SOUTH BEND, Ind. — For a former college basketball coach, Indiana — a state filled with hoops-crazy fans and home of the classic basketball movie “Hoosiers” — just might be the perfect place to serve as an LDS mission president.
Steve Cleveland, who coached at BYU from 1997-2005 and at Fresno State from 2005-10, then became a college basketball analyst for ESPN and BYUtv, is serving as the president of the Indianapolis, Indiana mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — an assignment he began last July.
In late November, Cleveland attended a BYU football fireside in South Bend, Ind., as well as the BYU-Notre Dame football game.
“The mission has been a great experience. The pace has been a little surprising,” Cleveland told the Deseret News before kickoff at Notre Dame Stadium. “It’s kind of non-stop. We’ve got 240 missionaries, 70 sisters. We’ve had 130 missionaries come in since we’ve been here. The mission went from 160 missionaries to 240. We take in most of the middle part of the state, with Purdue, Indiana, Indiana State and Notre Dame. It’s fun to be on all of the university campuses and see the work going on there.”
In the area over which he presides as mission president, many people know that Cleveland coached college basketball at BYU.
They know him even better as Paul George’s former college coach at Fresno State. George stars for the NBA’s Indianapolis Pacers.
“He kind of owns this town right now,” Cleveland said of George. “We have texted a lot since I’ve been here, and we’re going to get together at some time and have dinner with him, my wife Kip and I.”
George has blossomed into an NBA superstar, averaging 24 points per game in leading the Pacers to the best record in the league.
Coaching basketball has helped Cleveland with his current assignment.
“I’ve dealt with young people before,” he said. “One of the things is, there were times when I wasn’t as kind as I probably should have been. I have to be a little bit kind-hearted and humble. Those are all things that I’m working on. Young people, whether they’re on missions or on teams, are still motivated through positive reinforcement — through picking out the positive and thinking of the good. That’s how we want to do it here. They respond to it. We have such great young people that are coming out. And they’re young — 18, 19 years old.”
On the same day as the BYU-Notre Dame game on Nov. 23, about 60 of his missionaries were in Kokomo, Ind., helping clean up after the devastating tornado that had hit there a week earlier.
“There were homes destroyed and families displaced,” Cleveland said. “They’re doing a cleanup there. They’re eager to work. They’ve got good attitudes and they’re here for the right reasons. They understand their purpose.”
What Cleveland has enjoyed most as mission president has been his relationships with the missionaries, the members of the church, and the people he has met in Indiana.
“The best part of it is just being with the missionaries, whether it's in trainings, or just going out and teaching with them,” he said. “Those are the things that give you the most satisfaction. It is a different pace. The church has a great presence here. The members are so faithful and very well-respected in Indiana. This is a God-fearing people in the state overall. There’s a church on every corner. We’ve been treated very well. I think there’s a great mutual respect for the church here. We respect their values, and they respect ours.”
At the pregame fireside put on by BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall and his players near the Notre Dame campus on the eve of the game, about 40 missionaries turned out, along with numerous non-member friends and less-active members.
“The only way a missionary could come was if they brought an investigator or less-active member,” Cleveland said. “It was good to be with them. There was a great spirit there. Both Sister Cleveland and I felt really good about being there with our missionaries and the people they brought. Bronco and the players were just perfect. The message was perfect. The spirit was there. The music was good. He’s got some talented musicians on that team.”
Of course, Cleveland maintains a close connection with BYU. He hired current Cougar basketball coach Dave Rose as an assistant in 1997, and Rose replaced Cleveland when he took the job at Fresno State. Several other people who were part of the program when Cleveland was the head coach are still around.
“Dave is a close friend of mine and will be forever,” Cleveland said. “They’re all there. We had a good family there, and they have a great family there now.”
At that time, Cleveland said he had been able to watch only one BYU game, a close home loss to nationally ranked Iowa State.
“But I get a lot of reports,” he said. “From what I understand their guard play is much-improved and it looks like they’re going to have a great year.”
Cleveland, and the members of the church throughout Indiana, are thrilled about the temple in Indianapolis that will be completed next year.
“That should be a wonderful thing,” Cleveland said.
Meanwhile, he is focused on his task as mission president and keeping up with the hectic pace in the Hoosier State.
“September and October is always the best time for a coach, as you get your team ready for the season,” Cleveland said.
His current “team” appears to be in midseason form. “We’re pretty busy,” Cleveland said, “and we’re doing well."