Bulldog: Mac McWhorter Comes Out of Retirement to Help Resurrect Penn State Football
The bulldog returned home to Georgia after serving more than 30 years. It is not wrong to think coaching is a metaphor for military life. Men and their families are uprooted from communities they try to carve a footing in, and in this one's case he had done it 13 times, bouncing between high schools and colleges in Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Texas, Tennessee and North Carolina. He came home following a disappointing 5-7 season in Austin in 2010 and built a house in Athens near his oldest daughter, her husband, a former Bulldog himself, and his two grandchildren. He grew a goatee and sent pictures of his new Harley Davidson motorcycle to friends and former coaching colleagues from his cell phone.
The first bout with retirement came just north of 60 for Mac McWhorter, who contemporaries call the best offensive line coach in America. To sum up southern football in a state such as Texas consider this. The Longhorns were a year removed from playing for the national championship in which star quarterback Colt McCoy got knocked out in the first half with a shoulder injury. Texas lost, the coaching staff, one assistant said, suffered a season-long hangover the following year, finished with a losing record, then went through an offseason that saw six of Mack Brown’s assistants depart. McWhorter left Texas under his own terms. He, his friends, and other members of that Longhorn staff are adamant about this.
“I know he almost retired the year before,” said Rip Scherer, the assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach at Colorado who coached with McWhorter at Memphis, Alabama and Georgia Tech. “There’s no doubt Mac left on his own volition.”
Only two things could’ve kept McWhorter from leaving that Athens home with his wife Rebecca: a charismatic coach and a football program that exudes the beauty of Saturday football in the fall. McWhorter came out of retirement and signed a two-year contract at Penn State in January, shortly after Bill O’Brien — who coached with McWhorter at Georgia Tech — was named Joe Paterno’s successor. He has said Penn State will be his last coaching stop; whether it ends after the 2013 season has yet to be determined.
It is unusual for an assistant coach that isn’t in a coordinating position to work under a contract longer than one year. Penn State does not release contract information for most university employees because of competitive reasons. But institutions do grant freedom for the head coach to hand-pick his staff. One-year contracts allow the head coach to exercise this freedom without burdening the university with paying two coaches for one position.
“We’ll all just look at everything as we go,” McWhorter said. “It’s just a little security thing.”
It also hints to McWhorter’s reputation. O’Brien has not hid the fact alumni and observers of the Penn State program have griped about offensive line play in the twilight of Paterno’s career. A dominant unit before and immediately after Penn State announced it would join the Big Ten in 1990 sputtered for the last decade against the conference elite, occasionally showing life when littered with veterans. There is also the importance of the quarterback in O’Brien’s offense, who is tasked with conducting each play in any situation that arises in a game. This can’t be overlooked, and it will surely be watched in Saturday's season opener against Ohio at Beaver Stadium. It is the king on the football chessboard, and the offensive line must protect this piece or else the whole game becomes a calamity.
“When Billy got the job, I’m sure Mac was the first guy he called,” said Scherer, a graduate assistant at Penn State from 1974-75.
Rip Scherer spent a weekend last May at McWhorter’s new home near Toftrees around his son Ryan’s graduation. They spent two nights on the back porch, tilting back more than a few beers like they do every time they get together.
“Mac doesn’t shop by the top shelf,” he said.
The two sat alone in the dark those two nights, pondering it all, the state of the program, the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, the Paterno name — Jay Paterno was the quarterbacks coach under Scherer at James Madison in 1994. They did not know what would come two months later, when the NCAA would blister Penn State with a four-year postseason ban, a reduction of 40 scholarships for four years, a $60 million fine and the freedom for any of its players to transfer to any school in the country and immediately be allowed to play, provided they meet standard eligibility requirements.
McWhorter’s wife, Rebecca, or ‘Momma Hog,’ as the Penn State players call her, posted on Facebook a picture of a popular T-shirt making the rounds with the words, “We Are . . . Pissed Off” written across the chest. No one would blame McWhorter for having second thoughts on coming out of retirement. None of the nine assistant coaches or O’Brien signed up to operate under such circumstances. At the end of the season, a full-on assault of Penn State’s roster resumes for nine months. The staff will have to re-recruit the current roster along with the Class of 2013 and continue to identify 2014 and 2015 recruits — all while keeping the roster at no more than 65 scholarship players starting in 2014. There will be no bowl trips or national championship dreams in the immediate future. For this, he gave up a year of attending every Georgia home game between the hedges with his former teammates on their 40-year reunion.
