One of John McVay’s first assignments upon joining the San Francisco 49ers in 1979 was finding Bill Walsh, a quarterback. The search ended in the draft’s third round with a skinny Notre Dame passer named Joe Montana. “We couldn’t understand why he was still there in the third round,” McVay said. “At the time, he just wasn’t a great big physical specimen, but he sure was a good player. So we took him.” Over the next two decades, McVay led a 49ers front office that also drafted Ronnie Lott, Jerry Rice, and Charles Haley and acquired players like Fred Dean and Steve Young. All of them are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and some won four Super Bowl rings with San Francisco. McVay is one of the few from that era with five rings, underscoring how essential he was to the most dominant team of the 1980s and 90s. “His true forte — besides being totally selfless – was that he was an absolutely brilliant talent evaluator,” longtime 49ers owner Eddie Debartolo Jr. said. “We wouldn’t have had the success we had if Bill didn’t have John and they didn’t work so well together.” Dignified, funny and quick to credit others, McVay played center at Miami (Ohio) University where he wore – appropriately, as it would turn out – NO. 49. His father passed away when he was six, and as a young man, McVay was drawn to the stability and authority of the football coaches in his life, including his high school coach, Chuck Mather, and two famous ones at Miami, Woody Hayes and Ara Parseghian. So he decided he wanted to coach as well. He went on to become the head coach at the University of Dayton and later the school’s Athletic Director. He served as the New York Giants head coach for two and a half seasons (1976-78) before Debartolo invited him to the Bay Area to join his front office. “I was on the next plane,” McVay said.
Narrative by Matt Barrows