Guenther: McClain held Illini together

Guenther: McClain held Illini together

Published Oct. 23, 2014 6:07 p.m. ET

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Friends and colleagues described former Illinois assistant basketball coach Wayne McClain as a friend and father figure as he was mourned this past week. A former boss revealed McClain was the glue who held the Illini program together when coach Bill Self left for Kansas in 2003.

Then-athletic director Ron Guenther says he almost didn't realize McClain could play that role until it was too late.

Guenther told the more than 1,000 people gathered at McClain's funeral Wednesday in Champaign, including Self, that he ''didn't react very well' to Self's exit.

Guenther said that with the sought-after coach's likely departure rumored on a weekend day in March 2003, he spotted Self's car at his office and stopped by to ask Self what he planned to do.


''I said, `You're going to Kanas? All your guys are gone, Get them out by midnight,''' Guenther said. Later, ''I thought, `I just fired Wayne McClain.' I didn't sleep.''

Self was leaving behind key talent that his eventual successor, Bruce Weber, would take to the NCAA title game in 2005. But there was talk that some of those players - notably current Brooklyn Net Deron Williams - would transfer if Self left.

At McClain's funeral, Guenther and others described him as a man who held whatever pain he felt to himself. He died of lung cancer that few knew he had until the week of his Oct. 15 death.

''He's a private, hard guy,'' Guenther said. ''He could be hurt and you'd never know it.

But standing outside McClain's house in the rain, trying to talk to him through a closed screen door about staying, he knew the assistant coach was hurt.

''I said, `Wayne, I made a terrible mistake. I want you to stay.''' Guenther recalled. ''As I sat there, water dripping on me, Wayne didn't ask me in either.''

Eventually, McClain agreed to stay. Until Weber was hired in late April, McClain was the staff. And he kept those key players together.

Weber was also at the funeral. That he and Self, serious Big 12 rivals, were in the same room when no basketball was being played is something in itself. At Illinois, Weber once held a mock funeral for the departed Self after many fans clung to the belief that when he left town their basketball hopes left with him.

But the men agreed on McClain.

Self said McClain was the one in-state coach he could hire who had the respect of virtually everyone in the ''somewhat factional'' world of Illinois pre basketball. Weber called the decision to keep McClain at Illinois, a somewhat unusual step for a new head coach, ''a no-brainer.''