Gonzaga rescued Eric McClellan after much deliberation, and though his saga seems far from complete, the circle closes a bit this week.
HOUSTON – At times, it can seem like Gonzaga basketball is one seashells-and-balloons story after another, from the feel-good, four-year starting guards, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., to guys who accept diminished playing time to welcome graduate transfers that make the team better.
And then there’s Eric McClellan.
Fourteen months ago, this was McClellan: Holed up in an apartment in Nashville with his mom, watching the Kentucky-Vanderbilt game with the sound turned down. He didn’t need his shame branded any deeper by what the announcers were saying.
Eric McClellan file
Year: Redshirt Junior
“I was at rock bottom,” he says. “I thought I’d lost everything.”
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Not that he hadn’t brought it on himself. He’d sometimes been a handful as a kid in Austin, but that was juvenile, unthinking kind of stuff. Now he’d gone a little further, and he had been suspended by Vanderbilt for a semester, and then kicked off the basketball team, and all of it, everything he’d ever dreamed of, was uncertain.
Gonzaga rescued him, not without considerable deliberation, and though McClellan’s saga seems far from complete, the circle closes a bit this week. The Zags are here for Friday night’s Sweet 16 game with UCLA, bringing McClellan within a 2½-hour drive of where he grew up.
His mother, Kimberly Woody, and his old mentors will see a player with a cameo role but a hopeful future. Even today, as he averages only eight minutes, he can relieve Pangos at the point and serve as an emergency defensive stopper, an elite 6-foot-3 athlete with length.
In the round-of-32 victory Sunday over Iowa, Hawkeyes guard Mike Gesell was troubling Pangos in the second half with penetration when McClellan was summoned.
“(Gesell) made about three thrusts and he just gave up,” said Jerry Krause, Gonzaga’s co-director of basketball operations. “He moved his feet so well. His on-ball defense was tremendous.”
Even as the contribution is relatively minor, McClellan can only be grateful. Awhile back, he looked around the Gonzaga locker room and marveled, “This group is crazy. I’m blessed to be a part of this team.”
‘We had our moments’
As a kid, he tested Woody, a single mother, who says: “He’s a good kid. We had our moments. We had our days.”
The City Paper of Nashville, which profiled McClellan when he was at Vanderbilt, cited things in his schoolboy past like repeated class absences and an incident in which, driving a golf cart, he left marks on the property of a friend’s parents.
Eric McClellan file
Year: Redshirt Junior
“I made mistakes; I was real immature,” he said recently. “Even when I didn’t try to find trouble, trouble always found me.”
But he had a lot of people who didn’t give up on him. Woody names people like AAU and high-school coaches, and a teammate’s father.
“My prayer,” says Woody, “was that God would just send men into his life who would teach him how to be a man.”
McClellan ended up choosing Tulsa, where he started half his freshman season, one that ended with a triple-overtime loss to Marshall in the Conference USA tournament in which he scored 25 points with 7 rebounds and 5 assists.
That was the last game for Doug Wojcik, his coach, fired after a seven-year run. McClellan immediately looked to transfer, and he settled on Vanderbilt because assistant coach David Cason had helped recruit him to Tulsa before moving on.
Eligible in 2013-14, McClellan was having a big season for Vandy, its leading scorer at 14.3 points a game, when it all came unhinged. In early January, the school announced it was suspending him for a semester for what it termed a violation of academic policy.
Very quickly, the other shoe would drop. A published report revealed that McClellan had been charged with shoplifting the previous summer.
“I went into Nordstrom and stole a couple of shirts,” McClellan says.
When the second offense came to light, Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings booed McClellan from the team. Woody had bought a plane ticket weeks before, planning to attend the Kentucky game to see her son play. Now she was in Nashville at his most destitute hour.
“I didn’t have to spend time scolding Eric,” she says. “He was humiliated publicly.”
She recoiled when he clicked on the game, wanting no part of it. So he turned down the sound.
“I watched Eric turn on that TV and root his teammates on as if nothing had happened,” she said. “I knew when I saw little things like that, Eric was going to be OK.”
A vetting process
It wouldn’t happen right away. But a couple of months later came college basketball’s annual torrent of transfers, and Gonzaga found itself planning for the year after Pangos and Bell departed. McClellan’s high-school coach got in touch with the Gonzaga staff, which happened to be close to Wojcik, the ex-Tulsa coach.
But Wojcik couldn’t address the more troubling issues at Vanderbilt. Those would be reconciled only with Gonzaga’s institutional vetting.
“Eric had to jump through a number of hoops,” said GU assistant Tommy Lloyd. “To be honest, most kids would have gone another route.”
Mike Roth, Gonzaga athletic director, says the matter was reviewed outside athletics, by academic and admissions officers, with input from the faculty athletic representative at Vanderbilt.
“Eric was extremely forthcoming with his explanation,” says Roth.
Indeed, two things became apparent to Gonzaga. First, McClellan seemed to have owned everything. Upon leaving Vanderbilt, he had tweeted, “This isn’t about basketball, this is how I progress as a man. I’ve made decisions that I’m going to have to live with.”
Second, he has a magnetic personality, perhaps the draw that once made so many people willing to work with him.
Weeks ago, Wojcik visited the Gonzaga coaches and McClellan in Spokane. When he asked the adolescent sons of Zags coach Mark Few about their favorite players, each named McClellan.
He has a year of eligibility left, plus whatever more he and his teammates can squeeze from March Madness. Says Wojcik, “I told Mark (Few) he has a chance to be an X-factor as this whole thing unwinds, and I think he could have an unbelievable senior year.”
In Austin, Woody’s thankfulness is palpable over the phone. She repeats something she says she has told her son.
“Sometimes when you think things are happening to you,” she says, “they’re happening for you.”
The other day at KeyArena, as the Zags celebrated their dispatch of Iowa, it was the locker-room backflip of a double transfer from Tulsa and Vanderbilt that preceded Few’s own misbegotten attempt at a handstand.
“Good times,” Lloyd smiled, standing in a hallway. Indeed, better times than Eric McClellan might have thought possible.