TAMPA — It's easy to picture John McKay on the Buccaneers sideline, in that orange windbreaker, his arms folded with one hand under his chin, the snow white hair peeking out from beneath that floppy golf cap.
The legendary coach who won four national championships at Southern California took over Tampa Bay's NFL expansion team in 1976 — for the challenge and a five-fold pay increase —before suffering through the indignity of 26 straight losses.
But he never blinked.
"I think he would be the first to tell you it was much harder than he thought," said McKay's son, Rich, the former Bucs general manager and now president of the Atlanta Falcons. "What I probably have the fondest remembrances of and my takeaway from those years was his mental toughness. Because I've seen other guys, especially the last couple years ... quit after 13 games or quit after two years and that was never in his mindset.
"He had no thought of going back. He had many opportunities to go back to college and do that, but he was going to finish the task."
John McKay not only took the Bucs from worst to first — winning the NFC Central Division in just his fourth season — he did it with style and a smirk. And his quick wit was dry as the desert.
His most famous quote came following a loss, when he was asked about his team's execution. He replied, "I'm all for it."
After Tampa Bay ended its long losing streak, McKay said, "Three or four plane crashes and we're in the playoffs." When Bill Capece missed kicks against Green Bay that provided the margin of victory for the Packers, McKay announced, "Capece is kaput."
In 1979, the Bucs finally won one for the Quipper. They upset the Philadelphia Eagles 24-17 in the NFC divisional playoff game at Tampa Stadium to reach the NFC Championship game. The Bucs fell one game shy of the Super Bowl after losing that game 9-0 to the Los Angeles Rams.
McKay, who died in 2001 from complications of diabetes, will be posthumously inducted into the Bucs Ring of Honor during halftime of Sunday's Bucs-Falcons game. He is only the second recipient of that honor, joining Hall of Fame defensive end Lee Roy Selmon, the first player drafted in club history.
In honor of McKay, all fans in attendance will receive a replica of McKay's orange-trimmed floppy golf hat. Players will wear throwback orange uniforms from 1976, and white helmets with the stiletto chewing pirate, Bucco Bruce.
"That's why, to me, this honor, as much as it will say his name on it and all that, I kind of look at it as an honor to the first generation of Bucs because for that generation, it was a struggle," said Rich, who will be accompanied by many members of the McKay family at today's ceremony. "For those people, including him, to be recognized is a cool thing."
Here are excerpts from Rich McKay's conversation with the Times about his father, football and family.
Where did the floppy hat originate from?
The hat was just a simple fact that he was a very fair-skinned guy and baseball caps ultimately didn't work for him because of how much his ears and everything else burned. So doctors kept telling him, 'You've got to wear bigger hats.' He basically took his golf cap, and (equipment manager) Frankie Pupello would probably be the father of creating the Buc look on that cap.
I have the hat from the last game. I have some neat memorabilia. I think we all have one hat somewhere. We've got the national championship rings. We've got some really cool stuff for memories. But from Tampa, we got some other neat things that I probably shouldn't say because somebody would probably want to come get them.
What in the world possessed him to take over an NFL expansion team after all his success at Southern Cal?
Two things, I think. One was money. ... In those days, college coaches just didn't make a lot of money. There was a big difference between going to the pros and college. And second was the challenge. He always wanted the expansion team. He had been offered the job in Cleveland, New England, the L.A. Rams. He had a number of opportunities, all of which he said no to, because he really liked the idea of starting from scratch. That intrigued him. I would say it was those two things.
Weren't the rules stacked against the expansion teams when Tampa Bay and Seattle entering the league in 1976?
As I remember them, the biggest challenges were I think they got the expansion list either 48 hours or 72 hours before the draft and there was no contact allowed and no physicals allowed. And that no physicals ended up being a huge problem for them because as much advance work as Ron (Wolf) and his staff probably did, they really didn't know what to anticipate. Then what happened was a number of players who were drafted in the expansion draft never even made it. They were just out and that was a little challenging.
