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Champion online exclusive: Mike Cleary was an NCAA staff member for only two years, but that was long enough to get an education from Walter Byers. Read more »
This article appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of Champion magazine.
By David Pickle
The world was a different place when Mike Cleary joined the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics as its first executive director.
Mike Cleary’s term as CEO of NACDA lasted longer than those of the presidents pictured behind him combined.
Gas was 31 cents a gallon, a postage stamp cost 5 cents, a new car went for $2,600, and the average home sold for $13,600.
That long-ago year was 1966. Since then, there have been nine U.S. presidents, high-powered computers have found their way into most homes and all 45 Super Bowls have been played. Through it all, Cleary has served as NACDA’s only top executive.
The gig finally ended after four and a half decades when Cleary retired July 1 and handed the organization over to longtime deputy Bob Vecchione.
A streak so majestic seemingly would have begun with Cleary – or Mr. C, as he’s known around the office − carefully charting his career. Instead, Cleary’s opportunity arrived because he was the only administrator at work one day in 1965.
POSITION: Executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics.
PREVIOUS POSITIONS: General manager of the Cleveland Pied Pipers of the American Basketball Association; director of championships for the NAIA; director of championships for the NCAA.
EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in criminology from John Carroll.
FAMILY: Married to Sue and father to nine children and 21 grandchildren.
WHAT YOU DIDN’T KNOW: During his time at the NCAA, Cleary developed the NCAA honors program, including coming up with the name for the Association’s top honor, the Theodore Roosevelt Award. Also, as the 24-year-old general manager of the Cleveland Pied Pipers in the 1960s, Cleary worked for 29-year-old George Steinbrenner – and was the first GM fired by the volatile owner.
At the time, Cleary was the NCAA’s original director of championships. Famed LSU Athletics Director Jim Corbett called the NCAA office in Kansas City, Mo., looking to identify executive director candidates for the newly created NACDA. NCAA Executive Director Walter Byers was out that day, and so were all of his top lieutenants − Art Bergstrom, Wayne Duke, Chuck Neinas and Wiles Hallock. Finally, Corbett got Cleary, the lone administrator holding down the fort.
“I’d never met the guy,” Cleary recalled, “and he said, ‘My name is Jim Corbett and I just came back from our meeting. We’re going to start this new organization, and I wanted to call the NCAA and have them suggest a couple of names for me who I can interview. And I said, ‘Jim, I’ve got just the guy for you.’ And he said, ‘Who’s that?’ and I said, ‘Me!’ ”
Cleary did get the job and began work June 1, 1966. Since then, NACDA has filled a vital role in college sports.
“When ADs went to the NCAA Convention back then,” he said, “they were so busy with the rules and regulations, they had no time to socialize or get together and schedule interconference games and things of that nature. So we were formed as an educational organization. At no time were we considered to be rules or regulatory or cross over the boundaries with the NCAA or anybody else.”
Almost half a century has passed, and NACDA has remained faithful to that original mandate.
What has changed about NACDA is the nature of its membership. The number of individual members has grown from 311 at the outset to more than 6,500 now, largely because the organization has swelled to include 12 different “subassociations,” including those for marketers, business managers and compliance officers, among others. N4A, the academic advisors group, will come on board next year, and CoSIDA, the huge network of athletics communication professionals, will meet jointly with NACDA beginning in 2013.
Cleary said the move to include the other associations was not plotted in advance. But once a couple of related associations were in the fold, he said NACDA’s leadership understood they were onto something. These days, the NACDA convention is a 3,000-person behemoth featuring athletics directors, administrators who report to them and what Cleary called “unbelievable” networking opportunities.
It has been a success story of the highest order, and his associates recognize who has been most responsible.
“Mike provided me opportunities to be exposed to D1A athletic directors in 1985 when I was an interim AD at Eastern Michigan and there were only a few black ADs,” Ohio State Athletics Director Gene Smith said. “He included me in sessions and other activities that afforded me an opportunity to interact.
“I served on almost every NACDA committee until I was lucky enough to become the first black president of NACDA in 1994. Mike tutored me along the way. I owe so much to him.”
Duke AD Kevin White said if “Good to Great” author Jim Collins had known Cleary, he would have created a sixth level of leader. “It would be terribly accurate to characterize Mike as the consummate ‘Irish Godfather’ of athletics administration,” White said.
As it happens, “The Godfather” is Mr. C’s other nickname, earned through his ability to facilitate things. Through the years, if Cleary said something was going to happen, it did.
“A handshake from Mike Cleary is stronger than any contract authorized by an attorney,” Vecchione said.
Which is a good reputation to have if you want to stay on top for 45 years.