'Tom McEwen: A Tampa Bay Treasure'

I don’t know that I’ve ever been happier to post an item on the NFC South Blog than this one.

Let’s go ahead and declare Nov. 2 a holiday or day of celebration throughout the entire NFC South. On that day, Saint Leo University (my alma mater) will host a luncheon to announce the exhibit “Tom McEwen: A Tampa Bay Treasure.’’

McEwen was the longtime sports editor and columnist for The Tampa Tribune. For those in other NFC South cities, don’t stop reading because McEwen also had an impact on each of your franchises and cities.

In fact, I’m going to make a case right now that McEwen is the single most important figure in the history of the NFC South -- owners, players and coaches come and go, but Tom has been a presence through all of it. Tom came from a different era, when columnists were more like ambassadors or sports mayors of their cities. In that regard, McEwen was the king.

He was the driving force behind the effort that landed Tampa Bay an expansion team. The NFL granted the franchise to Tampa Bay before it even had an owner in place and the Bucs began play in 1976. That’s when McEwen really started to develop clout with owners across the NFL and in the league office in New York.

He’s a big part of the reason Tampa has become a regular Super Bowl host. McEwen also was instrumental in keeping the Bucs in Tampa Bay when they were looking for a new stadium in the mid-1990s. McEwen worked behind the scenes with NFL officials and owners to make sure the Bucs didn’t leave and that resulted in the construction of Raymond James Stadium.

The greatest demonstration of the power of McEwen might have been when he helped get Lee Roy Selmon elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I’ve been in that room on a couple of election days and I know how things work. Unless you’re the prototypical first-ballot guy, your candidacy depends largely on the guy who is making your case. I wasn’t in the room the day Selmon got elected, but I spent most of the rest of the day with McEwen. Other voters repeatedly came up to him and said he made the most convincing case they’d ever seen.

McEwen also was instrumental in getting baseball’s Rays and hockey’s Lightning to town. He also helped make soccer’s Rowdies and the United States Football League Bandits really big deals in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Heck, when I was out at McEwen’s house last week, he shared a great story about the Bandits. Franchise owner John Bassett walked into McEwen’s office and asked who he should hire as coach.

“Take a look at the guy at Duke,’’ McEwen told Bassett.

The guy at Duke was Steve Spurrier. Bassett hired him and you know the rest of the story. But you need to know the rest of the story about McEwen and what he’s meant to the NFC South. Tom’s a Southern guy through and through, and he did his share of pushing for New Orleans and Atlanta to host Super Bowls through the years. He also worked his magic in league circles when the Carolina Panthers were looking to come into the NFL as an expansion team. As a result, McEwen and Panthers owner Jerry Richardson developed a strong bond. That came in handy a few years later and Richardson became an important McEwen ally in the quest to keep the Buccaneers in Tampa.

The luncheon’s not open to the public, but I’ll share some of the details and maybe some pictures and video of it on this blog. ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio will serve as master of ceremonies. Guest speakers will include The Tampa Tribune’s Joey Johnston, a certain NFC South blogger who once was lucky enough to be hired by McEwen and a few other speakers who are still being finalized. Here's the official press release from Saint Leo.

The audience will include a lot of Tampa Bay sports dignitaries and representatives from all the pro sports franchises. It also will include a lot of folks from the journalism world who got their start under McEwen.

After the luncheon, the audience will get a view of McEwen’s memorabilia, books, awards and columns that soon will become part of a permanent display at Saint Leo. The collection is pretty spectacular.

I’ll share one item with you right now. The last time I was at McEwen’s house, I was going through a collection of photos as we tried to narrow down what’s going to be in the display. I came across one photo of four guys on a golf course. All were wearing New York Yankees hats.

At first glance, I easily recognized three of the men -- McEwen, George Steinbrenner and initial Buccaneers coach John McKay. The fourth guy was bigger than the rest and had the hat pulled pretty low.

I took the photo over to McEwen and said, “Tom, who’s the big guy?’’

“Bear,’’ McEwen said very casually.

Yep, Bear Bryant. Needless to say, that photo will be part of the display. Saint Leo President Dr. Arthur Kirk will make an announcement Nov. 2 regarding where on campus the permanent display will be housed. I encourage those of you in the Tampa Bay area to stop in and take a look at the exhibit when you get near Saint Leo, which is about 30 miles north of Tampa.

For those across the rest of the NFC South, think of Tom on Nov. 2 and salute him for what he’s meant for all of us. Tom’s had some pretty serious health issues in recent months, but I’m happy to say he’s doing all right now and is in good spirits. He’s excited about the day and we all should be.

Tom McEwen truly is a Tampa Bay treasure.