October 2, 1967
The Notre Dame-Southern Cal football luncheon in Los Angeles last November had been a three-hour parade of memories, and eyelids were heavy by the time featured speaker John McKay, the former USC and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach, was called to the mike. "Congratulations, this is the longest meal since the last supper," said the 75-year-old McKay, prompting a roar of laughter from the crowd.
Humor has always served McKay well. He used it to deflect the pressures that came with winning four national championships in 16 years at USC and to explain why he had lost an NFL-record 26 straight games as the first coach of the expansion Bucs. (When asked after one Tampa Bay defeat what he thought of his team's execution, he said, "I think it's a good idea.")
No one ever joked about McKay's coaching acumen. During his tenure USC established itself as a perennial powerhouse and became known as Tailback U, producing Heisman Trophy winners Mike Garrett and O.J. Simpson as well as All-Americas Anthony Davis and Ricky Bell. Many observers were surprised in 1975 when McKay gave up his status as a college football baron to be the coach of Tampa Bay. "I left USC because I wanted to make some money—it's that simple," says McKay, who at the time of his departure was earning $48,000 a year to serve as both coach and athletic director. He earned considerably more in his first year with the Bucs but suffered through an 0-14 season. Tampa Bay's blunder with the No. 1 pick in the 1977 draft, selecting Bell instead of Heisman winner and future Dallas Cowboys star Tony Dorsett, made them the laughingstock of the NFL, and the Bucs lost their first 12 games that fall before finishing 2-12.
"I should have seen it coming in our first year when our middle linebackers had eight knee surgeries among them," says McKay of his woebegone Bucs, who—unlike the new Cleveland Browns or the playoff-ready Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars—were launched in an era when expansion drafts yielded little and free agency did not exist. "We had no talent and no way to get it," he says. Yet McKay steadily built Tampa Bay, and in 1979 the Bucs went 10-6 to win the NFC Central. It was sweet vindication for McKay, who stepped down as Tampa Bay coach after the 1984 season.
While McKay still follows football from his home in Tampa and keeps up with former players like Garrett and Lynn Swann, the strategist known as the Silver Fox doesn't meddle in the business of son Rich, 40, the Bucs' current G.M. "He gives me advice these days," John says of his son. Though he still cracks jokes at the occasional banquet, McKay, who with wife Corky has nine grandchildren, spends the majority of his time answering to Poppy. "It's great," he says. "I can't ever remember having nine best buddies."