How it started vs. how it's going: Bucs history was creamsicles and 0-26 before a championship revival

Frank Schwab
·8-min read

So, about those creamsicle Tampa Bay Buccaneers uniforms ...

“No. No. Nooooo,” Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. “We all hated it.

“Some of the younger players wanted to wear them again, and me, [Derrick] Brooks, [John] Lynch, we’re like, ‘Nah, you don’t want to do that.’”

No other franchise has a negative association with a color like the Buccaneers with soft orange and white. Before the creamsicle uniforms became retro cool, they were synonymous with a team that was the worst in the NFL.

The Buccaneers have come a long way. Tom Brady led Tampa Bay to Super Bowl LV, a rare moment of glory for a franchise with 40-plus years of mostly forgettable history, aside from one great stretch of championship football.

It’s a franchise that famously lost its first 26 games, including all 14 its first season.

“0-14. 0-26. I’m saying to myself, am I really a professional athlete?” said Richard Wood, a standout linebacker on the first nine Buccaneers teams.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Craig Erickson reacts as he heads for the turf while being sacked during a 1993 game. (AP Photo/Doug Pizac)
Tampa Bay Buccaneer Craig Erickson reacts as he heads for the turf while being sacked during a 1993 game. (AP Photo/Doug Pizac)

The ‘Yuks’

Sapp was watching “NFL Sunday Countdown” on ESPN in his San Diego hotel room on Nov. 17, 1996. He remembers it well.

The 2-8 Buccaneers were playing the San Diego Chargers later that day, and Chris Berman came on to preview the game. Sapp, in the middle of his second season, remembers Berman getting excited about the “San Diego Super Chargers.”

“And then he says, ‘And they’re playing ... the Yuks,’” Sapp said. “My stomach turned. The way Brooks tells the story, I was so furious I was about to walk to breakfast in just my underwear.

“I woke the whole team up and said, ‘That s*** stops today.’”

Sapp says that was a turning point. The Buccaneers fell behind 14-0 but came back to win 25-17. Tampa Bay went 5-2 down the stretch that season. It wouldn’t be long before the defense — after a color change from creamsicle to pewter — became famous and won a Super Bowl.

To that point, the team in Tampa was the “Yuks,” as Berman would call them. The games between the Bucs and the then-putrid Green Bay Packers in the 1980s really were, as Berman would say, “The Bay of Pigs.”

“Those games in the ’80s, it was horrible football. It was horrible,” said Sapp, who grew up near Orlando and was stuck watching bad Buccaneers football growing up.

The Buccaneers team that will play the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl on Sunday is full of stars. They have a fun offense and a defense that can turn a game around. That wasn’t anywhere close to the case for the first two decades of the franchise’s history.

A rough start for the Buccaneers

The early history of the Buccaneers is misremembered a bit. In Tampa Bay’s fourth season, the Buccaneers, led by Doug Williams on offense and Lee Roy Selmon on defense, won the NFC Central division and lost 9-0 in the NFC championship game to the Los Angeles Rams. It wasn’t always terrible.

That’s not the Buccaneers’ season from the 1970s that many remember. The expansion 1976 Buccaneers became the first team in NFL history to go 0-14. The Bucs lost their first 12 games the next season too.

In subsequent years the NFL made things easier on expansion teams, but the Buccaneers didn’t get any favors. They had a miserable offense that scored just 228 points in their first two seasons combined. The 1976 team was led by a former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback named Steve Spurrier. That team gets brought up any time there’s a discussion of the worst NFL teams ever.

Wood is the defensive coordinator at Tampa Catholic High School. He tells the story that when he started coaching, he let his players know that he played for the Buccaneers and talk about how hard it was to win a game. The young players let him know that they were aware, because everyone was aware the Buccaneers were terrible in those early days. Even the kids knew. Everybody remembers.

“It bothers me,” Wood said. “But on the other hand, it’s what they know, what they think about.

“You have to start somewhere. We started in the cellar, but 3-4 years later we’re playing for a championship. You have to give the early guys some credit.”

