TAMPA BAY BANDITS
Central Division (1983)
Southern Division, Eastern Conference (1984)
Eastern Conference (1985)
1983-85: John F. Bassett, Stephen Arky, Burt Reynolds
1986: Lee Scarfone, Tony Cunningham
Tampa Stadium, Tampa, Florida
Regular Season Record
Steve Spurrier (35-19-0, 0-2 in playoffs)
If you'd been given a magic wand in 1984 which would have allowed you to swap out any one existing NFL franchise with the USFL counterpart in its city, odds are you'd have used it to replace the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the Tampa Bay Bandits.
Unlike the Buccaneers, who were owned by miserly tax attorney Hugh Culverhouse, Bandits majority owner John Bassett was a showman at heart. He was among the first to understand that while the game was the main thing people came out to Tampa Stadium to see, it wasn't the only thing.
Bassett was no stranger to operating a pro football team. Having been awarded the Toronto franchise in the ill-fated World Football League, his Northmen would never play a game in the city - thwarted by no less than an Act of Parliament, which saw him as a threat to the CFL's Toronto Argonauts. Moving on to Memphis, Bassett would prove the most stable, best financed of its owners, and demonstrated his willingness to make a splash by signing Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield away from the NFL's Miami Dolphins.
While in the USFL Bassett would be the poor soul rather than the rich kid on the block, he was attracted to league founder David Dixon's idea of spring professional football immediately, providing some of the early financing necessary to continue exploring the idea. In February 1982, he agreed to be one of the original twelve franchise owners on one condition: that Dixon award him the entire State of Florida as his team's home territory. Dixon readily agreed, and Bassett ultimately would recoup a significant amount of his USFL investment simply by allowing two future teams (the Jacksonville Bulls in 1984, and the Orlando Renegades in 1985) to operate in "his" state.
As one of the lesser financed USFL owners, Bassett would enlist a number of partners in the team, among them Stephen Arky, the son-in-law of Birmingham Stallions owner Marvin Warner (who himself had pursued a Miami franchise). Also on board was actor Burt Reynolds, who had played football at Florida State then went on to become the #1 box office attraction worldwide. Capitalizing on Reynolds status and particularly his starring role in a series of popular "Smokey and the Bandit" films, once settling on Tampa as the team's home the partnership immediately named the club the "Tampa Bay Bandits" as an homage to their most famous investor.
Both on the field and off, from day one the Bandits were operated as a first-class organization - a stark contrast from the NFL's Buccaneers. Hiring 37 year old Duke offensive coordinator and former University of Florida quarterback Steve Spurrier as head coach and 36 year old Bugsy Engelberg as GM, Bassett and Reynolds would preach the gospel of "Banditball" to anyone who'd listen. The goal was simple: to provide everyone who attended a Bandits game at Tampa Stadium with an enjoyable overall entertainment experience.
That goal was pursued with zeal, with flair, and with innovation: while partner Burt Reynolds enlisted friend and country music legend Jerry Reed to compose and sing the team's official "Banditball" theme song, Bassett was innovating by opening up team merchandise shops in local malls - the first team-specific retail outlets in North American professional sports. These actions began working even before the Bandits had taken the field; having suffered with an embarrassing Buccaneers team that wore orange "creamsicle" uniforms and "Bucco Bruce" on the helmet, Bandits merchandise flew off the shelves.
Once on the field the Bandits were winners as well, going 11-7-0 and falling just a game short of the Chicago Blitz for the league's only "wild card" playoff berth that season. In the stands meanwhile the team was averaging nearly 40,000 per game - enough to merit Tampa's selection as host of the 1984 USFL Championship Game, and enough to make Hugh Culverhouse and his NFL Buccaneers staff more than a little nervous.
