DAYTON, Ohio — Before he became the talk of Sunday’s Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, Sean McVay was a little kid from Kettering, Ohio, and was mesmerized as he rubbed shoulders with NFL players.
“I’ve got a framed picture here on the kitchen counter from about that time that I’ve got to send you,” Tim McVay, his dad, was saying by phone from his home in Atlanta. “His grandpa was with the 49ers. He was the GM of the team during those Super Bowl years and that’s how Sean got to be around them.
“In this picture he and his little brother are standing there with Steve Young the day before a game. When you’re just a kid, being around all that stuff at that level, it really makes an impact. I’d take him to their walk-throughs or maybe he’d ride the team bus and his eyes would be big as saucers. That’s when he first got the bug.”
And today — some 27 years later, but still a kid when it comes to certain NFL reference points — he’s still got it.
But his grandfather, John McVay — the former University of Dayton football coach who went on lead the USFL’s Memphis Southmen and the NFL’s New York Giants before he became the San Francisco 49ers executive who engineered the team to five Super Bowl titles — made a correction when he spoke by phone from his home in Northern California:
“I can’t call him a kid anymore. Not after all this.”
Semantics aside, Sean McVay has achieved far beyond his years.
When he first began his NFL career — helping coach wide receivers on Jon Gruden’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff — he had just graduated from Miami University. He was 22 and younger than every receiver on the team.
And two seasons ago — when he took over the Los Angeles Rams at age 30 — he became the youngest head coach in NFL history. Undaunted, he immediately turned around a franchise that had had 13 straight losing seasons and was 4-12 the previous year and guided the 2017 team to a 11-6 record while being named the NFL Coach of the Year.
Now — having just turned 33 — he has his 15-3 Rams in the NFL championship game against New England and is the youngest head coach in Super Bowl history.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick — who is 66 — is more than twice his age. And 41-year-old New England quarterback Tom Brady has him by 8 1/2 years.
It’s been a wondrous ascension for all to see and especially folks here in the Miami Valley where the McVay family has a long association.
“It’s great that people back there can feel a connection and have a little fun with this journey,” Tim said. “Everybody always likes to see each other’s kids doing well and having some good fortune.”
Just as Daytonians feel linked to Sean McVay — born in Kettering Hospital, initially schooled at Ascension — the family has a special affinity for this area.
“It’s home for us,” Tim said. “We love it and love the people there. We have great memories there.”
Gloria, Tim’s mom and Sean’s grandmother, still lives in Xenia.
John McVay, now retired from the NFL, remarried and living in Granite Bay, California, outside Sacramento, played football for Woody Hayes and Ara Parseghian at Miami University and then began his coaching career at Franklin High School in 1956.
He moved on to Canton Central Catholic and then joined Duffy Daugherty’s staff at Michigan State. He took over the University of Dayton program in 1965, quickly turned it into a winner and stayed eight years.
“Dayton was a really great situation,” he said. “We lived on Malone Avenue, just about a block away from the elementary school and Alter High. The kids had an almost idyllic time there.”
The three McVay boys — John, Jim and Tim — all starred with the Alter football team and each went on to a college career.
John played at Miami in the 1970s on teams that beat Florida and Georgia in back-to-back Tangerine Bowls.
Jim was a quarterback at the University of Dayton and for the past 30 years has run the Outback Bowl in Tampa.
Tim, the youngest, was a standout safety at Indiana University and then sent 39 years with Cox Media, including 13 with WHIO-TV here in Dayton.
“I’ve got a ton of memories from Malone Avenue,” Tim said. We grew up next door to the Heckmans and the Weimer family was right there. We’d be out in the street every night throwing the ball and talking. We had a ball.
“And when it came to football, I was a lot like Sean, but maybe even more so because my dad was the coach. I remember going with him when he recruited. I’d go over to campus and go to the fieldhouse and watch Donnie May and the basketball team. At a lot of the football games I was the ballboy on the sideline.
“I loved all that stuff and probably took the loses harder than Dad did.”
The staff John McVay put together at UD was especially impressive. Ten of his coaches went on to coach in the NFL and two — Wayne Fontes and Dennis Green — became head coaches.
“George Perles, Tom Moore, Jim Gruden, Joe Eaglowski, we were blessed with great coaches right from the start,” John said. “I tell you we had a better staff than the Big 10.”
The deepest, most long-standing association came with Jim Gruden, who McVay hired as is backfield coach in 1969.
“Our families have been together ever since,” John said. “We’ve worked together, hired each other back and forth, looked out for each other.”
Jim Gruden recruited Tim to Indiana. Later Jim’s son Jon, who had been a University of Dayton quarterback, returned the favor and hired Sean at Tampa Bay.
In 2014, when Jay Gruden, Jon’s brother, left the Cincinnati Bengals to take over the Washington Redskins he kept Sean, already an assistant there, on his staff and the move paid off.
Sean had great success as the offensive coordinator, especially in helping develop quarterback Kirk Cousins, much the way he’s now help Rams quarterback Jared Goff blossom.
Maybe the biggest assist between the families came in the 1979 NFL Draft when John McVay was a 49ers administrative assistant.
“We were wondering why (Notre Dame quarterback) Joe Montana was still on the board,” he said. “Bill (head coach Bill Walsh) asked, ‘Who do we know at Notre Dame?’ And I said, ‘Gruden.’ He said, ‘Call him!'”
