Tale of the Coaching Tape: Nick Saban vs. John McKay

Christopher Walsh

Although Southern California has had an impressive lineup of coaches over the years, John McKay is viewed as having the strongest legacy. From 1960-75, the Trojans won three consensus national titles, were on the doorstep of at least two more, played in eight Rose Bowls, and won two Heisman Trophies (Mike Garrett in 1965 and O.J. Simpson in 1968).

The coach was also one of college football’s true characters.

"I told my team it doesn't matter,” he said after a 51-0 loss to Notre Dame in 1966. “There are 750 million people in China who don't even know this game was played. The next day, a guy called me from China and asked, 'What happened, Coach?'"

“Well, gentlemen, I guess I wasn’t so stupid today,” McKay said after a 21-20 victory against UCLA in 1967.

When asked why he gave the ball to Simpson so much in a game, McKay said: "Why not? It's not heavy, and he doesn't belong to a union."

(His most famous quote came while coaching the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When a reporter asked about the execution of his offense, McKay quipped that he was in favor of it. Also, one of his quarterbacks in 1976 was Steve Spurrier.)

“He knew when to loosen a team up and he knew how to get after you,” former USC quarterback Craig Fertig (1961-64) once said. “You’d never have to worry about him slapping a player. He could do it with his tongue.”

McKay compiled a 127-40-8 record, including just 17 conference losses during those 16 seasons. Over his last nine years, USC went 18-3 against its two biggest rivals, UCLA and Notre Dame.

The 1974 game against the Fighting Irish, dubbed “The Comeback,” is still talked about in Los Angeles. Despite a 24-0 deficit in the second quarter, tailback Anthony Davis (with Ricky Bell at fullback before he had 1,875 yards the following year to finish second for the Heisman) sparked the Trojans with a 102-yard kickoff return to open the second half and USC went on to score 55 points in just under 17 minutes.

“We turned into madmen,” Davis said.

The 1972 team, though, was considered one of the best in college football history. It went 12-0, beat six ranked teams by an average of 20.2 points, and never trailed.

“USC’s not the No. 1 team in the country,” Washington State coach Jim Sweeney said after his team lost 44-3. “The Miami Dolphins are better.”

McKay also coached offensive standouts like Sam Cunningham, Pat Haden, Lynn Swann and Ron Yary, but it was under his direction that the “Tailback U” moniker emerged with the Trojans’ trademark I-formation attack. Simpson became the school’s second Heisman winner in 1968 when he set the NCAA single-season rushing record with 1,709 yards. He also equaled or set 19 NCAA, conference and USC records before going on to establish the NFL single-season rushing record of 2,003 yards in 1973.

McKay’s also the father of former Buccaneers general manager and current Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, and his son J.K. played for him twice as a wide receiver, first for the Trojans (1972–75), and then with the Buccaneers (1976–79).

"I had a rather distinct advantage. I slept with his mother."

Nick Saban vs. John McKay

(Statistics through 2018 season)

Category Saban; McKay

Seasons 23 ; 16

Consensus national titles 6 ; 3-z

Top five finishes 9 ; 6

Top 25 finishes 16 ; 12

Overall record 232–62–1; 127-40-8

Percentage 78.5 ; 74.9

Losing seasons 0 ; 2

CFP/Bowl record 14-10 ; 6-3

Percentage 58.3 ; 66.7

Conference titles 9 ; 9

Conference record 138-42-1; 70-17-3

Consensus All-Americans 41 ; 19

First-round draft picks 34 ; 18

Record against ranked teams 82-40 ; 34-20-4

Percentage 67.20 ; 62.07

Record against top 10 teams 42-21 ; 21-15-3

Percentage 66.67 ; 57.69

Ratios/percentages

National title seasons One every 3.8 seasons; 5.3

Consensus All-Americans 1.78 every season; 1.19

First-round draft picks 1.48 every season; 1.13

Average wins vs. ranked teams 3.57 each season; 2.13

Wins over top-10 teams per year 1.82 every season; 1.31

z-Oklahoma was on probation in 1974, which excluded it from consideration for the final coaches’ poll, but the Sooners were No. 1 in the final Associated Press poll.

A version of this originally appeared in the book, “Nick Saban vs. College Football,” Triumph Books, 2014

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