Monday, 28 November 2016

Interview with Jason Vuic, author of The Yucks

What was the genesis or beginnings of your research for The Yucks?

Well, I grew up in Florida.  I was born and raised there in a town called Punta Gorda about 100 miles south of Tampa.  I vaguely remember the Bucs run to the 1979 NFC Championship Game, but became a Bucs fan myself when several team members came to my local high school in 1981 or 1982 for a charity basketball game.  That's when I met Doug Williams, the Bucs' quarterback.  He looked like a super hero to me, plus he was an African-American quarterback in a league with no African-American quarterbacks, which even then, as an eight or nine year old, I found fascinating.  So, from then on I was a Bucs fan, even when Williams left the team in 1983 in a contract dispute, and even after the so-called "the Curse of Doug WIlliams," when the Bucs franchise suffered a mind-boggling 14 losing seasons in a row.  Years later I became a writer, and decided for my third book that I wanted to do something on my love affair with what historically has been the losingest franchise in the history of the league. 

Did it feel like a story too good to be true?

Yes, in some respects.  But that's what you look for as a writer...a story that's funny enough and interesting enough and engaging enough to carry the reader through 200 pages.  I also look for stories that defy common tropes.  My focus with The Yucks was on the worst team in NFL history, specifically the 1976 and 1977 Buccaneer teams that lost an all-time record 26 games in a row.  I didn't want to do a worst-to-first story, or a "Bad New Bears" story.  Those are too easy, and to me, boring. I wanted to write about how the Bucs began as a franchise and how and why they suffered through such a horrible losing streak. 

You grew up in the Florida area, do you recall the Yucks when you were younger?
Absolutely.  To us, growing up, Tampa was the big city...a somewhat distant city.  Interstate I-75, the main thorough south from Atlanta to Tampa and on south to Ft. Myers and Naples and across Alligator Alley to Miami, hadn't been finished yet.  We're talking in the early 1980s.  So, as a kid, my father and I would leave the house early in the morning, and drive light to light to light up old US 41, "Tamiami Trail," to attend Buccaneer games.  We'd get there, sit for hours in the roasting sun, watch the Bucs get their asses beat, then return home.  We get back at dark, tired and exhausted but somehow satisfied we'd gone through the effort. 

Have you always been an NFL fan?

Yes, certainly.  I've wavered in recent years, preferring college basketball and football, but NFL football has been America's most popular sport since at least 1970, and as kids we were a party to that.  I imagine its like the Premier League in Europe.  You can ignore it, or you can try to ignore it, but the most popular teams and players are cultural icons.

The stories of McKay thinking his college ideology could translate easily to the NFL still resonates with how illustrious college coaches falter at the professional level like Nick Saban and now Chip Kelly? Why did McKay fail and why does that step up still trip people up?

Well, McKay failed in the short run.  But he was, by 1979, the only coach to take an expansion team to the playoffs in 4 years.  That was the fastest any coach had ever done it.  I would say that McKay's college-like offense was incredibly simplistic, but he proved that with an elite defense and the right personnel, he could ultimately run it.  But, because there was no free agency in the NFL at the that time, it took several years of drafts, of drafting young players from the college ranks, to do it.

As for the jump from college to the pros...It's a different game.  The players are adults, not kids.  They're professionals, and it takes a different sort of finesse to get them to play for you.  The techniques you use to motivate college kids are different from the techniques you use with the pros.  Offenses are far more complex, too, and everyone at every position on every team, is a 1 percenter.  By that I mean...roughly 1% of high school kids play football in college, and just 1% of those make it to the pros. So scouting is fundamentally important.  A good player-personnel director and a good general manager are fundamentally important, too, and college coaches sometimes find it difficult to relinquish control.   

Do you feel failing like Steve Spurrier did at the Bucs drive him to succeed in coaching?

Maybe not specifically due to his one season with the Bucs, but I'd say, after spending his career on the bench in San Francisco, he was certainly unfulfilled.  This was a guy who won the Heisman Award at Florida, the award for the nation's best college player, but then was a backup quarterback for 8 or 9 years with a bad 49ers team.  He then lost every game in 1976 with the Bucs. Maybe coaching was a way to scratch the itch, as they say, or maybe to prove himself to his peers. Who knows?

What was the funniest story you came across?

 My favorite story, or stories, involved the Bucs' first owner, Hugh Culverhouse.  He was, without a doubt, the cheapest owner in the history of professional sports.  A tax attorney by training, Culverhouse was a micro-manager and a bean counter, and learned that he could pocket his portion of the NFL's TV and merchandising revenues while squeezing the team to make money.  For years, the Bucs had the fewest employees and the smallest headquarters in the league.  He'd trade away costly first-round draft picks for older, cheaper veterans, and he scrimped on team expenses in a variety of ways.  The team's airplane, for example, was leased not from American or United, but from McCullogh Chainsaws.  Once, when a player separated his shoulder in a game and trainers had to cut off his jersey to treat him, Culverhouse billed him for it. He billed roommates 38 cents each for a 75 cent phone call. There was a Coke machine in the locker room that charged players for Cokes. He was so cheap, in fact, that he gave each team employee one season ticket, because he knew that no one went to a pro football game alone.

Was there anything you could not print?

There were a few funny stories which were off the record. I wish I could tell you them but I can't.  I've promised not to.

-Have you been pleased by the response of the book?

The response has been great. I've done 20 or so radio and TV interviews, and a Florida book tour, and recently did Only a Game on NPR.  Sports Illustrated also did a snippet on the book as did the Christian Science Monitor. It's been a good run.

I notice you are not on Twitter, is that deliberate?

Yes, I'm kind of a Luddite when it comes to new media. I also didn't want to get into a tit for tat with current Buccaneer fans who didn't know where I was coming from. I love the Bucs, and this book was my way of coming to terms with their difficult history and origins.

I'm thinking about a true crime story though I plan to return to sports someday to do a book on the coming of the three-point line and the shot clock to college basketball. Those two things really did change the game.  Who knows? Maybe I'll do a second Yucks book someday, something like the "The Curse of Doug Williams," about the terrible teams of the 1980s.

The Yucks is out now from Simon & Schuster in Hardback available from all good book retailers.

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