Living history, living legend …. Cy McClairen
Player, coach, athletic director: He defines Bethune-Cookman athletics – and then some
When retiring assistant athletics director Jack “Cy” McClairen (class of ’53) left campus for the last time as an employee at the end of June, it was a long-delayed departure for the man considered Bethune-Cookman University’s living museum.
McClairen had considered retiring in 1993 but instead decided to retake the helm of the school’s football program, which had abruptly lost its coach. It was the type of sacrifice McClairen was revered for since first stepping onto campus as a student in 1949.
During the 59-year association with his alma mater, McClairen, 85, has served as player, football coach (71-60-3), basketball coach (396-436) and athletic director.
In recent years, he’s also spent time as the senior associate athletics director and assistant golf coach, but he dropped the coaching duties five years ago after hip replacement surgery. Now he is finally moving to his easy chair in Daytona Beach, Florida, home of the Wildcats.
McClairen has been a fixture on campus since 1961, two years after leaving the Pittsburgh Steelers when an injury cut his career short.
An All-Pro with the Pittsburgh Steelers
He has been around the game so long that he has seen most of the major changes in college and professional games – from playing making “good money” to working with multimillion-dollar contracts.
“When I played, $9,000 was the [NFL] minimum,” McClairen said. “When December came around, you had to find a job until July,” the start of training camp. “Now it’s a new ball game.
“The athletes have been changing since the ’60s,” he said. “First the money changed everything,” such as drawing black athletes to predominantly white schools to increase their chances of getting drafted.
“Then, the TV exposure changed everything again,” creating revenue streams that encourage athletes to leave college and turn professional at the first opportunity.
“I think it’s a mistake somewhere,” McClairen said, “but I can’t speak to it. I don’t want to shoot blanks at the money they are making now.”
McClairen has a simple reason for why he is retired this summer: “It was time.”
His run is so amazing that a 90-minute theatrical and multimedia presentation, The Jack “Cy” McClairen Story, will be presented 7 p.m. Aug. 13 on campus at the Mary McCleod Bethune Performing Arts Center, a building named for the university’s founder, whom McClairen knew personally.
For McClairen, the stories and connections are endless.
A day before the performance, McClairen will be the main attraction at a campus reunion with friends, former players and coaches, according to Bethune-Cookman athletic director Lynn Thomson, who wrote the script for the production.
Why a “production”? (Other than the fact the selfless McClairen wanted a fundraiser to help fill campus scholarship coffers.)
Why two days of celebration?
Perhaps no one can explain that better than Thompson (class of ’79), a Daytona Beach native who grew up two blocks from the campus and who called McClairen “the genesis of our modern-day athletics program.”
“He is part of the DNA of this university,” Thompson said. “The connection between Cy and the university began even before he came to Bethune” through his teachers and administrators back home in Panama City, Florida.
Thompson and his teenage friends made a connection with McClairen when the kids used to sneak into the Bethune-Cookman gym to play basketball. The bigger kids would help Thompson, the smallest member of the crew, slip through a crack in the gymnasium door.
“Cy,” who had become basketball coach, among other duties, in 1961, “would cuss us out and then run us out,” Thompson said.
“Finally, he had done it so many times, he just let us stay; he started leaving balls out for us and put us in charge.
“Now I have the keys to the gym,” said Thompson, a former Bethune-Cookman football player who became athletic director in 1991, replacing Cyril Lloyd “Tank” Johnson, whom McClairen had handed the reins to in 1973. That was the first year that McClairen’s responsibilities were down to a single job – basketball coach.
Thus, as AD, Thompson had “two highly touted mentors at my disposal who were very vital and available.”
Thompson also noted that McClairen sacrificed his personal won-loss record in basketball by playing in “road kill” games in the 1980s and ’90s against Division I teams to generate revenue for the university, which helped finance the infrastructure to update Bethune-Cookman football.
Thompson, who earlier this year joined McClairen in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Hall of Fame, added: “We are still living off the interest of the investment that Cy McClairen has made in our university.”
