In one of many NFL Films Top 10 lists, John McKay made the list at number 10. But this wasn't a positive list - it was a list of NFL coaches who belonged in college. McKay's reputation couldn't overcome the infamy of starting 0-26 with an injury-plagued, talentless expansion team - despite taking that same expansion team to the NFC Championship just four years into his tenure.
Outside the Tampa Bay area, John McKay is best remembered for his succesful career at USC. Winning 4 national championships in a 15-year career he is the winningest coach in school history. He won two Coach of the Year awards during his tenure, and he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1988. As that institution notes, over his career he coached some extraordinary talents, like O.J. Simpson, Mike Garrett, Lyn Swann, Pat Haden, Ron Yary and Charlie Young.
After all his success at USC, McKay ended his stellar coaching career in 1975 to build an NFL franchise in Tampa. Hugh Culverhouse had just been awarded the franchise, and he was looking for a splash hire. And with McKay being the hottest college coach in the country, it certainly was. Unfortunately the team he coached was not nearly ashot. As an expansion team, it was supremely talentless. At that time expansion teams were stocked through an expansion draft, which featured mostly rejects and injured players. Of the 64 players that played a snap for the Buccaneers during that season, only 11 were with the Bucs for more than 4 years.
Compounding this lack of talent was a rash of injuries and bad luck. Even though the regular draft landed them future Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon, he only played in 8 games that season before landing on injured reserve. They also lost a number of close games, including a 13-10 defeat at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks, the other expansion team. Eventually, that combination of bad luck, injuries and lack of talent led to an 0-14 season - the only winless season in NFL history until the Detroit Lions managed to go 0-16 in 2008. That first season would be followed by another 12 straight losses in 1977, creating an NFL record that to this day has not been broken: 26 consecutive losses.
During that time "Throw McKay in the Bay" became a well-known saying among the fans, but McKay himself was perhaps best known for his quotes. Following the first game he said "Well, we didn't block, but we made up for it by not tackling." After being asked what he thought of his team's execution, he infamously said "I'm all for it". And after finally winning his first game he commented "Three or four plane crashes and we're in the playoffs."
That first win was a 33-14 beatdown of the New Orleans Saints in the 13th week of the season. After the game Saints head coach Hank Stram said it was the worst experience of his coaching career, and he was fired the following week. In that final week of the season the Bucs would grab their second win after defeating the St. Louis Cardinals 17-7. Head coach Don Coryell was fired the week after. Losing to the Bucs wouldn't stay a fireable offense, though.
After a 5-11 season in 1978, McKay managed to create a winning team for the first time in Bucs history in 1979. A season in which the Bucs fielded a stifling defense captained by Lee Roy Selmon and a power-run based offense led by Ricky Bell, Jerry Eckwood and Doug Williams. The Bucs got 10 wins on the season to earn the team's first playoff berth, and a first-round bye. In the playoffs they would face two teams that would stand in the way of the Dungy-led playoff teams: the Philadelphia Eagles and the L.A. Rams. They beat the Eagles behind Ricky Bell's 142 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns, but they fell just short of getting to the Super Bowl. They were shut out in a 9-0 defeat to the L.A. Rams in the NFC Championship, who would go on to lose the Super Bowl to the PIttsburgh Steelers.
John McKay would lead the Bucs to two more playoff berths, in 1981 and 1982. In 1981 the Bucs went 9-7, but lost 38-0 to the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. In 1982's strike-shortened season McKay led them to a 5-4 record, but again could not overcome the Cowboys in the playoffs, losing 30-17. In 1983 everything would come crashing down. Notoriously tight-pursed owner Hugh Culverhouse couldn't agree to contract terms with franchise quarterback Doug Williams, and without him the Bucs only won 2 games in 1983. John McKay would retire from football coaching during the 1984 season, having led an expansion team to 3 playoff berths in 9 years. Those seasons would also be the only winning seasons the Bucs would experience for 14 season, until Tony Dungy led the Bucs to a 10-6 season in 1997.
Sadly, John McKay passed away in 2001 due to complications resulting from diabetes. Outside of the Tampa Bay area he may not be remembered for his NFL career. But considering the means available to him, it's a testament to his coaching that the Bucs earned 3 playoff berths during his tenure. No other coach managed to produce even a winning season while Hugh Culverhouse owned the Buccaneers. Instead of being mentioned as a coach who should've stayed in college, he should be seen as one of the few college head coaches who made a succesful transition to the NFL.
Which is why I am glad that this Sunday, John McKay will finally be honored for his accomplishments in the NFL. His son, ex-Bucs GM and current Falcons President Rich McKay will present him as he is to be inducted into the Bucs' Ring of Honor. The Buccaneers will be wearing the creamsicle-colored 1976 throwback uniforms for this game. With a crucial matchup against the division-leading Falcons, it promises to be a good game. Unfortunately, this game will be blacked out locally like all the other home games this season. But if you're going to the stadium this season, Sunday would be a good choice - if only to see John McKay be honored for his work with the Buccaneers.