TAMPA — Before he became the hottest name in NFL coaching, before the well-gelled hair, California cool look and the model fiance, Sean McVay’s first NFL job involved picking up dry cleaning and take out for a coach who could intimidate with a grimace.
Yes, McVay broke into the league fulfilling errands for Jon Gruden and his Bucs staff in 2008. McVay, the 33-year-old Los Angeles Rams head coach, entered the league as a wide-eyed 22-year-old who had just ended his collegiate career at Miami of Ohio, and wanted to get his foot in the door at any NFL facility.
Gruden gave him that opportunity as a pay it forward act rooted in decades of family favors.
McVay’s grandfather, John, hired Gruden’s dad, Jim, to his coaching staff at Dayton. As an assistant coach at Indiana, Jim Gruden recruited Sean’s father, Tim, to play safety for the Hoosiers in the mid-70s. And as 49ers general manager, John McVay played a role in giving a young Jon Gruden his first NFL coaching gig in 1990.
So thanks to Gruden, the 2008 Bucs media guide listed McVay as a “coaches assistant.” But initially, McVay said his duties proved more secretarial. The man who developed into an offensive mastermind and eventually guided the Rams to the Super Bowl in his second year as a head coach spent days delivering, “Yes sir” and “No sir” responses to the coach.
“Basically, I was the grunt that would do anybody’s job that really people didn’t want to do and I was happy to do it and just to be able to have a job in the NFL. ... The weirdest errand? Probably not something I could say on this conference call. ... There were a lot of things. No task was too big or too small for me.”
McVay, whose 3-0 Rams team hosts the Bucs Sunday, has come a long way since. He used the opportunity with the Bucs to learn from the coaches around him, among them Jon Gruden, former Bucs offensive assistants Bill Muir, Greg Olson and Jay Gruden, forming the foundation that would make him one of the game’s most revered young offensive minds.
“I think as the season progressed, you continue to try to learn a little bit of football,” McVay said. “But my main goal and focus was just to really create value when I got there any way that I could, show that you work hard, that no job is above you and that’s really what I did.”
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That season, the Bucs started 9-3, but lost their last four games and the Bucs fired Gruden. And that’s when the real learning came for McVay when he received an invitation to Gruden’s Fired Football Coaches Association breakdown sessions.
“I really got the chance to learn as much as anything when Jon and I spent some time together at his FFCA and we really grinded on tape and things like that, but that Bucs experience has been so invaluable to me and I made some great friendships that are still really close to this day.”
The following year, McVay landed a job with Gruden's brother, Jay, with the Orlando Tuskers of the UFL. He returned to the NFL a year later, hired by Redskins coach Mike Shanahan as an assistant tight ends coach. And after the 2013 season, he was promoted to offensive coordinator when Jay Gruden succeeded Shanahan in Washington. Three seasons into that job, after McVay's offense ranked third in the league, the Rams came calling.
“Sean’s done a heck of a job,” said Bucs coach Bruce Arians, whose last season in Arizona saw McVay win the NFC West in his rookie season on the backs of the league’s best offense. “They were not very good, and then became good quick.”
After taking the Rams to the Super Bowl last year, McVay’s new challenge is remaining among the top teams.
“I think this league is so competitive,” he said. “You earn the confidence, you earn it every single day, every week, and each week represents a new challenge, and I think that’s what’s so exciting about the NFL, that all 32 teams are so competitive, that there are great players, great coaches and that’s why it’s such a challenge week in and week out to try to sustain. We haven’t done that yet.”
McVay can look back to his season in Tampa as a reminder of how things can change in a hurry, seeing the Bucs go from a strong start to an entire coaching staff looking for a job.
“Really we started out (well), we were 9-3, and unfortunately we lost the last four, but with the players and coaches it was nothing but a phenomenal experience for me," McVay said. "From a foundational standpoint, I couldn’t have asked for much more to really realize and humble you that you really don’t know anything. And when you’re able to be around great people who are willing to help you, that gives you the chance to continue to grow and that’s what that opportunity represented for me."
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.