There they were on Thursday night, three guys sitting on stage at a makeshift bar, telling stories, musing about their humble beginnings with the theme from “Cheers’’ playing in the background.
It was the perfect setting for Tampa Bay’s three professional team leaders – Bucs coach Greg Schiano, Rays manager Joe Maddon and Lightning coach Jon Cooper – to display their personalities and showcase their philosophies.
They gathered at the third annual Sneaker Soiree, a celebration of excellence in sports business, orchestrated by the Tampa Bay Sports Commission at the Pepin Hospitality Centre.
Schiano spoke of his grand plan, playing professional football in Canada, then returning for a 10-year NFL career. One problem: He was cut after six weeks. He came home to New Jersey.
Backup plan: “I spent about four weeks on the Jersey Shore … (got) drunk for about two of them,’’ he said with a laugh.
Somewhere on the way to law school, he discovered coaching while volunteering for his old high school. He set up a bed sheet and a 16-millimeter projector at home, watching film and dissecting the game.
“I found my passion,’’ Schiano said.
So did Cooper. He did become a practicing lawyer. There was potential for a lucrative career. But hockey’s rhythm spoke to him louder.
“I’m so fired up to be here with the Lightning,’’ Cooper said. “I am so lucky.’’
Maddon, too, said he’s the product of good fortune. In 1980, he was working with a semi-pro team in Boulder, Colo., working at a liquor store on the side. He got a call from the then-California Angels franchise and the course of his career changed forever.
After working as a scout, minor-league coach and bench coach in the big leagues, he got his big break with the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2006.
“It was the one job – had I not gotten it – I would’ve been really disappointed,’’ Maddon said. “I wanted to be here. I considered it a new franchise and there was a chance to build it (from the ground up).’’
Maddon spoke about his philosophy of keeping things loose in the clubhouse – “It’s a game, not life and death’’ – and how empowering his players will make them loyal to the cause. Cooper agreed.
But just when the conversation seemed headed for a new level – as is the case at most bars – it was closing time. That’s when former Bucs defensive back Ronde Barber, who recently retired after a 16-year career, appeared as the clean-up man and said it was time for everyone to go.
There was actually a surprise in store for Barber. Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn appeared on stage and presented Barber with the key to the city. “We’ve laughed with you, we’ve cried with you, we’ve shared all these special moments,’’ Buckhorn said. “We will never forget you.’’
It was the capper on a special evening for Barber, whose 200th consecutive start was honored as Moment of the Year for the Bucs. His mother, Geraldine, surprised him by flying in from Virginia for the occasion.
Other top moments: Lightning, Marty St. Louis winning the NHL scoring title; Rays, David Price winning the American League Cy Young Award; USF, softball reaching the Women’s College World Series. The overall top sporting moment was the Rowdies capturing the NASL title.
Outback Steakhouse founders Bob Basham and Chris Sullivan received the Lifetime Achievement Award. Fred Karl posthumously received the Tom McEwen Community Advocate Award. The Freddie Solomon Moral Courage Award went to Strawberry Crest High basketball player Kevin Garcia, who played despite scoliosis.
“This was all very cool,’’ said Maddon, who asked Garcia to be his guest tonight at Tropicana Field and present Price’s award to the pitcher. “A lot of great people were honored. It just shows you what an outstanding sports community we have here in Tampa Bay.’’