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culverhouse

Hugh Culverhouse

Hugh Franklin Culverhouse, Sr. (1919 – August 26, 1994) was the longtime owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the National Football League.

Early life

A native of Birmingham, Alabama; Culverhouse attended the University of Alabama, where he was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity. He graduated in 1941. After serving in the Army Air Corps in World War II, he earned a law degree from his alma mater in 1947. He immediately took a job as an assistant state attorney general, serving there for two years. After serving in the Korean War, he spent a decade with the IRS before moving to Jacksonville, Florida and entering private practice, specializing in tax law. He eventually had investments in 37 companies and was worth over $380 million at his death.

He first came to the attention of the NFL in 1972, when he helped broker a deal that allowed longtime Baltimore Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom to buy the Los Angeles Rams. Chicago industrialist Bob Irsay bought the Rams, then almost immediately traded them to Rosenbloom for the Colts. No players changed teams in the deal.

Owning the Bucs

Two years later, Culverhouse ended up almost by accident as owner of an NFL expansion team in Tampa, set to take the field in 1976. The franchise had originally been awarded to Philadelphia construction company owner Tom McCloskey, but he backed out due to financial problems (one of them reportedly being a pending divorce that would have given his ex-wife half the team). Culverhouse was quickly named as the replacement. A name-the-team contest resulted in the team being called the "Buccaneers," a nod to the Gasparilla Pirate Festival.

General criticism

Although Culverhouse was initially seen as a hero for making Tampa a major-league town, he soon became one of the most despised owners in the NFL. He frequently shifted money from the Bucs to his other investments and kept the Bucs' payroll one of the lowest in the league. Unfortunately, this kept the Bucs from attracting quality players in an era when large payrolls were all but required to contend. The few who did rarely stayed long; Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon was the only genuine star who stayed with the team for a long time. In most other cases, Culverhouse either traded quality players away or wouldn't pay them enough to keep them in Tampa. For example, he allowed the trade of Steve Young after only two seasons at quarterback.

Doug Williams

The most egregious example was Doug Williams, the first African-American starting quarterback in the NFL. In only his second season, 1979, Williams led the Bucs to one of the biggest turnarounds in NFL history. After three straight losing seasons--including losing the first 26 games in franchise history--the Bucs rebounded to their first winning season, an NFC Central title, and an appearance in the NFC Championship game. The Bucs made the playoffs in three of Williams' five years as starter. However, he was only paid $120,000 a year--far and away the lowest salary for a starting quarterback, and behind 12 backups. After the 1982 season, Williams asked for a $600,000 contract. Culverhouse, who had been one of the hardliners in the players' strike earlier that year (a stance repeated in another strike in 1987), refused to budge from his initial offer of $400,000 despite protests from coach John McKay. While Culverhouse's offer was still more than triple Williams' previous salary, he would have still been among the lowest-paid starters in the league. Feeling that Culverhouse wasn't paying him what a starter should earn, Williams bolted to the USFL.

Without Williams, the Bucs were a rudderless team. In 1983 they lost their first nine games, knocking them out of contention. The Bucs would never have another winning season during Culverhouse's ownership. The 1983 season would be the first of 12 straight 10-loss seasons, an NFL record for futility.

Television availability

For much of that stretch, Bucs fans only saw their team play on television at home once or twice a year due to the NFL's blackout rules, which require a game to be blacked out in its home market if it isn't sold out 72 hours before kickoff. The few fans who came to Tampa Stadium during this stretch usually showed up with bags over their heads. Culverhouse was so detested that one radio station put up an ad near the stadium with a giant golden screw going through his head.

Draft moves

Several questionable draft moves also dogged the Bucs during Culverhouse's tenure. They passed on Tony Dorsett in 1977, traded a 1979 pick that turned into Dan Hampton and traded a 1984 pick that turned into Irving Fryar. The team was already a laughingstock by 1986, as evidenced when they picked Bo Jackson in that year's draft, even after he let it be known that he would never play for them.

Turning a profit

Despite the losing and the poor attendance, the Bucs were one of the NFL's most profitable teams for most of Culverhouse's ownership. For instance, despite playing in an outdated stadium, they still made $11 million in 1993. However, a salary cap increased the payroll for 1994 to $12 million, putting the team in the red.

Death and aftermath

Culverhouse died on August 26, 1994 after a long battle with lung cancer. His death revealed a team on very shaky financial ground. His son, Hugh, Jr., a prominent attorney in his own right, discovered the effects of his father's frugal ways. The team was close to bankruptcy, and Tampa Stadium's configuration made it impossible to raise ticket prices. Despite this, Hugh, Jr. had to practically force the trustees overseeing his father's estate to put the team on the market. Malcolm Glazer eventually bought the team. Unlike Culverhouse, Glazer was not afraid to pump money into the team, and the Bucs have been a contender for most of the last decade, including a win in Super Bowl XXXVII. Hugh, Jr., later said that his father badly wanted to bring a winner to Tampa, "but he couldn't get over this fatal personality flaw.....He was cheap."

In 1996, Culverhouse's wife of 52 years, Joy, challenged her husband's will. She claimed that she'd been tricked into signing away marital property by her husband, who wanted to divorce her in favor of a younger mistress. It turned out that the trustees of the Culverhouse estate had covered up several affairs. They admitted paying palimony to one mistress and psychiatric bills for another. One of his mistresses was the wife of David Brinkley. Another was a former receptionist with a long-standing drug problem who received thousands of dollars worth of gifts. Eventually, Joy walked away with $36 million as well as around $7 million from her husband's trust. After the settlement, she told a reporter that she wanted to dig up her husband's grave "so I could shoot him 3 times."

In 2002, Hugh, Jr. donated $1 million to the football program at Grambling State University, where Doug Williams was now the coach, as a way to make up for the way his father had forced him out of Tampa 20 years before.

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