Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Cluess Settles in Well for 1st Season at Iona

He's taking over a team that won 21 games last season, didn't have to move out of his home he was living in before taking over at Iona this past April and appears to have had some immediate success with his first recruiting class with the Gaels.

Doesn't sound like much of an adjustment at all for Tim Cluess, who is one of two new men's coaches in the MAAC this season. Siena's Mitch Buonaguro is the other, but Buonaguro is not only a former Division I head coach (at Fairfield in the late 1980s/early 1990s) but has been on the sidelines for more than 1,000 Division I games.

This season will be Cluess's first in a D-I program since his own playing days with three years at St. John's and one at Hofstra in the early 1980s.

An adjustment?

"The biggest thing has been having to cross the (Throgs Neck) bridge every day and dealing with the traffic driving to and from Iona," said Cluess.

Of course, that's a nice attempt at downplaying a relatively rare move from being a Division II coach (Cluess ran C.W. Post's program for the past four years) to becoming one on the Division I level.

It's not without precedent, though, not even in the MAAC. Joe Frager coached at Division II Southern Connecticut State before becoming the Fairfield women's coach in 2007 and didn't find the transition that difficult. Frager has averaged 20 victories a season (60-36) in three years with the Lady Stags thus far.

And, what the heck, basketball is basketball, right?

Not necessarily. Traditionally one of the biggest differences involves recruiting.

Then again, maybe the adjustment isn't that great.

Cluess is working the same recruiting areas he did when he was at C.W. Post. And, he claims the level player he's recruiting for Iona now isn't any different than those he brought to Post.

"I didn't recruit Division II players to C.W. Post," he said. "I brought in players who could have been at the Division I level, and some of them at a pretty high level."

Indeed, he had one of the better Division II programs in the east over the past four seasons, compiling a 98-23 record.

Cluess acknowledges the biggest adjustment he faces is learning about what's already in place at Iona.

"It's always an adjustment moving to a new place, learning about the talent that's there and what guys can and cannot do," he said.

Cluess has started learning about the players who turned in a 21-10 record last season with NCAA-allowed individual workouts in his first two weeks on the job in April. He gets more direct contact with players during allowed individual and conditioning work when school begins next week.

In between, he has watched a lot of film of his players. But, he admits that's no substitute for seeing what he's got in person.

"It's hard to tell from watching film," he said. "You don't know if a player had an injury, was sick or whatever. It's important to watch film to look for patterns, but I'm not holding anything I see against anyone. There's an open slate on everyone here when we start working with the players."

Cluess also benefits from something not all new coaches have. As often as not new coaches take over programs in turmoil. But he replaces not a fired coach, but one (Kevin Willard) who got the opportunity to move on because of good work done at Iona.

Willard left behind a program in good shape with, among others, three all-conference caliber players coming back in junior point guard Scott Machado, senior power forward Alejo Rodriguez and sophomore forward Kyle Smith. The Gaels, in fact, return all five starters from last year and are widely accepted as one of this coming season's top three conference teams.

"The program is coming off a good year, but not necessarily a winning tradition yet," Cluess said. "The two previous years they had losing records. We've got to make sure we establish that winning attitude. We've got to ensure we're on the right path. But there's something here we can build on."

On the court, Cluess can build on a strong returning nucleus that paid a little extra attention on the defensive end last season.

"The guys have a lot of pride on the defensive end," said Cluess. "When you talk defense to them their eyes light up. That's great to see. We probably won't change much on that end. But, we'll be significantly different on the offfensive end.

"We'll go up and down the floor a little more, run more of an open offensive. We'll do more attacking the basket right from the get-go."

He's got one of the conference's better ball-handlers in Machado to help put those offensive changes in motions, and the player and coach already have some shared familiarity.

Before Cluess got into college coaching he coached at St. Mary's High School in Manhasset. While there, he got a look at Machado who was a freshman in the school's program during Cluess's last season there.

If all goes well, if Cluess can bring the type success to Division I that he had at lower levels of college and high school basketball, it could be a very good season for Iona.

"I want us to be competitive, but I've got the same goals as every coach," he said. "I'm here to win championships, to have the best team in the MAAC and the best team in the Metro area. They didn't bring me here to do anything other than that."

Cluess has had success at every previous level (264-78 in the high school ranks, a 22-10 record in one season at Suffolk County Community College and the 98-23 ledger at C.W. Post).

He's got a roster of quality veteran players coming off a 21-victory season and a strong five-player recruiting class coming aboard at Iona.

Maybe there's a seamless transition from Willard, who moved on to Seton Hall after three seasons at Iona, to Cluess.

Maybe the toughest part of the job will indeed be that daily commute over the Throgs Neck Bridge.


Guy Falotico said...

Great piece, Steve! Iona fans can't wait for the season to get here!

Steve Amedio said...

Guy --
Thanks for your kind comments. And, thanks for the mention of the story on Iona's message board at www.ionahoops.com