McClairen made sure players heard him
McClairen, who is 6-foot-4 with a playing weight of 210 pounds – and he is not a pound heavier today – is known as a humorous character who is caring, giving and active in his church. However, Thompson said, the gentle giant possesses a hard-to-match penchant for “urban poetry,” particularly when he has to break down a student-athlete.
One victim was future Hall of Fame offensive lineman Larry Little (class of ’67), who will be attending the McClairen tributes later this month.
“I remember it was my freshman year,” Little said. “Some of the football players had gone out on the night of the Omegas [Omega Psi Phi fraternity] ball. We didn’t go to the ball; we just went out, and we might have had a little too much to drink.”
Someone did damage to a campus dormitory.
“Cy came into the Hole [the football team’s living quarters] kicking in doors that next morning. He said, ‘Everybody be at the meeting at 8 a.m.’ ”
McClairen began singling out players, using colorful language.
Little continued: “When he got to me, he said: ‘Little, you haven’t been here but a minute, and you f—ing up already.”
When Little tried to defend himself, McClairen retorted: “Your eyes look like the red river of a fox’s a–.”
Little, who played offense and defense at Bethune-Cookman, credits the coaching and tough love of McClairen and Johnson for preparing him for the NFL. McClairen was later a mentor to Little, who coached Bethune-Cookman football from 1983-91.
Little was a member of the 1972 Miami Dolphins 17-0 NFL championship team, but perhaps Little’s proudest coaching achievement is when as coach of then-Division II North Carolina Central football team (1993-98), he registered a September 1994 victory over a Bethune-Cookman team coached by McClairen.
As the Orlando Sentinel tells it:
“Returning to face his alma mater, North Carolina Central coach Larry Little broke down in tears during his pregame speech. It was Bethune-Cookman that broke down during the game. The Wildcats had six turnovers, allowing Little a happy homecoming as his Division II Eagles stunned Division I-AA Bethune-Cookman 24-5 before 6,528 at Municipal Stadium.
Little, who played under Cy McClairen at B-CC from 1963-67, was fired by Bethune President Oswald Bronson following the 1991 season after nine years as the Wildcats’ head coach.”
“I never let him forget about that one,” said Little, who just might remind McClairen again on Aug. 12.
Long after the August celebrations, McClairen will have plenty of people around to tell his stories to. He has been married for 57 years to Daytona Beach native Margaret, who was Miss B-CC in her senior year.
He has two daughters, Robin and Michelle; a son, Dwayne; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Plus, McClairen will continue to come to the office “a couple days a week and just do what he wants to do,” Thompson said.
It all started in 1949
McClairen began his association with the university when he enrolled as a student in 1949. After a six-year NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers and two military stints in between, McClairen came back to Bethune-Cookman in 1961 to be head football coach.
His responsibilities would grow almost the moment he set foot on campus.
“The basketball coach left two days before school opened,” McClairen remembered. “Then, my AD had a heart attack and was going downhill real fast.
“I didn’t have time to try to find no athletic director, so I took over that job and the basketball program.
“So for 12 years, I held those three positions, coming out of the Army.”
McClairen was head football coach 1961-1972 and 1994 to 1996 – his last season as a head coach. He was basketball coach 1961-1966 and 1968-1993.
Raymond McDoogle coached the 1966-67 basketball team, and Tony Sheals succeeded McClairen before the 1993-94 season.
McClairen was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1953, but his playing days were delayed by the two-year hitch in the military. A knee injury ended his NFL career after six seasons.
McClairen has been around so long that he remembers when the Cleveland Browns were an elite team in the NFL thanks to a player named Jim Brown.
With two players – Little and defensive tackle Maulty Moore – on the ’72 Dolphins, McClairen, who has a Steelers helmet in his office – became a Dolphins fan as well.
His tenure and people skills – driving skills as well – gave him firsthand knowledge of Bethune-Cookman legends, including founder Mary McLeod Bethune.
