Dave Cianelli didn’t plan on being a college coach. Cianelli was quite content coaching track and field at the high school level, and teaching physical education. Fast forward to now, and Cianelli has built one of the most consistent and successful track programs in the country at Virginia Tech.
“Had things worked out a little differently, I could still be at the high school level,” Cianelli said.
Fortunately for Virginia Tech, things didn’t work out differently. Things worked to perfection, even if it took a long time. The Maryland native knew he wanted to be a coach from an early age, and went straight into the business after graduating from Bowling Green.
Unfortunately for Cianelli, finding a paid position would turn into a long, drawn out process. Cianelli moved to California to train as an athlete but just a few years later, took a volunteer position coaching in Santa Barbara.
“The problem was, is that there weren’t any teaching positions,” Cianelli said. “So I was doing whatever job, just to feed myself. It was just me, so it wasn’t that hard… I was sort of a walk-on coach, because I wasn’t working as a teacher in the district, so I did whatever. I had so many different jobs, I can’t even remember them. But that allowed me the flexibility to be at practice and go to the meets.”
The Jump to College
After volunteering at the high school level, Cianelli searched for his first coaching paycheck. But as things would turn out, he found a “promotion” in volunteer coaching at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Even though his day job was trimming eucalyptus trees on campus, Cianelli viewed it as just another step in the process.
“I knew the coach, and it was close, so I felt like it would have been a good opportunity for me if I’m going to maybe try the college thing,” Cianelli said.
Cianelli’s volunteering days lasted for a few more years, before taking his first full-time assistant position at Southern Methodist (SMU) in 1988.
“Basically, that was my first pay check as a coach,” Cianelli said. “I was 33 years old. I had been coaching, but I had to go through the high school thing, then the voluntary thing for seven years before… but to me, that was fine because I was doing what I really loved to do. I wasn’t really worried about the money too much, and I didn’t have a family at the time, so that would’ve been a lot more difficult.”
What Cianelli inherited was plenty difficult. SMU football was coming off of the “death penalty”, issued by the NCAA following the 1986 season. SMU’s football program was nearly dismantled, as the Mustangs were forced to sit for an entire season, and ended up missing the next season as well. The sanctions leaked over into the track and field program, where several of the team’s stars were football players.
“One, they got a lot of football players that were coming over and were elite track athletes,” Cianelli said. “They had won 2-3 national championships in the early 1980s, but without those football guys, that doesn’t happen. I mean, we’re talking about world class guys.”
The other issues for SMU’s track and field program stemmed from a reduction in resources.
“The resources, as far as the funding, just dropped like crazy,” Cianelli said. “Now, you don’t have a football program and the school, the new president you have, wants to de-emphasize athletics in general. Now, it’s all of sudden going from these elite teams, across the board, and when I arrive, everyone is just kind of struggling to kind of build their way back up.”
Still, Cianelli stuck with the process. After seven years of rebuilding the program, SMU’s track and field team finally fielded a full amount of scholarships, and the team finished in the top-10 in NCAAs thanks to the women’s team. In 1996, the men finished 8th at the national meet. SMU’s program continued to have success in the late 1990s, and Cianelli was a big part of that.
Still, something was lacking. Cianelli yearned for a head coaching job, and felt like he had arrived at that point in his career. He was now married with two children, and he and his wife were looking for a move.
“We wanted to raise them in a college town-type atmosphere, or size,” Cianelli said. “I was kind of looking at that point, and I had been there 13 years. I had applied for other jobs and had some interviews, but nothing came through.”
Cianelli Gets His Head Coaching Break
When Cianelli applied for the opening at Virginia Tech in April 2001, he didn’t get his hopes up.
“In a lot of these positions, the individual has already been chosen, they’re just going through the process,” Cianelli said. “It could be somebody that’s incumbent, that’s already there as an assistant that they’re just going to elevate.”
Cianelli scored a phone interview first, then a face-to-face interview with the late Jim Weaver, Virginia Tech’s athletic director at the time. Even though Virginia Tech’s track and field program was not fully funded in scholarships on the men’s side, Cianelli laid out a plan for success.
“(Weaver) realized we were fighting with a short stick there,” Cianelli said. “Especially in those first few years. Going into the Big East, a much more competitive level, we weren’t fully funded, so I think his expectations were to run a clean program and I told him eventually, we’ll be very competitive in this conference, in the Big East.
“I showed him a plan, that if we stay where we are on scholarship funding, here’s what I would want to do long term,” Cianelli said. “Here’s where I feel we can be the most competitive within the Big East. He liked that, he liked that I had a plan.”
Cianelli’s plan scored him the job and in the spring of 2001, Cianelli was hired at Virginia Tech’s director of track and field and cross country.
“I was just ecstatic, because this was the type of area that my wife and I wanted to get to,” Cianelli said. “She’s from the DC-Maryland area as well, so this was close to where we grew up, but the environment was perfect. I wanted to be at a large state school in a college town, versus SMU [where] you’re in a pro town.”
Cianelli quickly started on his plan. With limited resources in facilities and in men’s scholarship money, Virginia Tech focused on adding talent in the throws events, seeing an easier opportunity to compete. On the women’s side, Cianelli’s program was only fully funded if he kept at least 50 percent of the scholarship money in the state of Virginia.
