"Is it true you had more publicity than any athlete ever in California?" freshman Ron Cuccia was asked this week.
"Probably in the whole country," Cuccia responded.
Cuccia was not bragging; simply stating a fact. In addition to holding eight national prep records, being named to several all-star teams and receiving a state MVP award, the 5' 9" freshman quarterback also has a closet's worth of clippings.
Ron Cuccia is simply the most publicized athlete ever to enter Harvard.
Cuccia's name is alongside that of Pat Haden in Southern California high school football lore. His career at Los Angeles' Wilson H.S. saw him set records in yards passing, total yards and touchdown passes. Cuccia's bullets reached his primary target, Steve Martinez, enough times for Martinez to eclipse John McKay Jr.'s national mark for receiving yards and receptions.
The number of lopsided wins amassed by Wilson High's teams during the course of Cuccia's three years of undefeated (39-0) play led to charges by the opposition that they were running up the score.
In one game against Lincoln H.S. the score reached 65-0 at halftime after repeated onside kicks by Wilson, and the losers did not come back out on the field for the third quarter. Cuccia's father and high school coach Vic Cuccia, explained that he was trying to give his players a chance to set records so colleges would notice them.
Lincoln High's athletic director Lee Munio has nothing but praise for the Cuccias, however. "They played the game within the rules. We just had trouble recovering the on-side kicks," he said yesterday.
"I've seen Cuccia play quite a few times and he reminds me of Fran Tarkenton. He impresses me not only as an athlete but as a gentleman," Munio added. "His height is the only thing that might hold him back."
Ron Cuccia gives most of the credit for Wilson's success to his father's coaching. "Our talent wasn't really much better than anyone else's, but our plays were much better," he said.
Having his father as the coach could have meant undue pressure while growing up and resentment on the part of his teammates, but Cuccia claims that neither of these were problems. "He would just ask, 'Do you want to do this?' If I hadn't wanted to that would have been fine. But I love football, so it didn't matter. In high school, if I was no good he wouldn't have played me."
In spite of his accomplishments, Cuccia remains modest and easy to coach, according to Harvard Freshman coach Mac Singleton. "Ron hustles all the time and he's polite. It's always 'yes, sir,' and 'no, sir,' " Singleton said yesterday.
Major football colleges watched Cuccia in high school and offered him scholarships. Steve Martinez accepted an offer from Wyoming and Cuccia was tempted to follow his favorite target, but decided that their offense stressed the run too strongly for his tastes. UCLA, Texas A&M and Utah St. also extended offers. So why Harvard, better known for DNA research than big-time football?
"Harvard was much too tempting to turn down," Cuccia says. "You can't say no to the name, and you can't beat the scholarship. At the football schools, if you get hurt they take your scholarship away. Here it doesn't matter if you play or not. My parents have to pay a little more a year and I didn't want to put pressure on them. But my mom told me 'you won't get a better education anywhere,' and when she put it that way I couldn't refuse."
Despite the knock on his height, the frosh signal caller doesn't feel that his size is much of a problem. "I played in an all-star game in California where all the linemen were around 6-4 and it didn't bother me. I just have to go back a little further. If I know where my receivers are, I'll hit 'em," he said.
Cuccia feels he will have little trouble adjusting to the Harvard multi-flex system. "It's basically the same system we used in high school, but the terms are totally different," he said with assurance.
Coach Singleton is high on Cuccia but stresses that he is not a shoo-in to start for the freshman team. "Whoever knows the system best will start. It doesn't matter how much talent you have if you don't know the system."
"Ron is extremely quick," Singleton added. "He's intense, he's willing to learn and he's tough as nails. If he gets the system down, there's nothing stopping him.