Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith
After 37 years and 13 coaching stops, Mac McWhorter, whose lineage dates back to Georgia’s first All-American, Robert Ligon McWhorter, thought it was time to retire following the 2011 season and take life easy.
At the time, McWhorter — who was the interim head coach at Georgia Tech in 2001 following the resignation of George O’Leary — was a member of the coaching staff at Texas, where success is not only standard, it is expected.
In Austin, you can win 10 games, but if you don’t beat Oklahoma and win a championship, it is not considered a good year.
The Longhorns had a couple of off years, but overall, the annual accomplishments were stuff that the doting alumni of many schools yearn for.
Ten wins and a bowl invitation are as commonplace at Texas as margaritas. Nonetheless, Mac believed the timing was propitious, convinced that he could play golf and putter about the house.
Turned out, he was wrong, which is why he warmed to the job offer from his friend Bill O’Brien to coach the offensive line at Penn State, which had undergone overnight humiliation with the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Joe Paterno’s untimely death and subsequent NCAA sanctions.
Why would Mac, who was born in Atlanta and played at the University of Georgia from 1971-74, go from retirement with a good life coming into view to the mess that had come about at Penn State?
It was simple — he wanted to help an old friend. And not to be overlooked in the assessment, he made plans to un-retire before Penn State was hit by intimidating NCAA sanctions.
Furthermore, Mac was moved by the challenge. However, he had also harbored something deep inside.
He recalled yesteryear’s Penn State.
He remembered Penn State’s glory days.
“Then my wife, Becky, and I visited here and were blown away,” he said. “This is the most beautiful setting you can imagine. Under coach Paterno, Penn State had an elite campus and tradition. They competed for championships, they graduated their players, and they did things right. As a coach, I knew how respected the Penn State program was by everybody in the profession.”
Mac doesn’t talk much about the controversy that befell Penn State as he joined O’Brien, who was ensconced as the offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots.
“The past,” Mac says, “we didn’t have anything to do with; it is over, and we can only look ahead and do our best.”
As he drove by the campus creamery, he noted, “Anytime you want the best ice cream, you can come here and get a cone or a bucket to take home with you,” a reminder of the days in Athens when the same kind of operation existed on south campus.
There is a likeness about college campuses that are located in small communities.
Collegiality is addictive, and you find a warmth of brotherhood permeating campuses throughout the country.
For a Georgia boy who had never coached anywhere north of Clemson, Mac knew this meant he would have to deal with a different climate.
He would have to adjust to the cold and snow.
“It is not too bad,” he said with a grin. “The roads are always managed to perfection. We have an indoor facility that has two full-length football fields, so we are never concerned about the elements. What we like most of all is the beauty and the setting. It is inspiring to work here.”
O’Brien, when he is not talking positively about Penn State and how he believes his program can emerge from adversity into a championship contender, echoes McWhorter’s Chamber of Commerce reflections.
From his office, O’Brien points to the refreshing view of Mt. Nittany in the background.
“If you come to work and see that view every day, you have to think positive and believe that this program will rebound,” he said. “We will be back.”
Football, like so many sports, has a gripping hold on its constituents.
First, you would rather play, but that option runs its course with conclusive alacrity in most cases.
You can coach deep into one’s golden years.
It’s like the birdie that brings the golfer back for another round. When McWhorter walked off the field, following Penn State’s 24-21 overtime upset of Big Ten champion Wisconsin last November, he was choked with emotion.
That euphoric high was the birdie that had brought him back for more.