MOREHEAD CITY — Few people have “bled the red, white and blue colors of West Carteret athletics” like Craig McClanahan.
The 59-year-old Morehead City resident died Saturday evening after a months-long battle with stage IV non-small cell lung cancer. He was a 36-year educator, head boys basketball coach at West for 21 years, a boys and girls tennis coach for 17 years and the school’s athletic director for 15 before retiring following the 2018-2019 school year.
The East Carolina University alum and 1983 Patriot grad became just the second coach at the school to win a conference title, joining Billy Widgeon who also coached 21 years with the program, with a 3A Coastal title in his final season. The conference’s Coach of the Year for the 2006-2007 season, McClanahan led the Patriots to winning records in five of his last six seasons. The team went a combined 47-24 (.661) over his last three.
McClanahan hung up his whistle officially last July, but a few months later, he was struggling to breathe during normal activities, and a few months after that, he was diagnosed with cancer. The Patriot athletics staple is survived by his wife, Jacqueline, and son, Michael.
Over the weekend, well-wishers poured out support to the bereaved through social media. Old players, colleagues and friends expressed their sympathies and relayed fond memories of McClanahan. That included another West staple, Gordy Patrick, former principal at the school and longtime educator and coach.
“Craig was a warrior, an athlete, a gentleman and a friend to all,” Patrick said. “He will leave a tremendous void.”
Michael McClanahan followed in his father’s footsteps and graduated from East Carolina University in December shortly after the diagnosis. The family was hopeful his health would improve as McClanahan readily fought the sickness.
“This has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with in my life,” Michael McClanahan said. “I am trying to understand everyday why my father was taken from me so early. My father was the king to me, an absolute living legend that left an incredible legacy through sports, athletics and many other things in our small town. He was an influence to many and helped so many kids through so much, including me.
“I pray my father can guide me through the rest of this life I have left because he is no longer with me to ask for the guidance. I pray he also continues to look over me and my mom and to love and protect us as he did every day. ‘I love you dad. See you soon.’”
There were few people closer to McClanahan than his brother-in-law Robert Lancaster, younger brother of Jacqueline and McClanahan’s assistant coach for 21 years. Their relationship began much earlier, though, when Lancaster was still in middle school and McClanahan and Jacqueline were first dating. McClanahan was the jayvee boys coach at West and would pick up eighth-grade Lancaster from his school to sit on the bench with him at games. The friendship and brotherly affection continued into the years, with the two working and coaching at the same school and living in the same neighborhood.
“It is absolutely devastating that Craig passed away,” Lancaster said. “We were very close. Our relationship was unique in that not only was he my brother-in-law and great friend, but he was also a coaching colleague and mentor. When he took the job as head varsity boys' basketball coach at West Carteret in 1998, he asked me to be his assistant.
“I am grateful that I accepted the position. We coached the varsity boys together for 21 years. We also spent a lot of time together outside of basketball. We enjoyed doing many things together, including going to athletic events and enjoyed each other's company. We went to many East Carolina athletic events with my brother, John. I am shocked. My family is shocked.”
McClanahan and his family were caught off guard when his diagnosis exposed a lung-related illness, as he was a lifetime gym rat and non-smoker. In a March interview with the News-Times, McClanahan remarked how shocked he was by his diagnosis, seeing that he had never smoked, exercised and taken care of himself his whole life. He was baffled that someone like himself could get lung cancer.
“I know many people are shocked that Craig passed away,” Lancaster said. “I know because they have told me. Although he is no longer here with us physically, he will always be with us through the great memories.”
Another West graduate, Tod Morgan, has been friends with McClanahan for 25 years since the pair played together in the county men’s softball league in the mid-1990s.
“When I think of Craig, I think of him being a class act and a winner,” Morgan said. “He always did things the right way. He was very competitive and enjoyed winning, but never at the expense of doing it the wrong way or poor sportsmanship. He was also an incredible AD, one of the most organized ADs in our state. He made sure West Carteret athletics was a successful and first-class program. He was the epitome of what it means to be a Patriot.”
On social media, longtime basketball referee Robert Fairly chimed in on McClanahan’s reputation as a basketball coach.
“I officiated a lot of his games in my 24 years. He was one of the good ones. (He) also always made sure officials were taken care of before, during and after the game. It didn’t matter if he won or lost.”
Current West Athletic Director Michael Turner fondly recalled one of the last fun memories he had with McClanahan, shortly after he took over the position for the 2019-2020 school year. Speaking to McClanahan’s generosity as an athletic director, Turner noted that when coaches wanted or needed something, they got it. Maybe it took taking some hemming and hawing on the chin, but they got it. Turner was the interim head baseball coach and head volleyball coach before taking over as athletic director.
“I remember him asking me, ‘How many baseballs do ya’ll go through out there?’” Turner said. “He said he’d talked to other AD’s and they said their baseball programs go through three dozen balls and we were ordering 30 dozen baseballs. He would wear me out about baseballs and hats. Then this year, we had the new lacrosse coach, Zach(ery Almand). He called me and was asking for things like lacrosse balls, and I said, ‘How many lacrosse balls do ya’ll need out there?’ I thought (assistant AD) Troy Smith was going to fall out of his chair laughing so hard. I immediately picked up my phone and called Craig to tell him. I couldn’t believe it.”
Turner also noted McClanahan’s behind-the-scenes reputation, one of a hard-working athletic director who wasn’t above doing the little things, like laundering his players’ uniforms after the game and cleaning out the crockpot at concessions full of nacho cheese.