“He didn’t go in saying, ‘I’m gonna do this for X number of years,” Scherer said. “Now, there’s more of a sense, we talked extensively over weeks since the sanctions, this ratcheted him up even more to be there longer to see this through.”
Said McWhorter: “I don’t care if you end up 1-9, playing for pride never becomes stale.”
The heat of Athens is brutal in July, with temperatures routinely hitting three-digits. Myriad sprints and conditioning drills usually go unnoticed, but this is the reason an offensive guard named Mac McWhorter, son of a sporting goods salesman from Atlanta, who never weighed more than 240 pounds, can become All-Southeastern Conference going up against linemen 30-40 pounds heavier than him.
“I can remember bitching and complaining, but every minute we put our hand down,” said Robert Honeycutt, teammate of Mac and fullback and captain of the Georgia Bulldogs in 1972.
The strength and conditioning coach at the time was John Kasay, a Johnstown native, and Kasay, McWhorter’s first child, got her name from the man. If one man were afforded the microphone at this fall’s 40-year reunion for the 1972 team, it would be Kasay, Honeycutt said. Each summer Kasay would beat the hell out of his team, but there is an unspoken bond between these men when the coaching staff is away from it all.
Pure, unadulterated love is what Honeycutt called it. His description of Kasay is not unlike how players describe Penn State’s strength coach Craig Fitzgerald: tough-minded, aggressive, loud and profane. McWhorter and his teammates enjoyed golf, car races, trips to the beach and to the Kappa Sig house Saturday nights for the live band. It is a brotherhood, and McWhorter understands this better than most.
“He’s got an uncanny knack, he’s uncompromising in terms of his expectations of his players,” Scherer said. “He works their butt off and they respond in such a positive manner to him. That’s a big part of an offensive line coach’s challenge. You have to grind those guys. You’re down getting dirty all the time.
“Mac’s personality, that’s why he’s a great recruiter. He’ll be one of the best, if not the best, recruiters at Penn State because he has a tremendous feel for people. He’ll work their ass off and turn around and give them a little sugar.”
McWhorter will likely be the lead actor in keeping Penn State relevant for the next four years while the program waits for the flood waters of the sanctions to dry up. At Texas, wide receivers coach and assistant recruiting coordinator Bobby Kennedy said he would arrive at the office early morning and McWhorter would already have 15 hand-written letters ready to mail out to recruits. He’ll play a key role in bolstering the walk-on program, a main component of Penn State’s plan to navigate the scholarship reductions. During the last recruiting period, McWhorter estimates the staff got into 70-to-75 percent of Pennsylvania high schools. Junior College transfers will not be as prevalent because of the high academic standards at Penn State. He called it “an option, but not a priority.”
“Mac knows what a football player looks like, and that football player might not be a five-star recruit,” Honeycutt said. “It might be a guy far less regarded on these recruiting sites, which basically mean nothing.”
McWhorter actually started his college career coaching wide receivers for one year at Georgia Tech in 1980.
“He used to get frustrated with me,” said Scherer, the quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator for the Yellow Jackets at the time. “Back then I was trying to be an expert on everything. Mac would look at me, a skinny quarterbacks coach, and say, ‘How the hell do you have an opinion on this? You never blocked a soul in your life.” The next year, he coached the offensive line and has done so ever since save for a one-year stint as head coach at West Georgia.
McWhorter's only ties to the north came on the recruiting trail. Once, he was sent to a high school in Pittsburgh, walked into the main office and asked the secretary to summon the head football coach. She left and returned with the other secretaries and asked to repeat himself so the others could hear his thick, southern drawl. When asked if he ever imagined his old friend coaching in Big Ten country, Honeycutt deadpanned, “No.”
He was home, at his alma mater, surrounded by family, both immediate and his dear Bulldogs. Bill O’Brien needed Mac McWhorter to rebuild a football mammoth. The challenges are unlike any he’s ever faced in his long career, but there is not a minute to waste. Scherer knows it’s best to call his friend between 5:30-5:45 a.m., right when he first arrives at the Lasch Football Building.
He must engineer a massive recruiting undertaking amidst storm clouds hovering over the program. He must mold the offensive line back amongst the conference elite, and he must consider how long he wants to continue doing all of this.
“He went to Georgia,” Scherer said. “That mascot very well suits him.”