Friday, December 13, 2002
McKay led Trojans to four national titles
TAMPA, Fla. -- Whether John McKay was winning national championships at Southern California or weathering the worst stretch of futility in NFL history at Tampa Bay, his sense of humor never lost its bite.
The legendary coach, who won four national titles at USC while popularizing the "I" formation, died Sunday at St. Joseph's Hospital of kidney failure due to complications from diabetes. He was 77.
McKay, who would have turned 78 on July 5, was the first and by far the most colorful coach in Buccaneers history. In addition to a reputation for being innovative and having an eye for talent, he will be remembered for spicing up news conferences with quips.
"John McKay never bit his tongue," said former Bucs quarterback and current Grambling coach Doug Williams. "He said exactly what he thought all the time."
Once asked about the pressure of coaching at USC, McKay responded: "I'll never be hung in effigy. Before every season I send my men out to buy up all the rope in Los Angeles."
Following one of his many losses during Tampa Bay's formulative years, he delivered one of his most memorable one-liners when a reporter inquired about his team's execution.
"I think it's a good idea," he said.
The Bucs lost their first 26 games under McKay, an NFL record, before rebounding to become the first expansion team to make it to a conference title game within it first four seasons in 1979.
In all, Tampa Bay made three playoff appearances and McKay compiled a 44-88-1 record before retiring after his ninth season in 1984. He remained the winningest coach in team history until Tony Dungy -- the only Bucs coach with a winning record -- surpassed him last season.
"Coach had a lot of confidence in his ability and the system that he believed in," said Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon, McKay's first-ever draft pick.
"He endured some criticism, especially in the early years. I really respected him and admired him during those times, because he stuck to what he believed in. Over the course of time, not only did it work for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but I also saw several other teams adopting some of the philosophies ... many critics said would not work."
The Bucs lost 9-0 to the Los Angeles Rams in the 1979 NFC championship game and the team didn't win another postseason game until the Dungy-led Bucs beat Detroit in a first-round game in 1997. Tampa Bay got back to the conference final under Dungy in 1999, but lost 11-6 to the St. Louis Rams.
McKay's son, Rich, is the general manager of that team and has overseen the rebuilding process. Another son, J.K. McKay, played in the NFL and was general manager of the Los Angeles team that won the only XFL championship this season.
"I'm forever indebted to him for what he instilled in me," said USC athletic director Mike Garrett, a Heisman Trophy-winning tailback for the Trojans under McKay.
"To this day, my whole thinking process involves some of the things I learned from him. He lives with me daily. ... I became more resolute in my thinking because of John McKay. He was not an equivocal man. You could not be an equivocal person playing for him. I have a sense of direction and an absolute confidence now, and that's what I got from him."
A native of Everettsville, W.Va., McKay enrolled at Purdue after serving in the Army Air Corps in World War II. He transferred to Oregon and teamed with Norm Van Brocklin to helped the Ducks go 9-1 in 1948 and earn a trip to the Cotton Bowl.
He began his coaching career as an assistant at Oregon, turning down offers to go to work for the FBI or play pro ball for the New York Yankees of the All-American Football Conference in 1950.
McKay moved to Southern California as an assistant in 1959 and became head coach when Don Clark retired a year later. The Trojans went unbeaten and won the first of their national titles under McKay in the coach's third season.
Southern Cal went 127-40-8, won nine Pac-8 championships and only lost 17 conference games in 16 years under McKay. He coached 40 All-Americans at the Los Angeles school, including Heisman winners Garrett and O.J. Simpson, quarterbacks Pat Haden and Bill Nelsen, fullback Sam Cunningham, offensive linemen Ron Yary and Marvin Powell and receivers Lynn Swann, Bob Chandler and Earl McCullouch.
"I think he was the best evaluator of talent that I've ever seen," Haden said. "He would have some high school kid who was an All-American linebacker, and the first day he'd watch him practice and say, 'You're a tight end.' Two years later, that kid was an All-American tight end."
Haden, best friends in high school with J.K. McKay, lived with the coach's family during his senior year.
"I was getting recruited by every school in the country and so was John (J.K.). When colleges recruited me, they would actually come to the McKays' house ... and it was very awkward for a lot of these coaches," Haden said.
"When Fresno State or someone like that knocked on the door, he wasn't home. But he always knew when Notre Dame was coming by, or Stanford, or Nebraska, or Alabama. For schools like that, he always answered the door."
USC became known for outstanding tailbacks with Garrett, Simpson, Clarence Davis, Anthony Davis and Ricky Bell all flourishing in the I-formation system that McKay perfected in the 1960s.
Besides 1962, Southern Cal won national titles in 1967, 1972 and 1974. The Trojans also won five Rose Bowls and finished first or second in the Pac-8 13 times.
In addition to his sons, McKay is survived by his wife of 50 years, Corky, two daughters, and 10 grandchildren. The Bucs said a private memorial service will be held at St. Lawrence Church in Tampa.
In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the John McKay Fund at the USC Athletic Department, in care of Don Winston, Senior Associate AD at Heritage Hall (203A), Los Angeles, Calif., 90089-0602.