John McKay was already a college coaching legend when he arrived in Tampa in 1976, having won four national championships at USC between 1960 and 1975.
Obviously, landing a head coaching job in the NFL was another impressive accomplishment, but it didn't take long for McKay to realize the deck was stacked against him. The NFL's treatment of expansion teams in that era was unsparing, without the sorts of draft-pick and free-agency advantages that have helped later rounds of expansion go more smoothly. McKay's Buccaneers lost the first 26 games in franchise history.
As the difficulty of the situation became clear, McKay could have easily opted out, and become nothing more than a footnote in the history of a developing franchise. That opportunity was available to him. Perhaps aware of how that decision would be viewed by his children, including his young son Rich, McKay chose to stick it out.
Thirty-four years later, his name is written in huge letters on the inside façade of the Buccaneers modern new stadium.
"I always think the key lesson in this one is that he came to a situation that was tougher than tough," said Rich McKay. "He had escape hatches that he could have taken and comfortably done something else in the game of football, but he was going to finish the task. I thought that was an important lesson. It's always not-so-easy in certain things you do, and I thought what he did in hanging in – because it was not easy – was a great lesson for us."
On Sunday during halftime of the Buccaneers' Throwback Game against the Atlanta Falcons, the franchise posthumously inducted their first head coach into the Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium. McKay's name was unveiled in huge letters next to that of Hall of Fame defensive end Lee Roy Selmon, who was the Ring's initial inductee a year ago. As obvious a choice as Selmon was to kick off the Ring of Honor, McKay was just as clearly a deserving candidate. Not only did he stick it out during and after that difficult start, he helped the team reach incredible heights before anybody thought it was possible.
In 1979, just four years into the franchise's existence, the Buccaneers were NFC Central division champs and, after a stirring win in their first playoff game, a game away from the Super Bowl. An appearance in the NFC Championship Game just four seasons in might not seem extraordinary in the modern NFL, when expansion teams are given concessions to help them become competitive more quickly, but it was an enormous achievement at the time. Though the Buccaneers would eventually reach the pinnacle of NFL achievement in 2002 with their first Super Bowl victory, that early rise to prominence remains one of the most impressive feats in team history. The Bucs also made the playoffs in 1981 and 1982, winning a second division title in '81.
"If you go back and you look at New Orleans and you look at Atlanta and you look at Seattle and
you look at Tampa, which are the four expansion teams that were dealt a bad hand of cards, I don't think anybody achieved what we achieved in Tampa," said the younger McKay. "We felt good about going to the playoffs in those years and doing those things because I know that didn't happen with those other franchises with those rules."
McKay's older brother, John (or J.K.) McKay, was a receiver on those early Buccaneers teams. Rich would later become just the second general manager in franchise history and help build the team that won that 2002 Super Bowl title. Even at that time, in the afterglow of the championship, Rich McKay made a point of sharing credit for the title with those who came before in franchise history, including his own father, who had passed away in 2001. On Sunday, Rich, who is now the Falcons' president, once again honored his father's place in history by accepting the honor on the coach's behalf during a halftime ceremony. He said he felt composed at the podium on the 50-yard line before his own eldest son, Hunter, started to feel the moment.
"I wasn't emotional at all today until they [uncovered McKay's name on the stadium]," said Rich McKay, who said he was a bit overwhelmed when the Glazer Family first called him earlier in the year to reveal that his father would follow Selmon into the Ring. "Hunter, my son, got kind of emotional, and I'm like, 'Hold on, I've got to speak here. You've got to calm down.' It was great. It's always good to remember your parents; it's great that you have an opportunity as a family to come together and relive those memories, which is what we've done these last two days."
That reminiscing was in full swing on Saturday night when members of the 1976 inaugural Buccaneers team gathered at One Buccaneer Place for a reunion dinner. Rich McKay and his family were in attendance, and they thoroughly enjoyed the evening. On Sunday, as John McKay's spot in the Ring of Honor was made official, those same players and coaches from the '76 team were arrayed in a line behind the podium.
"For our family, it's been a really neat time for us to kind of relive," he said. "The '76 team, it was appropriate they were there. As tough as that year was, those guys – there was great camaraderie. We got together last night and exchanged a lot of stories – probably exaggerated by about 50 percent, but they were still fun stories. It was great to see those guys, and to hear them talk about the coach was a lot of fun."
The Ring of Honor was established in 2009 so that the Buccaneers and their fans could recognize those who have helped the franchise strive for greatness, from the moment the team first took the field in 1976 through the decades of achievements that have followed. When a figure such as John McKay is honored, it helps to connect the past with the present and put current achievements and struggles in perspective. Tampa Bay won that Super Bowl in 2002 and has been to the playoffs seven times since 1997, and they are striving for another postseason berth in 2010. The future of the franchise looks extremely bright, as Josh Freeman and the league's youngest roster continues to defy expectations.
In that way, the current Buccaneers are like those that McKay helped build in the '70s and early '80s. And while McKay's own tenure overlapped into the decade-and-a-half of struggles that came before Malcolm Glazer's purchase of the team, it is the unprecedented achievements during his nine years at the helm that are now remembered.
"I think one of the things we felt the best about -- those of us working in the team in the turnaround years – is that once the fans felt better about the franchise, then they looked back and felt better about [John McKay]," said Rich McKay. "So I felt like it helped his legacy a little bit that we got the franchise to be a franchise that people actually liked."