Notre Dames, the Alabamas, the Oklahomas. It lasted only a week. The Bulls lost their next three games. But, you can look it up: For one astounding week in October 2007, the Bulls were considered the second-best college football team in the country.

The legend of Tim Tebow

There are his record-breaking days as a high school quarterback. The jump passes that helped the Gators win the national championship in his freshman season. There is his Heisman Trophy-winning season as a sophomore and the emotional speech that led the Gators to a second national championship in three years when he was a junior. There is his senior season that took the Gators to within a victory of another national championship game appearance. And there is his work off the field helping and inspiring others. We have had a first-row seat to perhaps the greatest player in the history of college football.

10. Stuart Sternberg buys the Rays

The Rays are in Tampa Bay because of, among others, original managing partner Vince Naimoli. But the Rays are now a legitimate major-league baseball franchise because of Stuart Sternberg, who took control in 2005. Not only did he eventually change the team's name from Devil Rays to Rays, he changed the culture, too. The Rays stopped being a national joke. He brought with him sharp executives in Andrew Friedman and Matt Silverman, gave Joe Maddon his first job as a big-league manager, and they have put together a solid foundation that should have the Rays competitive for years to come.

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Top 10 Tampa Bay area sports stories of the decade 12/26/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 26, 2009 10:30pm]

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