Here’s a bit of irony: Author Jason Vuic, PhD’05, has become a success by writing about failure. The books he wrote about the joke-of-a-car Yugo, and the comically terrible Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the late 1970s earned him reviews in more than a hundred media outlets and an invitation to speak at the Harvard Business School.
Below is the introduction of his second book The Yucks: Two Years in Tampa with the Losingest Team in NFL History.
About once a week, on NBC’s famed The Tonight Show, comedian Johnny Carson played “Carnac the Magnificent,” a turbaned and shawl-wearing mystic who answered questions, in sealed envelopes, by touching them to his forehead. The segment began when sidekick Ed McMahon introduced Carnac as “the Mystic from the East,” and said with a grave voice, “I hold in my hand the envelopes. As a child of four can plainly see these envelopes are hermetically sealed. They’ve been kept in a number two mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnall’s porch since noon today.” By this point, the audience, who knew the shtick, was laughing. “No one knows the answer to the questions inside these envelopes, but YOU in your divine and mystical way, will ascertain the answers!” Carnac would nod and ask for silence. “The answer,” he said, in one 1974 skit, “is bedbug. Bedbug.” McMahon repeated the words while Carnac opened the envelope. He paused for effect. “Question: What would Republicans use to eavesdrop on a hooker?” The audience laughed. If they booed, Carnac threw them a curse: “May Dr. J slam-dunk your cat,” he’d say, or “May your wife give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to the Denver Nuggets.”
One recurring joke involved the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In 1976, the NFL’s newest expansion franchise lost every game, and by December 1977, it had lost twenty-six games in a row, an NFL record. Carson couldn’t resist. Each night he told Bucs jokes in his monologue, and once, as the mystical Carnac, he provided this answer: “The Titanic and the Buccaneers.” The question was “Name two disasters that were accompanied by band music.” Referring to a well-known commercial in which the Pittsburgh Steelers tried, unsuccessfully, to destroy Samsonite luggage, Carson said the Bucs couldn’t beat the bags. He began one show by saying, “What an opening! I haven’t heard applause like that since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sacked Fran Tarkenton in his hospital bed.” Then, “I don’t think the guys expected to win,” he said. “I mean they trotted out in the field wearing leisure suits.” Even David Brenner, Carson’s substitute on The Tonight Show, opened with: “I can tell you’re disappointed it’s me tonight and not Johnny. It’s like buying tickets to see the Oakland Raiders and having the Tampa Bay Buccaneers run out instead.”
For a time, Carson was synonymous with the Bucs. In 1977, the St. Petersburg Times noted that Tampa Bay has “had no more caustic critic than Johnny Carson. Each defeat has brought new punch lines. Each shutout, a new chuckle.” Fans carried signs that read “Sack Johnny” and promised that someday, when the Bucs won, they’d scream so loudly that even he’d hear them in Burbank, California. But he wasn’t the only one. Everyone, and I mean everyone, goofed on the Bucs. Kids called them the “Yucks” and the “Sucks,” and as the New York Times reported, Pam Pegg, a twenty-three-year-old teacher and Bucs cheerleader—a “swashbuckler”—had to change schools when students found out who she was. Chuck Barris, the corny, absurdist host of TV’s The Gong Show, who later claimed to be a CIA assassin, threatened to give contestants Tampa Bay tickets if they lost. Comedian Redd Foxx did a variety show skit in which he gave the team a halftime “pep talk,” and Dwayne, the “Hey, Hey, Hey!” character from the TV show What’s Happening! developed a unique gambling system in which he unwisely picked the Bucs.
The low point, perhaps, was when Charles Nelson Reilly, the worst comedian in the history of, well, Earth, said: “My career has sunk so low I’m doing victory dinners for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.” Victory dinners for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Dumb joke, but “that’s how it worked,” wrote one journalist. “The Bucs played. The Bucs lost. The nation laughed.” It laughed, in fact, through twenty-six straight games, nearly two full years of losing. The end came, mercifully, with an improbable 33–14 win in December 1977 at New Orleans. As Saints coach Hank Stram said before the game, “You know, sooner or later they’re going to win one,” and “you don’t want it to be you.” Indeed, when the Saints lost to the Bucs, Saints owner John Mecom fired Stram, who said candidly, “We are all very ashamed of what happened. Ashamed for our people, our fans, the organization, everybody.” This is the “worst experience of my coaching career.” Said one Saints fan: “Eleven years I’ve supported this franchise! Eleven years! With all the money I’ve spent … I could have bought some land in Colombia and raised some pot.”
