By Bob York
During its annual meeting on Nov. 18, the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council awarded its 2022-23 Distinguished Service Award to John Mackay, a long-time St. George’s School athletic director, football coach and history teacher as well as NEPSAC board member and past president. Mackay is retiring this year following a 26-year stay at St. George’s, putting “The End” to a remarkable 46-year career as a prep school teacher and mentor. The Distinguished Service Award is annually presented to someone who has contributed significantly to both the athletics and physical education of New England’s independent schools through their enthusiasm, dedication, leadership and vision.
Mackay, who has been a mainstay at St. George’s School in Newport, R.I., for the past 26 years and who has been a part of the prep school scene for nearly a half century now, is due to hang up the last of the numerous hats he’s worn at the school for a final time this spring. Before he makes that last trek to his office hat rack, then closes the door forever, his partners at NEPSAC issued him a thumbs up on jobs well done by presenting him with the Distinguished Service Award.
“I’m truly honored to receive this award … it means the world to me to know that my peers at NEPSAC think this much of me, as well as the work that I’ve done and the way I’ve gone about doing it,” said a humbled Mackay, who broke in as a member of NEPSAC’s District III when he first joined the St. George’s faculty in the fall of 1997. “I think the world of everyone I’ve worked with here throughout the years as well … it’s truly been a wonderful experience. It’s one I feel fortunate to have had and one I’ll never forget.”
Like most of his cohorts, Mackay filled numerous roles with NEPSAC as well as on the faculty roster at St. George’s. The native of West Hartford, Conn., rose through the council’s ranks to serve as president from 2013 to 2015 and has served as an officer for NEPSAC’s Football Coaches Association for 26 years as well. Among his chores with the coaches association was making a clean sweep of the front office positions, serving as vice president, then president, then succeeded Tom Flaherty for the past 20 years a secretary-treasurer.
Last but certainly not least, as a member of the football board, Mackay also served as liaison to the athletic directors, “and in that role we were able to adjust the scouting rules and expand the number of bowl games from four to eight, which was a big deal.”
Speaking of “big deals,” that’s exactly what Mackay has turned into back on the St. George’s campus – and not just on the football field. He is an associate dean at the school and occupies the Prince Chair in the History Department, where he has taught Advanced European History, Western Civilization and U.S. History. He also serves as an assistant to the dean of faculty and the director of diversity, equity and inclusion. During the 2020-21 school year he also filled in as interim director of the Humanities Department.
“I’d like to think that my teaching and coaching philosophies are similar and include
motivation, organization and enthusiasm,” said Mackay, who served as St. George’s athletic director from 1997 to 2016. “I greatly enjoy working with young people and I’m particularly proud of the number of my former students who’ve entered the education field.”
“Believe me, this award is well deserved,” said Mike Hansel, Mackay’s offensive coordinator, of the Distinguished Service Award, which he nominated Mackey for. “The characteristics that are written on that award … enthusiasm …dedication … leadership … vision are all traits that John incorporates into his game plan for success.”
Truth be told, Mackay likely might never have come to St. George’s, had it not been for Hansel. The two formed a part of the Peddie School coaching staff in Hightown, N.J., for a number of years, prior to Hansel leaving to take on a job at St. George’s. A few years later, both the athletic director and head football coach’s jobs opened up at St. George’s and Hansel felt Mackay, who had been the head football coach at Peddie for the entire 13 years he was there as well as its AD for the last seven years he was there, might be interested – and he was.
“The man has become an institution on this campus,” said Hansel. “He’s so loved and well respected by not only the scholar-athletes who have come through here over the past quarter century, but by their parents, as well. He’s always gone the extra mile for each and every one of them and they’ve all come to appreciate how he helped them prepare for the future, whether it be on the football field or in the classroom. He wore so many hats, he’s going to be a hard guy to replace.”
For Joe Lang, who spent the past nine years assisting Mackay with the quarterbacks, receivers and special teams, “this has been a bitter-sweet season. We all love playing football … we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t … but with this being John’s final season, it’s been tough on everyone. He’s meant so much to this program and to this school, it’s tough to see it come to an end.
