Wayne McClain Getting Better With Age

Coaches who are on the same staff for a long time are often taken for granted. They aren't the new kid on the block, so they don't attract media curiosity. Regardless of their importance, they are yesterday's news. Illini assistant basketball coach Wayne McClain falls into that category, but he plays an extremely important role in the success of the team.

Wayne McClain has been on the Illinois basketball staff since 2002. He is well known and respected in high school coaching circles throughout the state of Illinois after his highly successful tenure as head coach at Peoria Manual. And he is a driving force in preparing the Illini basketball players daily in practice. But he hasn't been asked for an interview in a long time.

"I think I'm just old hat here," McClain speculates. "You look around Illinois and see Coach McClain, and he's been here."

But how can anyone forget Coach McClain? After all, he is a living legend after winning four straight state championships.

"I don't know about all that. They say records are made to be broken. Eventually it will happen. I know it can't be done the way we did it because they've changed the system so much. It was two classes then. I do feel good about that.

"Until they come back to that system, we're safe with that. I'm happy the record hasn't been beaten, but if it is I'll be happy for the team that gets the chance to do it."

Even better for the McClain family is the four straight championships coincided with son Sergio's four years of high school.

"Having Serg at that time, winning four straight state championships was remarkable. We know that can only be duplicated. And then Marcus (Griffin) wasn't a starter, but he was a major contributor on that team. And then later on Frank (Williams).

"We're talking all Illinois guys. I think that's what I feel really good about. They kind of resurrected Illinois basketball. I knew all the time where I wanted them to go, but I wanted them to feel good about it themselves."

Some colleges take short cuts in their recruiting, hiring a high school or AAU coach or a dad to sign a great young player. In the case of the McClain family, one might suggest the Illini recruited Sergio to have access to Wayne. Of course, neither scenario is exactly what happened.

"It was so interesting. A lot of people don't know that the one time I applied for the job at Illinois, I didn't get hired. Lon Kruger did not hire me. That was truly disappointing to me because I had given him some quality players. But I never once said or suggested to him, 'Hey look, take these players and then give me a job.'

"If I had gotten the job when Lon was here, Sergio would have been a senior. Lon chose to go with somebody else. In retrospect, it turned out really well. Bill Self came along, Serg was gone, and he did hire me. That made me feel good because at that particular time it was really on my own merit.

"You don't get that many opportunities, so I guess being patient paid off. I think it was cleaner not having Sergio here. So it had nothing to do with him being here."

Not many people would voluntarily accept the challenge of starting a new career after so many years of success and comfort in his home town. It was a difficult transition at first, and it became apparent when he had to give an interview at Illinois.

"At Manual, it seemed I always had a microphone in my face. When you go through that kind of journey, you constantly are being beseiged. When I first got to the University of Illinois, it was all new. Your comfort level is different. I go from a head coach to an assistant. Those other guys had been together for a number of years and had a comfort level.

"When I came here, I was considered an on-site coach and not a recruiting coach. I wasn't supposed to go out because only three of the four guys could go out recruiting. Now, four can go out. So I was kind of treading water, stepping on egg shells just trying to find my niche within the program.

"I always took pride in being poised, but a friend told me I looked nervous when I had to be interviewed once when Bill Self was sick. But I think sometimes you've got to step out of your comfort zone. I was in an extreme comfort zone where I was at. I had a great job in the community, a great situation going.

"But I was also looking for another challenge. I think it was a bold step to leave it. I've never ever regretted it. Obviously, we've had a lot of success here. But you go from a situation where you're in control to one where you're making suggestions."

College coaching is a highly competitive field, and you have to continue to learn and grow as a person and coach to succeed. McClain faced that challenge successfully.

"I think you grow because you see a different side, different methods. I think some of the things Coach (Bruce) Weber and Coach Self have done have been very familiar, and some have not been. It gives you a chance to grow as a coach.

"I think I'm a lot better coach today than when I left Peoria Manual. Just getting different views from some very good coaches has made me very comfortable as a coach. I guess the key words for me as a coach are 'I've grown.'"

All coaches must sometimes yell at their players to make a point. It is the nature of the business. But McClain and Weber are unique in apologizing to practice newcomers ahead of time for their occasional outbursts. Their sensitivity to the needs of others is highly unusual.

"Sometimes you become extreme because you have to send messages. But by the same token, you still want to be respectful of the people around you."

As an assistant, McClain must occasionally play the heavy so the head coach won't have to all the time.

"Exactly. But I'm good at it though. That's the way I've always coached. I think it's a good blend. I think they've got to see Coach as who he is. Most of the time, he's the good cop. But sometimes he's the bad cop."

The key to yelling is knowing when to use it. Taking one's own frustrations out on underlings is counterproductive. A coach should yell to light a fire under a player to help him improve and not to dominate or control him.

"Exactly. You like what they could be, and you try to get them to reach their full potential. It takes both types. Some days you pat them on the butt and say 'Good job.' Some days you've got to kick them on the butt and get them in gear.

"I don't think you can be one way all the time. My experience as a coach has taught me if you are constantly on them, eventually they turn you off. You try to mix it up. Some days I'm gonna whisper to them, some days I'm gonna yell at them.

"But during the course of the day, you're always gonna find somebody to yell at. For some guys, yelling at them is the only thing that will work. And for some guys you can't. That's why you've got to know your personnel.

"Sometimes, you've got to get that ligher out and 'Bic 'em.' And sometimes, that's just not good because everybody doesn't respond to that. That's experience and knowing how to get the best out of your players."

Part two of this interview discusses recruiting.


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