THE McKAY WAY

THE McKAY WAY

By Paul Morantz

To the average fan, the John McKay Way of football is quite simple.

You begin by recruiting a line that can block anybody, a tailback who is the nation’s best rusher, a fullback who resembles a bulldozer, a quarterback who can scramble like hell, and ends who can catch a ball in a hurricane.

Then you hide them. For if your opponent doesn’t know they exist, then he can’t do anything to stop them. So for about 50-odd minutes you have your team flog around the field with misleading fumbles and penalties, allowing the other team to get over-confident. 

The defense, of course, keeps the score within striking distance and when the end of the game finally draws near, you let loose the horses for as many scores as needed.

The clock runs out and the opponent never has time to adjust or defend against these suddenly appearing super-stars and, alas, there is also no time for a come-back.

And so another losing coach goes home, not learning the lesson that every average fan knows – never pay attention to the first three quarters of USC game films.

However, to John McKay, the man who does the USC coaching, any average fan who would believe such a thing is quite simple. “I’m human, too,” he said, “and I don’t enjoy waiting on the sidelines hoping everything will turn out all right.”

“And nobody would plan to win a game at the end were all it would take to beat you is a fumble or one drop of an official’s red flag.”

Actually, the real McKay way of football is just plain winning. That’s what he is paid to do and that’s what he does – well and often.

In the last eight seasons (including this year), McKay has built a record of 66 wins, 14 losses and 3 ties – a mark that is second in the nation behind Alabama for that period. During that time, USC has won two national titles, finished in the “top ten” ratings on six occasions, won five Pac-8 titles, and appeared in the Rose Bowl four consecutive times.

But even the winning has its drawbacks. When one builds the reputation for winning, the pressure to continue to win also builds.

“Sometimes, it makes life difficult.” McKay said. And, when his team doesn’t annihilate the foe, criticism of his game plans tends to flow in. Especially, where his teams have had to come from behind to barely win against lesser teams.

But the answer, as McKay knows, is that football games are won on the playing fields and not on reputations, and that every team on USC’s schedule wants nothing more than to beat the Trojans. “People will only be satisfied with our performance when we play a team that can’t run, pass or play defense,” McKay said.

For McKay, as with most coaches, his year begins each spring with the evaluation of his personnel. “The most important thing in coaching is the placement of personnel,” he said.

“We try to get our best 22 players in starting positions. A lot of coaches will keep a good player as a sub, say at quarterback, in case the starter gets hurt. We don’t worry about depth until we have the best starting eleven possible.”

“The only exception to that rule was last year when we kept Bobby Chandler at 2nd– team flanker instead of at first-team defensive back since our starting flanker Jimmy Lawrence had a history of getting hurt. That turned out to be a pretty smart move.”

Once he decides what personnel he will use, McKay will select that part of his entire USC system that best suits those players.

“We have a set system here but we’re never so narrow- minded or bull-headed to not search for new ideas. Like a doctor, you learn things as you go along. You become a better doctor in 10 years.”

McKay has more offense in his system than he is ever going to use in a single season. Such things as kick off reverses and shotgun formations have been practiced but so far never used.

McKay has a book on his offense which digests all of the various 32 sets or formations in his offense system. He likes the Trojans to be a multiple- set team, similar to that of the Kansas City Chiefs and the Dallas Cowboys.

“When we pass, we like to use as much of the field as possible and we prefer the backs split apart,” he said. “When we run, we want the backs in tight for more blocking. We always like to at least have one player wide to give the illusion that we might pass even if we won’t.”

The type of passing system McKay will primarily employ in a season will depend on the nature and skills of his quarterback. There is the pro-dropback (or 90 series) that McKay will only employ if his passer has a good arm like a Craig Fertig, and there is the roll-out, pass-run option (or 80 series) that is only employed if the quarterback is good runner like a Pete Beathard.

Each series can be executed from any of the 32 sets.

The ends have five basic patterns to a side and the quarterback can audible any receiver’s pattern at the line of scrimmage. “What patterns we run are usually determined as the game progresses – as we pick up information from both the players and our spotters,” McKay said. “Normally, we try to keep the ball outside to avoid interceptions and having to throw over linemen.”

