As a high school baseball player growing up in Niagara Falls, N.Y., Tony DiCecco recalled having a strong relationship with his mom.
“We would always talk about having the opportunity to be both a coach and a teacher and how rewarding that would be,” recalled DiCecco. “From a very early age, I knew that is exactly what I wanted to do.”
Following high school, DiCecco landed at Upper Iowa University (UIU) in Fayette, where he played baseball for the Peacocks from 1967-70, while earning a BS degree in physical education.
He went on to have a stellar teaching and coaching career that spanned 35-years at two high schools and two universities.
He taught and coached at West Central-Maynard and Montezuma high schools before landing at Creighton University as an assistant women’s basketball coach. He then went on to coach women’s basketball at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) for 11 seasons.
DiCecco led the Panthers to the WNIT (Women’s National Invitational Tournament) three times and was named the Missouri Valley Coach of the Year in 2005. He ranks sixth all-time in MVC league wins at 117 and eighth in the MVC in all-time wins at 183. He is also the seventh-longest tenured coach in MVC history. He had five seasons with 18 or more wins. Six Panthers earned MVC All-Tournament team honors under his tenure and 19 players earned All-Conference recognition.
Along with his leadership on the court, DiCecco was also a key driver in the first Rally in the Valley, which has grown into the single-biggest annual fundraising event for the Panther Scholarship Club, noted a press release.
DiCecco’ accolades on the basketball court and for UNI have led him to be inducted into the 2019 UNI Hall of Fame for Women’s Basketball.
The induction ceremony will take place on Saturday, Sept. 21, at 10 a.m. in the McLeod Center. The UNI football team hosts Idaho State at 4 p.m. in the UNI-Dome. The Hall of Fame class will also be presented at halftime of the football game.
DiCecco landed his first coaching job as a student at UIU, where he did an internship helping coach the seventh and eighth grade and high school girls’ basketball teams at Fayette High School.
In 1971, after graduating from UIU, DiCecco accepted a position as teacher and coach at West Central-Maynard.
“I think I was an assistant in every sport that pertained to girls athletics,” he said.
DiCecco coached all junior high girls’ sports, junior varsity girls’ basketball and served as the high school girls’ basketball assistant coach under Gene Klinge, a long-time legendary coach at West Central-Maynard.
He also served as the head softball coach at West Central and in 1973, led the Blue Devils softball team to a third-place finish in the state tournament.
He left that same year for a teaching and coaching position at Montezuma. Carol Rugland, the head girls’ basketball coach at Montezuma who led the Bravettes to two state titles and an 89-game win streak, was planning to leave the school for Hampton High School. Rugland and Klinge happened to be coaching friends, and according to DiCecco, that helped him land the job in Montezuma.
“I think Carol put a good word in for me as he and Gene were good friends and that’s whom I worked for as an assistant girls’ basketball coach,” he said.
Montezuma was probably one of the top two girls’ high school basketball programs in the State of Iowa at that time.
“It was an honor for me to be thought of for the head girls’ basketball position,” he said.
At Montezuma, DiCecco coached the girls’ high school track team, started the girls’ softball program and also coached the high school girls’ basketball team.
“I had the opportunity to help out a couple of summers with the Montezuma High School baseball program,” he recalled.
DiCecco compiled a 306-69 record as girls' basketball coach at Montezuma. His teams made two state tournament appearances and won eight conference titles, 10 sectional and two regional championships.
DiCecco said having the opportunity to both teach and coach at Montezuma was a dream of a lifetime. He mentioned Ron Willrich, the now late Denny Wilson and Jerry Rohach, all who helped him learn the ropes as a young basketball coach.
“Ron did so much for me and developed me, not only as a coach, but as a human being,” DiCecco said.
“Wins and losses are just stories, but I think the relationships that you make are absolutely priceless,” added DiCecco. “Taking Montezuma to the state tournament was definitely one of them. I was fortunate to play in the softball state tournament with West Central and having the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament three different times was a fantastic experience. I would hope every college player gets the chance to do that. The relationships that I had with so many wonderful people I will always cherish.”
Cedar Falls Bound via Omaha
In 1989, DiCecco left Montezuma and headed west to Omaha to coach women’s basketball at Creighton. He spent six years as an assistant coach for the Bluejays, where he won two conference championships and earned two trips to the NCAA Tournament.
Bruce Rasmussen, the long-time athletic director at Creighton hired DiCecco. He said Bruce taught him so much about the college game and how to recruit young women into the program.
“I’ve had so many individuals that helped me along the way and gave me that boost of confidence that allowed me the success that I had in my career,” DiCecco said of Rasmussen.
DiCecco said Rasmussen was going to give him the opportunity to be an administrator at the same time the UNI women’s basketball job became available. He decided to throw his hat in the coaching ring and two weeks later, Chris Ritrievi, then UNI Director of Athletics, named him the new women’s basketball coach at the Cedar Falls school.
“I could say one of the greatest dreams and goals I had thought about was about to come true,” recalled DiCecco.
After retiring from coaching the Panthers in 2007, he stayed at UNI three more years as athletic fundraiser.
“My coaching career was not a lot of schools, but it was a lot of years,” said DiCecco. “At every one of those stops, I was blessed and had the opportunity to work with some amazing individuals, both players, coaches and administrators.”
DiCecco is married to Christie. They have no children, but DiCecco was quick to mention all the girls he coached through the years as part of his family.
“We have both had the opportunity to experience some amazing young individuals in our lives,” he said.
DiCecco has a sister in Houston and another sister near his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y. He and Christie moved to Florida a year ago and they love the weather and lifestyle there.
“I no longer deal with those frigid cold minus temperatures that used to haunt me every basketball season,” he said of living in Florida. “There’s a little bit of humidity here, oh and then there’s this thing called a hurricane to look out for, but in Iowa, there are those things called tornados.”
Now that he is nearing 70-years-old, DiCecco said he has been blessed to have the opportunity to coach and work with so many different people with so many positive outcomes.
“When I sit back and think about all of those times I absolutely get a tear in my eye,” he said. “I’m truly blessed with all the people that have been in my life. I feel extremely honored to be inducted into the University of Northern Iowa Hall of Fame. It is a time in my coaching career that I will never forget.”
DiCecco was inducted into the UIU Hall of Fame in 2003 and the Montezuma Hall of Fame in 2018.