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The World Football League Web site is proud to present an interview with former Memphis Southmen Head Coach John McVay

John McVay took the time to speak with us as he was preparing for a vacation to Lake Tahoe. He spoke with us about the brief time the team was the Toronto Northmen, the signing of "The Trio," the late John Bassett and the success the Memphis Southmen had in the World Football League. After an NFL expansion attempt for the Memphis Grizzlies failed, Coach McVay spent time as the Head Coach of the New York Giants. There he recruited former Southmen players to join him in New York. In 1980 Coach McVay became Vice President/Director of Football Operations of the San Francisco 49'ers and was a major part of their Super Bowl success of the 1980's and early 90's.

HOF: When did you first consider coaching in the World Football League?

I received a call from Leo Cahill, who was the General Manager of the Toronto Northmen, to see if I'd be interested in coaching in the World Football League. We were in a start-up phase and the idea was that John Basset, who was the owner, and the team would be located in Toronto. When I went to work Leo Cahill and I rendezvous in Toronto and the first order of work was to find an office space and from there we got a desk, and a telephone, and wallboards to put the names of the personnel on- we really started from scratch.

We started to list all the various college players and with Leo's background in the Canadian Football League we were able to sign a lot of players who had either played for Leo or in the CFL- and that gave us a real head start on the rest of the teams. From there we looked heavily at players who were from schools that were somewhat closer to Canada- schools like Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, so that we would have some name recognition.

HOF: What was your impression of John Basset, the owner of the Memphis Southmen?

John Basset was a wonderful guy. He was a tremendous owner, enthusiastic, supportive, and he enjoyed being involved in sports- just a great guy. When the WFL was having financial problems he never expressed that he thought it was unfair, the fact that he had to bail out some of the weaker ownership groups to keep the league going. John Basset was one of the driving forces behind the World Football League.

When John made the decision to sign Csonka, Kiick and Warfield, it was a real financial commitment on his part to the success of the World Football League. That happened while we were still in Canada, and, as you know, that they joined us in 1975. We paid them $3.5 million in '74, and at that time it was an enormous amount of money to commit to. It was a blockbuster deal.

HOF: Was the Toronto community behind the World Football League and the Toronto Northmen?

The sport fans were behind the team in Toronto, and there was a lot of interest. The Canadian government was very protective of the CFL and they didn't desire a lot of competition from American football. We waited for several months, and it became apparent that it was going to be tough for us to conduct business in Toronto and the team had been built along the lines of being in Canada with Charlie Bray, Dick Thornton, Wally Highsmith- guys who had played in the CFL. John Basset and Leo Cahill went to the United States and started to look around for a new city to play in. They looked at many cities- I was trying to put personnel together and build a team- and I think when they landed in Memphis, and looked around, they thought, "This is it."

HOF: When the Toronto Northmen moved to Memphis, was it difficult to transfer the team down south?

It wasn't difficult to transfer operations to Memphis, Tennessee. It was a transfer of our coaching staff, Leo as our General Manager; we didn't have the players with us at that time. The city of Memphis welcomed us with open arms- it's a great city for a football team. The community, the media- guys like George Lapides, they came on board in a hurry, and it was a great experience. The NFL and I've been in the NFL for twenty years now, definitely are 'hands off'. They aren't going into any area that would create legal problems. We weren't competition for the NFL, we played in the summer, and although we had teams in NFL cities we played an earlier schedule.

Once we moved to Memphis and we had a lot of Canadian League players so Leo and I set about getting some kids from some of the southern schools so that the fans could get a feeling of association with the team. We had an interesting mixture of north and south, guys who had played in the NFL, the CFL, and some coaches from the NFL and CFL; it was a great blending of guys.

HOF: How did you feel the team would do in the '74 season?

What happened was a lot of the teams in the WFL were scrimmaging each other and they were able to get a barometer on each other's strengths and weaknesses- we decided not to scrimmage other teams. Our scrimmaging was done internally, and no one knew anything about us. The first game, we played against the Detroit Wheels, their head coach was Danny Boisture, and Danny and I had been assistant coaches together for Duffy Dougherty at Michigan State. We won that ball game and we got off to a good start. We felt pretty good.

Danny White was a great player in college. We also had John Huarte and Danny White so we were truly blessed at that position. John was the wily veteran and Danny the up-and-coming star of the future. John Basset was willing to spend the money to get the players. He ran a world class operation, and I only wish that he had lived long enough to become an owner in the National Football League- I think he would have been an outstanding owner and a huge success. When he was in the hospital, before he died, we would talk about the old days, the days in Memphis, the players- until he passed away.

After the WFL, John also owned the Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL. My son, Jim McVay, worked for him in marketing and they also they had Steve Spurrier as the head coach. John Basset had the Midas touch. I don't think the NFL would have been influenced by the fact that John owned a WFL franchise, I think they would have let him into the league. The owners in the NFL are very objective, and very fair-minded people.

