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"So there are ways. Coaches say, 'You gotta have a dormitory like Alabama's to win.' We don't have a dormitory. Our guys stay in apartments. We still win. Players win games, not dormitories. Coaches in some conferences have to have 40 or 50 scholarships, whatever the others get. The largest number of scholarships we've given in one year since I've been here is 29. One year we gave 13, last year 19.
"We have an advantage over an Arkansas or a Nebraska in that we're in a densely populated area. Our recruiting costs are about a tenth of what some might be. But I don't believe you ever need to recruit more than 16 players a year—if you're right on those 16. If you have 22, say, and you're right on them, you'll have 88 players in the four classes. If you can't win with 88, you can't win. Numbers is not the answer.
"Coaches are like people. There are good ones, there are very average ones, there are damn poor ones. The very average ones and the damn poor ones have one statement in common: "Well, if I had his players I'd win all my games, too. That same guy will bring in 50 players a year. He doesn't say, 'I've got 50 players who aren't any good.' That would be insane. He says, 'You oughta see our freshman team! Wait'll next year!' "
Beyond the spirit a winning football program generates ("You can feel it build on a campus. All the smiles. Everybody running around saying, 'We're No. 1.' Lose 27 in a row and see how many smiles there are"), McKay has seen it act as a remarkable stimulus for endowments. Not just donations for the athletic department, but for the entire school.
"Our fund raisers tell me endowments go up when we win. They say how much easier it is when you walk into an office back East and the [potential donor] says, 'Hey, I saw the team win on TV Saturday. Great!' He may not be a big football fan, but he can identify with it. And at the half when they show the president and the medical school and all the buildings and he says, 'That's my school," how much do you think that's worth? How much would the air time cost us?"
McKay says he does not presume to know what passes through a man's mind when he is writing out a $2 million endowment check, but he has suspicions. An insurance tycoon named David Marks, now in his 80s, has given huge gifts to USC, his latest a $350,000 tennis pavilion. Marks became a lover of SC football when he rode a wagon to see the team lose a game more than 50 years ago. Marks wears a USC cap and comes to the practices. The staff calls him "The Punting Coach."
"Football is not the only game ever played," says McKay. "A good football team doesn't have a university, a university has a good football team. It can be done anywhere.
"Last year Washington State under Jim Sweeney beat Oregon, beat Stanford, beat Washington. They won seven out of 11. Only two years before they were 1 and 10. Sweeney went to work. Tommy Prothro took two Oregon State teams to the Rose Bowl. Johnny Majors turned Iowa State around. Vince Gibson saved the whole program at Kansas State [income at Kansas State has more than tripled in Gibson's six years there]. It can be done.
"Is it ever going to be even? Everybody the same across the country? No. Places like ours have built-in advantages. Population for one. Tradition. But even then there are no guarantees. We had tradition, and we had a 1-9 season and didn't go to the Rose Bowl from 1954 to 1962 [ McKay took the job in 1960]. Alabama had great tradition, but it wasn't winning anything when Bear Bryant went back. Bob Devaney took over Nebraska when Nebraska had had 20 years of losing. Now they're big winners. He went to work.
"Is it O.K. to play at the top level and lose year after year the way Washington State and some of them have had to do? Yes. Winning isn't everything. That's a terrible philosophy to go by. It's enough that you play. You desire to win, you try to win, but it's enough to play.