DeLuca's personality led to a 47-year coaching career

Mark Hazelwood • May 30, 2019 at 9:17 PM

NORWALK — There is perhaps one unique aspect of being an educator and a coach that is often overlooked, if not misinterpreted.

But when you talk to a man who has pridefully taken on the responsibility of being a teacher and a coach for nearly a half-century — you tend to appreciate the words a little more.

Ron DeLuca has seen it all. A Bellevue graduate, DeLuca arrived at Norwalk in the fall of 1972. He’s been here ever since. That era of 47 years — which includes 99 seasons worth of coaching — will come to an end on Saturday.

With that type of longevity, DeLuca can share a different perspective of working with junior high and high school kids both in and out of the classroom.

Having that perspective is what he believes makes teaching and coaching special. And to the surprise of no one who has ever interacted with DeLuca, his first thought on what he’s learned in his field is both unique and humbling.

“What it’s taught me is never be surprised,” DeLuca said. “Never be surprised what a kid can and will do. Because if they have that desire to never give up; to never surrender, if you stick with it — you will be what you want to be in sports.

“Not everyone is gifted with size or speed,” he added. “But you can be a contributing member of your team in some capacity if you never quit. Just never be surprised what can happen.”

When junior Trey Leroux makes his final shot put toss on Saturday at the Division I state track and field championships, it will mark the final moment of DeLuca’s career. The head track coach for the Truckers announced his retirement recently.

DeLuca retired from teaching several years ago. But he was honest with himself, and knew if there was an opportunity to stay involved — he had to take it.

It was a surprise to no one who has played under or coached with and against DeLuca. His longevity in coaching is almost as sure of a thing as his one-liners. Almost.

“I was blessed with some great athletes over the years,” DeLuca said. “The who’s who of Norwalk athletes, really. There were a few years I coached three sports in the same school year. It was a way for me to be around the kids in a different way outside of the classroom. Not that I didn’t enjoy teaching, but being a coach is different.”

When I think of DeLuca, my mind immediately drifts two ways.

First, I don’t think there has been a person who championed Norwalk sports more, and always believing there was light at the end of the tunnel. Second, it’s hard to argue DeLuca’s programs weren’t better off after he left them.

After years of being an assistant coach in high school, and a head coach at the middle school level, DeLuca first got his chance as head varsity football coach in 1994.

Now, for those who weren’t here or cannot remember, you have to remember where Norwalk football was at that time. It wasn’t just what ended up being a streak of 34 years without a winning season.

At the end of the 1980s, despite its school size, Norwalk had less than 25 varsity football players. They won five games in a six-year span, routinely losing by 30-plus points.

The players had to drive from NHS to Whitney Field, get changed — then jog down to the Maplehurst football field. After the jog down in tennis shoes, you then had to change into cleats ... just for a practice.

On top of impractical practice conditions — you never knew if you’d get poison ivy if tackled out of bounds — there were job cuts and budget constraints that meant old equipment and an understaffed group of coaches. None of this is to mention the weight room being the old City Pool locker rooms.

During those jogs down to Maplehust, DeLuca also took joy in driving by the team in his old, beat-up Dodge Ram pickup truck — affectionally called ‘Old Blue.’ Every time he laid on the horn, it sounded like something was dying. You wondered every time if that was the moment the truck was going to collapse around itself in the middle of St. Mary’s Street.

But under DeLuca, the Truckers went in succession from 1996-98: 1-9, 2-8, 3-7 and 5-5. It wasn’t a dramatic, storybook turnaround, but the foundation to set up future coaches had been put in place.

“If you look at things, it’s about tradition,” DeLuca said. “You have to build tradition. I always said our day was coming. We wanted the program to reach the point where people said Norwalk is no longer a pushover. Write us down on your schedule in pencil, not pen. And we did get there.

“By the end, we weren’t a team you could just show up and beat,” he added. “People noticed that. They gave me six years to turn it around, but I always felt like it would take ten because Norwalk’s football program was in that bad of shape.”

In wrestling, it was more of the same. The late Denny Corrigan had built Norwalk into a strong program, and DeLuca more than kept that going. He had six state placers under his watch, and over a dozen more who qualified for state.

And just in the last decade, the track and field team has seen some of the best performances in the history of the program.

“I’ve always wanted Norwalk to succeed, and there were years it was pretty tough,” DeLuca said. “I always said to myself I wasn’t giving up until we turned this thing around. That was just how I viewed things as a coach.”

All those qualities as a coach also translated in relationships with athletes. Anyone who played for DeLuca can recall his high school and college stories. The ones where he would tell of wearing leather helmets, two rolls of tape on each ankle, and of course, wooden mouthpieces. Talking to DeLuca makes the stories of hearing parents and grandparents brag of walking up the hill both ways to school and back in two feet of snow seem pedestrian.

On Tuesday, DeLuca was at Whitney Field reminiscing with St. Paul football coach John Livengood about salt tablets they used to give players as opposed to water. DeLuca coached Livengood as an assistant at Norwalk, and took much delight in pointing out how much his former student has aged.

Moments later, he took his barbs to Leroux, demanding a new golf cart to drive around when the Ohio State commit hits it big time one day. When the 6-foot-8, 335-pound Leroux shot back, DeLuca threatened not to take him to “that sweet burger joint in Columbus no one knows about.”

It was classic DeLuca — always some type of one-liner. Often times he’d shout said one-liners from the sideline or wrestling chair — while wearing ‘Duke’ brand jeans — and I’m pretty sure even he knew most of them didn’t make any sense in the moment.

But they made you laugh and smile. DeLuca is as old school of a coach as they come, but also has an infectious personality to poke fun at himself — and everyone around him.

It’s been that type of charm that has made him a respected staple in the Norwalk community. DeLuca grew up a bit to the west in Bellevue, but he’s as blue and gold as they come.

“At this point, I know a lot more people in Norwalk than I do Bellevue by far,” he said. “This has been home.”

Now, that home will simply shift to more time at the nearby Norwalk Reservoir, where DeLuca and his youngest son, Tom, can frequently be found fishing.

“I’d get out here and tell myself on those cold, miserable spring days, ‘Maybe you should retire, Ron,’" DeLuca said. "But then I’d get some kids who really started to excel and I’d say, ‘Gosh I’ve got to be here for them.’ Then it kept rolling into a 47-year love affair of wanting to be here.

"What I was always happy about was at the end of the season, the kids felt it was rewarding to be a part of the program. It’s been quite a trip."

Ditto for the Norwalk community, Ron. Now go catch that 30-pound trout you’ve always sworn was in our Reservoir.

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