However, Bucs coach John McKay called it “the greatest victory in the history of the world,” and was asked to appear—you guessed it—on The Tonight Show. Witty and acerbic as always and holding a five-foot-long cigar, McKay said no. “I’m not going all the way out there just to be on his show,” he told reporters. “I was on the show once before and I was a star. Didn’t you see me?” Nevertheless, the Bucs’ staff sent Carson a game ball, while the St. Petersburg Times organized a drive in which fans sent Carson thousands of “Bucs Sack Johnny” editions of the newspaper. A few days later, Carson, who’d been on vacation, opened with the Bucs. “Forget what’s happening on the world scene,” he said. “The big news is that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finally won.” The crowd roared its applause. “I understand that down there they had banners saying ‘Sack Johnny’ because of the jokes I’ve been making,” but “I intend to continue.” He then said that the Bucs had received a congratulatory note from President Richard Nixon (they hadn’t—Nixon had left office and was living more or less in exile); that the Bucs had torn down the goalposts during the game; and that McKay hadn’t really expected to win because he’d asked the team to “tie one for the Gipper.” The jokes ended, finally, when Carson thanked McKay for the game ball, graciously, and said in the future, he’d be “behind the Buccaneers.”
In the coming weeks, Carson referred to the Bucs just one more time, when Ed McMahon asked how Jimmy Carter was doing as president. “Well, let me put it this way,” he said. “Tampa Bay won two more than he did.” That was it; Carson’s last Buccaneers joke. The next season the Bucs were 5-11, but had a better record than the Cincinnati Bengals, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Kansas City Chiefs. “That’s when we realized,” said Dick Crippen, the Bucs’ former play-by-play announcer, “we weren’t so unique anymore. We weren’t so fun anymore. We were just bad.”
But really, how bad were the Bucs, I mean, the oh-and-twenty-six 1976–77 Bucs, the franchise with the longest losing streak in NFL history? Let’s do the math. In 1976, the Bucs were outscored 412 to 125. That’s a per game equivalent of 29 to 9. They were 28th in offense, 27th in defense, and were shut out 5 times. The team’s first touchdown, ever, was a fumble return in game four. Its first passing touchdown was in game six, and even that was a “busted” running play in which Louis Carter was stopped on the goal line, but had the presence of mind to throw. The team’s starting quarterback was Steve Spurrier. Yes … that Steve Spurrier, a career backup with the 49ers who had seven touchdowns and twelve interceptions, and who was sacked thirty-two times. Louis Carter “led” the team in rushing; he had 521 yards and 1 touchdown. The Bucs’ best receiver, Morris Owens, didn’t play for the team until week three—he’d been cut by Miami and picked up on waivers—while the Bucs’ two kickers were 8 for 18.
This was a terrible team, perhaps the worst team in the history of the NFL. In 2009, for example, the Washington Examiner offered this shameful tidbit: “On Mount Olympus of futility, the [1976–77] Buccaneers are Zeus. Take the 2008 Lions, the 1974–75 Capitals and the 1962 Mets and throw them into a bag. Then light it on fire. That’s the Bucs.” That same year, the nerds at SportSims.net, an online fantasy football company, hosted the “Stupor Bowl,” in which history’s worst teams played a “virtual” season of games. True to form, the 1976 Bucs went 4-12, the league’s worst record, then lost 24–0 to the 1971 Buffalo Bills in the final. “I think this puts to bed any question about which team is the worst team of all time,” said David Holt, a designer at SportSims.net. But what did the Bucs think? What did John McKay think? Well, the Southern Cal legend once told the team: “If you play the best you can play, and they play their absolute worst, you’ll still get blown off the field.” Err … thanks, coach.
Dubbed “Dial-a-Quote,” by Eagles coach Dick Vermeil, McKay had a one-liner for everyone. “I loved his sense of humor,” said Pat Toomay, a Bucs defensive end. “He was hilarious. As long as it was directed out, it was a release. He disarmed a lot of people. But after a while, it started to turn in. Now and then, it got a little dark. During the week we didn’t see him after the third game. He would stand farther and farther away at practice, symbolically disassociating himself.” McKay’s most famous quote, supposedly, came after a reporter asked him, “What did you think about your team’s execution?” To which he replied, “I’m in favor of it.” Once, after a loss in college, McKay told his team there “were 700 million Chinese people who didn’t even know the game was played.” Unfortunately, “I got five letters from China asking ‘What happened?’” The jokes were endless. “We didn’t block real good, but we made up for it by not tackling,” he said. “We’ve determined that we can’t win at home and we can’t win on the road. What we need is a neutral site.” In 1983, toward the end of his career, McKay cut kicker Bill Capece during the season, telling reporters “Capece is kaput.” Doug Williams, the team’s quarterback from 1978 to 1982, said “I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone so direct. That cigar, that sucking on his teeth. People stayed out of John’s way.”
