When competitiveness gives way to impatience in pro sports

Tony Dungy helped kindle an era of competitiveness for the Buccaneers... Which wasn't good enough. - Scott Halleran/Getty Images

In the fall of 1994 when I was in 10th grade at East Lake High School here in the Tampa Bay area, I was tasked with answering a list of questions to try to introduce myself to my English class. Some of the stuff was honest and some of it was a fun type of absurd - hey, we were sophomores, literally, at the time; where do you think the term "sophomoric antics" came from? -- Such as a friend (on my suggestion) making the prediction that the then on-trial O.J. Simpson and then imprisoned Mike Tyson would see pardon's on the same day. The O.J. trial was dominating just about everything in the media at the time (and he had been a pop culture entity leading into things as well as a former pro-sports star) and Tyson was a disgraced former heavyweight boxing champion. It seems absurd now that I have to explain the situation back then; Tyson is pop-culture relevant once again while Simpson has faded out of public consciousness.

As for me, along with my collection of other answers that I had to share verbally with the rest of the class, I made the decree that within my lifetime the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would win the Super Bowl, which was met with painful groans and laughter from the rest of the class. Football was the sport of Tampa Bay in those days, the fledgling Tampa Bay Lightning were a side item (and the 1994-95 NHL lockout wasn't putting them on the collective sports radar locally). I'd been living in Tampa Bay for only 5 years but had seen the mixed (at best) product that was the Buccaneers and their legacy at the time: Hapless hijinks that seemed complimented by the orange and creamy uniforms of the day.

The Bucs were the punchline of pro-sports, the infinite gag-reel for on- and off-field shenanigans coming from the very top (ownership) and working its way down. Yet a basic truth said that, given enough time and the right choices, things would change and the situation improve.

By the end of the 1996 season, that change was clearly taking place from the top down - original team owner Hugh Culverhouse had passed in August of ‘94 and after the due-process of franchise sale, Malcolm Glazer and his family purchased control of the team. Rich McKay was General Manager, having taken the job in 1993, and had brought in Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Tony Dungy to take over as head coach. Dungy was seen nationally as overdue to get a shot as head coach of an NFL team and between his coaching staff and the young players he had to work with on his defensive unit in Tampa, a crazy thing happened - a sense of competitiveness started creeping in.

I could go season-by-season here with the Buccaneers fortunes but long story short - the team improved and vastly starting in 1997. The problem was that the Bucs, even when successful in the pro league, paled in comparison to the recent fortunes of the state college ranks in the University of Miami Hurricanes, the University of Florida Gators and the Seminoles of Florida State University. The Bucs were built defense-first and their offense was basic whereas those college programs were of an offensive juggernaut variety that sowed the seeds of a different kind of expectation. That, the anemic offense to go with an imposing D, started breeding displeasure among a part of the fan base and media. The Bucs might have made the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade in 1997, returning in 1999, 2000 and 2001, but they weren't putting on the show that locals wanted, nor was a one-and-done playoff appearance good enough for ownership.

I cite the college teams of Florida and the offensive show they put on because that element in the media to coincide the coverage of the likes of Brett Farve's Green Bay Packers, or Troy Aikman's led offense in Dallas as well as the fading legacy of the west coast offense with the San Francisco 49'ers. It, college efforts and the NFL big-boys, just pushed expectations. The timeline for a college program is season-to-season, as a salary cap isn't an issue as-so-much selling talent on the program in the recruiting process, those players brought in will last on a team five years at most before graduation. In the NFL, building a winner and sustaining it is a complicated chore of talent assessment, coaching approach, dollar signs and roster management. With parity being such a force in the league, the long-term competition level seems to take a back seat in favor of the moment. With the wrong type of oversight and management decisions, the window of opportunity (already small because of the natural course of roster turnover in the NFL) shrinks further.

And when a franchise is building a positive reputation after years of being a derelict entity, the truest crime that can be committed by the organization is impatience.

Those one-and-done efforts in the playoffs by Dungy's team's and with the Glazer family having aspirations for a more marketable product than one driven by the infamous Red Tide Defense, Dungy was sacked in favor of acquiring a more offensively minded head coach to put the franchise closer to (if not over) the top on a compete level. That was accomplished when the Bucs traded for the rights to head coach Jon Gruden (who had been with the Oakland Raiders). However, it set into motion the decline of the franchise in the process. The Buccaneers did win Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003 (and 15 year-old me was proven right) but the end of an era of sustained competitiveness was brought on by way of it. Let me be clear that this was not specifically brought on by winning the Super Bowl, but by bring in Gruden and losing sight of the strengths of the team. What wasn't highlighted in the build up to the title was Jon Gruden conflicts with GM McKay on a team building blueprint, and a post-title knee-jerk want helped lead to McKay's resignation from the club. Gruden was given carte blache over the team, with Bruce Allen, who had worked with Gruden in Oakland, hired to replace McKay as GM to enable the coach's wants. It went down from competitiveness to mediocrity in a casual slide.

I could go to the tangent of the offensive fixation in competitiveness in football (and how the offensive side of defense is too often overlooked - and I don't simply mean scoring) or its marketing aspects, but what I want to focus on is the true wrong of it all: impatience and wanting to win it all without caring further than the moment. It's been 12 years since the Bucs were anywhere near as competitive as that late 1990s/early 2000s team, the one where a standard was set by the Dungy/McKay complex and made expendable in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately essence that's common in pro sports.

Tony Dungy went to the Indianapolis Colts after his dismissal in Tampa, he took his "can't win the big game" reputation that some talking-heads and fans back in Tampa threw out in loudmouth blather, and Dungy got himself his own Super Bowl ring. He left Indianapolis after 7 years as head coach and with a .759 winning percentage in the regular season as well as a .538 win-percentage in the playoffs. Gruden's legacy in Tampa is a .509 winning percentage in the same 7-year duration as Dungy in Indianapolis, with only 5 playoff appearance during his time as head coach; the Super Bowl season and two one-and-done playoff appearance (2005, 2007).

At what point do we, Tampa Bay Lightning fans, have to fear this "have to win it all now"/ "need this at any cost to go over the top" attitude from fans and the local media? While the franchise continues to be built for long-term competitiveness by way of player development, to be spoiled by contention while impatient on championships is what is to be feared. There's also the fear of investing too much long-term in one player to the point it hinders the ability to sustain a competitive roster with the retention of the talent the Bolts have groomed. Is it far too early for me to even suggest this fear of impatience, especially before the season that followers a Stanley Cup berth by a relatively young team?

Would impatience even truly be needed? Perhaps it's a testament how different the NHL is form the NFL - if not the difference between the Lightning and the Bucs - by pointing out the Lightning have made the playoffs 8 times in their 22 completed seasons, reaching the Stanley Cup Finals twice and winning it once. The Bucs are in their 39th year in the NFL and have, in their 38 years before now, totaled 10 playoff appearances, going as far as the Super Bowl (and winning it) once.

Parity is a factor in the difference, as is the complexities of the NFL compared to the NHL, but impatience did its job in tanking a contender and fouling the blueprint for competitiveness.

This post was written by a member of the Raw Charge community and does not necessarily represent or express the views or opinions of Raw Charge staff.