MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Sean Cleary just couldn’t resist draping the Canadian flag around his shoulders and parading through his dorm in a rare display of in-your-face nationalistic pride.
Sean’s homeboy and Scarborough Optimists teammate Ben Johnson had just won the Olympic gold medal in the 100-meter dash to become the world’s fastest human, and Cleary had to let his Central Oregon Community College teammates know who their daddy was.
Then a couple of days later when the sports world learned that Johnson’s urine sample came back with a little more in it than just urine, the Central Oregon boys unloaded on him.
“He took a lot of crap for that one,” laughed teammate and close friend Greg Metcalf, today one of the nation’s top distance coaches at the University of Washington. “He didn’t hide that very well.”
Interesting, considering Sean Cleary is probably one of the coolest cats you’ll ever run into. Get a flat tire in Flatwoods, no biggie to Sean. Watch the bicycle get plowed over by the neighbor’s 16-year-old first time driver; hey, it was time to get a new bike anyway. Have one of your college buddies over to the house for the weekend and then watch his perfect spiral sail right through the dining room window; well, that’s OK because the window probably shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
Zen masters lose their tempers quicker than Sean Cleary does.
“He’s a very relaxed guy,” said Syracuse coach Chris Fox, a Martinsburg native who ran collegiately at Auburn. “I guess we can say that’s the Canadian in him.”
Cleary came to West Virginia University in 1991 to run track and cross country for Dr. Martin Pushkin, and 20 years later he’s still here operating one of the state’s best kept secrets – at least to those unfamiliar with collegiate running. Cleary's running program at WVU takes a backseat to nobody, anywhere.
Three times in the last four years his cross country teams have finished in the top 10; he’s had back-to-back top 20 finishes in indoor track and last summer his outdoor team placed 16th at nationals. Next week he is sending a school-record seven athletes (all individual qualifiers in a variety of events, including a pair of jumpers) to the NCAA finals with the goal of at least three or four of them scoring points and attaining All-America status.
What makes what Cleary is doing here so noteworthy is that he’s basically doing it with West Virginians and a handful of Canadians. For a state as proud and as provincial as this one, that ought to be cause for celebration. Thirty four of the 51 athletes on Cleary’s roster reside in the Mountain State, with the vast majority of those coming from within an hour’s drive of Morgantown.
“He’s done an amazing job with the West Virginia kids,” marveled Fox. “Everybody in our sport who follows it is very impressed with what he’s done with the in-state talent. We recruit West Virginia kids. We have one on our team (Kingwood’s Ari Kasprowicz) but Sean gets the best ones, it seems like.”
Super-successful Penn State coach Beth Sullivan sees a lot of similarities with what has been developed through the years in State College, Pa., and what is going on in Morgantown, W.Va., today with Cleary in charge of the Mountaineer program.
“There are a lot of hot pockets all around, and I think Morgantown, when you have the collegiate program doing well and you have that connection with the community - it lends itself to the high school coaches and the young girls looking up and seeing what their opportunities are down the road,” she explained. “One thing that is nice about being in a State College or a Morgantown, those are communities that pay attention to what is going on around it, and you can really connect with those kids.”
Cleary certainly has.
Chelsea Carrier, with one year of outdoor eligibility still remaining going into an Olympic year in 2012, is one of the most gifted athletes to ever put on a uniform at West Virginia University – in any sport. When head coach Jeff Huntoon left four years ago to take the Indiana associate head coaching job, Cleary knew right away that he had to get a hurdles coach in place or else he might lose Carrier to another school. She was simply too good not to have first-class instruction.
Well, Cleary happened to know a first-class hurdles coach who was doing some second-class gardening, so he called up his old coach and asked him if there were any miles left in the old legs. Marty said there were, becoming to Carrier what Mickey Goldmill was to Rocky Balboa.
They don’t make ‘em any tougher than Chelsea Carrier, says Pushkin.
“I told Chelsea’s dad a few weeks ago if I ever had to go to war, I’d pick Chelsea first to go with me,” the 75-year-old coach said. Coming from Pushkin, the guy brave enough to integrate Virginia Tech’s entire athletic program in late 1960s, that is some pretty tall grass.
Carrier goes into next week’s NCAA finals ranked second in the country in the heptathlon and 11th in the 100-meter hurdles. She is among the small percentage of females today on the planet (35 to be exact) who have broken the 13-second barrier in the 100 hurdles. Of course everyone knows that Chelsea comes from the well-known track and field hotbed of Buckhannon, W.Va.
Four-time All-American and 2010 WVU graduate Clara Grandt, from little old West Union in Doddridge County, earlier this year was the third American and 16th overall to cross the finish line at the Boston Marathon, which incidentally, was the first time she had ever run a marathon. Clara has already qualified for next year’s U.S. Olympic Trials in that event.