Rashean Mathis (class of 2003, who recently retired after 11 seasons with his hometown Jacksonville Jaguars and two with the Detroit Lions) remembered that McClairen, then an administrator, “always had a smile on his face.”
“Before I even knew who he was, he was like a ball of energy, a light that came into the room,” Mathis said.
“If he was having a bad day, you never knew it. And he had this handshake he would give everyone; those Michael Jordan hands would swallow up your hand, and he would greet everyone with a ‘Yol!’
“All that he had accomplished, it was amazing to see how humble he was, said Mathis, who also will attend the McClairen tributes.
“I believe we stand on the backs of those who stood before us,” Mathis said.
“With Cy, it was like Herschel Walker walking down the halls at Georgia or Deion Sanders at Florida State,” Mathis said. “That’s what Cy is for us. He was one of the first [NFL players]. You just don’t know about it because he wasn’t from a big school.”
While at Bethune, Mathis had 14 interceptions in 2002 playing for former NFL defensive back Alvin Wyatt (class of ’70) to break a record of 13 set in 1969 by Wyatt, who had been recruited by McClairen and played for him. Mathis broke Wyatt’s single-season interception record and holds the IAA record. Wyatt still holds the school record by 34-31. Wyatt was named head coach by Thompson in 1997 and became Bethune’s winningest football coach (90-54).
McClairen’s life touched by legends
But exactly how well did McClairen know Bethune, who in 1904 founded the Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, which eventually grew to become the private Bethune-Cookman College?
Well, as a student, he was her driver, being one of the few people on campus with a car and a driver’s license.
Perhaps another link as impressive is this: McClairen was a member of the NFL Pro Bowl in 1957 in Los Angeles, when he was third in the NFL with 46 receptions, just ahead Frank Gifford (future Hall of Famer and Monday Night Football pioneer), with had 41 catches.
We’re not finished.
During the Pro Bowl week, McClairen’s roommate was a breakout star from Syracuse who was an All-American in football and lacrosse.
So what does McClairen remember about Jim Brown, whom some consider the greatest football player ever?
“He was kind of quiet, and he was a rookie,” McClairen said. “He spent a good part of the week on the phone with somebody from Syracuse that had promised him a car at the end of his rookie season.”
McClairen remembered more about Brown.
“Jim Brown was a hell of a football player,” McClairen continued. “He could outrun most of the white boys [as well as most of the black ones], and he was a workhorse, and coming from Syracuse, he was a complete ball player.”
Coming out of high school in Panama City, Florida, McClairen was not a complete, polished football player, and he almost didn’t make it to Bethune-Cookman.
He was first set to play at Florida A&M for the legendary Alonzo “Jake” Gaither, who seemed to have a lock on the talent pool at Florida’s segregated black high schools.
Gaither’s teams (204-36-4, 36 All-Americans, 42 in the NFL) won 22 Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles in his 25 years as head coach and six Black College National Championships between 1950 and 1961.
But Gaither wanted McClairen to try out – a process that could take up to two years – to earn a scholarship, with no guarantees.
McClairen wasn’t having any of that.
When McClairen returned home, his father called Richard V. Moore, McClairen’s middle school principal, who was then president of … Bethune-Cookman College.
History was about the take shape.
At Bethune-Cookman, McClairen was slated to play tackle for coach Rudolph “Bunky” Matthews, until substituting at tight end during a practice – and that’s the position McClairen played for the Steelers.
On the basketball court, McClairen was a forward, and one of his teammates was future Temple University Hall of Fame coach John Chaney.
McClairen’s basketball talents – as well as football – made Gaither and Florida A&M regret not offering him a scholarship.
“I caught a touchdown pass to beat Jake Gaither for the first time in Bethune-Cookman history,” he said.
When the Wildcats beat the Florida A&M Rattlers 8-7 in the 1952 homecoming game, in attendance was former Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, who was running the Pittsburgh Pirates.
McClairen suspects Rickey spread the word about his exploits to the Steelers, who drafted McClairen in 1953.
Then, during basketball season, McClairen teamed with Chaney to beat the Rattlers for the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship.
