Saturday morning, game day, Texas vs. USC, and John McKay is sure to skip breakfast again. From Friday on he eats like a bird. He lives on coffee and cigars. He says it is a good way to lose weight because it keeps you so sick to your stomach all the time you can't eat. He says he has slept well, but that could be a relative thing. A man might, for example, consider three hours a fine sleep if he has slept not a wink the night before. There is never any telling, either, what the next phone call will bring or when it will come. He had been jangled out of sleep on Tuesday by an old friend from Shinnston, W. Va. The old friend wanted to buy 20 tickets to the Notre Dame game October 14th. Shinnston is where John McKay went to high school. He took his wife Corky there for her first visit last year. What did Corky say about Shinnston, he was asked. "She said it wasn't Los Angeles," John McKay replied. He promised his old friend he would get him the tickets.
McKay has the big suite on the 10th floor of the Sheraton-Wilshire all to himself this game weekend. The head coach at the University of Southern California goes first class. The suite is in avocado-green, and legions of paper parrots and peacocks race across the walls. It was as good a place as any, there among the parrots and peacocks, to spend the final hours and decide on the last moves that preceded the victory of his USC Trojans over the Texas Long-horns 17-13. The victory was to come, as most do, out of long planning and attention to detail. In this case the plans (including the play 93-T-Swing that he diagrammed three weeks ago for this week's SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover) were dramatically successful, and his team emerged as one of the very strongest in the country. His big game week was going to be, within a few hours, a successful one. But not quite yet....
Now, on game day, McKay comes down to join some of his coaches for coffee half an hour before they are to eat breakfast with the team. McKay is quiet, and is not encouraging conversation. He has, by nature, a seltzer personality, and his moody periods stand out like the quick silence after a roll of drums. He had begun this meditation phase, the final phase of the week's preparation for Texas, the night before when the USC team was taken across Los Angeles to the MGM lot for a private showing of a new John Wayne movie. Wayne is a big favorite of McKay's. Last year Wayne addressed the team at breakfast and sat on the USC bench for the Texas game. But the movie, War Wagon, was not good enough to stoke McKay's humor, and he had given one-sentence answers, sometimes one-word answers, to questions on the ride back to the hotel. Once there he had gone straight to bed, not bothering to tune in yet another Wayne movie that was reappearing on the late show. "I've seen it," he said, "and I recommend it."
At 10 a.m. Saturday morning he leads his coaches into one of the hotel's dining rooms where the team is already digging into a breakfast of sirloin steak, green peas and toast with honey. McKay passes. A couple of the other coaches do, too. There has been a concerted effort on the USC staff to suppress fat this fall. Dave Levy, Jim Stangeland and Craig Fertig are the leaders of the movement. Levy and Stangeland have lost 30 pounds apiece, and their pants gather around their belts like the tops of mail sacks.
October 1, 1967
McKay is making x's and o's on his napkin. It is no joke about coaches spending a lot of time making x's and o's—charting offenses and defenses—and McKay is a master at it. He can see as much beauty in an x or an o as Rubens saw in a milkmaid. Levy, who coordinates the USC offense, nods approval of another last-minute McKay idea. Breakfast ends with the players breaking up for group meetings. McKay has the manager send a radio to his suite.
He has the radio on, whirling the dial to pick up the games involving UCLA and Notre Dame, and at the same time watches Colorado beat Oregon on television. He is not happy about that. Oregon is his old team. He was a 170-pound redheaded halfback of star quality there in 1948. All the while he is doodling plays on a yellow scratch pad with his red felt-tip pen. Eventually he orders a sandwich.
By 3 o'clock the coaches have gathered again in the suite, and there is another exchange of reminders. "Dave, be sure O.J. moves around back there on the kickoffs. I don't want Texas kicking the ball away from him. How much field goal range does their kicker have?..."
At 4 o'clock—kickoff is 8 p.m.—the team gets its pregame sustenance, more steak, more reminders. McKay is at the blackboard, checking assignments, calling out blocking rules, checking keys and audibles. He holds an unlit cigar in his left hand, a fresh match gripped between the thumb and middle finger. The quiz is sharp, incisive. The details seem innumerable. "All right, the bus leaves at 6:15. Let's stay off our feet until then, and think about what you have to do to beat Texas."