John had a burning desire to be part of the National Football League. When the WFL folded he kept everyone on staff, and paid everyone while he applied for a NFL franchise. When the NFL bid failed, we knew it was over- I can't say enough good things about John Basset.

HOF: Who were some of the players that stood out on the Southmen?

The Memphis Southmen was a veteran team. Wally Highsmith, our tackle, had played in the NFL and CFL, and Dick Thornton also had experience, Ed Marshall- those guys had played a lot of football before they came to Memphis. We also had a great staff; Bob Gibson who was our backfield coach, who did a great job; Joey Eaglowski, Jay Frye, who had coached in Canada and had success there, Jim Roundtree, who had played and coached in the CFL, and Joe Galat, who coached all over the U.S. Our running game was terrific. JJ Jennings was a great back, he came from the east, and he fit beautifully into what we were doing on offense. John Harvey was a superstar in Canada- great speed, great moves. Willie Spencer had played high school football in my hometown and in Canada. He was a great big, fierce, strong running back. Paul Miles had played at Bowling Green University, and Bob Gibson did a great job with them.

HOF: When Bob Gibson left the team to become head coach of the Charlotte Hornets in 1975, how did that affect the team?

In 1975, Bob Gibson went to coach the Charlotte Hornets and that was a tremendous loss to us. He talked to me about the Charlotte job- in this business, when you get an opportunity to be a head coach you take it. I think Upton Bell had called Leo Cahill and John Basset about hiring 'Gibby'. We (the Southmen) were so successful that you knew that some one was going to come and take some one away.

HOF: What were some of the WFL games that stand out in your memory?

We had a great rivalry with Birmingham. When we played Birmingham, our stadium was sold out and when we played down, in Legion Field, the crowds were big. We had a game against the Vulcans in 1975, and at the end of the game Ed Marshall caught a touchdown pass and the officials ruled that he didn't have possession. They had to bring a police cruiser out on to the field to get the officials off- there were a lot of Jack Daniels' bottles coming down from the stands. Ed caught the ball, and then spiked it, and they (the officials) claimed he didn't have possession. I was on my own personal vendetta at the end of that game.

Jack Pardee of the Florida Blazers was a great coach. After the WFL folded, I went to New York and Jack was with the Washington Redskins, and I had to face him all over again. Florida had a great running back, Tommy Reamon, and he could hit a hole- and he was tough to bring down.

HOF: As the World Football League is having financial problems did John Basset ever discuss with you the future of the league?

We were definitely insulated against the bad press in the WFL. We stayed focused on playing the games and pretty much ignored those types of things. I remember John and Leo talking about sending money to the weaker teams, but it was an investment on his part more than a gift. He thought that if the WFL could get over the 'hump' things would work themselves out. John felt that the league could get through the season and then the WFL would replace the weaker teams with new franchises and new owners.

In Memphis, we were spoiled. We had a great stadium; the fans were behind the team. When we went to Birmingham, Chicago, we had some great places to play. Everybody knew that in a new league, we would have to play in some places that were not at the caliber that we enjoyed.

HOF: How did the nickname 'Grizzlies' come about?

John and Leo had gone to the Memphis Zoo and got a team mascot- a grizzly bear cub- and that's where the nickname 'Grizzlies' came from. I would say that we were called the Southmen more than the Grizzlies.

HOF: The WFL never saw its plans for international expansion come to life. Despite this what was it like to play football in an exotic place like Hawaii?

We went on a road trip to Portland, and from Portland we went to Hawaii. We worked out at the University of Hawaii, and we told the players that we would work hard in the morning and then give them the afternoon off to enjoy the weather and the beach. The team behaved themselves very well on the island and we played well against the Hawaiians.

HOF: The Southmen finished the season at 17-3, and went on to host the Florida Blazers. What was that playoff game like for you and the team?

The first round of the WFL playoffs we played the Florida Blazers. We felt that we were prepared, but in the playoffs anything can happen. We didn't get the job done that day. It was a devastating loss for us, and we all felt bad for John Basset because he had done so much to get us there. We felt an obligation to him, and despite feeling bad about losing, we all felt worse in the fact that we had let John down.

HOF: Did you feel that the WFL was finished after the '74 season?

I never thought that the WFL was done. I knew that John Basset and Chris Hemmeter were working to reorganize the league for 1975 and bring in some stronger owners.

When the WFL was formed, they needed some guys that had money to make the thing work long term. We were all happy with the experience and we trusted John Basset and Chris Hemmeter to make the WFL successful. With more owners like John, the WFL would have lasted longer. I don't think the league would have merged with the NFL, but it would have been more successful.

HOF: After the WFL reorganized, what was the mood like around the team and the city of Memphis as the 1975 season approached?

