The end of John McKay's coaching days in Tampa
On November 5, 1984 the Tampa Bay Buccaneers called a press conference. The purpose of the press conference was cause for much speculation. The rumors circulated around head coach John McKay. The man who had guided the Bucs from infancy to the doorstep of the Super Bowl had grown increasingly, and visibly, frustrated as the fortunes of the team consistently diminished over the previous two years.
The day before the Bucs had lost a heartbreaking 27-24 decision to the Minnesota Vikings. Minnesota won on a last-second field goal by Jan Stenerud, a man McKay had wanted to sign during the off-season. McKay had been vetoed by owner Hugh Culverhouse, who didn’t feel Stenerud was in his price range. As he walked off the field, McKay was heard to say, “I don’t need this.” Less than 24 hours later, he was meeting with the press.
“Well, ah, Mr. C and I have met and I resign effective at the end of this season,” McKay said to the gathered media, looking so much older than his 61 years. “I have enjoyed the relationship with Mr. Culverhouse especially and the news media. I’m sorry I couldn’t get the job done as you people wanted it. But we tried.”
Unusually somber, McKay continued, “Mr. C did not agree with me. He wanted me to stay. I thought that would be foolish. Let’s face it. We’re not getting the job done this year. I regret not being able to do it.”
Commenting on the impact of the Stenerud kick, McKay said, “When Stenerud hit that long field goal, I said that’s as much as I can take.”
Less than three years before, McKay had led the Buccaneers to their second NFC Central Division Championship in two years. Since that time however, events transpired to take the joy of coaching away from McKay. Hugh Culverhouse hinted at that when he thanked McKay for his loyal service.
”John is an outstanding coach and an even finer man,” the owner said. “He is the same coach now that he has been for 25 years. The Bucs recent problems seem to be due to events largely beyond John’s control.”
Culverhouse certainly was familiar with those events. Whether the actions were intentional or not, Culverhouse had an influential hand in many of the issues that impacted McKay. Starting with a debilitating work stoppage in 1982 through the failure to sign Stenerud, McKay’s team and his respect for the NFL was systematically dismantled. The irony is that Culverhouse’s actions were crushing to one of his closest friends: John McKay.
The two men connected from the moment they met in 1975. The friendship survived an 0-26 start to the franchise. Most coaches would have been terminated following a streak such as that, but Hugh Culverhouse had no intention of firing John McKay. “He was friends with my Dad,” recalls Hugh Culverhouse, Jr. explaining the relationship between McKay and the elder Culverhouse.
“The sad thing is that you don’t want to become friends with your coach or your general manager,” Culverhouse, Jr. said. “They are employees and if they aren’t doing their job, you’ve got to fire them.” Instead of axing McKay, Culverhouse sacrificed personnel man Ron Wolf. That is the same Ron Wolf who went on to a Hall of Fame caliber career, including the creation of Brett Favre’s Super Bowl winning Packer teams of the 1990’s.
Decades later Ron Wolf remembers his termination. In an interview for a planned biography of Hugh Culverhouse Wolf stated he is not bitter about how he left the Bucs and in fact, argues that reports of him having a personality clash with Culverhouse are false. “There wasn’t anything wrong with it (relationship with Culverhouse),” Wolf said.
According to Wolf his termination came down to the simple fact that the team was 2-26 after two years. With a record like that someone had to be held accountable and Culverhouse placed greater value on McKay. “Culverhouse needed somebody to go. He had paid a lot of money for John McKay and John wasn’t going to go. Culverhouse and McKay were World War II veterans, they golfed and I didn’t golf. It was pretty obvious who was going to go.”
Culverhouse’s refusal to fire his friend paid off handsomely as the Buccaneers clinched three playoff appearances in four years. McKay later returned the favor, staying loyal to his friend as the NFL entered into a dark period of labor strife. Unfortunately for McKay, where the owner’s loyalty was rewarded with playoff appearances, the coach’s loyalty would be rewarded with player anger and on-the-field failure.
The trouble began when the NFL players walked out on strike in September of 1982. NFL coaching staffs were left in the lurch, game-planning week after week for games that would not be played. Adding to McKay’s sense of discomfort was his close personal friendship with Hugh Culverhouse. As a member of the NFL Management Council, Culverhouse was one of a small cadre of owners that were battling the NFL Players Association. Culverhouse’s staunch hatred of the NFLPA exacerbated his already tenuous relationship with the players who chafed at the impact the owners frugal mentality had on their careers.
The Bucs in 1982 were a vastly different team from the one that clinched two of the past three division titles. Gone were players such as Dewey Selmon, Curtis Jordan, Jeris White, Jerry Eckwood and David Lewis. All key components of the playoff teams had been either traded away or allowed to leave. While drug use was rumored to have been a factor in some personnel decisions, cost-cutting was the major motive. The massive loss of talent led to a disjointed start and the Bucs were 0-2 when the strike began.
The cutting of payroll was particularly galling to the players that remained behind when it was learned that the Buccaneers were the 5th highest grossing club in 1981. With an income of $17.04 million, the Buccaneers turned a tidy profit. However, the Bucs ranked 21st out of 28 teams with an average salary of $76,761.
One of the players that were left behind was linebacker Richard “Batman” Wood. Wood recalled that it didn’t take a genius to figure out what was going on. “We had some pretty good ball players. We just had a lot of wishy-washy things going on. When teams now have a chance to win they do their best to keep the core players there, and I don’t think that was a priority.”
Despite the fact that his boss and friend was profiting at the expense of on-field success, McKay sided with Culverhouse. That was a decision that cost him dearly. “The strike killed him (McKay),” says Culverhouse’s son Hugh, Jr. “He sided with my Dad and he shouldn’t have done it. John went against his players and they were never his again.”
McKay made an honest yet painful mistake when his coaches started calling players halfway through the strike to ask if they would return to the team if the team opened One Buccaneer Place for informal workouts. This was a blatant violation of National Labor Relations Board policy and Bucs assistant player rep Dave Stalls called McKay out saying the act was “a blatant attempt to split the players.”
The calls led McKay and the franchise to be pilloried in the press. Stalls and some in the media intimated the action of McKay and his coaches was at the behest of Culverhouse. The opinion making the rounds was that as one of the high ranking members of the NFL Management Council, Culverhouse orchestrated the calls in an attempt to break the union and end the strike.
“I have a hard time believing the coaches would do this on their own,” Stalls said at the time, implying that Culverhouse ordered the calls. Later it was learned that McKay did indeed act on his own accord. Whether he knew the calls were permitted or not, McKay’s relation with many of his players was damaged.
When the strike finally ended after 57 days a disgruntled group of players returned to One Buc. The team rebounded to finish 5-4 and make the playoffs, but according to Dave Stalls and Richard Wood, McKay had little interaction with the players. “No one spoke to me, not even Coach McKay,” said Wood. “It was very strange to me.”
“We very rarely saw John McKay at practice,” recalled Stalls recently in an interview for the Culverhouse biography. Now known as Dave DeForest-Stalls, he went on, “His assistants ran practice. When we did see him, a lot of what he would say was sarcastic. His humor was sarcastic but his humor was often at the expense of a player. That was not the most endearing behavior for a leader.”
Culverhouse’s son Hugh, Jr. believes that McKay was finished as a coach in 1982, but only stayed out of a sense of friendship. “I do not think his heart was in it after that strike. His heart wasn’t in it after that. He just didn’t want to coach.”
If the strike had soured his view of professional football, the loss of his quarterback cemented his disdain.