Everyone needs their first shot.
Legendary HISD coach Joel North took a chance on a young offensive coordinator back in 1997 and it put Clarence McKinney on a journey he could never imagine.
“My first day at Booker T. Washington, coach North brought me in and introduced me to the staff,” McKinney laughed. “The coaches thought I was a transfer running back, not the new offensive coordinator. They couldn’t believe it.”
And so it began as McKinney would ascend up the coaching ranks where he’s “flown in the private planes” and “coached in the biggest games.”
The HISD product played quarterback at Jack Yates High School, returned home to coach the Lions during his career and is now just around the corner, becoming the head coach of Texas Southern University.
“My biggest idol in coaching is Eddie Robinson and what he built at Grambling,” he said. “I’m wondering if I can be Texas Southern’s version of Eddie Robinson.”
Let that sink in for a minute. Eddie Robinson is the second winningest coach in college football history.
“I took this job to build a program that has never been seen here. One that can sustain longevity of being a winning program.
Upon graduation from Yates, McKinney signed and played at Montana State for a few years. He graduated from the University of Mary, before receiving his master’s in education from Prairie View A&M.
After his first coaching stint at Booker T. Washington, he took an opportunity to work at North Shore High School for legendary coach David Aymond.
“I learned so much about the organization and structure of a winning football program from coach Aymond,” he said. “Then I saw how coach Jon Kay got our guys ready physically and mentally through the weight room. It was a great learning experience at North Shore.”
His dream became a reality in 2005 when he was named the head coach at his alma mater Jack Yates High School.
“That was the ultimate for me,” he said. “In my yearbook back in high school, there’s a quote from me saying that I would come back and become the coach at Jack Yates. I was sitting on top of the world.”
The Lions’ head man would go 30-8 in three seasons at Yates and was a Gordon Wood Class 4A Coach of the Year Finalist and Texans Coach of the Year Finalist.
That’s when coach Kevin Sumlin came calling. Sumlin would become the head coach at the University of Houston in 2008 and one of his first hires was McKinney.
“I really never had aspirations of coaching in college,” he said. “I had my dream job. I had known coach Sumlin a long time dating back to Booker T. Washington. He had recruited my players and we stayed in touch. He always said if the opportunity came up, he would hire me. I never really thought anything of it until he got the U of H job. I was one of the first guys he hired.”
As the running backs coach, McKinney showed the ability to develop talent. He also had a knack for recruiting.
“Recruiting is what has driven my career,” he said. “When I got to U of H and I was on the recruiting trail, high school coaches from around Houston supported me and did everything they could to see that I was successful. I really felt that. I was one of them and they helped me any way they could. It’s still the same today.
“Recruiting is the lifeblood of a football program,” he said. “I know I can recruit and I’m going to do it here at TSU. It’s going to be something that my entire staff focuses on daily.
“The city of Houston has tremendous talent,” he said. “I’ve recruited here for years and that’s why you see every college in America recruiting the city. But I feel there’s enough talent here for us to be successful. We are going to get players and coach them up.”
McKinney would follow Sumlin to Texas A&M, where he would eventually become the co-offensive coordinator. Then he was named the associate head coach at the University of Arizona under Sumlin last year.
“It was a special time for me and my family at Texas A&M,” he said. “The first year in the SEC, to Johnny Manziel to going to No. 1 Alabama and beating them. That was an amazing year. I made some life-long friends at Texas A&M.
“When we went to Arizona, I was there to help coach Sumlin build a national power in the desert.”
Then he got another call.
“The people at TSU asked if I would be interested in this opportunity,” he said. “I told them I would always listen.”
When asked how or why he got into coaching, McKinney remembers vividly.
“I played basketball at Ryan Middle School and coach Simon put us through some grueling Saturday practices. He would run us to the bayou and back,” he laughed. “One particular day he brought his grandson to practice. We started out running again and all I could think about was when I grew up I was going to coach his grandson and put him through the torture he put us through.”
While he can laugh about it now, his coaching path has been paved by tremendous role models. The biggest influencer?
“It goes back to coach North at Booker T. Washington,” he said. “He believed in me as a young man and took me under his wing. He took me to clinics and taught me to learn from other coaches. He always said, ‘you may not learn everything, but if you just learn one thing every time, you’ll become a better coach.’”
He’s done just that.