PORT COQUITLAM — Anthony Ciolfitto asked a simple question, yet the answer he received spoke volumes about one of the most enduring teacher-coaches in B.C. high school sports history.
“It was maybe four years ago, and he and I were having a conversation about retirement,” the former principal at Riverside Secondary remembers of a casual chat he was having at the Port Coquitlam school with Rapids’ longtime boys volleyball coach Carlo Muro.
“I asked him how he would know when he was ready,” continued Ciolfitto, “and that’s when he told me that when he could no longer do a cartwheel, that he would be done.”
You can guess what happened next.
“He then proceeded to do a cartwheel down the hallway,” concluded Ciolfitto, who these days is the principal at Coquitlam’s Centennial Secondary. “I believe he was 68 years old at the time. And I believe he can still do a cartwheel.”
Indeed, that cartwheel is still money.
But now, at age 71, after a 47-year career spent exclusively in the Coquitlam School District, including the past 24 years at Riverside, Muro has decided to retire.
Friday marks the final day of a career majestic enough to have touched parts of the last six decades, yet despite the fact he departs tied for the title of ‘longest tenured teacher’ currently on the books in B.C. School District 43, Muro is stepping away with a level of vibrancy, as both a math teacher and master coach, which belies his age.
And needless to say, the respect he has garnered along the way from a virtual pantheon of peers is reverential.
“In many ways he is ageless,” sums Chris Kennedy, a former Riverside principal who now serves as West Vancouver’s Superintendent of Schools. “In some ways he hasn’t changed in decades, yet he has been able to stay incredibly relevant. Carlo is leaving while still at the top of his game.”
Adds Riverside senior girls basketball co-coach Jeremy Neufeld: “Carlo’s presence alone is a motivational force.”
And so symbolically, as you best try to describe that unique Muro spirit, one which has been so pervasive within a body of work almost a half-century in duration, you can’t help but think about those cartwheels… the ones he turns as he throws himself head over heels into the life of the teacher-coach.
“…COACHING A PART OF TEACHING RESPONSIBILITY”
Ask him about himself and the natural storyteller in Carlo Muro delivers with equal parts humility and self-deprecation, the two qualities working in such unison as to paint the picture of a prideful man confident enough in his mission that there is plenty of room to poke fun at himself.
“I got my picture on the front page of The Province newspaper once,” points out Muro, who during his senior year of high school at Vancouver Tech was pictured during the 1967-68 Vancouver and District boys soccer championship final marking rival John Oliver’s star player.
“But we lost the game, and my man, the guy I was checking… I think his name was Drinkwater, he scored three goals. So I made the front page, but it wasn’t because we won.”
Nonetheless, the athletic adventures of Muro’s youth, which began in 1956, shortly after he arrived on these shores at age seven from a tiny town in southern Italy called Castlegrande, wound up shaping the path he would follow the rest of his life.
An East End Vancouver kid, he blossomed as an athlete in sixth grade at Lord Nelson Elementary under coach Paul Staley.
“They had Vancouver and District championships for Grade 6, and we had some great athletes,” Muro says of boys teams which won volleyball and soccer titles, as well as finishing second in softball.
Later, at Van Tech, he would fall hard for basketball, and it wound up being the true love of his sporting life.
“I was actually picked the top athlete that year,” Muro laughs of Tech’s Class of ‘68, “but it wasn’t because of my athleticism. I played basketball, tennis and soccer and I just worked really hard.”
Functioning as a guard and the team’s sixth man under head coach Bill Ledingham, Muro’s love for the game was actually his driving impetus to become a teacher-coach.
So after graduating from UBC, he got his first full-time gig in the fall of 1973 at Como Lake Junior Secondary where for five years he taught math and physical education.
The coaching part? To him, it was a given.
“I’d always seen coaching as part of my teaching responsibility, and when I got hired in 1973, that was kind of the expectation,” says Muro, who not only coached basketball and tennis but also a sport he himself had barely played.
Van Tech had started a football program in the late 1960s, yet it didn’t even last two seasons before it was cut following the spring camp before Muro’s 1967-68 senior year.
Despite all of that, Muro stepped into the offensive coordinator’s position at Como Lake under head coach Harold ‘Hal’ Sparrow, who had played a number of games for the B.C. Lions in the late 1950s.
And keeping with his persona, Muro took the job the heart.
