The late Tom McEwen, sports editor of The Tampa Times from 1958-62 before being named sports editor of The Tampa Tribune in 1962, graced the Tribune sports section with his award-winning column, The Morning After, and his Breakfast Bonus notes columns were a signature offering from the 19-time Florida Sports Writer of the Year. McEwen died in June, 2011 at the age of 88. His wife, Linda, occasionally contributes past columns and exerpts to this blog.
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Happy Anniversary, Bandits; You Were Fun
Posted Feb 5, 2009 by Tom McEwen
Updated Feb 6, 2009 at 02:15 AM
A bunch of years and hundreds of Tampa sports start-ups ago, Tampa businessman Red Lowry walked into my Tribune office and introduced his two companions as John Bassett and Ralph Campbell, telling me they were buddies, that Bassett owned stores in Toronto and had a proposition. It was Feb. 9, 1982.
Bassett said he, with some local investors, wanted to start a new pro football team in the new United State Football League and use Tampa Stadium as their home. Yes, they knew the Buccaneers of the NFL were and generally successful. The USFL would start later than the NFL but surely they’d be competition.
I assured them the Tribune would be attentive to them and their efforts, as we had been to the Bucs and the soccer Rowdies, all sports which came our way. Out of that first encounter was born the marvelously entertaining Tampa Bay Bandits - which movie man Burt Reynolds would own a bunch, Tampa folks a bunch as well, and who would play Bandit Ball.
The addition of Reynolds, a former Florida State defensive back added support support to the team through his frequent visits and planeloads of Hollywood buddies. The Bandits would have black and red colors and a black horse to gallop up and down the field at game time. Charles Durning, Esther Williams and music writer and singer Jerry Reed, who would author a Bandit Ball song, all helped out at John Bassett’s urging. Bassett would meanwhile burn the mortgages of fans whose names were drawn at the half. Fun times they were and winning ones too (1983: 11-7. 1984: 14-4, 1985: 10-8).
When Bassett first came into my office and gave me the details, he said now he “had to have a coach.” I suggested he go to Duke and check out the offensive coach there. He asked who. I said go find out. He did. He found Steve Spurrier (above, with quarterback John Reaves) and hired him as the only head coach the Bandits ever had.
It was here with the Bandits where Spurrier, the former Heisman Trophy winner for Florida, learned to be a head coach, to coach the Gators to six SEC titles, and now do what he can at South Carolina. It was during those good times Reynolds became such a friend of this great place in which we live.
So, you ask, why this lookback? Because ESPN is preparing a show on the Bandits and work on it began Wednesday night with a start-up at a function Mike Tobin and associates assembled at the new (and fancy, dancy) Westin near Rocky Point for some interviews and inquiries.
They invited plenty and plenty came, including these of varying Bandit duties: Jim McVay, Carl Franks, Rufus Brown, Walter Carter, John Reaves, Jim Fitzpatrick, Chris Blackburn, giant Nate Newton, Chuck Pitcock, James Ramey, game-breaker wideout Eric Truvillion, TV’s Matt McDonald, Cheryll Pricher, Heidi Meitzler and Walla’s always-there Harris. And there were plenty more: Doug Beaudoin, Mike Butler, Bruce Vaughn, Tony Office, and coach Pete Kurharchek, and front office regulars Jill Massicotte, Patti Harper and Cheryl Pricher.
Owner Bassett, a charmer and father of tennis champ Carling Bassett, died of a brain tumor after the 1985 season, not long after the USFL shutdown. Know this: the Tampa Bay Bandits did not fail, the USFL did. The league chose to go against the NFL and found out it could not. The Bandits preferred to avoid as much NFL competition as possible, but we understood the big-city side of things.
Bassett’s awful brain disease was too much for him. I remember the first signal came in London. Wife Linda and I made the trip with the Bandits to play in Wembley Stadium and vacation there. The British Open was going on the same week at nearby St. Andrews, golf’s birthplace. I took the short flight there on a Wednesday and returned. It was easy and inexpensive. Visited with our golfers, Gary Koch, Andy Bean and Jim Colbert, got stories and flew back to London. The time difference made the stories appropriate.
I decided go one more day and join Linda, coaches Spurrier and Lyle who were going to St. Andrews to watch the British Open. Bassett was going also but at the last minute said through his hotel door he had the worst headache of his life. It was the start of his tumor. We went without him and had a cabbie wait for us for the day. We ate at St. Andrews with Colbert, Koch and Bean, followed them, then returned to London and football.
Bassett got worse, then better. But he would never be the same. Spurrier, Campbell, McVay and I flew to his full-house funeral in his cathedral. A close friend of the incomparable John Bassett seeing the full house noted, “John, the promoter, will like this.”
Just as, I can add, he surely liked seeing this anniversary assembly of former players, executives and cheerleaders wearing the colors he chose and singing the songs he approved for Bandit Ball.
Spurrier said after the third and final Bandit season, surely so important to him and wife Jerri, “I think we gave the people a show. I hope so. I hope they’ll remember us for a good time. There was only one Johnny Bassett.”