Notebook: The Road Less Traveled

Coast To Coast : Notebook: The Road Less Traveled


Iona head coach Tim Cluess has won at least 20 games in every season in New Rochelle, New York.

On a sunny Southern California afternoon in 2005, Tim Cluess threw his beeper off a pier into the Pacific Ocean, skipping it off the waves like a stone. After a 14-year run building Saint Mary’s HS on Long Island, NY into a national powerhouse in basketball, Cluess wasn’t sure he wanted to coach anymore. 
Within five years, he was the head coach at Iona.
He’s still there, in his eighth season, and has steered the Gaels to four NCAA tournament appearances and the last five MAAC championship games.
Closing in on 30 years in coaching, Cluess, 58, has been a bartender and a cop. He’s run camps and leagues and taught basketball lessons on the side to support his wife Karen and boys, Kevin, 21, and T.J.,19. Four years before he took the Iona job in 2010, he made $3,000 per year to lead the Saint Mary’s program. Now he has a contract through 2021 that pays a base salary of nearly a half-million dollars annually.
Iona has won at least 20 games in each of Cluess’ seven seasons. His .667 winning percentage includes three MAAC regular season championships. He’s won - and won big - at every level during 27 seasons on the sidelines, 75 percent of the games altogether.
He’s a natural, because the game runs through his blood and deep in his heart, and because he coaches his players hard but they play harder for him. Still, landing at the Division I level was never the goal, or some indisputable destination. His excellence is best explained through a respect for the game and a desire to mold talented players into productive, responsible men.       
“This may sound crazy, but I never wanted to be a college coach,” Cluess said recently after a tough loss at Siena dropped the Gaels to 16-11 overall and 10-5 in the MAAC.
“It was the furthest thing from what I wanted to do. Didn’t even know if I wanted to be a high school coach. My attitude was let’s try it and see if you like it. And I liked it.”
Cluess hails from rich basketball lineage in West Hempstead, N.Y. Like his three older brothers, he attended St. John’s on a basketball scholarship. Kevin and Greg were selected in the NBA Draft. All four Cluess boys played pro ball. Everyone of a certain age on Long Island understands Cluess as a synonym for basketball greatness.
Greg died from lymphoma in 1976. 
Tim was in Australia in the mid-80s playing professionally when he received word his brother Kevin was sick. Tim quit playing and came home to help run Kevin’s restaurant and bar.   
Kevin died from leukemia in 1986.
With basketball behind him, Tim became a policeman in Nassau County, following the path of his oldest brother Hank and two uncles. He left the force after a few years to open a bar in his brother’s honor. At the time, he was approaching 30 years old. The only players he’d coached were the incoming freshmen on a summer league team months after he graduated high school and a ragtag Police Olympic League squad.
Then he heard Saint Mary’s HS, which Cluess had competed against in the Catholic League while attending St. Agnes, needed a varsity boys basketball coach. Cluess got the job and remembers the first day vividly.
“I walked in the gym and a guy was on the stage playing saxophone. He turned out to be my point guard. There were kids trying to kick rubber basketballs the length of the court and into the basket. I thought, ‘‘what have I gotten myself into?’”
The program didn’t stay in disarray for very long. Division I players filled the roster through the years, including Danny Green, who went on to North Carolina and the San Antonio Spurs. By the time Cluess left, Saint Mary’s was a heavyweight, trading blows with perennial powerhouses like Oak Hill Academy and DeMatha, finishing the 2004-05 season ranked 14th in the USA Today boys basketball Super 25. 
“I had a lot of great young men come through there and we were successful because of the players and assistant coaches that I had,” Cluess said. “They took a lot of pride in the program and worked their tail off for me.”
Coaching at Saint Mary’s gave Cluess a chance to give something back to basketball, honor the memory of his deceased brothers. But it didn’t pay the bills. He built a summer league from six teams to 125 teams, using the money to support his family and help fund the program. He worked as a maitre d at a Holiday Inn, and as a consultant in the restaurant business, evaluating wait staff and daily operations. 
A new administration took power at Saint Mary’s in the early 2000s and Cluess didn’t agree with their philosophies. That’s how he ended up on that pier 3,000 miles from the only home he’d ever known. He’d travel west with his family to meet with officials from a California prep school to discuss coaching their basketball team. His boys, 6 and 4, at the time, weren’t interested in moving across the country, and in his heart, Cluess wasn’t either.
So he asked the boys to touch the beeper - his means of contact for anyone from Saint Mary’s - and they tossed it into the deep blue water. 
Within a month, Cluess was coaching again. He spent one season at Suffolk Community College, leading a seven-man roster to its first appearance in the NJCAA Division III tournament. From there, he went to LIU - C.W. Post and turned it into a NCAA Division II juggernaut, posting a 92-23 record from 2006-2010. 
The C.W. Post job was a milestone for Cluess. He earned $50,000 per year. It was the first time he could focus on coaching as a fulltime profession.
Following the 2009-10 season the Iona job opened when Kevin Willard departed for Seton Hall. The job intrigued Cluess only because it wouldn’t require him to move his family. He’s lived in the same house since his high school coaching days, in the same neighborhood where he was raised.
His wife, Karen, encouraged him to send in a resume and a contact at C.W. Post urged him also, telling Cluess that Pat Lyons, the Iona athletic director at the time, wouldn’t be afraid to make an ‘outside-the-box hire.’ 
Cluess thought he was the victim of a prank when Lyons called to discuss the opening. Turns out, he was days away from becoming a Division I head coach, embarking on a remarkable run. Iona is consistently among the national leaders in scoring and makes the necessary in-season adjustments to reach its potential at tournament time each year. 
A distinguished list of predecessors at Iona, from Jim Valvano and Pat Kennedy to Tim Welsh and Willard, used Iona as a stepping stone to a power conference job. Cluess has been mentioned for various openings but never as a serious candidate. Not that he minds. Through the peaks and valleys of a journey filled with personal heartache amid family loss, Cluess understands better than most really matters during our short time on Earth.  
“I was never going to make my family pick up and move around the country,” he said. “If you can put a roof over their head, provide for them and take care of their education, none of the rest really matters.”