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He is the only "associate" coach at Harvard.
He is Ronn Tomassoni, the associate hockey coach. He was given that unusual title three years ago, after being with the Harvard program for four seasons. The reason is simple. To label him an "assistant" to head Coach Bill Cleary just wouldn't do justice to his job.
Even Cleary admits that the way he runs the Harvard program is more along the lines of a partnership than a hierarchy. Cleary coaches the penalty killers; Tomassoni the power play. Cleary focuses on the forwards; Tomassoni directs the defense. Cleary is the high-visibilty, big-decision man. But Tomassoni is always right beside him, another voice of wisdom from behind the Harvard bench.
"We know that every decision Coach Cleary makes, he discussed it with Coach Tomassoni," junior Pete Ciavaglia says. "He plays a very big role in the program."
Around the league, Tomassoni is known first as a recruiter, the man responsible for bringing such great talent to the Harvard program.
"He is a big factor in their luck with recruiting, he is the one who brings in all their top players," Vermont Coach Mike Gilligan says. "We've lost more than one player to him."
But although they are quick to compliment Tomassoni's skill in the recruiting game, Cleary and the Harvard players see him first as a coach.
And Tomassoni wouldn't want it any other way.
"I got into coaching to coach, to be with the team, to get involved in practices," Tomassoni says. "To tell you the truth, I think recruiting is the biggest pain. But it's an important part of the process. And I know I have to pay my dues."
He was supposed to be a dentist. At least, that's what his mother had told him ever since he was six years old. But after two years of chemistry classes--and hockey games--at RPI, Tomassoni had other things on his mind.
"I wasn't sure I wanted to look in people's mouths for the rest of my life," says Tomassoni, who switched his major to administration his junior year. "Hockey is a game I've loved since I was five years old. I couldn't help but start thinking about coaching."
An injury his junior season with the Engineers ruled out all hope of continuing in hockey. He was playing in, of all places, the Yale Whale, when he took a fall that shattered his arm and dislocated his wrist. He had surgery in New Haven that night.
"It's funny," Tomassoni says, "I told Coach Cleary that I probably came to Harvard because of that House of Horrors down in New Haven."
First, though, was a senior year in Troy, N.Y., playing under first-year Coach Mike Addesa with a specially-made brace on his arm. Addesa was impressed enough with Tomassoni's performance to invite him to stay on as an assistant the following season.
There came the initiation into the recruiting process. RPI had just decided to offer athletic scholarships, and Tomassoni was the man selected to hand them out.
"That year I was a full-time recruiter," says Tomassoni, adding that he appreciated the responsibility he was given, but missed being directly involved in the game.
The rough schedule and the low pay sent him to an assistant's job at Union College the next fall, where he stayed for two seasons before joining Cleary's team.
"I called up Coach Cleary the day before my wedding," says Tomassoni, who was hesistant to apply because he was only 23 years old at the time. "It made me look like I was pretty interested, calling right before I got married."
He had an interview right after his honeymoon, got the job two days later, and was in a U-Haul heading to Boston within the week.
"It was important to me that the last two assistants [at Harvard] had gone on to a head coaching job," Tomassoni says. "That's a career goal of mine and it made a big difference in deciding to take the job."
When Tomassoni arrived in Cambridge he discovered that his approach to the game meshed well with Cleary's. And Cleary found that he had not only hired a great recruiter, but an excellent coach as well.
"He adds more to the program than just recruiting," Cleary says. "He's a very knowledgeable person. He really knows the technical aspects of the game."
With Cleary in the unique position of being the only "part-time" Division I hockey coach--at least officially, although not necessarily in time commitment--Tomassoni has watched his responsibilities grow every season.
"The way the game is played now, I think you have to have two people on the bench to really be efficient," Cleary says. "I don't have all the answers. I want someone behind the bench who will challenge me."
There have been offers, over the years, for head coaching jobs at other schools. Tomassoni admits he has been tempted, but he says he and his wife enjoy it so much here that it would be very difficult to leave.
"The best part about coaching here is the people," Tomassoni says. "The type of kids you are coaching makes a big difference."
With Cleary a front-runner in the hunt for a new Harvard athletic director and a much-talked-about contender for an Olympic coaching job, Tomassoni's dream of being a head coach may not be too much further down the line.
Tomassoni is not very comfortable talking about his chances for taking over Cleary's job in the future. If the position opens up, he says, he would hope that he would get "strong consideration." But he is not sitting around waiting for Cleary to leave.
"I have had other options, but I'm happy here and I'm happy working under him," Tomassoni says. "Bill Cleary is one of the main reasons I'm still at Harvard."
Cleary, by contrast, doesn't beat around the bush.
"I have no doubts that Ronn Tomassoni would make an outstanding head coach," Cleary says. "I wouldn't hesitate to leave the program in his hands."
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