Wright leaves Gannon for Division I Miami

Cleve Wright won’t be taking his talents to South Beach, but Gannon’s winningest women’s basketball coach is leaving downtown Erie.

Wright was formally introduced as head coach of Division I Miami (Ohio) Friday after spending the previous 11 seasons as coach of Gannon where he built one of the best Division II programs in the country. He leaves after amassing a 233-100 record in 11 seasons at Gannon, which most recently includes a 31-5 record and an Elite Eight appearance in 2013.

“When I talked to the team a week and a half ago, I didn’t see myself standing here,” Wright said at a press conference Friday at Miami, which competes in the Mid-American Conference.

While Wright was unsure of his status, the opportunities have been there for him, Gannon athletic director Mark Richard said.

“These are not the first schools that have been interested, but he’s always kept us in the loop,” Richard said. “One thing that we knew is that it would have to be a great opportunity for him because he loved Gannon so much.”

Richard said Wright was offered the job early last week before deciding to accept on Thursday.

In an interview on Miami’s athletic website, Wright said he initially had no plans to leave after leading Gannon to a 31-5 season, which included a regular season PSAC West championship and an Elite Eight berth.

“To be honest with you I wasn’t even thinking about it, I was completely happy with where I was at,” he said. “(Athletic director) David Sayler called me to gauge my interest and the next day I called him and said can we talk?”

Rising junior guard Brittany Batts, one of five starters returning next year, said she and her teammates heard the news from Wright.

“They called us in for a meeting Thursday night and he told us it was a tough decision but God had given him a great opportunity,” Batts said. “Unfortunately we’ll be losing a great coach, but we realize the opportunity and we were nothing but happy for him.”

At Miami, Wright will be replacing Maria Fantanarosa, who was relieved of her duties after a 19-13 season.

Gannon, which will host the Elite Eight at Erie Insurance Arena in March, will try to replace Wright by beginning a national search immediately, Richard said.

Men’s coach John Reilly, who spent the last seven years since arriving at Gannon sharing a Hammermill Center office with Wright, said coaches leaving is anything but unusual.

“Unfortunately, that’s the business of it,” said Reilly, whom Wright told of the news via phone Thursday. “The men’s and women’s teams have a unique dynamic, probably different than any other team at Gannon. We travel together, our teams experience a lot of the same things and I’ve enjoyed having the opportunity to work so closely with him.”

Wright leaves Gannon the most decorated coach in women’s history. His 233 win total is more than 120 wins better than his predecessor, Jodi Kest, and his .700 winning percentage is among the top 20 active Division II coaches in the country.

Wright, 47, recently finished his 27th year of organized coaching and will return to the Division I level, where he held assistant positions at Ball State, Butler, Duke and Northwestern.

After totaling at least 11 losses in each of his first four seasons, Wright’s teams have taken off during the last seven seasons, reaching the NCAA tournament five times and winning a conference title twice.

Gannon was champion of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference while it was a member in 2006-07, finishing with a 25-6 record. The Knights won 26 games two years later in advancing to the Sweet 16, but it was the next season when they reached new heights.

Gannon’s 2009-2010 team set the Division II record for wins by finishing 37-1 and made its games must-see theater, attracting unprecedented crowds.

An overtime loss to Emporia State in the Final Four was the Knights’ only defeat.

Wright also made his mark off the court through community involvement and service.

“You put basketball off to the side, he has done so much off the court with the Pink Zone game and the service the team has done,” Richard said. “He has touched a lot of young people’s lives within the women’s basketball community.”

Batts counts her and her teammates among them.

“He gave me the chance to play college basketball,” she said. “He molded us into a family, both the coaches and players; he was the one who founded this family.”

Wright said he intends to create the same family atmosphere at Miami.

Pointing at the players in attendance in the front rows at the press conference Friday, Wright said: “My first thing is to recruit these young ladies right here.”

 

JOE CUNEO

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