Track & Field

Going the distance

As he strides toward the finish line of an illustrious career, Dave Cianelli contemplates life without hurdles and hammers, legs and laps, spikes and starting blocks.

Instead, Virginia Tech's director of track and field envisions a future in Oak Island, North Carolina, perhaps as a Harley Davidson mechanic. The owner of two such beloved American icons, Cianelli foresees wrenching on his prized possessions on hot, lazy afternoons, with a frosty beverage easily within arm's length.

"I really enjoy working on them more than I do riding," Cianelli admitted. "For whatever reason, I really like mechanical things, taking things apart and putting them back together and figuring out how things work."

That should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Cianelli. After all, he has built the Virginia Tech men's and women's track and field programs into two of the nation's best. Yet now, after 23 years as the leader of both, the 68-year-old is running the anchor leg of a 42-year coaching career.

Cianelli announced his retirement this past August and concludes his coaching days when a contingent of Hokies compete later this week at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon. He stayed for this season to aid the athletics department in the transition process, and his final day is June 30.

"I just felt like the time was right," Cianelli said. "I made this decision a little over a year ago, and I just felt like it was the right time to move on and let someone else take over. It's hard to explain it. You get that feeling that you've had enough of what you're doing, and you want to do something else and go on to the next phase. So that's where I got in my head.

"I wanted to give the administration plenty of time to plan whatever transition that they wanted to execute. I didn't want to spring it on them at the last second. That was important to me, just so it would be a pretty smooth transition. But it [why he's retiring] wasn't like one thing. It was just kind of that's long enough to be doing something."

Cianelli will be handing the baton to assistant Ben Thomas '92, a former Virginia Tech distance runner who was on Cianelli's original staff and worked with him for 17 of Cianelli's 23 seasons. Thomas, who was named Cianelli's successor last August, spent 2018-22 as an associate head coach at Oregon before returning to Blacksburg last summer.

Cianelli stands at the top of the podium among all Virginia Tech sports coaches, both current and past. That's not hyperbole. The numbers say so.


Dave Cianelli received numerous celebratory showers during his career after his teams won a combined 22 ACC titles in his 23 seasons as the director of the track and field programs.

Under his watch, Virginia Tech won 20 NCAA individual championships and 22 ACC team titles. His teams finished in the top 10 in the team standings 13 times at NCAA championship meets. He won the ACC Coach of the Year honor 20 times.

He's coached national champions, All-Americans, and Olympians while at Virginia Tech. He even coached a Bowerman Award winner when Queen Harrison Claye, known then as Queen Harrison, won the award – track and field's equivalent of college football's Heisman Trophy – in 2010.

These are lofty accomplishments for a man whose coaching career started rather modestly. He went to California to continue training after graduating as a decathlete from Bowling Green State University in 1977. While there, he took a job as a volunteer track coach at San Marcos High School in Santa Barbara.

Needing money to pay rent and other life necessities, Cianelli once ran a commercial fishing boat, hoisting crab pots out of the Pacific and taking the catch to market. At other times, he hauled away trash for $30 a truck load and toiled as a day laborer on a construction site.

Such a humble beginning undoubtedly influenced his coaching style. Opposing coaches often said that Virginia Tech's track student-athletes reflected his blue-collar mentality. They were willing to work and unafraid to embrace competition.

"Dave's one of those old-school coaches that can coach every event in track and field, but his greatest skill has been program building," said Bob Braman, Florida State's track and field coach. "He's mentored great young coaches and has been sure to develop athletes in all 19 events. When you compete against a Cianelli squad, you know they're going to come at you in waves. That's what made them such a tough ACC adversary."

Cianelli spent 13 seasons as an assistant at Southern Methodist University and was interested in the Virginia Tech job in part because it brought him and his family to the East Coast and closer to his native Maryland. He won over then-Director of Athletics Jim Weaver and top lieutenant Tom Gabbard, both of whom hired him in 2001 to oversee the track and field and cross country programs. Cianelli showed up to the interview with a folder that included a step-by-step plan on how he wanted to build the programs. After the interview, Weaver and Gabbard came to the same conclusion: "This is our guy."

The Hokies, though, got out of the blocks slowly under Cianelli, finishing no better than ninth at any Big East meet during his first two seasons. At that time, a lack of funding left most of Virginia Tech's Olympic sports struggling in the Big East.

Two things turned around the track and field programs' fortunes, according to Cianelli. The university's entry into the ACC in 2004 led to increased name recognition, which in turn enabled Cianelli and his staff to land standouts like Harrison Claye and Kristi Castlin. Harrison Claye, a native of Richmond, developed into a three-time national champion and the university's first female Olympian, competing in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Castlin, a native of Douglasville, Georgia, was a seven-time All-American who won a bronze medal in the 100-meter hurdles at the 2016 Summer Olympics held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"I'll always been thankful to Coach Cianelli both during my time at Tech and even once I graduated," Harrison Claye said. "During my time in school, he helped instill confidence in our women's squad and made sure we always felt appreciated and taken care of."

In 2007, Weaver decided to fully fund the men's track and field program. Cianelli was able to hand out 12.7 scholarships – the maximum allowed by the NCAA and up from a previous 4.5. Four years after that, the men's team finished fifth in the country at the NCAA outdoor meet.


Virginia Tech Athletics honored Dave Cianelli and his coaching career during a timeout at the Hokies' basketball game against Duke this past season.

Both programs have been good, arguably great, ever since.

"We've been consistent, being a contender, and that was my goal," Cianelli said. "I didn't want to just have one great year and then not be able to repeat it. I wanted to have consistency in our program."

Cianelli downplays his role in the programs' successes, crediting instead the student-athletes and his coaches, most of whom have been on his staff for lengthy tenures. Nearly every full-time assistant on his staff has been with him since at least 2017 and some much longer.

Detail oriented and organized almost to obsession level, Cianelli let them coach while he handled the administrative part, overseeing scholarships, financial aid, academics, eligibility, and recruiting. Most coaches dislike such minutiae and simply want to coach, but for a man who likes to take the parts and build something creative and special, the role was perfect.

Cianelli has set the pace for the Virginia Tech track and field programs and turns over these well-established entities to Thomas.

"I'm happy that the administration decided on him, because I felt like he was the best fit for the program moving forward for so many different reasons – being an alum of Virginia Tech, being a part of this program, coaching here for 17 years of my tenure with a lot of success," Cianelli said. "I felt like the transition would be smooth with him, and so I'm happy that that's how it ended up.

"He'll build it the way he wants to build it, and it won't be the same. I'm sure he'll do some things similar, but everyone's a little different in how they model what they want to do, and the conference is changing."

The ACC is adding Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, and Southern Methodist University – coincidentally Cianelli's previous employer – for future seasons, bringing forth additional competition. The college athletics landscape continues to change, too, especially with the evolving of name, image, and likeness legislation.

Cianelli plans to keep up with Virginia Tech's future, but from the Oak Island home that he and wife, Ellen, purchased in 2020.

"I'm excited for his next chapter in life and the legacy he's left at Virginia Tech forever," Harrison Claye said.

Cianelli and his wife bought that home with an eye toward his career's bell lap and a future filled with whatever he wants. Perhaps a Harley mechanic. Perhaps a track and field official. Maybe a consultant of some sort.

Or maybe just frequent rides around the island, his version of a victory lap, sporting a sweet leather riding jacket that his staff gave to him as a retirement gift.

"I've been blessed, all the way from when I started coaching in high school and Division II, and then as a Division I assistant, and then to this job," Cianelli said. "Every job has been really rewarding.

"I'll miss it, but I feel at peace. I don't have any regrets about this being the time."