Cleve Wright seldom backs down from a challenge. His Gannon teams played the same way.
Many Gannon University women’s basketball backers will remember Wright for the banners that decorate the Hammermill Center. There were many.
But I’ll remember Wright for his commitment to molding not just championship-caliber players but model student-athletes, all the while embodying the drive and unrelenting attention to detail that defines their coach.
While General Electric’s transportation division’s departure will leave a void, Wright’s move to Miami (Ohio) will also deprive Erie of one of its most powerful engines.
When a school newspaper reporter’s 9 a.m. class dragged on a few minutes one Monday in late February on which the two were to meet at 10, Wright wasn’t going to let it go unnoticed when I walked in at 10:06.
“Sorry, but I’m just really intense today,” he said at that moment, though he could’ve meant any time.
He is the same way on the court, where he is most comfortable. When Wright took the podium at his introductory press conference Friday, he seemed itching to get started with his new team.
A strict adherent of the take-it-one-game-at-time mantra, Wright rarely ever speaks of future opponents unless it’s the next one on the schedule.
He is even more demanding of his players, holding exhausting practices and multiple study tables every week.
But perhaps most impressive about Wright’s relationship with his players is the loyalty they feel toward their head coach. His players mirrored his intensity, his competitive spirit and even said many of the same we’re-good-but-there’s-work-to-do lines he used.
When Gannon won the Atlantic Regional championship by beating Cal in late March, a near dozen former players sat behind the Knights’ bench in support were proof of that allegiance.
“That’s a tribute to our culture here, and what we want our culture to be here at Gannon,” Wright said in the postgame press conference that night.
Wright’s teams at Gannon were known for their academic accomplishments as well as their community involvement.
During his tenure, his teams raised nearly $90,000 for breast cancer advocacy and research in the annual Pink Zone games and volunteered for many other causes. Gannon has also earned well over 70 conference all-academic honors in the last 11 years.
Wright’s teams have been in the top 25 in team GPA seven of the last eight years.
Graduating players became as customary for Wright just as graduating coaches has for Gannon.
The school can boast that its last men’s and women’s basketball coaches both left downtown Erie only to take jobs at Division I universities. Jerry Slocum, who coached the men from 1996 to 2005, has been the coach at Youngstown State since leaving. Wright’s predecessor, Jodi Kest, is also at the D-I level at Akron, another Mid-American Conference school.
“I think it looks good for Gannon that our coaches are so impressive that other Division I schools want them,” athletic director Mark Richard said.
It’s a branding tool more powerful than any billboard on campus.
Not long after Gannon launched it’s “Believe in the Possibilities” campaign in 2006, “Believe in Cleve” became the de facto slogan for those in the know.
It seems Miami believes as well.