TAMPA — Lightning bolts and booming thunder greeted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Friday afternoon as they took the field for the opening practice of training camp.
But for the legion of Buc fans in attendance, nothing was going to rain on this parade.
Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy led the Bucs out of the team facility as new head coach Lovie Smith began the six-week challenge of turning a struggling franchise around before the Sept. 7 season opener against Carolina at Raymond James Stadium.
“It's like a whole new sense of fresh air and excitement,'' said Diane Huettig of Safety Harbor, who attended Friday's workout with Missy Pregeant of Tampa. “We've paid a lot of money to watch them lose over the past few years and now I'm ready for my turnaround year.''
With a new flag flying over the bleachers, reflecting the franchise's new colors and logo, Buc players and coaches scurried back into the building after only nine minutes because of stormy skies and menacing radar.
Some fans took refuge at the Official Team Store, a tent featuring Buc merchandise.
Inside, jerseys of rookie wide receiver Mike Evans sold briskly. Employees told some disappointed customers that cheerleader calendars wouldn't be available until later in training camp.
Last year's 4-12 finish and a third consecutive year in the NFC South basement triggered an aggressive approach to free agency, adding to the anticipation of a successful season.
“It's like a whole new place and atmosphere,'' said Cameron Ellinwood of St. Petersburg, accompanied by his 7-year-old son, Tyler. “I saw the new flag driving in and I'm very optimistic about the Bucs this year. I've loved Lovie Smith since he was on Tony Dungy's staff and this is probably the most excited I've been since we hired Jon Gruden in 2002.''
Four of the 10 Buc jerseys hanging on a back wall of the merchandise tent represent players acquired in the offseason -- Evans, defensive end Michael Johnson, cornerback Alterraun Verner and quarterback Luke McCown.
The first of 13 training camp practices open to the public, Friday's workout featured free admission and parking, $2 hot dogs and a Kids Zone that included inflatables, a quarterback challenge, a hydration station and the Glazer Family Foundation Visionmobile.
“I've got the Bucs winning 8-to-10 games this year,'' said Jason Williams, a season-ticket holder from Apollo Beach. “I know one thing for sure -- it's going to be a lot different around here than last season. I've been supporting my team through the years, but it's been tough.''
In Greg Schiano's two-year tenure as head coach, the Bucs usually practiced early in the morning. Smith has scheduled seven workouts to run from 4:30-7 p.m., giving Tampa Bay's employed fan base a better opportunity to experience training camp.
“This later time is better for fans,'' said Pregeant. “Lovie's a great addition to the Bucs family and I'm very optimistic about the team's chances.''
While a flurry of lightning flashes led to a nearly two-hour delay that threatened to scuttle the opening practice, most of the fans remained when players returned to the field at 6:30 p.m.
“Everywhere you go in Tampa Bay, you see people excited about the season,'' said Bucs co-chairman Bryan Glazer. “Lovie and (GM) Jason Licht have done an amazing job in the offseason and our fans see it. Today is the first day they get to see it in person.''
Sitting patiently in the first row of the bleachers, Jason Williams sat out the delay with the rest of his fellow Buc supporters.
“The afternoon starting time is a good thing for the majority of Buc fans,'' Williams said, wiping off his brow, “but this weather's a killer.''