DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Jack “Cy” McClairen, the living embodiment of all things Bethune-Cookman University Athletics, whose contribution to his beloved alma mater included seven decades as a playing, coaching and senior administrative living legend as well as a father figure, passed away on Monday, December 28, 2020. He was 89.
“The world has lost a Hall of Famer, ” said Lynn W. Thompson, Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics. “I am merely one of the thousands of people whose lives have been significantly impacted directly by this man as a coach, father figure, leader and friend. The Wildcat Nation and beyond pauses in prayer to simply say ‘Thank You God for Jack ‘Cy’ McClairen’.”
Known and loved simply as “Coach Cy,” McClairen was the cornerstone of the Wildcat athletic program, first as an athlete. The Panama City product earned 12 varsity letters from Bethune-Cookman College during his playing days, picking up letters in football, basketball and track and field.
In 1952, he caught the famed game-winning touchdown pass in the Wildcats’ homecoming upset of Florida A&M. Later that year, he and future Basketball Hall of Famer John Chaney would lead the basketball team to a Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship and a berth in the National Basketball Invitational Tournament, an NAIA regional that served as the defacto Black College National Championship. The Wildcats advanced to the championship game, falling to Tennessee State.
As a student, McClairen’s contributions extended beyond the playing field. As one of the few scholars on campus with a driver’s license, he would often serve as a chauffeur for College founder Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune.
“His DNA is woven through the history of this great quilt we call Bethune-Cookman,” said Thompson.
After graduation in 1953, “Cy” was drafted twice, first by the Pittsburgh Steelers and then by the United States Army for a two-year tour of duty, where his football skills were utilized during his stint at Fort Sill (Oklahoma) for one of the nation’s top service teams. McClairen then began a successful six year NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who in 1955 kept him and cut a quarterback named Johnny Unitas.
In 1957, he finished third in the league in receptions – finishing ahead of Frank Gifford – and was named to the NFL All-Pro team. His 1958 Pro Bowl roommate was NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown.
He returned to Bethune-Cookman in 1961, holding down duties as head football/basketball coach and athletic director at the same time. Still, McClairen found a way to record non-losing records in his first combined 27 seasons as head coach of both sports.
His football teams had to contend with a Florida A&M squad in its heyday. However, he inherited a team that lost to Florida A&M 97-0 and got that down to 23-20 in 1968, and McClairen considered that the best game of his first tenure. McClairen would lay the groundwork for a successful program, and his two successors – Charles Wesley Moore and Andy Hinson – would beat the Rattlers in three of the first four meetings after McClairen stepped down in 1972.
His second stint as head football coach found “Cy” stepping in to replace Sylvester Collins after the 1993 season. That year he earned his only win over FAMU as a head football coach, beating the Billie Joe-led Rattlers in Tampa in the Florida Classic and winning the 1994 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Coach of the Year Honors. After the 1996 season, McClairen stepped down- setting the stage for longtime assistant Alvin Wyatt, Sr., who started the modern day turnaround of Wildcat football that continues to this day.
Jack “Cy” McClairen coached many who would go on to the professional ranks, notably NFL Hall of Famer Larry Little, a member of the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Bethune-Cookman had two players on that perfect Dolphin team – Little and Maulty Moore, and were quarterbacked most of the season by Earl Morrall, McClairen’s quarterback at Pittsburgh.
McClairen also coached the late Charles “Boobie” Clark, the 1973 AFC Rookie of The Year, and Wyatt, who would go on to become the winningest football coach in Bethune-Cookman history.
As a basketball coach, McClairen led the Wildcats to SIAC championships and NCAA Division II appearances in 1965, 1968 and 1980, with that 1980 team struggling through a 10-14 regular season only to put together an incredible tournament run. He would lead that program through the transfer to Division I, stepping down in 1993. Of particular note is the fact that he personally sacrificed his career coaching record in basketball by negotiating major guarantee games to generate revenue during the transitional era.
He finished his active coaching career with records of 71-60-3 in football and 396-436 in basketball.
Before retiring in 2017, he served as Senior Associate Director of Athletics, providing leadership in several areas of athletics, including assistant golf coach for the men’s and women’s teams under the late Dr. Gary Freeman. In 1988, he was inducted into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame. He was an inaugural member of the Bethune-Cookman Athletic Hall of Fame in 2000 and was named to the MEAC and SIAC Hall of Fames as well.
He was preceded in death by his wife and college sweetheart, Margaret, and is survived by his children Robin, Michelle and Dwayne, who played basketball for him as well as competing in track and field.