Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy sat down to sign autographs after fielding fans questions during an hour-long Q&A session
The 2001 Bank of America FanFest at Raymond James Stadium lasted until some time after 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, but Ethan Birch may have summed up the prevailing mood best at 12:40 in the afternoon.
"I've never felt better about this team than I do right now with you as the head coach," said Birch, a Bucs fan from Naples, Florida addressing Tony Dungy. "I think we're going to win the Super Bowl."
From atop a replica Pirate Ship float in the South End Zone of Raymond James Stadium, Dungy thanked Birch for his optimism and responded with like feelings. "We have some great young players, great leadership, a tremendous coaching staff, the ownership and front office is solid and together for six years now," said Dungy. "This is our time. This is when we've got to make it happen, and I think we will."
Thus was the buzz at FanFest this year.
Coming off their third playoff season in the last four years, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers put together an astonishing 2001 offseason, signing quarterback Brad Johnson and defensive end Simeon Rice, re-signing most of their own coveted free agents and drafting much-hyped offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker. The result is a Tampa Bay fan base that expects enormous results this fall.
Roughly 20,000 of those fans were on hand Saturday for the Buccaneers' most popular offseason event, the Bank of America FanFest. The Raymond James Stadium gates opened at 9:30 a.m. and a sea of fans began pouring to the five designated autograph areas. With nearly 60 of the Buccaneers' 80 players on hand - not to mention team Owner/President Malcolm Glazer and several of the coaches - there were enough autograph opportunities to please virtually every fan in attendance.
In the South end of the East Club Lounge, for instance, fans stood in line with vouchers for autographs from defensive tackle Warren Sapp, guard Randall McDaniel and linebacker Shelton Quarles. Near the front of the line to meet this trio of Buc stars were Ann and Randy Pogue, avid Buc fans from Valrico, Florida. The couple was visibly excited after meeting Sapp and getting his John Hancock.
"It was definitely worth the wait," said Randy Pogue. "I've been trying to get Warren Sapp's autograph for a long time, and Randall McDaniel's also here, which is awesome."
The Pogues also took time to get autographs from Derrick Brooks, Jeff Christy and Cosey Coleman, and posed for pictures on the North End Zone Pirate Ship and on the field. Ann, who says the couple has now attended three consecutive FanFests, enjoyed the opportunity to mingle with the Buccaneers players.
"It's a lot of fun to actually meet the people who are on the field playing," she said.
Her husband, however, had already hatched a P.R. plan after meeting McDaniel. "I just want Randall, when he retires and goes into the Hall of Fame, to wear a Buccaneers jersey," said Randy with a laugh.
Mr. Pogue didn't get a commitment from McDaniel on that issue as he passed through the line, but thousands of other Buc fans were finding the answers to their questions on the stadium field at roughly the same time. From noon to 1:00 p.m., Buccaneers coaches stood on the float and fielded questions from a mass of fans who took turns at a microphone in the crowd. With Dungy, Offensive Coordinator Clyde Christensen, Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin and Special Teams Coach Joe Marciano on hand, virtually any Buccaneer issue was up for debate.
Lynnette Cohen of Tampa, for instance, wanted Christensen to address the topic of changing player roles in the offense this season.
"You'll see more defined roles for (Mike) Alstott and (Warrick) Dunn and we'll spread the ball around a little bit more," said Christensen. "I think Mike and Warrick will be a little bit more of a factor in the passing game. Those will be the major differences, but a lot of the foundation stuff will be the same."
A variety of other questions were fielded by the quartet of coaches. Such as:
Dungy on realignment: "I like the realignment. I think it's going to be great for our fans to get a chance to go to some of the places that are close by – New Orleans, Atlanta and Carolina. Last time we went to Atlanta, it felt like a home game. We want to keep that going."
Kiffin on the Bucs' defensive line: "All of those guys have been here in Tampa, working three or four days a week, and Defensive Line Coach Rod Marinelli is working them pretty hard. But, again, you can put all of that down on paper and it looks good, but we've got to go out there and do it on the field. We think we're going to have an outstanding defensive line and hopefully we'll put a lot of pressure on the quarterback."
Marciano on when the Bucs would finally return a kickoff for a touchdown: "The opening kickoff of the year. That's my plan."
Christensen on who will start at quarterback: "That will be determined in training camp. Brad Johnson will go in to camp as the starter, but we've obviously all seen what Shaun King can do, so I wouldn't count him out. Brad's been having a good offseason, so we're looking forward to the competition."
Dungy on whether the offense will be 'opened up' in 2001: "Our plan is to score enough points to win. We think we've got some offensive weapons, and we're going to have to do some things to get everybody the ball. If that means opening up the offense, I think we will."
Kiffin on where the defense needs to improve: "I felt we fell off a little bit in the red zone last year. We gave up touchdowns when we used to hold them to field goals, and the difference between a touchdown and a field goal is four points. That can make a big difference in a game."
Dungy on his feelings about the 2001 season: "I'm excited right now. I think our chemistry's really good and our players are working very hard. We've got a great schedule with some tough teams to play. We want to erase the memory of last year's last game. We'll see (the Eagles) Week Two."
After the Q&A session wrapped up with Dungy's comments, the fans stuck around for a performance by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleaders, who debuted their new outfits for 2001. The cheerleaders then continued to meet fans and take pictures across the Raymond James Stadium field, which was also littered with interactive games, concession stands and information booths.
The crowd swelled between there, the main concourse and the Club Lounges, where autograph sessions were taking place. It was an impressive showing for an already popular event, most likely due to that area-wide feeling of optimism over the Buccaneers.
"The size of the crowd is an increase from last year," said Buccaneers Director of Special Events Maury Wilks. "I think that's a product of the high expectations for the team this year. Plus, it was a bit hotter last year."
It wasn't exactly cool this Saturday, but most of the autographs took place in the air-conditioned lounges. Out on the field, Dungy soaked up the optimism coming from the crowd, smiled, then explained why he is only too happy to attend this event each summer.
"This is a chance for us to show our appreciation to all the fans out there," said Dungy.