Former St. Mary’s coach now on big stage

Bill San Antonio

Tim Cluess has led the Iona College Gaels to two consecutive NCAA tournament appearances in his three seasons as head men’s basketball coach there, but North Shore residents might recognize him from his time leading a different team with the same angelic nickname.

Cluess, a West Hempstead native and Hofstra alumnus, won a record eight straight NSCHSAA championships during his 14 seasons as boys basketball coach at St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset from 1991-2005, before moving on to the college ranks.

“The toughest pressure I probably faced was always the pressure within myself to win and keep things going,” he said.

St. Mary’s went a combined 264-78 with Cluess at the helm, and more than 50 of his players went on to college or pro ball.

“We had the same kind of formula [at St. Mary’s] as we have at Iona – a high-scoring offense and a style of basketball that kids wanted to play,” Cluess said. “After a while, people start calling you about wanting to come play for you and the teams build themselves based on your reputation from what you’ve done in the past.”

Cluess’ success at Iona has attracted the attention of basketball insiders.

While sitting in the stands at UD Arena in Dayton watching Ohio State practice in preparation for its game against Iona, Cluess got a tap on the shoulder from an unexpected admirer – Indiana head coach Tom Crean, according to the New York Daily News.

Crean, the News reported, told Cluess how much he admired the job he is doing with the Gaels.

“What was cool about it is that I didn’t see him, he saw me and he thought enough to come over and say some nice things,” Cluess said. “He said he seen a lot of our games on ESPNU this year and liked what we were doing.”

Two days later, second-seed Ohio State overpowered 15-seed Iona in a 95-70 win in Dayton, Ohio.

Cluess said he didn’t consider coaching as a career until after he left St. Mary’s for a stint at Suffolk Community College, going 22-10 in 2005-06, and moving onto the head coaching position at C.W. Post.

“It wasn’t until I got to Post that I realized that, you know, this is a job now,” he said. 

In three seasons with C.W. Post, Cluess went 98-23, and in 2008-09 reached the Pioneers Division II Elite Eight. 

“I think you take some of the things that made you successful at the level you were at before and you see if they work, and some do and some don’t and you use your previous successes as a reference point because you’ve been there before with another team.”

After a standout high school career with St. Agnes under coach Frank Morris, Cluess followed the lead of his three older brothers by playing college basketball for three seasons at St. John’s. But, he said, a series of injuries and the desire for more playing time led him to transfer to Hofstra for his senior season in 1982-83.

After playing briefly overseas, Cluess worked as a police officer and owned a restaurant called Docksiders. He coached freshman and junior varsity teams at St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay and was an assistant to Dick Zeitler at Holy Trinity before he was hired at St. Mary’s.  

Cluess was a seven-time high school Coach of the Year winner, and his teams earned national tournament wins at the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and the Las Vegas Prep Classic.

In Cluess’ final season with St. Mary’s, the Gaels went 25-1 and held the No. 1 national ranking for eight weeks.

“I really held the kids accountable to a high level in everything that they did, whether it be on the court, off the court, in the classroom, or in life,” he said. “We would have study hall sessions every day with our guys, we’d get them in the weight room and put them through individual workouts. We prepared them like a college program would to make sure they’d be successful on the court and successful in life.”

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