“Nobody gets that part,” Turner said. “People’s perception of that guy and the reality were so different. People thought he had a huge ego, but no way. That guy was shy,and so very humble. All they saw were the sweaters, the watches and the cut-off shirts, but that guy’s work ethic was unsurpassed by anybody.”
McClanahan’s fashion was still a part of his identity – he wasn’t afraid to be snazzy on the sidelines.
“Towards the beginning, he was dressing like Pat Riley, and by the end, I had him dressing more like Bobby Knight,” current boys basketball coach Mark Mansfield said. “He was a great listener. He was funny. I enjoyed my 18 years with him.”
Standing well over 6 feet and cutting the image of a lean bodybuilder, McClanahan could be imposing, but those closest to him knew the true, humble nature of the man.
“He was a no-nonsense guy and he ran his program like a tight ship, but a lot of people unfortunately didn’t know how kind-hearted he was, how generous he could be,” Mansfield said. “He ran his program like a college program. He made sure his kids had everything they needed and did the little things a lot of other coaches simply don’t.”
Mansfield worked with McClanahan for nearly two decades before taking over as head coach for the 2019-2020 season. He remembers watching McClanahan play under Widgeon and then striking up a basketball relationship after college.
“If it weren’t for Craig, I wouldn’t be coaching today,” Mansfield said. “When I came back from college and started playing basketball at the Sports Center, I was fortunate that Craig asked me to help him. There’s a bunch of people who knew about the game and loved basketball, but I was so lucky that he allowed me to be the one to help.”
He added, “When you’re coaching, you always want to be ‘Batman.’ But I didn’t mind being the ‘Robin’ when I was around him. He was a perfectionist to a fault sometimes, but he was the man. Other than Gordy Patrick, I don’t know anybody else who bleeds red, white and blue like Craig McClanahan.”
McClanahan played basketball himself at Mount Olive for two years before graduating from East Carolina in 1983 with a teaching degree. He got his start coaching at Beaufort Middle School, then moved to Morehead City Middle under then-principal Gordy Patrick. The pair both went to West in 1997, where Patrick would later hire McClanahan as athletic director.
“He was tremendously organized as he met the needs of all 21 teams under his tutelage,” Patrick reminisced. “He was a good listener, striving to answer the needs of the coaching staff. He was a good provider, working constantly to improve the needs of the various teams. He was fair and strove to challenge those around him to be better today than they were yesterday. He will be sorely missed.”
After coming to West in 1997, McClanahan got the boys head coaching job a year later. All the time, he was joined by Lancaster, who brought vital experience after going to the University of North Carolina and serving as a manager for Dean Smith teams.
“I knew Craig was an excellent basketball coach from his days coaching middle school and jayvee basketball,” Lancaster said. “But being his assistant gave me a firsthand look at just how good of a coach he was. He knew how to teach kids how to play basketball and how to motivate them to be the best they could be.”
Morgan also coached alongside McClanahan, assisting him on the varsity team, as well as the jayvee team for the 1997-98 season.
“I learned a lot from him with his attention to details in practice and game preparation. Later when I served as the head coach at New Bern, Jones Senior and East Carteret, our teams played each other several times through the years, and Craig’s teams were always well-prepared and the kids played hard for him.”
When Turner took over the job of athletic director, he found full coffers and a network of connections and contacts to ease his transition. McClanahan remained a source for Turner’s questions long after his retirement.
“I was texting him as late as Tuesday (June 23), still asking questions,” Turner said. “Every time something would come up, he was my guy. A washing machine broke, and I didn’t know who to call. A quick call to Craig, and I was set straight. He knew everybody, and he had a connection for every facet of the job. The network that was in his flip-phone was nothing small. Then, he upgraded that phone. When Craig McClanahan sent me an emoji for the first time, I didn’t have words. It was spectacular.”
Turner went on to spotlight McClanahan’s generosity as an athletic director, how he allocated precious funds from his basketball program to other non-revenue sports that were in need. Excess money from the hoops program was also used to provide equipment for athletics in general, even when the equipment had nothing to do with his own team.
“In the time that I’ve been at West, basketball has paid for a lawn mower, a Gator, hotel rooms for non-revenue sports to go to state tournaments, just off the top of my head,” Turner said. “When I took over, he told me, ‘Look, if you get in a pinch, I would occasionally take money from basketball to get another sport out of a scrape if they needed.’ He was generous like that.”
McClanahan also had an impact on his players. One of them, rising senior Gavin Gillikin, visited the coach at his home after word got out about the cancer diagnosis. He was also quick to reach out to the News-Times with condolences and memories of McClanahan when news of his death broke over the weekend.
“I'm going to miss coach McClanahan more than people will ever know,” Gillikin said. “Every day, that man found ways to make me not only a better basketball player, but a better person. He told me to just be myself and play my game. Saturday night when I heard about the news, I shed tears. He meant a lot to me. I loved having him on the sidelines the games he could make last year. He pushed me to my max, and I couldn’t have asked for a better coach for my first year on varsity. I will always have him with me and remember him every day.”
When McClanahan retired in 2019, he had many fond memories of his time at West, most notably winning a conference championship and watching in 2010 as the Patriots beat Havelock on the football field for only the second time in the school’s 55-year history. More than that, though, he was proud of the athletics program he had helped thrive.
“All in all, I would say I’ve had a good career,” he said in the March 2019 interview. “I wanted to leave this program knowing that every decision I’ve made was for the benefit of West Carteret athletics. I had only ever wanted to come back to West Carteret to teach and maybe coach basketball. Everything else was just a coup.”