No one can ever say that LSU wide receivers coach D.J. McCarthy didn’t earn his stripes.
Sure, McCarthy has made it to the pinnacle of college football – not once but twice in the form of national championship rings – but the road he took was one that would never be confused with ‘easy street’.
When McCarthy, who is commonly referred to as coach Mac, graduated from Boca Raton (Fla.) High School, there wasn’t much of a demand for 5-foot-7, 145-pound option quarterbacks in what was referred to then as Division-I football.
Offers from Central Florida and several other Division 1-AA schools were tempting, but McCarthy aspired to play on a much higher level. To get there, though, he would have to take a different route than he envisioned, and one that took him all the way across the country to Long Beach City College in Long Beach, Calif.
After running the option during his freshman season, McCarthy faced another hurdle when Long Beach moved to a spread offense that placed an emphasis on throwing the ball. Rather than sulk, McCarthy made the move to wide receiver and returned kicks and punts.
When his two years of eligibility expired, McCarthy, who had added another five pounds to his 5-foot-7, 145-pound frame, landed more prestigious scholarship offers from the likes of Iowa State, Kansas State, Bowling Green, Ball State and Central Florida. Many young men in his situation would have jumped at the opportunity to play in the Big 12 Conference, but McCarthy has never been one to just settle.
“I had some offers, but I wanted to play big-time ball,” he said. “When I got out to California, my goal was to get back to Florida, so I kind of brushed off all of the West Coast schools and the others that were recruiting me. As it turned out Miami and Florida didn’t come back to recruit me, so I was kind of stuck and ended up having to walk-on at Washington.”
At the time, Washington was just what McCarthy and many others were looking for on the college football landscape. The Huskies were fresh off a Pac-10 championship and ended the 1990 season ranked No. 5 in the country.
McCarthy made the move from Long Beach to Seattle, and he arrived at just the right time. Led by legendary UW coach Don James, the Huskies had an unblemished season in 1991 that was capped by a 34-14 win over a Les Miles-coached Michigan team in the Rose Bowl that earned them a national championship.
However, controversy seems to always surround the crowning of college football’s king, and it reared its ugly face in ’91 when Washington was crowned No. 1 by the Associated Press, while Miami sat on top of the Coaches Poll for a split national championship. McCarthy redshirted his first year at Washington, sitting behind Mario Bailey, Curtis Gaspard and Orlando McKay – all guys who spent a little time in the NFL – but he still earned a ring for his efforts on the scout squad.
After a year of getting stronger and faster, McCarthy had plans to earn a scholarship in his second year with the Huskies. Yet, another hurdle put his dream on hold once more.
Financial aid and student loans only went so far, and when the money ran out McCarthy was faced with only one option. That option was working as a long shoreman and as an assistant cabinet maker to help pay for school – two jobs that put his college football aspirations on the back burner.
Due to Washington being on the quarter system, McCarthy was able to earn enough money to pay for school, and he made it back in time to grab a couple of passes in the spring game.
By the time the 1992 season rolled around, McCarthy had long developed a reputation for being a tireless worker, which earned the respect of his position coach at the time – Dick Baird. After working two jobs all summer, McCarthy was hoping that he would get some playing time as a redshirt junior. However, with three future Canadian Football League wide receivers – Jason Shelley, Tharon Hill and Joe Kralik – sitting atop the depth chart, snaps were few and far between for McCarthy.
Following another spring of working to help pay his way through school, while also working his way up the depth chart, McCarthy finally saw the fruits of his labor when he was awarded a scholarship in the summer of 1993.
Some scoffed when McCarthy told them he would play major college football, but when the ‘93 season rolled around, he would get the last laugh.
James retired from his head coaching post after 18 years, and Jim Lambright was named as his successor for the ’93 campaign. The transition wasn’t as smooth as many had hoped for, but it also was predicted by some as the Huskies were placed on probation by the NCAA for lack of institutional control.
Despite the cloud that covered the program, Washington still won seven games in 1993, while McCarthy made memories that will last forever.
“My first college catch against Stanford was one that I’ll always remember,” he said. “Being a walk-on, I was always looking for a chance to make a play. One of the guys got hurt and I got the call. The play was an option route and it went for an 11-yard gain and a first down.”
His scoring grab against UCLA was also a fond recollection, but when McCarthy thinks about touchdowns as a Husky, there is one that will always stand out.
Trailing Cal - a team that the Huskies had defeated 19 straight times - by two touchdowns with a little more than two minutes left to play, and with Damon Huard playing the worst game of his career (four interceptions and two fumbles), McCarthy saw something in the Cal defense and urged the coaches to make a call.
“It was the H-back wheel play,” he said.
The play was executed to perfection, and McCarthy made a diving grab in the end zone for a 29-yard touchdown – the first of his college career.
McCarthy finished the season – and his career – with 14 receptions, while he was second on the team in touchdown catches as a senior. Each one of those receptions and scores holds a special place in his heart, but there is one memory that will always stand out from his days as a Husky.
“I had a lot of good ones, but the one that sticks out to me is that I set out to accomplish a goal, and I was able to achieve that goal of playing on national TV at Washington, and I earned a scholarship and proved that I belonged,” said McCarthy, who earned a bachelor’s degree in American Ethnic Studies. “Those were three of the most influential years of my life as a person. I learned how to struggle and survive. I had a lot of excuses of why not to succeed, but I didn’t let those excuses stop me from succeeding.”
Everyone needs motivation when the chips are down, and McCarthy’s motivation came from home. He watched his mother, Alberta, with the loving assistance from his Godmother Vanessa and Godfather Perry, raise four kids; working two jobs just to provide food for the table and a roof over their head.
“I owe everything to her and what she did for us,” said McCarthy. “She sacrificed so much for us and there was no way that I wasn’t going to succeed with an example like that to follow.”
Alberta’s work ethic was instilled in McCarthy, who is her second oldest child, and his siblings – Cindi, Donalda and Albert – at an early age and is a big reason he has enjoyed a successful coaching career; which includes a brief stint in the NFL with Oakland to go along with stops at Nevada, Central Florida, UCLA, and LSU – where he arrived just in time to win another national championship.
When the Tigers take the field in Husky Stadium on Saturday, it will be coach Mac’s third time walking the sideline as a visitor in a place he once called home. His Nevada squad upset UW in 2003, 28-17, and UCLA fell to the Huskies in 2006, 29-19, during his only year with the Bruins.
This will serve as both the tiebreaker and a homecoming of sorts for McCarthy, who will venture into Husky Stadium in an unfamiliar role but with only one thing on his mind.
“I’m going there to get a job done,” he said. “I work for LSU and LSU is my new home. I’ve got some great players going there with me and for the first time I’m going up there as a favorite rather than an underdog.
“Washington will be a much improved team, and there will be a lot of family, friends and ex-players that I played with there. But, I’m going there to do a job and to beat them and start the Tigers off 1-0.”
Coach Mac will not be the only McCarthy making a trip back home as his wife Trisha, who was a gymnast at Washington, will also be returning to a place that is dear to her heart.
Trisha can probably recall each and every one of those 14 catches that an undersized, former walk-on receiver made in 1993. Of all 14 of those receptions, there is one that UW diehards will probably always recall. And, it’s probably the same one that changed Trisha’s life forever.
“I tease her all the time that she didn’t want to start dating me until I made the touchdown catch against Cal,” McCarthy quipped.
"Before that, she didn’t give me the time of day,” he laughed.