What John McKay did in preparing the College All-Stars for last week's sacrifice to the jaws of the insatiable Miami Dolphins was, of course, preposterous. To begin with, he practiced the Stars only once a day. Since the game originated some 40 years ago, All-Star teams have been expected to purge themselves with double-overtime drills and to scrimmage almost hourly. McKay recalled one struck-down Star team featuring 17 players that had been injured by game day. McKay said scrimmage was not the name of the game—football was.
McKay was asked why he would not even consent to the customary warmup contest with another pro squad, usually the Chicago Bears. McKay's experience with the National Football League has been mostly in the turning-down of extravagant offers to coach in it. Offers by Los Angeles, which included a pile of money; by New England, which included a chauffeur to drive his beach-oriented wife Corky through the snow. But he knew enough about it to point out that the unawesome Bears were not the world champion Dolphins. "Besides, what good would it do?" he said, rolling his cigar to the side of his mouth.
"Well, for one thing, to see if you can block a pro team," he was told.
"What if we can't?" McKay said. "What do we do then? Call off the game?"
August 5, 1973
McKay said that among his "$10 million worth" of earmarked All-Stars one must assume that some knew how to play football. The linemen he had chosen averaged 254 pounds (bigger even than the Super Bowl Dolphins), and McKay could imagine no sight less esthetic than 6'8", 290-pound John Matuszak (see cover), University of Tampa and No. 1 draft pick of the Houston Oilers, sitting on the chest of his quarterback. He said he doubted Miami's Don Shula needed to scrimmage Bob Griese to find out if Griese could pass the football.
Along that line, McKay also violated the ritual of deliberating which of several available quarterbacks he might use. He included only two on his roster and almost immediately settled on old pro Dub Jones' boy Bert, late of LSU and now of the Colts. It did not take a genius, much less a scrimmage, McKay said, to see that Jones was something special. Lucky Colts. Endangered Dolphins.
Oh, yes. Neither did McKay bother to crowd the marquee with a lot of big-name assistant coaches. Like Nebraska's Bob Devaney last year, he simply moved in his own happy family from USC, with their proven systems. And what they concentrated on instead of survival for three weeks was an incidental known as timing. All-Star teams historically become unglued by small catastrophes of precision, mental mistakes that trigger physical breakdowns and sap the spirit. A guard pulls the wrong way; a receiver makes an imprecise cut. If it happens early, the ship goes down before it clears the harbor. All-Star teams are not good at playing catch-up because their passing game is never that refined.
So McKay's workouts were atypically unspartan. "Fun" was a word that often escaped the lips of the Stars. The practice field at Northwestern University got to be known as the McKay Country Club, and as his one-liners kept coming (he is not only the reigning king of college football, he is one of its quippiest), some people were lulled into believing that the coach wasn't taking the game too seriously.
But have a closer look: the most talented running back in the All-Star camp was Purdue's Otis Armstrong. Armstrong was also the most obvious, toddling around Chicago in his matching undershirt-pants-and-cap sets and his $10,000 yellow Eldorado purchased with the fallout from a Denver Bronco contract. And he took McKay's breezy practices a little too airily to suit John. You do not achieve timing by having 10 guys run full speed and one take his own sweet time, said McKay. "We will alert Mr. Armstrong by not starting him, and hope that somebody straightens him out before he blows his career."
Privately, McKay was soured, too, by the cooperation he was not always getting from the pros. "This game made professional football," he said. "You'd think some of them would remember that." It was not the hints and pleas to pass over this or that player that bothered him so much; he did not wish to jeopardize "any boy's chances to make $50,000 a year." But one particular incident got to him. The New England Patriots had prevailed on him not to select one of their draftees. McKay agreed, but when he subsequently found himself in a bind for offensive linemen and put in a call to Chuck Fairbanks, the Patriot coach, the call was never returned. He called a dozen times more, to no avail. He said he doubled Patriot scouts would get a ticker-tape parade the next time they walked the USC campus.
(It is because of such irritations that both sides have, in recent years, held the All-Star Game so gingerly to their breasts. They may love its tradition but they despise its outdated promise. The pros are wary of the potential embarrassment and do not like the game because it comes at an awkward time—there is no "convenient" time—and the colleges feel that they must always play with a stacked deck. It is a game ideally suited as a television commodity and a kickoff for the football season, and yet it is meaningless as a true barometer of the skills of either side. As Larry Csonka said afterward of his Dolphins, "Anybody who thinks this is the same team that beat the Redskins in the Super Bowl is a fool.")
It would be pleasant to report here that John McKay's refreshing approach to the game produced a startling shift of fortune for the All-Stars, who have not won since 1963. It did not. They were sincerely beaten, by 14-3. It is nevertheless true that a reversal very well could have happened, as Don Shula himself volunteered on the plane ride home that night. It did not happen because it is asking too much of the All-Stars, no matter how good they are (and this was probably the best group in 10 years) or how well coached. John McKay had no illusions beforehand.
On the morning of the game McKay slept until almost 10 o'clock. Ordinarily he hardly sleeps at all and is too sick from drinking coffee and sucking cigar smoke to eat. In his suite at the Bismarck, he poured a glass of orange juice and cut a slab of pecan Danish and settled easily into the question of "the challenge" at hand—the leading college coach vs. the Wunderkind of the pros; the best college players vs. the pro champions.
