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Going Out with a Shout
E.M. Swift
June 11, 2001
As Bill Cleary retires as Harvard athletic director, he rips the ills of college sports
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June 11, 2001

Going Out With A Shout

As Bill Cleary retires as Harvard athletic director, he rips the ills of college sports

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June 30 will mark the end of an era at Harvard. That's when William J. Geary, one of the great names in U.S. hockey, will step down after having spent 37 years as a Crimson player, coach, athletic director and prankster.

Best known for leading the U.S. hockey team to a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley, Geary was every bit the homegrown star, reared in Cambridge, Mass., within shouting distance of Harvard. In his youth every sport had its own season, and Geary, whose first love was baseball, laments the trend toward athletes' playing one sport all year long. "Specialization is one of the worst things to happen to kids in this country," says Geary, 66. "The head of a youth soccer league called me to ask for as much indoor field time as I could schedule in the winter. I told him even if I had it, I wouldn't give it to him, because what he was doing was wrong."

A brilliant stickhandler with a bulldog's tenacity, Cleary set Harvard scoring records so out-sized that seven of them—including his 42 goals in the 1954-55 season—still stand. Both the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins tried to sign him while he was at Harvard, but he declined because, he says, "I'd have missed two Olympics. Best thing that ever happened to me was I turned down pro hockey."

Cleary, who still opposes professionals' playing in the Olympics, says that marching in the opening ceremonies at the 1956 Winter Games, in Cortina, Italy, was one of the best experiences of his life. "I was 21 and lucky to have crossed the Charles River, never mind the Atlantic Ocean," he recalls. "It was during the cold war, and the Russians marched in. Then the Koreans, and this was right after the Korean War. I looked down at the USA on my jersey, and I'll never forget the feeling. I could have won 100 Stanley Cups, and they wouldn't have equaled it."

The U.S. squad took the silver medal in Cortina and four years later shocked the hockey world by winning gold. The 25-year-old Geary led the '60 team in scoring with six goals and six assists in five games. Then he quietly returned to his insurance business in Boston. He followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a college hockey referee. A critic of the holding and high-sticking that plague NHL and college games, Geary says he has one fantasy. "I'd love to referee a hockey game now," he says. "There would not be enough room in the penalty box."

Cleary began coaching part time in 1968, in charge of Harvard's freshman team. Three years later, still splitting his time between his insurance business and coaching, he took over the varsity, coaching it through 1990 and putting together a 342-201-22 record. Cleary was a wacky blend of Vince Lombardi and Bill Murray behind the bench. "He could strike a balance between having fun and meeting high expectations," says Lane McDonald, the captain of the 1988-89 NCAA championship team and one of three Hobey Baker Award winners to play under Cleary. "He could ride you for two hours in practice and then sneak up behind you and start barking like a dog."

That was after he'd nipped you in the ankle. Cleary is an inveterate mischief-maker whose penchant for practical jokes is infamous at Harvard. Reach to shake his hand, and you'd miss. Or he'd push his false teeth out at you with his tongue. Cleary mimics his secretary, picking up the phone and asking callers if they're waiting for "the bald-headed son of a bitch." He almost never leaves his name when he phones. It's always Bobby Orr, Carl Yastrzemski or Jackie Onassis. Fred Jewett, a Harvard dean, experienced an awkward moment when he really did get a call from Jackie O and kept telling her, " Cleary, knock it off."

"You gotta keep people lighthearted," Cleary says. "We only go this way once."

"He can't help himself," says McDonald, "but during a game there was no joking around. He was all business."

Almost all business. Scott Fusco, Harvard's alltime leading scorer and the 1986 Hobey Baker winner, remembers Geary's speaking his famous double-talk to a referee to give the team some rest. Cleary learned double-talk, essentially gibberish, from a fellow Harvard freshman from Brooklyn. According to Fusco, Cleary said something like, "Ref, those snickerfences lock habbentrees with their elbows. They slustle to you as they cross the blue line. Matter a banger intentionally it's a mist loose on every darn shift."

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