Dave Wannstedt still remembers the first time he met LeSean McCoy. He’d heard all about McCoy, his exploits at Bishop McDevitt High School reaching all corners of the country. McCoy even graced the cover of Parade Magazine when magazines were the equivalent of viral social media posts, so yeah, Wannstedt knew of him. But he still hadn’t met him.
When arriving at Pittsburgh as the head coach on Dec. 23, 2004, Wannstedt prioritized winning recruiting battles in the state of Pennsylvania. He wanted to bring homegrown talent home to Pitt, and while Bishop McDevitt is a few hours away in Harrisburg, he still recruited the school heavily.
Wannstedt invited a handful of Pitt targets from Bishop McDevitt to a Pitt summer football camp before the fall 2005 season. He remembers the days well, watching the group of boys walk onto the field together. Wannstedt approached the boys, surveying the rising high school seniors with an appraising eye. “OK,” he said, turning to the first boy. “Who we got here?”
“Hi, I’m Aaron Berry,” the first boy introduced himself — a future Pitt and NFL cornerback. Each of the remaining boys followed suit, introducing themselves to Wannstedt until just one boy hadn’t spoken up yet.
“Who we got here?” Wannstedt asked again, turning his attention to the boy. With a pair of sunglasses hiding his eyes and a hat pulled down over his head, the boy turned to Wannstedt. “They just call me Shady,” he said.
“I just laughed,” Wannstedt recalls with a deep chuckle. “I said, ‘I know who the hell you are.’ We just kind of hit it off, and he was very honest — [so were] his mother, coach and so on. He was gonna go to USC or Oklahoma, he had narrowed it down to three schools and we weren’t one of them. Penn State wasn’t one of them.”
LeSean McCoy was one of the most sought-after recruits in the 2006 recruiting cycle. 247Sports rated him as the ninth-ranked running back and the 29th-ranked overall recruit in the nation. He originally pledged himself to Miami, and Wannstedt was forced to just go about his business as if he hadn’t connected with McCoy. Pitt wasn’t going to get McCoy, try as he might, so it was time to move on. Until he got a call halfway through McCoy’s senior season.
“About halfway through the season, I get a call from the coach that said [McCoy] had broken his leg or his ankle and was done for the year, and he really was down in the dumps,” Wannstedt says. “I was going by that school recruiting anyway, and I went in and built a relationship with him and told him we want him at Pitt. I told him you’ve got to go to school, gotta get your degree and got to get you healthy, but I said you’ve got a scholarship at Pitt.”
Instead of enrolling at Miami in the wake of his serious ankle injury, McCoy backed off on college football altogether and enrolled at Milford Academy in New Berlin, New York — a one year prep school to rehab his ankle before making the jump to the collegiate ranks. Wannstedt and then-Pitt running backs coach David Walker made a trip up to see McCoy, and what he saw brought tears to his eyes.
“He’s out there, and he’s limping,” Wannstedt says. “… I was just hurting for this kid. I didn’t know if he’d ever run again at full speed or at least the way he would run.”
In 40 years of coaching at the collegiate and professional level, Wannstedt has seen thousands of highlight tapes, whether it’s draft tapes, high school tapes, whatever, and McCoy’s high school tape is still some of the best he’s ever seen — it might even be the best he’s ever seen.
Just seeing McCoy struggling to run plays in practice was hard for him. However, Pitt held to its commitment, honored the scholarship offer extended to McCoy and held tough. McCoy de-commited from Miami, committed to Pitt, and as Wannstedt says, “the rest is history.”
Landing McCoy was exactly the sort of move that he stressed upon being hired. McCoy was the top-ranked recruit in Pennsylvania, sought-after by powerhouse programs across the nation. It may have taken an unconventional route, but Wannstedt stuck with McCoy through it all, and McCoy repaid his coach’s faith ten fold.
“McCoy gave Pitt a game-changing running back that had the pedigree of being the best running back in the country coming out of high school, depending on who you asked” Wannstedt admits. McCoy brought with him an extra layer of credibility from a program standpoint, but if you thought he’d carry an ego from being so highly recruited, you’d be wrong.
“When the guy showed up on the practice field, I cannot remember a day when he was not excited about practicing,” Wannstedt says. “Winning was important to this kid, practice was important to this kid and he was a fun guy to coach.
18 years old true freshmen lol I been knew before they knew H2P pic.twitter.com/IEl4CPsoTw
— LeSean Shady Mccoy (@CutonDime25) April 28, 2021
“I’ve coached some All-Americans in college, and I’ve coached a lot of All-Pros in the pros, and there have been guys that are great players and it was a challenge for me every day to get the most out of them,” Wannstedt says. “With LeSean McCoy, he was as fun a player as I’ve ever coached.”
