Monday, November 1, 2010

John McKay Hired in Tampa Bay, 10/31/75

By late October 1975, fans of Tampa Bay's new professional football team had to be wondering when their first head coach would be hired. With the first exhibition game just nine months out, the Buccaneers still had no players and only a hint of who would be leading the team into battle.

Speculation had been running rampant since July when Tampa Tribune columnist Tom McEwen confirmed that University of Southern California head coach John McKay had been offered the job by Buccaneer's owner Hugh Culverhouse.

A winner of four national championships with USC, McKay admitted to having interest in the Tampa Bay position and that it was the only job outside of USC he had under consideration. In other words, he would either coach the Trojans for another five to six years or become the first head coach in Buccaneer history.

"Tampa is the only place in which I am interested," McKay said. "My wife and I haven't worked this hard to get where we are to talk of going to some cold climate."

On Halloween, the announcement became official that John McKay would become vice president and head coach of the Buccaneers. Although USC made a serious play to keep McKay in Los Angeles, Culverhouse evidently lured McKay to Tampa with a five-year contract, which included a house, an insurance policy, transportation and full authority over hiring of his coaching staff.

The deal -- worth between $1.5 and $2 million ($5.9 million in today's dollars) -- represented an exorbitant amount to pay a head coach at the time. Consider that in 2009, the Sports Business Daily estimated the average salary of an NFL head coach at $2.5 million per year. McKay may have had some misgivings about leaving a comfortable situation behind, but in Tampa he had a chance at long-term financial security.

In McKay, Culverhouse seemingly had his target in mind from the beginning, never seriously considering any other coaches. The only credible name to surface other than McKay was that of his close friend, former Notre Dame head coach Ara Parseghian. Culverhouse and Parseghian never talked, however, and no offers were ever made.

In the weeks prior to the announcement, Culverhouse went on the record and said, "I'm not interested in anybody but John McKay. We want him and him alone. I just believe he would be perfect for the Tampa job."

Since he planned on retaining his duties at USC until the end of their season, McKay did not leave Los Angeles immediately and come to Tampa. There was also the small matter of a game that night against the University of California. Instead, his first interview with the local media came over the telephone.

In one of the first of thousands of quips to come during his time in Tampa, the notorious cigar aficionado McKay said that he "took the job because of the Tampa cigars."

He explained his decision to leave the comforts of USC as part of a desire to try something new.

"I've been a college coach, either an assistant of the head man, for 27 years now," McKay said, "and I figured that was enough. My family is grown and I thought I might enough the challenge.

Tampa Bay's Vice President of Football Operations Ron Wolf said that he could not have been happier at the chance to work with McKay.

"He gives us instant credibility," Wolf said. "He also gives you something to write about. This man coaches a team that currently has more players in the National Football League (36) than anyone else."

The reaction to McKay's hire outside of Tampa was uniformly positive.

Parseghian said that, "Tampa has itself one heckuva head coach and it makes for a beautiful marriage."

Cincinnati Bengals head coach Paul Brown described the signing a "fine start for Tampa Bay" and called McKay "a very worthy addition" to the NFL.

Denver Broncos head coach John Ralston -- who coached against McKay at Stanford -- said that the Buccaneers "just couldn't pick a more qualified person."

Dan Rooney, general manager of the Pittsburgh Steelers, called the Tampa Bay's signing of McKay "a step towards becoming one of the great pro franchises in the NFL."

On a day with so much excitement and optimism, nobody could have anticipated how brief a honeymoon it would be for McKay as a head coach in the NFL. He would find out soon enough that nothing in his illustrious college career could have prepared him for life as head coach of the expansion Buccaneers.

Time would certainly prove, however, that he was the right man for the job. McKay eventually orchestrated one of the most stunning turnarounds in league history, bringing Tampa Bay within one game of the Super Bowl in just the team’s fourth season. On December 5, the Buccaneers will recognize McKay’s contributions to the franchise as he becomes the team’s second Ring of Honor inductee alongside Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon.

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