Unfit for military service.
For many young men in 1969, that was the golden ticket, the ultimate get-out-of-jail free card. It meant you didn’t have to go into the military. You got a pass from Vietnam and the risk of getting maimed or killed in an increasingly unpopular war that there was a good chance you did not believe in yourself.
That, however, wasn’t the way Greg McMackin felt about it. He’d gone to the Army recruiting office on his own. He wanted to serve, like his father, Frank, who had earned a Silver Star and Purple Heart fighting his way across the Pacific in World War II.
At a recent University of Hawaii football practice, McMackin, UH’s fourth-year head coach, shows me a criss-cross of scars on his right knee. The remnants of football surgeries from more than 40 years ago.
“Bunch of injuries,” he says. “But what they actually got me for was flat feet and asthma. 4F. I was a beat-up guy by (age) 22. I wanted to do what had to be done. We were in trouble. I think that’s what Americans do, defend their country. But they wouldn’t let me in.”
And that’s part of the story of how Greg McMackin became a career football coach.
In many ways, football is a simulation of war. But McMackin understands that’s where it ends. Although football players do put their bodies at risk of physical harm on every play, that’s still what it is … play.
“When I talk to our guys, I never talk about (football) as ‘going to war.’ Those guys are the real warriors,” he says of the military groups he is often asked to address. “They play with real bullets.
“I’m humbled to speak to them,” McMackin says. “I’m humbled that they would even ask me.”
McMackin considers humility as part of his game plan as a person and a coach. That came into play after his first season as head coach, 2008, when he realized that as head coach he couldn’t do as much as he wanted.
Like other commanders — whether they be in the military, business, sports or other endeavors — McMackin learned the value of a very important word.
“I think the first year I wanted to get my program in and things I believed in. I think I took on too many things,” McMackin says. “I’d been a head coach, but only at small college and high school. There are too many outside things to deal with at a Division I program. With a bowl game that year, even more.”
A hectic recruiting and speaking schedule is one thing. But McMackin also took a big step in transitioning defensive play-calling from himself to Dave Aranda late in the 2009 season and then officially before the start of last season. He also changed offensive coordinators, from Ron Lee — a coach around his age whom he had described as his “offensive coordinator for life” — to Nick Rolovich, a former UH star quarterback.
Both in their early 30s, Aranda and Rolovich represented the second-youngest pair of coordinators in Division I football last year.
McMackin says it is by design that the young coordinators have much more experienced coaches available to assist them with advice when needed. Aranda has McMackin and Rolovich has receivers coach Mouse Davis.
“Here we have half younger coaches and half experienced coaches. It fits so good,” McMackin said. “We’ve got three former head coaches, Mouse, Dick (Tomey) and Cal (Lee). Rolo’s done a great job in being offensive coordinator. No one interferes with him. But he’s got Mouse, the innovator of the run-and-shoot to talk to anytime he wants.”
It’s sort of like the youthful lieutenant with the grizzled sergeant available for wisdom. Aranda says it isn’t awkward that one of his sergeants also happens to be the commanding general.
“It’s been good,” Aranda says. “I have a lot of respect for Coach Mack. I know from when I was his grad assistant at Texas Tech how much defense flows in his blood. He did it at such a high level so long, to give it up has to be very hard. With that being said, it’s a great relationship. … I’m in a very fortunate position to be able to pick Coach Mack’s, (special teams and defensive backs) Coach Tomey’s and (defensive ends coach) Cal Lee’s brains. And you’ve got the experience of (defensive backs coach) Rich Miano, and Tony (Tuioti), who is one of the top up and coming D-line coaches in the country.”
Rolovich and Davis both say they enjoy a healthy working relationship even though Davis is old enough to be Rolovich’s grandfather.
“I don’t know if I would’ve been as comfortable last year without him around,” Rolovich says. “He’s very supportive. But if he doesn’t agree he’ll say, ‘Here’s what I think.’ It’s a great experience for me to have him around.”
Davis is in his 70s, and continues to coach because he enjoys it. “I’m not trying to build a resume or take anybody’s job,” he likes to say.
“I want to be these guys when I’m their age,” says Aranda. “They are open to new learning and new things. Obviously they’ve been successful in strategies, concepts and beliefs. But they know it’s not a yellow brick road, that there’s only one way to do it. Their attitude is if there’s a better way to do it let’s do it. That’s why they’ve been successful later in their careers. I’ve got friends my age that are not as open as these guys are. When you’re around (UH’s veteran coaches), that’s the first thing that comes out. They’re always looking for better ways.”
Perhaps McMackin gets his flexibility and open-mindedness from Frank McMackin, the tough old infantryman and boxer who was open to what some would consider a sacrilegious change, late in life.
“I coached at the Naval Academy,” Greg McMackin says. “And somehow I got my dad, an Army man, to become a Navy fan.”