The McKays of Tampa Bay
John McKay, Jr. was the first player introduced over the public address system when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took to the field for the first time in 1976. “I think in the first pre-season game I was the first to be introduced,” McKay recalled in a recent interview for the Coffin Corner.
McKay came to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976 as a member of the expansion veteran’s allocation draft. McKay had spent a year with the Southern California Sun of the doomed World Football League rather than play for the Cleveland Browns, the team that drafted him in 1975. “They (the Sun) were willing to pay more money and it was local,” said the California native.
Figuring that the folding of the WFL meant the end of his professional career, the news that McKay was a Buccaneer came as a surprise for two reasons. First, he had a job as receivers coach at Oregon State. “I intended to stay there (Oregon State) and begin a coaching career. After spring practice I got a call from my Dad or someone with Tampa Bay that they had acquired my rights from Cleveland. So I signed a contract with Tampa Bay.”
The second surprise was that his father would now become his boss. His “Dad” was John McKay, Sr., four-time national championship-winning coach at the University of Southern California and the first coach of the expansion Buccaneers in 1976.
The younger McKay had some trepidation in coming to Tampa Bay, although the primary one was not playing for his father at the professional level. “Part of me wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do,” he recalled this past winter. “I knew it was going to be tough in terms of I was going to a team that wasn’t going to be very good. I also knew I was going to be a fringe player. I was someone good enough to be there but not good enough to do anything special. In hindsight I’m not even sure it was the right move, but at the time I figured I had an opportunity so why not give it a shot.”
The McKays of Tampa had already experienced a father-son/coach-player relationship when the younger man played at the University of Southern California under his Dad. Ironically, it wasn’t the idea of playing for his father that attracted McKay to USC; it was the chance to continue playing with a boyhood friend.
“I played high school football as a receiver and my quarterback was a man named Pat Haden, who went on to play with the Rams,” McKay said. “We decided to go to the same school and were recruited nationally. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to SC partly because my father was the coach. I wasn’t sure how that was going to work out. Pat and I decided to stay local and go to SC.”
In one of the most oft-repeated lines of the quotable John McKay, Sr. the head coach pointed out the secret reason he was able to lure his son to the Trojan campus. “I had an advantage – I slept with his mother.”
On the field it worked out quite well for Haden and McKay, Jr. as the Trojans won a national title in 1972 and 1974. While not prolific, McKay, Jr. was a dependable target for Haden and played well enough that while his relation to McKay, Sr. was never forgotten, his playing time was not questioned as pure nepotism.
“It’s not easy having your Dad as Coach,” McKay said. “It was made easier at SC because we won almost every game. There was never any real reason for concern. We won two national championships while I was there. If you’re winning its no problem at all.”
In Tampa Bay there would be no winning, literally. The expansion Buccaneers lost their first 26 games over the 1976-1977 seasons and McKay, Jr. witnessed the toll it took on his father. “I think it was the worst thing that happened to him professionally. He left college as probably the pre-eminent college coach in the country and had to endure teams that were really, really bad football teams.
Now they stock expansion teams pretty well, but back then you got nothing. They had number one draft choice Lee Roy Selmon, who was a really good player and then a bunch of players nobody wanted, myself included.”
“We just didn’t have any good players and didn’t have any chance to win. It was really difficult on him, on me and on the players.”
Unlike at USC, McKay, Jr. was viewed as being unworthy of his position on the team. Many would argue that if his last name wasn’t McKay he wouldn’t have been on the club. McKay won’t argue that his Dad gave him a break by inviting him to camp, but doesn’t accept that he didn’t earn his spot.
“I didn’t know it at the time,” McKay said of locker room complaints, “But I’ve heard some talk from the professional level about my place on the team. Steve Spurrier (the starting quarterback) said a few things that I shouldn’t have started in 1976. Maybe that’s right, but I was doing the best I could, I knew I was a fringe player. But in my defense there weren’t a lot of great receivers on that roster with me. I don’t think it would have made much difference who was starting. The guys playing with me didn’t go on to have stellar NFL careers. It wasn’t like if I hadn’t been playing we would have won eight games.”
When informed that he was the Buccaneers second-leading receiver for the three years he played in Tampa Bay, McKay, Jr. was surprised and laughed good-naturedly. “That is almost pathetic,” he said while chuckling.
While the losing affected his father as a coach, it never hurt their relationship. In fact, McKay barely had a chance to speak to his father during the season because the elder McKay’s coaching style was akin to a CEO. John McKay, Sr. devised the game plan, delegated practice duties to his assistants and then oversaw everything from afar. Very rarely would McKay, Sr. directly talk to a player on the practice field, he instead sent directions through assistants.
That style may have benefited the two McKays. Other than the Wilson’s in Miami, there was little in the way of precedent when it came to coaching your own son in the National Football League, so the elder McKay kept his distance from his son at the team’s facility, treating him like any other player.
“Virtually none,” McKay, Jr. answered when asked how much he and Dad could speak privately during the season. “Actually this went back to college. My Dad and I were very close throughout our lives but as SC and Tampa Bay we didn’t interact at all. You don’t even know what to call him. I couldn’t call him ‘Dad’ at work and ‘Coach’ at home, neither one seemed right. We just took the tack we had to keep our distance.”
“This didn’t mean we didn’t see each other and talk occasionally, but in order to keep it normal as far a player-coach decision you had to keep your distance. That’s how we went about it, but I don’t know if there is any right or wrong way to do it.”
The only thing about playing for his father that bothered McKay, Jr. was listening to the constant criticism and vitriol that his father endured during the 1976 and 1977 seasons. McKay, Jr. was constantly approached by reporters looking for insight about his father, but he wouldn’t take the bait. “I felt it was inappropriate for me to comment on my Dad,” he said. “It’s hard not to try to defend your Dad when you feel he is being unfairly attacked. Luckily for my Dad he did turn things around when he got some players because great players make great coaches.”
In 1978 the Buccaneers finished 5-11. McKay, Jr. had a solid year but hurt his hand late in the season. The injury didn’t respond to treatment and as training camp rolled around in 1979, both he and his father had a tough decision to make.
“I was asked by the team if I wanted to retire,” McKay said about his departure from the game. “I told them I thought it more appropriate that you cut me and they did.” Cutting his own son had to be hard on McKay, Sr. but he did have the knowledge that he did so with his son’s blessing. “I told my Dad I wasn’t going to be on the roster and should be cut like anyone else.”
While the training camp decision was hard, McKay also knew that he had a roster full of players that could win and in 1979 the Buccaneers did just that, finishing 10-6 and one game short of a Super Bowl appearance. McKay, Jr. has no misgivings about his time in Tampa Bay or the end of his career. “I did get an offer from Don Shula to try out with the Dolphins, but at that point in time I was going to law school and didn’t have any more interest in playing.”
In the years since his playing days ended McKay, Jr. has become a successful lawyer, passing the Bar Exam in both Florida and California. Today he is a partner with the law firm of Jeffer, Mangels, Butler and Marmaro in Los Angeles and for a short time held the position of General Manager of the LA Xtreme of the XFL. As the son of a coach, he still has a passion for the game but is content to practice law and follow the success of his younger brother Rich, the GM of the Atlanta Falcons. “Given the right circumstances I’d still love to be in football. My brother is doing a great job in Atlanta.”
As the experiences of John McKay, Jr. show, playing for your father in the National Football League may not be easy, but they did have a chance to create memories that most fathers and sons can only dream of.