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Ahead of Their Time

Many remember the wit and success of John McKay, but his sons also recall the intensity

January 02, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

What does it mean to be USC's football coach, with a couple of national championships under your belt, living in the entertainment capital of the world?

J.K. McKay learned early.

He remembers having dinner as a kid at Chasen's in Beverly Hills with his dad, the late Trojan coach John McKay, and legendary Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant. The waiter approached with a request.

"Coach McKay," he said. "Mr. Sinatra has a table in back and wants you to stop by."

McKay, who already had won two of his four national titles, didn't budge.

"You tell him to come up and see us," he said.

And Sinatra did, proving that even the Chairman of the Board couldn't always do it his way, not when he was dealing with the coach who poured the foundation for one of the most successful programs in the history of college football.

"That's when I realized my dad was big," recalled J.K., who also goes by John and is an attorney in L.A. He played receiver for his father and, along with quarterback Pat Haden, was co-most valuable player of the 1975 Rose Bowl.

His father died almost five years ago, but now J.K. watches a modern-day version of him pacing the USC sideline. Pete Carroll has won two national championships and is one victory from his third. Like McKay, Carroll has a way of camouflaging his intensity. While McKay served up a steady stream of one-liners -- a former player called him the Johnny Carson of the coaching world -- Carroll is a so-called player's coach who thinks nothing of tossing a football after practice or throwing elbows in a lunchtime basketball game.

"There's a common thread between them," said Rich McKay, J.K.'s younger brother and president of the Atlanta Falcons. "Outwardly, they both have that easygoing, affable way. Life's great. Nothing bothers me. Everybody must think they go home at night and it's no big deal. But on the inside, they're very, very competitive."

McKay, who died at 77 in 2001 of diabetes-related complications, coached the Trojans from 1960 to 1975 and won national championships in 1962, '67, '72 and '74. His teams had three unbeaten seasons, won nine conference titles, went to eight Rose Bowls and had a 16-year record of 127-40-8, making him the winningest coach in Trojan football history. His record in his last 14 seasons -- before he left to coach the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- was 119-29-7.

Before McKay replaced Don Clark as USC's head coach, the Trojans had gone nearly 30 years without winning a national championship.

"If you're going to build a house, you've got to put concrete down to start with. John McKay was that foundation," said Craig Fertig, who played quarterback under McKay and later was one of his Trojan assistant coaches.

Although Rich McKay attended Princeton and never played for his father, he and J.K. still refer to their dad as "Coach." They knew well how his competitive fires raged. Some of their most cherished memories are of sitting with him at his Coliseum locker -- the cramped cubicle with "McKay" scrawled in chalk on the metal -- and soaking in the atmosphere in the hours leading to a home game.

McKay might have been quick with a quip when he was talking to reporters, but he was almost silent during those introspective times with his sons.

"He was not the most verbose guy," Rich said. "You knew his emotions from knowing him. He was going to keep them inside. I knew by the looks he had what emotions he was going to feel."

From 1934 to 1976, there was an annual Chicago College All-Star game, which pitted the best college players against the defending NFL champion. The game was usually no contest; from 1955 on, the pros won every game but one.

That was no consolation to McKay, however, after his all-star team lost the 1973 game to the Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins, 14-3. He was so competitive, he saw the game the way few others did: as a must-win measuring stick for college football.

After the loss, he and 12-year-old Rich wordlessly left the locker room and started to board the bus, where the assistant coaches were laughing and cracking open beers. Fuming, McKay instructed his son to get off the bus and the two silently walked the three miles back to the hotel in a rainstorm.

"We walked through neighborhoods you just don't walk through," Rich recalled. "My mom was really mad at him for that."

Corky McKay, who died last April, met her husband when they were students at the University of Oregon and John was a standout football player for the Ducks. Years later, John would frequently refer to her in interviews and news conferences. Among his memorable lines was the time he was asked about emotion in football.

"It's overrated," he said. "My wife is emotional, but she's a lousy football player."

Some of his other classics:

Questioned after a loss during the early days at Tampa Bay about his team's execution, he responded, "I think it's a good idea."

Asked why O.J. Simpson carried the ball so often: "Why not? It isn't very heavy. Besides, he doesn't belong to a union."

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