Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Loaded Chambers

Rich McKay, Jon Gruden and other Buc guests delight the crowd at a pair of Chamber of Commerce functions designed to bring the Bay area community closer together

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Head Coach Jon Gruden told the Chamber crowd that he loved everything about the Tampa Bay area

At the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' annual Chamber of Commerce functions, sponsored by TECO Energy, General Manager Rich McKay gave Buccaneer fans a glimpse of the competition that Jon Gruden faced in becoming the seventh head coach in franchise history.

Twice on Wednesday, McKay stood at the podium before packed crowds of eager Buc fans, ready to pull the cloak of secrecy off a pair of mystery candidates that very nearly bumped Gruden out of his dream job in Tampa.

Now, McKay made it clear that he believed the Bucs had made the right decision in the end by selecting Gruden, but he made it clear that the competition was stiff. McKay prefaced his remarks by saying, "You have to have a coach that can take you to that magical place they call 'the next level'.

"We looked everywhere and we know we found the right guy, but there were some other candidates that he had to beat out first."

Then, McKay proceeded to read two letters he had received in January regarding the Buccaneers' vacant head coaching position and the right men to fill it.

The first letter came from a young college student who wanted to "help Mr. McKay" make a "very big decision." The Bucs were at a crossroads and the solution wasn't any of these high-profile, experienced candidates the team was reportedly mulling over. The solution was, of course, him.

And, to be fair, this aspiring field general did have head coaching credentials, which he conveniently listed for McKay's benefit. Foremost was his work in several flag football leagues – at the high-school level, he was quick to point out. This candidate also conveniently describe his playbook – lots of trick plays and options plus your basic outs, ins and slants.

If that wasn't enough to get McKay's head spinning last winter, next came a letter from another coaching hopeful who promised to "reshape football as it is played today." This would-be applicant went on to state that he could increase the Buccaneers third-down success rate to nearly 60%, cut down on quarterback sacks by nearly a third and – it almost goes without saying – help the Buccaneers build a dynasty.

Alas, the path to such a football revolution will remain secret to the Buccaneers who, as we all know by now, settled on Gruden as their man and paid a hefty ransom to spirit him from the Oakland Raiders. Gruden would be hard pressed to get the Bucs' third-down rate up to 60%, but he is considered the game's brightest young offensive mind, so he's got that going for him, which is nice. He also has a resume that, though devoid of any flag football championships, does include a 38-26 regular-season mark in four seasons with the Raiders and back-to-back AFC West titles.

McKay's whimsical talks at the St. Petersburg & Clearwater Chamber Breakfast and the Greater Tampa Chamber Luncheons Wednesday were highlights of the morning and afternoon, but there were many other interesting moments during the Buccaneer-centric day, including appearances by Gruden himself. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleaders Catherine Croake, Michele Betancourt, Jessica Deauseault, Jessica Diaz, Danielle Dolen, Angel Haywood, Kimberly Read and Leigh Vollmer greeted the patrons at the events and Kimberly Kolinski sang the national anthem, while McKay, Gruden, K Martin Gramatica and LB Shelton Quarles kept the mood loose and relaxed.

Besides an inside glimpse into the Bucs' coaching search, McKay also poked fun at his own once-tenuous future with the franchise before both sides agreed to a multi-year extension shortly after Gruden's arrival. "I've had these events on my calendar since February," said McKay, "but for a while there I wasn't sure if I'd be able to make it."

The Bucs were left with one of the most dynamic GM-Coach leadership teams in the NFL, one that, given its workaholic tendencies, was particularly pleasing to John Ramil, president of Tampa Electric, a subsidiary of event sponsor TECO Energy.

"I'm told that as they prepare for this upcoming season, General Manager Rich McKay and Coach Jon Gruden keep the lights burning late at One Buccaneer Place," said Ramil, grinning. "We really appreciate the business. And if you guys want to burn those lights all night, we don't have a problem with that either."

Despite McKay and Ramil's comedic stylings, the event, which also featured a Q&A session with the Buccaneer representatives, was more than just open-mic night at the Improv. Both Gruden and McKay addressed topics pertaining to the Bucs' upcoming season and the Bay Area community.

"Two-thousand-two will be a season of change, but we think a season to get better," said McKay. "Our internal expectations are higher than they have ever been. We are very excited about the team and our guys our committed to winning."

Fielding a question about what it felt like to come home to Tampa, Gruden expressed his feelings for the Bay area rather emphatically. "I love Tampa, I love St. Pete, Clearwater and Reddington Beach," said Gruden. "I love this whole area. I just plan on doing everything I can to help Tampa Bay win a championship."

Gramatica and Quarles were also popular guests at the functions, fielding a variety of questions from the rapt audience.

Gramatica, for instance, was asked if he was going to tone down his celebratory leaps given the injury his brother, Bill, a kicker for the Arizona Cardinals, had suffered during a similar post-field goal celebration. "I haven't talked to coach about it yet, but a couple of the guys said they were going to tie me down," he answered. "But the celebration is just something that comes naturally, so I don't know if I can control it."

Quarles, meanwhile, was peppered with questions about his switch to the middle and the new responsibility of making the calls for the defense. "It's something that I'm looking forward to," he responded. "(Derrick) Brooks made the calls last year, but they want to switch that responsibility back to the Mike (middle) linebacker. I know I can handle it. Right now I just wish the coaches would get me the play calls earlier, because if they don't I'm going to have to start making my own calls."

McKay, Gruden, Gramatica and Quarles all offered glimpses into their lives with the Buccaneers, but the speaker who best described the meaning of the two Chamber events was Russ Sloan, President of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce.

Said Sloan: "The Bucs, more than any one single entity, bring the entire Bay area community together."

And that's what this day was all about. Bringing the Bay area communities together and helping to propel the Buccaneers to that 'next level'.

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