A Life of Legend

On June 11, thousands of his fans awoke to the page-one Los Angeles Times headline: “Legendary Coach John McKay Dies.” The 77-year-old Trojan general who had led USC to four national championships and eight Rose Bowl appearances died June 10, in Tampa, of diabetes complications.
Sportswriters across the country took up their pens to eulogize him. “This was the best football coach, college or pro, of the past 50 years in Los Angeles, and one of the three or four finest in America,” wrote the Orange County Register’s Steve Bisheff.
“McKay redefined USC football, raised the bar so high not even Trojan great Bob Seagren could vault it,” wrote the Los Angeles Times’s Chris Dufresne. “McKay was so good … he left the program in a perpetual state of unattainable expectations. There was USC football tradition before McKay, but you’d have to remember how to do the Charleston to recall it. McKay gave USC football the attitude UCLA and Notre Dame fans came to hate, but grudgingly admire. McKay turned USC into a power to be feared nationally.”
As much as they admired his skill, sportswriters also loved him for his acerbic wit. “If a writer couldn’t get a good quote from McKay, it was time to consider going into another line of work,” wrote Jim Donaldson for the Providence Journal. “He was the football equivalent of George Burns, as quick with a quip as he was at drawing up some innovative new play,” said Bisheff. “Covering him was like being part football beat man and part comedy writer. Often, you found yourself laughing too hard to scribble down his last quote.”

John McKay as an assistant coach at Oregon in the 1950's.
Born in 1923 in Everettsville, W. Va., the son of a coal miner, John Harvey McKay was an all-state running back and basketball guard in high school. He worked a year in the coal mines before enlisting in the Army Air Forces during World War II. In 1946, he entered Purdue University and started at defensive back. After a year, he transferred to Oregon, where he was a two-way player. His Oregon career rushing record of 6.1 yards per carry still stands.
In 1950 he began his coaching career. McKay was an offensive and defensive assistant at Oregon, his alma mater, for eight years, first under Jim Aiken and then Len Casanova. The position paid so little that he had to take a second job as a night watchman in a lumber yard to make ends meet. In 1959, he joined USC as an assistant coach.
When he took over as head coach the following season, he began a new chapter in Trojan football history. His overall record, before he left in 1976 to coach the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was 127-40-8. In 1988, McKay was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.
John McKay is survived by his wife, Corky (the former Nancy Hunter), sons
J.K. ’75 and Rich, daughters Michele Breese and Terri Florio, and 10 grandchildren.

Contributions to the John H. McKay Scholarship Fund can be made out to USC Athletic Department and sent c/o Don Winston, USC Athletic Department, Heritage Hall 203A, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0602. For information on the “Friends of John McKay Wall” at Heritage Hall, call (213) 740-4155.

Photographs courtesy of USC sports information?

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