In 1975, there was a lot of excitement around bringing in Csonka, Kiick and Warfield to an already successful team. We traded JJ Jennings to make more room for Csonka and Kiick. JJ deserved a place to go where he could start. The most interest, we talked to a lot of teams, was from Philadelphia 'cause JJ had played his college ball at Rutgers and the fans could identify with him.

In Memphis, the spotlight was on Csonka, Kiick and Warfield because of what they had achieved in the NFL. Those guys were real professionals, easy to work with, willing, and they jumped in and did whatever we asked them to do. We had played Charlotte, against Bob Gibson, and we were down at halftime 11-0 and Csonka, Kiick and Warfield all scored in the second half to win the game. It was good to see them contribute- Larry Csonka was working through some injuries but it was good to have them 'light up' the board and create some excitement in Memphis.

(WFL Web site Note: Larry Csonka was named the WFL's Player of the Week against the Charlotte Hornets on August 9, 1975. Csonka rushed for 112 yard on 24 carries and caught 3 passes for 23 yards and a touchdown.)

HOF: When did you fear that the league was in trouble?

There were rumors that the league was in trouble. One of the things that we did that, I think, hurt us psychologically was that a team could qualify for the playoffs depending on their record at the middle of the season. At the mid-point we had qualified for the playoffs early, and then we had a 'let down' we suffered a slump of sorts.

(WFL Web site Note: The Memphis Southmen and San Antonio Wings qualified for the 1975 WFL Playoffs by winning their respective divisions during the Summer Season. The Southmen started the Fall Season at 0-2 losing in two consecutive weeks to the Birmingham Vulcans. The league folded three days later on October 22, 1975.)

John Basset would keep Mike Storen and I updated on the state of the league. Leo Cahill had gone to the Chicago Winds to assist them with building a team- the league had asked Leo to go there due to his expertise to help build a viable franchise. John hired Mike Storen to come in and handle the business end of things. John told us which teams were financially strapped and how they were just trying to make it to the end of the season. Some of the teams had paid too much in salaries, or weren't getting the attendance and that made things difficult. John had an enormous investment in the WFL.

HOF: Where were you when you heard that the WFL had folded?

We were on the practice field. We had just built a practice facility (a new field, showers and locker rooms) and we were out there when we got word that the league had 'shut down'. Mike Storen came over to practice and told me, "they're gonna shut the league down." We brought the players together and told them- there was enormous disappointment.

After the WFL folded, John Basset put together his effort to apply for a National Football League franchise. He hired staff to work the phones; there was enormous response to the effort. We were trying to sell 40,000 season tickets. CBS Sports and the NFL Today came down to Memphis to do a special on our attempt to join the NFL- I thought it (getting into the NFL) was realistic.

HOF: Looking back at the Memphis Southmen, if you had succeeded in your bid to get into the NFL, how do you think the team would have done?

That's hard to answer. When the Memphis Southmen was disassembled a lot of the players went to the NFL- and a lot had come from the NFL and Canadian Football League. Danny White was a tremendous athlete- he made a name for himself with the Dallas Cowboys. Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield went back to New York, Denver and Cleveland. Gary Shirk played for us with the New York Giants, Ralph Hill played center and Dave "Peanuts" Thomas played for the Washington Redskins. We probably didn't have enough depth to compete in the NFL, but you could have taken our starting team and created a very competitive team in the NFL.

I think John Basset had something to do with my hiring in New York. When the league folded Jay Frye had gone to the Giants as an assistant, and Bill Arnsbarger, who I had coached with at Miami at Ohio, had left and I went to the Giants before the season. I remember that even after the season ticket drive and the NFL application had failed John Basset continued to pay me until I went to work for the New York Giants. We parted as good friends.

When I joined the Giants we were looking at some spots on the roster that needed some competition, so we brought in Csonka, Shirk and Marshall to give them an opportunity to earn a job. We brought on some former Southmen coaches, and I felt very comfortable about the team and the staff. I was confident that Ed Marshall would be a talent in the NFL, and of course Larry Csonka was a proven athlete. Our tight end, Bob Tucker, showed Gary and Ed some of the tricks-of-the-trade and helped them along.

HOF: How would you describe your time in the WFL?

Sports are sometimes overly serious, and I think in '74 and '75 the WFL was a great experience, a great ride. We had a lot of quality guys on the team, a great owner, a great General Manager, and a city that embraced the team. It was a marvelous experience.

NOTE: The John McVay interview was conducted by Jim Cusano and Richie Franklin. This interview was slated for the former World Football League Hall of Fame Web site, but was never posted. This interview is used with permission and is property of the World Football League Web site and may not be used without the written consent of the Web site owners. The color photo of John McVay is courtesy of Memphis Southmen photographer Johnny Wofford.