Update: CT has posted a tribute on “the humble coach behind celebrity Christianity.”
Don McClanen, who founded the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) in 1954, has died at the age of 91.
“Don’s unwavering commitment and vision truly enabled FCA to grow to where it is today, encouraging millions of coaches and athletes to lead lives that are dedicated to Christ,” said Les Steckel, FCA president and CEO, in a statement. “Sixty-two years later, that vision is alive and well through FCA, influencing lives for Christ across the globe—an amazing legacy.”
McClanen was born on February 3, 1925, in Trenton, New Jersey. He served in the Navy during World War II, then attended Oklahoma State University. After graduation, McClanen coached high school basketball before becoming the athletic director and men’s basketball coach at Eastern Oklahoma University.
McClanen’s dreams of using sports to influence young people began after a speaker at a physical education conference he attended warned the audience that they could either lead youth “up a mountain or down a drain.” From FCA’s statement:
McClanen was challenged to be a better model of his Christian life and told the Lord he would surrender to His will. Inspired by the conference, he began saving newspaper and magazine articles about Christian athletes and coaches.
After reading that 30 million American youth had no religious training, McClanen began posting his articles in the locker room and praying before games. Soon, he was dreaming of a way for well-known Christian athletes to advertise their faith on television and in magazines the way they advertised other household products.
McClanen’s relationship with Louis H. Evans, who later became the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood and the leader of the Presbyterian Board of National Mission, helped spark what later became FCA. From FCA:
Evans...encouraged McClanen to write to Christian athletes who were strong in their faith—greats like football stars Doak Walker and Otto Graham; baseball players Carl Erskine, Robin Roberts and Alvin Dark; Olympians Bob Mathias and Bob Richards; coaching and front office legends Amos Alonzo Stagg, Bud Wilkinson and Clarence “Biggie” Munn; and even broadcasters Tom Harmon and Red Barber.
Fourteen of those 19 men told McClanen they were interested. But [Branch] Rickey, the then-Pittsburgh Pirates general manager who had signed Jackie Robinson when he led the Brooklyn Dodgers, didn’t answer the letter. McClanen, however, pressed on for a meeting with him. He promised to drive to Pittsburgh to meet with Rickey on his own dime for a five-minute face-to-face conversation. The meeting lasted five hours, and three months later and with a $10,000 gift from a Pittsburgh businessman, FCA became a reality, chartered in Oklahoma on Nov. 10, 1954.
Two years later, the organization moved its headquarters to Kansas City and held it first conference, which soon evolved into its camp ministry. More than 95,000 participants in 36 countries attended 7 different types of FCA camps in 2015. (The Kansas City Staroffers an obit.)
Six decades later, FCA provides resources to coaches through events, trainings, and video resources, and serves students through school assemblies and annual evangelistic events. In 2015 alone, more than 450,000 students participated in more than 14,000 Bible studies, and more than 189,000 students attended rallies where they were encouraged to read their Bibles.
Last year, the ECFA-accredited organization took in $109 million in revenue. It employs nearly 1,300 people, counts more more than 83,000 people as donors, and operates in more than 55 countries.
FCA offers a timeline of its history.
McClanen’s term at FCA lasted 7 years and ended after his 10-year-old daughter died after heart surgery. It was the second child McClanen had lost—his firstborn son died after just one day. But McClanen continued to start more ministries throughout his life.
In the 1970s, McClanen founded the Faith and Money Network (formerly Ministry of Money) after he considered the “relationship between money and fear and anger and...realized that few people addressed these problems from the perspective of their faith,” the ministry’s website stated. The organization hosts workshops to train people to have stronger financial skills and has also taken Americans to India, Palestine, and Haiti “to experience how some communities live in great faith though in few financial resources.”
"It's not to convert the Indians or the Thai or Japanese people, it's to deepen our relationships with these people, to grow and share experiences," McClanen told a Maryland local newspaper, The Gazette, in 2008. "It changes our lives and wakens us to the whole area of sacrifice."
McClanen later spun off Harvest Time, which specifically targeted the affluent. He founded Washington Lift, which worked to develop leadership skills in inner city youth, and began a conference center through his church.
"If there is ever a question about what God can do with a life totally surrendered, called and risking all to follow His vision, we can point to a young basketball coach from Oklahoma, who in 1954 saw the potential of athletes and coaches to share the gospel with the world," said Steckel.
CT previously noted how InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) shaped the context in which FCA was born.
CT also covered an FCA coach who gave a spoken testimony at her own funeral, the reason FCA didn’t send chaplains to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and the death of Billy Graham’s son-in-law Danny Lotz, who helped launch FCA in North Carolina.