June 30 will mark the end of an era at Harvard. That's when
William J. Cleary, one of the great names in U.S. hockey, will
step down after having spent 37 years as a Crimson player, coach,
athletic director and prankster.
This is an article from the June 11, 2001 issue
Best known for leading the U.S. hockey team to a gold medal at
the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley, Cleary was every bit the
homegrown star, reared in Cambridge, Mass., within shouting
distance of Harvard. In his youth every sport had its own season,
and Cleary, whose first love was baseball, laments the trend
toward athletes' playing one sport all year long. "Specialization
is one of the worst things to happen to kids in this country,"
says Cleary, 66. "The head of a youth soccer league called me to
ask for as much indoor field time as I could schedule in the
winter. I told him even if I had it, I wouldn't give it to him,
because what he was doing was wrong."
A brilliant stickhandler with a bulldog's tenacity, Cleary set
Harvard scoring records so outsized that seven of them--including
his 42 goals in the 1954-55 season--still stand. Both the Montreal
Canadiens and the Boston Bruins tried to sign him while he was at
Harvard, but he declined because, he says, "I'd have missed two
Olympics. Best thing that ever happened to me was I turned down
Cleary, who still opposes professionals' playing in the Olympics,
says that marching in the opening ceremonies at the 1956 Winter
Games, in Cortina, Italy, was one of the best experiences of his
life. "I was 21 and lucky to have crossed the Charles River,
never mind the Atlantic Ocean," he recalls. "It was during the
cold war, and the Russians marched in. Then the Koreans, and this
was right after the Korean War. I looked down at the USA on my
jersey, and I'll never forget the feeling. I could have won 100
Stanley Cups, and they wouldn't have equaled it."
The U.S. squad took the silver medal in Cortina and four years
later shocked the hockey world by winning gold. The 25-year-old
Cleary led the '60 team in scoring with six goals and six assists
in five games. Then he quietly returned to his insurance business
in Boston. He followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a
college hockey referee. A critic of the holding and high-sticking
that plague NHL and college games, Cleary says he has one
fantasy. "I'd love to referee a hockey game now," he says. "There
would not be enough room in the penalty box."
Cleary began coaching part time in 1968, in charge of Harvard's
freshman team. Three years later, still splitting his time
between his insurance business and coaching, he took over the
varsity, coaching it through 1990 and putting together a
342-201-22 record. Cleary was a wacky blend of Vince Lombardi and
Bill Murray behind the bench. "He could strike a balance between
having fun and meeting high expectations," says Lane McDonald,
the captain of the 1988-89 NCAA championship team and one of
three Hobey Baker Award winners to play under Cleary. "He could
ride you for two hours in practice and then sneak up behind you
and start barking like a dog."
That was after he'd nipped you in the ankle. Cleary is an
inveterate mischief-maker whose penchant for practical jokes is
infamous at Harvard. Reach to shake his hand, and you'd miss. Or
he'd push his false teeth out at you with his tongue. Cleary
mimics his secretary, picking up the phone and asking callers if
they're waiting for "the bald-headed son of a bitch." He almost
never leaves his name when he phones. It's always Bobby Orr, Carl
Yastrzemski or Jackie Onassis. Fred Jewett, a Harvard dean,
experienced an awkward moment when he really did get a call from
Jackie O and kept telling her, "Cleary, knock it off."
"You gotta keep people lighthearted," Cleary says. "We only go
this way once."
"He can't help himself," says McDonald, "but during a game there
was no joking around. He was all business."
Almost all business. Scott Fusco, Harvard's alltime leading
scorer and the 1986 Hobey Baker winner, remembers Cleary's
speaking his famous double-talk to a referee to give the team
some rest. Cleary learned double-talk, essentially gibberish,
from a fellow Harvard freshman from Brooklyn. According to Fusco,
Cleary said something like, "Ref, those snickerfences lock
habbentrees with their elbows. They slustle to you as they cross
the blue line. Matter a banger intentionally it's a mist loose on
every darn shift."
"About every fifth word made sense," Fusco recalls. "We'd all be
trying not to laugh, while the ref pretended he understood what
Coach was saying. He'd speak double-talk to waitresses, bus
drivers. He was the most fun coach I ever played for. You wanted
to come to the rink and stay as long as he'd keep you."
Mondays were "drop the puck" days, when Cleary's players, in lieu
of a rigorous practice, played shinny for an hour and a half.
Goalies skated forward, forwards played goal, and Cleary showed
off his own skills. "The most intense, competitive player in
those games was Coach," says McDonald. "He still had the best
hands of anyone on our team."
Cleary's teams won 11 Ivy League titles, four Beanpots and two
Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference crowns, made the Frozen
Four seven times and in 1988-89 went 31-3 and won Harvard's only
NCAA hockey title. "That meant so much to him because it proved
you could do sports and academics at the highest level," says
McDonald. "And we did it the way he believed the game should be
played, with speed and finesse."
In 1990 Cleary became full-time athletic director (his son, Bill
III, took over the insurance firm), which means that for 11 years
he has overseen 41 varsity and more than 20 jayvee teams. "Isn't
that what we're in business for?" Cleary asks. "We're a
department, like chemistry or English. Too many college sports
programs worry more about money than about kids. Money has ruined
He points out that the two biggest revenue producers, football
and basketball, have become minor leagues for the pros. "Most of
those kids don't want to be in college," he says of players at
the top football and basketball programs, "but it's their only
avenue into the pros. That's whom intercollegiate sports are
being run for: the one half of one percent. We should run the
sports programs for the 99.5 percent."
Cleary, who also played baseball at Harvard, admits that even in
the Ivy League it would now be impossible for him to play hockey
and baseball. "The NCAA hockey tournament goes till mid-April,
which is when the baseball team is coming back from Florida,
midway through its season," he says. "If you're a football
player, you practice in the spring, and when you're not playing,
you're lifting weights. Sports used to be part of the educational
process. Now it is the process."
It saddens Cleary to see women's sports proceeding down the men's
path. "When I started as athletic director, we had women who were
three-sport athletes," he says. "Now many play one sport all
year. I asked a young lady who was giving up her fall sport why
she wanted to concentrate on softball. It's not as if she'll play
pro. 'I want to find out how good I can be,' she said. 'Besides,
the men do it.' I told her, 'The men are idiots. Do you want to
be as idiotic as the men?'"
Cleary isn't so naive as to believe sports will revert to the way
they used to be. "I'm getting out at the right time," he says.
"It's a business now. But I wonder if kids are having as much fun
as we did. When the last roar fades, it's the friendships, the
memories and the discipline you take with you. That's what I love
room in the penalty box."