Advertisement

Berkeley Prep seeks state title for beloved coach Dominick Ciao

Legions of Ciao pupils say they’d give anything for their coach to win Saturday’s state final.
 
Dominick Ciao, in his 17th season as Berkeley Prep football coach, leads the Buccaneers into Saturday morning's Class 2M state final against Miami Norland in Tallahassee.
Dominick Ciao, in his 17th season as Berkeley Prep football coach, leads the Buccaneers into Saturday morning's Class 2M state final against Miami Norland in Tallahassee. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 7, 2023

TAMPA — With the possible exception of one’s firstborn, no treasured possession is off the table. Neither heirloom nor 401K nor even appendage seems too steep a price.

At this point, the disciples of Dominick Ciao would barter almost anything to see their 70-year-old coach capture that elusive state football title.

“I would give my left leg to give him a state championship,” said Andre Kirwan, who played receiver for Ciao in the early 1990s and turns 50 in January. “Put it this way, I wish I could suit up to try to help him get that.”

Fast forward an era, and the sentiment remains the same. “It would mean the world,” said Garrett Rivas, who kicked for Ciao in the early 2000s. “I’d give up anything to be able to get one for him. There’s no one more deserving than him.”

Since his arrival to Tampa from the Midwest in 1979, Ciao — wrapping up his 17th season as coach at Berkeley Prep — seemingly has endeared himself to all who have lingered in his presence. Except fate.

The only void on an otherwise glistening resume — which also includes 17 seasons as coach at Jesuit — is a state crown. Ciao has totaled 265 wins, has led 21 teams to the state playoffs, and has rendered a lasting impact on legions of players with philosophies — namely a selfless devotion to team and ruthless power run game — that often seem antiquated in the TikTok era.

But his profession’s crown jewel has eluded him. Not that Ciao needs a win against undefeated Miami Norland in Saturday morning’s Class 2M state final to validate his career. If there’s one thing that goes against his very nature, and the principles he has espoused since the disco era, it’s individual acclaim.

Ask Ciao what a state title would mean to him, and the stocky septuagenarian offers a polite stiff-arm.

“It’s the journey,” he says. “It’s been the journey.”

A Chicago native who attended a tiny private Catholic school (Loras College) in Iowa, Ciao has evolved into a revered paradox: He’s a former college baseball player who became a proponent of power-fun football, a father of none (Ciao is divorced) who became a surrogate dad to hundreds, and an almost bashful public speaker who embraces mantras and sage slogans.

A Chicago native, Dominick Ciao (front row, second from right) arrived at Jesuit in 1979 as an assistant to Tigers football coach Bill Minahan (front row, center).
A Chicago native, Dominick Ciao (front row, second from right) arrived at Jesuit in 1979 as an assistant to Tigers football coach Bill Minahan (front row, center). [ Photo provided by John Few ]

Among his most common phrases: “Forty-eight minutes and a lifetime full of memories,” Buccaneers four-year starting lineman Nikhil Jefferson said.

“Chase perfection,” senior outside linebacker Titus Bullard added.

More grizzled Ciao followers recall one that arguably encapsulates his team-first philosophy, and has withstood the test of decades.

“He used to always say, ‘We want players who care about players, players who care about coaches, coaches who care about players, and coaches who care about coaches,’” former Jesuit offensive tackle Nick Reader said.

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter

We’ll send you news and analysis on the Bucs, Lightning, Rays and Florida’s college football teams every day.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Granted, such phrases have become embedded in the coaching vernacular. Yet what separates Ciao from many peers, his pupils insist, is the fact his collection of mantras embody a lifestyle, not lip service.

“I think he just has a pull on kids,” Jefferson said. “I think he cares, that’s the biggest thing.”

And coaches caring about coaches? Former Jesuit volunteer assistant John Few saw Ciao set that tone for 13 seasons.

“He tried to pay me a long time ago when I was probably 29 or 30, and I’m like, ‘No Dom, because if you pay me, then I’m going to be obliged to be here,’ ” said Few, a 1980 Jesuit graduate who served on Ciao’s Tigers staff from 1990-2002.

“But he made a point every single day — and I’m telling you this is after I coached with him for 13 years — to thank me for coming out. Every day before I left, I’d wave goodbye and he’d say, ‘Thank you for coming out.’ Every day, he showed appreciation for my being there.”

Kirwan, who played for Stanford under Bill Walsh, said he places Ciao on the same plane as the three-time Super Bowl champion in terms of his ability to build men.

“It’s integrity, it’s class, it’s doing the right thing, it’s not compromising who you are,” said Kirwan, who has spent the last 16 seasons on Berkeley’s staff.

“If the best player on our team weren’t a good kid or were messing up in the classroom, you’re done, you’re out. He’d much rather lose with ethical, honest, good people, than win with a bunch of bad apples. So I think he breeds that. You can’t help but honor him in everything he does.”

Berkeley Prep coach Dominick Ciao (center) instructs his team during a walk-through Monday. The Buccaneers (12-2) face Miami Norland (14-0) in Saturday's Class 2M state final in Tallahassee.
Berkeley Prep coach Dominick Ciao (center) instructs his team during a walk-through Monday. The Buccaneers (12-2) face Miami Norland (14-0) in Saturday's Class 2M state final in Tallahassee. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Perhaps one of the most telling testaments to Ciao: Every member of his Berkeley staff either played for him at Berkeley or Jesuit, or coached with him during his Tigers tenure. Some served alongside him at Berkeley more than a decade. And his list of second-generation players — guys whose dads also played for Ciao — is sprawling.

“My kids can quote the same things that I can and that my buddies in high school (can),” said Reader, who played on Ciao’s 1992 Jesuit team that reached the Class 3A state final, and has two sons (Tre and Troy) who played for Ciao at Berkeley.

“It’s just a really neat thing to have a coach span that many decades and sustain the level of excellence that he has, and just to share it with that many generations, it’s honestly something that’s just priceless to so many of us.”

During that stretch of nearly four decades, neither the principles nor playbook have been noticeably altered. Berkeley enters the state final with two 1,000-yard rushers (juniors Dallas Golden and Jojo Troupe) and staged a ball-control clinic (40 carries, 168 yards) in last week’s 17-14 state semifinal win at Plantation American Heritage.

“I think they’ve just been a great team,” Ciao said. “They don’t care who gets the credit. ... They’re unselfish.”

Players caring about players. Straight from the Ciao script.

“There’s nobody that deserves (a state title) more than he does,” Few said. “That’s for sure.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

Class 2M state final

Who: Berkeley Prep (12-2) vs. Miami Norland (14-0)

Where: FAMU Bragg Memorial Stadium, Tallahassee

When: Saturday, 10 a.m.

Tickets: $17 in advance, $20 day of game (available via Ticketmaster)

TV/streaming: Bally Sports Florida/Bally Sports app