On a busy freeway en route to an exhibition game with Green Bay, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were spared what seemed to be imminent calamity when their bus driver kept his cool while a careening car came within inches of striking the bus. The driver did not bat an eye. Minutes later, confronted by a shouting, gesticulating policeman outside Milwaukee's County Stadium, the driver listened stoically for a moment, then drove right past the policeman and through the forbidden entranceway. As the bus pulled up to the appointed door, the Buccaneers whistled and applauded, and John McKay, their coach, rolled his Hav-A-Tampa cigar to the corner of his mouth and said, "I now know the difference between pro football and college football. Tougher bus drivers."
As McKay expected, "What's the difference?" has been the most nagging question people have fired at him since he left USC for the pros at the end of last season. Sometimes he answers it the way he answered questions when he was just a simple college coach winning all those national championships—whimsically.
Q: How do you compare coaching at Tampa Bay with coaching at USC, John?
A: It's a three-hour time difference.
August 22, 1976
But now, though, he also tends to reply occasionally with failing good humor. In Milwaukee after Tampa's second game and Green Bay's 928th—a statistic pointed out rather gleefully, it seemed, on the scoreboard beforehand, but no small embarrassment to the Packers after they beat the Buccaneers only 10-6—a radio interviewer stuck the nozzle of his recorder into McKay's composed locker room expression and demanded, "What will it take to establish yourself as a professional coach, Mr. McKay?"
McKay resisted, he admitted later, the elemental urge to bite the microphone in half. Smiling thinly, he replied, "I'm not trying to establish myself as a pro coach. I would rather the pro coaches go out and establish themselves as college coaches."
"What will it take to win in the pros?" the questioner persisted.
"The same thing it takes to win in the colleges, the high schools and the Pop Warner leagues. Good players. Good coaching."
Last Saturday night McKay's Buccaneers apparently had the right combination of both as they stunned the Atlanta Falcons 17-3 for their first victory. "I thought we could play with teams of Atlanta's caliber," McKay said. "Oh, well, another dynasty."
At other times, in other places, to other inquisitors, McKay has made the following allusions to his situation:
•"They say you can't win with an expansion team. Who is they? Nobody knows. They say you can't win more than three games your first year. I say you can. I'm a pro coach now, people will have to believe me. I think in three years we can be challengers. Mr. Hugh Culverhouse [the Tampa owner] told me the only thing he expected was to beat the time it took the Steelers to win their first championship. The Steelers did it in 41 years. We will beat that record."
•"I don't know what this pro football mystique is. I've gone to the pro camps. They throw the ball, they catch the ball. Many of them are ex-USC players. I'm not amazed at what they do."
•"I've watched the pros play. They run traps, they pitch the ball, they sweep. What else is there? One of the big plays in pro football is the off-tackle play to the split-end side. Everybody runs it. Pittsburgh runs it. They ran it against us in the 1975 College All-Star game. I said, 'I'll be damned, they're running Franco Harris off tackle.' If I had Franco Harris, I'd do the same. That same play was in everybody's playbook 25 years ago."
•"Lou Saban coached in the pros, then figured he'd retire to a college job and coast. At Maryland, he went 4-6. After that, he went back to the pros."
•"They say, 'You can't do this or that in the pros.' Why not? 'Well, you just can't.' They used to say you couldn't play a zone pass defense. Now everybody plays a zone. We were playing zone at Oregon in 1950. Don Shula put in the so-called 53 defense at Miami—a very smart move. Well, Miami's 53 was the old Oklahoma defense."
Despite the tiresome comparisons to his previous employment, McKay obviously is enjoying himself. "Super owner," he says. "Fine organization. A great way to go into your 50s." The professional accessories alone are enough to make McKay, 53, feel like the newly minted millionaire he is supposed to be (his reported contract terms: 5 years, $2 million). His new home on Tampa Bay is only a three-bedroom, as compared to the six-bedroom he had in suburban Los Angeles, but he has to admit that the previous owner knew how to put a roof over a head. Gold-leaf bathroom spigots, for example. The bay waters glisten through the sliding glass doors. There is a boat dock, and also a sun deck where a fellow could lie around and watch the water-skiers glide by. Sometimes the skier is Richie McKay, 17, the last of the four McKay children home on a regular shift, who, by his own admission, is a future great quarterback.
McKay jokes that his wife Corky is having a hard time keeping her wants quiet around Culverhouse, because every time she expresses a need for something, it winds up at the front door. McKay says, however, that the IRS will be surprised when they audit him one day and find out how little he is really making—scarcely more than the $52,000 a year he got at USC. He has no stock in the club, but there are some "deferred payments" that will help later on.
The amenities aside, a lot of things McKay was warned would happen to him in the pros have not happened—yet. For example, he has not found the attitude of the "old pros" unbearable.
"It's the same anywhere. There's always a few who won't play as well as you think they should, or work as hard. We're going to treat them all like men. Some people will take advantage of this, being children. They will find I can be as mean as the next guy. We had some guys show up late for camp. When you're making $60,000 a year, I suppose you shouldn't have to come in too early.
