As 1997 turned to 1998, the football air in Tampa Bay was changing. What had felt stale and dull after fourteen(14)years without a postseason berth, started to feel refreshed and crisp, like a Tampa Bay morning after a cold front has passed. Throughout the 1997 season, with Raymond James stadium going up right next door, fans of other NFC North teams (Packers, Bears, Vikings and Lions) were cycling through on a farewell tour of the old Tampa Stadium, by then, named Houlihan’s stadium. But the grand dame of Tampa Bay football would have one more party left in her.
The Buccaneers finished the season 10-6, second in the division behind the 13-3 Packers. Tampa Bay not only had made the postseason, but they would host the Detroit Lions (9-7) in a wildcard game. What for years had been nearly impossible was done within days. “A Sell Out”! The last tango in Tampa stadium would be a crowded party at that.
When the Glazers purchased the team in 1995 they were brilliant on two(2) fronts. The family patriarch, Malcom Glazer, announced that the family was dedicated to keeping the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay, and that they would retain the services of general manager Rich McKay, and head coach Sam Wyche. Just three(3) months later these two would continue the teams transformation selecting Hall of Famer’s Warren Sapp, and Derrick Brooks in the first(1st) round of the 1995 NFL draft. The fix was on.
For just about the entire existence of the Bucs franchise, save for a few seasons in late 70’s/early 80’s, fans of opposing teams would travel in throngs to Tampa Bay. It used to be that a larger visiting crowd would be the only chance for a lift on the television blackout for a home game. Talk about conflicted. All of that would continue to change as Tony Dungy was brought on as head coach in 1997. Instilling his quiet confidence in the team, Dungy was able to flip the NFL script of Buccaneer football. Suddenly nothing seemed impossible. Players like Hardy Nickerson, Paul Gruber, Chidi Ahanotu, Jerry Wunsch, Eric Curry, Dave Moore, Brad Culpepper, Karl Williams and many more would do a lot of the initial heavy lifting that would start this team in the journey that would culminate five(5) years later when the Buccaneers would reach the summit, a victory in Super Bowl XXXVII in 2002.
The Buccaneers would win their first playoff game in 14 years. Defeating the visiting Lions 20-10. They would lose the following week to the Packers 21-7, who would go on to defeat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI. As for the afternoon of Sunday, December 28th, 1997, it would forever belong to the stadium with rounded swails and aluminum bleacher seating.
Sitting in the stadium nicknamed “the Big Sombrero” by Chris Berman of ESPN, a few hours past sunset on a beautiful Florida evening, the clock ran down to zero, closing out the big Sombrero era in Buccaneer history. The players ran around the perimeter of the field, celebrating with the fans, a victory in a stadium that had seen its share of defeats. That night the stadium lights stayed on a little later. Post game tailgating parties went on a little longer. A December cold front had passed through Tampa Bay. The air was refreshed and crisp, like Buccaneer football had started to become.