March 1, 2000
LARAMIE, Wyo. -
By Dusty Clements
Wyoming Sports Information
When you sit down and talk with Wyoming head basketball coach SteveMcClain, you can tell this is a man who loves what he does, and wants tobe the very best at it. The intensity in this man's eyes is undeniable.
As Cowboy head coach, McClain's intensity has helped to lead theCowboys to 18 wins in each of his two seasons in Laramie. When Wyomingdefeated USC 81-77 in the first round of the National InvitationTournament (NIT) during the 1998-99 season, it was the first Wyomingpost-season victory since the 1990-91 season.
Not only has McClain brought success to the Cowboy program, but he doesit in an exciting fashion. In his first season, Wyoming averaged 81.6points per game, good for tenth in the nation. With at least one gameremaining in the 1999-2000 season, Wyoming is averaging 83 points pergame, ranking sixth in the nation.
This run `n' gun style is accentuated by Laramie's 7,200-footelevation. Many times when the Cowboys are just getting going, theopposing teams are left gasping for air. McClain's teams have beenoutstanding at the Arena-Auditorium, posting a 24-3 record.
With this exciting style, some basketball fans think that all the coachhas to do is get some players together and roll the ball out to them,letting them do whatever they want. This is a huge mistake if you'retalking about Mcbasketball at Wyoming. "In order to be a really gooduptempo team, you've got to be a great defensive team," said McClain."You create your offense through your defense. In reality, we've got tobe a better defensive team than most. So we spend a lot of time ondefense and doing what it takes to score 90 or 95 points. On offense,we make one or two passes to get the same shot that most teams take 25seconds to get. Our offense is more of a 1-2-3 pass offense and ourdefense in an aggressive, we're trying to steal it style. There is morein-depth teaching involved in this style than with a team who mightaverage 60 points a game."
With the Pokes always trying to push the ball and be very aggressive,you can imagine that those practices at elevation are something else."We're always full-court and always uptempo," said McClain. "If youplay that way you need to practice that way. We spend a lot of time infull court drills, whether its offense or defense. We're always runningthe court."
Coaching basketball has always been what McClain has wanted to do.Growing up in Orient, Iowa, a small farming town, McClain had differentaspirations than all of his friends. "When we were seniors and everyoneelse was talking about taking over their dad's farm or ranch, I wastalking about becoming a Division I head basketball coach. That's whatI knew I wanted to do."
Out of high school McClain went to Iowa Western Community College,where he played two years of junior college basketball. After playingtwo years, McClain had offers to continue at a number of differentschools, but knew he "wasn't going to make money playing." The headcoach at Chadron State then offered McClain the chance to come in and behis student assistant, an offer McClain couldn't refuse. "It was a goodway for me to get my education paid for and to get into coaching,starting as early as I could," said McClain.
After graduating from Chadron State in 1984, McClain would embark on ahighly successful career in the junior college coaching ranks. Hisfirst stop was at Sioux Empire Junior College in Iowa as an assistantcoach. From there he was an assistant at Independence Community Collegein Kansas for a year before going to Hutchinson Community College, alsoin Kansas, as an assistant. McClain stayed on as an assistant at Hutchfor five seasons, including a National Championship season in 1987-88.
McClain became the head coach at Hutchinson in 1991. He had anoutstanding record over his three years, going 91-16. He alsoaccomplished what most coaches only dream about, his 1993-94 team wonthe National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) NationalChampionship, going 35-4 on the season. After leading the Dragons tothe championship, McClain was named the National Junior College Coach ofthe Year in 1994.
After leading Hutchinson to the National Championship, McClain got acall from a friend who asked his to come be one of his assistants at theDivision I level. That friend was Billy Tubbs, who was the head coachat the University of Oklahoma. Tubbs asked McClain to come to OU, andMcClain accepted. "There wasn't a lot left for me to do at Hutch," saidMcClain. "Then Billy calls back 24 hours later and asks me to go to TCUwith him. I wasn't sure at that point, I didn't know much about TCU."McClain ended up going with Tubbs to TCU, after Tubbs left Oklahoma forthe Ft. Worth school.
In his four years as an assistant at TCU, McClain helped lead theHorned Frogs, who were 7-20 the year before he and Tubbs arrived, to anNIT bid and a trip to the NCAA Tournament. In his last year at TCU, theFrogs went 27-6 overall, including 14-0 in the Western AthleticConference.
