Behind the Lines – “Stay in the box”

The late John McKay won four NCAA football championships as head coach of the University of Southern California Trojans. Later he became the first head coach of the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976. While those are great accomplishments, perhaps his greatest attribute was his quick wit.

At Tampa Bay that wit came much quicker than the first win. McKay’s Buccaneers lost 26 straight games before their first victory.

In one post-game interview late in his first season, a sports reporter asked him, “What do you think of your offense’s execution?”

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With a straight face, McKay responded, “I’m in favor of it.”

While the quips are memorable, his sideline demeanor in the pro ranks was legendary.

During one game in his second year, a game his Bucs were on the verge of winning he lost control of the bench.

In football more than any other sport, the bench is a beehive of activity. Trainers, assistant coaches, injured players, and defensive units while the offense is on the field and vice versa make it a tangled web of bodies and personalities.

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As the Bucs grew anxious in anticipation of maybe winning a game, they began crowding the sidelines, bumping McKay, and drawing sideline warnings from game officials. McKay barked to assistants to get the players back behind the line, into the player’s box, clearly marked three yards off the sideline.

They failed.

In frustration, McKay yelled to one of his assistants with a clipboard, “Start writing down numbers, I’m going to cut or fine every guy who doesn’t get back.”

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That did the trick.

Present-day NFL teams have “get back” coaches that roam the sidelines pushing players back into the box.

The sidelines in a football game can be a fun place to be. I’m often taking photos in between the team box and the sideline, often tap dancing to avoid players flying out of bounds, and officials running up the sidelines.

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I know most of the officials working our local games and enjoy bantering with them on the sidelines between plays.

I’ve been hit a couple of times by players being tackled out of bounds, which is part of the territory. When a kid gets really big in the viewfinder of your camera it’s time to grab the camera, drop the lens, and sidestep to avoid collisions.

As a coach, I sometimes shared McKay’s frustration, while at others I was alone in the box.

One memorable season with the Shoshoni Junior High we won the league for the first time in the school’s history. The magic of that year was that I only had 11 players on the team. Seven eighth graders and four seventh graders made up the roster.

I had a sixth-grade manager who later became a high school head coach, but that was it on the sidelines.

I called plays from the sideline with hand signals since I had no one to send in plays.

Years earlier when I was the head 7th-grade coach for the Riverton Middle School Spartans numbers were on the other extreme. We had 77 boys out one season. That’s a lot of kids on the sideline. We had 25 boys that played just A, another 25 that played just B, and a boatload of “tweeners” for a total of around 45 kids on the sideline for each game.

In those days we played full A and B games. Now the process is often just an extra quarter or two with a running clock for the B kids. I’m never in favor of that since boys progress at different rates and you never know what awaits them once maturity, interest, and ambition take hold in later years. You never want to shortchange a kid.

One of my favorite middle school players in those years was current Riverton head girls’ basketball coach Travis McIntosh. Travis was a late bloomer who went on to a college football career.

As a 7th grader, Travis was a huge fan of the game already. We played him at tight end. That first year he was one of the “tweeners” playing both A and B.

Travis soon discovered that learning different positions meant more playing time. Proximity to the head coach meant more playing time too. When he wasn’t on the field, I couldn’t turn around without bumping into him, he followed me step for step.

During a game, we’d have someone get a minor injury, lose a mouthpiece, break a chinstrap or just not get the job done and we’d need a replacement. I would turn to Tom Zingarelli, Dave Zacher, or Ron Porter and ask them to find a player and Travis would immediately volunteer for the spot. He did know all the positions and played a lot as a result.

Sometimes sideline proximity is the greatest asset a player can have until size, speed and strength arrive in later years.

I watch a lot of football from the sidelines, and lately even more online. When viewing games online it’s funny to watch the kids on the sideline move up and down the field with the ball. They march from the 25-yard lines back and forth as the ball progresses in an almost choreographed dance. If you play it fast-forward style it is a dance, complete with coaches moving away from and back to each other like ballerinas on a large theatrical stage.

I’ve been privileged to see a lot of sidelines in person over the years, perhaps as many as a thousand when I look back to 1972. From middle school to high school, small college, major college, and the NFL all share similarities.

As a player, the sidelines were frustrating since you wanted to be in on the action. As a coach, they were a tool. You had reserves in place, supplies ready to treat an injury, and adjust equipment or clipboards to diagram a play with. It was a tool in another way. If a kid wasn’t buying into what you were trying to do, or just wasn’t focused, a little time on the bench, watching from the sidelines often brought them back to your point of view.

On college and professional sidelines, you have to move around behind the benches, shooting from the back of the end zone to the 25-yard line. There are myriad other people in your way. Other photographers, sound engineers, game officials, technicians pulling cables, camera operators, and medical staff all work here.

Hurdling thick control cables for broadcast television, dodging moving cameras mounted on four-wheeled vehicles, security staff, and hangers-on are all obstacles in your path.

But it’s part of the excitement of the sidelines.

Watching a game from the stands just doesn’t hold my interest. It’s too far from the action for a guy spoiled by proximity.

A final comment from my late friend Chuck Wells as we coached the first Shoshoni middle school team in the fall of 1985. I had huge rosters the two years before in Riverton, but we only had 20 boys out in Shoshoni that fall.

As we stumbled through the opening quarter of the season, I kept looking at the bench trying to find someone to send in.

Chuck saw me repeatedly looking down the lineup of reserves and said, “Don’t even bother coach, the best we’ve got is on the field.”

True words from a coaching legend whose quips mirrored those of John McKay’s. As the head coach of Bolsa Grande Matadors in 1972, the Southern California State football champions, Chuck knew McKay who recruited some of his players.

You might say they shared a life on the sidelines.  

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