OXFORD, Ohio -- He's only 31. In fact, no NFL head coach ever has been younger than Sean McVay, and there's more. To understand why this whiz kid of the Los Angeles Rams is otherworldly in his first season leading a football team at any level, you have to realize something.
He came from THIS place.
So did his uncle.
So did his grandfather.
So did a slew of other college and pro football coaches of significance. As a result, decades ago, when all of this began to happen with regularity at Miami University, located in the rural beauty of southwestern Ohio, somebody crowned this otherwise academically noted college as "The Cradle of Coaches."
"Well, now Sean is one of them," said John McVay, that 86-year-old grandfather from the Class of '53, nearly choking on his words Tuesday over the phone from his home outside of Sacramento. Those emotions were justified. All you need to know is that they build statues around here for Miami (Ohio) graduates who win Super Bowls, grab national championships in college football or earn national coach of the year honors. That got me thinking, which is why I sent a text to the Miami (Ohio) sports information director.
If an alumnus wins the NFL Coach of the Year Award, would he get one of those breathtaking images of himself in bronze on campus?
The answer was yes, and if it happens for Sean, Class of '08, after he served as a wide receiver on the football team, I'm guessing old-school John McVay will do new-school gyrations. I should say when it happens. His grandson is months shy of earning that statue as the league's top coach after transforming the Rams from nothing into something in a hurry. They began 2017 with 13 consecutive non-winning seasons, and in recent years, their offense has reeked. Courtesy of Sean, an offensive genius during his NFL stints as an assistant with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Washington Redskins, the Rams are second in the league in both average points per game (30) and third-down conversion rate (46 percent). They also lead the NFC West at 7-3, and it helps that their defense is special, too. While Sean runs the offense, accomplished coordinator Wade Phillips takes care of the other side of the ball, and only three NFL teams have more takeaways than the Rams' 19.
Guess who hired Phillips? Uh-huh. Not only did Sean show his wisdom in decision-making with that move and several others, but he flashed his leadership skills after the Vikings rolled to a 24-7 victory last Sunday over the Rams in Minneapolis. He didn't cite this or that. He blamed himself, adding that he "must do a better job for our team and for our offense." Then he said of his players that he "didn't put them in enough good situations."
To translate, Sean is transparent, which is why his past and present NFL associates love him, but not as much as his grandfather.
"He's a digger. Sean is that, you know," John McVay said, before mentioning he gave his grandson a book to read called "Finding the Winning Edge" by Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh. For reasons we'll discuss later, the grandfather is throughout this 546-page masterpiece on coaching. "It's a how-to, and he got Bill's book, and as he was working his way through the NFL as an assistant, he said he would read a few pages until he fell asleep. But he kind of digested that book, and the book is super. Then one of the things I think is overlooked here is that he went right into professional coaching. He didn't spend seven or eight or 10 years in college coaching, because of his association in the pros with the Grudens (Jay and Jon) and the Shanahans (Kyle and Mike) and so on. All of sudden, he's a head coach, and people say, 'Well, he's too young.' And I say, 'Yeah, but he's already had eight years of experience in the NFL under those guys.'"
Better yet, Sean had a family of football role models, primarily with Miami (Ohio) in the middle of it all. While his father, Tim, played defensive back at Indiana University for Lee Corso, Uncle John McVay, Class of '73, starred in the secondary during the start of that stretch for Miami (Ohio) when the football team went 32-1-1 with victories over Florida, Georgia and South Carolina in consecutive years and with finishes of 15th, 12th and 10th in the final Associated Press polls.
Then there was the grandfather, and in case you didn't know, John McVay ranks among the most underrated persons in NFL history. During that dynastic run of two decades for the San Francisco 49ers through the 1980s and 1990s, they had a couple of Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Joe Montana and Steve Young. They went from Walsh on the sidelines to George Seifert and then to Steve Mariucci. They featured a bunch of different offensive linemen, folks in the front seven on defense and secondary folks beyond Ronnie Lott.
That said, except for owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., McVay was the 49ers' only constant throughout those years as their general manager. He rarely made a move less than splendid. I know, because I covered the opening of those 49ers glory years for the San Francisco Examiner, and overwhelming modesty kept McVay in the deepest part of the shadows.
Prior to going to San Francisco in 1980, John McVay also ran football teams, but only as the head coach. He began with a high school in his native Ohio, and then he led the program at the University of Dayton after a pit stop as an assistant at Michigan State. He went to the World Football League after that before he finished his pre-49ers day as the head coach of the New York Giants. Those jobs were nice for advancing his craft, but as would be the case for the grandson more than a half-century later, the grandfather's hugging of X's and O's began after he arrived at Miami (Ohio) in 1950.
Several buildings have gone since then, and they sell real beer uptown instead of the watered-down kind of John's day, but neither Miami (Ohio)'s ability to produce coaches nor its magical vibes have changed.
"We had so much fun when I was at Miami, and I don't know. I'm trying to think of the best way to describe it. I mean, those days were like paradise," McVay said, chuckling, recalling his time on campus in general and as a backup center on the football team in particular for future College Football Hall of Fame coaches Woody Hayes and Ara Parseghian. "We had those great coaches, but we just had so much fun overall on such a beautiful campus. It was like, 'Why are we here? How did we get so lucky to be at Miami? We're just having so much fun.' Then after four years, you've got to leave, but you don't want to leave."
I know. I'm a Miami (Ohio) graduate who hasn't left. I serve on the alumni board, and I'm also a visiting professor who flies between here and Atlanta each fall semester. So there I was Tuesday, preparing for my return back to Georgia, but I had to walk one more time around this place that poet Robert Frost called "The most beautiful campus that ever there was." On this afternoon, the brilliant sun made everything even more spectacular. Those Georgian-style buildings of red brick. The always highly manicured grounds. The trees that nearly go back to the founding of the college in 1809 soon after George Washington signed its charter. Finally, I stood in the valley near the flowing stream with the football stadium and those statues. There are nine of them, and they're all spectacular in their detail at 120 percent the size of the Miami (Ohio) graduates who joined the elite of college and pro football coaches.
Paul Brown, Red Blaik, Paul Dietzel, Weeb Ewbank, Carm Cozza, John Harbaugh, Ara Parseghian, John Pont and Bo Schembechler. This doesn't include non-statue guys such as Bill Mallory and Bill Arnsparger, Miami (Ohio) alums who nevertheless became huge in the college or the pro ranks or sometimes both. Sid Gillman and Woody Hayes graduated elsewhere, but they set the foundation for their coaching fame here in the land of the Beta Bells and toasted rolls. In addition, a dozen years before Sean Payton became a Super Bowl-winning coach with the New Orleans Saints, he got his biggest push in the profession as a Miami (Ohio) offensive coordinator.
Consider, too, that with Harbaugh coaching the Baltimore Ravens and the younger McVay taking over the Rams, Miami (Ohio) is the only university boasting two graduates as NFL head coaches.
The Cradle of Coaches, indeed.
The thing is that Miami (Ohio) doesn't have a curriculum for wannabe football coaches. That's never been the case. So how did all of this happen, and why does it continue to do so at this university of 16,000?
"I think success begets success," John McVay said. "Over the years, when you get a recruiting class of 20 or 25 guys, within that group, there's going to be a certain percentage that has that urge to want to be like their coach. I wanted to be like Ara, and I wanted to be like Woody. I had that urge. As was the case with me, you'll have that percentage that will say, 'I really would like to follow in their footsteps,' and that started the Miami tradition. I mean, it was great."
It still is.
The grandson is proving it.