“It was my first year teaching, so I would spend until 10 o’clock doing my lesson plan for math class, then from 10 to 1 (a.m.), I would work on the offence because we ran a really complex pro offence. I did that for five years.”
Muro, who admits a large reason he decided to become a teacher was so that he could coach basketball, got a chance to match wits early in his career against one of B.C.’s future legendary deans, a man who himself was just beginning his own coaching career in the district at Port Moody Junior Secondary and one who has remained a lifelong friend.
“I fondly remember how intense he was on the sidelines, and his teams were so well-coached and very difficult to play against,” says Rich Chambers of those three seasons prior to his later runs at Centennial, UBC and later Terry Fox.
Muro helped open Coquitlam’s brand-new Maillard Junior in the fall of 1978, starting an 18-year run at the school in which his Magicians, in 1989, became the first Coquitlam school to win the Fraser Valley junior boys basketball title.
He also began to coach volleyball, the sport which eventually became his specialty, and his 1995 team went a perfect 58-0 en route to the B.C. junior championship title.
In the fall of 1996, he got to help open another new school.
Riverside was his first senior secondary, the place where he would settle in as the senior boys volleyball coach, but often times coach multiple teams within the same season of play, like he did in 1997 when he took on the Grade 9, JV and senior boys teams.
“Luckily, I got to play for him throughout my high school career at Riverside (2003-07),” remembers Cary Brett, the former Canadian junior national team member, who went on to a career with the UBC Thunderbirds.
“One of my most meaningful memories of Coach was when he came to my last ever home game as a Thunderbird,” Brett adds. “Coach was there to help plant the seeds, he was there when they were sprouting, and he was there when it had fully bloomed. It was one of the best bookends to my career that I could imagine, and it meant the world to me that he was there.”
A SHOW OF LOVE IN TIMES OF ADVERSITY
The 2019-20 school year, Muro’s last, has also been his toughest.
In January, his younger brother Tony, “the real athlete in the family” and one of the most enduring basketball referees in the province, passed suddenly at the age of 66 after suffering a heart attack.
Then, in late April, his mother-in-law Ann passed away due to complications of the coronavirus pandemic.
“His Math 12 class made a little video for him…you can just feel the love they have for him,” said Lawrence Vea, who coached for decades alongside Muro at both Maillard and Riverside.
Yet despite his heavy heart, Muro prefers to keep the glass half full.
“Those have been sad things, but it has been a wonderful year for me,” he begins of a very successful boys volleyball season. “I got to coach junior boys with Rob Colombo and we won the district title, and I coached the senior boys with Rob Mackenzie and we won the first-ever Fraser North banner (before finishing seventh at AAA provincials).
Colombo, Riverside’s athletic director, points out that the junior boys program had lost the services of their coach prior to the season, and thus he asked Muro if he would co-coach the team with him, in addition to his co-coaching duties with the senior boys team.
“I knew full well that Carlo would run the team and I would assist him,” smiles Colombo. “He organized everything and the team finished third at the Fraser Valley championships with a set of boys who mostly had never played a game of competitive volleyball. Through all this I watched with amazement at the heart and passion that Carlo brought to every practice and every game.”
Rob Mackenzie, another former UBC player, who co-coached the Rapids’ senior boys the past four seasons with Muro, also marvelled at the energy and pride that the septuagenarian exhibited over what would be his 47th and final year as a high school coach.
“He’d coach the junior team from 3:15-to-5:15, eat dinner in his class and mark papers, go to senior practice from 7:15-to-9:15 p.m., then go home without a word of complaint and then come back (at 7:30 a.m.) ready to teach the next day,” said Mackenzie.
And through it all, it’s clear that Muro gets his sunshine from the support of his wife of 37 years, Maria — who documented his career (and this story), with her thousands of photographs over the years — and his 36-year-old son Angelo.
A WORD FOR THE WISE
If you know Carlo Muro, you know where we’re going with this.
“In Grade 7 I used the word shi* and I hated the sound of it when it came out of my mouth,” Muro begins. “I am Roman Catholic and I go to church on Sundays, so the whole idea of swearing didn’t appeal to me. So I try not to swear. Instead, I use the word ‘hamburger’.
Get a little deeper in the details, and Muro reveals that it’s all part of a bigger picture for him as it relates to having respect for the student-athletes he coaches.
