He was a cocky Irishman who liked to pull a cork.
"We were friends," says his long-time associate of the coaching profession, and fellow USC legend Rod Dedeaux, "because we immediately recognized in each other that we liked to have a good time."
His name was John McKay. He passed away Sunday at 77 because of liver damage complicated by diabetes. He presided over the University of Southern Californias football program in the 1960s and 70s during a time in which the Trojans may have been the most dominant, and certainly were the most exciting, program in the history of this nation.
He was a legend, pure and simple.
As a youngster, I grew up on Trojan football. On a sunny Saturday in 1974, I watched McKays Trojans score 55 points in 17 minutes to deliver the most devastating blow Notre Dame has ever received on the gridiron. I became a Trojan that day.
In the succeeding years, I attended USC, and later covered SC sports in the Los Angeles media. Last year, for no real reason other than a sense of homage, I called McKay in Tampa and talked to him for an hour. I do not know whether it is or not, but it may be his last interview.
If you are of a mind to enjoy all that is splendid about USCs sports history, McKay is a figure of epic proportions. Trojans take regular trips back in time to McKays tenure at University Park (1960-75) like Christians to Lourdes, Muslims to Mecca.
In 1966, the Irish came to L.A. and beat SC, 51-0 at the Coliseum. After the game, McKay said, "Theres a billion Chinamen who couldnt give a damn who won this game."
Or something like that. He also said USC would never lose to Notre Dame again. At least, not like that. From 1967-75, his teams dominated Notre Dame.
At half time of the aforementioned 74 Notre Dame game, with his team trailing 24-6, McKay told his beleagured troops, "<Anthony> Davis is gonna run the second half kick back for a touchdown, and were gonna win this game."
McKay actually said if Davis runs the kick back his team would win, but like everything else that day, his words are not the words of mortals, but rather the timeless chant of historical hyperbole.
McKay was old school. He liked to drink, often with the writers, which is why guys like Bud Furillo and John Hall were counted among his best friends. Imagine Bill Plaschke or Glenn Dickey being best friends with todays college coaches. Doesnt happen anymore.
One of McKays favorite drinking buddies was John "Duke" Wayne, who shared his conservative political views and love of USC football (Wayne, as Marion Morrison, having played at pulling guard for Howard Jones teams in the 20s). In 1966, before the opener between the two top-ranked teams in the nation, Wayne gave a speech to SC before they took on Texas at Austin. It was at the invitation of McKay, who just had a sense for when those kinds of things would play.
It did that day. Southern Cal, 10-6.
McKay was O.J. Simpsons coach from 1967-68, when Juice was an All-American and Heisman Trophy winner.
"The O.J. I knew never would have done the things Ive read that he did," McKay told me, and his voice had a strange combination of resignation and rebellion to it.
Neither of McKays sons got into coaching, instead pursuing the law.
"I didnt want them having to move their families like I always had to do," McKay explained. Younger son Rich used his legal and football acumen to become the successful general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team McKay coached in the mid-1970s. His team was woeful at first, and after a dreary loss McKay was asked about the Bucs execution.
"Thats a great idea," he deadpanned.
McKay also presided over the integration of Southern colleges, in a way.
In 1970, SC went to Birmingham to play all-white Alabama. His black sophomore tailback, Sam "Bam" Cunningham, went for well over 200 yards as SC destroyed Bear Bryants Crimson Tide before a packed house of chagrined bama fans.
The next day, Jim Murray wrote in the LA Times, "The Constitution was ratified yesterday. We welcomed Alabama into the Union."
That was because Bryant "borrowed" Cunningham after the game, took him into his teams locker room, and before his defeated charges announced, "This heres a football player."
McKay was accused of being a "n----r lover" for bringing so many black athletes into his program.
"Its funny," he told me, "I used to hear that at Stanford and Cal, so-called liberal bastions."
Yeah, right. John McKay is an important figure in American sports history not just because of his winning record. Jimmy Johnson and Bobby Bowden have similarly outstanding records. Rather, like John Wooden and a handful of others, he negotiated the time warp from the 1950s to the 70s in a manner that allowed his teams to compete at his standards while bridging the generation gap.
Mostly, for young USC fans like I was, and alumni like I became, he represented excellence, something to be proud of, something a little better and more colorful and, yes, maybe even a little cockier than the varied alternatives.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism