TAMPA — He might still look boyish, with his spiked hair and apple-cheeked smile. But Sean McVay has done a grown man’s job for four seasons as coach of the Los Angeles Rams.
As you might recall, before McVay directed Hollywood’s team, he was a 22-year-old assistant receivers coach with the Bucs. You would think the guy with a memory as sharp as IBM Watson would have some detailed stories from his first job in football.
“What I remember is I knew nothing,” McVay, 34, said of his one-year stint with the Bucs under Jon Gruden in 2008. “The majority of things I really learned were at the (Florida Fired Coaches Association) working with Jon and then going and coaching in the United Football League.
“I came in that one season and had a great experience with the Bucs, but I was really just showing a willingness to do anything. I was really more of a secretary than an actual coach, but I was fortunate to be around a lot of great guys.”
Before graduating from Miami-Ohio, the mobile quarterback from a legendary football family drove to Indianapolis to interview at the NFL scouting combine with Gruden. McVay was hired as a quality control assistant, but before long he was in the receivers meeting room with Ike Hilliard, Antonio Bryant, Joey Galloway and Michael Clayton.
“Sean was a baby-faced guy who used to bring us candy and get us water,” Clayton said. “He ran the hell out of the scout team. Sean always had this bubbly energy every single day. You knew he was just like a sponge, soaking up everything that Jon Gruden put out. He didn’t act like Jon Gruden, though. He was just always humble. Everyone in the room just loved Sean.”
This is where the story requires a little background, because the McVay name is one that opens doors. And the Grudens and McVays go back 51 years together, when Gruden’s father, Jim, was an assistant at Dayton from 1969-72 under John McVay, Sean’s grandfather.
Tim McVay, Sean’s father, was recruited by Jim Gruden to play safety at Indiana. John McVay went on to coach the New York Giants and eventually became general manager of the San Francisco 49ers.
When the 49ers drafted Joe Montana out of Notre Dame in the 1979 third round, Jim Gruden had been on the Notre Dame coaching staff and recommended the quarterback. When Jon Gruden got his first NFL job at age 26 with the 49ers in 1990, John McVay was the team’s vice president.
Sean McVay’s dad eventually moved the family to Atlanta when he got a job to run a television station. But whenever the 49ers would visit the Falcons each year, little Sean would stand on the sideline at the Saturday practice and play catch with players, such as future Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Steve Young.
“Sean would come hang out and we’d toss the ball around with him,” said Rice, the NFL’s all-time leading receiver. “He wanted to talk football and asked a lot of questions about how the plays worked. He was always picking our brains about everything. You could tell he loved football.”
Sometimes, he got too close to the players.
“I forget where we were playing, but Sean and his dad were there at practice the Saturday before a game,” John McVay said. “Of course Sean, being an eager beaver, he was right on the sidelines and you know how they do on Saturdays, have the big offensive linemen run some short routes and they throw them passes. So he’s standing on the sidelines and here comes this 800-pound tackle to catch a pass and I said, ‘Oh (crap). He’ll never be a great coach.’ But the Lord interceded, and he got by okay. He just missed him.”
When Sean McVay left the Bucs after Jon Gruden was fired following the 2008 season, he joined Gruden’s brother Jay on the staff of the United Football League’s Florida Tuskers in 2009. A year later, McVay was hired by former Bucs general manager Bruce Allen in 2010 on the Washington staff. When Jay Gruden was named Washington’s head coach, McVay eventually became the team’s offensive coordinator at age 28.
McVay adores his grandfather and knows he was the reason for his entry into pro football at such an early age.
“I’m not naive to the fact that a lot of the opportunities I got at an early age are exclusively the result of having the last name McVay because of the legacy my grandfather John established,” he said. “What a great man, what a great mentor and influence he’s been on me.”
McVay became the youngest coach in NFL history when he was hired by the Rams in 2017 at age 30. In his first season, he went 11-5, won the NFC West and was named coach of the year. His offense was among the best in the league, though the Rams lost in the wild-card to the Atlanta Falcons.
The next season, the Rams went 13-3 and won the NFC before losing to Tom Brady and the Patriots 13-3 in Super Bowl 53. A year ago, the Rams went 9-7 and changed defensive coordinators in the offseason.
Gone was 73-year-old Wade Phillips and in stepped 37-year-old Broncos linebackers coach Brandon Staley. He installed a 3-4 scheme and the Rams, who added former Florida State star cornerback Jalen Ramsey before the trade deadline last season, have become a top-10 defense.
NFL coaches admire McVay’s offense, which utilizes numerous shifts and motions, many of them after the snap, to create confusion and communication problems for the defense. The Rams (6-3) enter Monday night’s game needing a win to tie the Seahawks atop the NFC West, though the Rams hold the tiebreaker.
“He’s a very bright guy,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said of McVay. “He’s inventive offensively. But he has a great rapport with his players. A lot of players are going to say, ‘Ah, this guy doesn’t know (crap), right?’ But he’s got a great way of teaching. He’s got a great moxie about him. He’s got some swagger to him, and I think the guys all identify with that. But it all starts with a great mind.”
That mind has been on display with the adjustments he is able to make during a game. McVay also has added an amazing stat to his resume: In his 56 games as Rams coach, he has never lost when they have led at halftime.
“He had exposure to one of the really truly outstanding coaches in the game with Jon Gruden,” John McVay said. “And he had a chance to bounce around then a little bit in professional football with Washington and so forth. He got good exposure with the right kind of people.
“He has the wonderful ability ... to get the players to respond to the coach, and the coach then gets the chance to bring out the best in the players. He’s something, I’ll tell you.”
Clayton still laughs when he thinks about that 22-year-old straight out of college fitting in with the Bucs receivers that one season in Tampa Bay.
“I’m not surprised he had immediate success,” Clayton said. “I said, ‘Man, I understand why because everybody absolutely loved playing for Sean McVay.’ ”