A man who's rarely foiled

You can look it up: Mike DeCicco is Notre Dame's most successful coach
January 07, 1980

The most successful coach in Notre Dame history is Knute Rockne, right? Wrong. Frank Leahy? No. Ara Parseghian? No again. Digger Phelps? Still no. The most successful coach in Notre Dame history is Mike DeCicco, and fencing is his game. Rockne had a winning percentage of .897 with the Irish, Leahy .888. Parseghian's was .848, and Phelps' basketball teams have been .693. But DeCicco (pronounced de-chee-ko) sports a gaudy .911 record, with 329 wins and 33 losses in 17 years. When Notre Dame's male fencers take the strip again in mid-January, they will be trying to extend a streak of 106 regular-season victories, a record for the sport.

To the fencers at South Bend, the Four Horsemen are DeLandero, Langford, Melton and DeCicco—their coaches since 1934. That was the year in which Pedro DeLandero, seeking to strengthen a gimpy leg after an automobile crash, took up the sport and established it on campus. After DeLandero left in 1940, Walter Langford and then Herb Melton brought the team into prominence. Since taking over in 1962, DeCicco has established the Irish among the elite in the college ranks. He has done this without the benefit of a single scholarship, and, in fact, over the years only a handful of his fencers had competed in high school.

What Notre Dame fencers do have are the best training facilities in the country. This wasn't always true. "When I came here as a freshman," DeCicco recalls, "I had more gear than the university." The "facilities" were tucked beneath the old field-house stands. Now the well-equipped team operates out of the university's spacious Athletic and Convocation Center and the fencing room is large enough to accommodate the 60 or so prospects who come out each year.

Presiding over them is DeCicco who, although he is 52 and carries 210 pounds on a 5'7½" frame, still moves lightly and deftly. He has a bubbly personality. Uncorked, Mike DeCicco fills a room with laughter and warmth. He is one of those rare individuals who can make "Glad to meet you" sound genuine.

"I've never met anybody like him," Sports Information Director Roger Valdiserri says. "People on campus call Mike and ask a favor of him, and he'll do whatever he can, no matter what hour of the day or night it is. If I just mention something that has to be done, he'll say, 'I'll do it for you.' I have to say, 'No, no, no. I didn't mean that.' Once I said, 'Gee, this house gets so hot in the summer.' Two days later I came home for lunch and found Mike in the cellar, where he had the furnace torn apart so he could hook up central air conditioning for me."

DeCicco grew up in Newark, N.J., where he began fencing—with a pool cue—engaging in imaginary matches in his bedroom. This left a lot of plaster on the floor and a gaping hole in the wall. At Notre Dame he became the only fencer ever to letter in all three weapons: foil in 1947, èpèe in 1948 (he was 29-1 and an All-America that season) and saber in 1949. His 63-20 career record and .795 winning percentage were the best by an Irish fencer up to that time. While at South Bend he started dating Polly Romeo, and in 1950 they were married. They have five children and live in a house off campus, in which DeCicco has a small library and phone in his bathroom. He often spends hours there, reading and taking care of work that he can't get to because of the bustle in his office. His favorite reading is anything about W. C. Fields, including old movie scripts, and collections of Andy Capp comic strips. "My heroes," says DeCicco.

For 23 years DeCicco, who holds the rank of professor, taught thermodynamics at Notre Dame and picked up patents for several items along the way. For many years he has also served as academic counselor to Notre Dame athletes. Two years ago he relinquished his teaching duties to concentrate on counseling. Including women athletes, DeCicco now advises some 500 students. Parseghian once said of him, "We could never operate our athletic program as smoothly without Mike."

On the back of DeCicco's office door is a pennant bearing one of Fields' most memorable lines: ANYONE WHO HATES KIDS AND DOGS CAN'T BE ALL BAD. But much as DeCicco admires Fields, he disagrees with him about kids. The Notre Dame fencing room may be crowded and noisy—adding a women's team seven years ago didn't help—but DeCicco cannot bring himself to cut anyone.

"Lou Krug is a classic example of why I never cut a fencer," he says, nodding at the 5'3" Krug, who has stopped by the office for a chat. "Lou's not the athlete that some others are, and he'd never even seen fencing until he came here. But he's very bright. To earn a monogram, a fencer must be in at least 50% of our meets and must win more than half of those. After Lou finally got his monogram as a senior, it took him about three microseconds to get on the phone and call home." DeCicco smiles broadly; clearly, he savors the sense of achievement Krug found.

"I still can't quite believe it," Krug says. "I'm so small. The only reason I even went out for fencing was because my roommate signed up for it and I decided to go along with him."

"Signing up" is the core of DeCicco's recruiting and consists simply of bulletin-board notices inviting anyone and everyone to show up when fencing practice begins in September.