Bucs bottom out in the 1980s

The glimmer of hope in 1979 faded fairly quickly. From 1983 to 1994, the Buccaneers lost double-digit games every year. That’s 12 straight seasons of misery. Mismanagement was prevalent. Under team owner Hugh Culverhouse, the Buccaneers lost quarterback Doug Williams in a contract dispute after underpaying him for years, flubbed the Bo Jackson draft (he was the No. 1 overall pick but refused to play for the Bucs), made the great Steve Young look bad before trading him to the 49ers in 1987 and generally were the most incompetent franchise in the NFL. It didn’t help when Selmon, a future Hall of Famer, suffered a career-ending back injury at the Pro Bowl at the end of the 1984 season.

Good players were traded often, and when the Buccaneers signed someone it was usually a veteran who was near the end and had nothing more to give.

“It was the last stop before you went to the cow pasture,” Sapp said.

“It just seemed to me they didn’t want to keep the team together,” Wood said. “One after another, just getting rid of people.”

Any conversation about the worst team in the NFL started with the Buccaneers.

“Personally I think it came from the top, the ownership. Things were on the verge of being rinky-dink,” quarterback Steve DeBerg said. “Our weight room was outdoors. It just had a tarp over the top. You’d be out there in the summer, in 100 percent humidity.

“The meeting rooms were in bungalows. It just wasn’t NFL caliber.”

DeBerg was with the Buccaneers from 1984-87. The team went 8-26 in his starts those years.

“We definitely struggled,” DeBerg said. “I know me personally, my stay here in the 1980s, it was tough.”

Then in the mid-1990s, the Buccaneers landed some defensive stars and a future Hall of Fame head coach. They had a color change, too.

Warren Sapp, other stars lead a turnaround

Sapp had a brother who was a Buccaneers fan. His brother was way more excited than he was when the Buccaneers drafted him in 1995.

“He’s like, ‘This is the best thing ever!’” Sapp said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, my God.’”

Sapp said the Buccaneers’ locker room had a lot of players who didn’t understand what it took to win when he got there. After Sapp’s first season, the team hired Tony Dungy to be its next coach.

“Tony changed everything about that place except for the building itself,” Sapp said. “He said, ‘I am not looking for the 53 best football players. I’m looking for the 53 best men that will give us a chance to win on Sunday.’

“He instilled in us winning, and winning in the right way.”

The Buccaneers did a lot of that. The defense, with Sapp, Lynch, Brooks, Ronde Barber and some other great players, became the best in the NFL. Tampa Bay peaked with a win over the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. In 1997 the Buccaneers changed from light orange to pewter. The franchise had a new look and a new reputation too.

“It gave us a whole new identity,” Sapp said.

They were no longer the “Yuks.” However, that success was fleeting.

Warren Sapp, standing with late NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, wasn't thrilled when the Bucs made him the 12th overall pick in the 1995 NFL draft. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Warren Sapp, standing with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, wasn't thrilled when the Bucs made him the 12th overall pick in the 1995 draft. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

‘We poured hard, solid concrete’

After that Super Bowl win over the Raiders, the Buccaneers didn’t win a playoff game until this season. They hadn’t even made the playoffs since the 2007 season. Then Brady showed up.

Sapp, unprompted, started talking about Packers coach Matt LaFleur’s decision to go for a field goal on fourth down in the NFC championship game rather than letting Aaron Rodgers try for a touchdown. He couldn’t believe it.

“I called Brooks and said, ‘They just gave us the championship,’” Sapp said. “Brooks is like, ‘No, they got their timeouts left,’ I’m like, ‘We got Tom Brady, we’re about to get a first down.’”

Notice the “we,” and the “us.”

Sapp is still a Buccaneers fan, proud of what he and others helped build. Those teams, and the Brady-led NFC championship team of this season, changed the perception of the Buccaneers.

“It’s like being a college kid, getting to talk trash about your college team again,” Sapp said. “We poured concrete. We poured hard, solid concrete.”

Wood said the city is excited about the Buccaneers. DeBerg, who had a second stint with the Bucs in the 1990s and still lives in Tampa, said the same.

If the creamsicles can be cool again, so can the Buccaneers.

“I’m a creamsicle guy,” Wood said. “I always thought they were some of the prettiest uniforms around.”

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