Michael DeCicco, Notre Dame fencing, Joe Montana
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Mike DeCicco – Notre Dame Fencing Bids Farewell to One of the True Icons in ND Athletics History

Apr 6, 2013, 11:29 PM EDT

(An assortment of observations on the life of Michael DeCicco follow below … we have numerous other video and written testimonials and hope to pass along some more highlights via this blog and the und.com fencing page. The author of this blog entry, former ND fencing SID Pete LaFleur, also is in the process of compiling a formal memorial tribute for coach DeCicco.)

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Michael DeCicco (1927-2013)

Testimonial Tribute  (video)
(by Yehuda Kovacs, one of 26 speakers at post-funeral reception)
Mike DeCicco press release  (und.com)
DeCicco tribute story  (Blue & Gold Illustrated)
DeCicco tribute story  (Notre Dame Magazine)

. . .

I received the call from a former co-worker in sports information on the afternoon of Good Friday. She didn’t mince words in passing along the sad news: Mike DeCicco had passed away. Mind you, this was exactly a week after those of us in the ND sports information family had been devastated with the word that the SID office’s longtime administrative assistant Susan Reed McGonigal had lost her battle with cancer.

On a personal level, I had been fortunate to experience a loss of this magnitude only once previously – the sudden death of one of my closest high school friends several years ago. I’ve come to learn that it’s common, at times like this, to encounter that feeling of being socked in the stomach, the wind taken out of you. I had felt that pain one week earlier with the news about Sue (59) leaving us all too soon, and that unsettling feeling was there again, as the deeply-religious man we all knew as “Coach” had passed on after 85 amazing years on this earth.

While reflecting on coach DeCicco’s multi-tiered impact, it became readily apparent that he has to be included on the short list of iconic figures in the entire history of Notre Dame athletics. Many are aware – but plenty others have no clue – about DeCicco’s invaluable contributions to academic advising, both at Notre Dame and on the national level.

source:  In the mid-1960s, Notre Dame president Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., and executive vice-president Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., approached DeCicco asking him to build an athletics academic advising program – from scratch (in addition to maintaining his duties as fencing coach). DeCicco, also at that time a well-respected mechanical engineering professor at Notre Dame, accepted “Ted and Ned’s” unique challenge, all the while admitting he hadn’t the least idea what he was getting himself into.

As the years progressed, DeCicco molded an operation that ultimately became the Office of Academic Services for Student-Athletes – a program that served as the model for athletic departments nationwide. DeCicco was a fierce advocate for academic excellence from all Notre Dame student-athletes, ranging from the elite football and basketball stars to the often overlooked walk-ons from any of the varsity sports. Notre Dame’s 1988 football team became the nation’s first football national champion ever to boast a 100-percent graduation rate, at a time when the national average for top DI football programs hovered around 50-percent graduation success.

For the casual fan, fencing certainly is not a “mainstream” sport. But, then again, Mike DeCicco never could be described as being “casual” about anything. His 34-year coaching accolades – highlighted by five NCAA team titles and a gaudy 680-45 (.938) career record – already place DeCicco among the all-time greats in Notre Dame athletics history. But the addition of his foundational work with the academic advising program truly places him on another plane.

DeCicco did not simply start an academic advising program. He ruled it with a driven determination and tough love. He motivated the underachievers and slackers, while inspiring the high achievers to aim even higher.

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Joe Montana (pictured) invited Mike and Polly DeCicco to his 2000 NFL Hall of Fame induction ceremony and mentioned both as key influences from his years at Notre Dame.

Still need convincing? When legendary Notre Dame football quarterback Joe Montana was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, he invited Mike and his wife Polly DeCicco to be in Canton for his 2000 induction ceremony. And during his induction speech, Montana singled out the DeCicco’s as key influences from his formative collegiate years.

A few years later, when Austin Carr was inducted into the Notre Dame basketball Ring of Honor, he similarly mentioned Mike DeCicco as a vital influence on both his undergraduate and postgraduate life. Countless other former ND football and basketball greats – Alan Page, Ross Browner, Digger Phelps, etc. – have praised DeCicco’s influence over the years … with Phelps even dubbing DeCicco the “godfather of the Notre Dame athletic department.”

So, simply put, when you combine Mike DeCicco’s contributions to his alma mater in the areas of fencing, academic advising and teaching – and then factor in his tremendous faith, quality of character, and sincere caring for others, most Notre Dame historians seemingly would have to place him among the iconic figures in the annals of the university’s athletics history.

Knute Rockne, Moose Krause, Ara Parseghian and Rev. Joyce certainly are among the most recognizable and respected figures in Notre Dame sports history. But it’s the hope of those who knew him well that Mike DeCicco will be remembered with similar lofty esteem – as a true “Notre Dame man” who inspired so many “loyal sons of Notre Dame” who followed in his path.

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. . .