McKay’s philosophy on running is to run inside and to daylight. His line has no special hole to make. The players block straight on and push the defender anyway he will go and the back will take off down the clearest path. If this is successful, the defense will have to move in tighter and that is when McKay will send his backs wide.

“The ideal defense is to put two guys outside the line where they have no direct blocker and so they can contain the outside plays which most long scores are made on,” McKay said.

“This leaves us seven blockers (five linemen, tight end and fullback) to block six men (front four and two linebackers) and we should beat them. Eventually they’ll bring one or both split men in and our quarterback will oblige by sending the backs where they were.”

This type of philosophy was what accounted for a lot of O.J. Simpson’s second-half success a year ago (particularly his 46-yard outside touchdown run against Oregon State.)

McKay will generally run his fullback in direct proportion with that man’s running ability. “Usually, our fullbacks gain more yards near the end of the season,” McKay said. “By then, people believe that they have to stop our tailback and they key on with him, and then the fallback goes where he wants.”

USC does have such things as traps and counters and reverses in its system and it does use them. “We do a few things just so our opponents will have to worry about them,” McKay said. “Even if the play doesn’t gain many yards, it opens up our more basic plays.”

An example was Earl McCullouch’s 57-yard run on a reverse against UCLA in 1967. The fear that Earl just might do it again kept the linebackers more at home and made things easier for Simpson. And, in 1965, when Gary Fite made many yards against UCLA, McKay had his quarterback fake the reverse and hand-off to his fullback, going the other way.

McKay also likes to go to the two-tight end offense when inside the 10-yard line. This means defensive lines have to balance and consequently they cannot pursue as quickly.

To McKay, the secret of defense is emotion. “It’s not where you line up but where you wind up that counts,” he said. “You’re at a disadvantage because you don’t know where the ball is going and the other team does. You have to find it and get there with anger.”

USC has three basic defense formations –The odd-man front, where there is a man over center and the guards are uncovered; the even front, where the guards are covered and nobody is over the center, and the offset off, where everybody is over-shifted one-half man to one side. Normally, USC plays a 5-man front but sometimes goes to six men on the line.

The assignments on each formation are often changed so the opponent can’t get its blocking down pat. “We don’t want them to know where we’re coming from,” said McKay. And sometimes Troy will line up in one defense and slant and loop into another.

USC will sometimes slant a tackle inside one direction and loop the other tackle around in the same direction if it believes the opponent’s play is going to go that way. What they will do will basically depend on the strengths and the weaknesses of the opposing team. Normally the players try to “read” what the man in front of him is doing and then react accordingly.

USC’s defensive end positions are known as the strong end and the weak end, and their assignments will vary depending on the type of offense they’re facing. The strong end usually has more strength and he guards more against the run, while the weak end has more agility and speed and has more pass coverage. This year, there is no physical difference in the ends at all with Jimmy Gunn and Charlie Weaver manning the posts. A similar status usually goes to the two linebackers – one a strong side backer and the other a weak side with the same corresponding responsibilities.

McKay employs both a man-to-man pass defense and two different zone defenses. Mostly, he uses a zone and will set it up against the type of patterns he sees an opponent’s game films.

McKay’s zone defense is a threat to pick off the long pass. He knows a lot of short passes  will be completed against him but he knows they won’t go for touchdowns. “There are seven zone areas,” he said, and if we drop back seven men to cover them all, then we have only four to rush. A lot of passes may be completed but every time we pick one off we gain 40 yards plus a runback as the other team can’t punt.”

In obvious passing situations, McKay will often take out the middle guard and put in a third linebacker for additional coverage.

The entire system is complex – no matter how simple it may seem to the average fan. And, in the end, the final worth depends on a very now-famous McKay quote: “To win it is something good, to lose his something bad.”

And although that statement hardly compares with a famous quote from a former cross-town coach about the Big Game being more important than life or death, or the more well-known McKay wit, it pretty well sums up the life of a football coach.

And the something good pretty well sums up the McKay way.