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Is the Bucs’ cursed quest for a franchise quarterback buried under a Walmart off I-275?

Bucs 2019: Once upon a time, Hugh Culverhouse tried to make a deal with Doug Williams. It was called Tampasphere. The Bucs are still looking for a franchise quarterback, and one won’t be found on Aisle 7.
A group of Doug Williams' supporters picket on July 17, 1983, in front of One Buc Place in Tampa. Williams did not re-sign with the Bucs. [WALLES, JOE | St. Petersburg Times]
Published Aug. 31
Updated Sep. 2

TAMPA — Standing inside the Walmart on Dale Mabry Highway just north of Interstate 275, you are at a signpost for bad Buccaneers history, the crack in the earth, the one and only birthplace of The Curse of Doug Williams.

Trust us, you are.

Everyone wants to know if Jameis Winston will play well enough this season to be a “franchise quarterback” and get a second contract with the club. No Bucs quarterback has ever signed a second contract with the franchise, a staggering accomplishment. Curse, indeed.

And a big part how that began begins in this Walmart. But where? Ladies apparel? Paint and hardware? Anywhere you go, you’re getting warmer. For this Walmart is the place that replaced the place that was once supposed to be the deal clincher, the place that would lock up Doug Williams forever and keep him in hobgoblin Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse’s clutches.

Say the word:

TampaSphere

MORE BUCS: If you aren’t convinced Jameis Winston can be a star, read this

“Good old TampaSphere,” said Williams, now a personnel executive with Washington’s NFL team. “That brings back a lot of memories.”

“I heard this was where it was supposed to go,” said Clay Reeves, a greeter at the Walmart and a Bucs fan in his late 50s. Reevs also said he believed the Walmart is also on the site of “an Indian burial ground.”

It is burial ground enough.

It was 1983. Williams, whom the Bucs had selected in the first round of the 1978 draft, had helped lead a once 0-26 franchise to three playoff appearances in five seasons, including the 1979 NFC title game. His numbers didn’t always light the world, but Williams won. Teammates followed him.

And it was time for the Bucs to pay him.

But “pay” was a four-letter word to the owner. Culverhouse was a spectacularly successful tax attorney and land developer, but he was just as spectacular at cutting corners when it came to his football team.

Bucs players were field hands. They paid for their own drinks out of vending machines at the team practice facility. Once, in 1985, a Bucs safety named David Greenwood grabbed his first NFL interception. He was awarded the ball. A few days later, he received a bill for it from the Bucs. Greenwood returned the ball.

That was life under Mr. C.

The line was clearly drawn.

Douglas Lee Williams dared to cross it

He was a starting quarterback on one of 28 NFL teams. “And I was the 54th-highest-paid quarterback,” Williams said.

Williams had been earning $120,00 per season. He wanted a five-year deal, $600,000 per season. Culverhouse refused to budge from $400,000 per season.

They were just $200,000 apart. Think about that. Winston will make $20.9 million this season.

You had to have been there.

“Then came TampaSphere,” Williams said.

It sounds as if it should have had a roller coaster in it, or dinosaurs. Welcome … to TampaSphere.

TampaSphere, as conceived by Culverhouse and Tampa developer Al Austin, was to consist of 1 million square feet of office space, 300,000 square feet of retail space and a 600-room hotel.

“TampaSphere was traditional mixed use,” said Tampa real estate development attorney Ron Weaver, who was counsel on the project for Culverhouse and Austin. “I don’t think there were Mall of America amenities, like a roller coaster in there, just a classic mixed use.”

Mr. C made his side play.

“He called me to his West Shore office,” Williams said. “He told me he would make me part of it, giving me a line of credit of $200,000 to buy in and we’d get to the contract later. I would be in for something, 2 percent, whatever it was, I don’t remember.

“The way I viewed it — and I ain’t no genius — I’d have been on the hook for him for $200,000. He would have had me over a barrel when it came to a contract.”

“Mr. C was playing Doug,” said Bucs Ring of Honor tight end and Williams’ longtime friend Jimmie Giles, who was one of Williams’ favorite targets. “We were young country boys. We didn’t know anything at all about real estate. And they were going to lend him money to get involved? What kind of sense did that make? We didn’t trust Culverhouse anyway because he didn’t pay anyone.”

So, that was that. Williams, who was still grieving over the death of his wife, Janice, during the contract fiasco, left the Bucs for the Oklahoma Outlaws of the USFL.

Doug Williams did indeed come back to play in Tampa Bay, as a member of the USFL Oklahoma Outlaws on May 15, 1984. [HELLE, KEN | St. Petersburg Times]

Then there is the rest of the story.

TampaSphere was never built. Also: After Williams, the Bucs would not make the playoffs from 1984-96, a prolific drought filled with double-digit losing seasons and dwindling attendance.

Note: Quarterback Warren Moon said Culverhouse also offered him a piece of TampaSphere in 1984 after he decided to leave the Canadian Football League in 1984. He signed with Houston.

When the USFL folded, the Bucs still owned Williams’ rights, but they traded him to Washington for a fifth-round draft pick.

Then there is the rest of the rest of the story.

To end the 1987 season, Doug Williams had the night of nights and won Super Bowl XXII with Washington. He threw for 340 yards, and four touchdowns in the second quarter, becoming the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl.

Repeating: TampaSphere was never built.

“It ended when they tried to get tenants and tenants said no thanks,” Weaver said. “Then Walmart came in and said ‘Please,’ and ‘Here’s our money.’ That’s how Walmart got there.”

Culverhouse pulled out of the TampaSphere project in 1985. He died of lung cancer in 1994. The Bucs went 6-10 that season.

The war is over. The Curse of Doug Williams lifted when the 2002 Bucs won the Super Bowl. Tensions eased further when Williams returned to Tampa to work for his first NFL team.

One more time: TampaSphere was never built.

Giles was on the sideline in San Diego when Williams won his Super Bowl.

“That should have been us,’” Giles said. “We had the premier defense, and Doug always found a way. Every time I go by that Walmart, I still laugh.”

His friend Doug Williams knows the way.

“Go on Dale Mabry and turn left on Doug Williams Drive,” Williams said, chuckling. “Good old TampaSphere.”

An image frozen in Tampa Bay sports history: Bucs quarterback Doug Williams standing tall in the pocket in the 1979 NFC Championship against the Los Angeles Rams. (Times file)


Times researcher Caryn Baird and assistant sports editor Ernest Hooper contributed to this report

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly

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