The flags at One Buc Place are flying at half-mast to mourn the death of former Head Coach John McKay
The flags were at half-mast Wednesday, but the house was full.
And so were the smiles.
Though the family of John McKay will gather for private funeral services later, the Bay area as a whole had an opportunity to bid the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach farewell on Wednesday. An open gathering was held from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. in Higgins Hall at St. Lawrence Church in Tampa.
On the path into Higgins Hall, attendees walked past monitors showing NFL Films pieces on McKay's early years with the Buccaneers and his dynastic seasons at USC. Inside, the McKay family, including Rich, the Buccaneers' current general manager, mingled with former players, NFL opponents, league executives, long-time Buccaneer staffers and fans who remembered the franchise's first head coach fondly.
Among those who came by to pay their respects were current Buccaneers John Lynch and Dave Moore, former Bucs Jimmie Giles, Dave Green, John Cannon, Richard Wood and others, former Tampa Bay Head Coach Ray Perkins, former Green Bay Packers receiver Boyd Dowler and former San Francisco 49ers receiver Freddie Solomon.
Befitting a man who is remembered as much for his keen sense of humor as his outstanding football legacy, the gathering was upbeat and filled with fond stories.
"I like the one where he said we were so bad guys were getting hurt running out of the tunnel," said Green, a punter/kicker for the Bucs from 1976-78. Green also recalled a humorous halftime speech during the final game in 1976 that helped take the edge of a winless debut season. The Bucs were well behind by the intermission.
"Coach asked for a raise of hands of the guys that were going to stay in town after the season was over," said Green. "Of course, I'm waving my hand, as is John (McKay) Jr. and some of the other guys who were going to be hanging around. He said I'd like you to stop by my office Monday morning to pick up some fake noses and sunglasses so nobody recognizes your sorry asses. After that, we're running out at halftime laughing and I'm thinking, 'This is something different.'"
Late in 1977, the Buccaneers finally earned the franchise's first victory, winning 33-14 at New Orleans on December 11. A mob of fans worthy of a Super Bowl team met the Bucs at the airport, lining the streets from the terminal to the Bucs' offices a few miles away.
McKay slipped into his personal car to leave the airport, and the crowd of happy fans quickly engulfed the vehicle.
"We were thinking he was going to be so mad," said Green. "It was a brand new Cadillac and we thought he was just going to come out and kill people. But he enjoyed it. He said, 'We can get more cars. I'll get one each week if we keep winning.'"
McKay's calm optimism during the tough formative years helped the team stick together and build itself into a Super Bowl contender in 1979, a remarkable achievement in the pre-free agency era. Wood, who also played on highly successful USC teams under McKay before joining the Bucs in 1977, thinks of the coach as the glue that held that squad together.
"We had so much fun together," said Wood. "The bad times, the 0-26, that's just a passing thought. The good times outweigh all the bad times. So many good moments…"
Wood admitted that the losing in Tampa bothered McKay. "You could see it in him and you knew it was hurting him," he said. "It was hurting us, too. You wanted to win it for coach. … He was very quiet at times, but he was the type of father that you would want. You could speak to him at any time.
"There was a lot of doubt, but once you're winning, that's it. Eventually, with patience, we knew it was going to happen. And it did, in three short years."
Val Pinchbeck, formerly the NFL's Senior Vice President of Broadcasting and Network Television and still a consultant with the league, spent a lot of time in Tampa when the franchise was taking off. He was an AFC administrator when the team began play in 1976 (and was placed in the AFC West for that first year), and he was back in '79 when the Bucs made it to the NFC Championship game.
Pinchbeck observed McKay's ability to maintain hope and interest in the team even as it was losing game after game.
"As all the guys around then know, it was a struggle, especially the first 26, but it was an exciting struggle," said Pinchbeck. "I've always felt that John's approach to it … there were a lot of guys who couldn't have handled that, who wouldn't have been around for that 26. His sense of humor and whatnot was able to prevail."
And that, of course, is what McKay is most remembered for in the Bay area. Everyone has their favorite 'John McKay line,' as that was his most effective communication with the public as a whole. But for those who knew him, McKay is also remembered as a caring man.
Green recalls playing for a coach who balanced football with not only humor but a respect for the players' lives. He was, as Wood pointed out, a father figure to many.
"There were times where he would sit down with me to talk," said Green. "When my son was born, he was premature, he was only a pound and a half, and (McKay) kind of sat me down and gave me a fatherly talk. He said training camp was coming, don't worry about showing up, just stay there with your family. Those are the kinds of things you learned (under McKay). In the heat of battle and what you're going through trying to win, there's still the side of him that says family is most important."
And McKay's family certainly appreciated the turnout on Wednesday. McKay's friends and acquaintances from down through the years came by to offer Rich and his family condolences, but no tears were shed on this afternoon. Instead, people remembered the good times, and smiled. Pinchbeck believes that's the way McKay would have wanted it.
"I don't think John would like sorrow," he said. "He would like the war stories."