Malcolm Glazer made Bucs respectable

Back in the 1990s, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers held a news conference to announce a contract extension for defensive tackle Warren Sapp. The plan was for owner Malcolm Glazer to crack a joke about how Sapp would need to produce sacks to justify his salary.

There was a problem: Glazer didn't know what a sack was. So before the news conference, a member of the team's public relations department had to explain some football terminology to the owner.

The truth is Glazer never was a football junkie like Jerry Jones or Al Davis. But that doesn't mean Glazer, who died Wednesday at 85, was a bad owner. Far from it. The Bucs scored a new stadium and won their only Super Bowl while on his watch. He might have been the best thing to ever happen to Tampa Bay sports.

I know that opinion won't be popular in Tampa Bay, where Glazer was not beloved by the fan base. But Glazer was a good owner. He didn't know football, but he knew business -- and that's evident in his body of work since buying the Bucs in 1995.

For those who didn't like Glazer as an owner, I ask you to think back to what the Bucs were before he bought the team. Under former owner Hugh Culverhouse, they were a laughingstock. People made fun of their "creamsicle" uniforms and years of double-digit losses. In those days, Culverhouse collected his share of television revenue, skimped on player payroll and made millions of dollars with a losing product.

Then Glazer and his sons -- who are football junkies -- came along, and things started to change. It wasn't always pretty or perfect. There was a time when it looked like Glazer would move the Bucs if they didn't get a new stadium. But after a long battle, taxpayers footed the bill for what now is Raymond James Stadium.

That bill might be why Tampa Bay fans never really warmed up to Glazer. It's understandable; Glazer wasn't the warmest of people. He sued his own sisters, and there were stories about he was sued by tenants in the mobile home parks he owned.

The layer of trust between Glazer and Tampa Bay fans might have been forever fractured when the team moved into its new stadium. The team initially said a computer program was used for seating arrangements. But after some longtime 50-yard-line season-ticket holders wound up in the end zone, a former team executive revealed that a team of interns had been responsible for assigning seats, largely following the direction of the Glazers.

Yeah, there's no doubt Glazer had some warts, but those warts don't tell his full legacy. The story wouldn't be complete unless you looked at how Glazer turned the franchise around. He got his shiny new stadium, complete with a pirate ship. He changed the team's uniforms to pewter and red. He helped bring two Super Bowls to Tampa.

More than anything, though, Glazer's success can be traced to the moment he hired Tony Dungy to coach his team.

Relying on a defense led by Sapp and linebacker Derrick Brooks, the Bucs were in the playoffs by Dungy's second season. Soon, they were playoff regulars -- something fans couldn't even dream about back in the Culverhouse days. At Dungy's urging, the Bucs became active in the community, and the team enjoyed unprecedented popularity.

Glazer's decision to hire Dungy was significant in other ways, too: Dungy was the first African-American coach of an NFL team in the Deep South.

"I really appreciate what he did for Tony Dungy," ESPN analyst and former Tampa Bay assistant coach Herm Edwards said. "He gave Tony Dungy his first start as a head coach. That took a lot of nerve for an owner to do that."

But Glazer was a businessman, first and foremost. He could be ruthless, and that showed clearly when he fired Dungy after the 2001 season because the coach seemed unable to reach a Super Bowl.

Glazer and his sons then made a trade with the Oakland Raiders for coach Jon Gruden. In his first season, Gruden led Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl victory. That would turn out to be Glazer's high-water mark as an owner. In subsequent years, Gruden's teams were competitive, but they never again got near a Super Bowl.

In the later Gruden years, Glazer's health deteriorated, and his sons, Joel, Bryan and Ed, took over the team's day-to-day operations. The Glazer brothers eventually fired Gruden. They hired Raheem Morris and then Greg Schiano, but neither of them worked out.

In January, they hired Lovie Smith. They spent freely in free agency, and things appear to be looking up. It's no coincidence that Smith was the linebackers coach on Dungy's first staff. In a lot of ways, the Glazer brothers are attempting to recreate what their father and Dungy built back in the 1990s.

Malcolm Glazer wasn't the greatest owner in sports history. But he led his team to its only period of sustained success, and he left behind a nice blueprint for his sons to follow as they try to rebuild the franchise.