In this, their seventh season, Tampa Bay's Buccaneers are John McKay's best team. Except for a mediocre offensive line and McKay's eternal problem finding a running back, the Bucs have matured into a solid playoff contender. Last week's 17-10 loss at Minnesota was, by most accounts, a fluke charged off to three officiating calls so mistaken that the winning coach, Bud Grant, said, "It was enough to make a grown man cry."

The grown man who lost was McKay. He didn't cry. "One thing I've learned in this league," McKay said. "The officials are always right." He said this with the acid sarcasm of a man who paid fines early in his pro coaching career for questioning the omniscience of Pete Rozelle's striped minions. Time may not heal all wounds, but it does teach us to duck once in a while.

For the Bucs, ducking time is over. They already are the most successful expansion team ever, having won two division championships the last three seasons. They won the NFC's Central Division last season with a 9-7 record before losing in the playoffs to Dallas, 38-0. The other title came in 1979 on a 10-6 record against a pitifully weak schedule in the first year of the NFL's "parity" scheduling. That year also marked unmistakably the depths to which the NFC's once proud Black and Blue Division had fallen.

The Packers of Lombardi's successors, the Bears of Halas heritage, the Vikings hardened by Grant and polar winds -- suddenly, these teams were looking up to the Tampa Bay 0-26 Buccaneers. Pat Toomay, a defensive end, said he had refused to write his firm's name on hotel registration cards. Too many jokes, he said.

But suddenly, Tampa Bay had moved from 0-14 to 2-12 to 5-11 to a championship. This was bad enough for the established teams. It was made worse by losing to John McKay, who moved into the pros after 16 years at the University of Southern California. McKay didn't bow to the mysticism of the pros. Football is football, he said. He would win in the NFL the same way he won at USC. His assistants, out of respect, call him The Coach.

He made every football decision for owner Hugh Culverhouse. After the Bucs' second season, McKay traded away his No. 1 draft choice -- a chance to get Earl Campbell -- for tight end Jimmie Giles and Houston's No. 1, which he used to draft Doug Williams, a black quarterback from Grambling.

McKay is no pal to his players. "I never patted my sons on the butt, so why would I do that with a bunch of strangers?" he said. And yet he became Williams' protector, almost a surrogate father during the first two seasons when Williams drew a firestorm of criticism for throwing dozens of interceptions and hundreds of incompletions. Critics questioned Williams' arm, brain and courage. McKay said, "Doug Williams is my quarterback now and forever."

McKay had critics, too. He had nine Southern Cal players, including one of his sons, on the roster the first two years. He ran the I-formation offense that had helped him win four national championships in 16 seasons at USC. Against all advice and in the face of pros who did it otherwise, McKay installed a 3-4 defense. He would, by damn, win in the NFL the same way he won at USC. You don't go 127-40-8 with five Rose Bowl victories without learning how to win.

But losing your first 26 pro games is no way to convince people that coaching genius travels well. "We couldn't score against a strong breeze," McKay said during the streak. So prickly was McKay's personality that he even drew criticism for his manner on his own TV show, where he threw an occasional barb at the show's host, Andy Hardy. The Tampa Bay folks didn't much like this wise-guy Californian who went 2-26 and then drafted a black quarterback.

But now McKay is an old-timer among NFL coaches, ranking in seniority behind only Tom Landry, Bud Grant, Chuck Noll and Chuck Knox. And Williams now must rank as one of the league's top six or seven quarterbacks, capable of sensational passing that wins games by itself. Around him McKay has built an offense remarkable for its receivers. If the offensive line recovers from injuries that have left it without depth, and if McKay somehow finds a running back (strange, after all those USC tailbacks that he suffers so now), these Buccaneers will be justified in talking of the Super Bowl.

McKay is a man at peace now. He may have thought of quitting after the poor fifth season when the Bucs fell from the championship to a 5-10-1 season. His original contract, calling for perhaps $200,000 a year, expired that year. But friends say he quickly put retirement out of mind. Now, at 59, he has cut all connections to California (for the first time, the Bucs have no USC starters). "Another three or four years," a friend said, predicting McKay's coaching plans.

McKay's office has a large window through which The Coach can see a practice field where his Bucs work out. A large humidor is full of The Coach's cigars. There's a picture of Bob Hope on a wall. The Coach occasionally darkens his office to watch a film.

Lou Holtz lasted a year. Chuck Fairbanks accomplished nothing. The genius college coaches were the NFL's fad in the mid-'70s. Of the breed, only McKay and Dick Vermeil survive. Two different fellows you'll never find. Vermeil sleeps in his office, so obsessive is his work. When McKay darkens his office for a film, it often is for a film starring an old buddy, John Wayne, guns ablazing.

There is true grit about McKay.

Someone asked him early this season what he thought of the players' solidarity handshakes.

"You don't want to know what I think," he said.

Yes, yes, we do.

"I don't care if they go out there and kiss each other's tails," said The Coach, not in those exact words.