Fans berated him. A common bumper sticker in Tampa read “Throw McKay in the Bay.” Once, in the “Hot Line” section of a local newspaper, someone posted an ad: “Wanted—Coach and Football Team—Personnel with California Experience Not Wanted, Apply No. 1 Buc Place.” On another occasion, a disgruntled fan—shirtless, shoeless, and in shorts—ran into McKay’s office to complain. “Things got so bad our family didn’t go out for dinner,” says Rich McKay, the son of John McKay and president of the Atlanta Falcons. “We just did the drive-through a lot. My mother even had to stop going to the grocery store. I went in undercover.” Rather than interact with the public, Steve Spurrier threw parties at his house. We “partied until the sun came up,” says Barry Smith, a former receiver for the Bucs. “Then it was safe to go home.” The players believed, at least initially, that the Bucs had a chance. “I always felt we could win,” said Richard “Batman” Wood, a linebacker who also played for McKay at USC. But then, “my first three years it was like, ‘God, is it that hard to win?’ … We had some outstanding people on that team. But it’s a team game” and the team wasn’t any good.
Then there was Hugh … Hugh Culverhouse … Mr. C. … the Bucs’ millionaire owner, a tax attorney from Jacksonville who was notoriously cheap. Culverhouse bought the team in 1974 for $16.2 million. He paid $2 million up front, and fans’ season ticket payments were due two weeks before his payments were due. Good business, but as former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo put it, “Hugh was driven by the bottom line, not the goal line. … That was his philosophy and it permeated the organization.” Culverhouse gave each employee one season ticket. (Think about it … Who goes to a pro football game alone?)
According to one former player, a Bucs front office assistant qualified for welfare. The team’s airplane was leased from McCulloch Corporation, the chain saw people. There was a vending machine in the locker room that charged players for Cokes. Once, when a defensive back hurt his shoulder and trainers cut off his jersey to treat him, Culverhouse charged him for it. He billed roommates thirty-eight cents each for a seventy-five-cent phone call. In 1982, after quarterback Doug Williams had lifted the team from its 0-26 start and taken it to the playoffs three out of four years, he was the forty-second highest-paid quarterback in the league. There were twenty-eight teams. “Culverhouse was interested in one thing,” wrote Williams, “and that was making money. I don’t even think he cared about winning. I know he didn’t care about his players. We were pieces of meat to him.”
A former boxer with a pockmarked face and a bulbous nose, Culverhouse wore an orange Buccaneers blazer. It was hideous. The team’s colors were orange, red, and white, with orange as the dominant color. Orange was supposed to represent Florida citrus, but the shade in question was ugly and, well, soft. Think walks on the beach at sunset, or Seals & Crofts singing “Summer breeze, makes me feel fine, blowing through the jasmine in my miiiiiiind.” It was that bad. Fans called them the “Creamsicles.” “The uniforms were already picked out by the time I got here,” said John McKay. “I didn’t give it too much thought until I saw our buses and said, ‘My God, we’re dressed just like that bus. That’s not good.’”
The crème de la crème, however, was “Bucco Bruce,” the team’s rakish, sexually indeterminate mascot who looked like a seventies Errol Flynn. Bruce was the brainchild of Tampa Tribune cartoonist Lamar Sparkman, who seems to have felt very passionately that the Village People needed a pirate. He “was a curious chap who looked like Captain Hook’s wayward brother,” joked one journalist, “the one nobody in the Hook family talks about. Bruce is a long-haired, whimsical waif who wears an earring and a floppy hat topped by an ostrich plume. Sort of a Hedda Hopper/Barbara Stanwyck/Queen Mum look.” Oh, and did I mention he was winking? Well, he was.
However, Bucco Bruce was one thing; losing game after game after game was another. Because losing teams, even more than winning teams, reveal the intricate and at times strained relationship between cities, franchises, journalists, players, coaches, owners, and fans. If winning cures all ills, as they say, losing exacerbates them. Losing is personal. “I called out to God again and again,” wrote Bucs offensive coordinator and devout Christian Joe Gibbs, who coached for the team in 1978. “‘Why? What’s going on here? Why is this happening? I believe you brought me to Tampa Bay—but for this?’”Apparently, the team was so bad, losing so difficult, that Gibbs had questioned his faith. Gibbs could leave—he actually did, after just a single season in Tampa, in 1979—but it was the fans who stayed.
With an average attendance in 1976 of just over 44,000, their numbers grew to nearly 53,000 in 1977, and to over 63,000 in 1978. Perhaps counterintuitively, the Bucs had lost twenty-six straight games, but somehow had gained fans. Clad in the ugliest of orange, some wearing “Go for O!” T-shirts or holding up signs at the ten-yard line that read “The Bucs Stop Here,” they booed, threw trash at, mocked, teased, ridiculed, and—this is the crazy thing—actually embraced the Yucks. Why? Well, fans would say it’s … uh, complicated: loyalty, community, masochism, boredom, a feeling that one day, someday, the Bucs would win. It’s an attitude that’s served them well. After all, the Bucs have had twenty-seven losing seasons in forty years. Needless to say, they all started with the Yucks.
Excerpt used with permission of Simon and Schuster.
Jason Vuic was featured in the Summer 2018 issue of the Indiana University Alumni Magazine, a magazine for members of the IU Alumni Association. View current and past issues of the IUAM.