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 5'7�" 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, �p�e 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."