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1983-1985 Tampa Bay Bandits

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Burt Reynolds Tampa Bay BanditsUnited States Football League (1983-1985)

Born: May 11, 1982 – USFL founding franchise
Folded: August 4, 1986

Stadium: Tampa Stadium

Team Colors:

Owners:

USFL Championships: None

 

The Tampa Bay Bandits were a popular entry in the United States Football League during the mid-1980’s. During a particularly grim era for the Hugh Culverhouse-owned Buccaneeers of the NFL, the Bandits played an exciting, high scoring brand of football and packed big crowds into Tampa Stadium in the springtime. The team had a high-wattage ownership group that included America’s #1 box office star of the early 80’s – Burt Reynolds – and veteran sports investoror John Bassett.

On the field, the Bandits featured two former University of Florida quarterback legends. John Reaves, a 1971 All-American for the Gators, started at quarterback. Steve Spurrier, the 1966 Heisman Trophy winner and just five years older than Reaves, was the Head Coach.

Kenn Tomasch – WRUF Sportscaster 1985-1987

I was at the very first Bandits game in March of 1983, two months before I graduated from high school. I watched the very last game (the 1985 playoff loss to Oakland) on TV in the dorm at college. And I was a radio sportscaster who reported <Bandits owner> John Bassett’s death, the trial verdict and the demise of the USFL in 1986.

The thing about the Bandits that still resonates today was how much FUN it all was. (That was even their marketing slogan: “All the Fun the Law Allows.”) They were colorful, they threw the ball all over the place. They burned a guy’s mortgage during a halftime promotion. They had cheap tickets. They were real outlaws.
And they WON. Right from the jump. Remember, the Bucs had made the playoffs three of the previous four years after that horrid (7-37) start, but the Bandits were winners and innovative right out of the gate. Then the Bucs went into that period from 1983 until Tony Dungy when they were just embarrassingly bad, so from 1984 until mid-1985, it was the Bandits that gave the folks in the Bay Area something to be proud of.
They were the last team to lose a game that first season (and they even did THAT big, 42-3 to Chicago). They signed Cris Collinsworth (for 1985 delivery) at the end of the 1983 season. There was, seemingly, nothing these guys could do that wasn’t better in six months than the Bucs had done in six years. Of course, they couldn’t win a playoff game – there’s still no reason they couldn’t have been in the championship game in their own stadium in 1984. That was a GREAT football team.
The cracks began to show in February 1985 as the Bandits headed into training camp for their third season. Owner John Bassett was diagnosed with a pair of brain tumors. The team traded away their major investment from the 1984 college draft, former Florida star Wayne Peace. Peace was due $300,000 for the 1985 season but was lodged firmly at #3 on the QB depth chart behind Reaves and Jimmy Jordan. Peace would never play another down of professional football. Worse, Cris Collinsworth finally showed up in Tampa, 19 months after agreeing to contract terms. The 3-time NFL All-Pro found a team deep at wide receiver with a gravely ill owner now decidedly cool to his arrival. Collinsworth accepted a $500,000 loan from Bassett in 1983 as a signing bonus but never actually signed a USFL contract. Bassett made it clear in the press that C0llinsworth was free to turn around and return to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Kenn Tomasch

Of course, it all came tumbling down. Not just the league, but the Bandits’ mystique first, even before the ill-fated move to the fall. Collinsworth was let go in training camp in 1985. The story was the team couldn’t get an insurance policy on Collinsworth’s gimpy ankle, but apparently it was actually because they could not pay his contract, despite Bassett’s wealth and leading the league in attendance over the three-year run.
If you ever see the documentary The Final Season that Mike Tollin did, you see an organization cracking apart. John Bassett’s health was in decline (he would die in May 1986) and the halcyon days were over before the 1985 season was. <Minority partners> Lee Scarfone and Tony Cunningham took over and were going to try to keep Banditball going, but it would not have been the same.
Kenn Tomasch
I went home for my high school reunion in 2013 and wore a Bandits t-shirt to a Tampa Bay Rays game on the Sunday. I got lots of thumbs up and comments about how cool that was and how fondly people remembered the Bandits. Three decades later, the All The Fun Allows Guys are still giving us all the memories we can hold.

Tampa Bay Bandits Memorabilia

 

Bandits Video

“All The Fun The Law Allows” – 1983 Tampa Bay Bandits highlight video

 

In Memoriam

Bandits part-owner Stephen Arky shot himself to death on July 24, 1985 after being implicated in the $300M collapse of Ft. Lauderdale bond trading firm E.S.M. Government Securities. Arky was 42. The Bandits played their final game 24 days earlier.

Bandits founder and principal owner John Bassett died of brain cancer on May 15, 1986 at age 47.

Bandits offensive lineman Ed Gantner (’83), later a professional wrestler, committed suicide on December 31, 1990 at age 31.

Cornerback Bobby Futrell (Bandits ’85) hung himself on June 1, 1992. He was 29.

Lee Scarfone, the last owner of the Bandits in late 1985 and 1986, passed away on May 28, 2005 at the age of 73.

 

Links

United States Football League Media Guides

United States Football League Programs

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