Tampa Bay Buccaneers 'Creamsicle Day' is the latest chapter in 'Bucco Bruce' lore
The NFL team is celebrating the return of its once-despised, now-adored helmet logo and pastel uniforms with an open practice, fireworks show and more on Monday.
Many sports leagues recognize a comeback player of the year, an athlete who triumphs over significant adversity. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are celebrating the return of a character once so despised that this might be the comeback of the decade.
He’s known as "Bucco Bruce," and his visage was once affixed to each player’s helmet. The longtime team logo wears a Creamsicle shade, with a wink and a red plume. But much of that is simply accepted pirate lore.
On Monday, the Buccaneers and City of Tampa will celebrate Bruce on "Creamsicle Day." The team wants to bring early awareness to its Oct. 15 “throwback” game, when the team will wear its original orange uniforms against the Detroit Lions for the first time since 2012.
That uniform’s basic design was in use from the team’s 1976 expansion season until 1996, when the Glazer family — which had recently purchased the franchise — opted for a more menacing skull logo on pewter helmets, along with blood red jerseys.
This followed more than a decade of losing seasons, and ownership hoped to rebuild the Bucs’ image as Coach Tony Dungy began building a winner.
The birth of me Bucco
On June 14, 1975, Tampa Bay’s new football team unveiled the uniforms for its first season. The Bucs announce the colors as Florida orange, red and white. According to the team, orange represents sunshine and the region’s citrus industry while red is symbolic of “courage and fortitude in battle.”
(Of note: Green, an original part of the palette, was jettisoned over concern the Bucs would resemble the Miami Dolphins or Florida A&M University.)
On the white helmet was the image of a nameless, handsome corsair with a dagger clenched in his teeth while sporting a red, plumed musketeer hat.
Most sports logos are developed by corporate illustrators and marketers, but Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse wanted a different look. At the urging of Red McEwen, a former state attorney and Tampa civic leader, Culverhouse commissioned Lamar Sparkman, a cartoonist and portrait artist with The Tampa Tribune, to develop the team’s identity.
“We had all kinds of artists, both locally and from the NFL Creative Services out of Los Angeles, submit ideas to us,” Bill Marcum, the Bucs’ marketing director at the time, told the Tribune’s Joe Henderson. “What we kept getting, though, was symbols that looked like Long John Silver or something like that."
Culverhouse did not want a snaggletooth pirate. Instead, he sought more of a swashbuckling character, like dashing 1930s film star Errol Flynn. After two tries, that’s what Sparkman turned in.
“I approached it with the idea that he must be a cavalier, not a hairy-legged slob,” Sparkman said in Denis M. Crawford's book Hugh Culverhouse and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “The plumed feather adds class, I think. I put a dagger in his mouth to add aggression and then had him wink. It’s a half-wink and a half-sneer.”
Although popular culture has settled on a winking Bruce, there is still debate. In the artist's book, The Cartoon World of Lamar Sparkman, it was noted by Sparkman that the facial expression was "a sneer with knitted eyebrows and an eye closed, but not a wink."
In any case, the Bucs finally had an identity, but it didn’t take long for that pretty face to find rough seas.
Face of a loser
As with most expansion teams of the era, wins were expected to be rare. (For the Bucs, that became an understatement.) On Feb. 8, 1976 — six months before Tampa Bay’s first training camp — the typewriter of St. Petersburg Times columnist Hubert Mizell clacked out this:
“I’m sure the Bay Bucs’ official family has a nifty sense of humor. … With that fellow in their team insignia, they’d better. All along, I expected the Buc symbol to be a hairy-chested, snaggle-toothed pirate. One of Blackbeard’s kin. Obviously, my ideas were not shared. What we got was a slicked-up, smooth-faced chap in cavalier clothes. Not the toughest looking chap on the block, either. He has a knife in his teeth and he keeps winking at me. Nobody’s come up with a name for this symbolic character. How about 'Bucco Bruce' for name.”
The suggestion, made in jest, didn’t stick with fans at first. Then, the Bucs lost their first 26 games and became a national laughingstock. Tonight Show host Johnny Carson zinged the team each weeknight. (After one introduction, he joked, “I haven’t heard applause like that since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sacked Fran Tarkenton in his hospital bed.”) Fans displayed “Go for O” signs. Wags called them the “Yucks.” Even Coach John McKay quipped that he was in favor of his team's “execution.”
As the calendar flipped into the 1980s and 1990s, Tampa Bay went on a run of 14 straight losing seasons. Disgruntled fans emasculated a logo and uniform that lacked “toughness.” Mockingly, orange was referred to as a soft “Creamsicle” pastel and Bruce as a delicate icon of defeat.
The Bucs wanted no part of the sarcasm. And Sparkman was saddened to see the damaged reputation of his “pride and joy.” Bucco Bruce was about to walk the plank.
“They made Bruce their fall guy,” said Tom McEwen, the longtime Tribune sports editor (and brother of Red).
Enter the Glazers and the launch of “the pewter pirates” and marauding cheers like “fire the cannons” and “raise the flag.”
"We thought this was a necessary change,” Bucs executive vice president Joel Glazer said before the new look was introduced in 2007.
A few years later, the Bucs won a Super Bowl. Certainly, the uniforms weren't responsible, but fans appreciated the image. They were also quite fickle.
By 2009, nostalgic followers clamored to see orange again. The Bucs began wearing “throwbacks” for one game per season until an NFL safety rule in 2013 limited teams to one helmet per season, shelving the white headwear needed for the winking pirate.
The NFL now allows two helmets, and Sparkman’s logo is back. Sadly, the artist passed away in 2010 at age 88 amid his creation’s renaissance. Bruce has never been more popular. Even the Bucs embrace “Creamsicle” over orange and the moniker “Bucco Bruce” - along with the marketing opportunities that come with them.
Which brings us to Monday, and Bruce la Fete.
'Creamsicle Day' details
Presented as a “celebration of everything orange throughout the city,” "Creamsicle Day" begins with the only Bucs training camp practice open to the public. It begins at 8:30 a.m. at the team’s AdventHealth training complex next to Raymond James Stadium. Tickets are $10 and available through Ticketmaster.
A mascot billed as “Bucco Bruce” will interact with fans, and new orange Bucs merchandise will be on sale before it is released online at 11. Free “Bucco Bruce” flags will be available to the first 2,500 fans wearing Creamsicle gear.
Monday night, the stadium and downtown Tampa skyline will turn Creamsicle through special lighting, and at 8:30 p.m., a fireworks show is slated for Armature Works, 1910 N. Ola Ave., north of downtown. There will be appearances by former Bucs players, plus games and food vendors.
"As we begin this new era of Buccaneers football, we aim to honor those who have played a vital role in our club's journey while also appealing to a new generation of fans who will drive our future success," Bucs chief operating officer Brian Ford said in a statement.