On the bus ride to the Los Angeles Coliseum, McKay sits with his starting quarterback, Steve Sogge. Craig Fertig, who set passing records at USC before he became a member of the coaching staff, says there is nothing quite so much to the point as a bus ride with John McKay in the next seat. There was a time before the California game in 1964, Fertig recalls, when he had had a bad' game the previous week and the fans and sportswriters were on him. "On the ride to the game, Coach McKay says, 'Craig, I want you to remember just one thing. You're my quarterback. They'll have to climb through me to reach you. Forget 'em.' We won the game, and I had one of my better days."
In the locker room at the Coliseum, behind a green door with his name chalked on it, in a cubicle to himself, McKay has taken off his plaid coat and changed to ridge-soled field shoes. Surprisingly, he is now more relaxed than before. Even gabby, as if the burden of preparation has lifted and there is not another x or o to be found.
Visitors come and go. Jess Hill, the USC athletic director, says the crowd will probably reach 70,000. Two officials come to get the names of his captains. McKay looks at the list of officials in the program. The umpire is from the Southwest Conference. "We'll get a holding penalty for sure," he says, grinning. You are not certain he is kidding. There are, suddenly, yips and banging noises filtering through from the locker room next door. "That will be Texas," says McKay, lighting up a cigar. "Texas has arrived."
USC had actually begun preparing for Texas way last spring. As a matter of course, McKay's assistants—Levy, Stangeland and Fertig on offense, Marv Goux, Dick Coury, Phil Krueger and Rod Humenuik on defense—break down the films of the previous game between the teams, if there was one, and the spring intrasquad game of each opponent. USC had beaten Texas 10-6, in the first game of their 1966 season. The teams exchanged movies of their spring games. USC also borrowed films of four other 1966 Texas games from other sources, a common practice. From these at least the preface of a book on Texas could be written.
USC had opened this season with a 49-0 victory over Washington State. That meant Texas would have the advantage of an updated film to study. USC, on the other hand, would have the advantage of a game under its belt.
On the following Sunday McKay looked at the films of the USC-Washington State game. The pleasure was not his. The score was big and USC had dominated the play, but the USC offense had been lucky and the defense had stumbled around too much to suit McKay. He had suggested this to the writers after the game. He picked up the paper the next morning and saw where his comment was interpreted as "moaning." "I wasn't moaning," he said. "I was stating facts. It's an old flaw of mine. Ask me a straight question, I'll give you a straight answer."
He met Monday morning with the coaches of the defense and got some things off his mind. When he saw Levy just before lunch, he was still exasperated. Levy wanted to talk offense. "Let's just figure out how we can score a lot of points," said McKay. "We'll need them."
At noon he zipped over to the Sheraton-West to keep a standing luncheon double date: first with the Trojan Club, a group of USC alumni and fans, and then with the L.A. sportswriters. He dallied with a slab of roast beef—leaving the carrots and potatoes—and titillated the Trojan Clubbers.
"One newspaper said I wasn't happy with our 49-0 win over Washington State," he said. "That same paper would mess up the Second Coming." He said there was no question Washington State had been outmanned. "But when you have men open 15 yards and you overthrow them 15 yards more, you have to think you might not get away with that against a team like Texas." He said Texas was going to show them a couple things: Quarterback Bill Bradley, for one, and Tailback Chris Gilbert, for another. "The best thing that happened to us last year was that Darrell Royal didn't find out what a great tailback Gilbert was until the second half of the game. Gilbert gained 103 yards on us in the second half."
He said it was doubtful USC's first-string quarterback, Toby Page, would play against Texas, that he had sorely bruised his ribs against Washington State and was on the mend. "If you read it in the papers that he will play, don't believe it," he told them.
McKay gave basically the same material to the writers, who were equally responsive. Then he was asked if he would compare the relative value of his sensational junior running back, O. J. Simpson, and Mike Garrett, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1965. "Yes," he said. "One has played one game for USC. The other played three years."
There are meetings and there are meetings in football, and mostly there are meetings. The filmwork is endless; coaches sniffing around like ferrets for an opponent's tendencies, for something to pin an attack on, for something on which to key a defense. The week of the Texas game at USC evolves, like most, from general confusion and despair into stunning clarity as McKay sifts through the information he is getting and with his coaches puts together the plan.
Their talk is, for the layman, an incredible voyage down rivers of jargon and argot. Consider one conversation—Dave Levy discussing offense with John McKay.
