Bill Cleary was named head coach of the Colgate Raiders in March, 2016. Since taking over he has led the team to sixth-place finishes in the Patriot League twice, defying preseason predictions. Last season the Raiders earned their most winning record since 2004-2005.
Prior to to Colgate, Cleary was head coach at Bloomsburg University, where he notched a 164-69 record and guided his team to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances. His first head coaching position was at Wilmington, Delaware, where in five years he turned a two-win team into a 22-9 squad that won a league championship.
A Philadelphia native, Cleary began his career as an assistant men’s basketball coach at Towson and two years as a men’s basketball graduate assistant at Georgia Tech, under Paul Hewitt. He is a 1998 graduate of Villanova with a degree in political science.
Cleary believes in hiring former athletes, and two of his assistant coaches used to play for him: Lauren “Ellie” Ellis and Katie Curtis. Both sat in for this interview.
Did you play basketball in high school and college?
High school, but not college. I was a manager for men’s basketball at Georgia Tech and I learned from great people.
When did you know you wanted to coach?
Sixth grade. I knew I stunk (as a player) in sixth grade, and that I was meant to coach.
That’s funny because I’ve noticed that for the most part, the best coaches were not necessarily the best players.
I was good in grade school. I peaked in seventh grade, but I always wanted to be around the game. My dream job was to be a college DI coach. I was wondering, ‘am gonna be able to do it?’ because they always wanted to hire players. I was going to go to a Catholic university and I had paid my deposit. I was going to tun cross country and track for them, and I thought I’d get into politics. My dad was a high school coach and he knew someone who knew (someone). That’s how I got hooked up with Villanova.
So your dad was a coach and you were always around the game.
That, and my grandfather ran a program. Every Sunday we would go to dinner at my grandparent’s and we would play.
You began as a men’s assistant coach. How did you make the jump to the women’s side?
I was at Tech for four years as a grad assistant. One day the women’s basketball coach, Agnus Berenato, came into the office and said, ‘you need to coach the women. You’d be fantastic – my players love you. You need to go to the women’s side.’ I’m loyal, and I told her ‘I got here with (men’s coach) Paul (Hewitt).’ She said, ‘I understand that; I can make a position for you. I wanted to stay on the men’s side at first, but it always stayed in the back of my mind. As an assistant at Towson University, that was the worst year of my life, and I learned what not to do. I almost got out of the game.
You’ve developed a reputation as a reformer. When you get to a program, what steps do you take in creating a foundation for success?
The first thing you do is you’ve got to take a look at the landscape and what you’re dealing with. The first thing most people do is they get rid of this and that, but you don’t know – you night have some good pieces there. I evaluate the stock and go forward from there. We’re big on our culture. We peach about every day here, and it’s something you’ve got to recruit here. When we got to Colgate, the four players that are still here now, we didn’t recruit, and they stuck with us, and we’re grateful for that. They’ve been the cornerstone of our recruiting.
(Former Wilmington standout) Nordia Henry – I love her dearly – and I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for her. I remember the day I turned to dad and said, ‘we’re going to sign her and she’s going to turn our program around.’ She set the foundation and she was so great at helping me recruit players. Your players are your best recruiters. Then I got the job at Bloomsburg and Ellie was in my first recruiting class.
You’re a loyal person.
I hope I’m loyal, but I hope I’m being realistic. Who has helped you get to where you are? I think people forget about that. Things happen for a reason, and there’s a reason people come into your life. I’m thankful Ellie’s in my life and in my family now.
Recently Ellie and I said the same thing at the same time, and our seniors said, ‘there’s two of them.’ It’s nice that if Elllie’s speaking to the team, I don’t even have to ask what she just said.
To me, I feel like we have two head coaches, and that’s important. Number one, being a male, I want our players to see who they can become. Having our players be able to identify with people who act like them is important. My staff is one of the youngest in the country.
What is the most difficult part: building or maintaining a program? Why?
The most difficult part is getting people to trust the process. Everyone in the society we live in today wants it to happen yesterday. I would love for that to happen, too. Two years ago we 7-23 with a 16-game losing streak. We kept saying as a staff, this will pass, these are the growing pains. Those were our ‘teenage years.’ In order for us to be doing what we’re doing now, you encounter those situations. We’re fortunate with the administration that we have here that understands the process and what our history was.
What kind of player personnel do you look to sign?
We look for specific things: high energy, high motor. If you’re going to take a play off, we don’t want to coach you. The second thing is skills. It’s not a basket we’re talking about, but can you make the right read? Do you know when you’re being overplayed? Are you playing chess or checkers? The third thing is length – ‘Inspector Gadget’ arms. The fourth thing is speed. We can compromise there, because if you’ve got skill and length, that can make up for speed. The last thing we look for is character. We’re watching what (athletes) are doing not so much on the court but off the court. How are mom and dad in the stands? We look at all those things. It’s the intangibles that make the difference.
What did you learn at Wilmington and Bloomsburg that you’ve taken forward into Colgate?
If I had to go back and tell my younger self anything, it would be to be more patient. Trust yourself – it’s going to work. If anything, I trust myself more now and because of that, I trust my players more. I think it’s one of those things. When you’re younger you’re more eager. Sometimes impatience is masked as passion. I would say to my younger self, trust yourself more, because it’s going to work out, you know what you’re doing.
What are your goals for the Raiders, and for the program?
I love that question, too. Everyone talks about wanting to win the conference championship, but lets’s be honest: that’s every school’s goal – especially when taking over a program that hasn’t won. You take it in chunks. The first goal is to get a bye in the Patriot League Tournament, which means you’ve finished 1-6. Then, let’s host a quarterfinal game. That’s what we did at Bloomsburg. Instead of taking on that pressure, let’s just get to the Tournament. I’m sure they thought I was crazy. The goal after the quarterfinal game was, let’s see if we can win the league. You can’t put the cart before the horse. We haven’t won a conference playoff game in many years and that’s a lot of pressure, so lets do it one step, one game at a time.
What is your coaching philosophy? How would you describe Colgate’s brand of basketball under your leadership?
My coaching philosophy is that I really want to empower my staff and my players. Ellie could be an incredible head coach one day, and I want to help her prepare for that. We’re big on empowering, and we want our players and our staff to know that it’s their program too. It’s not my program, its our program. One thing we do a good job of is we give our players a lot of say. Some coaches get upset about that, but I look at it this way: I’m on the side, and they’re in the heat of the moment. If we’re doing our job effectively as communicators, we let them speak. I think as head coaches, that’s our job is to empower the people we work with.
What is the difference between coaching at the DI and DII levels?
Division I is a lot more time consuming, and the recruiting is much more significant. Scouting games is different at the DI level. You put lot more time into day-to-day work.
Do you have a favorite motto or saying?
‘Tough times don’t last, tough people do.’ That’s the first quote I saw when I walked into the locker room at Villanova….and it stuck with me. There will always be tough times.