An even more extreme case than Krug's is that of Don Tadrowski. DeCicco considered cutting him as a freshman because "he was so gangly, uncoordinated and lacking in physical skills. He'd never fenced and I was sure he never would for us." But DeCicco let him stay, and 18 months later Tadrowski took the 1955 NCAA èpèe title, the first of six individual championships won by DeCicco's pupils.

If there is any disagreement between DeCicco and his fencers, it is that he feels they should get the credit for their accomplishments, and they feel he should. "Coach DeCicco is a maestro, a master of the sport," says Chris Lyons of Berwyn, Pa., the captain of the saber squad. "When you've finished a lesson with him, you feel you've accomplished something. He realizes it takes time for a novice to pick up points, so he works patiently until you achieve perfection."

DeCicco contends—and most people in the sport agree—that a fencer's progress is in direct proportion to his or her intelligence. "Because this is a sport of wits, of constant thinking and planning, the more intelligent a person is, the better fencer he will become," he says. So perhaps it is no coincidence that among Notre Dame's athletes, fencers almost always rank scholastically at or near the top.

Another factor in the team's success is DeCicco's training program, in which fencers feed what they have learned to one another. "After his first year, almost every fencer is a coach," DeCicco says. "He teaches others because fencers before him took time to teach him. It's a beautiful process."

Preparing the fencers for competition involves a conditioning regimen that DeCicco insists "is second to none on campus, not even the football team's." The program includes extensive calisthenics, weightlifting and lots of running—long jaunts to build endurance and sprints to prepare for the short, quick lunges called for in bouts.

After many successful seasons, DeCicco's squad won the 1977 NCAA title at, appropriately enough, South Bend. New York University—the perennial big blade in collegiate fencing—and the Irish had tied for first place, and there was a fence-off. Saberman Mike Sullivan put Notre Dame ahead with a leadoff win, and Pat Gerard added a foil victory to seal the team's first championship. A year later the Irish made it two in a row.

Last March Notre Dame had a chance to become the first team to gain a third successive NCAA title, while Sullivan was going after a record third straight individual championship. Alas, Wayne State edged out Notre Dame, and Yuri Rabinovich of the Tartars, who had been beaten out by Sullivan for saber honors in 1977, dealt him his fourth loss in 130 collegiate bouts in a fenceoff for first.

Understandably, Sullivan was disheartened. But looking back at his days at Notre Dame, he takes pride in his development both as a fencer and, perhaps more so, as a person. "Coach DeCicco did more for me than anyone," Sullivan says. "My parents were divorced while I was a freshman. I was 1,000 miles from home and in a bad state of mind—depressed. But Coach DeCicco made me feel like a son. As a freshman I was 53-1, which is the most wins anyone has ever had in a season before the NCAAs. When I came here I had never fenced for a team, only as an individual, and even though I won all those bouts that first year, I know I wasn't inspiring to the team. I was never rah-rah, never did any cheering for others. By the time I was a senior, though, I had learned how to become a real part of the team."

DeCicco's rapport with his fencers transcends conventional coach-pupil relationships. "If you lost, you felt terrible because you felt you had let Coach down," says Ron Sollitto, who graduated in 1972 and is now a physician in Ridge-field Park, N.J. "You knew he'd never hold that loss against you, but you wanted to win so much because he's such a fantastic person. He's also a master psychologist. During my sophomore year we were losing 13-12 at Princeton, with two matches left. My family and girl friend were there. I had never competed, but Coach chose that moment to shout, 'Ronnie, warm up.' He wanted me. I felt like getting my Superman uniform. I won, Coach smothered me with his Italian Hug—something I'd been longing for—and we won the match."

The Italian Hug. It is something all Irish fencers long for. In administering the Hug, DeCicco clasps a hand behind the fencer's neck, pulls down and applies a combination cheek-to-cheek rub and hearty embrace. The Irish find it far more rewarding than a handshake or a pat on the rump.

"One of the nicest things about the Hug is that it's so spontaneous," says Greg Armi, an èpèe man. "Coach DeCicco doesn't care if you've won or lost. If he feels you've done your best, you'll get the Hug from the Italian Peter Pan."

That nickname was given to the coach 20 years ago by Fencer Mike Bishko. "Notre Dame issued green shorts back then," DeCicco explains. "Oh, this is embarrassing. Well, Mary Martin was big at that time and when Bishko saw me in my green shorts...." Since then it has been a tradition for the team to render the following chant at the final away meet each season:

Who's our man?
He's our man.
He's the Italian Peter Pan.

That's Mike DeCicco.

PHOTODeCicco, who wants his athletes to enjoy themselves, horses around with one of his masked marvels.