Camp Randall 100: Dave McClain

Photo collage of images of former Wisconsin football head coach Dave McClain
Photo collage of images of former Wisconsin football head coach Dave McClain

The Camp Randall 100 honors a prestigious group of 100 people who shaped the first century of Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin Athletics will reveal a new honoree every day from May 24 until the Badgers’ 2017 opening game on Sept. 1 against Utah State.


“He learned football from Bo Schembechler and he learned recruiting from Woody Hayes. And the combination of those things enabled Dave to be the success that he was.”

— Former offensive line coach Bob Palcic
on Wisconsin head coach Dave McClain


BY MIKE LUCAS | UWBadgers.com Senior Writer

Photo of Wisconsin football coach Dave McClain smiling while holding a football and standing on the field inside Camp Randall Stadium.
Dave McClain

Wisconsin head coach Dave McClain was fond of quoting Woody Hayes, who mentored McClain on his Ohio State coaching staff during the 1969 and 1970 seasons. McClain, in fact, used to regale his own UW assistants during meetings with endless stories on the cantankerous, unpredictable Hayes.

Whenever the Badgers were forced to practice in the rain, McClain would recycle one of Hayes’ favorite sayings. Out of respect, he would mimic his mentor by barking, “If you’re going to play in the North Atlantic, then you have to practice in the North Atlantic.”

As it was, McClain had a unique perspective on the “Ten-Year War” (1969-1978) that pitted Hayes and Ohio State versus Bo Schembechler and Michigan. In the early ’60s, McClain was an assistant to Schembechler at Miami (Ohio) University. Bo and Woody obviously influenced McClain in many ways.

“Here’s what Dave always told me,” said offensive line coach Bob Palcic, who was on McClain’s first staff at Wisconsin. “He learned football from Bo Schembechler and he learned recruiting from Woody Hayes. And the combination of those things enabled Dave to be the success that he was.”

McClain paid his dues as a college assistant and head coach. Before replacing John Jardine at Wisconsin, he ran his own program for seven years at Ball State. In 1978, he became the first UW coach to post a winning record (5-4-2) in his inaugural season since Ivy Williamson in 1949.

In 1981, the Badgers turned the corner with home wins over No. 1-ranked Michigan, Ohio State and Purdue. They finished third in the Big Ten with a 6-3 record and made their first bowl appearance since 1963. It was the first of four straight seasons that Wisconsin won seven games.

But the Badgers never got over that seven-win hump. And McClain never got a chance to complete the job. “He was a guy who was going to be here for a long time; this is the place where he wanted to be,” said close friend Andy North. “Unfortunately, it ended sooner than anyone wanted.”


“The one thing I took from him as a coach was the way he made every guy on the team feel good about themselves … most of the guys truly liked playing for him. You always felt like he really cared about you.”

— Paul Chryst on Dave McClain


Throughout the afternoon, the players arrived in groups, intermittent waves of twos and threes. Maybe they felt that there was strength in numbers. Maybe they didn’t want to be alone.

None of them were too big, too strong, too stoic or too manly to cry and mourn the loss of their head coach, Dave McClain, who only two days earlier had put the finishing touches on spring practice.

Shortly after 3 o’clock on that fateful Monday afternoon — April 28, 1986 — McClain collapsed in a sauna at Camp Randall Stadium and died of cardiac arrest. He was 48.

Two players were walking in a Camp Randall corridor when they discovered that the man lying on the floor in a small bathroom, fighting for his life, was McClain, the eighth-year head coach.

One of those players was Paul Chryst, who had seen limited action in eight games during the 1985 season. The other player was Brian Anderson, a sophomore tight end out of Madison Memorial.

Chryst and Anderson had been summoned to that small bathroom outside of the sauna by Dr. Stephen Zimmerman, an associate professor in the UW Medical School.

Zimmerman had pulled McClain out of the sauna and he was now trying to revive him. “I remember Brian was putting water on him,” Chryst said, “and I was feeling for his pulse.”

Once the paramedics and athletic trainers arrived, Chryst and Anderson were ushered away. An unconscious McClain was moved by stretcher to a waiting ambulance in the darkened tunnel.

