The McKay Era – How it Started

By Paul Morantz

The passing of Corky McKay brings back emotions and memories felt when Saint John left us. While she was mainly in the background, Coach always made funny quips about her, from cooking to everything else. My favorite was McKay on recruiting J.K.: “ I had an advantage…I dated his mother.” You knew this was a couple that loved each other. In their honor I am telling the tale of how the McKay era got started. And how almost it never was.

So in their honor I am telling the tale of how the McKay era got started. And how almost it never was.

The year was l959. Don Clark was the head coach. McKay had been hired as the assistant coach and as heir to the top position. But Clark was doing what had long been forgotten at USC. He was going undefeated. Led by Packer immortal Willie Wood at quarterback and a host of running backs who had averages ranging from 5 to 7 yards a carry, the best of which was Jerry “Peaches” Traynham, the team was 8-0 and ranked No. 2. Its overwhelming strength was a forward wall consisting of future NFL Hall of Famer Ron Mix and the McKeever Twins.

The remaining two games were against teams not seen as a threat and the national championship appeared in reach. But those last two games were also against Troy’s rivals where anything can happen and did.

Led by junior Billy Kilmer, who would lead the Washington Redskins for many years, and keyed by a USC score nullified by penalty, the Bruins pulled off one of the series greatest upsets, 3-0. A demoralized team then traveled to South Bend to be knocked off 16 to 6. Don Clark then resigned.

When the fall of 1960 came, expectations were high as most of the team was back. It was “All the way with Coach John McKay.” Fans attended the opener thinking a national championship only to find USC upset 14 to 0 by Oregon State, led by that year’s Hiesman Trophy winner Terry Baker and coached by McKay’s ultimate nemesis Tommy Prothro. Troyville was in shock. But more was to come. Next week USC would lose to Texas Christian 6 to 7 and the following week would be shut out again 20 to O by McKay’s future Rose Bowl rival Ohio State and Woody Hayes.

The truth was Clark and McKay had different ideas of team. Clark’s team was strong but plodders. He did not have McKay’s vision of speed. In fact, the fastest player on the 1959 team, senior Angie Coia, was not played a lot. Coia would be the only one of the backs to play pro football, starting at wide receiver for many years with the Chicago Bears. Moreover, Ron Mix had now graduated, so had Willie Wood and Mike McKeever would be lost early to a concussion. The team would be decimated by injuries. All its running backs were knocked out.

USC was 3 and 5 and coming off wipe outs by Washington and Baylor. Its next opponent was UCLA which was now the toast of the West Coast with Billy Kilmer looking for all-American honors. The outcome to all was a foregone conclusion as was McKay’s job. The talk was only of who would replace him. If you think Hackett was denounced, those who blamed McKay were even more pronounced. McKay knew it, too. While wondering where he might get a job next year, he also knew UCLA was his only chance to remain.

He went into the film room and maybe that is when the eye first truly developed. The ability to find another teams weaknesses, the ability to make that game plan adjustment. USC went into the game limping. The quarterback, recently elevated, was an inexperienced sophomore named Bill Nelson, who would eventually lead the Cleveland Browns. For a running back, by default the job went to a fourth stringer, Carl Skvarna who weighed 150 lbs. maybe if he was soaking wet. But McKay was silently confident. He had figured out UCLA’s single wing and knew the key for which side each play would be run to. So he flip-flopped Marlin McKeever at the last moment to that side. McKeever tackling Kilmer became so routine, that the cheerleader would cry, “Who killed Kilmer?” And the cheering section would cry back, “McKeever killed Kilmer.” On offense, Bill Nelson made big plays, often a pass to Marlin McKeever and Skvarna shocked with timely runs. It was big-time payback, 17 to 6.

A week later in a pouring downpour at the Coliseum Notre Dame would shut out the Trojans 17 zip. But when the fate was clear, the cheerleader said it really didn’t matter and told us to stand up and cheer the team for last week’s upset. Umbrellas were raised in the air in tribute. That had made the season and this game was not rain on the parade.

Indeed, the victory had saved McKay’s job and he was given a contract extension. And it was good for USC it did. Already McKay had recruited his type of players. They were fast and they were waiting, spending time on the freshman team. Sophomores in1961 they would be known as the “B” boys in 2 years. Pete Beathard, Willie Brown, Hal Bedsole and Damon Bame. They didn’t beat UCLA in 1961, losing 10-7, but in one game on national TV, the world got a glimpse of the future. Down by 21 points to the No. 1 team in the country, Iowa, USC rallied to come within a failed two point conversion of victory, losing 35 to 34.

The next year, McKay worked further on his innovations, sending running backs in motion, tinkling with an I-formation. While known best as an offensive originator, he was truly at his best at making second half defensive adjustments. He also was a first to master harvesting junior college players who could be a good fix at needed positions.

The 1962 team won them all. Build it and they will come. And they did, the best in California and others by sending their highlight film from places like Ohio and New Jersey. As in that old cliché, the rest was history. His record against Ara Parseghian was 7-3-2. His battles with the Bear and Woody were all time classics.

He was not like Coach Carroll. He didn’t mix with the players. He was more like Bryant, standing up top on a tower, delivering messages through assistants. But he had his players respect and confidence.

I had the privilege of knowing and speaking to McKay at least once a week, as part of Daily Trojan, and knowing his wife.

With Corky’s passing, it is time to remember them again. Condolences to their sons and Pat Haden who lived his high school senior year in the McKay household so he could keep throwing to J.K. when Haden’s own parents moved. Another genius recruiting move.