Levy: Do you want to Trojan call the strong belly?
McKay: No, George it.
Levy: Now, on this one, you want a single cut rather than worry about dragging...and when we want single to X, rather than drag, use weak 90 fly, right?
McKay: The only thing I'm worried about is that since we hurt Washington State so badly on that reverse, they're going to have somebody on that line waiting for it head on.
Levy: Of course, we don't go into that reverse out of Gee and Haw. I was thinking about that, too. It would be great on the hold-time blocking—that end will look for the guy, with the tackle containing. If our flanker went upfield about four yards so he's lost sight of him, I bet we could run a hold-time reverse sweep.
McKay: We want to have a play to go for the bomb against their short yardage, and I want it with two tight ends or X down, and they'll put those men in the gaps in the guards and the tackles will be head up and hitting in hard, and the ends are here, and these fellows here, and...."
There are, for the players, no meetings after Sunday until they group on the Friday before the game. Only practice. At USC, as at most major colleges situated in large cities, the students are scattered around and off campus; there is no such thing as an athletic dorm. So McKay does not have many player meetings, except by twos or threes as they come in on their own to study films. "This is a tough school," he says. "Excessive meetings lead to excessive failures."
For McKay, meanwhile, the routine is one of inevitable day-by-day interruption. Predictable. Sometimes pleasant. But inevitable. His secretary, Bonnie Waite, heads off some, but as many get through as not, and McKay willingly cooperates. Tickets for old friends. Interviews. Information for coaches. Nick Pappas, who directs the booster clubs, has an idea to perk up McKay's weekly half-hour television show, Trojan Huddle. Dr. Norman Topping, the school president and architect of the $106 million master plan for USC expansion, comes to practice just like any other red-hot Trojan fan and wants to know, just like any red-hot sportswriter, "How's Toby's rib cage?"
Meanwhile, the staff has subscribed to a variety of out-of-town newspapers to help keep tabs on the opposition troop movements, a customary but at best cursory attempt at reconnaissance. McKay reads the clips and rumors fly in. One had Bradley hurt and a sophomore running at quarterback for Texas. Dave Levy couldn't believe the weights attributed to the Texas players. "This guy Williamson couldn't weigh 190. He weighed 242 as a freshman and he was an athlete then or they'd never have taken him." Levy heard from another school that two boys Darrell Royal had kicked off the Texas team in disciplinary action had been reinstated. "Sounds like they're reading the same Texas newspapers we're reading," said McKay.
By Tuesday, most of the intelligence had been incorporated and game plans formulated, and McKay could sense what he wanted as he toyed at his desk with little models of football players. Offensively, a heavy burden was to be put on the quarterback (Sogge was to start over the injured Page). More plays would be called at the line of scrimmage—audibles—in hope of seeing and immediately exploiting a weakness. When caught in double pass coverage on a given side, Texas would face a run to that side. Single coverage, a pass. On some of these plays, like 93-T-Swing, the idea was to catch the Texas ends retreating for pass coverage and get O. J. Simpson loose in a one-on-one situation. McKay thinks there are not many players who can hold O.J. one-on-one. "Listen, you want to know how good O.J. is?" he said before practice one day. "He's bigger than Gale Sayers. And faster. I don't exactly know what out-quick means, but he'll out-quick you, too."
Defensively, McKay planned to move his rover back to the weakness of the offense instead of the strength—to the split-end side instead of the blocking side. Texas basically uses a split-end attack. McKay's three-fold object was to reduce Bradley's effectiveness on the option play—preferably to make him keep the ball instead of giving it to Gilbert—shut off the cut plays back inside by Gilbert and pile up the power sweep. He was not overly awed by Bradley's passing ability.
The first few days were not good ones. McKay, at heart, is an assistant coach. He likes to get down in there with the players the way Bear Bryant used to do and really coach. He hasn't missed a practice in 18 years. Unfortunately, he demonstrated too many skills to remain an assistant forever, but he still gets down there with them when the time is right. He says of himself that he probably does more field coaching than the average head coach. He scorns the use of his new lookout tower. He will go up to the first level (20 feet), but he says any higher than that (30 feet) and he is subject to vertigo. His sharp eyes are everywhere, and when it is necessary his mouth is, too: "If they double-team you, you gotta get it to him right now, the hell with anybody else...Dave, I want you to try to impress that boy that 12 yards is two more than 10, see? Twelve is two more than 10.... This is a passing attack, baby, get the ball out there.... Damn, sometimes you have to hit a guy with a ball bat just to get him to pay attention."
