He was an Irish Catholic from West Virginia, with a gift for wit and humor. For 16 years at the University of Southern California, John McKay was one of the greatest football coaches of all time. Steven Travers talks to this legend, now in his twi-light years, about O.J., John Robinson, Bear Bryant, and whether his teams were the best of all time.
The conversation takes place during March Madness, and the subject of Pepperdine’s victory over Indiana is brought up.
TRAVERS: What is your opinion of Bobby Knight?
McKAY: I like him personally. I know him through <former USC basketball coach> Bob Boyd, and we’re friends
TRAVERS: When USC hires a football coach, his record the first two years is favorably compared to your losing record in 1960-61, yet they never live up to what you accomplished after that
McKAY: What people forget is that we had a losing record for most of the six seasons before I got there, plus we were on probation my first two years, so it’s hard to get guys steamed up. We just didn’t have enough speed.
SC had been penalized by the NCAA in the wake of a conference-wide recruiting scandal dating back to Jon Arnett’s career in the mid-1950s. Even USC’S 59-6 1959 baseball team was banned from post-season play.
TRAVERS: You have always said that you recruit great athletes, regardless of position.
McKAY: I respect high school coaches, who know that the best athlete on the team is usually the quarterback.
TRAVERS: Similar to youth league baseball, where the best athlete is usually the pitcher.
McKAY: Bobby Chandler was a quarterback in high school. Hal Bedsole was a junior college quarterback. Lynn Swan and Anthony Davis were high school quarterbacks.
TRAVERS: How did your philosophy apply to linemen, who because of their size do not play skill positions?
McKAY: We looked for guys who could run, cover kicks and had the ambition to do those things. Linemen were not as big then. Now I see some fat guys playing. Ron Yary would be just as good today, given training techniques. Weight training was not the thing to do. Billy Fisk was an All-American lineman who played at 245 pounds, but most linemen were 235.
TRAVERS: Tom Seaver was a baseball Trojan who was one of the first to lift weights, back in the 1960s. You won the National Championship in 1962 alternating quarterbacks. In general, do you favor the practice?
McKAY: Well, we had three “teams.” Pete Beathard went both ways. Bill Nelsen ran the gold “team,” and Craig Fertig was on the third “team.” That was a special season, we beat Notre Dame, 25-0.
TRAVERS: You beat Wisconsin in a wild Rose Bowl. Tell me about that.
McKAY: We were up 42-13, but Marv Marinovich got kicked out for punching a guy and Kerner wasn’t suited up. We lost all our tackles, had guards playing tackle, so we couldn’t rush the passer, and Ron Van der Kellen just sat back there and passed. Willie Brown saved us with an interception at the end. He never got the publicity he should get.
MVP Van der Kellen set the Rose Bowl passing yardage record, but never did much past that game. Brown played for the Eagles.
TRAVERS: Some players and others have said that given almost unlimited scholarships, USC could recruit so many great players that their bench guys were better than most teams they played, and that you would recruit a player for the sole purpose of keeping him off a rival’s roster.
McKAY: I’ve said it a million times, that’s baloney. The budget was for 100 scholarship, and I never used more than 72. I allocated the rest for baseball and track. I recruited Mike Holmgren, who sat on the bench for four years, but it was never my intent to do that. No kid will come to school just to ride the bench, the excitement is to play. Jim Fassel, who coached with the New York Giants, sat on the bench before transferring to Long Beach State.
TRAVERS: How good was Bishop Amat High School in the late 1960s, where Adrian Young, J.K. McKay, Pat Haden and John Sciarra played?
McKAY: Bishop Amat was great, they had very good teams, and some of the best high school passing teams ever. They were coached by Marv Marinovich’s brother.
TRAVERS: Tell me about your relationship with legendary SC baseball coach Rod Dedeaux.
McKAY: Dedeaux was my buddy. We both got along with the kids, and liked to have a good time.
TRAVERS: Like Dedeaux, you had a gregarious personality, you had a sense of humor and got along well with the press. Tell me about your famous “A Billion Chinese don’t care” remark.
