Bills coach returns home

Jim McNally.

For the first time in the fabled 44-year history of the Buffalo Bills, a new assistant coach arriving to begin work at Ralph Wilson Stadium was accompanied by his own sizable fan club and cheering section.

It’s an amazing departure from the anonymity of a typical itinerant assistant coach, especially the coach and mentor of the offensive line, the most underappreciated and unheralded group of studs on any roster.

But this is no ordinary offensive line coach—far from it. This is a man starting his 25th year as an assistant coach in the National Football League, a man who is respected by his peers and his players, revered by sportswriters in every clime where he has worked, and described by USA Today as “perhaps the best offensive line coach in the game.”

No, there is little that is ordinary about Jim McNally ’66, EdM ’68, who grew up on Enola Avenue in Kenmore and who first heard the cheers of an adoring crowd when he was a lineman (playing both offense and defense) for Kenmore West High School. He has since traveled widely, but never forgotten his roots. During his years as a professional and college football coach, on each visit to family and friends in Buffalo, he always found time to make a brief but reverent pilgrimage to Crosby Field, home field of the Kenmore Blue Devils.

From Kenmore West in 1961, he went to what was then the University of Buffalo. There was no scholarship. McNally was what is often scorned as a “walk on,” a determined wanna-be. At 5' 9", the scouts claimed he was far too small to play guard in college football. That proved to be a grossly inaccurate assessment. He was a rock solid 210 pounds, and soon he was playing both offense and defense for the UB Bulls teams coached by Dick Offenhamer.

McNally graduated from UB with a BS in business administration and became a graduate assistant, helping to coach the freshman team. He subsequently received his master’s in education, having realized that, rather than the business office, his motivational and teaching skills were better suited to the classroom, the field house, the gym and the practice field.

Indeed, it was at UB that his career vision was shaped. He loved the game. At first, it was the competition, the physical battles, the butting of heads, the surge of energy and the crashing of bodies along the line of scrimmage. But then, after his years as a player were over, it was the realization that, unlike many of his teammates, he had become a student of the game, a person who could derive joy and satisfaction from studying the intricacies of play and teaching players how to be as good as they could be, or perhaps even better.

Now, after a long professional journey as a football coach, he has returned to Buffalo, news that created a considerable commotion among members of the “Mouse Pack.” You have probably heard about the legendary Hollywood Rat Pack, identified with such showbiz luminaries as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Founded four years ago, the Mouse Pack is the Buffalo version, a group of men glued together by their friendship with and admiration for Jim McNally, affectionately known as “Mouse.”

While McNally was still in junior high school, playing touch football on the neighborhood playgrounds of Kenmore, somebody compared his speedy and elusive footwork to that of a mouse. “Hey, watch out for the Mouse,” became the slogan. The name stuck. Now, at age 60, a time when some might be tempted to describe him as a grizzled veteran, McNally, a tough, colorful, resolute and proven professional, is still known as “Mouse” to friends and foes alike.

“Mouse has always had a passion for excellence,” recalls Don Gilbert, EdM ’69 & EdB ’65, who played quarterback for the UB teams while McNally was blocking up front. Gilbert is a charter member of the Mouse Pack and a UB Hall of Fame member; the two former teammates have been friends since their playing days. “His players want to be as good as they can be, and they soon learn to share his passion and respect his attitude and knowledge of the game.”

At UB, McNally played four years (1961–64), and won himself a place in the UB Athletic Hall of Fame in 1982 in recognition of both his Bulls playing career and also his coaching expertise. After working as a graduate assistant, he moved up as a varsity assistant coach, first under Offenhamer, then with Doc Urich and Bob Deming, leaving when the university suspended the football program. By that time he was developing a reputation as an energetic and perceptive offensive line coach. He coached at Marshall, Boston College and Wake Forest, before signing on with the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals. His tour with the Bengals lasted 15 years, enduring through the regimes of three head coaches, an extraordinary feat and an indication of his unique talent.

McNally’s arrival in Buffalo as part of the staff of Bills head coach Mike Mularkey follows four-year stints with the New York Giants and the Carolina Panthers. With coaching changes under way with the Giants, McNally decided it was an ideal time to come home. With the Bills, he is charged with improving the pass blocking of the offensive line, thus protecting quarterback Drew Bledsoe, as well as perfecting the complex schemes that will enable running backs Travis Henry and Willis McGahee to gain major yardage.

“Some days I can’t believe the way it all worked out,” observed McNally, as he walked through the Bills’ exercise facility in the administration building adjacent to the stadium during a June interview. He works out there daily, stretching, chinning, lifting weights and using the stair-climbing machine, rather than running, because it’s easier on his arthritic knees.

“I grew up as a Bills fan and here I am, a coach for the Bills. It’s unbelievable. When I walk through the field house and see those huge pictures, the pictures of men like Cookie Gilchrist, Billy Shaw, [Tom] Sestak, [Jack] Kemp and the others, I get very emotional.”

Emotion has been very much a part of the McNally persona since he was playing at Rotary Field, and he has found ways in which he can transmit his emotion and his quest for perfection to his players. In many ways, he patterned his approach after Bob Geiger, who was an offensive line coach at UB.

“All my Buffalo family and friends are expecting a lot and I’m telling them that it takes time to get five guys coordinated and working together,” McNally says. “This is a complicated business and the players must be taught how to react as a unit during the stress of a game.”

The linemen spend plenty of time in the classroom, where McNally easily adapts to the role of the professor before a class, studying videotapes, reviewing plays and emphasizing the methods that will build a winning group. Outside the classroom, on the practice field, McNally is nonstop action, always on the move, explaining, demonstrating and cajoling, but never yelling.

“I don’t want to embarrass anybody by hollering and criticizing them in front of their teammates,” he says. “It does more harm than good. We talk privately, and I explain mistakes and how to avoid them. You can say I’m very intense, and some people may even think I’m a little crazy, but that’s my approach to the job, and wherever I’ve been, it seems to get done.”

Written by Dick Hirsch