Memories: McClain Will Never Forget Wyoming Cowboys' MW Clinching Win Over Utah In Final Game of 2002
Eighteen years later, and the memories are still fresh in the mind of Steve McClain.
With a pair of Marcus Bailey free throws, the Wyoming Cowboys had just enough to pull out a 57-56 win against Utah in the final game of the 2001-02 season, and claim the Mountain West championship, opening the way for them to make the 14th trip to the NCAA tournament. It is one of only two seasons in which the Cowboys have advanced in the last 32 years.
Bailey makes it look easy: https://twitter.com/i/status/1263295388385112064
A replay of that game is the Cowboy Capsule presentation for this week, airing on Wyoming's official Facebook page at 7 p.m., MDT, Wednesday.
McClain will be at home in Chicago, watching every second, remembering the lone NCAA Tournament invite in his nine years as the Cowboys coach, during which Wyoming also advanced to the NIT three times.
"To work as hard as we did to build a program, and to watch the fans, players, coaches get that reward," he said. "Very few times do you get to do it on your home court, and we did. It's still the biggest crowd (16,083) to watch a game in that building."
How big? So big that it resulted in the Wyoming Athletic Department being fined for exceeding capacity.
"We brought that young group in, Josh Davis, Marcus Bailey and Chris McMillian, and that group of guys stayed together," said McClain. "You saw them mature every year. We saw it coming. It was fun to watch those kids grow and mature.
"To watch Marcus hit the two free throws, and never have a doubt they were going in. . . It was the culmination of a lot of hard work. And no question for Marcus, a Wyoming kid, it's why he came to Wyoming. It was fun to watch. I still feel the emotion in the Double-A that game."
It's not like the roster was filled with High School All-Americans.
That wasn't the road to success in Wyoming.
"Sometimes fans get wrapped up in where a kid is ranked, wondering if you are signing enough good players," said McClain. "You can't get caught up in that as a coach. One thing we did is find young men who not only wanted to come to Wyoming, but loved Wyoming. They took a great deal of pride in representing the state. They knew how important that was to the people in the state."
And that's why the memory remains so strong with McClain in his days since being fired as the Cowboys coach after the Cowboys went 17-15 in the 2006-07 season.
"I still have the plaque with the team picture that was done after that season," he said. "It has hung on the wall in my office everywhere I have been since Wyoming. It was one of the most memorable times of my career."
He spent time as an assistant at Colorado (2002-10) and Indiana (2010-15), and then had a four-year run as the head coach at Illinois-Chicago. He is now getting ready to assume an assistant's role at Georgia.
No matter what, however, that time in Wyoming is still fresh in his mind.
"Our son Dylan was born in Laramie," said McClain. "It was an unbelievable time. It was a time when the football program was a little bit down. It was like we came in and brought some energy. ... Brought the pride back.
"At the end of the day, my biggest regret is the day I left I didn't thank people enough. When you are young and things happen, you leave. ... Now, I look back, and my only regret is I didn't thank the people of Wyoming enough for the nine years I had there. To this day, I tell people it is one of the best environments for winning I have ever been a part of."
Those people include recently-named Wyoming coach Jeff Linder, hired in March after four years at Northern Colorado. With limited time to recruit -- and no opportunities to actually bring recruits to campus -- Linder signed seven players to a recruiting class ranked in a tie for 47th nationally, and No. 1 in the Mountain West.
And Linder made sure he re-recruited the six players already on the roster from Colorado and Wyoming, who have an emotional, as well as physical, commitment to being a Cowboy.
"He reached out to me after he got the job," said McClain. "He wanted to talk about our era and what we did to have success. I following the recruiting he has done so far. He did a great job. I think he understands the culture. That's a credit to him. He understands what kind of young men it is going to take to get back to winning championships at Wyoming."
Given Linder's mentality, it's likely, like McClain, he will be taking in that replay of that significant moment in 2002 when the Cowboys knocked off Utah and earned an NCAA Tournament Invite.