Subscribe for 33¢ / day
Dave McClain, 1981, Ohio State
University of Wisconsin football coach Dave McClain celebrates with his players on the field at Camp Randall Stadium following the Badgers' upset victory over Ohio State in 1981. Associated Press file photo

ANDY BAGGOTIt’s good to see the most underrated legacy in University of Wisconsin football history finally getting some modern-day love.

Dave McClain, who coached the Badgers from 1978 to ’85, is one of seven to be inducted into the UW Athletic Hall of Fame on Sept. 2. The gesture, announced last weekend, seems long overdue to me.

McClain was the first coach to lead the Badgers to consecutive bowl appearances (1981 and ’82) as well as their first postseason win (’82).

He was the second UW coach to beat Michigan and Ohio State in the same season (1981).

He oversaw a victory over Michigan when it was ranked No. 1 in the nation (1981) and four wins over Ohio State, including two on the road (1982 and ’85) and three when the Buckeyes were ranked (1981, ’84 and ’85).

McClain came from Ball State to take over a program that had one winning record in its previous 14 years and went 46-42-3 (.522) overall with five winning seasons.

Twenty-five years ago today, McClain died suddenly of a heart attack after a workout at Camp Randall Stadium. He was just 48.

The Big Ten Conference named its Coach of the Year award for McClain in 1986 and the UW indoor practice facility was dedicated to him in 1988, but it’s been too long since anyone took a moment to measure the quality of his legacy.

The McClain tragedy represents one of the great what-ifs in UW sports history. Like Bob Knight nearly becoming the men’s basketball coach in 1968 or Shoe Gate ruining a national championship-caliber football team in 2000, we’re given to wonder what might have been had McClain been able to finish what he started.

Of course, that means we have to reconcile what it might be like around here had the subsequent Don Morton mistake not given way to the Barry Alvarez monolith.

Turns out McClain and Alvarez had a good deal in common. Each had Hall of Fame mentors (McClain coached with Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes; Alvarez had Bob Devaney, Hayden Fry and Lou Holtz). Each wrote bold headlines in their fourth seasons with the Badgers (McClain beat Michigan and Ohio State; Alvarez won a Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl). Each was hired by iconic athletic directors who were legendary UW pass-catchers (McClain by Elroy Hirsch; Alvarez by Pat Richter). Each coach was adept at developing NFL-caliber talent.

That latter item is especially timely today given the start of the NFL draft. It brings to mind a McClain Era milestone that even Alvarez wasn’t able to eclipse.

The only time in UW history that three players were drafted in the first round was 1985. Wide receiver Al Toon went 10th overall to the New York Jets, cornerback Richard Johnson went 11th to the then-Houston Oilers and defensive end Darryl Sims went 20th to Pittsburgh.

In all, McClain worked with five players taken in the first round — including offensive tackle Ray Snell (Tampa Bay, 1980) and offensive tackle Paul Gruber (Tampa Bay, 1988) — and four others chosen in the second round.

In a tenure that was twice as long as McClain’s, Alvarez had 10 players drafted in the first round and five in the second.

McClain has a coaching legacy at UW that is worthy of a Hall of Fame plaque.

Contact Andy Baggot at or 608-252-6175.


Thanks for reading. Subscribe or log in to continue.