If this were a normal year, football fans in the Tampa Bay area would have nothing to look forward to until Nov. 22, when Florida State meets Florida in the annual struggle of top five college teams.
But this isn't a normal year. One of the most popular radio call-in shows in the region reports that the Gators and Seminoles combined are being snowed, 20-1, by Topic A. From Sarasota to New Port Richey, from Clearwater Beach to Plant City, everyone is talking about the resurrected Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
After 14 straight losing seasons, the woebegone Bucs are now the unbeaten and definitely unbowed Bucs.
The Buccaneers' 5-0 record is not a mirage. In consecutive weeks they have:
Beaten San Francisco, something they had done only once in 13 previous games -- and that was 17 years ago by one point.
Won on the road, not once but twice. Even late last season, when they closed by winning five of their last seven, the Bucs won only once on the road, at San Diego.
Won on national television in prime time, beating the Miami Dolphins, who had dominated the state since Tampa Bay came into the NFL in 1976.
Came from behind in the fourth quarter, beating Arizona with a late rally last Sunday. The Bucs of the last 14 years usually caved in rather than rising up.
The NFL's most put-upon fans can barely believe what's happening to them, but they like it. Bucs fever is at work in the area, even though last Sunday's crowd of 53,804 was more than 20,000 under capacity.
"We have an awful lot of people in our area making $25,000, $30,000 a year," says Hubert Mizell, veteran sports columnist for the St. Petersburg Times. "They still select which games they think are the best buys. The Bucs sold just 32,000 season tickets, but that's up from 23,000 last year. After all those losing years the fans were wary."
In the past, the only time their favorites made it on the national stage was when they were the butt of a joke or the foil for an opposing star: "Here's Jerry Rice catching a touchdown pass against the Bucs. . . . Here's Brett Favre escaping a trap and passing for a big gain against Tampa Bay. . . . Here's Minnesota coming from behind to beat the Bucs in the final quarter."
The fans believe in their team now. When Trent Dilfer threw an interception late in last week's game there wasn't the usual lament, "Here we go again." It may have to do with the psychology of the new uniforms, a combination of pewter, red and black, a great deal more warrior-like than the old white and orange costumes. The logo has been changed, too. Gone is the mustachioed cavalier, with the Three Musketeers hat, derisively called "Bucco Bruce" by the fans. In its place is a sword serving as the staff of a red pirate's flag featuring a skull, crossed swords and a football.
More than symbols there is Tony Dungy, the second-year coach, whose 11-10 record during his first season and a quarter makes him the only Bucco coach with a lifetime record over .500. Dungy, in his quietly efficient manner, not only changed the atmosphere around his team but among the entire Tampa Bay sporting community.
Meanwhile, Tampa's new stadium, which stands next to the old one, is 40 percent built and will be ready for occupancy next season. So will the team's new $12 million practice facility, which, at 100,000 square feet, will be 10 times the size of the one now in use.
During the Bucs' nightmare first season as an expansion team in 1976, they finished 0-14 and were shut out five times. It was late in the season when this famous exchange took place between reporter and coach.
"Coach, what about your team's execution?"
John McKay: "I'm all for it."
Who was the starting quarterback on that dismal team?
Check the work of Miami running back Karim Abdul-Jabbar today against Kansas City. Last year Abdul-Jabbar became the Dolphins' first 1,000-yard rusher since 1978, but this season he lost yardage or had no gain on 30 percent of his first 63 carries.
Ditka tuning out
Also check to see if New Orleans coach Mike Ditka is wearing earphones on the sidelines tonight in his dramatic return to Chicago. He shed them two weeks ago.
"When I wear the earphones, I hear too much," says Ditka. "When I hear too much, I say too much. That is wrong. You can't say too much to the offensive coordinator. He must have a clear mind to be able to do what he wants to do."
Ditka had heated words with his offensive coordinator, Danny Abramowicz, earlier this season. In his Bear days he used to scorch Greg Landry, his old offensive coordinator, and finally fired him.
Abramowicz went to the press box for the Detroit game and the Saints scored 35 points, their highest output in 44 games. Last week they reverted to form against the Giants, scoring nine.
First-rounders on rise
There are more first-round draftees in NFL starting lineups. Wide receiver Rae Carruth regained a spot in the Carolina offense when Rocket Ismail faltered. Chris Naeole of New Orleans is splitting time at right guard with Mike Verstegen after recovering from a knee injury he suffered in the first days of training camp.
Bucs' trivia answer
Steve Spurrier, now head coach of the national champion Florida Gators.
Felser's Top 10
(Last week's rank in parentheses. NR: Not ranked)
1. New England -- Showdown time (1)
2. Denver -- Pats are huge challenge (2)
3. Tampa Bay -- Showdown with Pack (4)
4. San Francisco -- All October is a bye (9)
5. Green Bay -- Injuries take toll (3)
6. Kansas City -- Their act is together (10)
7. Dallas -- Creakin' along (6)
8. Jacksonville -- Running game went south (5)
9. Detroit -- Gut check vs. Pack (NR)
10. Washington -- Discovered defense (NR)