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John Underwood
August 06, 1973
The Dolphins may have been bored, but All-Star talent—and approach—had something to do with it, too. John McKay prepared his collegians by letting them have fun, and they nearly had even more
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August 06, 1973

Two-sided, For Once

The Dolphins may have been bored, but All-Star talent—and approach—had something to do with it, too. John McKay prepared his collegians by letting them have fun, and they nearly had even more

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What John McKay did in preparing the College All-Stars for last week's sacrifice to the jaws of the insatiable Miami Dolphins was, of course, preposterous. To begin with, he practiced the Stars only once a day. Since the game originated some 40 years ago, All-Star teams have been expected to purge themselves with double-overtime drills and to scrimmage almost hourly. McKay recalled one struck-down Star team featuring 17 players that had been injured by game day. McKay said scrimmage was not the name of the game—football was.

McKay was asked why he would not even consent to the customary warmup contest with another pro squad, usually the Chicago Bears. McKay's experience with the National Football League has been mostly in the turning-down of extravagant offers to coach in it. Offers by Los Angeles, which included a pile of money; by New England, which included a chauffeur to drive his beach-oriented wife Corky through the snow. But he knew enough about it to point out that the unawesome Bears were not the world champion Dolphins. "Besides, what good would it do?" he said, rolling his cigar to the side of his mouth.

"Well, for one thing, to see if you can block a pro team," he was told.

"What if we can't?" McKay said. "What do we do then? Call off the game?"

McKay said that among his "$10 million worth" of earmarked All-Stars one must assume that some knew how to play football. The linemen he had chosen averaged 254 pounds (bigger even than the Super Bowl Dolphins), and McKay could imagine no sight less esthetic than 6'8", 290-pound John Matuszak (see cover), University of Tampa and No. 1 draft pick of the Houston Oilers, sitting on the chest of his quarterback. He said he doubted Miami's Don Shula needed to scrimmage Bob Griese to find out if Griese could pass the football.

Along that line, McKay also violated the ritual of deliberating which of several available quarterbacks he might use. He included only two on his roster and almost immediately settled on old pro Dub Jones' boy Bert, late of LSU and now of the Colts. It did not take a genius, much less a scrimmage, McKay said, to see that Jones was something special. Lucky Colts. Endangered Dolphins.

Oh, yes. Neither did McKay bother to crowd the marquee with a lot of big-name assistant coaches. Like Nebraska's Bob Devaney last year, he simply moved in his own happy family from USC, with their proven systems. And what they concentrated on instead of survival for three weeks was an incidental known as timing. All-Star teams historically become unglued by small catastrophes of precision, mental mistakes that trigger physical breakdowns and sap the spirit. A guard pulls the wrong way; a receiver makes an imprecise cut. If it happens early, the ship goes down before it clears the harbor. All-Star teams are not good at playing catch-up because their passing game is never that refined.

So McKay's workouts were atypically unspartan. "Fun" was a word that often escaped the lips of the Stars. The practice field at Northwestern University got to be known as the McKay Country Club, and as his one-liners kept coming (he is not only the reigning king of college football, he is one of its quippiest), some people were lulled into believing that the coach wasn't taking the game too seriously.

But have a closer look: the most talented running back in the All-Star camp was Purdue's Otis Armstrong. Armstrong was also the most obvious, toddling around Chicago in his matching undershirt-pants-and-cap sets and his $10,000 yellow Eldorado purchased with the fallout from a Denver Bronco contract. And he took McKay's breezy practices a little too airily to suit John. You do not achieve timing by having 10 guys run full speed and one take his own sweet time, said McKay. "We will alert Mr. Armstrong by not starting him, and hope that somebody straightens him out before he blows his career."

Privately, McKay was soured, too, by the cooperation he was not always getting from the pros. "This game made professional football," he said. "You'd think some of them would remember that." It was not the hints and pleas to pass over this or that player that bothered him so much; he did not wish to jeopardize "any boy's chances to make $50,000 a year." But one particular incident got to him. The New England Patriots had prevailed on him not to select one of their draftees. McKay agreed, but when he subsequently found himself in a bind for offensive linemen and put in a call to Chuck Fairbanks, the Patriot coach, the call was never returned. He called a dozen times more, to no avail. He said he doubled Patriot scouts would get a ticker-tape parade the next time they walked the USC campus.

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