Sure, he said, it is a challenge, "but so is hunting a rabbit without a gun." He said the game was "unfair" for a lot of reasons. Your best hope, he said, was for the All-Stars to make fewer mistakes. But that was a whistle in the wind against a team like Miami.
"We looked at six films of the Dolphins," he said. "We couldn't find one real weakness, where you could say, 'There, that's what we'll attack.' Don has done a great job. It's the best coached team I've ever seen."
Nevertheless, McKay thought he had a workable game plan. Simply put: run right at Miami, muscle to gristle, double-team the tackles and send his exceptional fullback, Sam (Bam) Cunningham, one of eight USC players on the squad, to clear out the linebackers. "I've never had anyone block like old Sam," McKay said. "He explodes." He envisioned Cunningham brutalizing the Miami linebackers and runners like Armstrong sifting through.
But McKay had not entirely abided by his own strategy, and ironically it cost him the one player he thought his best weapon. Cunningham injured his knee in the only scrimmage the Stars held, one that had been requested by the players. The fullbacks behind Cunningham were not in his league as blockers.
Still, it was an exceptional group, McKay said, and though he did not think they could win, "the longer we can keep it close the better our chances." Start stumbling into one another, though, and "it's 28 to 0."
The Dolphins had no flagrant enthusiasm for the game. Defensive Tackle Manny Fernandez said it always bored him on television and he considered it a waste of time. Csonka, on the other hand, shook off a painful leg injury—a bruised thigh—to declare his readiness. "It's a football game," he said. "I like to play football."
Shula said he would just as soon be in the game every year "if it meant we were Super Bowl champions," but it had made demands for a level of efficiency not easily attained so early. Afterward, when asked if he would have turned down the invitation if given the option, Shula made a studied pause and said, "No, I'd play it." The tradition, he said, and the charities it benefits, and the rapprochement with the colleges it brings are things worth preserving. (Shula does not discourage his draftees from playing in All-Star Games.) He said the closeness of this particular game "was proof enough" that it was still a competitive event. "We could just as easily have lost," he said. Without saying so, he gave the impression he had thoroughly enjoyed playing chess with John McKay.
McKay thought he could wall off Miami's redoubtable running game, at least for a while, and force Csonka and Jim Kiick (in the absence of the injured Mercury Morris) to go outside. He cited his menacing deterrents: Matuszak, Nebraska's Rich Glover, USC's John Grant. The linebackers were told to stand fast in the face of confusing Miami traffic patterns to neutralize Shula's well-conceived influence plays. Csonka gains a lot of yards on those, thundering back into terrain vacated by linebackers reacting to the flow.
At first it did not seem to matter what McKay thought he could do. Miami took the ball and rammed it down his team's collar. A Kiick here and a Zonk there, and one Griese completion, and it was 60 yards to a touchdown in 10 plays, Csonka scoring.
But then three factors turned the game around for a spell. One, every time Punter Ray Guy (Southern Mississippi and the Raiders) swung his foot he pinned the Dolphins to their goal as surely as if they were butterflies on a corkboard. In succeeding possessions the Dolphins had to crank up from their one-, 17-, 21-, 13-, 28-, 10- and 11-yard lines. Two, Griese was suffering an off-night. Harried and hesitant, and with an outstanding All-Star secondary led by Burgess Owens (University of Miami and the Jets) surrounding his receivers, he was sacked four times. He blamed "rust." And three, Bert Jones was almost perfect. No 28-0 quarterback he.
Late in the second quarter Jones achieved a first and goal on the Miami one-yard line, due principally to runs by and a pass to the duly chastened Otis Armstrong. And there at the one, two things McKay feared came to pass. On second down, after one half-botched play, McKay sent the hurting Cunningham into the game. A fraction before the snap, the All-Star right guard moved. And so did Cunningham. Five-yard penalty. After two more plays the Stars had to settle for a field goal.
In the fourth quarter Jones really let one fly, over 50 yards up into and down out of the uncertain lighting of tired old Soldier Field. And into—and out of—the hands of Barry Smith (Florida State and the Packers) running full tilt at the Miami 20. It was the All-Stars' last hurrah.
Thirty-nine-year-old Earl Morrall, in relief of Griese, mustered the Dolphins for a clinching 55-yard touchdown drive, passing for most of it and then giving it to the football lover, Csonka who ran over two defenders and carried a third into the end zone from seven yards.
One of McKay's assistants, in assessing what he had seen in the Miami films, said before the game that he didn't care "how great the Miami offense is, the Dolphins win on defense." In the second half the All-Stars made one first down and a net seven yards.
But it had been a full night's work, all of it. When Shula counted up the walking wounded there was one broken finger and numerous contusions, abrasions and muscle strains, and he concluded that it had indeed been heavy duty. In the other dressing room an undejected John McKay smiled and lit his cigar and said he'd gladly take these All-Stars to Seattle right now and start a franchise.
"Better yet," he said, "just give 'em to Don Shula. He'll have 'em in the Super Bowl in three years."