The surprise for Tim McVay isn’t that his son has become a successful NFL head coach. It’s the timing that has astonished him.
“I’m not naïve about how difficult and challenging it is to be in a top leadership position,” McVay told Newsday from his home in Atlanta, where 33-year-old Sean McVay soon will lead the Rams against the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII. “I realize it’s unusual to have an NFL head coach at such a young age, but he’s been exposed to it all of these years being in the business and being around it.”
Tim McVay, who played safety at Indiana before going on to a highly successful career at Cox Media Group Television in Atlanta, easily could envision his son becoming a coach as he watched Sean grow up playing football. But he never could have known that opportunity would come so quickly.
When Sean was named the Rams' coach in January 2017, he was 30 years old — the youngest head coach in the nearly 100-year history of the NFL.
It was a meteoric rise for McVay, but only the timing was a shock inside the family.
“Sean was one of those guys who was soaking up everything all the time,” Tim said.
At Marist School in Brookhaven, Georgia, the younger McVay flourished at quarterback and defensive back and became the first player in school history to produce more than 1,000 rushing and passing yards in consecutive seasons. It also was where Tim could see how much thinking went into his son’s preparation and performance.
“Marist is a great academic and athletic school, and they ran a true read-option [offense],” he said. “I think being the quarterback and being involved in that program [helped] where the mental approach would give you a big strategic advantage. He was very attentive to that as a quarterback. As you got deeper into the playoffs, you were going to play some very athletic teams. So Sean was always looking for some strategic advantage.”
McVay led the War Eagles to a 26-3 record, including a state championship his senior year, and was named the Georgia 4A Offensive Player of the Year.
“When you run the read-option as a quarterback,” Tim said, “you end up being a coach on the field.”
The coaching bug bit early, perhaps even before Sean first put on a uniform. After all, football has long been a part of the McVay family, going back to Tim’s father, John, a former college center who went on to coach in college, the World Football League and finally with the Giants.
He took over as head coach after Bill Arnsparger was fired midway through the 1978 season, but McVay presided over one of the worst moments in franchise history. The Giants were beaten by the Eagles on a late fumble recovery for a touchdown by defensive back Herman Edwards, a game commonly referred to as “The Fumble.”
McVay wasn’t brought back in 1979, but he later was asked to become Bill Walsh’s personnel chief with the 49ers. The two helped construct teams that would win three Super Bowl titles by the time Walsh retired after the 1988 season.
Sean spent time around the team, especially when San Francisco made its annual visit to Atlanta to play the Falcons, an NFC West team at the time.
“I can remember Sean being maybe 6 years old and standing on the sidelines at practice,” John McVay told Newsday. “There was one time the offensive linemen were throwing passes to each other, and Sean was standing with his back to the field and one of the linemen came lumbering over and I thought, ‘He’s gonna hit Sean.’ At the last second, he hurdled over him. I said, ‘Sean, this guy just saved your life.’ ”
Sean enjoyed talking to the players and often would speak with former 49ers guard Jesse Sapolu. “I’m sure he was picking Jesse’s brain,” John said. “He always liked being around the team.”
Sean attended Miami University in Ohio — the same school for which his grandfather played center in the early 1950s — and played wide receiver from 2004-07. He caught 39 passes for 312 yards and earned Miami’s Scholar-Athlete award as a senior.
McVay’s first opportunity as a coach came quickly; he was Jon Gruden’s assistant wide receivers coach in Tampa Bay in 2008, although that might have been a glorified title.
“He was just a grunt,” Tim said. “He was Gruden’s right-hand man.”
Even so, it was an invaluable experience being around Gruden, who had crossed paths with John McVay during his time with the 49ers in 1990 as an offensive assistant under George Seifert and offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren.
“Being right there in the organization, with such close access to Jon, and understanding the level of detail and the commitment, that did a great job of accelerating Sean’s growth and development. It accelerated his career exponentially,” Tim said.
After one season with Tampa Bay, McVay was hired in 2010 as assistant tight ends coach by another former 49ers assistant, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, who had won two Super Bowls with the Broncos. McVay was the Redskins' tight ends coach from 2011-13 and was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2014 by Jay Gruden, Jon’s younger brother. The Redskins showed marked improvement on McVay’s watch as Kirk Cousins emerged as the starting quarterback.
After the 2016 season, the Rams were looking for a head coach to replace the fired Jeff Fisher. Though McVay was on the list of candidates, it wasn’t until he interviewed that he was taken seriously.
“We walked into the interview saying, ‘How on Earth can we hire a 30-year-old?’ ” Rams president Kevin Demoff told the Los Angeles Times. “We walked out saying, ‘How on Earth can you not hire Sean McVay?’ ”
The gamble has paid off quickly.
McVay has led the Rams to back-to-back NFC West titles and has the team within a victory of the second Super Bowl title in franchise history. He also has changed the way many other NFL teams think, as they have shown a willingness to make similar gambles on younger coaches.
Two who have worked with McVay — Matt LaFleur and Kyle Shanahan — are current head coaches. And Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor is expected to become the Bengals’ head coach after the Super Bowl.
It all has happened faster than anyone could have imagined.
That it has actually happened, though, is no shock to those who know McVay best.
“Bottom line, he’s a young guy, but he has great confidence,” Tim McVay said of his son. “The real proof in the pudding is what the coaches and players say about you. Those guys know better than anybody. You can’t fool those guys.”
Sean McVay, 33, would become the youngest coach to win the Super Bowl if his Rams beat the Patriots next Sunday. The current list of the youngest to do it:
36 Mike Tomlin, Steelers XLIII
39 Jon Gruden, Buccaneers XXXVII
40 John Madden, Raiders XL
42 Joe Gibbs, Redskins XVII
43 Chuck Noll, Steelers IX
Don Shula, Dolphins VII