Returning for more

New Senior Associate Athletic Director John K. McKay was out of sports and practicing law at Jeffer Mangels Butler & Marmaro LLP in August when he received an unexpected phone call.

Photo courtesy of USC Sports Information

It was McKay’s former teammate and current friend Pat Haden, who told McKay that he had decided to take the newly vacant athletic director’s spot at their alma mater, USC.

“You’re kidding,” McKay said.

Haden wasn’t kidding, and he wanted McKay to join him as his right-hand man in a reunion of one of USC’s most famous quarterback-receiver combos.

“It literally took me 30 seconds to decide,” McKay said. “That’s how long it took for me to quit my law practice.”

Perhaps he should have taken a little bit longer.

“I called my wife and said, ‘We’re going back to USC with Pat,’” McKay said. “She said, ‘Great! How much money are you going to make?’”

McKay laughed.

“I forgot to ask how much money I would make,” he said. “I really did take the job without knowing anything about the money. It really didn’t have anything to do with the money for me, and I know with Pat it didn’t either.”

A love of football and sports in general has always held a strong influence in McKay’s life as he grew up in the midst of one of USC’s greatest runs as a college football program. His father, John Harvey McKay, spent 16 seasons as head coach of the Trojans, winning four national titles in the process.

“It was a great way to grow up,” McKay said. “My whole childhood was wandering around this campus, going to the Coliseum and going to football practice. It was a lot of fun.”

McKay quickly developed into a highly prized recruit at wide receiver out of Bishop Amat Memorial High School in La Puente, Calif., alongside close friend and Bishop quarterback Haden. Both received scholarship offers from several schools, including one of the Trojans’ oldest rivals in Notre Dame, before mutually deciding to play for McKay’s father and attend USC.

“The only school we really would have gone to other than USC would have been Notre Dame,” McKay said with a smile. “We were both Irish-Catholic kids and we really liked Notre Dame. But we decided that staying here and going to USC was the right thing to do.”

That decision would impact both men’s lives in exponential ways. Haden and McKay became the key cogs in a Trojan squad that won national championships in 1972 and 1974.

The latter was an especially memorable year. In the second-to-last game of the year, USC overcame a 24-0 deficit to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, scoring 55 unanswered points to beat the defending national champions.

“That’s a game that today, wherever I go, people still talk about it,” McKay said.

The next week, USC beat Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, 18-17, largely thanks to McKay’s 38-yard touchdown reception from Haden with just more than two minutes to play. The two were named the game’s co-MVPs. After the game, Haden and McKay went to a party and watched the Notre Dame-Alabama game on television. Alabama defeated the Fighting Irish, which gave the Trojans the national championship.

“That’s the memory that sticks out far and away,” McKay said. “It was incredible.”

The 1974 Rose Bowl was the last moment of glory on the gridiron for McKay. Drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the 16th round of the 1975 NFL Draft, he had, by his own admission, a “short and unremarkable” career at the professional level. McKay never saw the field with the Browns and ended up playing for his father again, this time with the woeful Tampa Bay Buccaneers. By 1978, McKay was out of football and looking to a career in law.

“I’ve practiced law basically since 1985,” McKay said. “But I’ve taken a couple breaks from it. I’ve constantly been trying to get back into football and sports.”

McKay tried several football-related endeavors over the next several years. In the mid 1990s, he worked with the current chairman of USC’s Board of Trustees Edward Roski in an attempt to acquire an NFL franchise and move it to Los Angeles. After the idea never materialized, McKay went back to law for a few years before the WWE’s Vince McMahon came calling. McMahon had forged a partnership with NBC and created the XFL, a wrestling-football hybrid, and he wanted McKay to run a franchise.

“I left my law practice for a year to run the Los Angeles Xtreme,” McKay said. “We won the championship, which was great, but the league folded after a year.”

So McKay returned to law once again, remaining there until Haden’s call four months ago. Yet even through all the misfires, McKay said he always knew where he would end up.

“I grew up with a love for ’SC,” McKay said. “It was always in the back of my mind that I would do something associated with this place. The opportunity came out of the blue a little bit.”

McKay also said he wasn’t surprised that Haden called on him to help lead the athletic program.

“We’ve literally been best friends since 1967,” McKay said. “I’ve never done anything important in my life that I didn’t check with him on. It almost goes without saying that if he was going to do something like this, he would want me to come along.”

McKay realized the challenges that awaited him when he arrived at USC, and none was more pressing than the firestorm of probation and penalties that had enveloped the football program. But, he said, there’s nothing he’d rather do than answer those challenges.

“One of the most pleasant things we have found is that there are really, really good people here,” McKay said. “Sure, there are things we could do better. But I can’t think of a better place to be.”

As for a return to law, McKay seems to think he has finally found a permanent vocation.

“It’s sort of in my blood,” McKay said of his ties to USC. “It fits.”