Born To Coach: New South Carolina OC Bryan McClendon was groomed to lead a team

Born To Coach: New South Carolina OC Bryan McClendon was groomed to lead a team

By Josh Hyber/Photo by Allen Sharpe

When it comes to the life of Bryan McClendon, family always comes first and foremost.

During one 28-second span at the news conference introducing him as South Carolina’s offensive coordinator on Jan. 5, the 34-year-old used some form of the word “we” 10 times while explaining why he accepted the position instead of taking his career elsewhere.

He wanted his family — his wife Amber and children Bryan, Brooke and Brayden — to set roots.

“We wanted to choose a place we felt like we could be for a while,” McClendon said, moments before carrying then 3-month-old Brayden out of the room. “That’s the reason why we’re here. We didn’t come here to bounce around. We believe in South Carolina.”

It’s also often family that gets mentioned first when talking about McClendon.

His dad, Willie, was a standout running back at Georgia, played for the Chicago Bears (1979-82) and later coached UGA’s running backs. His younger brother, Brent, played at Georgia State and is now in his second season as a graduate assistant at South Carolina.

So, despite his youthfulness, McClendon carries the demeanor and knowledge of a seasoned coach. After all, he’s entering his 11th season as a college coach.

“He’s kind of built for it, kind of groomed for it, kind of born into it,” Miami head coach Mark Richt, who McClendon played for and coached with at Georgia, told Spurs & Feathers. “He probably couldn’t help but become a coach. It fits him like a glove.”

This season, his first as a play-calling OC, McClendon will implement an up-tempo, run-pass option offense using tricks of the trade he learned from his mentors, respected offensive coaches like his dad, Richt, Mike Bobo (Colorado State head coach), Brian Schottenheimer (Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator) and Kurt Roper (former South Carolina OC, current Colorado quarterbacks coach). 

“Learning football is what has always excited me,” McClendon said. “Just wanting to know what guys are supposed to do in the grand scheme of things. And not just wanting to know what my position was about.” 

The Chicago native, who played receiver at Georgia, will seek to turn around a Gamecock offense that ranked 12th in the SEC last season. It threw for 213 yards per game, which ranked sixth in the conference, and ran for 127, which also ranked 12th. 

When South Carolina beat Michigan and its third-ranked defense in the Outback Bowl after Roper was relieved of his duties, McClendon called plays for the first time.

Said South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp, “He did a lot better than a lot of proven coordinators, I can tell you that.”

Like father, like son

Willie McClendon insists he had “nothing to do” with Bryan’s rapid ascent in coaching. “The things he’s accomplished, he’s worked hard for and he’s made happen,” McClendon told Spurs & Feathers. “I understand the sentiment of family leadership, but he’s made it happen.”

Willie didn’t even allow Bryan to tag along with him to UGA practices. “Mainly because that was my work area,” McClendon said. “I wanted to have the separation between work and family. But we always talked about football at the house. Offensive schemes. 

“We’ve always talked about the evaluation of college athletes, and when Bryan was a graduate assistant we talked all the time about his experience as a grad assistant and my experience as a grad assistant.”

But there was also this McClendon family rule: the three McClendon boys were not allowed to play full-pads football until ninth grade. With Dad being an ex-player and an ex-coach, he didn’t want his kids “banging their head at that growth stage” while playing for inexperienced coaches. 

The kids wanted to play, but they understood Dad’s rule, so they instead attended touch football camps and dedicated most of their time to baseball, basketball, track and swimming.

Willie McClendon didn’t even know Bryan wanted to be a coach until Bryan was a graduate assistant at Georgia during the 2007-2008 season. It was that year Bobo was promoted to OC and completely revamped the Bulldog offensive playbook. Alongside him sat McClendon, who watched the creation of terminology, blocking schemes and routes take place.

Though McClendon helped with receivers that season, he was hired full-time the next season to coach the Georgia running backs. McClendon admits he was unsure about coaching the position, but he worked with “really good coaches” — like his dad — who helped him as much as they could. 

“A lot of it you just end up learning trial by fire,” McClendon said. “You go in there, learn what works, learn what not to do. You’re learning every single day. 

“It made me learn the whole game, because all I had ever done was look at stuff from a receiver perspective. I didn’t know a whole lot about protections. It made me learn that. Learning stuff from the inside out is what helped me the most. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me, as far as learning the game.”

Said Willie McClendon, “We agree that the foundation of any good offense is the need to be able to control the line of scrimmage and run the ball, no matter what formation you have.”

Dad spoke for about a minute describing his offensive philosophy before concluding, “You have to do things to be affective in the run game but also have the ability to check out of a bad play.

“So the run-pass option.” 

Ah. The magic words. 

