by Yaron Weitzman / @YaronWeitzman
“First of all, Iona is a great team, and I think potentially they are a top-25 team.”— Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon in November 24’s Journal News after losing to Iona College, 89-63, in the Puerto Rico Tip-off Tournament.
“That’s a five-seed. I don’t want to put any pressure on them, but come on.”— Long Island University coach Jim Ferry talking about Iona in November 29’s Journal News after losing to the Gaels, 100-84.
Phrases like “five-seed” and “top-25 team” do not frequently appear in descriptions of mid-major basketball teams. Occasionally you’ll read about a “potential bracket buster,” or hear about a team that could possibly win a couple of games in March. Rarely, though, do you see a mid-major garner this sort of praise. Rarely do you see a coach, let alone two, go out of their way—almost as if they feel a compulsion to divulge a secret—to tell us how good the team that just ran theirs off the court is.
So who are these Iona Gaels and what exactly is so special about them?
To understand the answer requires a bit of a geography lesson; a major part of Iona’s appeal is the fact that its campus is in New Rochelle, a Westchester County suburb 30 minutes north of Manhattan. Officially, New Rochelle is a city—it has a population just over 77,000—but most would describe it as a town. It’s got all the traits of one: an old train station; one movie theater; barbershops, bagel stores and pizzerias that predate most of the city’s residents; and an urban toughness mixed with a small town sensitivity that is so hard to find. If Manhattan is a star high school quarterback, then New Rochelle is the pleasant, enjoyable backup quarterback that everyone in the school loves. He’s not flashy and he doesn’t have the same aura around him, but anyone who’s ever spent some time with him comes away with nothing but good things to say.
This is part of the appeal of Iona’s men’s basketball team; it’s as close as a non-New York city team can get to being a “city school.” This is a trait that attracts both fans and players, and for years, has been Iona’s pitch to recruits. “We used to pitch that New Rochelle and Iona was a special place, and we would sell New York City,” says former NBA All-Star Jeff Ruland, who along with being one of Iona’s greatest players, also coached Iona from 1998-2007, a period where he led the Gaels to three NCAA Tournament appearances. “We would tell guys that you could just jump on the train and be in the greatest city in the world in 30 minutes. And a lot of guys I went to school with worked on Wall Street and helped with summer jobs…New York City was a big part of our pitch.”
In fact, it was that exact pitch, used by Jim Valvano—who coached at Iona from 1975-1980—that drew Ruland the player to Iona in 1977. “He asked me to dream,” Ruland says. “He (Valvano) would say to me ‘Picture that it’s a Saturday night and you’re playing in Madison Square Garden against a nationally ranked team. And the Garden is full and we’re kicking that team’s ass. Is there anything better than that?’” On February 21, 1980, Ruland fulfilled that prophecy when he led Iona to a win over a ranked Louisville team on the Garden floor. It was Iona’s first ever win over a ranked opponent, a feat that it’s only repeated twice.
That statistic, however, is a misleading one. When Ruland and Valvano teamed up, they laid the foundation for what would become one of the most unique and interesting 30-year runs of any college basketball team in the country. The fact that a school the size of Iona—it currently has 3,000 undergraduate students—has spent the greater part of three decades putting talented basketball teams on the floor despite having eight different coaches since 1975, is remarkable. The fact that is has launched the careers of numerous coaches, from Valvano, to Pat Kennedy, to Tim Welsh, is telling. The players have changed. The coaches have changed. The results have not.
“Iona has a rich tradition of basketball, and one that’s been going on for quite a while,” says current coach Tim Cluess, who is in his second year at Iona after spending 14 years at St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset, NY, a year at Suffolk CC in Brentwood, Long Island and four years at Division II C.W. Post. “Coming here, to become part of a historic program, it was a no-brainer. And I knew I could pitch players that, if you want a chance to be showcased in a major market and get exposure, and you want a chance to fulfill your dreams, this is a great place to be.”