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McKay's influence paved way for Mondales

No one in the Rogue Valley knew John McKay quite like Kathy Mondale.

McKay, who died Sunday at the age of 77 in Tampa, Fla., was the architect of four NCAA football championships at Southern California and later helped bring the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into existence as its first coach and part owner.

The world knew McKay for his one-liners and student body right sweeps with Mike Garrett or O.J. Simpson packing the mail.

Kathy (Smith) Mondale knew him as her mischievous cousin Jack from Shinston, W. Va.

"My mother would always catch us getting into things," Mondale recalls. "We'd be stopping up commodes and things like that. My parents would really get ticked off."

And it was because her cousin recruited her boyfriend - Harry Mondale - to play football on the West Coast that she became an Oregon transplant in the mid-1950s.

Kathy Mondale's mother, Elizabeth Smith, and McKay's father, John, were siblings who grew up in McKeesport, Pa.

John was the third of five children born to Scotch-Irish parents, John and Gertrude McKay.

"Jack's father was a miner and moved down to West Virginia after he got married and that was where his family grew up," Mondale recalls.

But the elder John McKay died when the future coach was 13.

There was Jimmy, June, Jack, Gertrude (known as Punky) and Richie, who was lost at sea while on a submarine in World War II.

The McKay kids were frequent guests and, at times, almost permanent fixtures around the Smith dinner table in Elizabeth, Pa.

"He lived with our family for two years," Mondale says. "I remember him being a good athlete and very-well liked. But I lost track of what he did when he went back down to Shinston."

McKay graduated from high school in 1941 and was offered a football scholarship by Wake Forest. He returned home when his mother took ill and became a coal-mine electrician's assistant.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, McKay joined the Army Air Corps in 1942 and became a tail gunner, seeing action on B-29s in the Pacific.

Following the war, at 23, McKay played football at Purdue before transferring in 1947 to Oregon.

In the spring of 1951, McKay was combing his old stomping grounds in the football fertile Monongahela Valley for talent when he dropped in on the Smith's at dinner time.

Harry Mondale, a strapping young football lineman who had starred at Elizabeth High the year before, was over for dinner.

"I knew who (McKay) was because Kathy kept telling me about him," Harry Mondale recalls. "We were getting ready to eat when he popped in the door."

It turned into a pivotal night in young Mondale's life.

"After dinner we sat down talking and by the time we got through with the evening he knew all about me," the present Phoenix High wrestling coach says.

"He said 'How would you like to go to Oregon?' I said I had nothing better to do. The next day I was on the plane to Oregon."

After one season, Mondale detoured into the Army, where he was posted at Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Wash.

The Mondales got married in 1954 and were soon in Eugene, where McKay was still assisting Len Casanova.

While Harry went to school, Kathy became John and Corky McKay's baby-sitter, looking after their four children, Michelle, Terri, Richard and John Jr.

McKay's stock rose when the Ducks, captained by Harry Mondale, reached the Rose Bowl in 1958.

In 1959, McKay joined USC coach Don Clark's staff and two years later was elevated to head coach.

"I thought they were getting ready for him to transfer down to SC, because he was such a good coach," Kathy Mondale says. "SC was a big-time place and Corky was from there too."

Thereafter, when the Ducks played the Trojans, Kathy was torn.

"It was always hard, because I wanted to see Jack win," she says. "But I wanted Oregon to win too."

Although they continued to correspond through Christmas cards and occasional phone calls, the last time the Mondales saw McKay face-to-face was at Autzen Stadium in the mid-1970s.

"Once he got down to Tampa Bay, there was no chance of seeing him," Kathy Mondale says. "He'd usually go to Palm Springs after the season."

She often thought it would've been great to bring her cousin to Phoenix as a banquet speaker.

"He called and said 'Sis' - he always called me Sis. 'It's not a money thing, but I just don't have the time," she says.

In recent months, she tracked her cousin's declining health through McKay's younger sister, Punky, who lives in South Carolina.

"She's the only one still alive," Mondale says.

Although she never got McKay to make the trip to the Rogue Valley, she still treasures tapes from some of his banquet stops.

"Once in a while, if I want a good laugh," she says. "I put one of those tapes in. He always had some cute things to say."

Reach reporter at 776-4483, or e-mail