Like San Francisco, Tampa is a city of bays and bridges, sparkling sunstruck water and breezes. Instead of hills and chills, this blue city has palms, pines and a warm tropical patience.

Buccaneers, such as Jose Gasper in the 1700s, wised up to Tampa Bay's charms early and made it home. Pirates have always had an eye for beauty. Perhaps that is why John McKay, the latest leader of Buccaneers here, chose this for port when he pulled up anchor in Southern California.

Tampa lies flat, toasty and inviting like a vast air strip beckoning America to forsake winter forever and land like a big butterfly at spacious and spacey Tampa International.

Five years ago, a plunger of vision might have sunk his last nickel in this blue buyers' bayou, sensing that water and weather would soon attract wealth. Now, the fiscal ground floor of Tampa, as well as its venerable dowager sister across old Tampa Bay -- St. Petersburg -- is all but closed.

Those who have discovered Tampa late -- like the tens of millions of NFL fans who will be tuning in this town for the first time Sunday for the NFC championship game -- may be like the last recruits in a chain letter. The smart guys got here first.

Maybe that is why Coach McKay, the tart Irish wit who has brought the Tampa Bay Buccaneers within one game of the Super Bowl, has his headquarters just five minutes from the airport, two minutes from the bay and two steps from a golf course.

This is a town that, despite a long history, still is in the first exhilarating bloom of creating and defining itself. Five years ago, McKay decided that he would leave Southern Cal, where he had won four national championships, and bring his floppy hats, cigars, sunglasses and college-style tactics to an expansion franchise in a somewhat obscure city with a population of under 300,000.

After losing his first 26 games as a pro coach, establishing himself as such an indisputable idiot that signs here pleaded "Throw McKay in the Bay," the 55-year-old coach now has produced such a success that his Bucs may soon change the name of this city.

"When I am in other cities," says Leonard Levy, lifelong Tampan and ex-president of the Tampa Sports Authority, "people say, Oh, you're from Tampa Bay.' I say 'No, I'm from Tampa.'

"But," says Levy, 'I'm getting tired of correcting them. It's conceivable that, in time, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could change the name of this area, at least in the nation's vernacular."

The key to Tampa's economic growth, and its status as a major and booming TV market that will almost inevitably command a big-league baseball team, is that it is not one city, but a half-dozen or more.

While Tampa is modern, St. Petersburg five miles across the water, is quaint. Each has a population under 300,000, but the entire bay area including Clearwater, Sarasota, Fort Myers, Bradenton and many other towns has more than 1.6 million people.

Within 75 miles of Tampa Stadium are three million people (one million in metropolitan Orlando) and the 17th-largest TV market in the U.S.

This string of lustrous beads along the lush Gulf Coast has gone ravenously berserk over the Bucs' transformation in just two years from the worst team in NFL history to one which has won the NFC Central Division and a playoff game.

All towns take victorious teams to their fickle breasts. All catch Buc Fever and Buc Mania and other such hybrid concoctions of hype and home-town pride. But to Tampa, the Bucs have perhaps meant a bit more.

"I've seen this area go from hunting country to a metropolis in my lifetime," says Levy, who was chairman of the Tampa committee that lobbied for the Buc franchise. "Very few people here were born here. The Bucs have brought together several communities that should always have thought of themselves as one."

"In the past, all that Tampa Bay people had in common is that we all used the same beautiful airport to fly back to visit relatives in other places," says Hubert Mizell, sports editor of the St. Petersburg Times. "Now, we have the Bucs."

"The Buccaneers have given people a reason to believe in the city," Levy says. "People here now believe Tampa can do anything. Our next step is to get the Super Bowl here in 1984."

By all the customary measurements of mania, Tampa already is a major-league town. Didn't the Bucs have the third-largest attendance in the NFL each of the last two years (72,000-per-game)? Didn't police and riot squads have to be called out earlier this week when 28,000 tickets for Sunday's game with Los Angeles went on sale and people stood in line for 48 hours?

Paramedics had to rescue and revive four ticket buyers in a car who were overcome by carbon monoxide while staking out a ticket booth at 2 a.m. The four, once conscious, refused to go to a hospital, fearing that they would lose their place in line.

The main source of Buc fascination has been McKay, a flamboyant coach on a rather starless team that in both bad times and good has been drably excellent on defense and asthmatic on offense.

If the Selmon brothers, Lee Roy and Dewey, on defense and 1,200-yard rusher Ricky Bell on offense have been the extent of Tampa Bay's publicized players, McKay has more than compensated.

From his earliest analyses of his team -- "We stink" and "we couldn't score against a strong wind" -- McKay has kept his promise to avoid cliches, even if it occasionally meant telling the truth.

"It's sometimes written that I have no friends," McKay said today. "That upsets me because it upsets my wife. People sometimes think I'm arrogant because I refuse to talk like a coach.