“I think that fact was borne out last week when we concluded our season with a 42-6 win over archrival Middlesex School,” added Lang. “If you could have seen the number of John’s former players who came back to be a part of his last game … to congratulate him … to thank him … to wish him luck. The turnout was truly astounding.”
“John’s served as an outstanding role model not only for the players, but for the members of his coaching staff, too,” said Lang, who has been tapped as the school’s next head football coach. “To see the amount of work he goes through every week in game preparation, you can’t help but go out there and give everything you have as well.”
The win in Mackay’s finale gave the Dragons a season mark of 3-5 and their mentor a final record of 79-122-3 to make him the winningest football coach ever at St. George’s.
“I think if it was just about the wins and losses, I would have quit a long time ago,” said Mackay, who has also made prep school pit stops at Winchendon School, Albuquerque Academy and Avon Old Farms. “To me, though, it’s all about the relationships you develop with your players and your staff of assistant coaches and those relationships are what I’m going to miss the most.”
Mackay, who year in and year out went to war with one of the smallest enrollments in a highly competitive Independent School League (ISL), admitted to “being proud of keeping the program strong.” And with that, he pointed to an undefeated (9-0) season in 2015, as well as bowl victories in 2015 and 2021 and a bowl berth in 2016. That 2015 campaign also saw Mackay named as the Independent School League’s Coach of the Year by the Boston Herald.
Ironically, Nov. 18 turned into a rather busy day for Mackay, as he ended up attending not one, but two football banquets on the day. Following the NEPSAC festivities, he and his trophy took a three-hour drive back to his boyhood home in West Hartford, Conn., where he attended a reunion to mark the 50th anniversary of Conard High School’s undefeated (9-0) 1972 football season. “I’m really looking forward to getting together with a bunch of teammates I haven’t seen in a real long time,” admitted Mackay.
“We were pretty good back in those days,” said Mackay, who was a two-way tackle in his high school hay day and would later go on – at 6-1, 205 pounds – to be a two-way tackle at Hamilton College. “We only lost three games during my entire high school career … two my sophomore year … one my junior year … none my senior year.”
While Mackay has become a popular figure throughout his NEPSAC family, he also comes highly regarded as far as his own lineage is concerned, just ask Robertson “Bob” Howe. In addition to being a fellow NEPSAC member, a former council president and athletic director – at Deerfield Academy – Howe and Mackay are cousins.
“I’m named after John’s father, Robertson,” explained Howe, who is about six years younger than Mackay. “And if that doesn’t tell you how close our two families are, then my mother always saying John and his younger brother Steve were two of her most favorite people in the world, certainly should.”
Being a bit younger than his cousin, Howe found himself in awe of Mackay’s athleticism during his pre high school days.
“I remember visiting John’s family in Vermont one summer,” said Howe. “When we got to where they were staying for vacation, John was outside exercising in preparation for his first year of college ball. As a kid, I was impressed by how hard he was preparing for the upcoming season and for the first time in my life I remember thinking I wanted to be like someone … I wanted to be like my cousin John.”
And in many ways, he has been very much like his cousin John. As the two have proceeded through life, it seems as though the more their lives have mirrored each other. Both graduated from Hamilton College, “and I think my going to Hamilton had a lot to do with John,” Howe said, “because I’d always ask him how he liked it there … what the academics were like … what the athletics were like. I became very interested in the school through what he had told me about it and when the time came it helped make my decision much easier than it might have been.”
Then, when Mackay became an athletic director, “I’d ask him how he liked the job … what it entailed and so forth and from what he told me, becoming an AD became more and more appealing to me.” And when Mackay became president of NEPSAC, “I was just starting out in the council, but knew if I stuck with it, I was due to become president one day as well, so again, I began asking him how he liked the job and what it entailed, so when my turn came I’d know what to expect.”
As for how his cousin won the Distinguished Service Award, that’s one question Howe never needed to ask. He already knew the answer, “John’s well deserving of it,” said Howe. “In my eyes, he’s always been a leader.”
Please view the full gallery from the event here.
Please view the award ceremony here.
Please view the program here.
Please view the 2022 NEPSAC Annual Meeting webpage here.