Wes Welker knows who Tommy McVay was: A stubborn voice who opened a door for him to become a beloved Texas Tech legend and a five-time Pro Bowler in the NFL.
New Baylor coach Dave Aranda, fresh off a national title as LSU’s defensive coordinator, knew McVay as a mentor, the man he’d talk to every day in 2000, when Aranda got his first FBS coaching gig.
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley knew McVay as someone who treated head coaches, players or, in Riley’s case, the “bottom-of-the-barrel student assistant” with the same amount of energy, interest and availability.
But nobody east of Abilene, Texas, will blame you if you didn’t know Tommy McVay, Texas Tech’s director of football operations, who died on Thursday at 76 from injuries suffered in a fall at his home. He became legendary in West Texas, an appliance salesman who later found Welker and became the gold standard for the type of administrative folks behind the scenes who become the heart of college football programs.
He cared for our players. He encouraged and always supported our coaches. Most of all, he loved being a Texas Tech Red Raider.
We love you and we will miss you, Coach McVay. pic.twitter.com/mrDzlz06eu
— Texas Tech Football (@TexasTechFB) August 14, 2020
Following McVay’s death, Riley, Les Miles, Sonny Dykes and Kevin Sumlin, as well as dozens of coaches at all levels, spoke of their reverence for him. Current Texas Tech coach Matt Wells called him “Mr. Red Raider.”
“He is so interconnected in so many ways with Texas Tech football, probably as much as anybody that I’ve ever known,” said Riley, a West Texas native who first played and later coached at Texas Tech while McVay was on the staff.
For the past 23 years, when a Texas Tech head football coach walked into the football offices, McVay was there with a greeting: “How’s my coach?”
Five different coaches got that question. First, Spike Dykes, who hired McVay in 1997, followed by Mike Leach, Tommy Tuberville, Kliff Kingsbury and Wells.
That kind of staying power is rare in college football, where coaches require loyal assistants who operate to their specifications. But McVay, apparently, was a good interview.
“He was the first guy that I met as soon as I walked into this football facility. I hired him within the first five minutes of meeting him,” Wells said.
Spike Dykes took a little longer to land him.
A 53-year-old McVay arrived in town in 1988 to run Midwest TV and Appliance with his brother.
“I didn’t know anything about Lubbock,” McVay told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in 2017. “Other than the fact they didn’t have any TV and appliance people.”
Nobody in Lubbock knew McVay’s background either. It wasn’t common knowledge that he was the son of a high school coach who had won five state championships in Beaver, Oklahoma, or that he himself had gone 100-36-2 as a high school coach in Derby, Kansas. He coached as an assistant when Kansas State was such a tough job, it would make any coach consider a career selling Panasonics.
“Tommy sold me my first TV I ever bought in my life,” SMU coach Sonny Dykes said. “If you needed a refrigerator or washer and dryer, he was the guy.”
Then McVay, who became fast friends with the Dykes family, started to catch the football bug again.
“Starting my junior year, he was at every practice and I couldn’t figure it out,” said Tracy Saul, who was an All-American safety and kick returner for the Red Raiders from 1989 to 1992. “The local TV/appliance guy, what’s he doing here? I mean, he was out there every day.”
McVay sold the business in 1996. The next year, Spike Dykes brought him on board as his recruiting coordinator.
Over the next 23 years McVay served in a variety of roles, but always was a motivator, a steadying influence and a mentor. As outsiders or scouts became interested in Texas Tech’s unconventional style in the Leach era, McVay was their contact. As insiders tried to navigate that same unconventional style, McVay provided a respite as well.
“This is kind of like a weird thing to remember but I remember his desk being so clean,” said Aranda, who met McVay while he was visiting from Cal Lutheran before he was invited to stay as a graduate assistant under Leach.
