Why do they call it that? Tampa Bay Bandits: Tampa Bay's favorite football team was USFL Bandits, not NFL Buccaneers for a time

2:12 PM, Aug 15, 2012   |    comments
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When the Buccaneers were awful, this other football team stole Tampa Bay's heart -- at gunpoint.

Why did they call them the Tampa Bay Bandits?

Imagine it -- Brad Pitt, part owner of a brand new football team in Tampa Bay. And the new head coach? Tim Tebow.

That was what it felt like in the 80's when the Tampa Bay Bandits took the field.

Part of the upstart USFL, they played at Tampa Stadium in the spring -- instead of football's usual fall.

And they did more than just play ball.

"They emphasized fun. They had mortgage burning night, they had diamond giveaways, they had a Dolly Parton lookalike contest," said Travis Puterbaugh, who manages the collections at the Tampa Bay History Center.

The history center's sports collection includes mementos of a football style and swagger they called Bandit Ball.

"When the product is good, when the promotions are good, when the music's good -- and it feels like an 'event' -- that was the key to the Bandits' success," Puterbaugh said.

When the good guys scored, a masked mascot called The Bandit would ride onto the field atop his steed, Smokey.

Wait -- Smokey and the Bandit?

Forget football! That's a series of cops-and-robbers movies. And they starred one of Hollywood's absolute biggest names at the time -- Burt Reynolds -- the early 80's equivalent of Brad Pitt.

Reynolds, the mustachioed movie star, was part owner of this Tampa Bay team.

"Having Burt Reynolds involved really made it an 'event.' You'd see Hollywood celebrities in skyboxes at old Tampa Stadium," Puterbaugh said.

"Smokey and the Bandit -- the franchise that he started in the late '70's -- that was the name from the get-go, they never really considered anything else. It was always the Bandits."

Coaching the club was Steve Spurrier. He was the most famous quarterback in Florida Gators history (until a kid from Jacksonville named Tim Tebow joined the Gators a few years ago).

It was Spurrier's first-ever job as a head ball coach.

"These games were events and people really looked forward to them. Whereas with the Bucs, they were really just offering football -- and most of the time, it wasn't very good football," Puterbaugh said.

With the Buccaneers playing so badly -- and no big league baseball, hockey, or college football in town -- the Bandits packed the stadium.

They had the best attendance in the USFL, but that league started making lousy decisions.

Several of the team owners "played to get a merger with the NFL," Puterbaugh said. "Really, they should have focused on developing the brand in smaller markets."

"And some would say that the USFL expanded a little bit too soon, and probably went into markets where they shouldn't have."

After just three seasons -- 1983, 84, and 85 -- the league was defunct, the team was shut down, and the Bandit rode off into the sunset.

Why do they call it that? Now you know.

We feature new "Why do they call it that?" stories each Wednesday on 10 News starting at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Check out previous editions of the Emmy-nominated series at our "Why do they call it that?" website: wtsp.com/callitthat.

Grayson Kamm, 10 News

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