At 54, with two straight NCAA bids in just three years at Iona, Tim Cluess is anything but an overnight success. Yet some still view him as an up and coming coach on the NCAA scene after years of high school and local college coaching.
Cluess went 264-78 from 1991-2005 at St. Mary's in Manhasset.
"I was never looking to move beyond high school. That's where I wanted to be," said Cluess, whose MAAC champion Gaels (20-13) are seeded No. 15 in the West Regional and will play No. 2 seed Ohio State on Friday in a second-round game in the NCAA Tournament.
His idols were Frank Morris, who coached at St. Agnes, and Jack Curran, the legend at Archbishop Molloy who passed away earlier this week. "I wanted to be a lifer like they were," Cluess said.
When the administration changed at St. Mary's, Cluess was out of a job and wondering what his next one would be. He became a part-time coach at Suffolk CC-Brentwood, then spent four years at C.W. Post, with a combined record of 120-33.
Cluess applied for Iona, never expecting to get the job. "It was about 15 minutes talking to him that I knew he was the guy for the job," said former athletic director Patrick Lyons, who now has a similar job at Seton Hall. "I'll never forget," he said. "I'll get the players and I'll coach them up. Did I know three years later, he would have the success he's had? It's just been off the charts. It's fantastic."
Cluess, who lives in Floral Park, is 70-33 at Iona, using the same formula he did at below the Division I level. He identifies players who may have fallen through the cracks, junor-college transfers or just those looking for a change of scenery. When Lamont "Momo" Jones left Arizona, Iona became the right fit for the lights-out scorer, who is among the nation's leaders at 23.0 points per game. The other core transplants are David Laury (Lamar State), Tre Bowman (Midland), Taaj Ridley (Lawson State CC) and former Hills West star Tavon Sledge (Iowa State)
"It's difficult [recruiting] because all the kids in the area are looking for the higher level, bigger dreams," Cluess said.
"You have to be unconventional at times, that's what we try to be, we've made a home for some guys who have gone higher and wanted to came back in the New York area."
Cluess has a solid program player in guard Sean Armand, who is the only player from Cluess' first year. "From Day 1 as a freshman, he wanted me to come in and to show a lot of passion," Armand said. "He's a hard-nosed guy. He expects the best out of everybody."
Iona is seeking redemption from last year's first round of the NCAA Tournament, when it had a 25-point lead over BYU but lost, 78-72.
"You don't let go of it," Armand said. "It's always in the back of your mind to know, it motivates you more than anything."
Cluess said: "We were the smallest team in Division I basketball last year and we played 20 minutes of the best basketball anyone played in the tournament. When we ran out of gas, they just played better than us in the second half."
A victory or two in the this year's tournament and Cluess could see his profile rise again. He resisted talk of moving on from Iona, saying, "I don't like to mess with happiness."
That was very close to what Jim Valvano said all those years ago when his coaching success at Iona catapulted him to North Carolina State and an NCAA title.