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Cook: McKay is top 5, post-WWII coach

Tough guy

Former USC, Bucs coach John McKay dies at 77

Quotable John McKay

John McKay's coaching record

Monday, June 11, 2001
Evolution of the "I"
By Jim Murray
Special to

Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Nov. 21, 1965.

Football is a game played at the college level, 11 to a side, by a revolving squad of players, most of whom are actually accredited to the university they represent. One or two of them are actually students. Most are in on-the-job training for the Chicago Bears, or the Kansas City Chiefs, or leave-blank-the-name-of-the-professional team. They are the only guys on campus outside of the dental school learning to loosen teeth.

The football coach used to be the head ruffian, a slab-handed refugee from a steel mill, whose function was to take perfectly nice young men and make muggers in shoulder pads out of them, but, of late, football coaches have been made bona fide members of the faculty with endowed professorships. Their subject: Mayhem 1-A.

The game, under the old arrangement, has twice tried to brutalize itself out of existence. They had to outlaw the flying wedge. Then they had to outlaw the flying tackle. The reason was the same in both cases: Too many people were meeting death in mid-air. Some coaches grumbled that the country was getting too soft. Usually, they made the complaint over a platter of mashed potatoes while stabbing a piece of custard pie.

The game was supposed to be one of skill and daring but the coaching faculty soon saw it was easier to teach a kid a stranglehold than a pass pattern, that there was no real substitute on defense, anyway, for a broken leg or two. Football had more industrial accidents per square foot than steeple-jacking. The only thing some teams passed was the ketchup.

Housed in Multi-Storied Cage
At one southern school, the team even avoided the regular student body and was housed in a multi-storied cage of its own. They were turned loose only on Saturday afternoons and locked back up and secured that night after the game and a few hours on the town. They weren't scholars of the institution, they were prisoners.

The proposition was fairly simple: The only thing you could major in if you were on the team was football. It took six weeks in spring, the whole fall semester, and, if you made the bowl game, it ate up your holiday with your family.

On top of this, it wasn't much fun. The game in most schools was played three yards (and two teeth) at a time. You got points the same way moles got plants -- by eating dirt. The "attack" was called "three yards and a cloud of dust." The dust was in your lungs. For the spectators, it had all the thrills and suspense of watching trees grow. Or laying sidewalk. You built a lead as painstakingly as they build a freeway.

Into this setting, a few years ago, strode John F. McKay, a renegade who would rather lose 35-34 than win 3-0. This was the kind of thinking that could get you burned at the stake at the NCAA coaches' convention but John began to line his halfbacks up in a straight line behind the center in a formation called the "I" formation.

Resembled an "Eyesore" Formation
There were times when it looked more like the "Eyesore" formation, but its posture had the virtue of confining the defense and eliminating the favorite defensive ploy of "keying" off a key player. Since most backfields had only one at a time, i.e., a registered genuine All-American threat, it usually was profitable to release one of your own unfrocked gorillas to roam wherever that worthy roamed and meet him head-on at the line of scrimmage and do everything to him short of homicide.

McKay made this a difficult practice. For one thing, you never knew which way his eye-line was going to go. For another, McKay re-discovered an old weapon which had fallen into deep disfavor and disuse -- the forward pass.

All the really successful coaches use the forward pass for was to loosen up the defense. John McKay used it for touchdowns. He didn't suit up a quarterback for the strength of his legs, but of his arm.

Football coaches are as imitative as a monkey in a mirror. It wasn't long before every coach -- or nearly every coach -- in the country employed the "I" or a variant. McKay's team played in a Rose Bowl game in which nearly 80 points were scored, most of them, fortunately, by McKay's team. It was a greater TV show than "Peter Pan." It revived college football. It made the game what it was intended to be in the first place -- fun.

The "I" formation was not entirely John McKay's invention. An otherwise little-known Marylander named Tom Nugent had first dipped a toe in its refreshing waters several years back. But it was John who refined it. And made it successful. just as Rockne took the the old Pop Warner singlewing, and revamped it with a strong-side shift and made the "Notre Dame formation" a scourge of the gridiron wherever it was practiced.

And just as Clark Shaughnessy took an old-time pro formation and the "straight T" was unveiled when an otherwise mediocre Stanford team rocked nearly a dozen opponents, including a strong Nebraska team in the Rose Bowl.

Innovators need players, too. But McKay was able to recruit for speed and agility rather than straight brute strength. The "I" took the game out of the hands of the coal-miners, and made it possible for an English "Lit" major to win something besides a spelling bee.

You don't have to root for old USC if they make the Rose Bowl this Year of Our Lord, 1966, but you do have to root for them to make the Big Ten score at least five touchdowns to stay ahead. Because if that iron gang football ever makes a comeback, it may be years before another John McKay comes out of the woods of Oregon to wrest it away from the Neanderthal men along the coaching sideline.

This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Jim Murray, the long-time sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, won the Pultizer Prize for commentary in 1990. He died Aug. 16, 1998. Help | Advertiser Info | Contact Us | Tools | Site Map | Jobs at
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