From Pittsburgh to Paradise
The Storm's Path to Glory
By Andrew Mason
It was the fall of 1990. In recent months, Pittsburgh Gladiators had completed the 1990 season, lumbering home with a 3-5 record---the worst in their four-year history in the Arena Football League. The team had been successful at one time, both on and off the field, as evidenced by a trip to the first ArenaBowl in 1987 and attendances in the first year that never dropped below 11,000. But when the league nearly collapsed in the offseason before the 1989 campaign, so too did the Gladiators. The team's attendance, which averaged 12,949 in 1987, never rose above 6,000 in 1990 as more and more empty seats made their presence known at the Civic Arena.
Owner Bob Gries---the son of a Cleveland Browns minority shareholder---had purchased the team before the 1990 season and obviously expected better things on and off the gridiron than he got. With a gradual attendance decline and a stagnant franchise, change was needed. That change involved moving the team. The timing was right, as only eight markets had Arena Football teams at the time, with none of those markets being in the Southeast. A whole new region, completely untapped.
Among the major markets in the Southeast was Tampa Bay, home to over two million residents, one major sports team and one indoor building desperate for events. The market was irresistible, and in early 1991, Gries announced that he would move his team to St. Petersburg's Florida Suncoast Dome and re-christen the team.
Thus, the Tampa Bay Storm was born.
The St. Petersburg Times headlined the game as "a little world for big men." The mammoth Florida Suncoast Dome was adjusted for the new game, moving seats, adding curtains to close off the far reaches of the building and purchasing an old indoor soccer field to throw down for the game. But by June 1, 1991, the building was ready, and the team---led by coach Fran Curci and possessing a roster that only had one holdover from Pittsburgh in lineman Tom Gizzi---prepared to take the field in their kaleidoscopic red-and-blue Zubaz uniforms against the expansion Orlando Predators.
Befitting a new franchise, there were some glitches. The game was held up 15 minutes to account for the horde of fans walking up to buy tickets for the game. When it came time for the national anthem, the sound system konked out, rendering the singer's voice inaudible. A football got stuck between the upright and the net between the goalposts. The cover of the Arenaball game program had a map of the United States that showed the city of Denver being located in Wyoming.
But when it came time for the kickoff, the fun finally began. It was the first of many Orlando-Tampa Bay games, and while the Predators' 51-38 win was hardly a classic, it brought excitement to the Dome for the first time since the Davis Cup tennis matches six months before. The 10,354 in attendance set the first of many attendance records for the Storm, as this was the largest crowd for a franchise's opening game in AFL history at that point.
Said Gries to the St. Petersburg Times, "I'm disappointed at the outcome, but that's momentary. I'm ecstatic with the crowd."
Gries became even more ecstatic as the season moved along. A two-game road swing saw the Storm win its first two games---first at Columbus by a 53-12 margin and then 27-17 over New Orleans. The Storm then came home to a thunderous crowd of 15,017 at the Dome and grabbed a 53-21 lead over Dallas before hanging on for a 56-48 win. The next week was even more thrilling, as backups Chip Ferguson, Stevie Thomas and Andre Bowden led the Storm from a 47-36 fourth quarter deficit to a 57-53 win over Albany.
While Ferguson returned to the bench to back up for quarterback Jay Gruden, Thomas and Bowden grew into two of the Storm's most prominent players. Both were later named to the All-AFL First team---Thomas in 1992, Bowden in 1993. Thomas would later be the hero of the ArenaBowl, when he caught a 35-yard touchdown pass from Gruden with 39 seconds left to defeat the Detroit Drive, 48-42. The next day, the Storm returned home to Tampa International Airport where they were greeted by approximately 200 fans.
The 1991 season was more successful than anyone could have possibly imagined. Tampa Bay averaged a league-leading 17,326 per game, including a then-league record 24,445 in a 30-13 win over the Denver Dynamite on July 13. The Storm beat the three-time defending champion Drive twice on the enemy turf of Joe Louis Arena. And most importantly, stars were born in Thomas and Gruden---two players who would pace the team through three more championships and two coaching changes.
The first coaching change occurred after the season, as Curci left the team, eventually landing with the Cincinnati Rockers. Assistant Lary Kuharich took over, and the success continued.
But something happened on the way to heaven---the Orlando Predators, who lumbered home at 3-7 in 1991, grew up. Quickly, they turned into a fierce adversary. The Storm beat them 39-32 in Orlando to open the season, and rolled undefeated into July with a nine-game winning streak dating back to 1991. The Predators put an end to that, defeating the Storm 48-33 in a game where the Preds' margin of victory proved to be significant. The teams finished tied for the Southern Division title with 9-1 records, but the Predators outscored the Storm by 8 points in their meetings, so Orlando gained home field advantage for the postseason. Tampa Bay faced Curci's Rockers in the first round, and won 41-36 in front of 20,236. However, the Storm bowed out one week later in the semifinals, 24-21 at Orlando.
1992 was another successful season at the gate, as the Storm averaged a league-best 20,114 for six games. Gruden was named the league's most valuable player, and Thomas made the All-AFL team as offensive specialist.
1993 dawned with optimism and championship aspirations. It also marked the end of the Zubaz-striped uniforms, replaced by a more traditional, Oakland Raider-esque silver and black combination. The Zubaz, however, did make two return engagements---once in 1993 against Miami and again in 1994 for games with Miami and Milwaukee. 1993 also marked the beginning of a unique season-ticket campaign, one in which Gries guaranteed that the team would win 10 games in the regular and postseason or fans would get 20 percent of their money back. The guarantee---and Gries' financial health---was in doubt after the Storm finished the regular season with a 9-3 mark, good for second place in the National Conference, one game back of Orlando. But Tampa Bay got the magic 10th win in the first round of the playoffs against Albany, and upset Orlando 55-52 at the O-rena in the semifinals to set up a rematch of the 1991 ArenaBowl against the Drive in Detroit.