On Tuesday and Wednesday the defense and, at times, the offense seemed confused. At one point after repeated instruction had failed, McKay went into the line and grabbed a defensive player by the back of his shoulder pads and forcefully leaned him into the right position. He ordered the middle guard off the field. "Just get off the damn field. You're not showing me a thing as a football player." Finally he gave up and sent the defense in early and, after watching the offense run the same play five times without managing to get it right, he sent them in, too.
The street lamps were casting the shadow of the statue of Tommy Trojan onto the wall of the administration building and the crickets were in concert when McKay headed for his car to go home on Wednesday night. Actually, he said, it was earlier than usual to be leaving during the week, but there wasn't much sense prolonging the agony. "Got two kids hurt in five minutes because they didn't seem to know what the hell they were doing. I figured they'd been out there long enough anyhow and there's no use practicing when you're going that bad."
He had not talked to the players specifically about getting ready for Texas. He said it was not his policy, that the season has too many peaks for that and with a schedule as tough as USC's you could not concentrate too heavily on one opponent.
"I feel, too, as a head coach, if you continually talk to the team it becomes a matter of oh, dear God, what's he going to say now. Same thing, over and over. I'm not one to talk to the team all the time. It's like I tell Corky about the children. I'm going to tell them what I expect, and they're going to do it or all hell will break loose. I'm not going to be on them continually. If you keep telling them over and over, don't do this, don't do that, they wind up giving you that blank stare and that closed ear."
The McKays live in a handsome, rustic brown-shingled house, three bedrooms, a large den with a fireplace and a collection of footballs, trophies, pictures and a big color-TV-stereo console. There are five TV sets in the McKay house. He has a handsome pool in the backyard, built as a promise fulfilled to his kids when USC won the national championship in 1962.
"Home early," said Corky McKay at the side door. "Earliest you've been in two weeks."
"Wasn't much we could do."
"How'd it go? How was practice?"
Corky made a face at the sarcasm.
For a long time that evening, after his four children were in bed, McKay sat in front of the color TV, half-watching and half-working on a piece of scratch pad—x's and o's.
"Rock Hudson's only been married once, right?" Corky said. She had been watching a late movie with Rock Hudson and Doris Day.
"I don't know, Cork," said John McKay. "I've been so busy lately I haven't been able to keep up with the old Rock."
"Ohhhhh," said Corky.
McKay put the felt pen down. "That's it, Cork," he said.
"I don't see how Texas can possibly make a first down." He smiled. "Until after the kickoff."
On Friday morning McKay packed his bag to move into the peacock and parrot suite for the weekend. The morning paper had USC a five-point favorite. "That's logical," he said wryly. "Maybe if we lose two more quarterbacks we'll be favored by 14." Michele, his 15-year-old daughter, had left a good-luck charm by his plate, as is her custom. This time it was a Mexican coin. A good-luck charm is whatever Michele wants it to be, McKay said, and put it in his pocket. They waved him goodby and Corky called out, "Glad you got a chance to see us." McKay smiled to himself as he pulled out of the driveway.
John McKay's Saturday night pregame talk to his team is at first analytical, the last long look at contingencies, then swiftly to the point. He said they should know by now that Texas is a far better team than they had faced last week, but by the same token they could be a better team than they were last week. He said that it is always the story in Texas that nobody runs the football on the Longhorns, but that USC can run on anybody if they went about it right. He said that a lot of high-ranked teams had found out this day that you are only as good as the game you have just played. And then he sends them out to play their game.
On the sideline there is a great, enormously exciting confusion of color and noise. Brass and garnet and white and drums and orange. The night is bracingly cool and the crowd is 67,000 strong, packed around the giant horseshoe, but those behind the USC bench have the strongest lungs. McKay is in the middle of it because he seems to control it. He is calling out defenses, calling out plays; he is watching the clock, the officials, the other sideline. When he makes a move, watch the other side because Darrell Royal, no less aware, will surely counter. Royal sends a man in and the number does not register in McKay's memory. "Who's No. 45? No. 45?" he shouts. They are detached by the battle going on between them, but they are as much in a fight as they would be if they were pugs brawling on a street. It is a testing game, and as time passes it becomes clear McKay is winning because he has better players and is using them brilliantly.