McKAY: When we lost to Notre Dame, 51-0, I told the team to take their showers, that a billion Chinese don’t care if we win or lose. The next day I got two wires from China asking for the score.
TRAVERS: I guess Chairman Mao was taking a break from the Cultural Revolution, which started that year, 1966.
Pat Haden was the best prep quarterback in America, his father was transferred to San Francisco, but he wanted to keep throwing to your son his senior year at Bishop Amat. He moved in to your home, which made it hard on recruiters from Stanford and Notre Dame.
McKAY: I thought we had a good advantage. We were close with the Haden’s, and later my son Richie was going to stay with the Haden’s instead of transferring when we moved to Florida. Haden was a great player in college, and an accurate passer in the pros. He’s a very intelligent guy.
TRAVERS: At 5-11 he was considered too short to be a successful pro quarterback.
McKAY: That’s a bunch of baloney. Doug Flutie proved that wrong, too. Fran Tarkenton’s not six feet tall. You throw passes through the creases, not over linemen.
TRAVERS: The same is said of wide receivers, yet Lynn Swann never had a problem at 5-11. Tell me about two players who had a reputation for being kind of crazy. Fred Dryer recently told me he heard Mike Battle was institutionalized. Tim Rossovich was once featured in Sports Illustrated eating glass and setting himself on fire.
McKAY: Well, Fred has a sense of humor. I heard Battle was married, but I don’t know. I don’t really know what was up with Rossovich. Once I was called to his dorm because he had “mooned” some girl, but then I found out the girl mooned him first. Neither one was ever arrested, and they were both fine players.
TRAVERS: It must have broken your heart when the O.J. Simpson case hit the news.
McKAY: I still don’t know what happened with O.J. I do know this, the guy I knew and the other players knew, never would have done anything like that. It was just terrible, he was one of the most admired guys in America.
TRAVERS: 1974, the greatest, most exciting sporting event in LA history. 55 points in 17 minutes against Notre Dame. To what extent do you feel that the hand of God just controlled your team’s destiny, and to what extent do you think you controlled the outcome of that game?
McKAY: If I was in control, we’d have scored more than six points in the first half. I told the team at half time that A.D. <Davis> would return the second half kick for a touchdown, and we were going to win that game.
TRAVERS: Ara Parseghian must wake up in a cold sweat thinking about it.
McKAY: Ara never coached again. I hear from Ara every once in a while, but I try to be kind about reminding him.
TRAVERS: You had made a vow after the 1966 Notre Dame debacle.
McKAY: I told the press we’d never lose, 51-0, again, but over time it was changed to “We’ll never lose to Notre Dame again.” We almost never did.
TRAVERS: College football dynasties. Knute Rockne, Notre Dame, 1920s. Howard Jones, USC’s Thundering Herd in the ‘30s. Bud Wilkinson, Oklahoma, 1950s. In recent years, Miami dominated the 1980s, and now we are seeing the Bobby Bowden Era at Florida State. Still, I believe that Trojan Football from 1962 to 1981, which encompasses your tenure and that of John Robinson, and includes four Heisman Trophy winners ending with Marcus Allen, is the greatest era of dominance in history.
McKAY: Well, I guess that’s true or close to being true. At least we never had a player go to jail. We did have very good players.
TRAVERS: Ronald Reagan looked at George Bush as a continuation of his Presidency, and Bill Clinton views Al Gore the same way. Did you look upon John Robinson the same way?
McKAY: No. At one time were close, but now I don’t know what’s going on.
TRAVERS: I want to talk more about Pat Haden, a Rhodes Scholar. Bill Bradley, another Rhodes Scholar, was viewed as a future politician, and I know Pat’s name has been brought up in that context. Did you think he would go in that direction?
McKAY: Pat Haden’s a wonderful young man who I never had to worry about. In all honesty, Bill Nelson, Craig Fertig, Mike Rae, Vince Evans, etc., we never had anybody who was trouble. They were all smart guys. Haden went to law school, but he was never really a political person. Bradley, too, he’s a quiet guy. You have to wave your arms around and pound the table to be heard in politics.
