Steve McClain is not the only new head coach in Chicago, but he is the newest.
Joe Maddon led the Chicago Cubs to the National League Championship Series in his first season as manager, and John Fox is off to a 2-5 start in his first year as head coach of the Chicago Bears.
In Division I men’s basketball, McClain at UIC and Dave Leitao at DePaul look to overhaul their programs in the never-ending pursuit to mold a nationally relevant basketball team in the nation’s third biggest city. But Leitao is making his second debut at DePaul, where he crafted a three-year record of 58-34 with a 2004 NCAA Tournament appearance during his first tenure.
The 53-year-old McClain begins his second Division I head coaching job after spending the past five years on the staff of Indiana’s Tom Crean. He has recruited Chicago since his first head-coaching gig at Wyoming, where he took the Cowboys to the second round of NCAA Tournament in 2002 and won Mountain West Conference coach of the year honors.
He assisted Billy Tubbs at TCU for four years before Wyoming and assisted at Colorado for three seasons and joined the Hoosiers in 2010. McClain said he can do at UIC what he’s done each step of his coaching career — win. It’s one arrow in his recruiting pitch quiver that also includes larger university investment in men’s hoops, the talent he worked with at Indiana, and an up-tempo gameplan.
“What I try to sell kids on is everywhere we’ve been we’ve built championships,” said McClain. “Walked into Wyoming, they hadn’t won a Mountain West Conference championship in 13 years, and we went back to back. Colorado, that program was devastated. We left too soon, but the team we left was the team that helped (Tad Boyle) go to the NCAA Tournament. Texas Christian with Billy Tubbs, they have one (Western Athletic Conference title) banner hanging in their gym. We hung it.
“Everywhere I’ve gone, whether as head coach or assistant, we’ve had to rebuild. This program has been to the NCAA Tournament, they’ve done these things. It’s 10 to 15 years removed now. I know how to get us back there, and that’s what we talk to recruits about.”
The lack of success in major college basketball in the state of Illinois in general and Chicago in particular has been a mystery. Since the turn of the century only four Illinois schools have more than one NCAA Tournament appearance — DePaul, Illinois, Southern Illinois and UIC in 2002 and 2004 under Jimmy Collins.
This from a state that has produced Derrick Rose, Jahlil Okafor, Jon Scheyer, Dwyane Wade, Jabari Parker, Cliff Alexander, Tony Allen and Anthony Davis. None stayed in state for their college career.
Recruiting acumen was a major factor in the hiring of McClain, said UIC athletic director Jim Schmidt. McClain knows the only way to get top talent to stay is to win on the court, and that starts with victories on the recruiting trail. Having helped mold current NBA players Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller and Noah Vonleh during his Indiana stint, McClain has shown he knows what he can do with such talent when he gets it.
McClain immediately hired assistants Brendan Mullins and Ron Coleman, who have AAU connections and experience.
“Everybody in the world is in Chicago getting players, from Kentucky to Duke to Michigan State to all the Big Ten teams, so it’s not as easy as it looks,” Schmidt said. “I was looking for someone with unbelievable energy and someone who thought about recruiting 24/7, and that’s him. He’s all about recruiting, and his staff he built with guys who have really worked the AAU side of the Chicago area for years.
“When he pulls out his NCAA rings to recruits that has an impact. When he can say he worked with Victor Oladipo, that has an impact. When he starts mentioning guys that are in the pros that he helped coach, that has an impact. That he had been to the Sweet 16 as a head coach at Wyoming has an impact. There’s no doubt the Indiana brand is strong and that people pay attention to that.
“I think he likes the challenge of rebuilding things. He knows it’s been done here and it can be done at a high level. I think that was intriguing to him. His energy fits the energy of the city.”
The chance to be the coach that brings the city a winner was a major attraction for McClain.
“If we can get this back,” he said, “we could be Chicago’s college team.”