(every Friday during the NFL season, OOB will run a nostalgic feature about the Lions’ upcoming opponents)
The NFL had a much different way of supplying expansion teams with players in 1976 than they have nowadays. It was much crueler, for one.
Established teams could protect just about anyone they wanted, and the league didn’t provide much help in terms of extra draft picks or a more generous stable from which to choose players already playing pro football.
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Seattle Seahawks entered the NFL in ’76, they were left with slim pickings. The dregs of the league was what they had to choose from. Pretty much nothing more than that.
So maybe ownership in Tampa knew that their first head coach had better have a sterling sense of humor, considering the daunting task before him.
Enter John McKay.
They don’t make ’em like McKay anymore. Not even close. McKay, from USC, was a stand-up comedian playing a football coach. To be fair, it was more like the other way around, because McKay had some definite success on the campus of Troy before jumping, feet first, into the NFL. Regardless, he was funny. We knew he had a twinkle in his eye and sarcasm and humor in his tone when he was at Southern Cal, but we didn’t know the extent of his one-liners until he arrived in Tampa.
It started in his very first team meeting.
“Everyone is picking us to be the worst team in the league,” McKay told his players, caught by the NFL Films cameras and microphones. “That means that they’re challenging my ability to coach. Now this hurts me. Second worst team, I can take. But not the worst team,” he said as his motley crew of unwanteds and vagabonds laughed.
McKay had plenty of comedy material to work with in Tampa. The team was awful, even by expansion standards. They famously lost their first 26 games before winning the final two games of their second season. Not only did they lose, they lost badly. The Bucs couldn’t score. Seven points per game was about their quota. Their offense was, by far, the worst in the league and among the very worst in modern NFL history.
So it enabled McKay to get off a bunch of zingers about his team during post-game addresses to the media.
“What we needed was Knute Rockne but he’s not here.”
“We’ll come back next week and attempt to get a win in front of our home crowd. We’ve now proven we can’t win on the road OR in front of our home crowd. So what we would like is a neutral site.”
“Well, we didn’t block. But we made up for it by not tackling.”
When asked about his team’s execution: “I’m all for it.”
On the sidelines: “Half of these guys are brainless. And the other half are gutless.”
McKay bounced into Tampa talking about having a five year plan. It sounded good, and the reporters ate it up. But years later, he explained the method behind his madness.
“I had a five year contract,” McKay said. “If I had a three-year contract I would have had a three-year plan. So that’s how smart I was.”
Turns out, that three-year plan would have sufficed, almost. McKay got the Bucs into the NFC Championship game in Year Four, in 1979. They lost to the Los Angeles Rams, 9-0.
Two years later, the Bucs stole the NFC Central from the Lions on the final Sunday of the season, handing them their only home loss of the year.
Yes, that’s Wayne Fontes at the edge of this photo!
McKay retired after the 1984 season, and died in June 2001 from diabetes at age 77. His son Rich is currently the president of the Atlanta Falcons.
Oh, and McKay has a Lions connection. One of his loyal assistants at USC came over to the NFL with him and eventually coordinated his defense for the Bucs. That assistant then moved to the Lions in 1985 when Darryl Rogers became head coach.
Yes, John McKay was indirectly responsible for giving us Wayne Fontes.
Wayne wasn’t Knute Rockne, either, but his days in Detroit are looking better and better, aren’t they?