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Bucs grow up with McKay

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 15, 2000


Rich McKay's most memorable football moment came Jan. 1, 1975. He was a skinny 15-year-old California high school sophomore.

"For me, it all happened on a single play," said the Buccaneers general manager. "My brother, Johnny, became MVP of the Rose Bowl by catching a touchdown pass to beat Ohio State, which also won a national championship for our father, the USC coach."

It's a quarter-century later. McKay, at 40, continues to search for an athletic/emotional equal of that personal high in Pasadena. "When we win a Super Bowl, with the considerable association my family has had with Tampa Bay's franchise," he said, "that should do it."

McKay's finger has been on the Bucs' draft-day trigger since 1995. "My first year, the pressure was apparent," he said. "We needed to produce exceptional talent. Fortunately, we got Warren Sapp and, quickly thereafter, Derrick Brooks."

Even now, the GM classifies Brooks as "most satisfying" among his selections. Derrick was a mobile linebacker at Florida State, but doubts about his size, 225 pounds, deterred many NFL talent wizards.

"We thought Brooks was a no-brainer," McKay said, "but our feelings weren't universally shared. Derrick defined what we wanted for the Bucs: an extremely good player who would be an outstanding citizen."

It doesn't always work.

McKay had similar thoughts about Melvin Johnson, a free safety from Kentucky, picked in 1995's second round. "No system of assessments is flawless, which Melvin proved," the GM said.

"I really liked the kid. Size, speed and attitude seemed on his side. But his NFL instincts never sufficiently developed." In his third pro season, Johnson was jettisoned.

Attention to the citizen issue, by McKay and coach Tony Dungy, has delivered multifaceted dividends. Higher professionalism, smarter jocks and fresher personalities appeared in the locker room. Brooks, Hardy Nickerson, John Lynch, Warrick Dunn, Trent Dilfer and Shaun King are beaming examples.

Tampa Bay, in addition to reeking as the NFL's most notorious loser in the 1980s, had an acute need of attitude adjustments. First-round picks Broderick Thomas (1989) and Keith McCants (1990) were typical of character risks who became detriments.

"By the mid-1990s, we were making conscious efforts to avoid players who had histories of shaky personal decisions," McKay said. "It's never going to be a no-risk situation. Not with 50-plus guys. But you can dramatically improve your odds."

As he flashes back, nothing upsets McKay more than the case of Demetrius DuBose. A marvelous linebacker at Notre Dame, he was Irish team captain. An outgoing leader. Campus habits were exemplary.

"Demetrius was the player who would convince me that drafting for talent makes for a better philosophy than drafting for need," McKay said. "In 1993, before I had much say-so, we were in bad need of linebacking.

"We became so enamored with DuBose that he was picked in the second round, even though Demetrius had always been an inside linebacker in college. We figured that surely he could be retooled to play the outside.

"Wrong! It never worked. We signed Nickerson as a free agent, so Hardy became our guy in the middle. DuBose never was anything but a backup. Then, of course, he would become the victim in a most uncharacteristic off-the-field incident."

DuBose was shot to death by San Diego police last July during a struggle with officers attempting to arrest him for investigation of burglary. Hit 12 times, several in the back. McKay, upon hearing the news, swallowed even harder.

Rich's roots got him a delicious NFL opportunity. His famous papa, John, left the University of Southern California to become first coach of the Bucs (1976-84). That older brother from the Rose Bowl, also known as J.K., played three years as an undersized Tampa Bay receiver (1976-78).

Hugh Culverhouse, a renowned tax attorney and original Bucs owner, was especially fond of Rich. McKay was 17 when his family moved from California. Going into his senior high school year. He played quarterback at Tampa Jesuit. Majored in economics at Princeton. Then graduated in 1984 from Stetson College of Law in St. Petersburg.

Not unexpectedly, Rich was embraced by Culverhouse's law firm. Soon developing into an official Bucs front-office operative. McKay's advantages were numerous and obvious. But the virtual nepotism that got him a fat NFL chance would, in the eyes of public and media, grow into factors that needed overcoming.

"At first, it bothered me a bit," McKay said, regarding shouts of John's kid! and/or Hugh's boy! "You want to be judged in your own work; hopefully, your own accomplishments.

"Going in, those criticisms were justified. Understandably, voices were asking, "Where's your pro football resume?' I knew that all I could do was to learn as much as possible, work really hard and also be lucky enough to become surrounded by a lot of good people."

As 2000 blooms, it's in place.

John McKay is 15 years into retirement. Culverhouse is dead. To them, the Rich McKay portfolio should no longer be professionally tethered. Flying his own rocket ship, the coach's son has become one of the NFL's best GMs.

"My most intimidating year was 1995, after the Glazer family bought the Bucs," he said. "I thought a new stadium wouldn't happen in Tampa. I figured the team was headed for relocation (to Cleveland or Baltimore). I was almost certain none of us holdovers would survive. At least I had my law degree to fall back on."

That summer, the Bucs spent a few days in Miami, cross-training with the Dolphins. Malcolm Glazer asked McKay to dinner. Rich got a contract extension. He breathed easier. This one was unquestionably on merit, not nepotism. After the bittersweetness of a community scrimmage, Tampa would build a stadium in order to keep the Bucs.

They stayed.

Rich rules.

"One thing that really, really bothered me," he said, "was that our community clearly did not like the Buccaneers. It was all the losing, but much more. People were angered when our players got into trouble with the law. So much unhappiness was evident.

"Not only are we now winning a few more games, the character of our players should be a source of community pride. They're not prone to take the money, play Sunday games and run. So many are real parts of our community.

"Our coaches are a bunch of fabulous people, which shouldn't be hard to see, even from the outside. I think we are now an ascending franchise in the NFL. On a definite rise but with lots that can be improved.

"It always puzzled me that a pro football team in Florida could be a flop. We have so much going. This is a huge football area. Players have to be impressed by the weather. They love the new stadium. Not having a state income tax gets their attention. We're also about to build what will be by far the biggest and finest franchise training/office facility in the NFL.

"No reason this can't be just the beginning."

How long before the GM tops 1/1/75?

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