John McVay aced his first assignment with the 49ers.
Upon arriving with the team in 1979, the new director of player personnel was tasked with finding a quarterback for incoming coach Bill Walsh. When the third round began, they wondered why one of the passers they liked, Notre Dame's Joe Montana, still was available.
So McVay called one of his former assistants at the University of Dayton, Jim Gruden, who at the time was an assistant at Notre Dame.
"So I said, 'What's going on with Montana? How come he's still there?' I said, 'What do you think?'" McVay, 87, recalled. "And he said, 'Just take him.' So we did."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
McVay, who retired from the 49ers following the 2003 season and who lives in Granite Bay, will be enshrined in the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame on Monday along with former 49ers offensive lineman Harris Barton, ex-Giants pitcher Matt Cain, soccer star Brandi Chastain and longtime Warriors guard Tim Hardaway.
The story about drafting Montana helps illustrate why McVay – the NFL's Executive of the Year in 1989 – was so successful:
▪ He had an incredible eye for talent. Over two decades he led a 49ers front office that drafted Ronnie Lott, Jerry Rice and Charles Haley and acquired players like Fred Dean and Steve Young. All of them are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In 2016 the 49ers named their draft war room after McVay.
▪ He was well-connected. McVay was the head coach at Dayton, head coach and general manager of the Memphis Southmen of the World Football League and head coach with the New York Giants for three seasons. At Dayton he became close with the Gruden family. Two of Jim Gruden's sons, Jon and Jay, are NFL head coaches.
"He had a very good network because people liked John," former 49ers President Carmen Policy said. "He was moderate. He was balanced. He had a very nice and very civil personality. And people would gladly take his call. People appreciated the kind of man and professional person he was. Doors opened pretty easily and pretty quickly for him."
▪ McVay's funny, self-effacing and pleasant style also allowed him to work with anyone, including the magnificent minds – with oversized personalities – who ran the 49ers in their heyday. McVay simply was the glue that held the 49ers together during their dizzying run of success.
"Bill was a genius, no question about it," Policy said of Walsh. "And Bill could be very difficult at times to deal with when he felt too much pushback. And John just had this very solid way of dealing with any issues that came up. I think Bill felt very comfortable with John."
Jed York, who now runs the 49ers and will introduce McVay at Monday's event in San Francisco, was struck by the same traits. McVay retired from the 49ers after the 1995 season. But when the franchise was transferred from Eddie DeBartolo Jr. to his sister, Denise, the York family wanted a steady hand like McVay's in the front office during the transition.
So McVay agreed to come back in 1998 and stayed for five more years.
"John's got no ego to him," York said. "When you're dealing with guys who are bigger than life, you need someone who doesn't need all the credit, all the applause, all the hoopla."
McVay's father died when he was 6, and as a young man he said he was drawn to the stability of the football coaches in his life, a group that included his high school coach, Chuck Mather, and two famous ones at Miami (Ohio), Woody Hayes and Ara Parseghian.
So McVay decided he also would become a coach. He's been inducted into the halls of fame of his high school, at Miami where he was a center and a team captain, and with the 49ers in 2013.
DeBartolo insists that McVay is worthy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame as well. After all, McVay is credited with finding 50 All-Pro players and 41 Pro Bowlers during his time in San Francisco. He's also one of the few former 49ers with five Super Bowl rings.
"His true forte – besides being totally selfless – was that he was an absolutely brilliant talent evaluator," DeBartolo said. "We wouldn't have had the success we had if Bill didn't have John and they didn't work so well together."
McVay said he first met DeBartolo when McVay was coaching at Dayton and DeBartolo was a student at Notre Dame. DeBartolo's father had a construction project in Dayton at the time and he wanted Eddie to supervise it. The younger DeBartolo took some classes at Dayton during that period and met McVay a couple of times on campus.
After the 1978 NFL season, DeBartolo brought in Walsh as head coach and McVay called to congratulate him on the hire.
"I didn't know if he would remember me," McVay recalled. "But I called him to congratulate him on hiring Bill Walsh because I thought Bill was really super. About that time my three years were up with the Giants. And Eddie said, 'Well, what are you going to do?' And I said, 'I don't know.' And he said, 'Why don't you come to San Francisco with us?' So I was on the next plane."