I had learned of Susan McGonigal’s death while in San Antonio covering the 2013 NCAA Fencing Championships and almost diverted my return drive to Colorado in order to be at her memorial service back at Notre Dame, in the Joyce Center (Sue, like Coach a truly unique spirit, did not want a formal funeral). The logistics for my drive did not work out, so I gradually worked my way back to Colorado, returning roughly 36 hours before learning of coach DeCicco’s passing.

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Notre Dame fencing alumni pay tribute following Mike DeCicco’s funeral Mass. (photo courtesy of Marek Stepien)

Even before reflecting on the planning or timeline, I immediately knew two things: (1) I would be authoring a memorial tribute for coach DeCicco (as for Sue) – a project obviously still currently in production and frankly the most important writing task of my life, one with great responsibility/pressure; and (2) I would be returning to the road in my trusty Rav-4, after basically having spent a combined three months since October driving to and from various college sporting events (from San Diego to Miami, and various locations in between) … but there was no inner debate, simply had to be there for coach DeCicco’s funeral.

Lets just say, I’m very glad I made the early-April drive out here to South Bend – encountering my usual travel adventures but still managing to arrive into town 90 minutes before the start of the funeral. Over the past 15 years or so, I gained a tremendous respect for coach DeCicco, not solely for him as a man but for the Notre Dame Fencing Family that he created, nurtured and cultivated over parts of seven decades. That ND Fencing Family showed up in full force to honor their departed coach – and they took turns, in equally impressive fashion, with poignant comments, laughter-filled anecdotes and tearful remembrances.

For those in attendance during Tuesday’s visitation/wake (April 2), the April 3 funeral and the ensuing Joyce Center reception, those experiences simply are ones we never will forget.

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Nearly 50 members of the ND fencing family participated in the weapon salute to Mike DeCicco. (photo by Pete LaFleur)

One of the lasting impressions surely will be the weapon salute/tribute at the end of the funeral service. As the pallbearers and family members exited the Sacred Heart Basilica, they were guided under an archway of fencing swords – foils, epees and sabres alike – held aloft by 50 or so Notre Dame fencing alums, paying their final respects in simple, symbolic and solemn fashion. Some of the family members may have heard inklings of this tribute, but they were noticeably blown away by what awaited them outside the church. The combination of the sadness from the funeral with the wonderful gesture of this tribute surely produced raw emotion and priceless meaningfulness for the family.

The DeCicco family graciously hosted a reception after the burial, allowing an assortment of ND fencing alums the opportunity to make brief, but substance-filled comments, in the Joyce Center Monogram Room. Over the course of roughly 90 minutes, 26 different speakers shared their thoughts on coach DeCicco and his legacy. There were plenty of common themes but also a diversity of subject matters, befitting of a man whose character had a wonderful depth and quality.

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Molly Sullivan Sliney (member of 1987 NCAA women’s team champions & 2-time NCAA individual foil champ)

Many additional speakers could have taken their turn at the podium if time had allowed, but those fortunate enough to speak during the reception included the following: Dan Yu (emcee), Mike DeCicco, Jr., Yehuda Kovacs, Susan Valdiserri, Rich Daly, Molly Sullivan Sliney, Michael Molinelli, Ed DeVivo, Rick Valdiserri, Kathy Valdiserri, Charles Higgs-Coulthard, John “J.T.” Lyons, Anne Barreda Underbrink, Kevin Stoutermire, Andy Quaroni, Kevin Tindell, Jude “Ja” Offerle, Guy Dwan, Dr. Francis Dwan, Tony Consoli, Joe McQuade, Mike McQuade, Mike Sullivan, Mike Valerio, Joe Sullivan and Nick DeCicco.

Often times at funerals and other remembrances, some of the tributes appear forced or bogged down with cliches and catch phrases. There always is the tendency to magnify praise for the departed and certainly people avoid speaking negatively of the deceased. Such concerns over contrived commentary were nowhere to be found during the tributes for coach DeCicco. People spoke from the heart – some from measured statements that had been thoughtfully prepared, but others in equally meaningful but more stream-of-consciousness fashion.

The speakers at the reception were tethered together through their association with coach DeCicco and admiration for the legendary coach. That commonality is all the more striking when considering the diverse backgrounds and life experiences among this relatively small group of 26 speakers.

Some were elite-level fencers who had competed on the Olympic or World Championship stage. Others were “simple” walk-ons, who nonetheless were welcomed into the ND Fencing Family from day one and saw their lives enriched even to this day from that experience.

Some had been destined to attend Notre Dame and become meshed into the fabric of the fencing program … but others were convinced there was “no way” they were coming to Notre Dame. They even had told DeCicco so, in no uncertain terms … but his sales pitch and the allure of becoming part of ND fencing usually were tough to resist. In the end, they all found their way to Notre Dame … and the rest is history.

