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John Underwood
August 23, 1976
This is what John McKay—coach of the NFL's new Tampa Bay team after 16 years of wine and Rose Bowls at USC—says when asked to compare pro football to the college game. Witty, this McKay, and already a winner
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August 23, 1976

A Three-hour Time Difference

This is what John McKay—coach of the NFL's new Tampa Bay team after 16 years of wine and Rose Bowls at USC—says when asked to compare pro football to the college game. Witty, this McKay, and already a winner

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McKay included four pre coaches—old friends Abe Gibron and Jerry Frei, plus Linebacker Coach Dick Voris and the respected quarterback-maker John Rauch—on his staff to help give him the edge in the numbers game (playing with a 43-man roster instead of 95) and with terminology. Because of the crisscross trafficking of personnel from one pro team to another, he says, you have to be reasonably homogeneous with your play-calling. So McKay adopted the terminology Rauch used as a head coach at Oakland and Buffalo. Then, to his own chagrin, McKay called three plays against the Rams that weren't in the Tampa book. "Fortunately, the quarterback [ Steve Spurrier] was smarter than I was," McKay says. "He adjusted. You need that on the field."

McKay says that filling the Tampa roster was not that different, except he enjoyed the luxury of not having to recruit. He leaned heavily on instinct, and getting players he knew something about or who had played for him. One is his son Johnny, a wide receiver and, off a strong early showing, almost a sure bet to make the team. The younger McKay, a year out of USC and with a half season of WFL experience, had originally contracted to coach at Oregon State this year, but he made a last-minute switch and reported to Tampa Bay. "He said he loved Oregon but hated recruiting," McKay says with a laugh. "Well, hell. Welcome to college football."

McKay thinks that he selected well in both the college and expansion drafts. He told Tom McEwen, the Tampa Tribune columnist, he thought it was a copout to say you cannot win with rookies and expansion draftees. "That's an excuse for losing," he says. "If you win, you get credit for performing a miracle. But how can you say you drafted a bad player, then ask him to go out there and kill somebody? You're lying. I don't lie."

The frustration, he suspects, will come later, "when we cut down and then look back and say, 'We shoulda kept the other guy.' Look at what Don Shula has done with players other teams let go on waivers—Bob Kuechenberg and Jim Langer, both All-Pros."

McKay does not know the salaries of his players, and he does not plan to find out. "They wanted me to get into that, but I said I might as well stay at USC if I have to keep worrying about contracts. Vince Lombardi came into the league years ago and said, I'm in charge of everything, including salaries.' Some guys now think that's the only way. I don't. I'll know how much they're worth to the team, and when the time comes I'll say, 'All right, we need this guy.' I don't have to know his salary for that."

Cutting players has not been as odious as predicted, either. To begin with, the Tampa training complex is so close to the airport that on a day when McKay cut 10 players at 11 a.m., they were all out of town by 2:30. "One guy said he was already a millionaire. He should've been glad I cut him. Another guy was making a fortune raising Spanish goats. He asked me if I wanted some of the action. Some guys cut themselves with their attitude. We had a punter who said he 'lost his desire.' How can you lose your desire to punt and eat steaks? If you've lost your desire for that, you've really lost it. Some guys act relieved when you cut them. It's not that different from telling a college player he won't be playing much. It's not a terrible fate. I tell them a lot of great people never played pro football. George Washington never played pro football.

"But those who stick will know one thing: they will play the game the way we want it played. I don't care how a guy did it in high school; when he came to USC, he did it the USC way. Now he will do it the Tampa Buccaneer way."

McKay's first exhibition season—colleges don't play nonsense games—has been more of an eye-opener for him than for his fans. While he found the Los Angeles game "unacceptable," he found the aftermath even more so. "Everybody agrees it's the preseason when you try to find out who can play where," he says. "Preseason games count only for that reason. So we lose, playing more rookies than the Rams did, and the headline says, ' Bucs Big Bust in NFL Debut.' I suppose the ideal thing would be to play everybody and still win."

Nonetheless, McKay continued his experiments on schedule against Green Bay. Wanting to test his running game ("The first thing you have to do in football is get A to block B. If he doesn't, you lose"), he ordered only 14 passes against a Packer defense that seldom rested its best players. Still, Tampa Bay assembled the longest drive of the game, a 71-yard third-quarter march for its first-ever touchdown.

This followed what Richie McKay calls "the most fired-up halftime talk" he ever heard his old man deliver. McKay told the Bucs, "I guarantee you the Packers are no better than you are. You can beat this team. But you've got to block somebody. That's the worst blocking on kickoffs I've ever seen. Eleven men left standing. If you can't do better than that, I'll give you one guy's number, and you can all go down and block him."

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