This time, it wasn't even close. The Storm bolted to a 20-3 lead in the second quarter and never allowed the Drive to come closer than 10 points after that, dominating the Drive en route to a 51-31 win. Gruden won MVP honors with an 18-for-32, 204-yard performance, and OL/DL Keith Browner was named the game's Ironman for a performance that saw him score touchdowns on offense and defense. The next morning, nearly 1,000 mobbed Airside C at Tampa International Airport to greet the team. Players high-fived fans, and the airport's staff created an impromptu stage so Gries could address the throng, packed like sardines around Gate 37.
The offseason following the title was busy. Most notably, the Storm made a massive trade with the very same team they knocked off to reclaim the trophy. Although the Drive had moved to Worcester, Mass. by this time, the trade couldn't have been any more signifcant, and remains unsurpassed in Arena Football annals. The trade involved 12 players. Most notable among these were kicker Arden Czyzewski, WR/DB Amod Field and FB/LB David Smith, who were sent to the Marauders, as well as OL/DL Sylvester Bembery and offensive specialist George LaFrance.
The ensuing season was successful by most teams' standards, as the Storm went 7-5 and made the first round of the playoffs. And the season did have its moments, most notably when the Storm knocked off 11-0 Orlando 40-39 in the season's final week. But in general, it was a disappointing experience. Counting a 58-51 playoff loss at Massachusetts, Tampa Bay went a franchise-worst 2-5 on the road. This marked the only time in franchise history that the Storm didn't win at least 75 percent of their road games in a season.
In fact, it has been success on the road that has set the Storm apart over the years. Tampa Bay enters the 1997 season with a cumulative 30-11 road record---in that six-year span, only Orlando comes close to that record, going 24-15 over the years away from their plush Orlando Arena home. In addition, three of the Storm's four ArenaBowl championships have been won in unfriendly arenas.
Marcum brought a personal winning tradition to the Storm's, as he owned four ArenaBowl championships from his days as coach of the Denver Dynamite and the Detroit Drive. Within months, he had made his stamp on the Storm's roster, bringing aboard such notable contributors as Willie Wyatt, Lynn Rowland, Kent Wells, Wayne Williams, Lawrence Samuels and Jorge Cimadevilla. But perhaps the most important move was his decision to turn Thomas into a two-way player. In 1994, LaFrance and Thomas platooned at offensive specialist. In 1995, LaFrance remained on offense only, but Thomas became an Ironman, serving as the team's box linebacker. This move allowed them onto the field at the same time on a consistent basis for the first time. The Storm's "Dynamic Duo" have torn up the league ever since, combining for 315 catches, 4,308 yards and 80 touchdowns in 1995 and 1996.
Of course, the rest of the roster was stellar, too, as evidenced by the Storm's 28-4 record in Marcum's first two years with the club, including a league-record 17-game winning streak encompassing the last nine games of 1995 and the first eight of 1996. Two championships were the most striking and appropriate evidence of the Storm's unbridled success that has engendered a combination of respect and reprehension from the rest of the AFL. Amid all of the success of the mid-1990s, one moment stands out above them all---Thomas' weaving 54-yard kickoff return for a touchdown with 12 seconds left that turned a 49-48 deficit into a 56-49 semfinal win over Albany. Mere words could not do this moment justice---from the excitement in the stands to the exultation of the players on the field, it is a moment that will forever be frozen in the minds of diehard Storm fans who were on hand at the Dome or watching on ESPN2.
The ArenaBowl that followed---a 48-35 win over Orlando---was the lone title that the Storm won at home. In 1996, they entered the playoffs as the No. 2 seed, having lost the honor of being the top seed to Iowa on a tiebreaker. Tampa Bay defeated Anaheim and Arizona to set up their first-ever showdown with the Barnstormers, and Tampa Bay proved equal to the challenge, winning 48-42 in spite of the best efforts of the Iowa fans, who used the close confines of the Iowa Veterans Memorial Auditorium to reach out and touch someone---those someones being Storm receivers who learned a new definition of pass interference from the Iowa fans in the front row along the sidelines.
The future, as always, is uncertain. Gruden retired after the 1996 season as the leading passer in league history, leaving a gaping hole at quarterback that former Chicago Bear and Florida State quarterback Peter Tom Willis will do his best to fill. He'll have a lot of help from players like Thomas, LaFrance, Samuels, Bembery and Wells, though. Off the field, things are going swimmingly. The team moves to the Ice Palace in Tampa with its highest season-ticket base ever. But most importantly for the fans, the Ice Palace is built for arena-sized events, unlike the Dome, which was built for baseball. Fans will be closer to the action from all vantage points, allowing for the game to be witnessed the way it was meant to be. The hits will be louder, the intensity will be heightened and Storm games will become a true Arena Football experience.
The surroundings may change, but the fun won't. The players will continue to be as accessible and fan-friendly as ever. General admission seats will continue to be available in the Ice Palace's third level, as they were in the Dome's third level for six seasons. The video replay board will continue to give fans the chance to watch the plays again and second-guess the officials.
It's been a great six years. And while the future can never be accurately predicted, there is no reason to believe that the Storm should not remain a Tampa Bay sports success story for years to come.
Sources: 1996 Tampa Bay Storm Media Guide, Arenaball Magazine, 1991 Edition, Arena Football League Record and Fact Book, the St. Petersburg Times, and my own attendance at many Storm games over the previous six years.
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