“We had some unique people like Sonny Dykes, Dana Holgorsen and obviously Coach Leach, and their desks weren’t clean. But you go to Tommy’s desk, it was just like, ‘How’s it so clean?’ I would visit with Tommy every day and check in with him. The personalities on that staff were such that there were ups and downs, and Tommy was the guy that was always Steady Eddie. Always had perspective.”
His star turn, however, came from a stubborn streak. In 2000, his former Derby defensive coordinator, Rod Warner, was the head coach at Heritage Hall High School in Oklahoma City. He contacted McVay, insisting he had an unrecruited player the Red Raiders needed.
McVay, in turn, pressed the case for the 5-foot-9 Welker, who was considered to be too small and too slow to play college football. Welker kicked 35 field goals, including a 58-yard make, in high school, McVay pointed out. Maybe he could kick, if nothing else.
Nobody would bite. Finally, a scholarship opened up — after another Tech recruit backed out on signing day. Later that week, Welker finally visited and the diminutive receiver got the final scholarship.
“[McVay] was the one,” said Sonny Dykes, who was the outside receivers coach at the time. “We all fought him. I don’t care what anybody else says. None of us wanted [Welker] except for Tommy. He kept coming back: ‘Just watch this guy, he’s really good. Keep watching him.’ Luckily, Tommy got his way.”
“True story,” Riley said. “I know that Wes Welker wasn’t going to Texas Tech without Tommy McVay, without a doubt.”
Welker left as the school’s all-time leading receiver and set an NCAA record with eight punt-return touchdowns.
“Throughout my life, there have been few people who took a chance on me, and Tommy was the first,” Welker, now the San Francisco 49ers receivers coach, said in a statement Thursday. “I am forever grateful and lucky to have had Tommy come into my life.”
Kingsbury, who signed when McVay was recruiting coordinator, also became one of Tech’s favorite sons and later returned as head coach with McVay as a trusted confidant.
Arizona Cardinals Coach Kliff Kingsbury talks about Mr. Red Raider Tommy McVay.❤️ pic.twitter.com/Sx2bUxZCNi
— Pete Christy (@pchristy11) August 14, 2020
“He was the biggest fan of all of us,” Kingsbury said in a video tribute by the Arizona Cardinals. “He would show up, and you felt bigger than you were. [He was] the most selfless human I’ve ever met. I can’t imagine a person more important to Texas Tech football over those years than Tommy McVay.”
Wells, who hadn’t coached in Texas before being hired at Tech last year, sat in McVay’s office nearly every day, because McVay knew who and what a coach needed to know to win in Lubbock.
“Whoever the coach was, he was loyal to them,” Sonny Dykes said. “He was real loyal to Spike and then he was loyal to Mike all those years. But he loved Texas Tech and he was [going to] be loyal to the university first and the head coach second.”
When word spread of McVay’s death, Wells marveled at the condolences flooding his phone, including several calls from current head coaches.
“He knew everybody from Dallas to El Paso, I can tell you that,” Wells said. “I got texts from two NFL general managers that said this was one of the best stops ever, because of Tommy McVay and the way he treated them.”
“The guy, he was something,” Riley said. “He was just so interconnected to every level of football.”
While McVay’s slicked-back silver hair and sunglasses were easy to spot on the sideline, Sonny Dykes said McVay’s myriad contributions — like driving 45 minutes to Sundown, Texas (pop. 1,414) to speak to Tech fans at the Optimist Club — are an important part of the profession we don’t see.
“Sometimes head coaches come and go, but guys that are behind the scenes often stay there a long time and put their mark on the program that is significant and lasts a really long time,” Dykes said, noting his appreciation for McVay’s ability to be a touchstone inside a program he cared about. “There’s guys like Tommy everywhere. But Tommy was pretty awesome.”
Walking into Jones Stadium without the fist bump and the jolt of energy won’t be the same.
“It’s a void. It’s real,” Wells said Saturday. “I don’t think you’ll ever replace Tommy McVay — what he did for Texas Tech football and who he was.”