"You don't need experience to get in shape. You don't have to play together 40 years to be enthusiastic, to be aggressive. Against the Rams in our first game, which we lost 26-3, we were neither. We will be from now on. The shortcomings of an expansion team are not knowing what the guy next to you will do, and not knowing if you have enough quality players to make the difference. But that's a coaching job. I tell our players, 'Don't rate the team. Just do your job.' I heard several comments before the Rams game that made me think some players were rating the team. They didn't think we could win. Our job is to convince them of our ability so that they can function positively as a whole. I don't care how good you are; if you don't think the coach is right, you don't have a chance."
McKay included four pre coaches—old friends Abe Gibron and Jerry Frei, plus Linebacker Coach Dick Voris and the respected quarterback-maker John Rauch—on his staff to help give him the edge in the numbers game (playing with a 43-man roster instead of 95) and with terminology. Because of the crisscross trafficking of personnel from one pro team to another, he says, you have to be reasonably homogeneous with your play-calling. So McKay adopted the terminology Rauch used as a head coach at Oakland and Buffalo. Then, to his own chagrin, McKay called three plays against the Rams that weren't in the Tampa book. "Fortunately, the quarterback [Steve Spurrier] was smarter than I was," McKay says. "He adjusted. You need that on the field."
McKay says that filling the Tampa roster was not that different, except he enjoyed the luxury of not having to recruit. He leaned heavily on instinct, and getting players he knew something about or who had played for him. One is his son Johnny, a wide receiver and, off a strong early showing, almost a sure bet to make the team. The younger McKay, a year out of USC and with a half season of WFL experience, had originally contracted to coach at Oregon State this year, but he made a last-minute switch and reported to Tampa Bay. "He said he loved Oregon but hated recruiting," McKay says with a laugh. "Well, hell. Welcome to college football."
McKay thinks that he selected well in both the college and expansion drafts. He told Tom McEwen, the Tampa Tribune columnist, he thought it was a copout to say you cannot win with rookies and expansion draftees. "That's an excuse for losing," he says. "If you win, you get credit for performing a miracle. But how can you say you drafted a bad player, then ask him to go out there and kill somebody? You're lying. I don't lie."
The frustration, he suspects, will come later, "when we cut down and then look back and say, 'We shoulda kept the other guy.' Look at what Don Shula has done with players other teams let go on waivers—Bob Kuechenberg and Jim Langer, both All-Pros."
McKay does not know the salaries of his players, and he does not plan to find out. "They wanted me to get into that, but I said I might as well stay at USC if I have to keep worrying about contracts. Vince Lombardi came into the league years ago and said, I'm in charge of everything, including salaries.' Some guys now think that's the only way. I don't. I'll know how much they're worth to the team, and when the time comes I'll say, 'All right, we need this guy.' I don't have to know his salary for that."
Cutting players has not been as odious as predicted, either. To begin with, the Tampa training complex is so close to the airport that on a day when McKay cut 10 players at 11 a.m., they were all out of town by 2:30. "One guy said he was already a millionaire. He should've been glad I cut him. Another guy was making a fortune raising Spanish goats. He asked me if I wanted some of the action. Some guys cut themselves with their attitude. We had a punter who said he 'lost his desire.' How can you lose your desire to punt and eat steaks? If you've lost your desire for that, you've really lost it. Some guys act relieved when you cut them. It's not that different from telling a college player he won't be playing much. It's not a terrible fate. I tell them a lot of great people never played pro football. George Washington never played pro football.
"But those who stick will know one thing: they will play the game the way we want it played. I don't care how a guy did it in high school; when he came to USC, he did it the USC way. Now he will do it the Tampa Buccaneer way."
McKay's first exhibition season—colleges don't play nonsense games—has been more of an eye-opener for him than for his fans. While he found the Los Angeles game "unacceptable," he found the aftermath even more so. "Everybody agrees it's the preseason when you try to find out who can play where," he says. "Preseason games count only for that reason. So we lose, playing more rookies than the Rams did, and the headline says, 'Bucs Big Bust in NFL Debut.' I suppose the ideal thing would be to play everybody and still win."
Nonetheless, McKay continued his experiments on schedule against Green Bay. Wanting to test his running game ("The first thing you have to do in football is get A to block B. If he doesn't, you lose"), he ordered only 14 passes against a Packer defense that seldom rested its best players. Still, Tampa Bay assembled the longest drive of the game, a 71-yard third-quarter march for its first-ever touchdown.
This followed what Richie McKay calls "the most fired-up halftime talk" he ever heard his old man deliver. McKay told the Bucs, "I guarantee you the Packers are no better than you are. You can beat this team. But you've got to block somebody. That's the worst blocking on kickoffs I've ever seen. Eleven men left standing. If you can't do better than that, I'll give you one guy's number, and you can all go down and block him."
Before the victory over the Falcons, McKay assured a listener that what he had remembered seeing at USC was what he was going to eventually see at Tampa.
