MADISON—April 1986. Bob Palcic, having spent two seasons as the offensive line coach at the University of Arizona, picks up the phone to call an old friend and mentor for a job reference.
On the other end of the line was Wisconsin football coach Dave McClain, with whom Palcic had served as an assistant at Ball State (1976-77) and with the Badgers (1978-1981).
“‘I know what you want,’” McClain said, as Palcic recalled Tuesday afternoon, when reached on his cell phone. “You want me to recommend you to Ohio State don’t you?’”
Palcic explained that the offensive line position at OSU was a great opportunity. It could be a springboard to a job as an NFL assistant, or as a head coach.
“He says, ‘Even though you’d be coaching against me, you always did a good job for me,’” Palcic said. “‘I’ll do it for you.’”
A few minutes later McClain called Palcic back. Ohio State was genuinely interested and McClain felt Palcic stood a very good chance of landing the job.
An hour after his second phone conversation with Palcic on April 28, 1986, McClain, 48, died from a heart attack after working out on a stationary bike at Camp Randall Stadium.
“So the last thing he ever did for me was to call Ohio State and help me get that job,” Palcic said.
Soon thereafter, Palcic was in Columbus for his first day with the Buckeyes under head coach Earle Bruce. He was told ‘The Old Man’, legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, wanted to see him. So Palcic recounted to Hayes the story of McClain’s favor.
“I said, Coach Hayes, the thing that bothers me the most is that I’ll never ever be able to repay Dave McClain for everything that he has done for me,” Palcic said. “And a tear came down his cheek and he stood up and he pointed his finger at me. He said, ‘Young man, you don’t pay back. You pay forward. Make sure you do for others what Dave McClain has done for you.”
“I never forgot that,” Palcic said. “To this day whenever I have a chance to help a young coach or to talk to young kids about the importance of education and going to church I always take advantage of that opportunity.”
Twenty years after McClain’s favor, Palcic is rejoining the coaching staff of the Wisconsin football team as new head coach Bret Bielema’s first offensive line coach.
The Wisconsin football program has changed quite a bit since Palcic left Madison in 1982. The McClain era could be called the first contemporary renaissance for Badger football. In 1981 Wisconsin qualified for the Garden State Bowl—the school’s first bowl game in 28 years—after beating Ohio State and No. 1 Michigan during the season.
“We rolled up our sleeves and really worked at it and worked hard at recruiting,” Palcic said, of his four years at Wisconsin.
Now, Palcic is joining a UW staff that is trying to maintain the success built in 16 seasons under Barry Alvarez, and take the program to another level. When Palcic visited Madison recently for an interview, he was impressed with Bielema’s energy and plan for the future and he described UW’s facilities as “phenomenal.”
Palcic has been through a lot in the past five months. After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Palcic gave up his Louisiana apartment and signed a four-month lease on an apartment in San Antonio, the Saints’ adopted home. It was a tough year for the Saints on the field as well. They went 3-13 and the coaching staff was not retained after the season.
“Our lease ran out in San Antonio, I didn’t have a place back in New Orleans, so not only did I not have a job, I didn’t have a home,” Palcic said.
So Tuesday afternoon, about an hour after UW released a statement announcing Palcic’s hiring, he and his wife, Theresa, in separate cars, began caravanning to Madison from Bloomington, Ind., where they had been staying with their son, Indiana defensive coordinator Joe Palcic.
“I told him I took care of you for 22 years, you can take care of your mom and I until I find out what job I’m going to take,” Palcic said with a laugh.
Coaching against his son will be a unique experience. The Badgers travel to face Indiana Sept. 30.
“That’s going to be an interesting day,” Palcic said. “I don’t know if my wife’s going to change sides at halftime.
“It’s going to make it just a little bit more competitive than it normally would be… He’s already threatened me. I look forward to the challenge.”
How did the younger Palcic threaten his father?
“He said, ‘I’m going to blitz you about 60 times,’” Bob Palcic said with a laugh.
The Bob Palcic file
2000-05: tight ends, New Orleans Saints
1999: offensive line, Cleveland Browns
1997-98: tight ends, Detroit Lions
1994-96: offensive line, Atlanta Falcons
1993: offensive line, UCLA
1992: offensive line, USC
1986-91: offensive line, Ohio State
1984-85: offensive line, Arizona
1982-83: offensive line, Toronto Argonauts (CFL)
1978-81: offensive line, Wisconsin
1976-77: offensive line, Ball State
1974-75: linebackers/offensive line, Dayton
1973: graduate assistant/linebackers, Ball State