There was no free agency so you had no way to add veterans that were the four- or five-year players. The guys on the expansion list that could still play that were veterans were all 30 years old. So it was a really tough situation and it showed itself by the fact that Seattle probably won I don't know how many games, not many. And Tampa, until that fourth year, really couldn't win any games either. It was just too hard.
How did he handle all the losing in those first three years?
His philosophy going in was to try to win relatively quickly and be competitive. I just remember in that first year, he was very quick to tell us as a family and his staff that, okay, this is not going to happen. We need to rethink our approach. And our approach has to be we've got to go totally young and keep only those players who can be players for us in years four and five. Let the rest go and move forward. I think he knew '77 was going to be as challenging, if not more challenging, than '76.
Was he surprised by how quickly he turned things around?
No. I remember the training camp in '78 and he got as excited as I've seen him in a long time about Doug Williams and the prospects of Doug and what Doug meant. Doug wasn't the most accurate guy at the time, but just the competitive drive and leadership that Doug had was special. Joe Gibbs was on that staff and there just was the feeling that now we can begin to turn this thing around. I would be interested to see in '78 what that might have been had Doug not broken his jaw, because that team had just started to play good defense and after that, as much as Mike Rae came in, it was a struggle.
How did he handle the 9-0 loss to the Rams in the NFC title game? Ever get over it?
He was very upset and he said it publicly many times that he felt like they relied too much on the first time we played them. We'd played them earlier in the year and we didn't change up as much as we should've changed up. It came down to a game of couple plays that didn't work out for us and it shouldn't have come down to that. I think he took great pride in the Philadelphia game and by the same token was mad at himself about the Rams game.
After the '82 season, he strongly supported Doug Williams' quest for a new contact. How did losing Williams affect him?
We obviously never recovered from it. Personally, it was very tough on him because he felt they had kind of grown up together in the franchise. He wasn't ever going to complain about it because that's not what head coaches are supposed to do in his mind. But it was very, very tough. I think it also was tough for him personally because Doug had been through some trying times and my dad, I know, was affected that he didn't get to see Doug — as he should of — end up as a Buc forever.
Where did those marvelous quips come from?
I think the thing he would've told you, and always pointed out to me, is it's a lot easier to deal with defeat than to handle success. Because in defeat, his goal was put it back on himself a little bit and try to take it away from the team, to try to draw attention to himself. He didn't like press conferences. ... The shortest press conferences he would ever have are Rose Bowl wins, national championships. He said to me those are two-minute press conferences. He said in the loss, people want to hear you, people want a piece of you, you need to give it to them.
Did John enjoy the success you had with the Bucs during your days as GM?
"He liked it lot (because) he always felt that a little piece of that franchise was associated with him. And he likes to compete. So he was a guy who every Saturday would watch USC football and maybe go back and look at the Oregon Ducks or whatever other teams he could. But on Sunday, he was a Bucs fan and those were tough days. So I think as the franchise turned around, he took great pride in that. He loved going to games. We'd bring him to the game, we'd set him up. Jerry Angelo would drive him home or Tim Ruskell would drive him home or I'd drive him home ... but he liked going to the game and we liked having him."
What would your dad think of this honor?
You hear this a lot, but with him it was really true: He was the ultimate non-self promoter. He didn't believe in it, he didn't think he needed to do it. He thought something would come to you if you deserved it. As he got older, like all guys who get older, when he went back and had some of the reunions at USC for some of the championship teams, I remember the first couple, he didn't really want to go. He didn't think it was important. He didn't think it was a big deal. But I remember the last couple, he enjoyed the coaches, he enjoyed the people, he enjoyed the players. He would take pride in it I think from all the people that contributed, the Abe Gibrons and all the people that were in that group that fought their way through, he would take great pride in that.
"As I said, I think the neat thing about this honor for my dad is that first generation, and that includes some fans sitting in those stands. They can take a little pride in what they went through, which is good."