Dec. 5, 2013
~Lizzie Mikes, media services coordinator –
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Last year, I took my first road trip with an Irish team in a professional capacity. The University of Notre Dame’s fencing team was competing in San Antonio, Texas, for the NCAA Championship. They had qualified the maximum of 12 fencers, boasted three former NCAA Champions, three Olympians, and eight of the 12 had competed on this stage before. I was confident we’d be winning, and I’d get a championship ring like everyone else in my office had for the sports teams they worked with over the years.
As I packed my bag, wondering if it would be a tacky tourist thing to actually wear cowboy boots on the plane, I had to take a second to pause and wonder, “What exactly is fencing?” At this stage, I had no clue what the differences between epee, foil and sabre were, and having watched a sum total of one meet, had serious doubts about how qualified I actually was to write about and promote a sport that until recently I didn’t even know still existed. But nevertheless, our fencing contact had to travel with the softball team, and being the overachiever I am, I volunteered for the trip in his place.
What I quickly learned that week was that fencing is the most amazing individual sport on the planet. You have these kids, who are usually smaller in build and rarely above 6’1″ in stature, who move in such a way on the strip that you wonder how they keep their balance (and coming from me, someone who walks on her toes, that’s saying something). Off the strip, they laugh and joke around, asking who’s signing up for bookstore basketball teams and what each other’s spring break plans are. Even the team members who weren’t competing traveled to San Antonio; now that’s camaraderie if ever I saw it.
The team I traveled with in March would probably not exist had it not been for several notable coaches, the first of which is Pedro DeLandero – the founding father of Fighting Irish Fencing. Walt Langford took the program over from him, but Michael DeCicco is the true genius behind the program as it exists today. DeCicco competed for the Irish from 1945 to 1949 in all three weapons, the last athlete to do so. He took over the reins as head coach in 1962, and after a modest 7-8 inaugural season, his teams never lost more than four matches in a single season. Under him, the Fighting Irish won 95 percent of their matches, leaving DeCicco with a 680-45 (.938) career coaching record over 34 years.
DeCicco also helped his alma mater off of the strip as well. In 1964, then-executive vice president Rev. Edmund Joyce, C.S.C., approached the varsity coach and asked him to start an academic advising program. Such an idea was unheard of at the time, and DeCicco started back then what is today known as the Academic Services for Student-Athletes office.
“With the help of a lot of people, we were able to start an academic advising program that has become a model around the country,” DeCicco said at the time of it’s inception. Today, the office offers degree progress reports, individualized tutoring for each student-athlete on campus, and monitors classes missed to help students make up work.
Between tutoring athletes across various teams and being named the national coach of the year for fencing not just once, but four times, you’d think DeCicco’s legacy on campus was set: but not quite. In 1977, he started the women’s fencing team as one of the first women’s varsity sports teams offered at the university, and between the men’s and women’s team he was involved with over 700 monogram winners. He was recognized in 2002 as an inductee into the Italian-American Athletic Hall of Fame, and even after retiring from the University, Coach DeCicco came out to cheer on the Irish at many of their home meets.
His name is still talked about on campus, almost 15 years after he retired – that’s the lasting effect Coach DeCicco had on one of America’s oldest universities.
Perhaps by fate, Notre Dame finished second on that memorable Lone Star State trip, and I did not get an NCAA ring to flash around at the office. Not a week later, more sad news came across my desk as a coworker, Susan McGonigal, and a coaching legend, DeCicco himself, both passed away.
“Beware the Ides of March” is a famous line from a Shakespeare play, and at that moment I couldn’t help but think it applied to my office.
But instead of being sad, and ruminating on what could have been, I chose to move forward and be grateful for Susan and Coach DeCicco; for without both of them, I wouldn’t be sitting here today. She was an institution, handling credential requests and secretarial work for 35 years as our office changed in title from Sports Information to Media Relations, and began to embrace the digital age. Without DeCicco establishing a winning precedent, current head coach Janusz Bednarski might not have the top fencing team he does, and without both of these people, my trip never would have happened, and I would not now be listed as the fencing team media liason.
While I never met Coach DeCicco in person, in the 2013-14 year Notre Dame fencers will commemorate his legacy and remind people such as myself to be thankful for his contributions to campus life by wearing a memorial arm band with his name on it. After voting on it earlier in the year also, the former “Notre Dame Duals” will be renamed to the “DeCicco Duals”, to further pay homage to a great Italian-American Fighting Irishman.
So, while many of us still recover from Thanksgiving turkey, and ruminate on which #WhyImThankful post we like best on Twitter, the fencers at Notre Dame will be eternally grateful for Michael DeCicco, and all that he did to improve the lives of student-athletes on campus.