Georgia didn’t use much of the trendy scheme while Willie McClendon was there, but did use it some to take advantage of blitzes. “Coach Muschamp knows what it does to defenses and he wants to take advantage of it,” he said. “If everything is read correctly, you eliminate bad plays.” 

A Natural

Mark Richt coached Georgia for only a season before Bryan McClendon arrived in 2002. McClendon came on board as a defensive back but realized in just a few days he wouldn’t receive much playing time there, so he asked to be switched to receiver.

“Coach’s son, so he kind of understood football from the very beginning,” Richt said. “He was a very smooth athlete, a good route runner, tough, a physical blocker and could catch the ball well. He was a guy you could count on to take care of business. Good person. Good family and a guy you could trust.”

Though McClendon wasn’t a star — he was a leader and glue piece on three SEC championship teams — Richt “could just about predict” that one day he would be a coach. McClendon had a cup of tea with the Chicago Bears, but returned to Georgia as a graduate assistant after just one summer. 

“Just because a guy played for me doesn’t necessarily mean he’s ready to work for me or has the maturity to do that,” Richt said. “You’d like them to grow up a bit before they come back, but he was a guy that you knew very quickly would be ready to separate himself from the former players.”

What made McClendon different?

“He was Georgia,” Richt said. “He knew how I wanted to go about my business, how I wanted our coaches to go about their business. We did things a certain way, and he knew it. He embraced it and he was a natural.

“… It’s pretty easy to see he’s got a great future in the business.”

Hunger to coach 

Mike Bobo helped recruit McClendon to Georgia, although, in reality, it wasn’t a tough sell. 

“He was always very well respected. Respectful. Yes, sir. No, sir. A hard worker,” Bobo told Spurs & Feathers. “He had talent, but I would not say he was [a five-star] guy. He was a tough kid that had a good skill set and a dependable guy that you knew, one day this guy could end up being a captain on your football team.”

The smarts McClendon showed and how he mentored younger teammates set him apart.

“He ended up knowing the whole offense,” Bobo said. “A lot of guys can just learn where they line up and what they do. He also understood the concepts and why we were running things. He ended up learning what we were doing in the run game and protection.” 

The two were soon on the same staff, and Bobo saw McClendon’s passion. How he’d sneak off at conventions with coaches of different positions.

“He didn’t take anything for granted,” Bobo said. “He was always involved. He always wanted more. More responsibility. Which is always, I think, a sign of a guy that’s hungry. He didn’t think he had all the answers.”

Bobo also saw McClendon’s work with student-athletes. He routinely came out of meetings and saw McClendon working with players up and down the depth chart, from star players like Todd Gurley and Knowshon Moreno to players most people didn’t know the names of.

There’s also the recruiting aspect.

McClendon was Georgia’s recruiting coordinator for the 2014-15 season when the Bulldogs brought in the sixth-best recruiting class in the country, according to Rivals. In 2014, McClendon was named the 247Sports national recruiter of the year. 

Yes, there’s his age, but Richt pointed out how McClendon is also a husband and father. He can relate to the parents and also to high school coaches. McClendon knows not just the names of high school coaches, but guidance counselors and people who work the front desks.

“He’s a whale of a recruiter. He’s got a great blend of everything you need to sell your program and sell yourself,” Richt said. “He’s a genuine person and it makes a big difference.” 

Said Bobo, “Guys are going to play for him and guys are going to want to work for him now that he’s a coordinator.”

Father Figure

Early in a game against Georgia Tech when McClendon was a senior, he tripped while fielding a punt and downed the ball on the 1-yard line. “Back when we were coaching together we used to give him grief about that,” Bobo said. “But he came back and caught the go-ahead touchdown to clinch the game.”

“It was a play that they had drawn up just for me,” McClendon said. “We needed a play to happen and coach Richt called it. The rest is history.” 

Perseverance, just one of the lessons he teaches his players at South Carolina.

“Coach McClendon, he’s like a father-figure, a role model to every receiver [on the team],” Gamecock receiver Bryan Edwards said. “He’s constantly there for us, whether it’s football or outside of football. He’s someone I look up to, with the way he works and the way he pushes us to be the best people we can be.”

“It’s been awesome [working with him],” Gamecock first-year quarterbacks coach Dan Werner said. “… The thing is with him, he’s not only smart, but he’s very demanding. And the players respect him. You put all that together and you’re a good football coach.” 

Werner then agreed with Muschamp’s sentiment that McClendon will one day be a head coach, though it will only come with production, wins and meeting the team’s goals.

Like winning the state. Like winning the SEC East.

Which brings the conversation with Willie McClendon to South Carolina’s Week 2 game against both he and his son’s alma mater. “Oh, I’m rooting for my son, hands down, no questions, no mistake about it,” he said. “I don’t care. If [anyone] can root against their sons, good for them. I can’t.”

That’s family.

That’s what the McClendons are all about.