There was shock and disbelief throughout Madison when the news of his death was reported on radio and TV stations. Chryst remembered calling his dad, George, a former McClain administrative aide.

George Chryst was the UW-Platteville head coach. One of his players was McClain’s son, Tom. “I told him, ‘Grab Tommy and come here,’” Paul urged his father. “’’But don’t turn on the radio.’”

McClain had died of a heart attack. His mother and older brother had died of heart attacks, too.

Maybe it was his family history. Maybe it was his moral fiber. Maybe it was just who he was. But McClain constantly reminded his players to tell their parents how much they loved them.

“You can’t count on them being there forever and you never know when they will go,” McClain preached. “The most important thing is to have a life with your family.”


“He turned boys into men. He allowed you to grow but he would reel you in and get after you when needed. He was generous and caring — someone that you wanted to make proud.”

— Former Wisconsin running back
Joe Armentrout on Dave McClain


McClain enjoyed meeting individually with each high school prospect at the end of their recruiting trip to Madison. He tried to limit each meeting to 15 minutes. But he made exceptions.

“I went in for my 15-minute slot and we spent almost an hour together and he never asked me one question about football,” said Joe Armentrout, a multi-sport athlete from Elgin (Illinois) Larkin.

“It totally screwed up the whole schedule for everybody. But we just started talking and talking — we talked about my family and we talked about his family.

“I walked out of his office thinking, ‘Wow, this is the place where I want to be.’”

Armentrout, a four-year starter as a running back who was also a two-time All-Big Ten centerfielder on the baseball team, has nothing but warm memories of McClain’s impact on his life as a student, athlete, husband and father.

On Dec. 29, 1984, the Badgers faced Kentucky in the Hall of Fame Bowl. Leading up to the game, Armentrout’s focus was tested, especially since he was an expectant father.

“It was a weird week practicing,” he said. “And then Pam (his wife) went into labor at four in the morning (the day of the bowl) and they had shut all of our phones down the night before.”

The McClains relayed the message to Joe. That afternoon, Pam had the couple’s first child, Zach. Although the Badgers lost the game, Armentrout was the leading rusher with 15 carries for 105 yards.

That might have been the most talented Wisconsin team ever assembled. The Badgers had three first-round picks (Al Toon, Richard Johnson, Darryl Sims) and eight other players drafted in ’85.

“We were right on the cusp,” said Armentrout. “But that particular year we didn’t have the togetherness we had in other years and maybe it was because we were that much more talented.”

The McClain formula was not unlike the Barry Alvarez formula in that he preferred being the underdog — the team that was not getting any respect — and wearing the chip on his shoulder.

“The level and consistency of person that he (McClain) got is not much different than now or when Barry was here,” Armentrout said. “Good people. Overachievers. Hard workers. That type of kid.”

“He really cared about the kids,” Andy North agreed, “and made a real commitment to recruit the kind of kids who belonged here, who fit academically. Good kids. That was really the key.”

North forged a strong friendship with McClain. As neighbors. That’s how it started.

“Their kids babysat our girls and we became friends as a family,” said North, the two-time U.S. Open champion and ESPN golf analyst. “The football stuff kind of evolved.”

North, like the UW players, was part of the family — McClain’s extended family.

“The one thing I took from him as a coach was the way he made every guy on the team feel good about themselves,” Chryst said. “I’m sure there were some exceptions, as always.

“But most of the guys truly liked playing for him. You always felt like he really cared about you.”

Armentrout felt that way.

“He turned boys into men,” he said. “He allowed you to grow but he would reel you in and get after you when needed. He was generous and caring — someone that you wanted to make proud.”

McClain’s death rocked the program.

“I feel like it was just yesterday,” Chryst said. “It had a huge impact.”

“It was horrific,” said Armentrout. “You just don’t understand the magnitude of it.”

The Badgers endured seven straight losing seasons before Alvarez charted a new course in 1993.

Photo of Wisconsin football head coach Dave McClain (wearing headset) coaching from the sideline during a game at Camp Randall Stadium.
Wisconsin football head coach Dave McClain (wearing headset) coaches from the sideline during a game at Camp Randall Stadium.
Thin Photo collage of images of former Wisconsin football head coach Dave McClain