Where does a former NFL coach with a Super Bowl title to his name go on New Year’s vacation? Wrexham, of course.
Paul McCord and his family swapped Florida for North Wales to attend the League Two match against Barrow after becoming passionate fans of the club through the documentary Welcome to Wrexham.
It meant leaving behind the Tampa sun and daytime temperatures of 22°C (71.6°F) to highs of 9°C, but Paul, his wife Mindy – a successful coach in women’s lacrosse – and their son nine year old LJ couldn’t have been happier.
“Being here in Wrexham to ring in the New Year meant so much,” says Paul, a member of the coaching team that led the Baltimore Ravens to Super Bowl glory in 2001. He shows off the commemorative ring he received after the win for 34-7 over the New York Giants.
“This is our second visit to Wrexham. We came for the first time in March 2023, for the Southend United match. Then, last summer we toured the United States, watching games in Chapel Hill, Los Angeles, San Diego and Philadelphia.
Wrexham, Chelsea and the $20 million match
“It was great, as we re-met people like Wayne (Jones, The Turf’s landlord and breakout star of the documentary), who we’d met on our first visit to Wrexham.
“We fell in love with the place and the people. In a world that can be very cynical, having a place that is authentic and full of gratitude makes you want to be here. That’s what brought us back.
“What brought us here in March was the documentary, but it’s the people who brought us back.”
Paul and Mindy’s respective careers in elite coaching are what initially led the pair to watch the first series of a show depicting the ownership of Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney.
“As coaches, we both love watching sports documentaries, like (ESPN’s) 30 for 30 series,” says Mindy, head coach of the women’s lacrosse program at the University of South Florida.
“It was Paul who said, ‘Let’s watch this documentary.’ He’s writing a book about underdog stories and the show had that element. Immediately, we could both identify with the story.
“I liked the ‘blue collar city’ element. My father was an electrician and my grandfather was a coal miner who came from Yugoslavia. I also liked the community aspect, and in particular how authentic the fan involvement is in Wrexham.
“There’s a real personal element, with players walking among the fans before each game, posing for photos and signing autographs.”
The McCords spent New Year’s Eve at The Turf pub, adjacent to the SToK Cae Ras clubhouse, but both Paul and Mindy seem remarkably cheerful.
LJ is also excited, as he brought along a gift for Paul Mullin, with whom the youngster enjoyed an impromptu kick after the summer tour match against Chelsea in Chapel Hill.
“The gift is for Albi,” Mindy explains, Albi being Mullin’s young autistic son. “We wanted to thank Paul for being so great with LJ. It’s what we love so much about Wrexham, the authenticity and welcome that everyone has.”
The McCord family will always remember their first visit to Wrexham.
The Southend match only went ahead at the eleventh hour, after volunteers and club staff had worked through the night to ensure the pitch was playable. Snow had covered the area.
But there was another problem: the tickets Paul had bought online turned out to be in the area reserved for fans of the away team.
“We only realized this when we got to the turnstiles with all our newly purchased Wrexham gear,” laughs Paul, 6ft 6in (198cm) tall and still as robust as you would expect from someone who once had signed for the Dallas Cowboys.
“The gentleman explained to me that we had mistakenly purchased tickets in the Southend section and then looked at me before saying: ‘You’ll be fine, they won’t give you too much trouble, but I can’t say the same for the other two.’
“It was totally my fault. I had no idea it was the guest section. I just saw “Wrexham” and clicked for three tickets. The club was fantastic. They escorted us to another section of the stand, which turned out to be where all the reserve team players sit.”
Mindy quickly chimes in: “The funny thing is, we’re now on season two of the documentary as a result. “We were watching at home when suddenly there we were, on the screen, looking like real tourists in our Wrexham hats and scarves, sitting with all these players!”
This time there were no such incidents. As international members, the family purchased tickets in the main stand through the club for the 4-1 win over Barrow.
A particular highlight came with the second goal of Steven Fletcher’s hat-trick, a header to the far post from a James McClean corner. “The corner stack play was similar to a set piece we use in lacrosse,” Paul writes after the game.
Crossovers between Phil Parkinson’s methods and the pair’s coaching experiences are more common than many might think. Certainly, the Wrexham manager’s famous “character test” when assessing potential signings – he will think nothing of driving to London and back to assess a player’s suitability over a cup of tea – is similar to how Mindy handles things in lacrosse.
Together with Paul, he implemented the fast-paced basketball doctrine “The System”, introduced by Paul Westhead with Loyola Marymount University in the late 1980s and featured on the television show Winning Time. That had a big effect when he was at the helm of the Jacksonville University lacrosse facility. Building the right culture was key.
“We needed a good locker room,” says Mindy, named Conference Coach of the Year eight times during her time in Jacksonville. “We achieved this thanks to those women who believed in our core values and our mission.
“When you say Phil interviews the players here, we were interviewing the parents. You’re dealing with kids ages 17 to 23, so how they’re related matters. Do parents value coaching and mentoring? This makes a big difference in terms of how you can move the needle with a young adult.
“There’s an art to finding the right people. We were also very transparent and honest about who we were as people and coaches, our styles, our personalities, and what they would get from us. You have to build trust.”
One aspect of coaching that Mindy doesn’t share with the Wrexham manager is what documentarians call “Phil’s enthusiasm levels” – the sheer number of times he swears during team talks.
He adds: “We laugh out loud every time he swears on the show. But then one day LJ said to me, ‘Mom, they drop the atomic bomb so often – can I say that?’ I’m like, ‘No way, it’s just part of the language there.’”
Dad agrees. “I’ve been in locker rooms like that,” he says. “Maybe not as vulgar, but definitely some things were said. It’s when the adrenaline and testosterone start pumping. “It comes from the heart.”
Paul certainly speaks from experience when it comes to high level coaching. After serving on Brian Billick’s Ravens coaching team for their Super Bowl XXXV triumph over the Giants, he later joined the Jacksonville Jaguars in a similar role.
“I worked with kickers, punters, snappers, holders, return specialists,” he explains. “The Super Bowl was surreal. I was the bottom man on the coaching staff, the assistant special teams coach. But being a part of it was incredible. You’re on this journey and you know something great is happening.
“You’re so focused on every play. And every moment. We didn’t really think anything about the Super Bowl until we were there. And once we got there, we thought we were going to win the game easily.
“Nobody was going to score against our defense, which was the best thing. Our offense also knew what to do, and our field position play was fantastic as well. That’s exactly how it happened.
“It was a wonderful experience, with Mindy and family all there.”
Alongside the book about sporting underdogs he is writing and helping Mindy’s coaching career, Paul’s aim for 2024 is to help spread the Wrexham gospel further.
“Family and friends all know about Wrexham,” he says. “For our daughter Taylor and son-in-law Spencer (Zapper), we bought Wrexham shirts for Christmas. The plan now is to educate people in Tampa about this great club.
“It’s funny that I didn’t like Always Sunny (in Philadelphia) when I got into this. Or even a Ryan Reynolds fan. It was the sporting element that attracted me, and in particular the story of the underdogs.
“But then suddenly I became a superfan, I never missed a game on iFollow (kick-off is usually 10am on Saturdays in Florida) and I shouted so loudly that all the neighbors noticed when we scored a goal .”
(Photo: Richard Sutcliffe/McCord Family)