Bulldogs really wanted this one for ‘B-Mac’

Bryan McClendon celebrates after earning his first career head coaching victory on Saturday in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Bryan McClendon had and received several good laughs during the victor’s news conference after the TaxSlayer Bowl. It was clear this was a man who felt both joyful and relieved.

As the lights kept blinking on and dimming off during the presser, he actually zinged the light man.

“Opposed to the light guy in this room, I think (the Bulldogs) understand the importance of (practice and preparation),” he said during his opening remarks. “But I couldn’t be more proud of these guys. I really can’t. I’m proud of these guys.”

From the day he received the unexpected phone call from Athletic Director Greg McGarity asking “for help” — it was the same day Mark Richt announced he’d be going to Miami and not coaching the bowl — McClendon didn’t ask to be in the position he would end up in. It was an awkward assignment for sure, being tabbed interim head coach for a team that had under-performed enough to get its established head coach fired and coming in amid a divided fan base and a confused locker room.

But he came through for both the school and the team, duct-taping together this group enough for it to defeat Penn State 24-17 and win its 10th game of the season.

So when the post-game queries finally morphed from what it was like keeping the ship afloat to what actually happened in the game — it was a tight and well-contested affair — he cheerfully and zealously lit up.

To be clear, McClendon had some big decisions to make, chiefly whether to go for it on fourth-and-short or kick a field goal up one score in the game’s final minutes. He elected to run Keith Marshall at the left guard, and he was stuffed for a two-yard loss.

But, ultimately, Penn State was not left with enough time to cover the 75 yards with no timeouts for a potential tying score. And, alas, McClendon was spared being accused of losing a game for Georgia because of one of his in-game decisions.

“Well, place-kicker got hurt,” he said of senior Marshall Morgan, who missed most of the game with a sprained right ankle. “So we went for it. We had tried the field goal around that same yardage a little bit earlier. We missed it, quite frankly. I knew it was a very pivotal time in the game.”

It was, and there were others. But that wasn’t really what it was all about for McClendon. He knew what he had to do in Jacksonville was temporary and largely inconsequential. As of this coming week, the 32-year-old will leave his longtime home in Athens and head to Columbia, S.C., to begin his new assignment as South Carolina’s co-offensive coordinator.

In the meantime, like all coaches on this level, McClendon is competitive and wanted to show his worth.

“I think everybody gets into this business with goals and aspirations of becoming a head coach,” he said. “It definitely makes you appreciate head coaches. But more so than that, it makes you appreciate the people that you have to have around you. Everybody’s got to be able to teach everything to these young men, like we were able to do.”

McClendon certainly impressed his charges for the last month, including coaches and players.

“He kept us focused the entire time, from the times we were in Athens practicing for this game and when we got here,” senior receiver Malcolm Mitchell said. “He did a phenomenal job. You would think he’s been a head coach all his life, the way he prepared for this game. He was calm and collected.”

Said tight ends coach John Lilly, who served as bowl-game offensive coordinator for the second consecutive year: “It won’t be the last win he gets as a head coach. … From day one, he walked in, held the guys accountable, kept everybody’s focus.”

Nobody knows if and when McClendon will become a head coach. For now, he wasn’t willing to look much further than the end of this weekend. Shortly thereafter he’ll start his job working for another former Bulldog who has become a head coach, South Carolina’s Will Muschamp.

“It’s going to be quick,” McClendon said. “I’ll say this, I’m going to enjoy this tonight. I am. I’m going to enjoy this tonight. That’s the plan. After that, I’ll kind of let it go from there.”

And, of course, he won’t have to wait long to see all his players again. He’ll have to face all the returnees Oct. 8th next year when the Bulldogs visit South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium.

“These guys know, just like any other week when I’m working, (South Carolina is) going to get all I got, do the best I can, make sure my guys are ready to play,” McClendon said. “Just like I did with these guys, all my effort and energy will be in those guys. I’m pretty sure these guys going to get a coach where it’s going to be the exact same thing. It’s hard to get a bad coach here at the University of Georgia.”

Bryan McClendon certainly proved to be a good one.

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