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by Matt Kupec

August 18, 2019

The sport’s world recently lost one of its great football legends with the news that Mike McGee – a decorated Duke football player, college football head coach and successful athletic administrator – died on Friday at his home in Montrose, Colorado.  Coach McGee was 80 years old.

I didn’t know Coach McGee very well but his life impacted me in a number of significant ways.  And I know that he had significant impact on thousands of young people throughout the years.  The man was a leader who lived a rich life in terms of his role in transforming so many lives.

As a quick refresher, here is a summary of Coach McGee’s very impressive career:

  • Coach McGee won the Outland Trophy as the college football’s top lineman in 1959.
  • He was named first-team All-American and ACC Player of the Year.
  • Coach McGee went on to play in the NFL for three seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, starting 36 games for the Cardinals.
  • He was elected into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1990.
  • Head football coach at ECU (1970) and the Duke (1971-1978).
  • He later became director of athletics at the University of Cincinnati, University of Southern California and University of South Carolina.

But how did a former Duke player and coach who went on to become athletic director at two USC’s have an impact on my life?

Here’s how:

  • “The difference between chump and champ is U”!!

I was heavily recruited by Duke and Coach McGee out of high school.  As the New York Player of the Year and quarterback of the #1 ranked Syosset High School team, I was a prime target of Duke. But what influenced Coach McGee the most was that my older brother Chris was finishing up an All-ACC QB year at UNC and was breaking NCAA records.  Coach McGee was probably hoping the football genes were good.

I took my official recruiting trip to the Duke campus.  The final meeting of all these trips is always with the Head Coach.  This was going to be the final push to get me to sign with the Blue Devils.

So, I travel to the football office and get walked into Coach McGee’s office.  He begins his pitch.  It was impressive.  I will always remember that as Coach McGee was building to a great close, he stared at me, straight in the eyes, and with a raised voice, asked if I knew “the difference between champ and chump?” Without hesitating and giving me a chance to answer, he raised his hand and pointed his finger at me and answered his own question with a barking “YOU!”

Backing in my seat to avoid his finger, it took a few seconds but I got his message – chump and champ, the difference is u!!!

As corny as that story is, I have never forgotten it and have retold it, and the message, countless times.  Still, makes my chuckle today!

  • Making a Transition in Your Career.

In hindsight, I probably contributed to getting Coach McGee fired at Duke and ending his coaching career.

Duke was always tough in those years but they would finish the season with a 5-6 record.  And UNC beat them with me as the QB all three years we faced the Blue Devils with Coach McGee at the helm.

Two of the wins were dramatic come from behind Tar Heel wins – gut wrenching for the Duke faithful -when I engineered last minute scoring drives to topple the Blue Devils.

My junior year we overcome a 15-3 deficit with just four minutes left and Amos Lawrence scored on the last play of the game!   That for sure was the final blow to Coach McGee’s Duke head coaching career.

But the lesson I learned from Coach McGee is that you have got to keep moving forward even when the world probably seems like it is ending.  Coach was fired after a solid eight-year coaching run and decided to get into athletic administration.  He didn’t let the failure of his coaching career keep him down.

The next year Coach McGee decided to further his education and was pursuing a Master’s Business degree from UNC.  Yes, UNC!  As part of the transition back to college, Coach McGee was instructed to take an undergraduate business course as a refresher.

Lo and behold, as I enter one of my business classes my senior, there is Coach McGee sitting in one of the chairs.  Can you believe it?  It was awkward. And Dr. George, the faculty member, opened every class with a conversation with me in front of the class and Coach McGee!!

I really admired Coach for getting back into the saddle, being willing to take an undergraduate course in his pursuit of a graduate degree that would lead him to a highly successful career as a director of athletics.  Great lesson.

  • Innovator Fundraiser.

Under Coach McGee’s leadership, the USC Trojans introduced a new fundraising concept – an initiative to endow every starting position on the football team.  What a clever idea!!  The quarterback position would be named for an endowed gift as would all the other 21 starting positions.  A very innovative way to fundraise and provide ongoing financial support in perpetuity for the football program. Coach McGee’s scheme has been copied all over the country.

These are the reasons I have such great respect for Coach Mike McGee.  I didn’t know him well but his life touched me in a number of significant ways.  He taught me valuable life lessons.

So, thanks Coach McGee.  Please know you impacted my life and so many others in a very positive way.  And, yes, I do know the difference between champ and chump!

About the Author

Matt Kupec is a fundraising professional with 32 years of significant higher education development experience. He has directed three major university fundraising campaigns and nearly $5 billion has been raised under his leadership. He has led the fundraising programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Hofstra University, Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute and HelpMeSee, a New York City based non-profit. He is currently serving as Senior In-House Fundraising Counsel for Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

Matt is a former record-breaking four year starting quarterback for the UNC Tar Heels. During his career he set 19 season and career passing records. Two of which still stand — most consecutive games with a TD pass and most wins as a starting QB. Matt also set the ACC record for TD passes his senior year at UNC. Matt was named MVP of the 1977 Liberty Bowl and the 1979 Gator Bowl becoming the 1st player in Atlantic Coast Conference history to be named MVP of two bowl games.