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What do you think of your team’s execution, coach?

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John McKay’s famous catchphrase may never have been uttered by the Bucs coach.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers v San Francisco 49ers

In October 1975, John McKay became the first-ever coach of the NFL’s newest expansion franchise, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Winner of four national championships at USC, McKay was one of the best coaches in the business, the equivalent, in the 1970s, of Alabama’s Nick Saban or Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. Funny, loquacious, and entertaining, but bitingly sarcastic, McKay, wrote sports historian Steven Travers, said “some of the funniest things in the history of coach-speak.”

For example: “We can’t win at home and we can’t win on the road,” he once said. “What we need is a neutral site.” Or, when McKay cut kicker Bill Capece at the end of the 1983 season, the coach quipped, somewhat callously, “Capece is kaput.” There are whole articles of McKay quotes—here and here and here. However, McKay’s most famous quote, bar none, was in answer to the question: “What do you think of your team’s execution coach?” To which McKay replied, “I’m in favor of it.”

Being a Bucs fan born and raised in Florida, I’d heard this quote repeated for most of my life. But, as I began researching the early Bucs for a book I was writing, I found that everyone seemed to repeat the quote, but no one actually recorded when and where it was said. I didn’t think much of it, at the time, but later, as I examined the similarities between the 1976-77 Bucs and the 1962 New York Mets—America’s greatest “lovable losers”—I found that legendary Mets’ coach Casey Stengel is also believed to have said it.

Intrigued, I emailed the gifted etymologist Barry Popik, who’d written a blogpost on the quote, and he in turn queried fellow etymologists Ben Zimmer and Garson O’Toole. In short order, these three researchers found the earliest known references to the quote, which derived not from McKay or Stengel, but from a cartoon about a girl playing the piano, printed in an Oregon newspaper, in 1894.

I pick up the story below, on pages 195 through 197 of my new book, The Yucks! Two Years in Tampa with the Losingest Team in NFL History:

The fact is, few, if any, teams today are transcendently terrible; few capture the national consciousness or tickle the funny bone quite like the original Yucks. The only parallel, perhaps, is the 1962 New York Mets, the ill-fated National League expansion team that lost an astonishing 120 games, the most in pro baseball since 1899. Comprised of castoff veterans and a gaggle of talentless rookies, the Mets were coached by Casey Stengel, a seven-time World Series winner with the Yankees, who had a McKay-like comicalness of his own. He even sounded like McKay. “The only thing worse than a Mets game,” he once said, “is a Mets double-header.” Or, my personal favorite, “Nobody knows this, but one of us has just been traded to Kansas City.” It seems apocryphal, but McKay and Stengel both supposedly uttered the funniest line in sports history, though there is no direct record of them saying it and no one knows if they did. It is as follows: “What did you think of your team’s execution, Coach?” The answer: “I’m in favor of it.”

In what was a career of quotes, McKay’s execution quote was by far and away his most famous. He may have said it—it was first referenced in a November 1979 Cleveland Plain Dealer article in which Browns coach Sam Rutigliano “shared a story from the coaches’ fraternity relating to John McKay, after his Tampa Bay Bucs lost a game recently”—but the details are vague. Rutigliano didn’t say which game (and it wasn’t versus the Browns, who hadn’t played the Bucs since 1976, when Rutigliano was a Saints coach), or when McKay had said it. The quote appeared again in October 1980 as a humorous snippet in the “Scorecard” section of Sports Illustrated, whose editor, Jerry Kirshenbaum, attributed it to a September 1980 home loss to Cleveland. (A connection to the Rutigliano quote, maybe?) Yet no other journalist, not a Browns writer, nor a single one of the dozen or so Bay Area beat reporters who covered the Bucs, ever mentioned it.

It showed up again in November 1980 in a John Clayton article in the Pittsburgh Press, and in November 1981 in a San Diego Union article by Barry Lorge, but both writers used “once, after a bad loss” phraseology and neither cited a date. It didn’t matter; by this point, McKay’s execution quote was firmly ensconced in Buccaneers lore. For nearly four decades, it’s been a regular feature in team retrospectives, where it’s linked mostly to the 1976–77 Yucks. The funny thing is, the quip didn’t originate with McKay, even if he had said it. It dates from an 1894 newspaper story in The Dalles, Oregon, referring to a young girl learning the piano, and once was a punch line in a 1936 stage performance by the Marx Brothers. In fact, the joke was so popular, and apparently so widespread, that when Groucho Marx asked the audience what it thought of his execution, a dozen people yelled: “We’re in favor of it!”

Jason Vuic’s The Yucks: Two Years in Tampa with the Losingest Team in NFL History was published by Simon and Schuster in August 2016. To purchase a copy, visit Amazon.com.