John McKay's appointment as USC football coach in 1960 helped usher in the golden age of Southern California sports. Like Walter O'Malley, who had brought his Dodgers to Los Angeles two years earlier, McKay realized the significance of the country's westward migration in the postwar years. Seeing a burgeoning talent pool, McKay recruited almost exclusively in his backyard. On his 1967 national championship team, 69 of 78 players came from the L.A. area.
McKay, who died on Sunday from kidney failure due to complications from diabetes, at age 77, won three other national titles with the Trojans, in 1962, '72 and '74. The USC job was his first as head coach, and he proved to be a natural in the spotlight. His quick wit and cool demeanor made him a star in a town full of stars. ( Johnny Carson and Frank Sinatra were among his buddies.) To get his players loose before a big game, McKay once told them, "We ought to keep in mind that there are over 600 million Chinese who don't care whether we win or lose." Another time, he jogged onto the field before a game in South Bend singing the Notre Dame fight song.
At heart, however, McKay was a fierce competitor. After the Irish routed his Trojans 51-0 in 1966, he vowed he would never again lose to Notre Dame. He nearly pulled it off, going 6-1-2 in his final nine games against the Irish. McKay was also a tactical innovator: With his modified I formation, in which the tailback started seven yards behind the line and agile linemen pulled out in front of him to block, he created one of the college game's most powerful running attacks. It's no coincidence that Mike Garrett (1965) and O.J. Simpson (1968) won Heismans playing tailback for McKay.
McKay left USC in 1975 to become the first coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Though it took him nearly two seasons to win a game, he had the Bucs playing for the NFC title in his fourth year, a feat he took in stride. "A genius in the National Football League," McKay said with typical deflection, "is a guy who won last week."