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McVay to McVay: How ex-49ers executive with 5 Super Bowl rings connects to Rams coach

49ers executive John McVay on Dwight Clark

A number of former 49ers had something to say about Dwight Clark prior to Oct. 22's 49ers-Cowboys game, including longtime executive John McVay.
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A number of former 49ers had something to say about Dwight Clark prior to Oct. 22's 49ers-Cowboys game, including longtime executive John McVay.

John McVay’s favorite spot is not necessarily the back deck that overlooks the glistening jewel that is Folsom Lake, sometimes flanked by wife Susan, whom he refers to as “my queen.”

No, McVay’s heavenly haven is in the basement of his Placer County home.

“Come on,” McVay tells me excitedly the other day, “let’s go check out the ‘I love me’ room!”

So we go.

There, the energized 88-year-old McVay is a boy again. He’s as giddy as someone parading pals to peek at his new football cleats and gear.

The retired 49ers front-office guru executive from the 1980s and into the ‘90s scans the Super Bowl team photos, the autographed images from Bill Walsh, his moments as head coach with the New York Giants and his Ohio roots as a player and young coach. This is seven decades of gridiron glory, a thrill ride through memory lane.

And then McVay pauses at a photo of a receiver in a Miami of Ohio jersey, placed next to an image of McVay during his Miami playing days as a team captain and center. The color shot is of Sean McVay, now the wunderkind coach with the Los Angeles Rams.

The images of young McVay in 1952 and young McVay in 2007 connects generations of family and the game that binds them.

“Just amazing what Sean has done,” McVay said. “I go around bragging, ‘I’m his grandpa!’ He’s made me famous again. Thank goodness. I was getting bored!”

McVay speaks like a proud papa, and who could have imagined such a die-hard 49ers guy could wind up rooting for the Rams?

McVay described how he nearly jumped out of his skin in this house during the NFC championship game, the Rams prevailing over the Saints in overtime, thus affording Sean a chance to become the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl. He’s all of 33.

“I wasn’t as composed as Sean was during that game, because he’s just so darn cool,” McVay said. “I was a nervous wreck.”

McVay flew to Atlanta on Thursday for a closer view of unfolding history. Super Bowl LIII is Sunday, in the same state in which Sean McVay got his football start.

McVay saw Sean quarterback a team to a Georgia state championship in 2003. He has taken keen interest in his grandson’s meteoric rise since. Sean is one of the Super Bowl’s most compelling story lines this week, the pup going against the grizzled old dog in the Patriots’ snarling Bill Belichick, in his ninth Super Bowl since 2001.

“Sean absolutely idolizes Belichick, too,” McVay said. “They’re both no-nonsense guys, both very good at what they do. What Bill has done is magical. What Sean is doing is special, too.”

McVay added, “Sean didn’t coach in high school or college like a lot of coaches do to get their start, but he had eight years of NFL coaching experience when the Rams hired him. I’m so proud of him. His parents (Tim and Cindy) are proud, and they should be. Sean’s the product of their hard work.”

McVay went to the barber recently, and the guy asked for a photo. Sure. But he didn’t want a John McVay picture. He wanted a Sean McVay image.

Football has changed 10-fold since McVay broke in, since his 49ers executive days, since he retired from the franchise in the late 1990s. But it’s still a pressure-cooker gig, where winning defines coaches and losses seal their out-the-door fate.

“And it’s still a people business,” McVay said. “That’s what Sean does well - deal with people.”

Networking remains a fixture, too.

As head coach at Dayton in Ohio, John McVay hired Jim Gruden to his staff for three seasons, 1969-72 (Gruden later worked under McVay as a scout with the 49ers from 1987-2002).

Gruden is the father of Jon and Jay Gruden, head coaches today with the Raiders and Redskins.

Sean grew up around football and seized any opportunity he could. He soaked in coaching meetings, took notes, asked questions.

