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John Cicuto: Leader of the Vaqs

John Cicuto: Leader of the Vaqs
Head Coach John Cicuto congratulates the Vaqueros and says goodbye to one of his winningest teams in memory after they won the Western States Bowl at Glendale College Saturday. (Courtesy of Cynthia Perry)

At 69, he's still got quite a sharp memory. He can recall the majority of football players he's coached and the games that took place while he stood on the sidelines wearing a headset.

For John Cicuto, he's likely seen it all since he first arrived at Glendale Community College in 1975 as defensive coordinator for the football team before ultimately becoming head coach in 1989. He held the head coaching position until 2007 before becoming the school's athletic director — a position he holds to this day.

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The memories will always burn bright for Cicuto, who can spend hours recalling details — major and minor — from his decorated and now celebrated journey with the Vaqueros.

Probably no one game stood out more than the 1985 Potato Bowl that featured upstart Glendale against state and national powerhouse Taft at Bakersfield College's Memorial Stadium.

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"It's without question one of the greatest games that our football program has even been involved in," said Cicuto, who will be inducted into the college's athletic hall of fame Oct. 11. "Taft had this great team full of talented players and maybe we weren't given that much of a chance to beat them.

"I can still remember walking into the stadium and seeing Taft's gigantic linebackers who looked intimidating at first. Well, we were down 7-0 and then 14-0 and I still felt good about our chances. We trailed at halftime and we felt even better. We came back to take a 30-24 lead late in the fourth quarter when [wide receiver] Jeff Jackson caught a touchdown pass. We then wound up tackling their quarterback at our five-yard line as time ran out. Then there was a huge celebration between the coaching staff and players."

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During Cicuto's time coaching at Glendale, 35 All-Americans took the field. He's the winningest coach at the school and guided the Vaqueros to three bowl championships. Some players transferred to four-year programs and others would eventually go on to play in the NFL. Cicuto, a Sherman Oaks Notre Dame High and Fresno State graduate, finished 98-95-2 and was the longest tenured football coach at Glendale after taking over the program from Jim Sartoris, who had brought Cicuto aboard.

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The Vaqueros ushered in their era of excellence when Sartoris took over the program in 1972. Glendale began to field respectable teams, but Sartoris was in favor of bringing on board a full-time assistant coach who could further elevate the program. Sartoris, who went to Notre Dame with Cicuto, entertained the idea of reaching out to Cicuto to work alongside him before the beginning of the 1975 season.

First, Sartoris had to persuade Cicuto about the pending job opening. Cicuto was then head coach at St. Bernard High in Playa Del Rey after previously coaching at L.A. Pierce.

"When I took over as head coach, I was the only football coach with a full-time job," said Sartoris, a member of the college's athletic hall of fame who finished 111-64-1 with the Vaqueros from 1972-88. "We had some budget cuts for a couple of seasons and we fought for another full-time position. We had a chance then to have another full-time coach and I thought about bringing John on and he proved to be a great addition to the program and school.

"He and I together built the program back up. We worked well together and we could see the improvement being made by the players. With him handling the defensive side, our teams were awesome. John also had excellent recruiting skills in that he knew how to speak well to the players and their parents in regard to Glendale college and the program."

Cicuto, who guided the Vaqueros to victories in the Southern California Bowl in 1990, the U.S. Bank Beach Bowl in 2001, the Western State Bowl in 2006 and a pair of Western State Conference championships, recalled meeting with Sartoris about joining Glendale.

"There isn't a day that goes by that I can't remember meeting with Jim about coming here," Cicuto said. "I owe it all to him for being at Glendale.

"I told him I'd be interested in being the defensive coordinator and I wound up teaching some physical education and health courses. He and I stressed academics and made sure the players were up to speed with their classes."

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Under Sartoris, the Vaqueros would go on to win a handful of conference championships and bowl games. Glendale became a prolific program that would make its mark throughout the state. The Vaqueros had an elite list of players that included Andy Reid, Hue Jackson, Mark McMillian and Bob Gagliano. All of them reached the NFL. Currently, Reid is the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs and Jackson is the offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals and was head coach previously with the Oakland Raiders.

Sartoris was then named the school's athletic director in the late 1980s and decided to hand the head-coaching reins to Cicuto.

"I thought he'd make a perfect head coach," Sartoris said. "He already knew the system and the players, so those were two pluses right there.

