TAMPA — He was never owner, coach, nor general manager. He did not pass, tackle or block.
If you are trying to explain to someone the role that Leonard Levy played in the story of Tampa Bay and big-time sports, there is really only one way to describe it:
He convinced the world that we belonged.
If that sounds overblown, then you probably weren’t around in the early 1970s when Tampa was still a smallish town with outsized expectations for the NFL. There was no ownership group and no track record beyond a handful of exhibition games. The proposed team had no name, and Tampa Stadium lacked the requisite capacity.
And yet, on April 24, 1974, at the Drake Hotel in New York, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle announced Tampa Bay had finished ahead of Seattle, Phoenix, Memphis and Honolulu in voting for an expansion franchise.
“Welcome to the NFL, sir,” he said upon shaking Levy’s hand.
Almost 50 years later, Tampa Bay is home to the Bucs, the Lightning, the Rays and the Rowdies. We’ve hosted Super Bowls, a Final Four, the World Series and the Republican National Convention. Tampa Bay is a vastly different place than it was in 1974, and it was Levy who helped sell the owners of 26 other NFL teams on the market’s then-untapped potential.
Levy, 89, passed away Thursday afternoon after entering hospice care earlier in the week.
“As far as the Buccaneers franchise goes, and I was there when it arrived and I think it’s had a huge impact on the city, he had as much to do with that footprint as any civic-minded individual could,” said former Bucs general manager and current Atlanta Falcons president and CEO Rich McKay said.
“I don’t know who would want to debate that, but I’d be happy to have that debate.”
Not a bad legacy for a kid from Plant High School who used to joke that he was hours away from commencement exercises at the University of Florida before getting word that he passed his final class.
He joined the Marines, rose from salesman to owner at Hillsboro Printing and chaired the area’s original NFL expansion committee as well as Tampa Bay’s first Super Bowl committee.
That’s the official bio, but it’s not the story friends wanted to tell on Thursday.
“He and (wife) Pat were always there for anybody who needed anything. Whether it was the Boys & Girls Club or anything else in the community, they would work 24 hours a day if that’s what it took,” said former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, who knew Levy since they were teenagers and used to drive with him from Tampa to Gainesville when they were students.
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“We’ve come so far as a city on a lot of hopes and wishes, and Leonard Levy made sure a lot of that happened. We should be forever thankful to him and Pat.”
Because Tampa Bay did not yet have the hotel or convention space needed for a Super Bowl in the late 1970s or early ′80s, Levy created an army of volunteers to work around the area’s shortcomings. Other cities would later cite Tampa Bay as the model they followed to woo the NFL for future Super Bowls.
“His relationships were second to none. He had a knack for connecting with people that benefited our community in immeasurable ways,” said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. “It was his passion for our community and his commitment to not only getting us in the sports world but putting us on the top, which was really unique.”
Tasked with calling friends and associates to deliver the news of Levy’s passing on Thursday, his son-in-law Richard Barrett said he discovered a Who’s Who of NFL owners and executives when scrolling through Leonard’s cellphone.
“He cherished relationships,” Barrett said. “He always said if you wanted to have friends, you had to be a friend.”
One of those friends is retired University of Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley. Years ago, when Foley was hurriedly climbing the ranks in UF’s athletic department, Levy invited him to make the 125-mile drive to Tampa for lunch.
At the time, Foley was smart, hard-working and ambitious. He also wasn’t terribly concerned about stepping on toes or hurting feelings.
“I had a style that really wasn’t conducive to teamwork and good culture, I was just obsessed with doing a good job,” Foley said. “So I get to that lunch and Leonard says to me, ‘Jeremy, you’ve done a great job so far at Florida, but until you learn to treat people better, you’ll go no further.’
“I was taken aback because no one had said anything like that to me before, but as I was driving back to Gainesville I realized Leonard was right. Now, I wish I could tell you I was perfect after that because I wasn’t, but I did change my style and the way I treated people. Leonard changed the direction of my life because I don’t think I would have ever become athletic director, certainly not a successful one, if I hadn’t learned the value of people. And the fact he cared enough about me to make that impact.”
A fixture at Gators and Bucs games for decades, Levy was often at the side of his twin brother, George, who was also heavily involved in various community and sports projects. George passed away in 2016.
Levy is survived by his wife, Pat, along with four children and seven grandchildren.
A little over a year ago, Levy sat down for a two-hour lunch at Palma Ceia Golf & Country Club to talk about Tampa Bay’s history with Super Bowls and his own role in wooing the NFL.
Before the conversation ever began, he wanted to make sure one point was conveyed and understood.
“I’ve gotten credit for a lot of things,” he said, “but nobody ever accomplishes anything by themselves.”
That might be true, but Tampa Bay was still fortunate Leonard Levy was around to help along the way.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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