The players are sweating and some are bleeding, and though it is cool and he is in short sleeves McKay is sweating, too. Texas makes yardage on a throw-back pass and McKay calls to his defensive coaches to watch that throw-back pass. There are two crucial holding penalties in the first half, and they are both against USC, and McKay purses his lips, looks down and shakes his head slowly from side to side. He paces; he squats; he yells for reinforcements. He rams his toe into the grass, leaving divots when something goes against him, but that is all, and when there is success he only sets his expression and begins once again to stay one play ahead of the game. He is always one play ahead. Levy is yelling plays in one ear and Coury is yelling defenses in the other, and somehow McKay sorts them and makes decisions. Sometimes he stammers getting off an order as his mind races for the answer, but his answers seem always to be the right ones. O. J. Simpson limps off the field with cramps, and McKay calls for a trainer and expresses concern that maybe Simpson is being run too much.
Texas has scored first, a painstaking 85-yard Bradley-Gilbert drive off a USC fumble in the first quarter. USC has fumed around and finally evened it at 7-7 on a slide around left end by O. J. Simpson, set up by a pass off 93-T-Swing. The half ends.
McKay runs behind the learn all the way to the dressing room for the half-time break. He stands before them, making changes, flashing chalk. He orders more passes on first down. He will now use two tight ends because double coverage by Texas has sealed off Split End Earl McCullouch, normally a key man in the USC attack. Texas has tried a spread formation, but otherwise what they are doing is no surprise. Texas wins games on execution, not on surprise. Now McKay, turning analysis off and emotion on, shouts, "You ran in. They could hardly walk in. Now's the time to put it to them."
USC puts it to Texas. In the second half the play is taken away from Texas. End Tim Rossovich tackles Bradley as if Bradley has swindled his mother. Chris Gilbert tries the cut play and Rossovich takes a chunk of him, too. Safety Mike Battle is throwing his 175 pounds around like a madman. O. J. Simpson is rolling up yardage.
Little Sogge is getting better as the game goes on, and McKay is going with him all the way. Page could probably play, and he stands there waiting in a clean uniform; but no. Sogge hits Bob Miller for a touchdown: 14-7. Rikki Aldridge kicks a 30-yard field goal: 17-7.
Two of Sogge's passes are dropped when they should have gone for touchdowns. But it doesn't matter. Texas has made only two first downs since its touchdown drive in the first quarter. By the time Bradley finally gets Texas cranked up again to avoid a rout, Simpson, with 158 yards, has outrushed the entire Texas team. Super Bill and Gorgeous Gil included. O.J. has been a lizard, slithering in and out of slits and crevices. "He makes the three-yard run exciting," says McKay.
It is over: 17-13. McKay is swarmed upon by fans in the tunnel under the stadium. Finally he gets to the dressing room. He gives the game ball to Sogge. He tells his players it was a fine win. He tells them conditioning was a big factor. And he sets curfew at 11:15, trying not to laugh. The players laugh.
At a fancy alumni party a little later, McKay cracks jokes and shakes hands and eats fancy little hamburgers with a toothpick. Just after midnight he leaves.
At 11 o'clock the next morning he is back in his office. In only six days USC must play Michigan State. John McKay has a big-game week ahead.
'THE KEY TO OUR TOUCHDOWN'
USC used the cover play, 93-T-Swing, three times against Texas, once with spectacular results. The Trojans were behind 0-7 in the second quarter and had a second and 10 on the Texas 35 when the play was first called. Quarterback Sogge retreated to pass and O.J. Simpson swung wide right as planned, but the Texas halfback covering USC Slot Back Jim Lawrence suddenly stopped when he spotted Simpson getting clear, Lawrence immediately shifted to 93-Z-Sideline—one of the eight variations of the play. Wide open, he cut to the right sideline where Sogge hit him with a pass that took the ball to the Texas nine. Two plays later USC tied the score. "The play was the key to our first touchdown," McKay said later. The next time USC called the play (below), Simpson (No. 32) had 30 yards open ahead of him, but Texas End Mike Robuck (No. 87) leaped just high enough to touch the ball, averting a USC score. The last time, Sogge ran.