‘He had the heart of a lion’

Wally Ciochetti, the Cottage Grove Lions' former track and field coach, left a lasting legacy. (Photo courtesy of Cottage Grove track & field team)

Wally Ciochetti’s impact still felt

May 12, 2022 — Early morning wake-up calls were normal for Wally “Chick” Ciochetti. The former Cottage Grove Lions track and field coach and Spanish teacher would frequently get out of bed and run outside anywhere from five to eight miles. When the weather was bad, he would run in local school gymnasiums.

“I would ask him, God…Chick, every day? He would say, ‘What else am I going to do?’” said Bill Thompson, a longtime Cottage Grove coach who worked with Ciochetti.

“One day I came in, Chick was in his office. He had his foot on his desk. It was blue, swollen up,” recalled Thompson. “Chick what the heck? What did you do? ‘Somebody left a ball out,’ Ciochetti replied. “He tripped over it running in the dark. He wouldn’t turn the lights on because it would cost the school district money to use the electricity.”

Ciochetti was known for not missing many, if any, days of teaching or coaching.

“He took his foot and stuck it in a bucket of ice and water. I asked him, ‘Do you want me to run you home?’ He asks, ‘For what?’  I said, ‘You can’t teach today.’ He says, ‘I’m not going home.’ He didn’t miss a day of work,” Thompson said. 

Perhaps the accomplishment Ciochetti will always be most known for will be how he coached in the Olympics. Maybe it’s for being an assistant track coach for the 1972-73 Pan American Games. But there is much more.

He was a husband and father of three children, two sons and a daughter. He served in the Army during World War II. He assisted in other sports such as swimming, basketball and football. 

Bruce Vogel, who currently serves as an assistant on the Lions track and field team, coached for years with Ciochetti. “One other thing Chick did besides be a coach, he was the head referee for the University of Oregon. When he looked you in the eyes and read (the rules), it was what it was, he didn’t have to think about it,” Vogel said.

“Around 1980 Chick and I went up to Seattle for a clinic. Chick was the kind of guy that wanted to be early for staff meetings and for practice so he could be the guy in the front row to listen and take all the notes,” Vogel continued. “The two speakers were Bill Bowerman (former University of Oregon track and field coach) and Jim Bush (former UCLA track and field coach). Before the clinic started, Bowerman got up and said, ‘I want to recognize a guy who was so big to our 1968 Olympic championship. That’s Wally Ciochetti. He is such a great coach, he spoke Spanish, and he kept our kids out of the bars.’”

Bowerman was a legendary coach at the university of Oregon. He trained countless Olympic athletes and All-Americans as well as 22 NCAA champions. He’s also the co-founder of Nike.

Vogel recalled: “Afterwards Bowerman said, ‘Hey Chick, we are at the top of the Hilton. Everything is paid for…’ Chick said, ‘No, no, we’re going out to Beef and Brew.’ I’m looking at Chick and I’m like…ugh, are you sure?! Well, if that’s what you want to do.”

Ciochetti had the opportunity to join Bowerman’s staff at Oregon. He said no. He also had the chance to be the head coach at Oregon State University. He again said no. He stayed in Cottage Grove, with the Lions.

“He had opportunities to go far and above anything in Cottage Grove,” Thompson said. “He told me my first year here, ‘If you don’t make a choice within your first year or two of teaching, you are either going to leave, or you are going to be here for the rest of your life.’ That’s the way he was, and because of that, that is the way I am.” 

Former track and field star Dyrol Burleson might have a claim to be one of the greatest Lions ever, in any sport. Burelson is a champion at both the high school level in Cottage Grove under Ciochetti and the college level as an Oregon Duck under Bowerman. He also competed in the Olympics.

“If you talk to Dyrol Burleson, it wasn’t Bill Bowerman that made Dyrol Burleson, it was Wally Ciochetti. He learned it here in Cottage Grove, then went to that level,” Thompson said.

Ciochetti frequently got the very best out of his athletes. He poured his life into mentoring and coaching Cottage Grove teenagers.

“He expected the max out of his kids. He would always be disappointed if he didn’t have three members of his team that didn’t throw over 50 feet. We haven’t had a 50-foot thrower in years at Cottage Grove,” said Vogel. “He wanted three on each of his teams. If he only had two, he would say, ‘God, I really need to find a third kid.’”

“He was a student of the sport,” Vogel continued. “A lot of times coaches as they get older stick with the things they know best. They don’t want to do anything new. Chick was always experimenting. He had a discus player do the spin, which was a novelty at the time, but he’d watched it and taped it. If you go through and look at the kids that he had, in the shot put and discus in particular, he sent several students to college.”

Darell Daypon, an athlete under Ciochetti still holds the Cottage Grove school record for 192’ 7” thrown in the discus. Alan Richards once threw 62’ 5” in the shot put. In fact, many of the school’s records are still held by athletes Ciochetti coached decades ago.

“He met with the kids from track every lunch, these kids would come down to this little dungeon of a P.E. room. They’d watch super 8 film of themselves and of the other greats around the state. He demanded so much out of the kids. He led by example. Kids would look for something in him where he would treat somebody differently. But he treated every kid the same,” Vogel added. “He wasn’t a huggy type of guy; he would shake your hand and go on.”

Ciochetti had an innovative mind. He made indoor blocks. He got a piece of plywood, took the outdoor blocks, screwed them onto the plywood, and would have his teams practicing in the gym when the weather was bad.

He had a big canvas he would hang in gyms, so when the pit was to muddy for shot put, he’d have his athletes in the gym throwing into the canvas.

“One day something happened in my class, and he came up to me,” Thompson said. “I figure, I’m one of his peers, right? No, I’m just a young wet behind the ears whippersnapper and he got in my face. Somebody had left something out, like hula hoops or something. He says to me, ‘What we have is what we have and we are not going to get anything else, what we have here is the same things we had when I got here twenty years ago, we’re not going to get any new stuff. So, we need to take care of every ounce of anything we’ve got!’  I said, yes sir. It never happened again.”

“We were very good friends,” said Vogel. He would always tell me, ‘Coach you make sure you spend time with your kids cause it’s precious. Track is important but, don’t pass up any time with your kids. You make time.’ I think he felt bad he was so busy in his life, that he wanted to make sure I should do that.”

“The values that he instilled in me, whenever I have doubts, I ask myself, what would Chick do? He’s still with me,” Vogel added.

When Cottage Grove High School was rebuilt in the early 2000s, the school named its new track after Ciochetti. “Who else are we going to name it after?” Thompson asked.

“When they named the track after him, they pulled a fast one. They called him up to the old high school library. They told him they needed help with setting the field up at the new school. Chick never went to any celebrations for himself, so when he walks into the library it’s filled to the brim.”

Last Friday the Lions track and field team hosted the Wally Ciochetti Invitational. The athletes Cottage Grove has on the track today never had the honor to meet “Chick”. He passed away in 2003. His impact is still being felt.

“He was just legendary. He was tough. But he was lovable. He would chew your ass, then hug you. He was my mentor and my friend. He was a great friend and a great gentleman,” said Thompson, adding:

“He had the heart of a lion.”