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Saturday, Apr 21, 2018
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O’Neill: Lovie Smith gets powerful role in Tampa area

In a previous journalistic life I was a sports writer in the Philadelphia market. At some point I heard someone refer to sports as journalism’s “toy department.”


Worse yet, I couldn’t disagree. Epiphanies happen.

But I’ve always remained a fan. I care whether the Rays, Lightning, Bucs and USF Bulls win or lose. I rooted for UCF to win its debut on the big bowl stage. I stayed up late to savor the strategies and drama in the Florida State-Auburn national championship game. I’ll be watching Winter Olympic events — well, maybe not curling — that I know very little about because it’s practically patriotic.

And sometimes I like to go behind the scenes and see another side of a sports figure or witness the inner workings of an organization with societal impact. I’ve talked immigration and ethnic assimilation with Joe Maddon during the Rays’ playoff run. I’ve chatted with Lou and Skip Holtz about the proper place of big-time college athletics in the context of higher-education priorities. I’ve discussed defensive driving on Bay area roads with the late Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon.

And so I dropped by One Buccaneer Place the other day to witness the formal introduction — or re-introduction — of Lovie Smith as head coach of the Bucs. He had previously been an assistant under Tony Dungy from 1996-2000. An NFL franchise matters, especially to still-emerging markets such as Tampa Bay. Its head coach is a de facto major community player. This is corporate culture like no other.

And frankly it was a good opportunity to check out the Bucs sporty digs — on land once occupied by the once-cool Tampa Bay Center. One Buc Place opened in 2006 and is regarded as the best team facility in the National Football League. It’s 145,000 square feet of clean, bright, contemporary, state-of-the-art ambiance over 33 acres.

The lobby, which has a pirate-ship motif, sports serious marble floors and Buccaneer memorabilia. It has multiple fields as well as weight, locker, steam and hydrotherapy rooms. The country-club atmosphere includes a sauna and players’ lounge. It also comes with a fully equipped kitchen, dining room, press conference studio and theater-style auditorium. It’s home to more than 250 employees. It also houses the renewed hopes of a franchise that hasn’t won a post-season game since the Super Bowl win over Oakland after the 2002 season.

Outside, a large, steel-sculptured — almost Dali-like — football dominates the entrance. The enormous Bucs’ banner is probably the biggest non-Confederate flag in the South. Size matters in this look-at-us business.

And OBP has a great view of neighboring Raymond James Stadium, where on a clear day you can easily read the signage — “It’s a Bucs Life” — that has been taking on ironic connotations these past few years. That’s because, increasingly, that “Bucs life” has been one seen as bordering on irrelevance.

It’s what happens when a franchise loses too often in the win-at-all-cost NFL. It’s why you now bring in a proven winner — moreover one with Tampa Bay roots — such as Lovie Smith. Prior to his nine-year run as head coach of the Chicago Bears, he had been part of building the foundation for a Super Bowl winner right here. It’s why the well-spoken, message-savvy Smith made “relevance” an obvious theme of his media remarks. He remembers when the Bucs were ascendant — and were winning games while winning over a fan base. That kind of relevance.

Time was when the Bucs would proudly — almost haughtily — remind everyone how long the line was for season tickets. Now home-game “blackouts” are as likely as sell-outs. Smith is here to right the Glazer’s foundering, pewter pirate ship.

“It is time, as we go to the future, for us to become a relevant team again,” said Smith to the standing room only crowd of media, employees and former players, including Mike Alstott and Shelton Quarles. Smith’s cut-to-the-chase assessment and aspiration had to be made — even if the blunt reminder made a Glazer or two wince behind a smiley family facade.

In his introduction, co-chairman Bryan Glazer referenced Smith’s “high character and integrity” as well as his reputation as a leader and winner. But he also pointedly said: “Welcome home.” Indeed, this is much more than a career move for Smith.

The 55-year-old underscored that he was “back home” — to an area that still has “a special place in my heart.” And these were no mere rhetorical niceties. He considers the iconic Derrick Brooks a “son.” He’s forever grateful to Dungy for providing the pro coaching opportunity — and for proving that nice Christian guys can finish first.

And Smith and his wife, MaryAnne, have kept their condo on the Gulf beaches over the years. They liked it here. They like being back full time.

Smith seems to have hit the ground running in making key personnel moves and reaching out to current and former players. Introductory media events are always feel-good affairs, but this was a literal Lovie-in.

Something else spoke volumes about the Smith hire. It comes before a general manager is brought in.

Smith will do a lot more than talk single-gap football and dictate Tampa 2 coverage. Word is he will have final say on all personnel decisions with the 53-man roster. That’s more power than Dungy had.

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