McClairen was SIAC player of the year in that season.
In 1977, he was named SIAC Coach of the Year. When Bethune-Cookman later joined MEAC, McClairen would eventually win MEAC Coach of the Year in football and in basketball.
How good was McClairen as a basketball player? While in the Army between 1951-53, he was part of invitation-only barnstorming games organized by eventual Globetrotter legend Marques Haynes, whom McClairen remembers as “that dribbler from Oklahoma.”
A good basketball player, yes, but how good was McClairen as a basketball coach?
With no previous coaching experience, he had 16 consecutive winning seasons, according to Dan Ryan, Bethune-Cookman’s athletic historian and assistant sports information director. McClairen had four 20-win seasons and four postseason appearances.
His 1967-68 SIAC champions – without a shot clock or 3-point line – averaged 102.6 points a game, which is better than the 2015-16 Orlando Magic and 15 other NBA teams, according to Ryan, a Bethune-Cookman historian.
McClairen’s best teams featured future ABA and NBA players Carl Fuller and Johnnie Allen.
His basketball winning percentage was .678 after the 1978 season but slipped under .500 during the fundraising sacrificial games against Division I heavyweights such as Arkansas, Minnesota and Georgetown.
In the NFL, McClairen also played against New York Giants defensive back Emlen Tunnell, who in 1967 became the first African-American inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as well as Dick “Night Train” Lane, another Hall of Fame defensive back.
McClairen offered short takes on some of Bethune-Cookman’s greats.
On Larry Little:
“He was the greatest player I ever coached. He was real fast and he could do it all. He could block well, he could play defense well, and he was quick as a cat.”
John Chaney in his playing days:
“He could handle the ball and shoot it. He got married before he finished college. He made the Globetrotters team, but his wife said he couldn’t stay away from home that long. So he got a job with the local high school until he went on to Temple.”
Alvin Wyatt, a former Bethune-Cookman football coach who played in the NFL:
“He was a star out of Jacksonville, but he hurt his knee, and Jack Gaither wouldn’t give him a scholarship [to FAMU].
“Our doctors checked him out and found his knee was fine, and he switched from offense to defense.”
McClairen said he helped his players with their NFL contract negotiations – Little with Miami and Wyatt with the Oakland Raiders.
McClairen also believed he knows why Gaither dominated the black college football circuit the way coach Eddie Robinson dominated at Grambling.
“Jake was filming the game when most black schools couldn’t afford to film it,” McClairen said.
He stopped being head basketball coach in 1993, but had to take over football in the fall after the football coach left abruptly after a drug conviction.
In the following season, he “beat Florida A&M for the second time in my career as coach.”
On Bethune-Cookman career-passing leader Bernard Hawk (7,737 yards and 56 touchdowns):
“He could flat-out throw that football. And he could run the football himself. He was just a hell of a quarterback to say the least. And he played it for four years.”
On Rashean Mathis:
“[Head football coach Alvin] Wyatt got him because he talked to his parents. Wyatt worked with him individually and brought him up to date. He had ability, so it fell in place.”
Mathis would go on to break Wyatt’s career interceptions record at Bethune-Cookman.
Did we mention that McClairen was once on The Oprah Winfrey Show?
One of the players whom McClairen cut from the football team – one who legend has it was not even offered a scholarship by Gaither and Florida A&M – went on to become be famed trial attorney Willie Gary. He eventually played at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, and graduated from law school at North Carolina Central University in nearby Durham, both historically black universities.
Winfrey reunited the pair on her TV show, according to Ryan, who has compiled a compendium of MClairen factoids.
It seems Gary, whose law practice is in Florida, doesn’t hold a grudge against McClairen or Bethune-Cookman and has contributed several times to the university.
McClairen still believes he made the right decision.
“I didn’t offer him a scholarship because he had never played football,” McClairen said. “The president of the university wanted me to do the show, so I did it.
“But we didn’t have the money to give to a guy who had never played football that I knew of.”
It just doesn’t get any better than that.