Virginia Tech struggled a bit as Cianelli constructed the program the way he saw fit. However, in 2006, the Hokies struck gold in signing Queen Harrison and Kristi Castlin for the upcoming season.
“Certainly for the women, that was a turning point for us as a program,” Cianelli said. “We were getting better, but that particular class really put us over the top. That class immediately won four straight ACC championships, team titles, and we got as high as fifth in NCAAs. That period of ‘07 to ‘10, which was Queen and Kristi’s time, collectively, that class was amazing.”
Around that time period is when things began to click for Virginia Tech. Men’s thrower Spyridon Jullien won four individual national championships in 2005 and 2006, while the women’s track and field team won indoor and outdoor ACC titles in 2007 and 2008.
“The school had never won an individual NCAA title,” Cianelli said. “That was kind of special, and it kind of put us on the map nationally a little bit. It kind of started with (Jullien).”
Success Begets More Success
Since then, Cianelli’s program has continued to be a regional power. In all, 16 athletes under Cianelli have gone on to win NCAA individual championships. Under Cianelli’s tenure, Virginia Tech has had 81 athletes named All-American, 159 athletes win ACC individual championships, and the Hokies have won 25 conference championships (Big East and ACC).
“Those early years, it was tough… we had to overcome a lot of things,” Cianelli said. “In-state, a lot of the high school coaches didn’t really trust the program. So we had to build relationships with a lot of the key high school coaches in those first few years. Those coaches have a lot of influence on these kids, a lot of times.
“I knew coming in, before I even arrived here, that the building process — which I really enjoy — but coming in I knew it was going to take a while,” Cianelli said. “It was going to take a while to get it where we wanted to be.”
A signature of Cianelli’s teams at Virginia Tech have been the balance and depth across all events. As Cianelli sought to build Virginia Tech’s brand, he focused on heavily investing in certain athletes in order to compete at the national level. Now, Virginia Tech focuses on building a balanced team that has more depth, which is more suitable for the conference level.
“Then, as we got better as a national team, then our recruiting strategy and philosophy changed a little bit,” Cianelli said. “Now, we recruit more towards the conference. How is this kid going to help us at the conference? Having a kid who can do multiple events is really important.”
That doesn’t mean that Virginia Tech hasn’t pursued a team national title. The team’s “unspoken goal” each season is to be top-10 nationally, a goal Virginia Tech has reached three times since 2012.
“We don’t reach it every year, but that’s what we shoot for,” Cianelli said. “The conference is still the first priority. As long as I’m here, that’s the way it’s going to be, and the coaches are on board with that. I’d rather continue being a factor at the conference level, and keep winning some more of those and be conference champion. Being top-10 at nationals is great, it’s awesome, but people don’t tend to remember who was sixth place last year.”
Now, Cianelli is looking for ways to take his program to new heights. Cianelli’s long term goal has been to win a men’s and women’s conference championship in the same season, a feat Virginia Tech achieved in 2017. In order to do it, Tech had to come from behind in both the men’s and women’s competition, and the men’s championship came down to the final event, the 4×400 relay.
In order to win, every little piece had to fall in place. Just like for Cianelli to become a head coach, each stop was just a part of the process. All of those volunteering positions, taking over a program indirectly sanctioned by the NCAA, and then taking over as a head coach of a program that wasn’t fully funded. All of those were steps in Cianelli’s personal track meet.
“What winning those two really enforced with me is that in sport, and in life in general, anything is possible. Anything can happen,” Cianelli said. “You have to really believe that it can happen, and that’s what we did. Again, there were so many things that had to fall our way, I could probably go back and name 20 things and if one of them didn’t, we don’t win.”
The Next Step
Now, the big question is where does Virginia Tech go from here? With all of the winning Cianelli and the Hokies have done in recent years, is there room for growth?
“I’d like to say yeah,” Cianelli said. “I want to continue trying to win more conference championships. I don’t think it ever gets old, each one is different. Each group is different, the challenge is different.”
In terms of winning a national championship, Cianelli tries to keep a realistic mindset.
“My answer to that is that it’s possible,” Cianelli said. “You’d have to have the right collection of athletes at the same time. Elite, like our best. You’d have to have the best as far as quality, we’d have to have our best group together, hitting on all cylinders at the same time. That’s how we got fifth. The difference between fifth and first though at the national level is exponential. Tenth to fifth is not a lot in terms of point differential, but fifth to first and those top-3, that’s a huge jump.
“I know what it’s going to take, and if we go into a meet like that, and we’re thinking collectively as a staff that we can be in the top-5, then in the meet you put yourself in a position to win, then okay, great,” Cianelli said. “But I’d rather go into the meet, I’m not going to talk to the kids like, ‘Oh, we have a chance here to be a national champion.’ I would go in and tell them, ‘Look, you have a chance to finish higher than any team has ever finished in the history of our program,’ and make that as a goal first. Because they don’t need extra stuff on them.”
If Cianelli is able to win a national title at Virginia Tech, it will have been because several pieces in the puzzle all came together. If Cianelli’s life story is any indication, that national title just might happen.
(Note: This article has been amended to reflect the last race in the 2017 ACC men’s track and field championship. The last event was the 4×400 relay.)