On Your Marc: 3/22/16

Cleamons deserves a look

Marc Katz

This March Madness is really something, isn’t it? Game after basketball game on television, and the nachos. Gosh, that might be the best part. The nachos. But there’s more madness here than just on the court and in your kitchen. It’s in the laptop desks of athletics directors across the nation.

It’s time to change coaches. Some, for sure, will leave on their own. Some will be asked to leave and have no choice. Everybody will think they’re in a better place when all the changes are made, even though reality is often traveling in a different direction.

I’m going to tell you about a guy whose name you won’t see much as these jobs open and close. You’ll recognize it, because he was a star player at The Ohio State University, from where he graduated in 1971.

His name is Jim Cleamons, and his resume reaches from the floor to the rim. I know, he’s 66 years old, although a circus carney would have trouble placing him over 50. He also owns a remarkable collection of rings, 10 of them, each for an NBA championship, one as a player for the Lakers, nine as an assistant coach for the Lakers and Bulls. He also has one ring rarer than all the rest—a special edition 40-year anniversary ring from the 1971-72 season.

Cleamons was a first-round draft choice by the Lakers entering that season, and played with Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain. You may have heard of them.

They won everything, including a still-standing all-sports record of 33 straight games, and the first NBA championship in Los Angeles.

So, why would a guy like this, who’s currently coaching with the woebegone Knicks in the NBA, want to go back to college, where his one head coaching job did not end well?

“I want to work in an environment where you feel you can make a difference,” he told me recently when the Knicks visited the Indiana Pacers.

Coaches burnish—but not necessarily improve—pro players, although Cleamons says he tries to teach at any level and has coached a women’s team and a team in China. “Since we’ve made a coaching change here [in New York], I’ve had more of a voice,” he says.

He’d have full voice as a college coach. This is a guy you’d want to use that voice. He came out of inner-city Columbus in the days when freshmen were eligible for class, but not varsity. Promptly, he recorded a 1.67 grade point average his first semester, when a 1.7 was needed just to practice. He didn’t want someone to erase his record and pencil in a new one. By the time he was a senior, Cleamons not only was an All Big 10 player, he was an Academic All America.

He played nine years in the NBA, was an assistant college coach for awhile and signed on in 1987 to resurrect the Youngstown State program. It couldn’t be done. His two seasons resulted in losing records and the Penguins have had only five winning seasons in the 27 years since. He also had a brief period as head coach of the Dallas Mavericks, which also did not end with a winning record.

He stayed with the pros, with big winners. But in college, where the March Madness of firings have already begun, is where he wants to be.

“I want the challenge of college,” he says.

In the college coaching business, you’re either on the way up or the way out or you have some kind of personality that lets you recycle through several schools. Some of the guys are honest and some are fakes and some fool you. It happens in politics all the time, not just now, on any given night.

Jim Crews, a disciple of Bob Knight, never dreamed of getting into the business, but did and became successful. He took over St. Louis when Rick Majerus regretfully died four years ago. Crews led the Billikens to two straight winning seasons and matching NCAA berths. He was awarded a new five-year contract, but has had two straight losing seasons.

He was told prior to the Atlantic 10 tournament his next loss would be his last game as a coach at St. Louis, even with three years left on his contract. He wasn’t given three minutes to say goodbye.

That’s the business to which Cleamons wants to return, and yet athletics’ directors don’t seem to have him on the radar.

Imagine his sales pitch to recruits: “I played with Wilt and Jerry,” he would say, “and I coached Michael and Shaquille and Scottie and Kobe and Carmelo.”

He doesn’t even need last names in a first-name era. And he says it without boasting and shows you how he did it academically and with style.

Who wouldn’t want to sign with a coach like that?

Who wouldn’t want to hire a coach like that?

Columbus-born Marc Katz had a 44-year newspaper career, 41 of those years covering sports, 40 of them at the Dayton Daily News. He now blogs at katzcopsnsports.com. Reach Dayton City Paper sports writer Marc Katz at MarcKatz@daytoncitypaper.com.

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Marc Katz
Columbus-born Marc Katz had a 44-year newspaper career, 41 of those years covering sports, 40 of them at the Dayton Daily News. He now blogs at KatzCopsNSports.com. Reach Dayton City Paper sports writer Marc Katz at MarcKatz@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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