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John McKay, first Bucs coach, dies

The legendary college coach who led the expansion Bucs through nine mostly frustrating seasons was 77.

By BRUCE LOWITT and CRAIG BASSE

photo
[UPI photo]
Tampa Bay head coach John McKay puffs on a victory cigar in the dressing room after the Bucs won their first game ever upsetting the New Orleans Saints 33-14 on December 11, 1977 in New Orleans.
© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 11, 2001


John McKay gave up the glory of coaching college football to guide the Tampa Bay Buccaneers through their first nine seasons in the National Football League. They were mostly frustrating, sometimes disastrous years -- but Mr. McKay's acerbic wit made them tolerable, almost palatable.

Mr. McKay, who had been in the intensive care unit at St. Joseph's Hospital since last month, died Sunday of kidney failure due to complications from diabetes, Bucs spokesman Reggie Roberts said. He was 77.

Mr. McKay took on the challenge of the expansion Bucs in 1976 after amassing a 127-40-8 record, four national championships and three undefeated seasons from 1960-75 at the University of Southern California. In his final four seasons he also served as the school's athletic director.

Under Mr. McKay, the son of a West Virginia coal miner, the Trojans won nine Pacific 8 Conference championships. He took Southern Cal to eight Rose Bowls, winning five, and was national College Coach of the Year in 1962 and '72.

But with the Buccaneers, Mr. McKay saw the flip side of football. They lost their first 26 games before winning the final two of their second season (costing coaches Hank Stram of the New Orleans Saints and Don Coryell of the St. Louis Cardinals their jobs).

The Bucs were a national joke, material for late-night talk show comedians -- and for Mr. McKay as well.

Asked after one particularly devastating performance what he thought of his team's execution, Mr. McKay replied: "I'm all for it."

It became his signature quote.

The wise-cracking, cigar-smoking Mr. McKay had his moments of success with the Buccaneers. In 1979 he coached them to the NFC's Central Division championship and they upset the Philadelphia Eagles 24-17 at Tampa Stadium in their first playoff game. The following week the Bucs lost 9-0 to the visiting Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship, falling one win shy of the Super Bowl.

"I'll always remember our first NFC Central title in 1979," Mr. McKay once said, "because no one but the team believed we could win it and few teams have ever been as successful as the Bucs were in their first playoff game."

A good plan

The 1980 Bucs collapsed to 5-10-1, then rebounded the following two seasons to earn playoff berths -- losing each time to the Dallas Cowboys in the first round.

In 1983, the Bucs embarked on an odyssey of eight last-place finishes in a streak of 14 consecutive losing seasons. Mr. McKay was around for only the first two. In November 1984, after the Bucs had lost four straight games and had six remaining, Mr. McKay, at 61 the league's oldest coach, said he would retire at the end of the season.

His overall Buccaneers record, including the post-season, was 45-91-1. Only current coach Tony Dungy has won more games.

The target of Throw McKay in the Bay T-shirts during the final years of his reign came to be remembered with fondness. "People used to tell me, 'You're the only (good) coach we've had,' " Mr. McKay said late in the 1997 season, when the Bucs returned to the playoffs. "Hey, I didn't want the franchise to slip. I wish we could've kept winning. In the beginning we had a good plan. And I think now they've got a good plan, too."


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Mr. McKay underwent triple-bypass heart surgery in August 1986 at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, Calif., and a quadruple-bypass in October 1996 at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.

His Buccaneers legacy includes his son, Rich McKay. The 17-year-old ball boy of the 1976 team grew up to become its general manager in 1995. He is the architect of a once-laughable franchise that, through his player drafts and trades, has become a consistent Super Bowl contender.

Another son, J. K. McKay, started at split end for his father's 1973-74 Trojans and was a Buccaneers wide receiver during their first three seasons. He later worked in vain to secure an NFL expansion franchise for Los Angeles (the Rams having moved to St. Louis) and was vice president and general manager of the L.A. Xtreme in the short-lived XFL.

'My God, that's Coach!'

Jim Perry, Southern Cal's assistant athletic director and author of McKay: A Coach's Story, called Mr. McKay "the most unforgettable person I've ever met. To say he was a strong personality is an all-time understatement. When he spoke, everyone listened. When the team went to see the movie Patton, with George C. Scott, there was an instant flash of recognition among his coaching staff. 'My God,' they said, 'that's Coach!' And on the field, he was Patton. ...

"He was demanding, decisive and outspoken, but he was also charming, loyal, and, at times, even shy. And he was one of the funniest public speakers in America."

As a college coach, John McKay designed the I-formation offense at USC that turned tailbacks Mike Garrett and O.J. Simpson into Heisman Trophy winners.

"With the passing of John McKay," Garrett said, "part of my life flashes in front of me, probably one of the most important parts of my life, when I learned to have an identity and I learned to be a man. I think there are all sorts of experiences in which young men may have a rite of passage. Mine was on the football field of USC being coached by John McKay.

"I'm forever indebted to him for what he instilled in me. To this day, my whole thinking process involves some of the things I learned from him. He lives with me daily. I shall always remember him."

