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When the Bucs finally won: Something pure about that first win

Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans line the streets on Dec. 11, 1977 as the team arrives back in Tampa after its 33-14 victory over the New Orleans Saints, the first victory in franchise history.  TIMES ARCHIVES
Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans line the streets on Dec. 11, 1977 as the team arrives back in Tampa after its 33-14 victory over the New Orleans Saints, the first victory in franchise history. TIMES ARCHIVES
Published Dec. 9, 2017

TAMPA — So, hell froze over. Pigs flew. And one day before the 12th of Never, the Bucs snapped a 0-26 losing streak to start their expansion franchise and won their first game by beating the Saints 33-14.

It happened on Dec. 11, 1977. And I missed it. I would've been playing an amateur winter league baseball doubleheader in St. Petersburg that Sunday.

But thanks to technology, you can sit down and watch the whole game 40 years later on YouTube.

That's what I did, and after covering the team since 1990, I can tell you that there was something very pure about that humbling birth of the Bucs.

MORE BUCS' FIRST WIN: Why my sister still loves Mark Cotney.

The defense — led by future Hall of Fame defensive end Lee Roy Selmon, who had two sacks in the game — grew up that day in the Superdome. I don't think the Saints sniffed the logo at midfield until the second half.

The particulars aren't that important. The defense was all the Bucs needed to win that game. Seriously. It had six interceptions, three of which were returned for touchdowns. It recovered a fumble. The offense could've stayed home.

Quarterback Gary Huff went 7-of-9 for 96 yards and a touchdown. It was the first touchdown the offense had scored in 11 quarters. Dave Green missed a field goal and an extra point from the old distance. It seems the Bucs' kicking woes began there.

The first takeaway from the game is that football was different. It was simplistic. It was line up your 11 guys and impose your will on the 11 guys in front of you. No motions, not many formations. Toss right, toss left. Power O. Pull the guard, let's go.

MORE BUCS' FIRST WIN: Up on a roof, and on top of the world.

It wasn't the game you see today, with five eligible receivers on every play, empty backfields and what resembles basketball on grass.

Not surprisingly, the most dominant player on the field was Selmon. For those of us growing up in Tampa Bay at the time, Selmon was bigger than life. He was only 6 feet 3 and 256 pounds. But the equipment in 1977 was supersized. With enormous shoulder pads and wearing an all- white uniform, he looked like an overstuffed mummy, as my boss says.

The names are striking. Dewey Selmon. Richard "Batman" Wood. Dave Lewis. Cecil Johnson. Jeris White. Mark Cotney. Those players formed the backbone of one of the best defenses in NFL history. They won't get the acclaim of the Purple People Eaters or the Steel Curtain because they never even played in a Super Bowl. But two years after the Bucs' first win, Tampa Bay was in the NFC Championship Game against the Rams. It lost 9-0.

Watching the first win didn't exactly make me long for the 1970s. Television was different. The grainy screen, the block graphics. Frank Glieber and Emerson Boozer called the game for CBS. Glieber never shut up and called the game sort of like you would on radio.

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MORE BUCS' FIRST WIN: Will any team 'feel that wanted again'?

But some good insights were provided. Bulletin-board material served as a backdrop for the game. Bucs coach John McKay had read comments to his team made by Saints QB Archie Manning (the patriarch of the first family of football, father of Peyton and Eli), who said it would be "a disgrace" to lose to winless Tampa Bay.

Hard to argue that point, though the Saints were 3-9 entering the game under Hank Stram.

Manning was a much better athlete than his sons. Archie could run and had to do so behind that Saints offensive line. His boys sure copied his footwork and throwing motion. But Manning was bad that day — he threw three of the interceptions — and Stram benched him and went with Bobby Scott in the second half. Scott didn't fare any better, throwing three more interceptions.

It's interesting that defense is what Tampa Bay would be known for, its football DNA. Defense carried the Bucs so many years later to a win in Super Bowl XXXVII over the Raiders. The Bucs intercepted Rich Gannon five times in that game, returning three for touchdowns.

MORE BUCS' FIRST WIN: A film study of Dec. 11, 1977.

Look at the way the Bucs are constructed now, built around a No. 1 overall draft pick in quarterback Jameis Winston and all the resources used on surrounding him with weapons. Then think back to '77, the first win, the '79 season, the Super Bowl team, and wonder if a team led by defense could win in the modern era. The Bucs have strayed pretty far from that identity.

As the clock wound down in New Orleans that day, Glieber shouted, "Look at the Tampa Bay bench. This is their Super Bowl!'

After that win, the Bucs were no longer easy material for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.

Everyone in Tampa Bay couldn't wait to watch them play. The next week, in the home finale that season, they beat the St. Louis Cardinals 17-7.

The Saints fired Stram after the season's final game. The Cardinals and coach Don Coryell parted ways by "mutual agreement."

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