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Bucs passing to new leadership

Published Oct. 13, 2005

The trademark orange blazer still hangs in his closet, and Hugh Culverhouse continues to be identified as the affable owner of the Tampa Bay Bucs. But today, at 72, Culverhouse plays only a "passive" role in his pro football franchise and has turned over complete authority to his daughter, Gay, and to general manager Phil Krueger.

"Business-wise, we're running it," said Gay Culverhouse, who was named team president in November. "If I come across a memo or something that might be of interest to him, I send it over. But he doesn't write back like last year, when I was new in this position. I used to get wonderful advice constantly. But I'm out there on my own now."

Krueger, who has served as the Bucs' negotiator the past 12 seasons, now runs the football operations and maintains only occasional contact with the team's owner. Culverhouse has empowered him to determine player salaries and negotiate all deals.

"I used to have to go and get approval. Now I'm the approval," Krueger said. "I don't have to go to anybody when I do a contract.

"The only advice he ever gave me, to be honest with you, which tells you the way he is, was that "You've got this job, you've got a lot of money you have to deal with. The precept you follow is don't make friends with my money.' "

Concerns about Culverhouse's health prompted him to reduce his involvement with National Football League matters and relinquish his control over the Bucs, according to his daughter. In the last year, Culverhouse has undergone surgery to correct a carotid artery, replace a broken hip with an artificial one, and remove a malignant tumor from his lung.

Culverhouse no longer serves on the Bucs' board of directors. He rarely represents the team at NFL meetings. He defers nearly every interview request to Gay or Krueger.

"You know, he's had so much surgery lately. I think that's had him rethink some of his priorities," Gay Culverhouse said. "He's 72 years old, and you have to ask yourself: "Do you really want to keep at the constant pace you've kept at?' "

Although Culverhouse appointed his daughter team president last November, the announcement was delayed until February, when he introduced Richard Williamson as the Bucs' fourth head coach. At the same time, the Bucs board of directors was reshaped to include his daughter, son Hugh Culverhouse Jr., and Stephen F. Story, a 41-year-old partner in Culverhouse's Tampa law firm.

Last season, which featured the Bucs' eighth straight losing record and the firing of head coach Ray Perkins, took a heavy toll on Culverhouse, according to his daughter.

"He said: "It tore my guts out,' " Gay Culverhouse said. "I think that's as vivid as you can get.

"I think since he hired Perkins he felt real responsible for Perkins and that whole dilemma, and it was something he needed to clean up. But in the midst of it, he let us handle the PR for him and a lot of things. He made the decision, but we handled as much as we could with the public and the press and tried to keep the pressure off of him. We all chipped in and did what we could. Now things are smooth and he's been able to step back. I think it'll be a different picture from now on.

"Dad has become a passive owner."

The picture Culverhouse now presents to Bucs fans is one of a semi-retired lawyer who is just beginning to slow down long enough to enjoy his 70s. He has recovered enough from lung surgery to begin a vacation June 15 that includes a two-week African safari.

"Health-wise, I think he's doing real well," Gay Culverhouse said. "He unfortunately got a real bad cold and cough after he had his lung surgery, so that didn't help. He's walking a couple miles every day on a treadmill, so his hip has come along real well in the last year. He's just had a series of problems. Just about the time he gets over something, something else comes along. I think he's due for some fun and some relaxation. He's never really had a break."

That break began to become possible when Gay Culverhouse joined the Bucs in 1986 as the team's vice president for community relations. With a doctorate degree in special education and a master's degree in mental retardation, Gay did not plan on a career as one of the highest-ranking females in an NFL franchise.

"Ten years ago, we never planned that I'd be sitting here," she said. "Nobody ever foresaw that.

"I have a doctorate. I was dealing with weird kids and figured my whole life I would deal with weird kids and enjoy it. But now, being president, it's very natural and works out very well. It's a lot of fun. And dad was glad he could do this and still have it in the family."

Gay Culverhouse said she has no idea what roles she and her brother, Hugh Jr., a Miami-based lawyer, will play one day in assuming the club's ownership.

"I don't know how (her father's will) is set up," she said recently. "I'm sure it changes every five years."

On Tuesday, as Gay Culverhouse plowed through a mountain of paperwork on her final afternoon at the office before leaving for a 12-day vacation, she appeared confident and content in her role as Bucs president.

"I foresee myself staying right here for as long as dad owns the team," she said.

As president, Gay Culverhouse oversees the Bucs' accounting, public relations, ticket sales, marketing and the sale of skyboxes. Krueger controls the football operations and manages the majority of the franchise's finances. So far, the reorganization has been a successful one.

"Phil and I have known each other forever," Gay Culverhouse said. "We trust each other. We don't step on each other's toes. We're very respectful of one another and what one another is trying to do. And we both have the same goal. And we both know that, ultimately, we're pleasing the same man. We're not trying to outshine each other, because we're just real confident within ourselves. It's a good union that works out well. But I think it works because of the personalities and not the structure."

Despite Culverhouse's disappearance from the Bucs' daily operations, there is no doubt he still owns the team and is among the most powerful men in the NFL. Last week he was appointed to the league's expansion committee, and he still is a highly recognizable figure in the community.

"My son and my dad and I were at Bern's Sunday night for dinner, and several people came up to him and said: "Oh, how's your team going to do? Oh, Mr. C ,"' Gay said. "Well, I'm the president. But who are they asking? They're asking the owner. I think it's only natural. But it was like I'm nobody. I'm just the person sitting behind this desk running this thing. But we have a very well-known owner. I think people will always ask him how it's going and what's going on."

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