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NACDA Mourns the Loss of Director Emeritus Mike Cleary

Jan. 1, 2016

CLEVELAND -- The National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) is mourning the loss of Michael J. Cleary, who served NACDA for five decades as Executive Director and most recently as Director Emeritus. Cleary passed away on December 31, 2015. He was 81 years old.

A Navy veteran, Cleary led NACDA from its inception in 1965, until 2011, serving the Association longer than any other Division I conference commissioner, coaching association executive director or national association leader. In addition, he had the opportunity to work with all five NCAA presidents.

Up until his time of death, Cleary served as president for the John McLendon Minority Scholarship Foundation and the Michael J. Cleary Northeastern Ohio Chapter of the National Football Foundation, named in his honor in 2008. 

"For over 50 years, Mike Cleary dedicated his life to collegiate athletics and specifically NACDA," said Bob Vecchione, NACDA Executive Director. "Mike has meant so much to so many. I have known him for over 33 years, and to this day I am amazed by the number of people, from all walks of life, who have relayed heartwarming stories on how Mike changed their life. Mike's legacy will be carried on for many generations by those who he mentored. 

"All of us at NACDA are deeply saddened by Mike's passing but are extremely grateful for the opportunity to intern under the ultimate professor, Mr. C."

As president of the McLendon Minority Scholarship Foundation, Cleary was responsible for raising more than $2 million to date. In addition, the Foundation also created the John McLendon Minority Athletics Administrators Hall of Fame in 2007, to honor minority athletics administrators who have made an impact on the profession. 

Over the course of his 50-year tenure with NACDA, Cleary oversaw the creation of the annual Convention, its affiliate associations, Facilities Workshop, Security Summit, the NACDA Daily Review, the Learfield Sports Directors' Cup and Athletics Administration.  

While serving as NACDA's Executive Director, Cleary simultaneously held the posts of commissioner of the Ohio Athletic Conference from 1973-81 and administrator of the Division 1A Athletic Directors' Association from 1986-92. 

"On behalf of all of the members of NACDA, we want to express our deepest sympathy to the family of Mike Cleary on his passing," said NACDA President Tim Selgo, Director of Athletics at Grand Valley State University. "As the founder of our organization, Mike was held in the highest regard by all who were fortunate enough to have known him and had the privilege of working with him. There are so many collegiate athletics administrators today who have benefitted from the leadership that Mike provided our organization for the last 50 years, that it is an understatement to say that Mike had a profound influence on college athletics as we know it today. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the entire Cleary family at this time."

Prior to NACDA, Cleary served as the director of championship events for the NCAA, and also held the same position with the NAIA. Before entering the field of intercollegiate athletics, Cleary served as the general manager of the Cleveland Pipers in the old American Basketball League under owner George Steinbrenner. While with the Pipers, Cleary hired John McLendon, the first Black coach to head an American professional sports team. He also served as general manager of the Kansas City Steers of Abe Saperstein's ABL and Midwest scout for the New York Knicks.

A behind-the-scenes person in the field of athletics, Cleary served on committees with the USOC; the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSEA); and the National Football Foundation (NFF) and Hall of Fame, to name a few. In 1999, Cleary was named to the Board of Directors of the NFF and, in 1995, he received the award for the Outstanding Contribution to Amateur Football from the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. Additionally, in 1997, he received the St. Ignatius High School (Ohio) Distinguished Alumnus Award; in 1999, he was honored by the National Alliance of Two-Year College Athletic Administrators (NATYCAA); in 2004, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the United States Sports Academy; in 2009, was inducted into the NAIA Hall of Fame; and in 2010, was inducted into the CYO Hall of Fame.

Cleary was proudly Jesuit educated at Saint Ignatius High School and John Carroll University, both located in his hometown of Cleveland. John Carroll recently named its sports studies program in honor of Cleary. He served for two years in the Navy aboard the aircraft carrier, the USS Lake Champlain, stationed in the Mediterranean. As a teenager, Cleary was a boxer and was purported to compete in the first live television event broadcast out of Cleveland, the CYO Boxing Tournament, which aired from the old WEWS studios in the spring of 1948. He is survived by his wife, Sue, nine children and 21 grandchildren.

