The Notre Dame record books show Michael “Mike” DeCicco as the coach with the most wins and most national titles in school history. But he was equally esteemed as a faculty professor and an NCAA pioneer as an academic advisor during his 41 years of service to the University.
Mike DeCicco served Notre Dame for 41 years as a professor, fencing coach and academic advisor.
DeCicco died Friday afternoon (March 29) of congestive heart failure at Holy Cross Village at Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. He was 85 years old.
A 1949 graduate of Notre Dame, his 45-4 career foil record (.918) as a fencer still ranks fourth on Notre Dame’s all-time list for career foil winning percentage. He returned to Notre Dame in 1954 to complete his doctorate and become a faculty professor in engineering, plus an assistant coach for fencing.
From 1962-95, DeCicco served as the head fencing coach, recording a career mark of 680-45 (.938), highlighted by five team national titles, eight NCAA individual champions and producing almost 100 All-Americans. He also represented and coached the United States in numerous Olympic and World Championship events.
However, his most profound impact occurred in the early 1960s when Notre Dame executive vice president Rev. Edmund P. Joyce C.S.C. tabbed DeCicco for a new position as the chief academic advisor of Notre Dame’s student-athletes.
No other school in the NCAA had an academic advisor, so DeCicco didn’t have a template or role model to emulate. He was an original.
“I didn’t know what in the hell I was doing when I first took the job,” said DeCicco, a mechanical engineering professor, in a 1988 interview with Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I’d sit down with a kid and ask how his schoolwork was going. He’d say, ‘Okay.’ I’d say, ‘Fine.’ And that was that. Then when grades would be posted, I’d discover a lot were not doing as well as the said they were.”
DeCicco’s “on-the-job-training” made him realize that he had to be on top of each student-athlete’s progress on a week-to-week basis, not after the warning signs were too great to overcome. He recognized that some athletes had the “last minute comeback” mentality in the classroom, and he became a martinet when it came to demanding consistent academic success.
Consensus All-America defensive end Ross Browner (1973-77) referred to DeCicco as one of the most intimidating figures he met at Notre Dame. Browner noted how DeCicco once brandished a sword in front of him and warned him that his ability to reproduce would be severely compromised if he let his grades fall. (Browner was a Dean's List student.) And woe to the student-athlete if DeCicco ever received a memo from a professor that he had an unexcused absence.
During DeCicco’s reign, Notre Dame graduated approximately 99 percent of student-athletes who enrolled and stayed four years at the school, and it was usually the annual recipient of the then College Football Association Academic Achievement Award that began in 1981. In 1988, Notre Dame became the first school ever to win a football national title while also graduating 100 percent of its players. Among 59 other CFA member institutions who returned their results that year, the graduation rate was 50.7 percent.
DeCicco always credited Father Joyce and 1952-87 Notre Dame president Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh C.S.C. for having the foresight to create his position that was deemed unnecessary by many at the time.
“They recognized the constraints and time-factor difficulties student-athletes would eventually have with the increased emphasis on intercollegiate sports,” DeCicco said.
Ironically, DeCicco’s position was originally met with derision among some members of the academic community because of the potential of possibly coddling athletes. The two priests and DeCicco had a different perspective: Notre Dame is asking the athletes for their services, energies and to act as national representatives of the school. Therefore, it is the University’s duty to try to assure them an equal chance to earn a degree, just like any other student, and not just be hired mercenaries.
Tutorial services, a 10-day orientation program that taught time management and proper ways to study were implemented, as was summer school — which has now been a mandatory part of the academic year for years, including incoming freshmen.
Born Nov. 16, 1927 in Newark, N.J., DeCicco was a 2002 inductee into the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame. He is survived by his wife, the former Polly Romeo, and his five children — Linda, Della, Nick, Michelle and Mike. Funeral arrangements are pending.
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