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  • Lezlie Sterling lsterling@sacbee.com A game ball presented to McVay after a 49ers victory over the Rams in 1993 sits on a shelf in "The Dungeon."

  • Lezlie Sterling lsterling@sacbee.com John McVay sits in "The Dungeon," filled with mementos of his career, at his Granite Bay home. Bill Walsh and others said he was critical to the 49ers' success.

Former exec McVay of Granite Bay helped 49ers win five Super Bowls

Published: Monday, Jan. 28, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C

John McVay enjoys retirement at his immaculate Granite Bay home on the banks of Folsom Lake, but it's "The Dungeon" that really stirs his emotions.

It's here, adjacent to the house, where one can take a treasure-filled stroll down memory lane of McVay's football life that includes some of the greatest names, teams and moments in history.

The fingerprints of McVay, a former 49ers executive, can be found on each of the team's five Super Bowl champions.

McVay worked for the 49ers in two stints from 1979 to 2004, drafting, molding and designing dynasty teams. His titles included general manager, vice president and assistant to the president. At 82, he's in good health and spirits. A 2012 49ers NFC West championship hat sits on a counter.

"I'm waiting for the real one now," McVay said.

McVay downplays his impact on the 49ers of yesteryear; others do not.

Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh, who died in 2007, once said, "It's quite possible that the 49ers would not have won five Super Bowls had it not been for John McVay."

Said Randy Cross, a center and guard on the 49ers' glory teams of the 1980s: "John was the glue to our organization."

McVay, who teared up only once during a two-hour visit last week, summed up his time with the 49ers: "Great career, great moments."

He recalled his last conversation with Walsh, a confidant and close friend, a day before Walsh lost his battle with leukemia at 75.

"He said, 'I'm calling to say goodbye,' " McVay said, nodding. "Oh my God … we were really close. It was very hard. Hell of a guy. Just brilliant. He hated being called a genius, but he was."

McVay said Walsh would be delighted with the 49ers' rebirth under coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

"People want to tell me that Jim Harbaugh is another Bill Walsh, and that's not so, because Jim is himself," McVay said. "Great coach. I've spoken to him at length. Very impressed.

"I do see similarities and some of the same qualities. Jim's very strong willed, and so was Bill. Bill was intense, and Harbaugh is definitely intense. And that kid Kaepernick is amazing. He's a specimen. Runs like a gazelle. Those strides. Bill would've loved him."

'Shula's still angry at me'

"The Dungeon" shows McVay's life chronologically, beginning with his playing days as a center at famed Massillon High School in Ohio. At Miami of Ohio, he wore No. 49 for coaches Woody Hayes and Ara Parseghian, "when we were all normal-sized men."

In his high school coaching days in Ohio in the 1950s and '60s, he mentored future Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive tackle Alan Page and was carried off the field after beating Harding High and Paul Warfield, a tailback before he became a Hall of Fame wide receiver.

During his head-coaching stint at Dayton in Ohio (1965-72), McVay met Eddie DeBartolo Jr., who went on to become the 49ers' owner.

"He'd run around with our football players," McVay said. "Fun guy even then."

In two-plus seasons as coach and general manager with Memphis of the World Football League, McVay went 24-7. One of the many photos in "The Dungeon" shows McVay with Warfield, Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick after he signed the trio of Dolphins stars.

"Don Shula's still angry at me for that," McVay said.

McVay coached the New York Giants for two-plus seasons, his final one lowlighted by "The Miracle at the Meadowlands."

In 1978, the Giants only needed to take another knee to secure a victory over the Eagles. The offensive coordinator insisted on a handoff, it was fumbled, and Herman Edwards scooped it up and raced in for the winning touchdown in perhaps the greatest blunder in NFL history.

McVay said he had taken off his headset, a mistake because he would have overruled the play call.

"Worst moment," McVay said. "But things turned out OK."

Iconic moments recalled

Things turned out more than OK for McVay. Before the 1979 season, the 49ers hired him to help run the front office. After a 2-14 season in 1979 and a 6-10 showing in 1980, the 49ers caught fire.

McVay said deciding to hold training camp at Sierra College was a turning point for the franchise. All five of the 49ers' Super Bowl championship teams were launched from the Rocklin campus. They now train at their headquarters in Santa Clara.

When McVay was looking for a training camp site, he was approached by Dan Bunz, who suggested Sierra. Bunz, a young linebacker for the 49ers, attended Oakmont High in Roseville.

"Great call," McVay said. "We rented a fancy bus, loaded up all the coaches and front-office people and drove to Rocklin to check the campus. Buzz Ostrom (the Sierra athletic director) charmed us. It worked great for us."

As painful as "The Miracle at the Meadowlands" was, McVay coun-ters with images of two of the most iconic moments in NFL history – "The Catch" and "The Stop."

The 49ers beat Dallas to win the NFC championship at the end of the 1981 season when Dwight Clark soared to pull in a pass on a Joe Montana rollout at Candlestick Park. McVay, a man of many hats, had suddenly become a protector.

"DeBartolo came down from the box to get on the field during that last drive," McVay recalled. "There were mounted police for security by the field. I'm trying to prevent a horse from stepping on Eddie and on me. When Dwight caught that pass, Eddie was delirious."

Later that month in Super Bowl XVI, Bunz made a crunching goal-line tackle to help seal a 26-21 victory over Cincinnati for "The Stop," which NFL Films called the greatest in league history.

"I was sweating bullets on that stand," McVay said. "As a front-office man, it's a different feeling than coaching. You have so much invested in these guys. You draft them, get to know them, re-sign them."

"The Dungeon" includes lifesize cutouts of Montana and Steve Young, scores of team photos, season logs and mementos of each of the club's five Super Bowl seasons – four in the 1980s and following the 1994 campaign.

"We have football parties, and the ladies come down here to get a photo next to Joe or Steve," McVay said.

A photo autographed by Walsh reads, "My lasting friend. You are the master."

For all of Walsh's brilliance, McVay offered proof of one flaw.

A wall display includes 49ers NFC West championship belt buckles. All but one are fancy.

"Guess who designed this one," McVay said, pointing to a buckle seemingly molded out of a lump of clay by a fifth-grader. "Mostly a brilliant man."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Joe Davidson



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