TAMPA, Fla. (AP) _ While Hardy Nickerson's telephone rang all day, none of the callers were as persuasive as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Wayne Fontes and Mike Holmgren were enticing. Reggie White was flattering, too, although not enough to make the veteran linebacker turn down a four-year, $12.8 million offer to remain with the Bucs.

``He said, `Hardy I'd really like to have you here,' '' Nickerson said Thursday, offering his best impression of the Green Bay star's raspy voice.

``I was honored that he called and wanted me and thought I was the missing piece. But in the end, the Bucs stepped up.''

Nickerson agreed to terms late Wednesday, a day after visiting Detroit and just a short time after dining with Lions coach Fontes, who flew to Tampa to make another pitch for the 10th-year pro.

``I'm right where I want to be,'' said Nickerson, who had been seeking a contract worth more than $3 million since early last season.

``The Bucs really stepped up and did something a lot of people didn't think they would do. I think it sends a message to other players _ not just on this team, but other free agents, too _ that this is how you'll be treated if you come here and produce.''

Nickerson signed with the Bucs as a free agent in 1993 after spending six seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's led Tampa Bay in tackles for three straight years and was a Pro Bowl selection after making a career-high 214 stops his first season.

Re-signing with Tampa Bay reunites the middle linebacker with coach Tony Dungy, who was Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator during Nickerson's first two seasons in the NFL.

Dungy replaced Sam Wyche on Jan. 22. He said one of the first things he did was contact Nickerson to express how much he hoped Nickerson would remain with the Bucs.

``When I took the job, I said I don't consider this a rebuilding situation,'' Dungy said. ``The big thing this says is we're trying to keep the team together and grow.''

Nickerson is the third Tampa Bay player to re-sign in the past week. Receiver Horace Copeland agreed to terms a day before he would have become a restricted free agent, while defensive lineman Chidi Ahanotu signed a three-year contract Tuesday.

Nickerson's signing came a day after the Chicago Bears gave Bryan Cox a four-year, $13.2 million deal that includes a $5 million signing bonus.

``Once the market defined itself,'' Nickerson said, ``the Bucs stepped up.''

Dungy appeared relieved.

``It would have been a setback to lose him,'' the coach said. ``As a coach, you always feel you can overcome setbacks ... but it would have been very difficult.''

Nickerson had 143 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks and a career-best four forced fumbles in 1995. He played the last half of the season with a broken toe, yet only missed 10 defensive snaps _ all at Green Bay after a fourth-quarter ejection.