Stefan McClure made his first career start in 2011 playing against the best receiver in the nation — USC’s Robert Woods.
At the time, Woods was the kind of receiver that struck fear into opposing secondaries. He routinely racked up 100-yard games, and just one week before the Trojans took on Cal, he’d put up a whopping 255 yards. He was a Heisman hopeful who was on pace to set Pac-12 receiving records. There were entire articles written about just him with hardly a mention of the rest of the USC offense.
Then were was McClure. He was a true freshman at the time, and although he was a highly regarded defensive back prospect, he was coming off a disastrous performance in Cal’s 43-15 loss to Oregon in which he was burned several times. Expectations weren’t exactly high.
“You can’t play his reputation,” McClure said before that game. “You just have to be ready.”
Ready is exactly what McClure was. The cornerback shut down Woods, limiting him to five catches and just 36 yards. McClure stayed on Woods most of the night. Once, when he was positioned opposite of USC’s Marqise Lee, he blew a coverage and let the receiver go for a touchdown, but his performance against Woods was still enough for people — fans and coaches alike — to see the potential in the young man.
“You can see what he’ll be later on in life,” said Ashley Ambrose, Cal’s defensive backs coach after the time, back in 2011. “It shows what kind of player he is, what kind of person he is.”
That idea was hardly limited to Ambrose. McClure had an interception in his only other start that season, and he was soon looked at by fans as a key building block to a secondary that had only been average all season.
But in the last game of the year, McClure had to be helped off the field after a special teams play. The injury happened mostly away from the action, and no one knew the true extent until he was diagnosed the next day.
McClure tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus. Colloquially, it’s called the “Terrible Triad,” the most brutal knee injury imaginable. The injury sidelined McClure for the entirety of what would have been his sophomore season.
McClure did what most athletes do after suffering a season-ending injury like he did. He took a redshirt and buckled down, training to come back and rejoin his team the next year. McClure also did something less common — he replaced his helmet for a headset and spent his game days on the sideline, giving signals to the teammates he couldn’t be on the field with.
“We’d have someone in the box watching one side of the field, and then I would watch the routes closest to us,” McClure says. “I was just helping out and seeing how teams were trying to attack us and staying engaged in the game.”
McClure mostly gave the dummy signals — the ones meant to act as a decoy for the opposing team. But sometimes he would switch out and give the real play calls, a process he calls “pretty fun.”
During the week, McClure spent his extra time taking another class, bumping his schedule up to four classes instead of the usual three football players take in the fall. That decision, along with summer classes, has put McClure on track to graduate at the end of this year, a lightning-fast rate for a student-athlete.
Cal had a rough 3-9 season in 2012. It would have been a forgettable year for football, except that it ended up costing longtime coach Jeff Tedford his job. The coaching change got the gears turning in McClure’s head, and he started to think about a simple question: Who picks the next coach?
“That offseason when we were getting new coaches, that all made me interested in the athletic side of who gets to hire new coaches,” McClure says. “And talking to (Cal Athletics) through that process, when they were picking coaches and communicating with us, all that made me interested in the athletic director aspect and administrative side of school.”
In 2013, McClure got injured again, five games into the season. It was his knee again, and it kept him off the field for the rest of the year. McClure started to explore his other options, getting interested in internships and jobs, because he was planning on graduating in just a few semesters.
He started thinking about the other side of college athletics — the administrative side.
“I was just interested in meeting with people in the front office to see what their jobs are and see if they like their jobs,” McClure says.
McClure made contact with Delaney Gallagher and Solly Fulp, two administrators at Cal Athletics. His interest in the coaching search the previous year had materialized into something more — an interest in how Cal actually runs its athletics department.
McClure was fascinated by how Cal is able to balance the revenue of these sports. Historically, football and basketball are the only two true revenue generating sports, and they balance out the many other teams that Cal fields.
“You’ve got teams that bring in the most revenue, and taking care of them (is important) but also working to take care of the whole athletic department,” McClure explains.
McClure started shadowing meetings with those in athletics, absorbing how they balance revenue streams and marketing with expenses for travel, equipment, staff and everything else. At the same time, they were pitching ideas for upgrades to Haas Pavilion or for new parking structures.
“I was just excited to be able to sit in there and they were like, ‘Oh yeah, you can come in here’ and (they were) just helping me out,” McClure says.
Cal Athletics has set McClure up with a marketing internship in the athletic department this spring, just after he’s expected to finish his undergraduate work and start a graduate program at Cal.
In September, McClure spoke to the Cal Athletic staff about the student experience at UC Berkeley. Fulp, the deputy director of athletics and chief operating officer at Cal, introduced him, joking that while McClure wouldn’t be the next athletic director at Cal, he’s definitely on track to be one someday.
“He gets it,” Fulp said. “He has a sense of perspective, purpose, maturity — everyone that interacts with him comes away with a very positive feeling about Stefan McClure, and it’s not by accident.”
McClure’s not ready to pursue the athletic director job at Cal yet — he’s still interested in pursuing a future in the NFL. He converted to safety this season and is thriving there, having recorded 26 tackles in just six games of action after a calf strain held him out for a few games early in the year.
He still has another year of eligibility after this one, another year to hone his game for the next level as he works on his graduate degree. But in the meantime, he’ll be looking more and more at what goes on behind the scenes of Division I athletics.
“I want to try to play in the NFL,” McClure says. “But then after that, I want to work in athletics.”