You aren’t just USC’s football coach, you’re a crossover star who gets the red-carpet treatment all over Los Angeles. You’ve coached multiple Heisman Trophy winners and have filled Heritage Hall with national championship trophies.
But an NFL team from Florida beckons, and you’re attracted to the challenge and money associated with coaching at the next level.
What are you going to do, John McKay?
The answer: Leave USC -- and wind up regretting it for the rest of your life.
“My dad told me that, looking back on it, he knew within the first week he got to Tampa that he’d made a mistake,” said J.K. McKay, the former Trojans receiver whose father became the first coach of the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976. John McKay died in 2001.
Pete Carroll is at a similar crossroads. His success as USC’s coach has attracted the interest of NFL teams, and he recently met in Costa Rica with Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga.
While saying during a news conference this week that he had no plans to leave USC, Carroll seemingly left the door open a crack by talking glowingly about Huizenga and the Dolphins’ “one-voice” philosophy, which affords the coach maximum control. Later the same day, however, he told The Times that he definitely was staying with the Trojans.
Regardless, speculation about Carroll’s immediate future will not go away until all of the NFL jobs are filled. Then, assuming he stays with the Trojans, the talk will start up again next January.
Many people believe that Carroll will wind up back in the NFL at some point, determined to prove he’s a better pro coach than his record in three seasons with the New England Patriots and one with the New York Jets indicates. He was 33-31 as an NFL head coach.
“I think with Pete there’s the fact that he started in the NFL and -- he’s never said this to me -- but I sense that he feels he didn’t have a fair shot because he didn’t have the control that supposedly he’s being offered now,” McKay said. “He’s a very competitive guy, just like my dad was, and that’s what makes him so great at SC.”
Under John McKay, the Trojans won national championships in 1962, ’67, ’72 and ’74. He coached Heisman winners O.J. Simpson and Mike Garrett, and his teams played in eight Rose Bowls.
In a story that ran Oct. 27, 1975, The Times reported that the newly minted Buccaneers were considering McKay as their first coach and were offering a five-year contract worth $2 million, counting fringe benefits.
“If the Trojans can’t persuade him to hang around,” The Times’ Bob Oates wrote, “McKay almost surely will be gone in three or four months.”
Just two weeks later, after USC had gotten off to a 7-0 start and was coming off a victory over Notre Dame, McKay announced he was leaving. It was a wrenching moment for the coach and the team, which lost its last four games under replacement coach John Robinson.
“It was really hard for my dad,” recalled Rich McKay, who was in high school at the time and is now president of the Atlanta Falcons. “He second-guessed himself the whole time. I didn’t have any idea he was leaving until about two nights before it was announced.”
J.K. McKay, then a year out of college, recalled how his father wrestled with the decision: “For some reason he called me to come in and see him, which he never did. We sat and talked for a couple of hours. I think he was very much confused. He had to make a decision fairly quickly.”
Besides the five-fold salary increase the Buccaneers were offering, John McKay was intrigued by the prospect of building a franchise from the ground up. Earlier in his career, he had turned down offers from Cleveland, New England and the Los Angeles Rams.
But as soon as he got to Tampa, “he realized the infrastructure wasn’t there that would allow him to win,” Rich McKay said. “That concerned him right out of the box.”
The Buccaneers lost all 14 games in 1976 and the first 12 of 1977 before ending their second season with consecutive victories. Four seasons into the job, McKay led the Buccaneers to the 1979 NFC championship game, where they lost to the Rams. In his nine seasons in Tampa, his teams were 44-88-1.
Asked what advice his father might give Carroll, J.K. said: “He’d say, ‘Not only can you win national championships, but you have a chance to do some great things in helping shape the players you coach. The NFL is football. It’s just football. If you don’t win the Super Bowl, it’s like you’ve failed.’ ”
McKay stopped himself.
“I’m selfish,” he said. “I want him to stay, and I think he will.”