Open main menu

The Tampa Spartans football program was an intercollegiate American football team for the University of Tampa (UT) located in Tampa, Florida that began play in 1933. The program competed against other small college programs in the forerunner of today's NCAA Division II for almost forty years before moving to the top level of NCAA Division I as an independent in 1971. Successfully competing against top college programs as a much smaller school put an enormous strain on the university's finances, and the school decided to discontinue football after the 1974 season.[2]

Tampa Spartans
First season1933
Last season1974
StadiumPlant Field (1933–1936)
Phillips Field (1937–1966)
Tampa Stadium (1967–1974)
LocationTampa, Florida
ConferenceNAIA (1933–1970)
NCAA D-I Ind. (1971–1974)
All-time record201–160–12 (.555)
Bowl record3–0 (1.000)
ColorsBlack, Red, and Gold[1]


Beginnings of the programEdit

Nickname and colorsEdit

When the University of Tampa was founded as Tampa Junior College in 1931, St. Petersburg Junior College was expected to be their top athletic rival. Since the neighboring sports teams were known as the Trojans, the University of Tampa's sports teams became the Spartans, a selection inspired by the Trojan War between Troy and Sparta in ancient Greece. Though the mascots were chosen to promote the rivalry, it never developed, and St. Petersburg College later changed its athletic nickname to the Titans.[3] Meanwhile, Tampa Junior College moved to its current location in the former Tampa Bay Hotel in 1933, changed its name to the University of Tampa, and organized a football program.

Most of the University of Tampa's early students were from Tampa, and most of its early athletes were graduates of the first two public high schools in the area, Hillsborough and Plant. Hillsborough's colors are red and black and Plant's colors are gold and black, so Nash Higgins, "Tampa U"'s first football coach, decided that the Spartans would combine the colors and wear red, gold, and black.[4]

Small college footballEdit

The University of Tampa Spartans football program kicked off on October 12, 1933 with a 28–0 win over Bowdon College in LaGrange, Georgia.[5] They played their first home game a week later at Plant Field, which they used for their first three seasons. The Spartans shared Plant Field with many other community events, so the school built Phillips Field on nearby land donated by local businessman I. W. Phillips and moved there for the 1937 season.[6]

During their first three and a half decades of football, the Spartans competed in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and its forerunners, mostly against other small colleges in the south. Tampa U usually fielded competitive teams and won two Cigar Bowls, a bowl game for NAIA programs played in Tampa. The Spartans scheduled eleven games against the Florida State Seminoles in the 1940s and 1950s soon after FSU founded its football program and was playing in the lower division of college football. Tampa went 2–9 against the Seminoles, which the last meeting coming in 1959.[7]The Spartans occasionally competed against NCAA Division I programs, including the University of Florida Gators, whom they played five times (and never defeated) in the 1930s and 1940s.[8]

Move to Division IEdit

In 1963, head coach Fred Pancoast encouraged the university to move its football program to the top tier of college football, NCAA Division I, but the university leadership did not feel that the school could support the move at the time, and Pancoast left to become an assistant with the Florida Gators. The Spartans moved from Phillips Field to newly-constructed Tampa Stadium in 1967 and became an independent Division I program beginning with the 1971 season. The Spartans continued to have success on the field, highlighted by wins over established programs Ole Miss and Miami and a 10–2 1972 campaign that was capped by a win in the Tangerine Bowl. The Spartans were led by star players Leon McQuay, Freddie Solomon, Noah Jackson, and John Matuszak, who was the first overall pick in the 1973 NFL Draft.[2]

Ending the programEdit

Although the Spartans found success on the field against Division I opponents, the University of Tampa had only about 1,300 students during the early 1970s, and the football program was putting an increasing financial strain on the small school's limited resources. In early 1975, university president B.D. Owens and the UT finance committee proposed dropping football, citing rising expenses. Owens revealed that the football program had run a deficit of almost $200,000 in 1974 ($791,546 today) and that UT had borrowed over $750,000 ($3,515,396 today) from its endowment to subsidize football since its move to Division I, pushing the entire university towards possible bankruptcy. He also expressed concern that Tampa's new NFL franchise would erode attendance at Spartans' games, increasing financial losses even more. (The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were organized in 1974 and took the field in 1976.) To the disappointment of Spartan players and coaches and the Tampa community in general, the UT Board of Trustees voted on February 20, 1975 to immediately end the football program, cancelling the already scheduled 1975 season.[2][9]

The Spartans played their last game on November 11, 1974, a 35–10 win over Florida A&M, though no one knew at the time that it would be their final contest. The football program finished with an all-time record of 201–160–12.


