John McVay always wanted to be a football coach. You see, he was drawn to the profession when he saw first-hand the stability provided by some great leaders in the sport, specifically Massillon head coach Chuck Mather and Miami of Ohio coaches Woody Hayes and Ara Parseghian. But eventually he would become much more than that. Not only did McVay coach in the high school, college and professional arenas, he also served as general manager at the highest level, enjoying tremendous success in the process. Here is his story.
John McVay was born on January 5, 1931, in Bellaire, Ohio, and moved shortly afterward to Massillon. It was there in Tigertown that he received his first exposure to organized football. His first two years of varsity play were under Coach Bud Houghton. But his senior season in 1948 saw a change in leadership when Chuck Mather arrived in town. Mather’s tutelage provided the spark that would eventually launch McVay’s long career in football.
During McVay’s first season, which was his final year in high school, Mather fashioned a 9-1 record and a first place finish in the Associated Press state poll, ahead of Canton McKinley, which also finished 9-1. John McVay was instrumental in this success and was named for his efforts as 2nd Team All-Ohio at the center position. But McVay was also a good student at Massillon, as he was accepted into the National Honor Society.
College found him at Miami of Ohio, where he played his first two years under Woody Hayes. Hayes finished 9-1 during his second year and then departed for Ohio State. In came Ara Parseghian who, during McVay’s final two years there, recorded 15 wins in 19 starts. Again McVay was right in the mix. A 2-time MVP for Miami, McVay was also selected as All-Mid-American Conference center and served during his senior year as team captain. With an education degree under his belt, he would later earn a Master’s Degree in School Administration at Kent State.
Now it was time for his dream job; i.e., coaching football. After serving as an assistant at Lancaster High School for three years, McVay landed his first head coaching assignment at Franklin High School in 1956. Although his team struggled during his only year there, he was able to return home the following year to assume the head reigns at Canton Central Catholic, a position he held for five years. While there, McVay fashioned a fine record of 41-7, including a 9-1 mark in 1959, when his team finished 7th in the state. When he departed, he was the winningest coach ever at Central. Today, McVay is honored with a scholarship in his name.
McVay’s success at Central was notable and he was able to jump then to college. His first stop was Michigan State University, where he served under legendary coach Duffy Daugherty. Three years later, in 1965, he was hired as head coach at the University of Dayton. During his eight years there, he recorded a record of 37-41-3, finishing 8-2 in 1962, which was one of the best marks in the Flyers’ history.
The World Football League, a short-lived venture started in 1974, called on McVay to coach Memphis. He immediately signed three standout athletes from the Miami Dolphins that were nearing the ends of their playing careers in order to bolster attendance. They included Paul Warfield, Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick (two are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame). They also signed former Massillon player Willie Spencer, Sr., who led the team in rushing. At Memphis, McVay finished a respectable 24-7, good enough to be named head coach of the New York Giants the following year. He coached there for three seasons, which were his final years as a coach. Following a 20-year span of head coaching assignments, McVay had won 117 games against 85 losses and 6 ties.
But he wasn’t done with football just yet. In 1979, McVay was hired by the San Francisco 49ers to become Vice President and General Manager, a position he held for 18 years. Under his leadership, McVay stocked the team with some outstanding players, including Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott, Charles Haley and Fred Dean. In all, he brought in some 50 players who were later selected as All-Pro. But his crowning achievement was the five Super Bowl Championships captured by the 49ers during his tenure. Coach Bill Walsh once said, “It’s quite possible that the 49ers would not have won five Super Bowls had it not been for John McVay.”
And the beat goes on. His grandson, Sean McVay, is the current head coach of the Los Angeles Rams.
McVay has been inducted into the following halls of fame:
- Massillon High School Wall of Champions, 1963 (charter member)
- Massillon High School Distinguished Citizen, 1996
- Massillon High School Tiger Football Hall of Fame, 2016
- Stark County, Ohio, High School Hall of Fame, 2005
- Miami of Ohio University Football Red Hawks, 1977
- San Francisco 49ers, 2013
- San Francisco Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, 2018
McVay and his wife Eva Lee had three sons: John, Tim (father of Sean) and Jim. He died in Granite Bay, California, on November 1, 2022.
Can the Pro Football Hall of Fame be far off for John McVay?
Mike Riordan provided the materials for this story.