JACKSONVILLE – As Bryan McClendon stepped into his new role as interim head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs here at the TaxSlayer Bowl, he appointed himself a special assistant. This person has spent virtually every minute at McClendon’s side, on the practice field, in meetings, at dinners and bowl events. If McClendon’s there, it’s quite likely his special assistant is close by.
That assistant’s name is Bryan Alonzo McClendon. And, yes, there’s a relation.
Bryan Alonzo — known to family and friends as “Bam” — is McClendon’s 8-year-old son, the oldest of he and Amber’s two children, and Bryan Alonzo has faithfully shadowed his father all around the Bulldogs’ practice complex at the University of North Florida and throughout the expansive grounds of the Sawgrass Marriott Resort and Spa all week. And he’ll also be on the sideline with his dad when the Bulldogs tee it up against Penn State at EverBank Field on Saturday.
It’s a scene very reminiscent of ones that took place regularly at Georgia a quarter century ago. When Willie McClendon served as running backs coach for Ray Goff at Georgia from 1989-1993, Bryan McClendon was about the same age as his son now and was often on Woodruff Practice Fields chasing down loose balls or playing makeshift football games behind the end zones with the other coaches’ kids.
“We had a few of them back then,” Goff said of coaches’ kids. “Willie, he took his children everywhere. They went to practice with us at bowl games. I’ve enjoyed seeing them grow up. To see Bryan accomplish what he’s accomplished is really unique.”
Bryan McClendon has been hearing a lot lately about his “accomplishment.” For the most part, he just shrugs it off and smiles.
“The biggest thing is, I don’t want to make this deal about me, ‘cause it’s not. It’s about these kids,” McClendon said before the Bulldogs’ bowl practice Wednesday at the University of North Florida. “Every decision I’ve made and everything I do right now is for those guys. As far as me and all that other stuff, I really haven’t thought about it personally.”
But there are many out there who see his temporary assignment as groundbreaking and precedent-setting. Many of the Bulldogs’ players have trumpeted McClendon as the first African-American head coach in Georgia football history.
And, to be sure, he’ll be credited in UGA annals with victory or defeat, whichever one befalls the Bulldogs when they battle Penn State on Saturday in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
As one might imagine, those around when McClendon was a mere tyke traipsing underneath his father’s feet are beaming.
“I think it’s absolutely wonderful,” said Willie McClendon, who was traveling with his wife to Jacksonville on Wednesday night. “It’s been a joy to watch him grow as an individual, as a man, as a coach, as a family man. I couldn’t be more tickled.”
Said Goff: “I saw Bryan not long ago and I told him, ‘you don’t realize it but you’re setting history.’ You’re the first minority head football coach at the University of Georgia. I also told him he could either be the winningest coach in school history or you can be the losingest coach. He’s going to be either-or, but he’s making history either way.”
Goff said the dearth of black head coaches in the college game is shameful. Goff felt like he hired several black men while he was at Georgia who could have and probably should have risen to the top position, including Bob Harrison, Darryl Drake and Ray Sherman.
Willie McClendon never saw that role for himself. In fact, his was a protracted tenure in coaching. After a short stint coaching at Valdosta State, Goff summoned him to coach running backs at Georgia, where McClendon starred as a record-setting tailback and rushed for 1,312 yards and 13 touchdowns in 1978.
But Willie McClendon quickly discovered that coaching wasn’t for him. He resigned in 1993 to enter into private business. Today he owns W.M Ventures Inc., an “underground distribution” company that contracts with Georgia Power.
“I wanted to watch my kids grow up,” the eldest McClendon said. “That was the deciding factor.”
Kind of ironic, really. The guy who wanted to spend more time with his kids had a kid grow up wanting to be a coach. And based on his son’s career track, he’s a very good one.
Bryan McClendon’s rise in the ranks has been meteoric. He’s leaving Georgia after the bowl because Will Muschamp offered him a co-offensive coordinator’s position and another hefty raise at South Carolina. Bryan has already held the titles of running backs coach, receivers coach, recruiting coordinator, passing game coordinator and assistant head coach at Georgia. He just turned 32 years old on Tuesday.
“I just didn’t know,” Willie McClendon said. “Bryan told me about three years ago that watching me coach made him want to coach. And that caught me by surprise. Up until that time, I had no inkling that he’d want to do this.
“But it’s what you do as a parent. You introduce them to all these different things out there and you never know when they get that uh-oh moment and decide this is what I want to do. What turns them on, you just don’t know. But it caught me by surprise.”
In a lot of ways, it has caught Bryan McClendon by surprise, too. He freely admits that he has always wanted to be a head coach, but even he is a bit taken aback to find himself in charge of a major SEC program, even if it’s promised for only one game.
So he’s not taking the responsibility lightly. He has sought every bit of advice he can find. McClendon has leaned hard on Mark Richt, his former boss, for tips on organization and bowl practice routines. He involves interim coordinators John Lilly and Kevin Sherrer in all team decisions. And he has immersed himself in game video.
And not necessarily Georgia games. He has tried to educate himself on as many in-game, decision-making scenarios as he can find. Because Saturday, when it comes time to decide to go for it on fourth-and-short or whether to take a timeout or hold it for later, all eyes are going to turn to McClendon and wait for word on the headset that says “head coach” on the side.
“You’ve got to be ready for it all,” McClendon said. “I’ve been kind of mentally preparing myself. I’ve been practicing by watching games. What would I do here, what would I do there, what would I be thinking at this point? It’s just like any other thing; you’ve got to practice at it to be good at it. You’ve got to put yourself in that position to know what you’re going to do when it happens.
“Hopefully I don’t make any bonehead decisions. If I do, hopefully you guys will take it easy on me.”
Of course, McClendon has spoken the most to his father about the challenges that await him. There are a lot of people out there who care deeply about Bryan McClendon, but there is no love as intimate as that of a parent. And McClendon said the best advice he has received so far has come from his Dad.
“The thing that he’s said the most that I’ve stuck to is, ‘hey, you got into this position by being you. So don’t try to be Mark Richt or any other really successful coach out there. Be you and go from there,’” he said. “So that’s kind of been what I’ve been doing.”
As Bryan McClendon does that, there’s a little 8-year-old boy following close behind. Maybe he’ll be a head coach one day. Or maybe not.
But what’s clear from a generation ago, sons are paying attention their fathers, and they harbor no doubts that they can one day do what Dad does. Maybe even better.
Bryan McClendon is living proof.