The family will receive friends on Tuesday, Jan. 5 from 2 to 8 p.m. at McGorray-Hanna Funeral Home, 25620 Center Ridge Rd., Westlake, OH 44145. The funeral mass will be held Wednesday, Jan. 6 at 11 a.m. at St. Christopher Parish, 20141 Detroit Rd., Rocky River, OH 44116.

Donations in Cleary's name can be made to Saint Ignatius High School, 1911 West 30th St., Cleveland, OH 44113, The John McLendon Minority Scholarship Foundation, 24651 Detroit Road, Westlake, OH 44145, and the John Carroll University Mike Cleary Program in Sports Studies, 1 John Carroll Blvd., University Heights, OH 44118.

Remembering Mike Cleary: 

NACDA 3rd VP Lee Reed, Director of Athletics, Georgetown University
"I am deeply saddened by the news of Michael Cleary's passing. My prayers and condolences go out to the entire Cleary family during this difficult time of loss.  

Mr. C as we respectfully referred to him, has had a profound impact on our industry and me personally. He served as my role model, mentor and most importantly as a loyal and trusted friend and advisor. From my time as an intern and staffer at NACDA to my role today as AD at Georgetown University and NACDA 3rd VP, his influence was always there and always welcomed.

I, like so many others, will miss Mr. C but I am confident that his legacy will live on through the hundreds of athletics administrators he helped to shape. Our profession is better because of his service.

Thank you Mr. C." 

NACDA Treasurer Don Tencher, Director of Athletics, Rhode Island College
"I was privileged to know Mike Cleary for over 32 years.  As a young athletic administrator I was fortunate that he took me under his wing and has always been there for me as a mentor, confidant and most importantly a friend.  Beyond his incredible friendship he was a strong professional father figure to me, who was deeply concerned about my life beyond the profession.   We have lost a giant in the world of intercollegiate athletics, many of us have lost our "godfather" and a very strong compass for what was right and wrong about intercollegiate athletics. "

NACDA Past President Mike Lude
"When I was appointed director of intercollegiate athletics in 1970 at Kent State University, Mike was getting NACDA off the ground and running. As a new AD, one of my first and what has proven to be a great move, was to get really close to Michael both professionally and in friendship, spending quality time with him frequently.  As a past president of NACDA and close private, as well as public friend of Mr. C, I have been blessed to know, respect, associate, learn from and love this very quiet little man, but a giant in many ways, especially in the history, policy and tradition of intercollegiate athletics and sport. Our athletics world is a much better place due to the contributions, leadership and guidance of my friend, Michael Cleary."

NACDA Past President Kevin Anderson, Director of Athletics, University of Maryland
"When asked about the most influential people in college athletics Michael Cleary is number one on the list. Mike did so many things behind the scenes. Mr. Cleary is the definition of the servant leader. He will truly be missed! I love Mike Cleary!"

NACDA Past President Gene Smith, Director of Athletics, The Ohio State University
"There is no question I would not have the opportunities I enjoy today were it not for Mike Cleary, who was like a father to me!! I am deeply saddened."

NACDA Past President Kevin White, Director of Athletics, Duke University
"Mike Clearly has been, for well over 50 years, the driving force, singlehandedly, that has created the modern day professional athletics administrator, whereby some 3,000 American colleges and universities have indeed become the direct beneficiary. However, with that said, the most significant impact has been on the 'zillion' student athletes and coaches that have been immeasurably affected by the leadership values and skills imparted by Mike's beloved association, NACDA. In addition, Mike has been unequivocally characterized as the 'Irish Godfather' relative to his life's work which he has cherished, as well as his truly amazing family, wherein Mike and Sue will be forever emulated by all of us who have been so darn fortunate, actually truly blessed, to have been touched by his/their Celtic magic."

Oliver Luck, Executive Vice President of Regulatory Affairs, NCAA
"We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours." John of Salisbury, 12th century theologian.

Mike Cleary was a giant and multitudes of intercollegiate athletics administrators have benefitted from his wisdom, vision, charisma and leadership. He was a force for positive change throughout his tenure at NACDA. His business acumen was well-known to all but what set Mike apart was his engaging personality. A broad smile, a clever quip, the sparkle of his eyes- this is what made Mike special. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Mike for the work that he has done over the years to help our industry thrive and prosper. Mike will be sorely missed. He was a giant."