The interview was done, the recorder was turned off, and a walk followed with Scott McKee to the parking lot at Sahuaro High School.
“I don’t ever want it to be just about me,” McKee told me about this story.
It has never been just about McKee, and that is what makes the 10-year coach at Sahuaro one of the city’s best coaching kids and working with his assistants.
“Our coaches are doing a great job of giving them great instruction,” McKee said. “I just have to make sure we’re all on the same page and that we’re moving forward. I have good guys who are working with those kids.”
Deflecting attention. Humble. Spoken like a true Dick Tomey disciple. Spoken like a grateful walk-on who played primarily special teams throughout his college career, finally earning a full ride his senior season in 2002 to cap off a five-year career at Arizona.
No, it has never been just about McKee because it was never only about Tomey. It was also never just about his dad Larry McGee, a long-time football coach and administrator at Cholla, Pueblo, Sabino, Tucson High and Sahuarita. The elder McGee also played football at Arizona as a guard from 1969 to 1971 and was drafted by the Cleveland Browns but unfortunately did not make the team.
Larry McGee pressed forward, returning to Arizona to complete his degree requirements right after the Browns’ training camp.
The younger McKee, upon getting his first head coaching job at only 25 at Pueblo in 2004, said his father taught him about accountability, work ethic, discipline and the importance of making the most out of the academic experience, not just football.
He says he learned the same life lessons from Tomey and assistants such as Duane Akina, Charlie Camp, Larry Mac Duff, Charlie Dickey, Rich Ellerson and Marc Lunsford. He probably wanted to name the entire staff throughout his time at Arizona.
“The staff Coach Tomey put together was phenomenal,” McKee said. “They were always really good with people and they were always willing to do more than what other coaches did. They were willing to sit down and help with grades, girl problems, with anything that you ever had. They were like second fathers to us.
“The thing you think most about Coach Tomey is that you try to make sure the kids have the best experience that they can have and that they are all on this team for the same purpose.”
McKee, still only 39, says about his coaching style compared to how Tomey related to his coaches and players, “I don’t do that well enough. I’m just learning. I’m young. I try to take things from him. I thought he was a special man.”
McKee is not giving himself enough credit.
Walking the Sahuaro sideline, covering the Cougars’ recent game against Buena, was a refreshing experience in terms observing how McKee and his coaches relate to their players. When a player threw an interception, fumbled, missed a tackle, dropped a pass, etc., not once did I hear, “What the (expletive) are you doing? … Get your head out of your …”
The coaches were upfront with the player, don’t misunderstand, but in a positive light. It was always about the next play, about getting it right the next time instead of degrading a kid for the same mistakes players in the NFL make.
The professional demeanor extended to how the team treated referees. After a group of players voiced their displeasure about a call, one of McKee’s assistants yelled to the players, “Did you all ever go through officiating school like these guys? Cut it out!”
Sahuaro is 2-1 after defeating McKee’s alma mater Sabino 34-7 last week in the eastside rivalry game. The Cougars head to Tempe today to play Marcos de Niza (0-2). The three-hour roundtrip bus ride does not bother McKee, who said his players actually thrive on challenges on the road.
That kind of underdog mentality suits them well. They get it from their coach. He gets it from Tomey.
“Every day you were with Coach Tomey you learned something about the game,” said McKee, who is 53-46 at Sahuaro. “You learn simple things like the kicking game, all the drills, but better yet, you learn how to take care of people.”
McKee is part of an impressive list of former Tomey players at Arizona who are coaching that includes Brandon Sanders at Pueblo, Marcus Bell at Eager Round Valley, Robert Bonillas at Desert View and John Brandom at Riverside (Calif.) Hillcrest. Former lineman Edwin Mulitalo is also the head coach at Southern Virginia University.
“You’re always proud to be a Wildcat and you’re always proud to be from that group because that group was really, really good,” McKee said. “Those guys that played there are just great players. I was just fortunate to be able to be a part of it and help with whatever role they needed me to do. I wasn’t what those guys were. Those guys were tremendous. I was just an average kid who wanted to run down on kickoffs.
“I played linebacker and I covered kicks and I was fortunate they allowed me to do that. I ended up being a four-year letter winner which is a rare thing for a walk-on. I was able to get a scholarship out of the deal which I was very thankful for with the coaches. It was really a cool place.”
Also, David Watson Sr. is an assistant at Amphi and John Fina has worked with Salpointe’s offensive line. Both are part of those programs because of their sons being on the teams.
“It’s good to see a lot of his former guys are still out coaching,” McKee added. “Coach Tomey gave me a tremendous amount of love for the game. I’m very thankful he would put as much time and effort into just a regular walk-on kid from Tucson like me as he did somebody else.”
When McKee talks about his players, he tries to include as many as possible. He went from commenting on the APS Digital Player of the Week recipient Cameron Williams (a two-way standout at running back and linebacker) to talking about at least eight other players — wide receivers and cornerbacks Amir Hunter-Huggins and Ahmad Hunter (who are brothers), wide receiver/kickoff returner Trayvion White-Austin, wide receiver/safety Avery Ndisabiye, wide receiver/safety Damion Wright, linebackers Jakob Goerke and Tyler Paquette and defensive end Christopher Williams (Cameron’s brother).
Of Cameron Williams, McKee says, “I think he’s a college football player. We just have to figure out what level. As good as he was as a running back last week (205 yards rushing with two touchdowns against Sabino) people don’t understand how good he is defensively. He’s the one that makes that happen. For being as big as he is (6-foot and 215 pounds) and playing in space that he does, you don’t get those guys very often. We’re fortunate to have him.”
Sahuaro is fortunate to have McKee. He obviously won’t insinuate that. But it is true.
Players like playing for McKee. Parents like him. Sahuaro’s administration, led by athletic director Steve Botkin, respect him. And he is winning this year and overall at Sahuaro.
“I feel like we’re making progress,” he said. “For us, it’s always been based on fundamentals and the small details. If we handle those things, we’re a good football team. If not, we’re just an average group and that’s my responsibility. So when we’re missing those then I’m not getting my part of it done.
“I’m fortunate that Sahuaro allows me to coach each week. I like the interaction we have with the high school kids. I like that I can still have family time.”
It is never just about him. It has never been about trying to leave high school coaching behind for the bigger bucks in college as well.
“Those college guys are on the road all the time. One day you’re living in Montana. Another day you’re living in Florida. I wake up in the same bed every night with the same family and I think that’s a special thing. So right now, I am really happy to be allowed to coach here with my friends and these young men.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.