  • Plant Field had been built beside the Tampa Bay Hotel by Henry B. Plant in the 1890s. The stadium grandstand was large and the playing field was large enough to host a wide variety of sports and events, from auto racing to baseball and more. The hotel closed in 1930 and the University of Tampa took over the facilities in 1933. Subsequently, the Tampa Spartans' sports programs (including the football team) began using Plant Field as their home field the same year. However, the venue was shared with many other local events and activities, so the university began to plan for its own sports stadium, and the Spartans football team only used Plant Field for three seasons. Many years later, the university took ownership of Plant Field and divided up the land for use as several sports facilities along with academic spaces. The largest surviving portion is now known as Pepin-Rood Stadium.
  • Phillips Field opened across the street from the University of Tampa on the west bank of the Hillsborough River on October 4, 1937. It was built on land donated by local businessman I. W. Phillips for the purpose, and the university named it in his honor. Phillips Field had wooden seating in a large horseshoe and seated a maximum of 20,000 with additional temporary seating. The Spartans used the stadium from 1937 until the first few games of the 1967 football season.
  • Tampa Stadium was built in 1967, and the Tampa Spartans played their first game in the new facility soon after construction was complete. The contest was a 38–0 loss to the No. 3 Tennessee Volunteers. However, the Spartans would enjoy much success in their last home field, whose greater capacity made possible their move to the top level of college football. Tampa Stadium was built with an eye to attract an National Football League expansion team, and the awarding of the future Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1974 was a factor in the University of Tampa dropping the football program before the 1975 season.[9]
Tampa Stadium


  • Nash Higgins was the first head coach at the University of Tampa. He coached the team from 1933–1940 to a record of 36–39–5.
  • Frank Sinkwich, who had won the 1942 Heisman Trophy playing for the Georgia Bulldogs, coached two seasons at University of Tampa to a record of 12–7–1. He is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame as a player.
  • Marcelino "Chelo" Huerta was the head coach from 1952 to 1961. Huerta had been a star player with the Florida Gators and was 28 years old when promoted to be the Spartan's head coach, making him the youngest head coach / athletic director in college sports at the time.[10] The Spartans when 63-37-2 in his ten seasons at the school, and Huerta was later enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame as a coach.
  • Fred Pancoast was a four-year starter at safety for the Spartans from 1949 to 1952 and became the Spartans' head coach in 1962. In two seasons as a coach, his record was 7–9. He left to become the offensive coordinator for the Florida Gators.
  • Sam Bailey coached the Spartans from 1964 to 1967. He had earlier coached the basketball and baseball teams at the University of Tampa. As a football coach his record was 16–20. Today, the baseball field at the university is known as Sam Bailey Field.
  • Fran Curci coached the Spartans from 1968 to 1970 to a 25–6 record. In 1970, Curci led Tampa U to a 10–1 season that included a road win over the Miami Hurricanes. After the season, Curci accepted an offer to become the head coach at Miami. He would later become the first coach of the Tampa Bay Storm arena football team.
  • Bill Fulcher coached the Spartans for one season in 1971, leading them to a 6–5 record. Fulcher then left for Georgia Tech, succeeding Bud Carson.
  • Earle Bruce also only coached Tampa U. for one season. In 1972, he led the Spartans to a 10–2 record that concluded with the only major bowl appearance in program history, a 21-18 win over Kent State in the 1972 Tangerine Bowl. Bruce was then hired by Iowa State to succeed Johnny Majors, who had been named coach at Pittsburgh.
  • Dennis Fryzel was the final coach of the University of Tampa football team. He coached for two seasons going 8–3 in 1973 and then 6-5 in 1974, the team's final season.

