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University of Tampa Spartans revisit football glory days

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 06:05 PM
TAMPA -

Before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, before the Tampa Bay Bandits and long before the South Florida Bulls arrived in town, Tampa was Spartans territory.

From 1933 to 1974, the University of Tampa football program was the team the town followed, the talk of Saturdays.

With no National Football League franchise in the area — the Buccaneers' inaugural season was in 1976 — the college game had a home in Tampa with notable names such as head coach Earle Bruce and future NFL stars John Matuszak and Freddie Solomon on the area's first major college football program.

The UT football program ended after the 1974 season, but this weekend, as UT celebrates homecoming, many members of perhaps the best team in Spartans football history will gather to reminisce and celebrate their 40th anniversary. That 1972 season ended with a seven-game winning streak, a 10-2 record and 21-18 victory against Kent State in the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, which drew a then-record crowd 20,062. Many made the trek from Tampa to see the hometown team triumph.

"There was high school football on Fridays and the University of Tampa on Saturdays at Tampa Stadium, so we were the only game in town and that's how we captured everybody," said Dave Tomeo, a defensive back for the Spartans in 1972 who was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame in 2002. "And that was probably my biggest memory of that year was going to the Tangerine Bowl."

Many of the surviving members of that bowl championship squad are expected in town this weekend for a dedication ceremony tonight to rename the Land O' Lakes High football stadium in Pasco County after longtime prep football coach John Benedetto, who played with several members of the 1972 team before graduating in 1970.

Once those ceremonies are complete, the storytelling is sure to commence. There will be plenty to tell, particularly from the bowl victory against Kent State that featured plenty of talent on the field and the sideline. Some who played that day went on to lengthy and successful coaching careers.

Bruce coached the Spartans for that one season, leaving in 1973 and later coaching Ohio State to two Rose Bowls. Kent State coach Don James went onto to win a co-national championship with Washington in 1991 and was inducted into the college football Hall of Fame.

On the field, Kent State had current University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban and University of Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel, along with future Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert, who left an impression on Spartans' quarterback Buddy Carter.

"Lambert hit me so hard I had a mouth full of dirt," said Carter, who was elected into the University of Tampa Hall of Fame in 1985.

The Spartans had Matuszak, a defensive lineman who became the first overall draft pick of the Houston Oilers in 1973, as well as Solomon, who won a pair of Super Bowl titles with the San Francisco 49ers during an 11-year career as a wide receiver.

Matuszak died in 1989 of heart failure at age 38. Solomon died earlier this year of cancer at 59.

Tampa also featured converted fullback Paul Orndorff, who scored a pair of touchdown receptions against Kent State before gaining fame as a professional wrestler known as "Mr. Wonderful."

The teams battled in completely different halves, with the Spartans taking a 21-0 halftime lead only to hold off a second-half charge by Kent State that was foiled by three missed extra point attempts.

"I think back then there were about 12 or 14 bowl games, and we were one of them," said offensive guard David Grantham, who spent 20 years as head football coach at Robinson High School.

"It's not like today, where there are (35) or something, so it was quite an honor to be selected as a team, which was deserving. And the game itself was pretty exciting to everybody."

But that Spartans team was about more than the talent on the field. It was about players forging relationships that last to this day.

"We had a great group of guys,'' Carter said. "We all came up through the ranks together, and we are close to this day. My wide receiver, Mark Wakefield, we are best buds to this day, and we play tennis with Tomeo. We get together off and on and we have larger get-togethers, like we will this weekend."

Those gatherings often result in plenty of storytelling and friendly banter full of embellishments. Such as the time Carter threw a pass high that left Wakefield, a 1984 Spartans' Hall of Fame inductee, exposed to a hard hit that caused three broken ribs and a collapsed lung.

"By the time he gets done with that story today, he had his whole chest caved in and he broke every bone in his body," Carter said. "And we also held the longest pass in (Tampa Stadium) history until they tore the Sombrero down, and I threw the ball about 68 yards in the air. The last time I heard I just flipped the ball out to him and he made this 97-yard dazzling run.

"So, these stories get kind of beefed up (and) they get juicer every year. But it's all fun."

Just like that night almost 40 years ago when the Spartans triumphed in the Tangerine Bowl.


eerlendsson@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7835 Twitter: erlendssontrib

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