Still in the Family Business

Times Staff Writer

To them, the Coliseum was a second home, football second nature. To them, big-name football players were extended family, the head coach the head of their immediate family as well.

Rich McKay and Bruce Allen were L.A. football brats, their childhoods spent running and playing in the imposing shadows of football giants, none more imposing than those of their fathers. McKay, general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is the son of former USC and Tampa Bay coach and executive John McKay. Allen, a senior assistant with the Oakland Raiders, is the son of former Los Angeles Ram and Washington Redskin coach George Allen.

On Sunday, there will be no shadows, only a glaring spotlight on the next generation when the teams of the younger McKay and Allen meet in Super Bowl XXXVII. Will they reserve a special moment to think of their fathers? Each had the same response: "I think of him every day."

In McKay's eyes, Sunday is about unfinished business for his father, who died in 2001 at 77. John McKay had a distinguished 16-year career as head coach of the Trojans, winning four national championships and five Rose Bowls. But when he tried pro football, the sweet smell of success quickly turned into the bitter taste of failure. With McKay as their coach, the Buccaneers, formed in 1976, lost the first 26 games they played. In its fourth season, Tampa Bay had its first winning record and made it all the way to the NFC championship game before losing to the Los Angeles Rams, 9-0.

So what would he say now that his son's team has pushed over that hump into the Super Bowl?

"It's about time, is what he would say," Rich McKay said. "He would be very happy because he always felt intertwined with his two teams. In the last five to seven years of his life, he would always wear his USC sweatshirt. But he was not happy about the fact that the image of the Buccaneers wasn't more positive. He wanted to see this loop closed.

"When we lost [the NFC championship game] in 1999, my father was more disappointed than I was."

McKay, 43, still can remember his disappointment when his father, one year after winning the last of his national championships with the Trojans, decided to head east. The younger McKay, 17 at the time, was once a ball boy for the Trojans. An older brother, J.K. McKay, was a key receiver. USC quarterback Pat Haden was a close family friend.

Now his father was heading for parts unknown. At least unknown to the younger McKay. He knew so little about Tampa, he and his mother, Corky, couldn't even find it on a map, searching around the Miami area until they were told to look on Florida's other coast.

When Rich, who had grown up in Orange County, first went to Tampa, he asked a local clerk what there was to do in town. A submarine tour is about as good as it gets, he was told.

That sent McKay on another search ... for the fastest way out of town.

Instead, he stayed to support his father, went on to law school, became the Buccaneers' legal counsel and is now in his eighth season as the team's general manager.

"One thing about football," McKay said, "if it's in your blood, it's always going to be there."

It was as true for the father as for the son. Long after he retired, John was still involved, as the advisor to the son who once shagged balls for his players.

Rich still treasures the memory of Sunday mornings when the Buccaneers were home, Rich and his sons, Hunter and John, enjoying breakfast at the home of the elder McKay.

"He would have the whole game plan ready for me," Rich said. "In later years, he didn't even know the names of all the players, but he had a game plan ready."

The relationship of the Allens was similar. George and Etty Allen had four kids. George Jr. is a U.S. senator from Virginia, Greg a psychologist, daughter Jennifer a writer.

Only Bruce followed his father into football.

"He was always there right under Dad's arm," Jennifer said, "always going to training camp with him."

Bruce remembers being around the Chicago Bears as a kid when his father was the team's defensive coordinator.

"I liked to organize all the helmets," Bruce said. "I really made [owner/coach] George Halas mad."

From there, Bruce moved up the football ladder.

"I began with the Rams as an assistant ball boy," he said. He graduated to chief ball boy and, by the time George had assumed command of the Redskins, amateur statistician.

"We all had a great relationship with my father, but Bruce had a special relationship," Jennifer said.

That relationship, Bruce says, did not depend on his decision to stay in football.

"I remember my father had a sign that read, 'Work hard, be happy,' " Bruce said. "He would tell us all that it didn't matter what we did. What mattered was to be the best at what we did. When I was in high school, I was a gas attendant and he told me he wanted me to be the best gas attendant in the world."

Bruce went on to became a football player, not the best in the world although he won all-conference honors as a punter at the University of Richmond. Drafted by the Baltimore Colts, he failed to make the cut but stayed in the sport by going into coaching. In 1980, at 22, Bruce became head coach at Occidental College.

In 1982, Bruce turned his relationship with his father into a working relationship when the U.S. Football League came into existence. With George as head coach and Bruce in the front office of the Chicago Blitz, the team won a division title. A year later, the club became the Arizona Wranglers. The Allens moved with them and won a conference title.

After a stint as a sports agent, Bruce joined the Raiders in 1995.

Others might consider working for Al Davis a stressful situation, but Bruce thrives on pressurized competition. He didn't have to hear his boss utter his famous creed, "Just win, baby," to drive home the point. The point was made while he was still a youngster. He can remember the aftermath of game day. Victory meant a big dinner for the whole family in a fancy restaurant while the other patrons applauded his father. Defeat meant a somber trip home, a bowl of soup slurped in silence and early bedtime.

When George died in 1990 at 72, Bruce said, "I have lost my best friend."

On Sunday, in separate luxury suites, two men will pause amid this country's biggest annual sports spectacle to remember the men who put them in that box.

"I really miss my dad a lot," Rich said.

Said Bruce: "I grew up around Deacon Jones, Rosey Grier, Roman Gabriel and Jack Pardee. It was like being in Disneyland. It was a fantasy life."

For two former ball boys, it still is.

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