“Four-peat! Four-peat! Four-peat!”
For the Iona fans, alumni, and students sitting in section 107 of the Times Union Center, that Monday night in March was nothing new to them. Just the fourth conference title in four years for a program that shows no signs of stopping, as long as head coach Tim Cluess is at the helm.
The Gaels have dominated the ranks of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) for the majority of a decade. After another successful season ending in a trip to March Madness, the school has now won the MAAC Tournament in each of the last four seasons. Senior guard Rickey McGill became the first ever MAAC player to win the conference tournament in all four of his seasons at his respective school.
Cluess has become nothing short of a hot commodity in the world of college basketball. After an ugly job search for a new head coach by nearby school, St. John’s University, Cluess has become one of the latest head coaches to pull himself out of consideration for the job as the new Red Storm head coach. His emergence as a top candidate just weeks prior had plenty of Gaels fans unsure about their beloved program’s future.
“I was nervous,” said Iona alumnus Alex Fasano. “But I understood he played there and it made total sense for him. I would’ve been upset, but also would have respected his choice. In the end, he stayed and now solidified his legacy as the greatest Iona basketball coach of all time.”
The Queens native began his playing career at St. John’s and finished at Hofstra in 1984. Upon his completion of his college career, he traveled to Europe and Australia to play overseas, only to begin coaching in 1991. Cluess returned to the States and found himself at Saint Mary’s High School, a private Catholic institution in the small town of Manhasset in Nassau County on Long Island. Cluess produced and coached McDonald’s All-American and current NBA three-point marksman Danny Green towards the tail end of his time at the school and accrued a 265-78 record during his 15 seasons at Saint Mary’s.
Cluess would spend the next season at Suffolk Community College before heading to Division II Long Island University Post for five seasons. There, he racked up three straight East Coast Conference regular season titles and a trip to the Elite Eight, a game that was their only loss of the entire 2008-2009 season.
Now Cluess has begun to leave a legacy at Iona. He has won the conference’s Coach of the Year award in both 2014, and in his most recent campaign in 2019, and has amassed an astounding 294-131 record at Iona.
“You know, Tim Cluess, all he does is win,” said E.J. Crawford, a senior forward for Iona. “He’s a basketball head. He told me, ‘If you’re going mid-major and you want to make the tournament, come here.’ And everything he said is coming true.”
Crawford has played under Cluess for the last three years and has yet to suffer a loss in the MAAC Tournament. He understands what his coach has meant not only to him and to his teammates, but to the program itself.
“In one word, it’s family,” said Crawford. “You can go to him for anything. All you gotta do is knock on his door and he’ll give us the real. We’re all a family and we all have each other’s backs. We’re just ready for next year and to get to it.”
From northern Connecticut, Crawford played high school ball at Simsbury High School. He received 10 offers from schools across the country, including one from Iona. Crawford turned down the likes of Vermont, North Carolina Wilmington, and Bryant in order to play for Cluess’s Gaels.
“I always liked Iona even before they were recruiting me,” said Crawford. “They get up and down, they shoot a lot of threes…that’s my game. They made me feel like I was a priority and I could come and play right away like I did. It’s just all been a blessing, really.”
As Iona’s leading scorer returns for the upcoming season, he is ready to take on the role of Iona’s new focal point of the team. Cluess has gotten it done with the likes of legendary Gaels such as Scott Machado, David Laury, A.J. English, Jordan Washington, and the aforementioned McGill. Crawford looks to be the next name to be added to this talented list.
Cluess and co. nearly took the program to new heights this past season when the Gaels held a five-point lead over number one seed, North Carolina, in the first round. The Tar Heels would go on to comfortably win by 15, but the first 20 minutes showed Iona players, fans, and the nation that they are more than a small school just outside of New York City.
“Even though I had the flu, at halftime, I was like, ‘Wow, we in it,’” said Crawford. “I felt like, even with me not at 100-percent, we could have possibly pulled it off. I just feel like we just ran out of gas at the end.”
Some of the most traveled fans of the MAAC wear maroon and gold and make it evident how proud they are to don it. They had a strong presence at the first round of the NCAA Tournament this past season and at each of the MAAC Tournament games. Fasano has fond memories of watching the MAAC title games at a local bar while the place went nuts every single year.
“It was wild,” said Fasano. “I remember one year they won and then the pipe band came through with bagpipes and started playing.”
They have seen Cluess as their ticket to the big show year in and year out. Gaels fans have been quick to adore their coach and his near immediate success with the team over the last decade.
“I love the high paced offense that coach plays with,” said Iona alumnus Kevin Walsh. “Shoot threes, shoot threes, shoot threes. When the Gaels can match their shooting with good defensive performances, they are very hard to beat in the MAAC.”
With the level of turnover a college roster can tend to have, the ability to keep a desired culture at a program takes a special kind of person. Sophomore forward Andrija Ristanovic realizes this in the way that Cluess conducts himself each day in preparation.
“The one word for coach is determination,” said Ristanovic. “He shows up every day to our practice motivated and focused on how to prepare us in the best way possible and execute every single minute of the game to its perfection.”
It’s no surprise that in just one year so far in New Rochelle, the Serbian has already noticed the impact that having a coach like Cluess has had on himself and the team. After playing in 29 games this past season, it’s hard to believe it isn’t only a matter of time before Ristanovic becomes another main piece to the puzzle of Iona’s dominance in the MAAC.
“The best advice coach Cluess has given me is to do every little thing perfect,” said Ristanovic. “Because they will eventually all build up to something bigger in the end.”
Being around basketball for nearly his entire life, it’s hard not to respect greatness when former Marist player Connor McClenaghan sees it. For the six-foot-nine-inch forward out of Texas, having an 0-6 career record against Iona helped him take notice of the Gaels’ ability to dominant right away.
“They’re a run and gun team and Cluess is very smart about using the pieces he has,” said McClenaghan. “Playing was difficult because every player was confident in themselves under his system. My first game at their place was a real, ‘welcome to college,’ moment.”
The MAAC is far from a high-end conference and has produced multiple NCAA Tournament teams just once in the last 24 seasons. The one outlier? The 2012 Iona Gaels, a team that would grab a 15 seed in the tournament under Cluess. It takes former MAAC competition like McClenaghan to know what it takes to produce such a well-oiled machine in this type of conference the way Cluess has.
“Winning like they have is extremely difficult,” said McClenaghan. “The MAAC is slightly lacking in size, but the physicality is a big part of the style. It’s Division I, so every player is out to prove themselves and every coach is highly qualified. Doing what Tim has done is very impressive.”
In the span of nine seasons, Cluess’ Gaels have nabbed four Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular season titles, five conference tournament titles, and five NCAA Tournament appearances. It is one of the most unnoticed dynasties in the world of college basketball led by one of the game’s most gifted basketball minds. And it’s about time we all start paying attention.
Edited by Will Bjarnar & Bridget Reilly