The 1984 season would prove even brighter for "Banditball," as quarterback John Reaves would throw for more than 4,000 yards and running backs Greg Boone and Gary Anderson would each rush for more than 1,000, propelling Tampa Bay to a 14-4-0 regular season record and their first USFL playoff berth. Sadly, the team that would edge the Bandits out for the Southern Division championship on the basis of a division record advantage (the Birmingham Stallions) would win the third meeting between the teams that year, 36-17.
Diagnosis and Demise
Having fought skin cancer in his mid-30's, during 1984 team owner John Bassett discovered that the disease had returned - this time metastasizing in the form of two, inoperable brain tumors. Though remaining at the helm of the franchise throughout the 1985 season, Bassett would weaken as the season progressed, with players and staffers seeing less and less of their dynamic, but tragically dying, leader.
As the 1985 season began the team's ownership would suffer another body blow as minority general partner Stephen Arky (along with father-in-law and Birmingham Stallions owner Marvin Warner) were implicated in a fraud and corruption scandal; one involving a complicated government securities scheme that ultimately would result in over 70 Ohio savings and loans being shuttered for three days at the order of its Governor. While within two weeks the Stallions would be hanging on by their proverbial fingernails, initially neither Bassett's illness nor Arky's legal issues seemed to have an impact on Bandits operations.
Then as the season progressed, Bassett began behaving somewhat erratically. A strong advocate for keeping the USFL operating as a spring league, he announced that rather than move to the fall with his USFL brethren, he would separate the Bandits from the league and organize a new spring season circuit. Fan confusion about the Bandits and their future would cause attendance to fall from week to week.
On July 1, the Bandits missed their payroll. They also failed to make a rent payment on Tampa Stadium. Limited partners in the team filed suit against the general partners: Bassett, Arky and Reynolds. In the bathroom of his Miami home on July 23, a despondent Arky committed suicide with a .38 caliber pistol. The league office tapped the team's $1.5 million letter of credit to cover player salaries and the outstanding debts for the remainder of the season; but left the Bandits franchise intact, in part to avoid the embarrassment of terminating two franchises (the owners did terminate the San Antonio Gunslingers), but also in part because regardless of their competition on the field and recent squabbles off it, to a man USFL owners respected John Bassett.
His health worsening, shortly after the conclusion of the 1985 season Bassett would sell the Bandits to minority owners Lee Scarfone and Tony Cunningham, who would try to keep the team alive while going through the 14 month layoff between the spring of 1985 and the fall of 1986. Bassett, the team's founder and spirit, died of his cancer on May 15, 1986.
The Bandits would only survive Bassett by 81 days. On July 29, 1986, the verdict of USFL v. NFL would be read, delivering the first of what would be two death blows to the team. The second would occur just days later on August 4th, when former Bandits defensive back Bret Clark was awarded a $150,000 judgment, the result of a breach of contract claim initiated against the team while Bassett was still owner. Scarfone and Cunningham, having borrowed nearly all the money to buy the team from Bassett, could do little more than sit helplessly as Hillsboro County, Florida sheriff's deputies took possession of the team's assets. On the same day, USFL Commissioner Harry Usher announced the league was "suspending operations" for 1986.
The Official Timeline of Tampa Bay Bandits
(from a corporate perspective)
- May 24, 1982: Tampa Sports, Inc. ("TSI" below) organized as a Florida corporation by Stephen Arky.
- June 7, 1982: Sunshine State Football, Inc. ("SSF" below) organized as a Florida corporation by John Bassett.
- September 2, 1982: Football Partners, Ltd., a limited partnership, organized. TSI and SSF, along with Burt Reynolds, are general partners. Football Partners is the franchise holder.
- August 1, 1985: BanditBall, Inc. organized as a Florida corporation by Lee Scarfone. BanditBall acquires the franchise from Football Partners.
- September 14, 1987: Football Partners, Ltd. dissolved.
- November 16, 1987: SSF dissolved.
- October 13, 1989: TSI dissolved.
- August 13, 1993: BanditBall, Inc. is involuntarily dissolved by the State of Florida.