"I didn't build character at USC and I don't 'motivate' now in the pros. I'm preparing for the Ram game by not working very hard. I'm going to play golf this afternoon, then get my beauty sleep.

"I'll burn no midnight oil, and I'll look at no more films. I'll talk to the team Saturday for about 34 seconds.

"Overcoaching is the biggest bugaboo of the postseason.

"I don't believe in all that coach's gibberish about 'lateral motion' and all those other teams. My wife has good lateral motion and she can't play at all."

No scientific instrument has been invented that could measure McKay's sense of vindication at making the NFC championship game.

Every coach has some pose, some persona, some image of himself that he consciously molds. McKay -- golf-tanned, casual, cool-to-chilly with his silver hair and silver Cadillac -- the nonchalant genius who always has maintained that he will get out of coaching intact with "a fat wallet and a slow backswing."

In other words, defeat is not allowed to contaminate John McKay. When his Bucs have lost -- either 26 in a row, or three in a row as they staggered and almost choked away the division flag this year -- McKay always has made it crystal clear who was at fault: the players, not his system.

Though he may be right, it sometimes causes problems to say so.

When an original Buc rookie commented that McKay's blunt gaze made him nervous, McKay retorted, "That's too bad. I plan on attending all the games."

It is quite likely that McKay innovator and devotee of the I-formation and the 3-4 defense, believes himself to be the smartest coach on two legs. "Bear Bryant and I were out in a boat one time," McKay said today, "and a youngster asked Bear if he'd get out and walk on water, like everybody said he could. Bear declined.

"So," McKay said with a bored shrug, "I had to get out and walk around just to please the kid."

When asked if his teams pray for victory, McKay always says, "God's busy. They'll have to make do with me."

It is irony indeed that McKay, of all coaches, should have suffered through the dubious fame of presiding over the best-known bad football team in history.

"I'm intelligent enough to understand that you're an expansion team until you play one game. Then you become a 'What happened' team, like anybody else. Lose one game and everybody wants to know, 'What happended,'" McKay said today. "That's the American way.

"The thing that really bothered me was the insistent pounding on me that I was doing it all the wrong way."

McKay heard every spurious nag. The I-formation wouldn't work in the pros. The 3-4 defense could be beaten by running at the 'bubbles' where the inside linebackers are. He shouldn't build with youth.

But McKay did everything his own way. He drafted so many ex-USC players that Tampa was called SC East. When others begged that he mortgage the future to buy a few decent older players just to break the losing streak, McKay snapped, "What the hell's the diference between 0-14 and 2-12. The difference is that if we lose 'em all, we're sure to get the first draft pick."

Everyone thought he was kidding. He wasn't. The Bucs lived up to the sarcastic sign "Go For 0" and picked Doug Williams of Grambling to be the quarterback for the next decade or two.

"I think Doug was the first black quarterback to make it big in the NFL because he was the first one that was good enough. Hell, Willie Wood (USC quarterback made into an All-Pro corner) couldn't throw the ball end over end. Anyway, I hope that's the reason. Anything else would reflect very badly on our society.

"I'd have drafted Williams if he were Chinese," McKay said, pausing. "Well . . . make that if he were a tall Chinese."

Now, McKay is back in his comfortable role as primum mobile. He can be magnanimous. "I forgive Tampa," he said laughing at many a bitter memory of 0-26 lampoons. "and I'm very pleased.

"Yes, it's similar to winning the first national title at USC in '62, because they didn't like me at all in L.A. until we won.

"One's a 37-year-old thrill. One's a 55-year-old thrill," McKay said, adding that those thrills might only be starting. "At USC, I never ducked the question. Every year I said, 'we'll be the best in the country.'

"This year I said that anybody could win the (weak) Central Division, maybe even a team that wasn't in it. And now I'll say that in three years, we'll be 50 percent better than we are now."

For the Rams, the perennial disappointments from the city where McKay coached 16 years, he has nothing but a sharp stick in the eye. "I turned down the Ram job three times over the year," said McKay, who earlier this year sniped at the Rams before a meeting won here by the Bucs, 21-6, by saying, "The Rams have always been a big-talking team. Everybody's got a quote, including the cab driver who takes you to the game."

Only one Ram gets his praise, gigantic tackle Doug France. "The last time France weighed only 260 pounds (his program weight) was at birth," McKay says. "If he had a chimney, I could sell him as a house."

If McKay and Tampa get their fondest wish, the Bucs will meet the world champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl. That would bring the saga of this town, team and coach full circle; it was Pittsburgh that gave the Buccaneers their worst humiliation in history -- 42-0 in their inaugural season of '76.

"Last time we played Pittsburgh, we didn't have many people you could call players," McKay said today."And the ones we did have, after a while it seemed like they all wanted to go stand by the fire.

"That made me mad," said grinning John McKay, basking in the strong Florida light of pure vindication, "because it was cold and that's where I wanted to stand."