Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Blending family and legacy, rather than chasing prestige, has made Cluess who he is

Linked once again to several coaching vacancies, Tim Cluess continues to focus on what he has at Iona, which includes fifth NCAA Tournament appearance this week. (Photo by Jaden Daly/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Tim Cluess' name has been thrown around for some of the higher-profile openings on this year's coaching carousel, which is as clear an indicator as the reemergence of leaves on the tree in one's front yard that it must be March again.

But the 59-year-old, less than 24 hours away from coaching in his fifth NCAA Tournament, is treating his latest associations with name-brand programs no different from the others that have come to pass over the years.

"I don't pay much attention to it," he admitted, dismissing the speculation that he is a candidate to fill the head coaching vacancies at institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh and University of Connecticut. "I know there's rumors everywhere, all the time. I guess my name coming up is a good thing. That means we probably had a good year. My guys know it's all about us, and that's all I care about."

"I've had a couple of opportunities where people have called me," Cluess said, indirectly referencing his involvement in Hofstra's coaching search five years ago before Joe Mihalich was ultimately hired, as well as the endless chatter of his potential exodus to St. John's. "I really haven't expressed much interest in it. It wasn't something that I thought would be the right fit for my family at the time. I'm thrilled to be at Iona, and we're just trying to get better there."

And Iona is just as thrilled to have Cluess, the Floral Park native who has won 20 or more games in each of his eight years at the helm, continuing his climb from the high school ranks into Division I college basketball with the added bonus of remaining less than an hour from his family, a longstanding bastion of Long Island basketball royalty.

"What kept me at Iona is probably the same thing that's kept me on Long Island my entire life -- family," he said with a visible and audible tone of pride in his voice and body language. "I love it there, I love the people that are involved. My family has gone through some medical issues for many years, and being there is the most important thing, not uprooting my family just to chase a job around."

Anyone who covers Cluess somewhat regularly is indoctrinated almost immediately into the family atmosphere within which he operates his program in New Rochelle. It is not uncommon to see his wife and sons sitting behind the Iona bench on game nights, and the inclusion of loved ones has trickled down, with associate head coach Jared Grasso often in the company of his young son, not to mention past Gael stars such as Mike Glover and Momo Jones prominently including their own offspring in the experience. On the court, the family aspect translates into Cluess' desire to see his players grow in both basketball intellect and the real-life ability to handle adversity, much like a father would teach his own child life lessons.

"He demands the best out of you every single day," junior forward Roland Griffin said of Cluess' wanting his players to achieve their respective potential. "It doesn't matter (who you are), he demands greatness out of you."

"He's like a basketball genius, honestly," Zach Lewis chimed in. "As far as plays go and how we play and how we work, and how to get the best out of his players, I've seen no coach do it better than him. Even when we're off the court, he's upstairs putting in a lot of work, watching film."

Some of the older members of Iona's deeply passionate fan base still wax equal parts poetic and nostalgic about the late great Jim Valvano, and how his mantra of daring to dream lifted the Gaels out of the wide shadow cast by St. John's and into its own exclusive niche before departing for North Carolina State. Since that time, Iona has seen several successful coaches -- from Pat Kennedy to Jerry Welsh and his son, Tim, to former program great and Valvano player Jeff Ruland -- come through its doors, but each would be hard-pressed to replicate what Cluess has managed to consistently produce since being hired in 2010 by Pat Lyons, now the director of athletics at Seton Hall.

"Jim Valvano's legacy is a huge one," Cluess said with a palpable awe. "We try to keep up that legacy. When I got there, that was one of the things I wanted to do, keep the legacy of those coaches and successful programs before us. That's what we're striving for every year."

So if he were to stay at Iona for the next two decades, resisting the urge to ply his wares at a more recognizable school just for increased exposure and a larger paycheck, would Cluess have any regrets about what could have been?

"I like coaching young men who want to be better, and moving to influence their lives to have better lives," he surmised. "Now do you dream of playing in those power conferences, where you can get maybe a higher-level talent and be able to compete at a different level? Of course you do. But it doesn't take away from anything that I enjoy doing, and I think that's as big a part of it than just coaching basketball. I'm blessed to do it."

"Basketball saved my life, and I do believe that God put me here to coach to help other people have better lives. I truly believe that."

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