McKay receives plenty of credit, and deservedly so, for turning one of the worst franchises in the National Football League into one of the best. But if fans were enlightened on Ruskell's road to and through the NFL, and the players he's helped discover and bring to the Tampa Bay organization, they'd probably agree that the Bucs' director of player personnel doesn't receive enough recognition for the Super Bowl champions' success.
Ruskell's career as a football scout started in a most unlikely place -- a music store. Ruskell worked at Budget Tape and Records in Tampa while he attended high school back in 1975. There, Ruskell met John Herrera, who worked as a scout for the expansion Buccaneers. In addition to their love for football, Ruskell and Herrera shared a passion for music.
Both men struck a quick friendship and it didn't take long for Herrera to hire Ruskell as a ball boy and coach's assistant for Tampa Bay's inaugural season. But Ruskell's football career was nearly short-lived after a silly ball-kicking incident rubbed then-head coach John McKay the wrong way and got him temporarily fired.
"John McKay had fired me at the very first-ever Bucs practice," said Ruskell. "I was just a dumb college kid that didn't know what I was doing really. I had never worked in a pro camp and a play was about to start and there was a ball in the way and I knew Coach McKay didn't want the ball in the way because a guy could trip over it and break his ankle. I was holding four or five balls at the time, so my instincts told me that the only way to get the ball out of the way was to kick it out of the way, and he went ballistic. He threw me off of the field but hired me back that night.
"I had a couple of other incidents. I guess I was the easy target to pick on. Luckily he always gave me another chance. I was fortunate to hang in there. But he made you learn quickly what was right and what was wrong."
Firing Ruskell might have been the most inane move ever made in the McKay era, but hiring him back would later prove to be one of the best decisions ever made in franchise history.
WHEN OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS
While Ruskell attended the University of South Florida in Tampa, he worked at the school's radio station, WUSF. He had a tremendous passion for music, particularly jazz and rock and roll, but after Herrera helped him land a gig with the Bucs, Ruskell found that he had an even greater desire for football.
"I had no plans or aspirations to be in football, but having taken (Herrera) up on his offer and completed that first camp, I got the bug," said Ruskell.
Herrera eventually left the Bucs to become a general manager in the Canadian Football League, and it didn't take him long to offer Ruskell another job. This time, Herrera offered Ruskell a scouting job with the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders. While the job opportunity piqued Ruskell's interest, the location did not. Ruskell reluctantly took Herrera up on his offer, but he said his experience with the Roughriders was priceless.
"Unfortunately, it was way up in Saskatchewan, and I wasn't prepared for that," Ruskell said of his first scouting job. "But I went up there to Siberia and hung in there and it was the best thing I ever did. That's where I learned the roots of the job and fell in love with the art of scouting."
Ruskell's stint in the CFL marked the first time he had to leave Tampa for work. It would also be the last. Ruskell's tenure in the CFL lasted just three years. He left Saskatchewan for an opportunity to return home to Tampa, where he landed a director of scouting position with the United States Football League's Tampa Bay Bandits, who were coached by Steve Spurrier.
But Ruskell's time with Spurrier and the Bandits was short-lived. After just two seasons with the team, the USFL went out of business, and left Ruskell without a job.
UNDER ANGELO'S INFLUENCE
Six months passed before Ruskell found work again, but it was well worth the wait as he would seek and find employment in a very familiar place.
In 1987, Ruskell was brought aboard the Bucs' ship once again as a regional scout, this time working under new director of college scouting Jerry Angelo. Five years later, Angelo was promoted to director of player personnel, which prompted the Bucs to promote Ruskell to director of college scouting. In that role, Ruskell coordinated a staff of five regional scouts and oversaw the gathering of information on college players.
The promotions helped Ruskell and Angelo build a strong friendship and working relationship. Ruskell credits Angelo for taking him under his wing and grooming him for the job he has today.
"Jerry and I worked together about 15 years and I was the first guy he hired back in 1987 when Ray Perkins named him the director of college scouting," Ruskell said. "I had just stopped working for the Tampa Bay Bandits. We really didn't know each other. I sent a letter in and he brought me in and gave me a tryout doing some film work and putting a report together. It was just one of those relationships that you have in your life where you have a good working chemistry. We became friends and our families became friends as well. But we never lost that chemistry at work where we didn't care who said what. We could criticize each other to help each other get better. It was, and still is, a special relationship. I'm very fortunate to have grown up in the NFL world with Jerry."
When Angelo left the Bucs for a general manager position with the Chicago Bears in 2001, Rich McKay didn't have to look far for his replacement. In fact, McKay didn't consider Angelo's departure a detriment to the team because he had Ruskell waiting in the wings and promptly promoted him to the role of director of player personnel.
"I had the opportunity to work with Tim for a number of years prior to Jerry's departure and the decision to elevate him was a no-brainer," said McKay. "Tim is an organized, focused personnel guy who does an outstanding job of trying to ensure that nothing is missed from the personnel side."
Ruskell had big shoes to fill, but he felt he was prepared to succeed his colleague and friend.
"We all did the same things and we all knew what was going on," Ruskell said of both he and Angelo's working relationship. "We learned together and we made our mistakes together. So, when Jerry did leave and move on to the GM job, I was fully and totally prepared to take over and I was looking forward to it."
According Tampa Bay director of pro personnel Mark Dominik, the Bucs' scouting department didn't miss a beat when Ruskell took over for Angelo.
"It was an easy transition just because we knew each other," said Dominik. "If you can promote within, which Rich did, I think that always makes the transition better because you already know how to deal with the person on a personal level and that's an important part of the process.