McCoy only spent two seasons with Pitt, racking up 2,816 rushing yards and 35 touchdowns on 584 attempts while catching 65 receptions for 549 yards and another touchdown, but he’s firmly entrenched among the Panthers’ all-time leaders. His rushing yards rank eighth all-time, his rushing touchdown runs rank third all-time and his two seasons both rank inside Pitt’s 10 best rushing seasons in program history.
While McCoy was one of the best running backs in the country, Wannstedt perhaps most fondly remembers him for his humor in facing adversity and all situations. “He was a comedian,” Wannstedt laughs. “He had a sense of humor on him.”
When Pitt and Notre Dame played the longest game in Fighting Irish history in 2008, it was McCoy who actually went around Wannstedt’s play-calling to set up a game-winning field goal in quadruple overtime.
“We were trying to make four more yards to make another field goal,” Wannstedt recalls. “It was the fourth overtime. We called ’36 Power’, and I remember we wanted to push that thing up between the center and the guard and try to push for four more yards and try to make a field goal. [McCoy] took three or four steps and he bounced that thing to the outside, made a guy miss and ran it down there.”
On that 2nd-and-9 at the Notre Dame 24-yard line, McCoy bounced the play outside and raced down to the 6-yard line. Two plays later, Pitt kicker Conor Lee connected on a 22-yard field goal to give the Panthers a big win.
“I remember after the game,” Wannstedt laughs. “I said, ‘Why the hell did you run out there?’ He says, ‘because nobody was out there!'”
McCoy rushed 32 times against the Irish, piling up 169 yards and a touchdown. It was just another big performance in a big game. McCoy seemingly played his best football when the stakes were highest, amping up the intensity against the best teams. When Pitt traveled to Morgantown in 2007 for the 100th edition of the Backyard Brawl, the stakes were certainly high.
Before his 11,000+ NFL rushing yards, LeSean McCoy was always at his best for Pitt in the Backyard Brawl.
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) August 7, 2020
West Virginia was ranked No. 2 in the nation, and a win over Pitt would have secured both a huge rivalry win and a trip to the national championship game. Wannstedt spent all week preparing his team, showing old tape of past Backyard Brawls, bringing in former Pitt players like former Pitt quarterbacks Matt Cavanaugh and David Havern and emphasizing the importance the game held for both schools. He told stories, with a little bit of help from the veterans on the team who had experienced the wild scene in the past, of the drive into Morgantown being accompanied by rocks and bottles bouncing off the bus. On the day Pitt drove into Morgantown in 2007, it was no different from the stories.
“We’re driving in on the buses, and they’re lined up for us in Morgantown,” Wannstedt says. “This was it, and [WVU was] off on their way to the national championship game in New Orleans. So, we’re pulling in on the buses, and it’s quiet, no one’s saying anything. They’re banging things off the bus, and Shady in the back, I remember just kind of yells out, ‘Hey, coach! This is just what we saw in the movies!’ It’s just something silly, and guys started laughing.”
If McCoy was concerned about the stakes of the game, he didn’t show it.
“He was no more concerned about that game or going into Morgantown than the guy sitting on the top row of the bleachers,” Wannstedt laughs. “He was looking forward to the challenge. And, guess what? I gave it to him.”
Wannstedt gave the ball to McCoy 38 times against WVU. It was a slugfest. It was sloppy, dirty and the kind of game where Pitt truly relied upon him to carry the load. He pounded into the unrelenting WVU defense, his longest carry on the night only 19 yards and racked up 148 yards on the ground. Pitt won 13-9 and derailed national championship aspirations for one of its greatest rivals.
It wouldn’t have been possible without McCoy. A lot of what Pitt built in 2007 and 2008 wouldn’t have been possible without him. There were no major Bowl wins, no excellent seasons even, but McCoy established himself as one of the premier football players in Pitt history.
“He was different,” Wannstedt said. “I played with Tony Dorsett. I coached Emmitt Smith, I coached Ricky Williams. I’ve been around some pretty good backs. They all have their own style. One was a better run inside, one had a little better hands, one was a little better in pass protection. LeSean is in that league. There’s no question about that. There’s just the matter of what you’re looking for in a running back.”
After a 12 year NFL career, loaded with two Super Bowl rings, six Pro Bowls and two All-Pro appearances and 15,000 all-purpose yards and 89 total touchdowns, McCoy announced his retirement Thursday. McCoy will sign with the Philadelphia Eagles on a one-day contract and retire as an Eagle.
He will go down as one of the best running backs in the current age of NFL football. McCoy was a trendsetter, one of the first halfbacks to showcase elite pass-catching chops in addition to stellar rushing ability traditional to all running backs.
McCoy will always be known as a Panther and an Eagle, but to Wannstedt and so many others, he will always just be Shady McCoy.