Tony Dungy says John McKay, above, told him always to stick with what he believed
In the wake of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach John McKay's death on Sunday, it has become clear that he left behind many, many friends and well-wishers. Though McKay's family will hold a private memorial service at a later date, a larger gathering has been arranged for friends who wish to bid the late coach farewell.
Friends and family are invited to honor John McKay's memory on Wednesday, June 13 at St. Lawrence Church - Higgins Hall (5225 Himes Avenue) in Tampa. The McKay family will receive well-wishers and guests from 3-5 p.m.
McKay's family includes, of course, the Buccaneers current general manager, Rich McKay. On Monday, the team that McKay has assembled over the past seven years went back to the practice field for the fourth week of voluntary workouts. Head Coach Tony Dungy guided the team through the session, but his post-practice thoughts turned back to his friend in the Bucs' front office.
"I think my thoughts are for a friend of mine who lost his dad, more than anything else," said Dungy, who, through most of his football life, was an admirer of John McKay's from afar. "Coach McKay certainly had so much to do with this franchise starting up and getting to where it got, as he did with (the development of) college football and pro football, also. We're losing a great coach and somebody who has contributed a lot, but more than that for me are my feelings for Rich and his family."
However, when Dungy's football career arc brought him to Tampa, he crossed paths with the legendary coach, who guided the Buccaneers in their formative years from 1976 through 1984. Dungy, who had played his college ball at Minnesota during a time when McKay was impacting the game as the head coach at USC, found his footprints at One Buc Place, as well. The prominence Dungy wanted his team to regain was first achieved in Tampa by McKay's squad, just a few years into the team's existence.
"He was probably the ultimate college coach when I was playing college ball," said Dungy of McKay. "Some of the things that they did, I was very, very aware of as a college player. Then they came here and got to the championship game in four years. It was just an outstanding job all the way around."
When Dungy and Rich McKay tabbed Tulane quarterback Shaun King with the 50th overall selection in the 1999 draft, King was the fourth black quarterback drafted that April. That a quarterback's skin color had become much less of an issue at the turn of the century than it was just 10 or 20 years ago is another development in which Dungy sees John McKay's hand. McKay and the Buccaneers broke precedent in 1978 when they took Grambling quarterback Doug Williams in the first round of the draft; Williams was the Bucs' field general for all three of its playoff seasons under McKay.
"I always will be so respectful of Coach McKay for that, because in my mind he did what he thought was best for the franchise," said Dungy. "It even dates back to USC and what he did there, playing black quarterbacks, black players in general, at a time when it wasn't all that popular. I think he just showed everybody that if you get players and good people, it doesn't matter where they play or where you put them or who they are. If they do their job, that's what you're looking for. To me, that's what he always represented."
That is certainly a blueprint one can see behind Dungy's maneuvers since he became the Buccaneers' head coach in 1996. Dungy's first season started slowly, with five straight losses, but it was certainly nowhere near as difficult as the Bucs' infamous 0-26 franchise start in 1976 and '77. The calm reaction of Dungy and his staff to those first five weeks of their tenure is now recognized as the first step in the team's ultimately successful rebuilding attempt. If he had any doubts at the time, Dungy had McKay's sanguine support to help him through.
"He was very supportive," said Dungy. "He was one of the few guys in Tampa, I think, who was happy when we ran the ball out of the I formation. I'll always have a soft spot for him because of that. He was very supportive of me, especially early on when we were struggling and trying to get going. He didn't come over all that much, but when he would it was always with encouragement, saying 'You've got a good system. Stick with what you believe. Don't worry about pleasing anybody else. Do what you think is best for the team.' I always appreciated that."
In essence, McKay's influence will live on with the Buccaneers because of the wisdom he has passed on to Dungy, and doubly so because his son is now the Bucs' roster architect. Right now, with the pain of his father's death still raw, Rich McKay has Dungy's care and empathy. But Dungy also knows that McKay and the Buccaneers will move on from this sad chapter, and do so successfully because of what the son learned from the father.
"The greatest thing for us right now is that Rich grew up underneath him and saw a lot of college football from his dad's eyes and a lot of pro football from his dad's eyes," said Dungy. "He understands that it's a tough game. It's a game for the long term. I think he made an imprint not only by what he did but also by what Rich is doing now."