As an NFL coach, McKay became the first to employ an African-American -- Doug Williams -- as a long-term starting quarterback.

"John McKay has a special place in my heart and mind and not only because I played for him in Tampa," said Williams, now coaching Grambling, his alma mater. "Back in 1969, '70, when (quarterback) Jimmy Jones played for him at USC, I had respect for John McKay. Getting an opportunity to play for him was kind of like a dream because growing up, USC was my favorite team, besides Grambling. If I didn't go to Grambling the only place I wanted to play was for John McKay at USC. And I got that wish as a pro."

Williams quarterbacked the Bucs from 1978 to 1982, when they leaped from absurdity to respectability, then he left in a salary dispute. His departure signaled the beginning of their 14-season losing streak. "I was violently opposed to (Williams leaving)," Mr. McKay said in 1997. "I thought we should have signed him."

"John McKay believed in Doug Williams," added Williams, the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player with the 1987 Washington Redskins. "If he ever put "ie" behind your name, he liked you. He always used to call me 'Dougie.' "

On the day Mr. McKay retired, Bucs linebacker Richard Wood, a three-time All-American under him at Southern Cal, said: "The man had a glorious coaching career except for the last few years. It's too bad it had to end like this. I can remember the good times, and we did have a lot of good times. I accomplished my goals, and without the help of John McKay from the time I was 17 it would not be possible for me to be here."

Mr. McKay is survived by his wife, Corky (the former Nancy Hunter), sons J.K. and Rich, daughters Michele Breese and Terri Florio, and 10 grandchildren.

A memorial service in Tampa will be private. In lieu of flowers, the McKay family asks that contributions to the John H. McKay Scholarship Fund be made out to the "USC Athletic Department" and sent to USC senior associate athletic director Don Winston, USC Athletic Department, Heritage Hall 203A, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0602.

'Nothing's changed'

John Harvey McKay was born July 5, 1923, in Everettsville, W. Va. After his father's death, Mr. McKay helped support the family, doing odd jobs while starring as a running back and basketball guard at Shinnston High School.

After serving in World War II as a tail gunner in B-29s in the South Pacific, Mr. McKay enrolled at Purdue University. He was a starting defensive back in 1946, then transferred to the University of Oregon, where he was a running back and defensive back in 1948-49. He teamed with quarterback Norm Van Brocklin to lead the Ducks to the Cotton Bowl in 1948. Mr. McKay's Oregon career rushing record of 6.1 yards per carry still stands.

After graduation, Mr. McKay worked briefly in the mines, like his father before him. In 1950 he turned down an offer to play for the NFL's New York Yankees and turned to coaching football. He was an offensive and defensive assistant at Oregon, his alma mater, for eight years, even though it paid so little that he had to take a second job as a night watchman in a lumber yard to make ends meet.

The Ducks beat Southern Cal three years in a row, 1956-58, and Trojans coach Don Clark hired Mr. McKay as an assistant in 1959. Clark retired after the season and Mr. McKay succeeded him.

After two losing seasons, Southern Cal won the 1962 national championship, beating second-ranked Wisconsin 42-37 in the Rose Bowl to conclude an 11-0 season. The Trojans also won national championships in 1967 (10-1), 1972 (12-0) and 1974 (10-1-1).

"He took a chance on a skinny, scrawny quarterback from Huntington Park (Calif.)," said Craig Fertig, who played and coached under Mr. McKay. "Next to my dad, he was probably the most special guy in my life. Those were the most memorable years of my life. He taught me how to play the game and taught me how to coach it."

Pat Haden, who quarterbacked the Trojans and the NFL's Los Angeles Rams, said Mr. McKay was "the best evaluator of talent that I've ever seen. 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. I think he had a great knack for piecing an entire team together. You may have come in as one kind of player, but you would have left a different player, playing a different position, much more successfully."

When Haden's parents moved to San Francisco, Haden moved into the McKay household -- J. K. McKay was his best friend -- so he could continue to play at Bishop Amat High School. "The year I was living there ... he tried to be more to me than just my best friend's father," Haden said. "He tried to be my father for a year there as well, pulling me aside, advising me on things, things that had nothing to do with football, but just life."

It took the persuasive skills of Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse, a wealthy tax lawyer, to lure Mr. McKay away from his high-profile role at Southern Cal. Culverhouse gave Mr. McKay broad decision-making powers and his unswerving friendship and support.

"John is an outstanding coach and an even finer man," Culverhouse said on the day Mr. McKay resigned as coach of the Buccaneers. "I regret that he never seems to have received the credit he deserves."

In 1988 Mr. McKay was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. And on Dec. 8, 1991, Mr. McKay joined late running back Ricky Bell and future Hall of Fame defensive end Lee Roy Selmon as charter members of the Buccaneers' Krewe of Honor.

The ceremony at Tampa Stadium took place moments after the Bucs scored a touchdown as the first half ended -- and after two would-be Bucs scores on the same drive were negated, one by a penalty, the other after a video review. "I came down here on the sideline," Mr. McKay told the crowd, "and we had to score three times for one touchdown. So nothing's changed."

- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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