“I have always felt that you have to respect the athletes,” he says. “You can discipline, but in a non-aggressive and non-insulting manner. I wanted to be firm but I also wanted to be kind.”
That blueprint worked equally well for him in the classroom, where he had a magician’s touch for making the numbers add up.
“I was always so impressed that while Carlo loved coaching, he loved teaching more,” said Chambers, who later in his career at the senior secondary level, would encounter students that Muro had taught at junior high and sent his way. “Carlo is a master teacher and hundreds of students that walked the halls of Centennial would often tell me how the infamous Mr. Muro had the ability to make math ‘easy’.”
For Muro, the formula was simple.
“My whole teaching philosophy is that I don’t really lecture, I try to engage. It’s more of a dialogue. It’s kind of a discovery,” he explained. “I want my class to be interactive. I want the kids to give input. I don’t want to tell them. I want them to figure it out.”
Adds Kennedy: “As a principal it was hard because every student wanted to be in Mr. Muro’s class. Kids and parents knew he would do everything to make sure his students were successful.”
Of course, that teaching touch was clearly an extension of what he did as a coach.
“The sign of a good coach, in my mind, is to maximize the talent available to the team,” said Vea. “It’s easy to be successful with teams with lots of natural athletes, but such is rarely the case in high school, so being a good teacher and motivator tends to maximize the success of any team. Carlo was excellent in this area.”
Adds Bryan Gee, who not only played volleyball and basketball for Muro from 1991-94, but returned in 2007 to his alma mater to teach and also serve as the Rapids’ longtime senior girls volleyball coach: “He has left a positive everlasting impact on each and every person he has ever taught, coached and worked with. Mr. Muro was my teacher, coach, mentor and now my good friend.”
A TOUGH FINAL FAREWELL
Any career well-lived is worthy of a celebration, but in Muro’s case, just don’t ask him to dance.
“We taught thousands of classes together and I loved everyone of them,” says Carol Coulson, who taught PE alongside Muro for 22 years at Maillard and Riverside. “He was a master of instruction and motivation and even in the dance unit, he never failed to give it his very best effort.”
If that’s code for ‘two left feet’ Muro is not going to dispute it.
“There is no question that when the dance unit came up, my stress level went up,” he laughs.
Yet in a poetic sense, and with homage to all those he has inspired as part of vanishing breed of teacher-coaches, his career, complete with his intensely-caring nature, has all unfolded like one long dance.
“He has touched so many lives, both teacher and students … and students who have become teachers,” remarks Sue Simpson, who not only worked alongside Muro at both Maillard and Riverside, but got talked into coaching basketball by him along the way.
“Carlo is what is the very best of school sports,” says Kennedy. “He volunteered tens of thousands of hours and made a difference in the lives of hundreds of students. And he made all of us who worked and coached with him better.”
Adds Chambers, these days a counsellor and junior boys basketball coach at Terry Fox, and who came into the year tied with Muro atop the district’s service list at 47 years: “In the movie ‘As Good As It Gets’, Jack Nicholson expresses gratitude and amazement at the impact of his new found friendship. He said ‘You make me want to be a better person.’ Carlo had this impact on everyone he taught or coached. I will miss seeing our names at the top of the seniority list. For the last five years we would kid each other about who was going to fold first. Now, as I enter my 48th year in September, I can only hope I have a portion of the impact that Carlo has had over his career.”
For his part, Muro had assured Vea a few years back that he had stopped doing cartwheels as part of gymnastics portion of his PE classes.
Yet as the video below, a tribute to his last Math 12 class, clearly shows, the old guy’s still got it.
“I’ve been blessed,” Muro says. “In 47 years not one day has seemed like a job. Not all were smooth, but I could hardly wait to get to school every day and connect with the kids.”
The pandemic and the separation it has caused is certainly not the way he envisioned his final year of teaching would unfold.
“Hamburger,” he might say.
But quickly he adds: “When I look back on all of the things that have happened this year, it’s like they’re signs that I can leave and be in peace with what I’ve done, even though I do get these really sad moments.
“After 35 years you reach your maximum pension,” he adds. “I could have retired 12 years ago. And so for the last 12 years, the one day I’ve dreaded was the last day. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get through the last staff meeting when I have to say ‘Goodbye.’”
Instead, perhaps, for a man so head-over-heels in love with his job, one last cartwheel will be enough to say it all.
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