Kimberly Woody marvels at how her son made it through high school alive.
She didn’t fear bullies. She worried that the teachers, administrators and coaches would take things into their own hands. And she wouldn’t have blamed them.
“If you talk to any one of them teachers,” Woody says, “they will tell you, ‘That boy, if I could have strangled him I would have.’”
Eric McClellan just shakes his head in agreement.
“I’ve put her through hell and back,” he said. “I was a good kid but I was always in trouble. I was always into something. Even when I didn’t try to be into something, I would always find myself into certain things.”
The 20-year-old is about to enter his second year at Vanderbilt. He transferred from Tulsa after the 2011-12 season. After sitting out last year due to NCAA transfer rules, he could leap into a starting role at point guard. He’ll get a chance to further his case when the team leaves for a 10-day, four-game trip to Greece and Italy on Saturday.
But there was a time when graduating from Austin High School in Texas looked bleak.
“He was not destined for college, let’s just put it that way,” his high school coach Andy Dudney said.
He was kicked off the basketball team as a freshman after he broke the agreement of a behavioral contract drawn up by Dudney. According to his mother, he had 52 absences for one class. McClellan admits to receiving 25 discipline referrals.
He got a laugh out of intentionally pouring condiments on the furniture at a friend’s parents’ lake house. At the house of Austin native and PGA golfer Ben Crenshaw, whose daughter was friends with McClellan, he went off-roading with a golf cart and left marks throughout the property.
“A lot of people were mad at him,” Woody said, now with enough time gone by to look back and laugh. “He wasn’t bad like burn your house down. You couldn’t get him to make a good decision on a consistent basis. That is why I’m sitting here now and can’t nobody tell me there is not a God.”
A single mother, Woody raised Eric and his younger sister Nicole on her own. Eric is one of six, but Nicole is his only full blood sibling. Woody also had two older sons, Brandon Young and Chris Young, from a previous relationship. Eric’s father, Jackie McClellan, later had two more children, Destiny and Justus.
When Eric entered high school, Chris was a senior and football star at Austin High (he graduated from Iowa State in December after playing two years as a wide receiver). Woody said Eric walked in as a freshman with a “big chest” and a sense of entitlement because of Chris’ stature at the high school.
“I’m a woman; I can’t teach him how to be a man,” Woody said. “But I tried to instill the values in him that would produce the integrity I wanted him to live with. My prayer was that God would put men in his life that would help him grow and be who he needed to be for himself and those around him. Not only did God answer my prayer — he sent me more than one man.”
Though McClellan didn’t play high school basketball as a freshman, AAU coaches A.J. Washington and Brad Stiles decided to take a chance and offer him a spot on their team. His play there earned him a place with the Texas DI Ambassadors and introduced him to coach Max Ivany. Dudney worked through McClellan’s growing pains as first his junior varsity coach and later his varsity coach.
McClellan refers to Michael Parks as his godfather. Parks’ son, Dorian, was on the high school team and two years younger than Eric. Parks, who also coached on the select summer basketball circuit, often traveled with the team and kept stats. He became a mentor and helped Eric and his mother with the recruiting process.
Even former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Robert Jones also offered guidance. His son, Cayleb, went to Austin High and played wide receiver at Texas last year.
On Father’s Day, Woody sent messages to all the men who helped McClellan, telling them there was no way she could repay them for their help in molding her son.
“Those guys were tremendous to me,” McClellan said. “They took me under their wing and gave me a lot of advice. I tried to pick their brain a lot, just tried to learn from them. I’m fortunate, man, to have those dudes in my life. A.J. Washington and Brad Stiles — I wouldn’t even be here without them.”
Though he was a mischievous kid who caused headaches, those around him didn’t want to give up on him.
“He is one of those men that people follow him just because the confidence he radiates,” Parks said. “What I saw in Eric was just an absolute phenomenal talent but more so than just the basketball talent was being around people. His growing personality made him a natural leader. But there was also the side of Eric where being a leader he needed to make sure where he was leading he was going down the right path.”
His mother recalls how she was concerned he might get expelled and land back in an alternative center, where he spent a month in eighth grade. But then-assistant principal Sandy Compian refrained from kicking him out because “something she saw in him,” Woody said.
“You knew the kid always had it in him. It was a matter of him getting priorities straightened out,” Dudney said. “Once he realized that he needed basketball more than basketball needed him, I think the light bulb went off. He was always talented. It was always between the ears with him. His junior year to senior year was when the light went on for him and maturity level hit.”
A self-described slasher with a wiry frame who hit two growth spurts during high school, he emerged as a star his senior year.
Led by McClellan, Austin High went 29-4, captured the district championship and won a playoff game for the first time in more than 50 years. He averaged 18.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.8 assists and was named his district’s MVP.
“He had a high basketball IQ,” Dudney said. “He understood the game. It was just a matter of it getting channeled in the right direction.”
As a late bloomer, he found scholarship offers were few — Fresno State, SMU, Tulsa and Wichita State. Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik brought a sense of trust when recruiting McClellan.
So he headed to Tulsa and instantly made an impact. He started 16 games as a freshman, averaging 8.5 points and 2.2 assists. His final game left a lasting impression. With teammates fouling out, he scored a career-high 25 points and had a seven rebound, five assist performance in 46 minutes of a triple-overtime loss against Marshall in the quarterfinals of the Conference USA Tournament.
His roaring finish probably didn’t hurt him when his recruiting opened back up a couple months later. Wojcik was fired after the end of the season, and even though former Kansas assistant Danny Manning, a reputable player and coach, took over, Eric wanted to look at his options.
A year after he graduated from high school, Baylor, Florida State, Gonzaga, Marquette, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt came calling.
“It is crazy what a bit of hard work and confidence can do,” he said. “I played with a chip on my shoulder. Not being recruited, not being ranked out of high school, it just pushes me, it just drives me.”
Vanderbilt immediately came to the forefront thanks to assistant David Cason. Though he never coached McClellan, he helped recruit him to Tulsa before he left in April 2011 for Vanderbilt.
“Loyalty and trust is big with me, and I trust him with my career,” McClellan said. “He is a great big brother, great coach, great mentor. That ultimately came down to my decision.”
McClellan hopes a year of just practice and watching Southeastern Conference competition will pay dividends. His family, friends, coaches and teachers back home will have a chance to see him in action when Vanderbilt plays Texas in Austin on Dec. 2.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if he takes the whole SEC by storm,” Parks said.
McClellan, however, admits moving to the SEC is a big step and wonders if he can play in the league. But he added 20 pounds last year to weighs over 180. Plus, he spent time working on his shooting and limiting the turnovers — he averaged a team-high 3.1 at Tulsa.
“I don’t think there is any question Eric will be an impact guy right away,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “I think last year he established himself as a leader, and that is very difficult to do in a redshirt year. I’ll be very surprised if that doesn’t continue, because he just has natural leadership skills. He has a very upbeat, positive personality, and he is a guy that guys gravitate to and respect because of his competitive nature and his leadership skills.”
Kimberly Woody never questioned her son could fulfill his dreams and play in the top tier of college basketball.
She just needed some help in making sure he took the right path.
“I don’t think he could have had basketball had he not had the support of men to be the influence that he needed to keep persevering,” Woody said. “Coach Dudney and all those men, they were just there. I’m so grateful for them to this day.”