Sean McVay wants you to think he was just another guy who caught a break because of his last name. He said it before the Super Bowl he lost to New England, and again before the Super Bowl he took from Cincinnati.
If it wasn’t for his grandfather John’s NFL career, and for the grace the former Giants head coach and 49ers executive showed everyone he met, McVay admitted he wouldn’t be where he is today with the Los Angeles Rams. He once said the opportunities he received out of college — via the McVay family’s multigenerational ties to the Gruden family — “are almost embarrassing to admit,” yet as the modern game’s youngest hire in 2017, at age 30, McVay has proven he would have somehow risen to the top of his craft without any connections at all.
Those connections merely got him a head start on history. The two men who will sit atop the all-time victories list by the time McVay’s signature hair and facial scruff turn gray will be Don Shula and Bill Belichick, probably not in that order. Shula had 30 regular-season victories at age 36, and Belichick had none.
Sean McVay has 55.
He is half Belichick, half Tony Robbins, and if anyone was ever born to lead a football team, McVay is the one. He has the boundless positive energy and that perfect raspy voice for the job, and in a profession short on sculpted physiques, he carefully accentuates his strong safety’s musculature with shirts a half-size too small, seizing a competitive edge over his softer peers. The look is a reminder to his players that he was once one of them, a dual-threat quarterback who beat out Calvin Johnson as Georgia’s high school player of the year, and who coulda beena contenda as a Division I receiver at Grandpa’s school, Miami of Ohio, if only injuries didn’t derail him.
McVay became a coaching prodigy instead, an NFL offensive coordinator before his 28th birthday, and the surprising lead candidate for the big chair before his 31st. After the job interview in L.A., Rams general manager Les Snead announced, “I’m buying stock in Sean McVay.”
Now everyone wants to buy stock in the rock star who became the youngest coach (at 36) to win the Super Bowl seven months ago, at his former assistant Zac Taylor’s expense, and who, if he chooses, could leave the sidelines and effectively name his price in the broadcast booth as his generation’s John Madden. McVay briefly considered an offseason jump to TV before turning away from what The Post’s Andrew Marchand reported could be a five-year, $100 million offer from Amazon Prime Video for its “Thursday Night Football” package.
But those offers will keep coming, and McVay will keep being tempted to take a much easier, more lucrative job calling games that better aligns with his goal of starting a family with his wife Veronika. In one breath before his Super Bowl 56 victory over the Bengals, McVay said there is no chance he’d still be coaching at 60, not with the amount of time he planned on spending with his kids-to-be. And in the next he told reporters, “But you’ll probably be talking to me when I’m 61 doing this stuff.”
If he’s still coaching a quarter century from now, McVay will likely be chasing down the greats while savoring the career that eluded his grandfather, who had brought young Sean to 49ers practices to hang with the likes of Jerry Rice and Steve Young. All these years later, John McVay still represents a reason for Sean to stay on the field and out of the booth. Sean has the gift that his grandfather didn’t have.
Tim McVay had watched the disastrous ending in Giants Stadium on a TV in Bloomington, Ind., where he was a graduate assistant for Lee Corso’s Hoosiers. This was the late fall of 1978, and McVay knew he had to call his old man in the worst hours of his professional life.
“Someday we’ll look back and be able to laugh about this,” Tim McVay told him.
“No way,” the head coach of the Giants responded.
John McVay was a man before his time. His own father died in a car crash when John was 6 years old, and he grew up in America’s ultimate football town, Massillon, Ohio, idolizing the other dads who coached him. John became one of them after playing college ball for Woody Hayes and Ara Parseghian at Miami of Ohio, coaching high school kids, and then college kids at Michigan State and Dayton, before winning a ton of games in the pros for the Memphis Southmen of the upstart World Football League, which didn’t last long in its bid for relevance by the NFL’s side.
After his boss, Bill Arnsparger, got himself fired by the Giants with an 0-7 start in 1976 and a 7-28 overall record, McVay was handed the tattered remains of a once-fabled franchise. He would face his own hour of reckoning inside the final minute of Giants-Eagles on Nov. 19, 1978, when the home team could have taken a knee and run out the clock on a 17-12 victory.
Instead quarterback Joe Pisarcik tried handing off to running back Larry Csonka, and the botched exchange bounced into the hands of Philly’s Herm Edwards, who was playing to win the game. Edwards ran 26 yards for the winning score with 20 seconds left. Offensive coordinator Bob Gibson would be ousted the next day, and fans would burn tickets and fly a banner over the stadium demanding change, and McVay would be fired at season’s end. One man’s “Miracle at the Meadowlands” is another man’s upper-case “Fumble,” and McVay wore that scarlet letter with dignity even though he didn’t commit the endgame crime.
The Giants coach didn’t call the play, and didn’t notarize it, and didn’t even have a working headset at his disposal for what he thought would be a kneel-down. The sequence spoke to a Murphy’s Law era in the Meadowlands swamp. “[McVay] was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said the current Giants president and CEO John Mara, who was then the 23-year-old son of owner Wellington Mara and a spotter in the CBS booth for The Fumble.