"You knew he was dedicated and focused about the players succeeding on the field and in the classroom. Nothing really changed when he took over. It was the right move and the program stayed strong because he handled all of the different things the right way."

Cicuto made sure the expectations remained high after he took control of the program. In 1990, the Vaqueros won the Western State Conference championship.

"I think I was fortunate to step in and have so many excellent players ready to go," Cicuto said. "Jim stayed on as offensive coordinator for a while, so I didn't have to worry about that side of the ball.

"I learned right away after becoming head coach that I am a lot more emotional than Jim. Jim is always under control. I learned a lot from him and I used a lot of the same things that he taught as a head coach. I also had a lot of excellent assistants who did their parts to make the team successful."

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With normally just a two-year window to work with a cast of players, junior college coaches don't have a lot of time to evaluate talent. Cicuto made it a point to spend extra hours looking for players who might further bolster the Vaqueros.

Cicuto found a player with little experience in McMillian out of Granada Hills Kennedy High. McMillian entertained the idea of going to Glendale to run track and field. Cicuto sold McMillian on joining the football team. McMillian, who will also be inducted into the school's athletic hall of fame and earned All-American accolades while with the Vaqueros, would play defensive back and contribute on special teams at Glendale during the 1988 and 1989 seasons before transferring to the University of Alabama and then playing in the NFL from 1992-99. He had five interceptions and broke up 10 passes in 1988 with the Vaqueros.

"I never played youth football and I only played five games of high school football," said McMillian, who would go on to play with the Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins and San Francisco 49ers. "When I got to Glendale, I was still learning the game and figuring out how to study film.

"I actually wanted to quit at first, but he told me to stay with it and he would help me become a better player. He knew what was best for me and he said I could be a good Division I player. I had no idea two years later I'd be going to Alabama and then to the NFL. I owe a lot to coach Sartoris and coach Cicuto because they both made me better."

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Another player who contributed greatly to Glendale's success was Robert Dos Remedios, who arrived at Glendale from Burbank High. Dos Remedios played offensive tackle at Glendale in 1984 and 1985 before transferring to the University of California at Berkeley.

Dos Remedios developed a loyal bond with Cicuto and came back to work as an offensive line coach for Cicuto from 1989-93.

"Coach Cicuto is one of the biggest reasons I wanted to go back to coaching at the junior college level," Dos Remedios said. "I learned a lot of lessons about academics and athletics from him because he took both very seriously.

"I think back to that 1985 team winning the Potato Bowl and it's now in the hall of fame. I'm just grateful that I could learn so much from him. I've thanked him a lot for all of the things he's taught me."

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Shortly after Cicuto stepped down as head coach to become athletic director, one of the first items on the to-do list was to name a successor. Cicuto figured he'd promote one of his assistants to fill the role.

Cicuto turned to John Rome, who is now in his seventh season as the Vaqueros' head coach after previously spending the previous six seasons as the team's offensive coordinator.

Rome had plenty of coaching experience, including the head coaching job at rival Citrus from 1995-2000.

Rome said Cicuto offered immediate encouragement shortly after he became the new coach.

"With people like Jim and John, they are perfect examples of why you want to be a head coach," said Rome, who also served as an assistant coach at UCLA, New Mexico and several high schools around Southern California. "With John, he's got great leadership qualities about him and he's honest and forthright about things.

"He's been there for me when I needed to turn to somebody. I owe a lot to him for helping me out."

During Cicuto's tenure within the Glendale athletic department, he's seen his son Chris join the coaching ranks. Chris Cicuto has served as the college's baseball coach since 2004, leading the Vaqueros to an appearance in the state tournament in 2011 and three straight Western State Conference South Division championships between 2011-13.

Chris Cicuto said he learned the value of education and coaching from his father.

"Those are two of the biggest qualities that I try to instill with the baseball team," said Chris Cicuto, who was selected the Southern California Baseball Coach of the Year in 2011. "Education is the most important thing and then you learn how to build a relationship with the players and have a plan ready for them.

"I came in as a young coach at 24 or 25 years old and I would always go to my dad for advice. He's been a great resource the last 10 years. He's seen it all and been through it all. It's cool to go to work together every day and be in the coaching profession. It will be neat to see him go into the hall of fame. He's very humble. Not only is he my mentor, but he's my best friend."

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