9:03 PM EDT, October 18, 2013
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Even if they didn't have any other reason, USC and Notre Dame should play football every year just so we can tell John McKay stories.
He coached the Trojans from 1960-75 and you don't need a record book to know he was successful. Just wander onto the USC campus. There you will find a $70-millon state-of-the-art athletic facility named the John McKay Center. At the south entrance is a statue of a man, his hand on his chin as if pondering his next one-liner.
Legends get statues. McKay is a legend.
He won four national titles at USC and compiled a record of 127-40-8. After that, he went off to coach in the pros at Tampa Bay, where he delighted and tortured the fans and the media and vice versa.
He was the son of a West Virginia coal miner. He played college football at Purdue and Oregon, but not until he had completed his military duty as a World War II B-29 tail gunner in the Pacific. He was Scots-Irish, and his hardscrabble background lent itself to such a wonderfully quick wit that many of his postgame interviews were as memorable as the games.
Asked why he had O.J. Simpson carry the ball so many times, he replied, "It isn't very heavy."
When his Tampa Bay team was going badly, he was asked about the team's execution and replied, "I'm all for it."
After Notre Dame beat the Trojans, 51-0, in 1966, he told his players in the locker room to "take a shower, if you need one."
It was the Notre Dame game that meant the most to him. There is nobody better to testify to that than his son J.K. McKay, who played wide receiver on two of his father's national-championship teams and now is a senior associate athletic director under his longtime friend and former USC teammate, Trojans Athletic Director Pat Haden.
"My dad had a favorite saying," J.K. says. "It was: 'There is nothing worse than losing to UCLA and nothing better than beating Notre Dame.'"
There was nothing worse for the McKay family — mom Corky, sons J.K. and Rich and daughters Michele and Terri — than not beating Notre Dame.
"Christmas was a big deal at our house," J.K. says, "and it was especially important for us when the game was in Los Angeles, because it was often around Dec. 1. If we won, we had a great Christmas. If we lost, we'd hardly even get presents.
"The year Notre Dame beat us 51-0, we didn't get a tree."
The 51-0 game was at the Coliseum in 1966. J.K. was barely a teenager and watched from the sidelines.
"It took like 16 hours," he says. "I didn't think it would ever end. And then, there was the ride home to West Covina. In total silence."
Eight years later, J.K. was playing in the game at the Coliseum when Notre Dame took a 24-0 lead just before the half. J.K.'s sister Michele was so traumatized at the thought of another 51-0 nightmare that she spent the entire second half in a Coliseum ladies' room.
"She kept hearing lots of noise," J.K. says, "but she wasn't sure what it meant, so she never came out."
USC had rallied and won, 55-24. One writer called it the worst Irish disaster since the potato famine.
After the 51-0 debacle in '66, McKay had been widely quoted as saying, "Notre Dame will never beat us again." J.K. says the actual quote probably was more like, "The 51-0 will never happen again."
"Years later," J.K. says, "he told me that the 51-0 was his fault, that he knew Notre Dame would win, but instead of just playing them heads-up, he tried a lot of trick plays and stuff he never did."
Nevertheless, McKay's famous quote was nearly accurate. His teams played Notre Dame nine more times before he left for the pros, and the Trojans won six, tied two and lost only the 1973 game in South Bend.
J.K. played against Notre Dame in '72, '73 and '74. In '72 and '74, the Trojans won national titles. In '73, the Irish did, beating USC in a game that remains embedded in J.K.'s psyche.
"Late in the game, I caught a pass right in front of our bench and fumbled," he says. "I almost never fumbled, but I saw the ball bouncing right there and I was trying to get to it and I remember I could see my dad's shoes. Notre Dame got the ball and my dad didn't speak to me for three weeks.
"I still have nightmares about it."
J.K. says his father loved the Notre Dame game because he respected the Irish as opponents and because he liked their coach then, Ara Parseghian. J.K. says that after his father died, his ailing mother wanted to pay a special tribute to her husband, so she went back to a USC game in South Bend.
John McKay died at age 77, June 10, 2001, at a hospital in Tampa. His sons, J.K. and Rich, were in his hospital room near the end. John was barely conscious, barely able to talk. But the quick, devilish mind was still there.
A nurse came in to tend to him.
"She had to go 5-foot-2 and 350 pounds," J.K. says.
As the fat lady hovered about, McKay's eyes opened ever so slightly. He looked at the nurse and said, "Please don't sing."
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