One of West Virginia’s most fun coaching characters was ‘Nick Saban before Nick Saban’

One of West Virginia’s most fun coaching characters was ‘Nick Saban before Nick Saban’

I watched an NBC Sports “Race and Sports in America” round table discussion on Monday.

On the panel was Pro Football Hall of Famer Tony Dungy, along with ex-NFL coach Jim Caldwell and former ESPN anchor Michael Smith and one other gentleman.

“You see that guy?” I said to Joni.

“Yep,” she said.

“His father is one of the most successful and routinely forgotten coaches to ever come from West Virginia.”

I told her the man on the panel was Atlanta Falcons President and CEO Rich McKay, who has been a fixture in the National Football League for more than 30 years, 16 of those with the Falcons and 10 with Tampa Bay.

Yet the point of this blog is to highlight McKay’s father, John.

While many West Virginians understandably boast of Alabama coach Nick Saban first and foremost, John McKay hailed from Everettville, right smack between Fairmont and Morgantown. Close enough to Saban’s home they could be called neighbors.  (“That’s right by where my grandmother lives!” said Joni, who, indeed has the sweetest 104-year-old grandmother living in Rivesville.)

And all John McKay did was lead the University of Southern California Trojans to four national championships in 16 seasons and then become the first coach for the NFL expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers for eight seasons.

He was, in effect, West Virginia’s Nick Saban before Nick Saban. Yet many forget a pretty unforgettable guy.

As an NFL coach, he was once asked about his team’s execution.

“I’m in favor of it,” he deadpanned.

He was colorful beyond Tampa Bay’s orange colors.

It’s quite amazing – especially when you consider how close McKay was born to Saban (Carolina-Worthington), 6-time championship winner and Michigan legend Fielding Yost (Fairview) and one-time title winner and Clarksburg-Glen Falls native Jimbo Fisher, formerly of Florida State now at Texas A&M. Add in Grant Town native Rich Rodriguez, if you wish, who had WVU within a victory of a national championship game.

Of course, that’s just in the north-central West Virginia area. Legendary Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder hailed from Point Pleasant. Notre Dame legend Lou Holtz was born in Follansbee. Ex-Marshall coach Bob Pruett is from Beckley. Former Herd coach Doc Holliday is from Hurricane. One can go on and on. Ex-Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe is from Huntington, ex-WVU coach Bill Stewart was from Grafton, Terry and Tommy Bowden hail from Morgantown…

McKay, though, just had a little extra pizzazz.

“We can’t win at home and we can’t win on the road,” he once quipped of his Bucs. “What we need is a neutral site.”

His teams at USC, however, were legendary, making eight appearances in the Rose Bowl, winning five. McKay coached there from 1960 to 1975 before taking over Tampa Bay from 1976 to 1984. That didn’t go so well at first (thus the quips) as the Bucs lost the first 26 games, but then they were much improved afterward and made the playoffs three times, once reaching the NFC Championship.

McKay’s story is riveting. His father died in the coal mines when he was 13. After growing up in Shinnston, McKay was offered a football scholarship to Wake Forest but had to return to work in the coal mines to help his sick mother. He then went to the armed forces and only then did he get to play ball, first at Purdue and then Oregon. McKay, by the way, was a halfback alongside legendary quarterback Norm Van Brocklin.

After playing, McKay began working his way up the proverbial coaching ladder.

And it was a very successful climb. His USC teams had two players win the Heisman Trophy – Mike Garrett and O.J. Simpson. (Yes, McKay was Simpson’s coach.)

That wasn’t all though. McKay coached names like Pat Haden, Sam Cunningham and Lynn Swan.

Oh, and at Tampa? Remember how this blog began? It was with the NFL team that McKay strongly supported star quarterback Doug Williams, who couldn’t get a decent contract from the team’s owner.

Williams first gained fame as being the first African-American QB taken in the first round of an NFL draft and, later, he won a Super Bowl MVP award for Washington.

“There was nothing phony about the man,” said former USC and NFL linebacker David Lewis of McKay. “Nobody drafted a black quarterback in the first round in those days. But with Coach McKay, the best players played. He told you what was on his mind, in an honest and straightforward manner. He took the brunt of criticism in the early days, but he had the last laugh.”

Just as a West Virginian would.

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Mitch Vingle covered sports in West Virginia for 38 years. Follow Mitch on Twitter at @MitchVingle and be sure to check out the rest of Wheelhouse Creative’s website for your marketing and advertising needs. If interested, call us at 304-905-6005.



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