Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
With Coach Tim Cluess sidelined by a health issue, Iona soldiers on
By ADAM ZAGORIANEW YORK — Iona coach Tim Cluess has not been physically around his team to start this college basketball season due to an undisclosed health issue.
But he stays in touch with his players and acting coach Tra Arnold virtually every day by text.
“Yes, he keeps in contact with us all the time,” junior guard Asante Gist said Tuesday night at Barclays Center after Iona surrendered a 16-point second-half lead and lost to Princeton, 90-86, in overtime. “He texts us before every game. He keeps in contact with me personally so it’s good.”
Gist said Cluess, 60, encourages him about “just being the leader of the team, talking to the guys, telling them what they gotta do. Telling them that they gotta come with a different mindset every day and just try to instill some of the things every day that he would do if he was here, and just kind of keeping our spirits up.”
It has been a turbulent couple of months for Cluess.
He was heavily linked to the St. John’s opening after Chris Mullin and the school parted ways last spring. Many in the New York area thought Cluess, a St. John’s product who had four siblings play basketball at the school, would have been the perfect fit. Joe Arbitello, who led Christ the King to the New York Catholic League championship and the New York State Federation title, said in April: “Tim is a winner on every level he’s ever coached and he will find a way to win at St John’s because that’s what winners do. He’ll assemble the right staff. To me he’s a coach’s coach.”
But after several weeks of uncertainty, Cluess pulled himself out of the coaching search on April 18, announcing his plans in a text to various media outlets.
“There comes a point where the reality of the situation becomes more clear and moving forward is what is needed,” he said. “I love my players at Iona and being a coach there and I am truly blessed to be able to do what I love at a place I love. I look forward to continuing to grow the Iona program to higher levels.”
“We are extremely proud of Tim Cluess and how he represents our program,” Iona AD Matthew Glovaski said then in a statement. “He has elevated Iona men’s basketball and put us into the national spotlight on an annual basis and we are thankful for all of his hard work and dedication. We look forward to continued success with Tim Cluess as the leader of our basketball program.”
Some in the New York area felt that St. John’s had strung Cluess along and not been up front with him. In the end, AD Mike Cragg hired Mike Anderson, who has enjoyed a strong start with St. John’s. The Red Storm are 9-2 and have won five in a row entering Wednesday’s home game with Albany. After that, they play No. 16 Arizona in San Francisco on Saturday.
Meantime, Iona was once again picked to win the MAAC Conference and Cluess was in position to make his fifth straight NCAA Tournament appearance. This year’s team is once again loaded with talented transfers and former junior college players like Gist, Tajuan Agee, E.J. Crawford and Isaiah Washington.
But the school announced ahead of the regular-season opener Nov. 9 against La Salle that Cluess was “under the weather and will not be coaching today.” With Arnold at the helm, the Gaels lost that game 70-64 in OT.
Arnold has run the show since then as the Gaels have started 2-4. He is in his second year at Iona after spending six seasons as the head coach at Odessa College in Northwest Texas. His bio says that he has mentored more than 30 future Division 1 players, including current St. John’s standout L.J. Figueroa,Jermaine Haley (West Virginia), Keandre Cook (Missouri State) and Josh Gray (Pelicans, LSU).
“[Cluess] is actually still with us, just not there,” Arnold said Tuesday. “Every day, me and him talk. We talk about practice, we talk about games. I mean, he’s a legend, he’s a great coach. But he’s coaching us through this situation right now. So of course we miss him, but every day of practice he has mapped out for us. And it’s the same things with a little bit of tweak here and there, but other than that, he’s still with us.”
Princeton coach Mitch Henderson took time at the beginning of his press conference to mention Cluess.
“I hope Coach Cluess is OK, it’s a first-class program,” he said.
Gist and his teammates were upset about the loss. It was the team’s first game in 13 days since losing at UConn Dec. 4. Arnold also pointed out that about half a dozen Gaels were dealing with the flu, making practice difficult.
“Coach Arnold does a great job with us and everything will work itself out,” Gist said. “I feel as though we’re going to jell and everything will be fine for us.”
The Gaels next play at Colorado Dec. 29 before opening MAAC play Jan. 3 at home against Saint Peter’s.
In an ideal situation, Cluess would be able to return sometime during league play and can attempt to guide the Gaels back to the Big Dance for a fifth straight year. If so, that would make for some storybook season.
Whatever happens, Arnold is running the team in the meantime with Cluess still heavily involved in daily planning.
“Last year we started off slow, too,” Arnold said. “Our goal is to be playing our best basketball in February and March.”
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Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.