Much of what McClain is trying to do at Wyoming, he learned at TCU fromTubbs. "I've learned so much about how to run a program from Billy,"said McClain. "He knows how to build programs, from Lamar and Oklahoma,to what he's done at TCU."
What McClain is trying to do is lead the Wyoming program back tobasketball prominence. "Where it's headed is back to the top 25 andback to the NCAA Tournament," said McClain. Wyoming made the NCAATournament four times in the 1980's, winning four games in the bigdance, but the Cowboys haven't been back since 1988. "I think we're alittle ahead of where I thought we'd be when I got here. But I'm not aperson who likes to put schedules with plans, I'm a day-to-day guy.When you say you've got a four or five year plan, then you're cheatingthe kids that are already in the program. We're ahead of schedule, butwe're far from where I want to be at."
To get the Pokes where he wants them, McClain has already been veryeffective in recruiting student-athletes to UW. McClain is one of thevery best in the tricky business of college basketball recruiting.Those who know the college game well, know that McClain is a dynamicrecruiter with an uncanny eye for judging talent.
But you'll be lucky to hear McClain talk about potential recruits orany part of the process at all. One thing about McClain's recruitingstyle is his ability to keep information to himself, he is verysecretive. This all comes from his vast experiences in the recruitingwars. "One thing I've learned about recruiting is that if I'mrecruiting a kid, and another school finds out, then they'll startrecruiting him even if they weren't before. They may not have even seenthe kid play, but they'll go after him if they know I want him. That'swhy I'm very secretive. That's probably the only area of our programthat I'm secretive about. With the internet and all of the resourcesout there, if you tell someone who you're recruiting, then the wholeworld will find out. It's in our best interest for nobody to know."
As with most schools across the nation, where coaches have to takespecial approaches in recruiting to find kids that fit the schoolthey're at, McClain has to recruit student-athletes that will fit in atUW and in Laramie. "The first thing I ask a kid is if they need thebright lights and big city, and if they do, then we're done recruitingthem," said McClain. "I'm trying to sell kids on two or three things, Iwant kids that are committed to earning an education and committed tothis program. I always ask kids if they want to play in the NBA, and ifthey say no, then I probably won't recruit them. The chances of playingat the next level are slim, but I want kids who are dreaming about that,because they are committed to becoming a better player."
One of the biggest draws for players to come to Wyoming is the chanceto play for McClain. He is an excellent motivator who lets the playersdecide the outcome, and never tries to become bigger than the game. Helets the players perform and this is very attractive to prospectivestudent-athletes. "I think if people evaluated me and what I do, they'dcall me a player's coach," said McClain. "It's a long season and I justtry and read my kids the best that I can. I try to read the days thatwe need to go hard and get a lot done and then there are days where thekids are tired physically and mentally. On those days we need to justmake it short and sweet. I'm a firm believer that teams who want tokeep playing will keep playing and the teams that want their seasons tobe over will find a way to end it. If kids are tired of practicing andtired of playing, then they won't have what it takes to win the toughballgames."
With the recruiting, scouting, coaching and all the externalresponsibilities associated with it, being a Division I head basketballcoach is one of the most stressful jobs in America. When coaches accepta job, they know that they will have to make a number of sacrifices intheir personal life, most notably the time in their private lives isgone. What does McClain do whey he has any time to himself? "I spendtime with my wife," said McClain. "Coaching is so time consuming, andI'm probably a little overboard. There aren't very many mornings thatI'm not in here by 7:30 a.m. or nights that I leave before 10:00 p.m.So when I do have some time off, I spend it with my wife. Families incoaching make huge sacrifices, because the season never seems to end."
There is no question that Wyoming is a unique place, and this headcoach thinks he's a great fit in Cowboy country. "I think I'm a goodfit," said McClain. "I think some of that comes from growing up on afarm in Iowa, I understand the people. These are the kinds of people Igrew up with. I enjoy it and my wife enjoys it. You either enjoy it oryou don't. If you don't, you'll spend all your time just waiting to getout. Kim and I don't do that, we really enjoy it. I think people canrelate to me. I said this when I took the job, I think I might be thefirst basketball coach here in awhile that feels like it is my privilegeto be the coach here. I'm not going to take advantage of that, I'mgoing to try and help these people do what they want. I'm asking thefans to buy into what we're doing, so I think I need to give back tothis community and this state."