Raymond James Stadium might just be one of the most recognizable stadiums in the National Football League. With a full scale pirate ship complete with blazing canons and a re-created pirate cove in one end-zone and a beautiful view of Tampa’s downtown skyline in the other, Raymond James can be summed up in one word: unique.
The site of Super Bowl’s XXXV and XLIII, Raymond James has established itself firmly as one of the NFL’s preferred venues. Factor in the success of the Buccaneers since Raymond James opened in 1998 and you have a stadium with a rich pedigree.
Given the popularity of Raymond James Stadium it is easy to forget that its predecessor was also one of the jewels of the National Football League. From 1976 to 1997 the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were generally a bad football team. Their lack of success unfairly painted almost everything about them, from their uniforms to their logo to their headquarters, as second-rate. The one thing the Buccaneers reputation could not tarnish was Tampa Stadium.
BEFORE THE CONSTRUCTION
The main football stadium in the Tampa Bay area during the 1950’s was Phillips Field. A 12,000 seat stadium used by the University of Tampa Spartan football team, Phillips Field was a nice stadium but hardly adequate for the sporting needs of a rapidly growing city.
Former Florida Speaker of the House Terrell Sessums pointed to an incident involving the University of Florida that highlighted Phillips Field’s shortcomings. “UF students had a bad experience at Phillips when the Gators played the University of Kentucky,” Sessums recounted. “Not all of the students could get in to see the game and that led UF to decide not to play in Tampa. For a town Tampa’s size, we needed a better stadium to attract schools and help out the University of Tampa which had a good small college football team.”
In 1961 Mayor Julian Lane commissioned a study on the feasibility of a football stadium in Tampa. The Buccaneers could very well have played their home games on the campus of the University of South Florida in east Tampa, but the relatively new school did not want the stadium. Leonard Levy was on that committee. “It (the plan) did not fly, there was not enough support for it,” Levy recalled. “USF was in its infancy then and Dr. John Allen (president of USF at the time) was not an athletics type guy. He knew that if we built the stadium out there he wouldn’t have a choice (about embracing athletics).”
In addition to Dr. Allen’s hesitancy, there was little public support for a tax-funded stadium. So the building of a Tampa football venue would have to wait. Before he became Florida Speaker of the House, Terrell Sessums was a Hillsborough County congressman. Congressman Sessums read the study from 1961 and came to realize that some of the issues that made a stadium unfeasible were assuaged with a piece of property already owned by the city. “I read the study and saw the costs, revenue projections and number of games that would be needed to be played to pay for a stadium,” Sessums noted. “I also learned that the city held title to a large piece of federal surplus property along Dale Mabry Highway. The land was dedicated to sports, recreation and public use. The city was only using a small portion of it for the Cincinnati Reds spring training operation.”
Sessums continued, “It also occurred to me that the Florida Legislature could transfer the title for the land from the city/county to another entity without cost. We could create an authority, which I thought could be called the Tampa Sports Authority, which could receive title for this land.”
Sessums bandied his idea about the TSA around the halls of power in Tampa and discovered that there was a great deal of support for his idea. “The University of Tampa was very interested,” Sessums recalled. “Because they felt with a bigger stadium they could attract bigger schools and increase attendance. I also talked with UF and felt they could be persuaded to play one major game a year. This would create a revenue stream that would help pay for the stadium.”
With the civic leaders of Tampa on his side, Sessums was able to successfully move his bill through both houses in Tallahassee. In May of 1965 Florida governor Hayden Burns signed the bill into law. With the ability to sell bonds and a piece of property for a stadium, the Tampa Sports Authority set about the process of constructing Tampa Stadium.
FROM THE GROUND UP
While the choice of the Dale Mabry site for a stadium may have been one of economic necessity, it had many other benefits. “It was centrally located near the main population of Hillsborough County,” Sessums said. “It was easily accessible from all points of the compass by primary and secondary roads and had ample parking space.”
The architectural firm William Watson and Company designed Tampa Stadium. The company chose to base their design of the stadium on the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee. Ground was broken on Tampa Stadium in October of 1966.
According to Terrell Sessums, Tampa Stadium was music to the ears of a great many people because of two factors. “Construction was completed on time and on budget. Total bill was 4.6 million dollars, with construction costs 4.1 million and soft money such as architects, studies and such at half a million.”
Joe Zalupski, a University of Tampa graduate and the director of Tampa Stadium until the early 1990’s, believed that the rapid completion of the stadium was due to the people involved. “We had a pretty energetic and altruistic board that was hell-bent on getting the project done.”
Located next door to Redsland, the spring home of Major League Baseball’s Cincinnati Reds, the original Tampa Stadium might be unrecognizable to those who knew it after the Bucs began play in 1976. Tampa Stadium was part of a vanguard of the way sports venues would be built in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Aluminum bleachers rather than wood were used to house a capacity crowd of 46,000. The grandstands along both sidelines extended several stories into the air, supported by a series of pre-stressed concrete columns of various heights under the superstructure.
This design allowed for the same number of seats as a double-decker stadium without the need for support columns inside the seating area that could block the view of the field. Although the 1960’s version of the stadium had the familiar triple-decker press box and two extremely high and unbroken grandstands along both sidelines, it lacked the enclosed end zones that gave Tampa Stadium its signature shape, which led it to be called the “Big Sombrero.”
Also different about the original stadium was the smaller scoreboard in the northwest end zone with the mod 1960’s Diet Pepsi advertisement on the top. One can also see in the picture scan from Tampa’s 1970’s promotional pamphlet for winning a NFL franchise that it was possible to see the field of play from outside the stadium, a quaint quirk that would not exist for long.
Ironically, the venue of future Super Bowls had much smaller goals in mind according to the man who helped bring professional football to Tampa, Leonard Levy. “Tampa Stadium was basically built for the University of Tampa football team. It was also hoped that it would attract the University of Florida and Florida State to play a game or two a year in Tampa.”
Mr. Levy added, “The original Tampa Stadium did not have the NFL in mind. It held 46,000 people but we knew if we were awarded a franchise it could expand to 72,000. If we had not been awarded a franchise we never would have expanded it.”
An expansion team for Tampa Bay was awarded in 1974 necessitating the expansion of Tampa Stadium. The artist renderings that accompanied the news of the expansion plans were not that far off from how Tampa Stadium would ultimately look. The only differences were the fact that the luxury boxes would occupy space atop the northern side of the stadium along the sideline rather than the southeast end zone and there would be no gap separating the southeast end zone from the rest of the stadium. This was the shape that most of us came to know and would be home to some memorable football games.
By Denis Crawford