It all started with Warren Sapp

NEW ORLEANS – Derrick Brooks and Tony Dungy are going to be eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014.

It’s only fitting that Warren Sapp will be there before them.

When you think about how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers stopped being the “Yuccaneers," you have to start with Sapp.

Dungy and Brooks were crucial reasons why a team that had been losing for a generation suddenly started winning. They might have been even bigger parts than Sapp, who was elected to the Hall of Fame on Saturday in his first year of eligibility. But the defensive tackle was the first piece of a turnaround that eventually led to the franchise’s Super Bowl championship. Dungy didn’t come until 1996, and the winning didn’t start until a magical 1997 season that I was fortunate enough to cover for The Tampa Tribune.

Brooks came in 1995, but Sapp was drafted ahead of him on that same day. That’s when the turnaround really started.

As Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin arrived, Sapp quickly became a force on a defense that arguably became one of the best in history. Brooks was just as big a force as Sapp, and I’m confident the linebacker will get his due next year.

But everything about the legendary Tampa 2 defense that soon was copied around the league started with Sapp. He was the disruptive force in the middle that cleared the way for everything else.

Without Sapp, Dungy and Kiffin’s defense still might have been good, but it wouldn’t have been dominant. Without Sapp drawing so much attention from an offense, Brooks probably wouldn’t have been quite as good as he was. Without Sapp, John Lynch and Ronde Barber might not be talked about as potential Hall of Famers.

All those guys played during a great era for Tampa Bay, and that’s a time period that is still remembered fondly in an age when the current Bucs are struggling for an identity of their own.

Maybe sometime soon the Bucs will get back to selling out their stadium once again. And maybe sometime soon the Bucs will be loved by the entire region the way they were in the glory days.

The irony is that Sapp was far from the most beloved player on that team. He was known for his boorish behavior with fans and the media.

Sapp still is a bit of a polarizing figure, even in Tampa Bay. Some people love him. Some people don’t.

Say whatever you want about Sapp. But come this summer, he will be forever known as a Hall of Famer.