Mike McKay sat inside Room 103 at Father Judge on Monday afternoon, cradling the game ball from the 1975 city championship game he quarterbacked. On that day, McKay’s Crusaders defeated Frankford, 9-6, in a game played at Veterans Stadium.
Now, more than 37 years later, McKay has been named Judge’s next head football coach, replacing Tommy Coyle, who stepped down in late February after 13 seasons to take the same position at Penn Charter.
As far as full circle is concerned, the 54-year-old Summerdale native just took the cake, and probably the cherry on top, too.
“It’s an absolute dream come true,” he said on Monday inside the school he graduated from in 1976. “It’s the only head coaching job I’d ever consider applying for.”
It will be the first head coaching job for McKay at the high school level; he served as Archbishop Carroll’s offensive coordinator last season, and has also had successful coordinator stints at Northeast, Archbishop Wood, Upper Merion and Cardinal Dougherty over a 12-year career.
Multiple sources told the Northeast Times on Friday afternoon that McKay had been selected for the position, though the job was not officially offered by the Rev. Joseph Campellone, Judge’s president, until Sunday evening. McKay gratefully accepted. He met with his new team on Monday afternoon in a gathering attended by Judge legend John “Whitey” Sullivan, who was McKay’s head coach back in the ’70s.
McKay is just the sixth head football coach in the school’s history, and only the third in the last 39 years (Sullivan coached for 25 seasons, followed by Coyle’s 13). Needless to say, the exclusivity of the opportunity is not lost on him.
“The last 24 hours have been very emotional and have brought back so many memories,” McKay said in a nearly 30-minute Q&A. “Considering it’s been 37 years since I stepped off that field, it’s just special all around. Not many people have had this opportunity, and it’s one in a million to be able to come back to the school that gave me so much. It’s amazing the opportunity is there, and even more amazing that I got it.”
McKay is known as an offensive guru and innovator. He is a proponent of the spread offense, although he said the system he and his staff will run would depend on the skills of the players left from Coyle’s last team. McKay has developed five First Team All-League quarterbacks, though he bristled when a reporter asked if his coaching style could be compared to the run-and-gun approach of new Eagles head coach Chip Kelly.
“Don’t tag me as Chip Kelly,” he said. “The game is constantly changing, and there are always innovators trying new things. I pride myself on staying one step ahead and being a go-getter who isn’t afraid to try something different. I like the spread, but that doesn’t mean that’s what’s going to happen. You tweak your system to fit the kids you have, and that’s what we’ll do here.”
McKay won three Catholic League Blue Division titles at Wood from 2003-05, and was also on Chris Riley’s staff at Northeast when the Vikings won the Public League championship in 2010. So far, his Crusader coaching staff consists of Dan Pfeiffer (offensive coordinator), Vern Beale (defensive coordinator) and Sean Boyle (linebackers coach, and a Judge grad). McKay remained open to interviewing some assistant holdovers from the Coyle era to complete his staff.
All three present assistants have coached with or under McKay, and the new head coach glowingly spoke of the trio’s big-game coaching experience.
“Short term, we just want to re-focus to see where we’re at with this program,” McKay said. “We want to be visible in the community, and obviously the expectation for everyone is to win. We need to see where the program is today, and what we need to do to take it back to where it needs to go. All of us want to be in those big games at the end of the season … you’d be crazy not to.”
The ultimate goal will be to return Judge’s football program to prominence. Coyle, who was well liked and respected by most, still only managed a 73-77 overall record in his 13 seasons. Much of this is a byproduct of how strong the Catholic League is, but in recent years the Crusaders have been lapped by La Salle, St. Joseph’s Prep and Roman Catholic, who have established themselves as annual powers in the league.
Even Archbishop Ryan, the fifth and final team in the Catholic League’s Class AAAA Division, beat the Crusaders for the first time in five seasons in 2012.
But McKay didn’t take the bait when he was asked about specific programs he might want Judge to live up to.
“It’s too soon for all of that,” he said. “It’s a one-day-at-a-time process, and I only just met my team. All I can tell you is that we want to win, and we will work as hard as we can on the game in front of us each week. We will work with them every day to get them ready for each game, no matter who the opponent is.”
McKay, a terminal trucking manager in Langhorne, seemed eager and almost impatient to get started. His immediate orders of business are to fill out his staff and get his players on an offseason workout regimen that he hopes will carry through the summer until camp opens.
He spoke of wanting to keep the neighborhood kids at Judge, instead of seeing them defect to suburban schools like La Salle or Wood. McKay also spoke of his desire to bring “blue collar” type student-athletes to a school and community that is the epitome of the term.
“Football is a tough, mental game,” he said. “You need those types of hard-nosed kids, and they exist right here in these local neighborhoods.”
Judge’s “re-focused” roster in 2013 will likely see plenty of new faces, though talented holdovers such as RB Samir Bullock (1,086 rushing yards as a sophomore), RB/DB Marquis Seamon (returning from wrist surgery), OL Tom Bayer and LB Joe Nigro are all expected to be back.
McKay described his players as “relieved” to finally put an end to the process. They don’t know much about McKay, but they will soon, and they’ll like what they see, his assistants maintained.
“He’s very good with the kids,” Pfeiffer said. “They’ll warm up to him right away.”
“He’s a born leader,” Beale said. “That’s why none of us had any problems leaving where we were to follow him.”
Added Boyle: “Anything he does will inspire these kids … plus, he’s a Judge guy.”
While that alone won’t ensure automatic success, the Judge search committee is likely pleased it landed someone who fit the following criteria: 1) Judge alum, 2) proven track record and 3) familiarity with the Catholic League.
When the hoopla was over and McKay had finished answering questions and posing for photographs, he was ready to get to work.
“There’s so much to do, starting right now,” he said. “As I told the kids today, I’m here for them … this program is not about me. I want them to enjoy the game and get valuable experience. I still have memories of my time here and that camaraderie we had.
“When I accepted the job, I got phone calls from guys on that ’75 team. We talked about it like it was yesterday. How special is that? That’s exactly the type of experience I want these kids to have.” ••
Sports Editor Ed Morrone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or firstname.lastname@example.org