Impresario of Fun

The defining moment came, oddly enough, in a setting ...

The defining moment came, oddly enough, in a setting that was not in the least competitive. Although William J. “Bill” Cleary Jr. ’56 is a ferociously competitive soul who was then a forward on the U.S. ice hockey team that eventually won a silver medal at the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina, Italy, what marked him indelibly was marching in the opening ceremonies.

“It was the most vivid experience,” he recalls. “In Cortina we were surrounded by the majestic Alps—in those days, all events were played outdoors. The Cold War was on, but you saw the Russian team marching in, the Koreans—we had just gotten through the Korean War. I was so proud to be wearing that USA uniform. I loved the Olympics. They were a way of bringing people together, and sometimes I think they accomplished more than all the politicians combined.”

Cleary’s two Olympics (he also won a gold medal at Squaw Valley, California, in 1960) crystallized a philosophy of sport that has guided him through a long Harvard career as a star player, head coach, and director of athletics. This June, Cleary will retire from the last job where, since 1990, he has guided the nation’s largest Division I program, including 41 varsity sports (with 26 junior varsity teams), 1,500 intercollegiate competitors, and 3,500 intramural athletes. “There’s hasn’t been a day I didn’t enjoy coming to work,” he says. “I’ve had a wonderful fling. We’ve got the department in good shape, and I just think it’s time for new blood, fresh ideas.”

Harvard’s next athletics director (AD),  is likely to continue Cleary’s strong advocacy of amateurism in a world of increasingly professionalized college athletics. “I grew up with the idea that athletics were part of the educational process,” Cleary says. “Unfortunately, at some schools today, they are the process.” Although he sees several positive trends in college athletics—in particular, the growth of women’s sports—he declares, “Let’s face it: athletics is a big business, and when money gets into it, you’ve got problems. One sad thing is sports programs designed for the income they bring in, not the value that kids get from them. Colleges are running programs for the one-half of one percent of the kids who make it to the pros. I say, let’s run it for the 99.5 percent.”

Cleary himself was one of that half of one percent. He could easily have had a pro career: both the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins offered contracts when he was an undergraduate, but Cleary decided against it. “I wouldn’t have played in two Olympics,” he says, “And I might not have taken this road, becoming a coach and AD.” His first love was baseball: he played shortstop, batted over .300, and captained the Harvard team. But on the ice he was sublime, a superb skater and stickhandler who fused an instinct for where to go with a devastating wrist shot to become a goaltender’s nightmare. Amazingly, after more than four decades, Cleary still owns or shares seven Harvard hockey records, including most points (89) and goals (42) in a season, both set in 1954-55, when Harvard went 17-3-1 in 21 games and made the NCAA semifinals. (The records stand even though a comparable season today would last 37 games.) In one game against Providence, he recorded a double hat trick—six goals. In 1999 Sports Illustrated designated Cleary the thirty-third best Massachusetts athlete of the twentieth century, and the Boston Globe put him sixty-eighth on its list of the century’s New England athletes. At the Legends Club in Boston’s Fleet Center, his name is cut in stone alongside those of Bobby Orr and Larry Bird.

He was also a terrific coach, compiling a 342-201-22 record and winning 11 Ivy titles in 19 seasons from 1971 to 1990. His teams reached the Frozen Four seven times, the finals three times, and won the NCAA Championship in 1989. Every U.S. Olympic team during his coaching tenure included at least one Harvard player. Cleary relishes all those achievements, but characteristically singles out something else for comment: “In 1983 we finished as the number-two team in the country, after losing to Wisconsin in the NCAA final. But what pleased me even more was that we had 12 seniors playing JV hockey—they loved the game so much, and they were still having fun.”

Fun is at the core of Cleary’s style. He has an uncanny gift for mimicry: friends and associates get ersatz phone messages from Wayne Gretzky, Carl Yastrzemski, Brooke Shields. Cleary’s reputation for imposture is such that once, when former dean of Harvard College L. Fred Jewett got a call from Jacqueline Onassis, he insisted, not once, but twice, that “Cleary” drop the fake voice.

Thus, in sports as elsewhere, Cleary has followed his calling as an impresario of fun. He worries that changes in athletics—early specialization in one sport, the disappearance of freshman teams, the rise of out-of-season sports like spring football and soccer—add to the pressure on young people and decrease their enjoyment. “I’ve never skated in the summer in my life,” he says. “Kids now play more games in a year than I did in my whole career! But I wonder if they have as much fun as we did.”

Or, he might say, as much fun as we do: every year, from November to March, a group of hockey-playing alumni gathers Sunday mornings at the Harvard rink, chooses up sides, and plays a game. The play is rather crisp: the skaters include three winners of the Hobey Baker Award (the top honor in men’s college hockey), all coached by Cleary, who, at 66, is dean of the ice. “It’s what athletics is all about,” he says. “After the last roar of the crowd fades and the last whistle blows, what matters are the friendships, the memories, and the disciplines you take away. That’s why we play every Sunday."

Read more articles by: Craig Lambert

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