Some were gifted students on the pre-college level who have parlayed their Notre Dame education into great post-graduate success. But others faced academic hurdles – first to simply earn admission to Notre Dame, and then to ultimately graduate and carve out their own inspiring post-ND lives.

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Charles Higgs-Coulthard (pictured) teamed with Yehuda Kovacs to form a talented foil duo that headlined Notre Dame’s 1986 NCAA championship team.

Some have regularly returned to Notre Dame over the years and some even live a short drive from campus. But it also was surprising, yet motivating, to hear from a couple speakers who had gone more than 20 years without returning to campus – until this special gathering brought them back, navigating around tricky post-Easter travel challenges.

… You get the idea: it was a collection of people you’d never put together, but they all are forever united through the common denominator of coach DeCicco and the Notre Dame fencing program.

During my time this week in South Bend, I am staying with friends, crashing on their basement coach. The area includes an assortment of their children’s artwork, along with photo collages and other mementos. The morning after the funeral, following my inevitable exhaustion-induced “hibernation,” I rolled over and glanced at a wooden-mounted quotation, that reads as follows:

“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” – Dr. Seuss

The simple, yet timely, symbolism was not lost on me, no matter how groggy my head might have been at the moment (and despite the fact that the prose came from someone more often associated with the Cat in the Hat or Green Eggs and Ham). The “it” of course is coach DeCicco’s time on this earth, while the crying and smiling encapsulate the primary emotions displayed by those who recently have shared their thoughts about Coach. Five days removed from Mike DeCicco’s death, many who spoke about him still were overcome with emotion – be it with tears in their eyes, trembling lips, unfocused stares, or awkward body positioning. At the same time, there were plenty of smiles and laughs – let’s call it what it was, loud guffaws and delirious howling – as the parade of speakers shared anecdotes that brought great memories flooding back into everyone’s consciousness.

As mentioned above, the deaths of Sue McGonigal and Mike DeCicco on consecutive Fridays was a stunning eight-day stretch for those of us tied to both the ND sports information and fencing families. Most notably, former ND sports information director Roger Valdiserri (and his wife Elaine, who died in 1988) raised their five children in South Bend side-by-side with the five kids of Mike and Polly DeCicco. Each of the four parents was considered a second father or second mother to the other family. Mike DeCicco was laid to rest a few feet from Elaine Valdiserri’s burial site.

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Susan Valdiserri and her four siblings grew up side-by-side the five DeCicco children.

Although Roger Valdiserri was unable to make the trip from Arizona for coach DeCicco’s funeral and tribute, three of his children ably filled in – as Susan, Rick and Kathy Valdiserri all spoke at the Joyce Center reception. They joined the other speakers in following their comments with a stop by the DeCicco family table for a long embrace with Polly (a.k.a. “Mrs. Coach”) – who always had been more than simply a supportive spouse, but rather a fully-invested force in the ND Fencing Family.

The DeCicco-Valdiserri connection is a reminder that the term “ND Fencing Family” is not only a symbolic relation, but there also have been several biologically-related, actual family members who have shared the Notre Dame fencing experience. Twin brothers Mike and Joe McQuade related their own story: as the first in their family to attend college, their life was changed forever during their freshman year when their father died suddenly. Coach DeCicco instinctively stepped in as their surrogate father and, a couple decades later, he still was there watching over the McQuade twins’ own children (whether they were fencers or “regular students”) when they came to Notre Dame.

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Mike McQuade and twin brother Joe fenced together at Notre Dame before later seeing their children also fence for the Irish (Joe served as a deacon during the Michael DeCicco funeral Mass).

The McQuade brothers were among various Notre Dame fencers over the years who were comforted, following the loss of a parent, by the DeCicco-led fencing family. Over the past few days, the roles were reversed, as so many former ND fencers were hoping to lend comfort and support to the DeCicco family. Each did so in small measure, but their combined impact was greatly appreciated by the DeCicco clan.

. . .

Four-year All-Americans are a rarity in college fencing, but six of them from the DeCiccco era were on hand for the funeral and tributes:
• Mike Sullivan (sabre; ’77 & ’78 NCAA champ, ’79 runner-up, 3rd in ’76)
• Charles Higgs-Coulthard (foil; ’84 NCAA champ, 3rd in ’86, 4th in ’85 & ’87)
• Molly Sullivan (foil; ’86 & ’88 NCAA champ; 3rd in ’87, 5th in ’85)
• Yehuda Kovacs (foil; ’86 NCAA runner-up; 4th in ’88, 5th in ’87 & 7th in ’89)
• Leszek Nowosielski (sabre; ’91 NCAA runner-up, 3rd in ’90, 4th in ’88, 5th in ’89)
• and Myriah Brown Rivera (foil; 5th in ’97, 8th in ’96 & ’98, 10th in ’99)

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Two of the fencers who delivered the first NCAA title of the DeCicco era were in attendance at the funeral: Sullivan and epeeist Tim Glass (3rd at ’75 NCAAs, 4th in ’77). Foilist Pat Gerard rounded out that ’77 NCAA title-team trio and he went on to team with Sullivan and epee newcomer Bjorn Vaggo (a future Olympian for Sweden) on Notre Dame’s 1978 NCAA championship squad.