Notable former playersEdit

  • Freddie Solomon, known as ‘Fabulous Freddie’ finished his University of Tampa career with 5,803 total yards and a then quarterback record of 3,299 rushing yards along with 39 touchdowns. In the 1974 season, he rushed for a then NCAA quarterback record 1,300 yards and 19 touchdowns to go along with it. That season, he finished 12th in Heisman voting. In 1975, Solomon was selected in the second round by the Miami Dolphins. During his career he played wide receiver, running back, quarterback, and returned kicks for the Dolphins and the San Francisco 49ers, winning two Super Bowls with the 49ers.
  • John Matuszak was a defensive end for the Tampa Spartans and an All-American in 1972. He was selected first overall in the 1972 NFL draft by the Houston Oilers. He played 123 career games with Houston, Kansas City, and Oakland. As an actor, Matuszak antagonized opposite Ringo Starr in the comedy Caveman and played "Sloth" in the 1985 comedy The Goonies.
  • Darryl Carlton was an offensive tackle at University of Tampa. He was drafted in the first round, twenty-third overall to the Miami Dolphins. He played a total of 71 NFL games.
  • Noah Jackson was a three-year started at defensive tackle before leaving before his senior seasons to play in the Canadian Football League where he converted to offensive tackle and was an all star. In 1974, he was drafted in the seventh round by the Baltimore Colts and in 1975 he was named to the NFL All-Rookie team. He played a total of 131 NFL games.
  • Leon McQuay, a star running back at Blake High School in Tampa, was the first black athlete to receive a scholarship at the University of Tampa. In his three seasons at UT, he was twice named a small college All-American. In 1971, he skipped his senior year to sign and play in the Canadian Football League where he was an award winning all star for the Toronto Argonauts. He is remembered for his untimely fumble in the 59th Grey Cup championship game. He was drafted in the fifth round by the NFL's New York Giants in the 1973 NFL draft and appeared in 30 NFL games for the Giants, the New England Patriots, and the New Orleans Saints.
  • Paul Orndorff, was a fullback at the University of Tampa who was drafted in the twelfth round by the New Orleans Saints. He later became famous as a professional wrestler known by the nickname, ‘Mr. Wonderful’.

Other notable players from the University of Tampa to play professional football are quarterback Jim Del Gaizo, linebacker Ted Greene, tight end M.L. Harris, defensive back J.C. Wilson, linebacker Mike Woods.

Bowl game appearancesEdit

Tampa participated in three bowl games, garnering a 3–0 record.

Season Date Bowl Opponent Result Coach
1952 December 13, 1952 Cigar Bowl Lenoir–Rhyne W 21–12 Chelo Huerta
1954 December 17, 1954 Cigar Bowl Charleston W 21–0 Chelo Huerta
1972 December 29, 1972 Tangerine Bowl Kent State W 21–18 Earle Bruce


History of Tampa Spartans Football from the University of Tampa Athletic Department

  1. ^ University of Tampa Brand Guidelines (PDF). Retrieved April 1, 2017.
  2. ^ a b c Johnston, Joey (29 March 2017). "UT football alums give thanks for the memories". Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved 2 September 2018.
  3. ^ "History of St. Petersburg College" (PDF). Retrieved 2 September 2018.
  4. ^ "History of UT". University of Tampa Athletics. Retrieved 2 September 2018.
  5. ^ "Tampa Spartans Score 28–0 Win to Open Season". Evening Independent. St. Petersburg, Fla. 1933-10-13. p. 5-A. Retrieved 2017-11-12.
  6. ^ Steele, Kathy (11 April 2013). "Historians to recognize Phillips Field at ceremony". Tampa Tribune. Retrieved 2 September 2018.
  7. ^ 2018 Florida State Football Media Guide (PDF). Florida State University. Retrieved 2 September 2018.
  8. ^ 2018 Florida Football Media Guide - Florida Gators (PDF). University of Florida Athletic Association. p. 125. Retrieved 2 September 2018.
  9. ^ a b "Tampa Nixing Football - Now". Orlando Sentinel. AP. 28 February 1975. Retrieved 2 September 2018.
  10. ^ Knight, Joey (27 July 2018). "Fifty for the ages: The top coaches in Tampa Bay history". Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved 4 May 2019.