May 18, 2011
By Ryan Koslen
The University of Cincinnati baseball team's 7-3 win over Seton Hall on May 15, 2011 marked career win No. 392 for head coach Brian Cleary, moving him atop the all-time ledger for the Bearcats as the winningest coach in the program's storied 124-year history.
The one major problem was the head coach was unaware of the milestone.
"I didn't realize it until the game was over and someone came up and told me," Cleary said. "It's a great honor though and it's not something I've had time to really even think about as there's so much else going on right now."
Cleary moved past the legendary Glenn Sample, who had previously topped the career wins list at 391 victories.
Sample, who passed away in 2008 at the age of 77, coached the Bearcats for 21 years, amassing a 391-331-7 record. He directed UC to four NCAA Tournament appearances and two Missouri Valley Conference titles, while sending more than 50 players to the professional ranks. Sample was inducted into the University of Cincinnati James P. Kelly Athletics Hall of Fame in 1982 and his No. 1 is one of two numbers retired by the UC baseball program.
Sample also served as a mentor to a young UC head coach who would eventually succeed him atop UC's all-time victories list.
"He was very gracious to me when I got here," Cleary said. "I was new to UC, new to Cincinnati, and new to being a head coach. He really made me feel welcomed. I really enjoyed being around him and getting to know him.
"He's really the face of UC baseball. I think he always will be. I was always grateful that he was good to me in the way that he was. I think I will have to work hard for a long time to be able to fill his shoes. I have not known a classier man or a better ambassador for UC."
Cleary has become quite the ambassador for UC himself, displaying an energy and passion for winning baseball in his 15 seasons at the helm of the program.
After taking over a struggling program in 1997, Cleary focused on upgrading UC's talent, putting an emphasis on aggressive recruiting. It paid immediate dividends as Cleary pushed his teams to increased win totals each of his first four years. After winning 12 games in his first year, he increased that total to 15 in 1998, 30 in 1999 and 35 in 2000.
During the 2008 campaign, Cleary's charges set school records for wins in a season (39), and conference wins in a season (19). UC battled for the BIG EAST Championship, finishing second in the standings and advancing to the Championship game of the postseason tournament.
Since 2000, UC has eclipsed the 30-win plateau four times and has achieved 28 or more wins on four occasions as well. Two of Cleary's former student-athletes, Tony Campana and Kevin Youkilis, are on Major League rosters and nearly a dozen other Bearcats are scattered across the Minor Leagues.
"There have been some neat stories," Cleary said. "Kevin Youkilis making it to the big leagues, and coincidently, Tony Campana making his MLB debut this week. There are some others that you will never hear of too. Guys like Ryan Baker, who got a chance to play pro baseball because he worked really hard. That's a guy that just worked so hard to get himself there and he gets a chance to do it. That's as much fun for me as seeing Campana or Youkilis get to the big leagues."
Cleary makes no bones about the next step for the UC program and that is a return to the NCAA Championship after a 30-year absence.
"This for me is not a success until we can win a conference championship and get to the NCAA Tournament," Cleary said. "We've been close and we have had some bumps in the road. I think we're getting close. We've got a good infrastructure now with the scholarship enhancement plan and great facility in Marge Schott Stadium. We've got some good players and some good kids coming back, some good players coming in. We're close. We just need to get over that hump."
The landscape of the BIG EAST Conference will change with the addition of TCU in 2013. A number of league foes have hosted NCAA Regionals over the past few years and Cleary feels that the league's profile is increasing in the eyes of the national pundits.
"Look at last year when you had Louisville and Connecticut hosting NCAA Regionals and St. John's also in the field. As TCU comes into the league, it will improve our RPI and I think you're going to see the BIG EAST continue to improve its NCAA Championship profile."
Along with the conference, UC has been in an evolution since Cleary's arrival 15 years ago.
"The UC of today doesn't even resemble what it was when I walked in the door," Cleary said. "If I take the time to think back over the years you can certainly say we have come a long way. So many people have helped along the way from coaches to players to administrators and so many more. It's taken a lot of work so you take some pride in that."
When reflecting on his time at UC, Cleary said it has gone quickly.
"It's been a blur," Cleary said. "I've really come to love living in Cincinnati. I love the University and what we have going on here. I look at the big picture and the great thing is that we keep moving forward. Everyone here is open to UC baseball being better. That's gratifying that we've got an athletic department that wants to be successful across the board. We've still got some work to do and we're chipping away at it."
Cleary went on to talk about hard work and more wins in the Bearcats future.
"We are in an ultra-competitive business and you can't ever take your foot off the gas. We still have so much to do that has not been done yet. I want us to win. I want us to win championships. We have got more winning to do than what we have done already."