“I slammed my fist on the table and the microphones fell all over the place,” John Mara recalled. “Let’s just say that CBS and I came to a mutual understanding that maybe the broadcast booth was not the best place for me to watch a game.”
Especially that game.
“But John McVay had nothing to do with it,” said George Martin, a 14-year Giants defensive end who bridged the dark days of the ’70s to the glory days of the ’80s, and sacked John Elway in the end zone for a safety in Super Bowl 21.
“That was completely on Joe Pisarcik and the confusion he had with the offensive coordinator, and with Csonka. I talked to Pisarcik right after, and he was adamant that it was not on the head coach. McVay should have been absolved of that fiasco, and it was a travesty that history never corrected.”
McVay never corrected it either. He never blamed anyone else. It happened on his watch, so he owned the consequences. He quietly went to work for Bill Walsh in the San Francisco front office, and with Walsh’s eventual successor, George Seifert, on the back end, McVay helped identify and acquire dozens of future Pro Bowl players, including Joe Montana, in building a dynasty defined by five Super Bowl rings, including three he later gave to his sons.
But NFL lifers know that the record in the actual arena is what people remember most. John McVay was 14-23 in the arena, as Giants head coach, after he coached his WFL team to a 17-3 regular season and a 24-8 overall record before the league folded. He didn’t have the talent to win in the NFL. He did have a character trait that mattered a ton to those he was charged to lead.
“Everyone in the organization really liked John McVay,” Mara said. “Just a good, decent man. Very personable. And a good football coach.”
Though Martin described McVay’s predecessor, Arnsparger, as “woefully inadequate,” and his replacement, Ray Perkins, as an oppressive ruler, he recalled McVay’s approach as a player’s best friend.
“He was always friendly and non-threatening, and it was always intellectual and upbeat,” Martin said. “John coached with a lot of humanity and compassion. He had all the qualities to be an excellent head coach, but … it came down to not having adequate assistant coaches. I just regret that we didn’t have a lot of victories under McVay, because he was a hell of a guy.”
Two generations later, as a game-day presence, Mara said Sean McVay “is much more animated on the sideline than John ever was.” Sean is always in a rush to make something happen. If he acts like he’s running out of time to win football games, well, maybe that’s because he is.
As the kid brother of two college football players, and as an Indiana University safety tough enough to make 83 tackles in 11 games his senior year, Tim McVay had the goods to succeed in the family business. “My dad, I think, would have been an unbelievable coach,” Sean said. “He’s been one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around.”
But as much as he loved the game and the bonds it forged, Sean’s dad wanted to spend more time with his two boys than coaching would allow. He stayed in TV as a general sales manager and as a vice president and GM, working at Cox Media stations in Dayton, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and San Francisco, before finishing his career at WSB-TV back in Atlanta.
So if anyone can measure Sean McVay’s potential impact on a broadcast, it’s the longtime TV executive who knows him best.
“I think he would do a really good job,” Tim McVay said. “He really enjoys people and so he can interact and communicate with them really well. He would immerse himself in it if he ever did that, just like he’s immersed in what he’s doing right now. Sean is 100 percent committed to coaching. The TV thing came up because you had some movement in the broadcast industry, and different streaming services joining, but he didn’t ask for anything. It wasn’t, ‘Hey, I’m ready to go into broadcasting.’ But I definitely think he’d do an excellent job.”
Nobody who’s heard Sean talk football doubts it. And yet here’s the problem: The evidence suggests Sean McVay is the best young coach the game has ever seen. The NFL is a much better place with him in it.
When he got posterized by Belichick in his lost Super Bowl, McVay spent virtually his entire postgame press conference blaming himself. When he won it all, McVay made his presser all about the same players who had praised his empathetic approach to leading them.
The John McVay approach. The Rams coach called his 91-year-old grandfather “a class man that treated people the right way and earned every single thing that he got,” and praised the way he bounced back from that damn upper-case Fumble. Back in the day, John McVay gave his grandson plenty more than a couple of Bill Walsh books to read — he handed down his management style.
“I’m most proud of how Sean treats people,” his father Tim said. “It’s very authentic.”
A few years ago, John McVay predicted that his grandson wouldn’t burn out for a long time. Maybe it was solid inside information, or maybe it was just wishful thinking.
Either way, Sean McVay should take this coaching thing as far as he possibly can. He’s been given a precious gift. He shouldn’t waste it on TV.
Quite the Influencer: The McVay Coaching Tree
At 36 years old, Rams coach Sean McVay already has three former disciples running teams of their own:
Zac Taylor, Bengals: McVay’s opponent in Super Bowl 56, Taylor was hired by the Rams as an assistant wide receivers coach in 2017 before becoming the team’s quarterbacks coach. Cincinnati hired him at 35, which made him the second-youngest head coach in the NFL — behind McVay.
Matt LaFleur, Packers: LaFleur worked alongside McVay in Washington before being hired as Rams offensive coordinator in 2017. After a stop in Tennessee, he headed to Green Bay, where he’s 39-10 (.796) to start his career.
Brandon Staley, Chargers: A defensive specialist, Staley helped McVay’s Rams lead the NFL in points and yards allowed in 2020, his lone season with the team. He went 9-8 with the Chargers in his first year as head coach.