North Marion’s Keri Bland is seeking her ninth All-American certificate in Des Moines next weekend in what is shaping up to be the fastest 1,500-meter field in NCAA history. Bland, despite having feet worse than Bill Walton’s (for you new-schoolers, just Google the words ‘Bill Walton’ and ‘feet’), has run through immense pain all year to once again make it to the NCAA finals.
Bland is the nicest and sweetest thing you could ever want to meet off the track, but on it she’d carve you up with a switchblade in a second to finish first in a race.
“It’s obviously the best thing going in the state,” says Huntoon of the college-caliber runners West Virginia is producing. “The state has a lot of neat things set up and a lot of these kids want to be Mountaineers.”
More importantly, these are Cleary’s kind of kids, says Metcalf, himself a small-town guy from Eastern Washington – low maintenance, goal-oriented, hard-working athletes.
“I’m attracted to the kids that are maybe not superstars in high school but have got promise and potential, and you see with hard work that they can be something special,” said the 2008 national coach of the year who led the Huskies to their first-ever NCAA cross country title. “Sean is that way for sure. He sees it, he expects it and he has been getting it from nearly every kid on his team.”
Call it coaching clairvoyance - being able to see a drop of rain over here and figuring out real quick that it’s going to flood over there.
“I think he’s had good kids on his team, but I think he’s taken some of the West Virginia kids that are running there right now that weren’t on the national recruiting radar and turned them into national class distance runners,” Metcalf said. “He can see talent. When he’s watching a kid running in the state of West Virginia, I think he sees something else and he’s able to look at a kid and forecast, gosh, if they come in and work hard for two years I think they can be pretty good.”
Fox, whose Syracuse cross country and track teams go up against Cleary’s WVU teams eight months out of the year, is willing to take it a step further.
“I can name you four or five programs with much better talent than West Virginia, and Sean beats them on a regular basis,” Fox said.
“I think he’s a technician of the sport,” added Sullivan. “He knows track and field very well, especially the events that he coaches directly. He’s been in the business for a long time and he’s got all of the makings to continue to be super-successful down there.”
Puskin right away saw those same qualities, and four years ago when he caught wind that the WVU administration might be considering going outside to find Huntoon’s replacement, he went to see former athletic director Ed Pastilong immediately.
“I talked to Eddie right away and I told him he didn’t need to go outside,” Pushkin recalled. “We have somebody here who can do the job. (Ed) said, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘Yeah I’m sure. I know he can do the job.’”
Puskin says Cleary’s training methods and coaching philosophies are time tested and true.
“There is no difference in what he does and what we did years ago,” he said. “He puts a lot of emphasis on long distance running and long intervals and building strength, hoping the kids can improve based on their effort.”
“A lot of people do the same thing, but Sean is a lot more successful than most because different people have a better feel for the sport and what makes these kids tick,” Fox explained. “I put Sean as one of the top five guys in the country at that. We all do similar stuff, but you’ve got to do the right stuff at the right time and you also have to give the people you coach a lot of confidence, and Sean does that better than anybody that I know.”
Huntoon says Sean’s best coaching attribute is his psychoanalytical abilities, ranking him No. 1 among the sport’s Dr. Phils.
“The majority of the kids accept what he does and they can feel his passion when they meet him at that table at Paneras,” Huntoon chuckled. “That’s a huge part of what’s going on. When you’re a pretty good psychologist and you’ve got a lot of kids believing in what you’re doing that really makes the days go by a lot easier when you have things like that happening.
“Not everybody is going to get on board, but the majority are, and it’s no coincidence that those are the ones still going here in the middle of June (at NCAA finals).”
“He knows his kids,” Metcalf said. “They have unwavering faith and commitment in Coach Cleary. I know (former NCAA champion and Olympian) Megan Metcalfe and I’ve talked to other girls on the team through the years and whatever he says, whatever he writes down on a piece of paper – whatever the plan is – there is no wavering. There is just a constant commitment and that’s why, in my opinion, he’s such a great coach.”
“He’s a good guy,” added Pushkin. “He’s a good coach and he’s going to be successful here or wherever he goes. He’s got a great relationship with the kids. They like him and they buy into his program and there is no reason for him not to be successful.”
As for Cleary’s cool-as-cucumber demeanor, Huntoon says that’s all part of the Dr. Phil package.
“I think there is a lot more going on than he lets people see,” Huntoon said. “He does a good job of hiding all that and I think his laid-back demeanor goes into his whole psychology thing. He may act like he’s not sweating the little things, but he can sit down and analyze just about any possible thing that can happen and he puts a lot of thought into it.”
Either that or drape a Canadian flag around his shoulders and dog his buddies.Follow John Antonik on Twitter: @JohnAntonik