TRAVERS: Your son, J.K., went into law and practiced at the same downtown LA firm as Haden at one time. Tell me about that.
McKAY: J.K. went to Stetson Law School and practiced a few years. Now he’s in Beverly Hills, and he works with with Ed Roski’s company. He was involved trying to get a professional football team in Los Angeles. It’s a tragedy that they don’t have one.
<b>J.K. McKay, a star receiver at USC, played for his father with the Tanpa Bay Buccaneers
TRAVERS: What is the greatest college football team, for a single season, of all time?
McKAY: The 1972 USC Trojans.
TRAVERS: Who is the greatest writer of all time?
McKAY: Jim Murray.
TRAVERS: You had good relations with journalists, let me ask you about some of the greatest writers in the Los Angeles press corps. Bud Furillo says hello.
McKAY: Bud and I were friends. He was around a long time, with the Herald and all over.
TRAVERS: Furillo may be, now that Murray has passed on, the man who has seen it all longer than anybody else in LA. How about Mal Florence, a Trojan?
McKAY: A good writer and a friend with great knowledge.
TRAVERS: John Hall of the LA Times, another Trojan?
McKAY: A great guy.
TRAVERS: Bob Oates?
McKAY: I never knew him that well ‘cause he covered pro football.
TRAVERS: Jim Perry, USC’s former sports information director?
McKAY: He and I wrote a book together.
TRAVERS: 1976, you have left SC and taken the Tampa Bay job, only before free agency it was harder to build an expansion team quickly in those days. The team starts off with 26 consecutive losses. Regrets?
McKAY: Yes. When I assembled the team and got my first look at them I knew I’d made a mistake.
TRAVERS: Didn’t you say something like, “We stunk and then it got worse”?
McKAY: Yes. However, we were the fastest expansion team to make the Play-Offs in 1979, and we made it three times.
TRAVERS: Do you consider yourself a Trojan for life?
McKAY: Yes. I still follow them on TV. The best part of my life was being a Trojan. We would walk through campus to go to lunch, and you could just feel the great atmosphere, everybody was electric. That’s something I’ll always miss.
TRAVERS: USC was named College of the Year by the Princeton Review, and our school is really involved in a positive way in the surrounding community near campus.
McKAY: What people don’t realize is that, with all those riots that have occurred all around that neighborhood, nobody ever touched the University, because people in that area know what the University means to the area.
TRAVERS: Do you stay in touch with athletic director and former Heisman Trophy winner Mike Garrett?
McKAY: I heard from Garrett recently about a re-union of the 1974 team.
TRAVERS: I know you were close with Bear Bryant. I want to touch on the role that the 1970 USC-Alabama game played in civil rights progress, but first let me tell you that I heard Reggie Jackson tell a story about how he knew the South would integrate. He played for the A’s Birmingham farm club in 1966, and Charlie Finley brought Bryant into the clubhouse. Bryant met Jackson, who had played football at Arizona State, and told him he was the kind of player he could use. Fast-forward four years. Sam “Bam” Cunningham scores four touchdowns in SC’s 42-20 victory at Birmingham. What happened after that?
<b>Cunningham was black. Alabama was still all-white
McKAY: Bryant came in to our locker room and asked if he could borrow Cunningham. I said sure. He took him into the Alabama locker room, and had him shake hands with each player, and he introduced him by saying, “Fellas, this is what a football player looks like.” Bryant always said Cunningham did more to integrate the South than any speech.
TRAVERS: USC, and UCLA with Jackie Robinson and Kenny Washington, has a long history of providing opportunity for black athletes.
McKAY: SC’s first All-American in the 1920s, Bryce Taylor, was black. Back then, you never heard of civil rights. Nobody was let in because of their color, they had to qualify like everybody else. Like Simpson, he had to go to a junior college before he could get in.
TRAVERS: Last question. Your other son, Rich, is having success as general manager of the Buccaneers. Tell me about him.
McKAY: Well, he played football in high school and at Princeton. He’s a smart kid, and he’s doing very well in his current job.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism