Chris Cicuto: Coaching Is a Family Tradition

Brandon Hensley

The coach could be found five hours before the first pitch near the third base line, preparing the field by himself under the warm April sun. His cleats and sweat pants dirty, he seemed almost willing to find any excuse to sit down in his cart and talk, to take a break from his momentary job as grounds crew member.

As he lay back in the cart, wearing sunglasses and looking towards the outfield, an easy smile would surface every now and then as he talked about his life and profession. This is Chris Cicuto, the intensely fierce, fire-breather of a head coach for the Glendale Vaqueros? “I can be kind of kick back a little bit when I need to be,” he said. “But who knows?”

Make no mistake, Cicuto, or “C,” as his players call him, has deserved his reputation as a fiery personality since being a Vaquero assistant coach in 2000, and head coach in 2004.

In the locker room, sophomore infielder Yuya Okuda called Cictuo “the best coach.” When asked why, he searched for the right answer. “He’s uh…uh…”

Teammate Patrick Vandehey guessed for him. “Passionate?” Vandehey said.

“Yeah,” Okuda responded laughing.

And really, passionate might be the word that will go on Cicuto’s tombstone. “I was a catcher,” Cicuto said, recalling his playing days at Agoura High School and UC Riverside. “Being a catcher, you’re in every play. You’re wearing that gear and getting beat up every single day, you got to be intense.”

It can be an attractive quality, Cicuto’s fire being a magnet that draws players to him and the program. “Some people came here because he’s here,” Okuda said.

“He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had,” said Vandehey, a sophomore relief pitcher. “One of the better things about winning is seeing him pumped up.” Just don’t get on his bad side.

In late March, Vandehey missed a weights session, and Cictuo made him pay by running him from one foul pole to the other 30 times. “It’s not fun,” Vandehey said of running poles. “We were up in Bakersfield actually, so it was like a hundred degrees up there when I was running.”

To Cicuto, 31, baseball is a math equation. A player’s results on the field vary directly with his decisions before the game.

Same goes for real life. It’s relational, and Vandehey said his team understands that.
“He likes to make sure you hold yourself accountable for everything you do. He says after we leave a game, ‘Make good decisions tonight. Bad things can happen.'”

Cicuto said his second season as head coach didn’t go the way he wanted it to, and put the blame on himself for not holding players accountable off the field, mainly in the classroom. “Now,” he said, “we take our priorities and put it on the board…our first rule of the season is your faith comes first, your family comes second, school, and then baseball.

“Things are relational. You do the right things, you make good decisions, you surround yourself with good people, good things will happen to you if you just continue with that faith.”

Cicuto said he got that attitude from his father John, former Vaquero football coach and current athletic director. “Every meeting I’ve ever heard him say amongst his team for years is, ‘do the right thing,'” he said of John.

John, who calls working with his son “a dad’s dream,” credits Chris with being a ubiquitous presence at school, one that goes around the campus and talks with the classified workers, including the admissions and financial aid offices.

It’s something that has helped Pete Carroll’s image at USC, so it surely couldn’t hurt Cicuto to keep a high profile off the field. “He’s always maintained a good report with those people, and he’s visible with them….Those are the people that run the school. Those are the people that sometimes are never recognized,” said John.

Cicuto said he was inspired to be like his father when he was in middle school. He saw a framed poem, one from John’s former players sitting on his desk. It was a poem about the impact John had on that player’s life.

“The last line was, ‘You were the father I never had,'” Cicuto said. Right then, “I wanted to affect kids lives in a positive way just like my dad had and I thought that was so special.”

O.K., so he has the impacting kid’s lives part down. What about the baseball part?
Cicuto is a small-ball kind of coach. The team lacks power (Mike Mendoza leads the Vaqs with just six home runs), so the philosophy calls for “Bunts; get the pitcher off the mound, get him tired, get to the bullpen,” as Vandehey described it.

But micro-managing a game isn’t the toughest part of the job. It’s the personnel change from season to season. “I have to change with the kids,” Cicuto said. “You have to know your kids in and out, as far as what makes them tick, and how to motivate them. That’s the toughest part.”

John agrees with that assessment, and said it’s important to know where the players are coming from. “I think he’s done a great job every year understanding the background of each one of his student athletes.”

Cicuto has the Vaqs in striking distance for a playoff spot, but his concerns are more pressing at home. He and his wife Kelly are expecting their first child in the fall, and being the Vaqueros baseball coach is a “full-time job with part-time pay,” as Cicuto puts it. Combine that with a down economy, and well, it’s easy to see where this might be headed.

“It’s just not him, it’s the entire economy. It is all young people that are in Chris’s situation. They’re suffering as well,” said John, who, with his wife Sally, will be there to support their son. “I think that’s what parents are for, to help our kids out.”
Cicuto has taken other jobs on campus, including assistant to his dad, football game management chief (sounds complicated, but basically means setup of the field), and fitness lab technician. Hey, it helps pay the bills, he said.

He might be forced to make a decision regarding his future this summer. Or, “Maybe I’ll bite the bullet another year and hang out until something opens up.” He seemed genuinely stumped.

If he’s looking for inspiration, he need look no further than Matt Rueda, who hit the game winning home run last week in a game against Rio Hondo. Rueda hasn’t had as much playing time as he had hoped for this season, but “He’s had a great attitude, and he’s worked hard,” Cicuto said. “He hasn’t complained at all…you’re just real proud of that kid for staying with the process.”
Maybe that’s what Cicuto needs to do. Stick with the process, with the equation he’s set up for his team and himself. If success varies directly with making good decisions, then the right answer will come eventually.