"I'm not going to change," he said. "I think you'll find we'll run and pass more from the I formation than other teams will. We'll have our flea-flicker, our pitch play. We'll overshift, come back to the weak side, let the wingback run the ball some. There's no rule against having three backs run the ball instead of two. I think you'll find our quarterbacks will roll out more. Throw more sprint-out passes, maybe run 10 or 15% of the time. We didn't use the option play that much at USC, and I don't see the need of it here except as a surprise element. Option plays get the quarterback tackled. In college, you have more quarterbacks to play with.
"But I'll be damned if a running back can't carry the ball more. Jimmy Brown complained about running so much in Cleveland, and all it did was make him a million dollars. O. J. Simpson wasn't warmed up until he'd carried 15 times, even at USC. We ran our tailbacks 35 times a game at USC and alternated the fullbacks. The fullbacks block and take the greater beating. I don't think it'd be asking too much to have our tailback carry 25 or 26 times a game."
Before the drafts, McKay had said an expansion team "better have a quarterback who can scramble," because there were no guarantees in the painstaking process of developing an offensive line. In Spurrier, the 1966 Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Florida, who played spectator for the San Francisco 49ers during five of his nine pro seasons, he does not have a scrambling quarterback. Far from it. And subsequent attempts to deal for others who might qualify—notably his 1974 starting USC quarterback, Pat Haden, now with the Rams, and, most recently, Terry Hanratty, whom the Steelers put on waivers but then withdrew—have come up dry.
He has, nonetheless, given the job to Spurrier, an immense favorite in the state. "I saw him pass for 320 yards with the 49ers one day on TV," McKay says. "If I didn't think he could do it, I wouldn't have hired him. I do think he's the type who loses interest when he sits on the bench. I told Spurrier he wouldn't be on the bench. I think we have him interested." Spurrier surprised McKay with his effective scrambling in the win over Atlanta. Facing a strong rush, Spurrier dodged potential sackers with some stumbling sprintouts as he completed 11 of 19 passes for 147 yards, and also ran in for a touchdown.
McKay also drafted a number of big college offensive linemen after making Defensive End Leroy Selmon of Oklahoma his No. 1 pick. In the expansion draft, he picked up a number of good receivers, including son Johnny, Bob Moore from Oakland and Barry Smith from Green Bay. Moreover, McKay's college draft may have produced the sleeper of 1976: Quarterback Parnell (Paydirt) Dickinson of Mississippi Valley State, a seventh-round selection who has excited the Bucs with his derring-do and live arm.
Spurrier has found McKay a kindred spirit. "Most NFL coaches say, if you don't let them score, you won't get beat,' " Spurrier says. "That's defensive. Coach McKay says, if we have the ball, they can't score.' That's offensive. I like that." Wide Receiver Lee McGriff, a former Cowboy prospect, says there is "a totally different atmosphere" at the Tampa camp. "I hadn't even smiled once by this time in Dallas," he says. "With Coach McKay, we're having fun."
It is not likely that everyone who crosses McKay's bow will find him fun, of course. That intense, enormous wit that charms can also char, and when McKay is waspish, as is his tendency at times, he can raise welts. His staffs have always had what an assistant once characterized as "a healthy, affectionate fear" of McKay, and though he consistently delights the press with his one-liners, he is wary of those who send back bad vibrations. When asked by one Tampa-area writer how long his contract called for, McKay replied, "Probably longer than yours."
It is true, too, that McKay's departure caused some bitterness at USC and probably resulted in his recommendations for a successor being ignored. "You can't blame the USC people," says one prominent alumnus. "All John did was give them four national championships, eight Rose Bowl games, two Heisman Trophy winners and so much money in the bank they have trouble hiding it."
McKay says he did not take the Tampa job for the money, that it was the change he wanted, coming as it did when his children were mostly grown, his fields mostly conquered. But privately he admits to a growing dissatisfaction at USC. The perpetual shenanigans of the NCAA, its incessant messing around with college football, distresses him. And despite his legions of "Hollywood friends," he never got the kind of financial help he needed to make sure his later ride in life would be comfortable. The idea of finishing his career as an athletic director bored him, and his tries at the stock market "made a couple of stockbrokers rich while I lost my shirt."
"Bear Bryant can charm people," McKay said one day in his office after practice. "He doesn't have to coach as much anymore. That's great for him. I could never do it. To make enough to live the way Corky deserves to live after all these years putting up with me, I had to be on the road all the time—recruiting, making clinics, speaking at banquets. We wound up every year with two weeks in July to call our own."
McKay said Bryant popped in to see him recently and joined him at practice. "Bear said the Bucs looked like a college team practicing. I took it as a compliment." His secretary interrupted to tell him that Hank Stram of the Saints was on the line. McKay picked up the phone, but it was Strain's secretary, waiting to make the connection before putting her boss on. When Stram finally came on the line, McKay leaned back in his chair and said with exaggerated pique: "What is this, one of those I-won't-get-on-till-you-do calls? Listen, Henry, I'm a pro coach now. You don't keep pro coaches waiting. We are very busy people."