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Iona coach applies old-school tactics to college game

By Greg Johnson

As part of a series, reporter Greg Johnson is following the Iona Gaels through their experience in the NCAA First Four.

There was a time seven years ago that Tim Cluess thought he was never going to coach basketball again.

After 14 years of leading St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset, N.Y., Cluess told his wife he was willing to try something else in life. Seven years later, after coaching stops at Suffolk Community College (one year), Division II C.W. Post (four years) and two years at Iona, Cluess is coaching in the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship tonight when his Gaels take on Brigham Young in a First Four game in Dayton.

The game tips off 30 minutes after the end of the Mississippi Valley State-Western Kentucky contest, which starts at 6:40 p.m. (EDT).

“It was never my goal to coach at the Division I level,” said Cluess, who is 50-19 in two years at Iona. “I was a high school coach and never had a goal of going beyond that. I loved it, and that’s where I saw myself being until I didn’t want to do it any longer.”

He said classification changes in high school basketball in New York and an administrative change at St. Mary’s were the reasons for eventually wanting to move on. From 1991 to 2005, Cluess went 265-78 and won four state championships.

“There was a lot of nonsense going on, and the new administration at St. Mary’s didn’t want to be known as a basketball school,” said Cluess, who played collegiately at St John’s (N.Y.) from 1978 to 1981. “We had numerous players go on to play at the Division I level and all of them qualified academically. So, we were doing things the right way.”

In his last season at St. Mary’s, the team was  ranked No. 1 in the nation until losing its final game. That summer, Cluess took his wife, Karen, and their sons, Kevin and T.J., on a vacation to California.

He checked on a couple of jobs, but his sons (now 15 and 13, respectively) weren’t excited about the idea of relocating. So Cluess told his wife he would find something else to do.

That’s when he received a call from Suffolk Community College, which was about 45 minutes from his home. He decided to take that job, and in his only season guided the team to a fourth-place national finish in Division III junior college basketball.

His phone rang again following that season and he decided to take the head coaching job at Division II C.W. Post, where he took the program to two appearances in the NCAA tournament. In 2008-09, C.W. Post went 30-1 and advanced to the national semifinals.

In April 2010, Iona called, and Cluess has rejuvenated the program since then. The Gaels are making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006. Their up-tempo style is also fun to watch as they lead the nation in scoring (83.2) and assists (19.3).

More importantly, he discovered that his mentoring skills can be as effective in college as they had been at the high school level.

“I am old-school, because I feel my job is developing young men and not just basketball players,” said the 52-year-old Cluess. “I want to guide them into the right path, because basketball has saved my life. The people involved in it have done so much for me and my family. That is why I’m here. I’m very spiritual that way, and believe God put me here for this.”

President Barrack Obama is expected to be in attendance tonight along with British Prime Minister David Cameron as his guest.

Cluess even has a scouting report on the left-handed Commander in Chief, whose love for basketball is well-documented.

“I’ve seen his game and you have to force him to his right,” Cluess joked. “It’s great that the President is spending time to come here to such a great event as the NCAA tournament.”