The four foilists who combined to win Notre Dame’s 1987 NCAA women’s fencing title include two who were on hand at the funeral: Molly Sullivan Sliney and Anne Barreda Underbrink (3rd at ’88 NCAAs). That title-winning team also included fellow foilists Kristin Kralicek and Janice Hynes (epee did not become an NCAA-contested women’s weapon until the mid-1990s, followed five years later by the introduction of women’s sabre).

Notre Dame’s fourth NCAA team title (’86) of the DeCicco era was headlined by the potent foil duo of Kovacs and Higgs-Coulthard, both of whom were among the funeral reception speakers. The epeeists on the ’86 title team included another DeCicco funeral attendee, Mike Gostigan (3rd at ’86 NCAAs) along with Christian Scherpe, while Don Johnson and John Edwards were the sabre participants (’86 sabre captain Tony Consoli also was among the reception speakers).

DeCicco’s fifth and final NCAA team championship came in 1994 under the men’s & women’s combined format. Funeral attendee Bill Lester (’95 NCAA runner-up) was among the top sabre performers on that title team, as was All-American Chris Hajnik. Other ’94 All-Americans that led the way on DeCicco’s final championship team included foilist Jeremy Siek and epeeist Rakesh Patel – with the following other key contributors: foilists Stanton Bruner and Connor Power, epeeist Gregorz Wozniak (funeral attendee) and Rian Girard; and sabre entry Bernard Baez. The top women’s contributors on the ’94 title team included funeral attendee Corinne Dougherty, plus fellow foilists Claudette de Bruin and Mindi Kalogera.

Here’s a list of the 70 or so DeCicco funeral attendees with ties to the Notre Dame fencing program (additional names will be added to this list – please forward to: editor@collegefencing360.com).

Mike DeCicco Funeral Attendees (April 3, 2013)
(* – indicates those who did not participate in the weapon salute/tribute):

Stephane Auriol … *Yves Auriol (former head coach) … Chris Baguer … Ed Baguer  … Anne Barreda Underbrink … Liz Bathon Brown … *Janusz Bednarski (current head coach) … John Bishko (former asst. coach) … Brian Boulac (former fencing administrator) … Myriah Brown Rivera … Father Larry Calhoun (team chaplain) … Joel Clark … Tony Consoli … Rich Daly … *Mike DeCicco, Jr. (family member) … Drew DePaul … Ed DeVivo (former asst. coach) … Sam DiFiglio … Corie Dougherty Ripple … Dr. Francis Dwan (and son Guy) … *Ian Farr (current asst./sabre coach) … Ed Feeney … Tim Glass … Mike Gostigan … Mark Gugel … Jim Gunshinan … Norris Harding … Anne Hayes … Charles “Chas” Ha yes … Charles Higgs-Coulthard … Michael Janis … Yehuda (David) Kovacs … Jim Kowalski … Gia Kvaratskhelia (current asst./foil coach) … *Pete LaFleur (former fencing SID) … John Lauck … Bill Lester … *Cedric Loiseau (current asst./epee coach) … Chris Lyons … John “J.T.” Lyons … Michael “MD” McNally … Stephanie McNeill Fargo … *Joe McQuade (served as a deacon during funeral service) … Mike McQuade … Herb Melton … Michael Molinelli … Jim Mullenix … Leszek Nowosielski … Jude “Ja” Offerle … Geoff Pechinsky … Ray Pikna … Andy Quaroni … Vittoria Quaroni Tomich … Greg Ripple  … Michael Schermoly … *David Stabrawa (pallbearer) … Kevin Stoutermire …*Marek P. Stepien (former asst. coach) … Jim “Joe” Sullivan … Michael Sullivan … Molly Sullivan Sliney … Kevin Tindell … Kathy Valdiserri … Rick Valdiserri … Susan Valdiserri … Mike Valerio … Kathleen Vogt Robert … Cindy Weeks … Richard Weiss (non-ND fencer) … Mary Westrick Bednar … Greg Wozniak … Dan Yu

* – attended funeral but did not participate in the weapon salute/tribute

Notes: A few fencing alums, including Andy Bonk (’79 NCAA foil champ, ’80 runner-up) and Terry McConville, who were not able to attend the funeral had been able to attend Tuesday’s visitation/wake … all members of the current Notre Dame fencing team attended Tuesday’s visitation and most of the team likewise attended the funeral (a handful were unable to attend due to class conflicts).

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