Jon Gruden gave Sean his first NFL job, in 2008, as an assistant receivers coach with the Buccaneers. Sean was so excited to get started he skipped his college graduation ceremony to hustle off to Florida.

Said Sean during a conference call this season, “I didn’t really know anything when I first started coaching. I realized how little I knew back then. And you still try to learn every single day.”

Sean later wound up at Washington, working for Jay Gruden, including three years as offensive coordinator - the youngest such coach at the position those seasons. Sean’s success in that roll caught the eye of the Rams, who three years ago made him the youngest head coach in modern NFL history at 30.

Sean is a lot like Jon Gruden - virtual clones in energy, sleep habits, the works. Weeks after Sean’s hiring, the 49ers hired 37-year-old Kyle Shanahan, whom Sean worked with at Washington.

Father Mike Shanahan was the one-time 49ers offensive coordinator under McVay. It all connects.

“The young coaches getting hired now, it could be the new trend,” McVay said.

McVay said he worries about just one thing about his grandson.

“Burnout,” he said. “Sean burns the candle at both ends. He gets up early, works late. He has a home office that’s just like his main office, but he’ll find good balance.”

Sean said during Super Bowl Media Day he hopes to accomplish “any part” of what McVay did. He also said his grandfather was the “unsung hero” to the 49ers’ dynasty.

To be sure, McVay holds a unique place in football history. He coached in Ohio a high school standout stopper in Alan Page, who went on to have a Hall-of-Fame career with the Vikings. When he was a captain at Miami of Ohio in the early 1950s, the coaching staff included Woody Hayes and Ara Parseghian, who went on to coaching fame at Ohio State and Notre Dame.

McVay coached Dayton from 1965-72 and then became the coach and general manager of the Memphis Southmen of the World Football League. One of his prized photos includes standing behind three Miami Dolphins stars the team signed in 1975 - Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield.

McVay went 24-7 with Memphis but the WFL didn’t last long, felled by financial misery. McVay landed with the Giants in the NFL as an assistant and later became head coach.

McVay in 1978 brought in Walsh, then coaching at Stanford, to run an offensive clinic. They became friends, discussing football by the hour over bottles of brew. McVay was ultimately undone that season by one of the infamous plays in football history.

The Giants only needed to run out the clock to secure a late-season victory over the Eagles in the Meadowlands. A handoff, called by the offensive coordinator, was botched. It was scooped up and returned for a touchdown by Herman Edwards, giving the Eagles the most improbable of victories.

That was the beginning of the end in New York for McVay, whose contract was not renewed. Eddie DeBartolo Jr. hired Walsh away from Stanford before the 1979 season.

McVay knew DeBartolo from when the youngster was a college student at Dayton, and they continued to network.

“I called Eddie to congratulate him on hiring Bill and told him he was a great coach,” McVay recalled. “He asked what I was doing after the Giants, and I said I didn’t know. He said, ‘Why don’t you come out here and join us?’ I was on the first plane to San Francisco.”

During the 1979 NFL draft, Walsh was perplexed as to why Joe Montana was still available in the third round. More networking.

Walsh had McVay reach out to any contacts he might have at Notre Dame to get the skinny. On that Notre Dame staff was Jim Gruden, who told McVay simply, “Just take him.”

Montana quarterbacked the 49ers to four Super Bowl victories.

McVay in various front-office roles had his fingerprints on each of the 49ers’ five Super Bowl winners, with an eye for talent and people skills that never went away.

Walsh said years later, “It’s quite possible that the 49ers would not have won five Super Bowls had it not been for John McVay.”

Former 49ers center Randy Cross once said of McVay, “John was the glue to our organization.”

McVay said, scanning the 49ers photos on the walls, “Fun times.”

Then, we left the room. McVay climbed the stairs, his thoughts back on his grandson with a prevailing theme, “Go Rams!”

Follow The Bee’s Joe Davidson: jdavidson@sacbee.com, @SacBee_JoeD, sacbee.com/high-school.

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