The sudden passing of Champaign Central coach Wayne McClain on Wednesday resonates statewide. With three state titles, McClain was a coaching icon.
McClain, who had been hospitalized this week with pneumonia, was 60, according to the (Champaign-Urbana) News-Gazette. The newspaper cited a death notice submitted by a Champaign funeral home.
“For the people in Peoria it feels like we all lost a family member today,” says Kansas assistant coach Jerrance Howard, a Peoria native who grew up respecting the coach and later worked with him at the University of Illinois.
“His presence was always there, was always felt.”
McClain is best known for his tremendous success as head coach at Peoria Manual. After spending 18 years as a Manual assistant, he took over for legendary coach Dick Van Scyoc following the 1993-94 state championship season.
McClain led the Rams to three state titles in his first three years and was named the 1997 USA Today National High School Coach of the Year. Those three state title teams, which were led by his son, Sergio McClain, along with stars Marcus Griffin and Frank Williams, combined to go 94-5 and are considered some of the most legendary teams in state basketball history.
After seven seasons at Manual, where he averaged 26 wins a year and won five sectional titles, Illinois head coach Bill Self brought McClain on as an assistant coach in 2002. After Self departed for Kansas, McClain stayed on as an assistant under Bruce Weber through the 2011-2012 season. During his 11 years as an assistant, Illinois won 235 games (.685 winning percentage), including the 37-2 national runner-up team in 2005.
“I don’t know if there’s a better man who cared as much for kids as he did,” Weber said. “He had such a huge heart. He was always helping people, picking people up and never gave up on them.
“I knew Wayne early on when I was recruiting Peoria, and I know he tried and did save people’s lives in Peoria. He was always so humble about the impact he had.”
McClain lettered in three sports in high school before staying home for college and playing three years of basketball at Bradley. He returned as a sixth-grade teacher in Peoria before moving on to a teaching career at Peoria Manual.
As a coach at Manual for 24 years, he was a staple throughout the school and in the community. Another Peoria coaching icon, former Peoria Central coach Chuck Beuscher, knew McClain since watching him play as a 15-year-old.
He saw the impact McClain had on Peoria.
“He’s one of the most influential and impactful people in Peoria over the last 30 years, especially on the South Side of Peoria and the Manual community,” says Beuscher, who coached at Peoria Central from 1979-2004 and had a number of battles with McClain as a coach in the intense rivalry with Manual. “He had a great way with kids. He was a straight shooter, hard-nosed, tough but fair. And the kids loved him, looked up to him.”
Although Howard played at Peoria Central, he was well aware of the influence McClain had on all of Peoria and the never-ending presence he possessed.
“With coach McClain it was more than basketball,” says Howard, who spent five years coaching with McClain as an assistant at Illinois. “He was a teacher before he was a coach and every kid looked up to him. His presence was always there. He would help anyone — basketball or outside of basketball — and he embraced kids who had struggles. When you were at your worst, he was there for you.”
After spending a year on Weber’s administrative staff at Kansas State, McClain returned to his roots last year and took over as head coach at Champaign Central. McClain guided an underdog team to a regional title and sectional win last season.
“He was an outstanding coach, who players did anything for,” Beuscher said. “He earned so much respect from everyone who knew him.”