Jim Gruden was the Irish’s running backs coach and McVay said he did call:
“I said, ‘What’s the story on Montana? He’s still on the board, but our coaches and scouts love him.’
And Jim said, ‘Listen, just take him.'”
The 49ers took Montana in the third round and two years later he led them to the first of his four Super Bowl crowns, after which Steve Young took over.
‘He soaked everything in’
Tim’s job with Cox — eventually becoming the VP and general manager at WSB-TV — took him, wife Cindy and their two boys from Kettering to Atlanta in 1992.
Once in high school, Sean was a star quarterback at Marist School in Brookhaven outside Atlanta. He had offers from schools like Georgia Tech, Duke, Rice, Tulane, Navy and Air Force, but chose Miami, where his Uncle John had a stellar career and his grandfather is in the Hall of Fame and the Cradle of Coaches Club.
“I remember when I was 5 or 6 years old and my dad would take me to the 49ers’ Saturday walk-throughs before Sunday games,” he told me when we first spoke in 2005 when he was a sophomore receiver and kick returner for the RedHawks.
“I’d get to hang out and talk to players. It might not seem like much, but it makes an impact on a little kid when Steve Young and Jerry Rice come up and say ‘Hey.'”
He said Young once tossed him a towel at a Monday Night Football game and he remembered riding the team bus to a Sunday game and sitting next to center Jesse Sapolu:
“He was joking around with me, making me feel like one of the guys.”
When we talked that day you could hear the fascination he had with the NFL and it didn’t take long after that for it to become a reality.
Three years later he was with Tampa Bay and as Jon Gruden once said:
“He was full of energy and he was a sponge. He soaked everything in.”
A year after Sean was hired as special assistant to the head coach and then made a wide receivers assistant, Gruden — who had won the Super Bowl five years earlier — was fired following a 9-7 season.
“Right after that Jon told his brother Jay (who had been on the staff) and Sean, ‘I want to make sure you guys are fully up to speed on every aspect I know about coaching in the NFL,'” Tim said. “He told Sean, ‘I’m going to start meetings at 6:30 in the morning and don’t be late.’
“Sean was out of a job, too, and had gotten some offers from colleges as assistant coach. He called me and told me what Jon wanted to do for a handful of months. And you know how many people were in the class? Just two — Sean and Jay.
“Sean said, ‘Look, I don’t have any money,’ and I told him I’d considerate it that he’s going to get his doctorate in coaching. I said, ‘I’ll pay for your apartment and help you out because this will accelerate your career by 15 years.’ And it did.”
The next year Sean joined Jim Haslett’s staff with the short-lived Florida Tuskers of the United Football League and then got hired by Mike Shanahan with the Washington Redskins. He stayed on when Jay Gruden took over and quickly gained a reputation as something of a quarterback whisperer.
When HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” did a feature on Sean, Tim made a candid admission.
He recounted how his son called and told him he would likely get some interviews for head coaching jobs and believed he could land one.
“I said I’m all for you, man,” he told HBO, “And when I hung up, my wife said, ‘Can he get one of those jobs this soon?’ And I said, ‘Naah.'”
Asked about that now, he laughed:
“They cut part of it out. No one has any more confidence in Sean’s capabilities than I do … but I still thought it might be a little early, that it might be a couple of more years.
“But the truth is he was on fast-track learning curve because of the people he was around. And he had been coaching in the pros for eight years.”
By all accounts when Sean interviewed with the Rams, he was so prepared and so enthusiastic that he just blew them away.
“It was weird for me,” Tim laughed. “Here we’ve been lifelong 49ers fans, Dad’s in the 49ers Ring of Honor and the Bay Area Hall of Fame. The experiences with them were so great and all of a sudden Sean’s with the Rams?”
“Holy crap! We never rooted for the Rams.
“But I sure do now!”
Another ring for the family?
John McVay said he gave his grandson the Bill Walsh book about leadership: “The Score Takes Care of Itself.”
“Bill was absolutely a brilliant guy,” John said. “He could have been a leading surgeon, a leading politician, an astronaut. He was really, really intelligent.
“If someone said, ‘I want to be a pro coach, I’d tell them, ‘Get the book and memorize it!’
“It’s full of wisdom. It’s right down to the speeches he gave to maintenance people and people in the secretarial pool. He covers every base.”
Sean once said that during his formative years he used to read two pages in that book every night before he went to bed. And he still goes through it on occasion.
John — who has gone with Tim to a few of Sean’s games and has watched the rest on TV — has noticed something about his grandson in recent games:
“It’s been a real study the way he handles the last half of the fourth quarter. He maintains his confidence in what he’s doing. He doesn’t waiver.
“I just wish I could get those TV people to keep him in focus for me.”
One thing that is clear: With this trip to the Super Bowl, Sean may build on another McVay practice.
“After the 49ers won their fourth Super Bowl we were at Christmas one time and we see these little boxes,” Tim said. “Dad goes, ‘I got you three boys a little gift.’
“We were like, ‘Oh, that’s nice, but you didn’t need to do that.’ Then we open them and he gave each of us a Super Bowl ring.
“John’s the oldest and got the first one when they beat the Bengals up in Detroit. Jim got the one when they beat the Miami Dolphins and Dan Marino and I got the third one when they beat Cincinnati on the Joe Montana to John Taylor pass with like 30 seconds left.
“He still had the fourth one for himself and later got that fifth one, too.”
John laughed as he thought about those days:
“It was an unbelievable time for our franchise and now hopefully someday soon, Sean will get another ring and start another tradition.”