"Tim's got a lot of organizational skills and he's really good at turning over rocks and coming up with new ideas, and that's what makes him so effective. In terms of what adjustments I had to make, I'd say he holds people a little more accountable, and I think that's a good thing."
While Angelo did an admirable job, Ruskell had to change things up a bit shortly after he departed for Chicago, but not by choice. Just one season after he was promoted, Tampa Bay fired head coach Tony Dungy and traded four draft picks and $8 million to the Oakland Raiders in exchange for Gruden. With the addition of Gruden and lack of draft picks, Ruskell, who had been accustomed to doing things in a draft-oriented manner, had to switch gears by putting more emphasis on free agency.
"In Jerry's day with the Buccaneers and with Tony Dungy, we were almost solely a draft-oriented team," said Ruskell. "We'd pick up a free agent or two to fill a hole, or when we needed the receivers we went that route, but primarily we were a draft-driven team and Jerry was and is a draft-driven guy. So, almost all of our emphasis in the personnel department was for the draft. We dabbled into free agency.
"With Jon Gruden, he likes the free agents and he likes to have competition and he likes bringing people in. He likes that philosophical slant, so we've all had to adjust to that a little bit. That's been the adjustment for me. It was an adjustment Jerry didn't have to make because he was here under Tony Dungy only."
THE BALANCING ACT
Anybody who complains to Ruskell about there not being enough hours in a day is crying on the wrong shoulder. Ruskell takes on the demanding tasks of scouting both NFL and the NCAA football at the same time. How does one make the transition from covering strictly college to scouting both college and the pros?
"It wasn't as difficult as you would think," said Ruskell. "College scouting is more difficult because you're dealing with players you're projecting to the next level and you're judging them at a competition level that is not equal to what they're going to be playing in. So you have to go on your hunches, you have to play your instincts and you have to use a lot of different things to predict what this guy is going to be in three years at a different level of competition. That's very difficult. The pro game, in free agency especially, you can watch them at the level you're asking them to play at. If you can basically grade their production and how they might fit into your scheme, you can pretty much figure out what that guy is going to be like playing for your team. It's a different type of projection because the level of competition is and should be the same."
As director of player personnel, time is a major concern of Ruskell's. He has to dedicate an adequate amount of time to both the college and pro levels, and that isn' t easy. There's thousands of games and thousands of players to watch, and there's plenty of traveling to do in-between. There's no exact science, but Ruskell feels he has a good handle on the juggling act.
"You go with the time of year and what's going on at the time," Ruskell said of dividing time up between college and the pros. "This last two months has been double-duty for college scouting and free agency. During the season you split your days up watching pro and towards the end of the week you get out of the office and you go to colleges and try to go to a game. In the summer, you're trying to get the college stuff done so you can prepare for the season. You sprinkle in the pro in terms of getting to know the teams in your division and your conference. I have a daily schedule I go through and the way I split it up all depends on the week, but when it's all said and done at the end of the year, I bet it's pretty close to 50-50."
WHAT'S NEXT FOR RUSKELL?
Although he's been with the Bucs organization for a total of 17 seasons and a scout for over 20 years, the highlight of Ruskell's professional career didn't come until last season.
Ruskell was part of the Bucs' inaugural team, which went 0-14 in its first season and 0-26 before they recorded their first win. So when the Bucs defeated Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII to win its first-ever Super Bowl championship, it was only fitting that Ruskell's friend and former colleague, Herrera, was in San Diego to watch. Unfortunately for Herrera, he couldn't share Ruskell's enthusiasm for Tampa Bay's win against Oakland because he's a senior executive for the Raiders. As hectic as the week leading up to the Super Bowl was, both Ruskell and Herrera had a chance to reflect on their careers.
"It was a good moment," Ruskell said of seeing Herrera at the Super Bowl. "I hadn't seen him in a while and we just reflected on what we had been through and how far we had come."
It's only natural for teams to try and lure players, coaches and even personnel away from teams after they have won a Super Bowl championship, and Tampa Bay is no exception. In fact, the Atlanta Falcons expressed serious interest in hiring Ruskell as their general manager last year, but after several interviews, Ruskell and Falcons owner Arthur Blank decided to end the interview process due to the fact that it had carried on too far into the offseason.
The Falcons have yet to hire a general manager, which makes some wonder if Ruskell will still be offered that job.
"It's not something I think about or concern myself with," said Ruskell. "Obviously there's nothing going on at this time. When I went through it I ended up having the longest interview in National Football League history. I don't think anybody's going to beat my record. So, if it's still going on, it's just increasing my stature in Ripley's. If something comes up and I'm asked, I will deal with that at the time. I love the job that I have and you stay so busy that you can't even pop your head up to see what's going on half the time. If something came up, I'd deal with it at the time, make the proper connections and get with my family and make my decision. But I'm certainly not looking to get out of here because I have a wonderful situation."
So now you know a little more about what Ruskell has done to help build Tampa Bay's roster into one of the best in the league, and how his career in the NFL nearly ended just three hours into his first practice before John McKay brought him back. Ruskell doesn't receive much recognition from the media for his contributions with the Bucs, nor does he expect to.
"You learn early on as a personnel man that you can't worry about who gets the credit -- it's just not that kind of job," said Ruskell. "The glamour part of being in the NFL goes away quickly and it just becomes the work like any other job. If you can handle the travel and enjoy the work of plucking the players out of the college ranks and free agency and watching them develop into productive players for your team, if that gives you a thrill then you'll probably work at this pretty hard at it."
While he's rarely the subject of newspaper or television reports, Bucs fans should appreciate Ruskell's monumental contributions to the Tampa Bay organization each and every Sunday when the Buccaneers players take the field. After all, Ruskell's keen eye and knack for spotting talent helped put most of them out there.