San José City College Centennial: Bert Bonanno

Centennial Stories_Bert Bonanno

Learn more about how Bert Bonanno developed a world-class track and field program at San José City College. Watch the premiere of Against All Odds: The Olympic Heroes of City College.

San José has long been known as the “Track Capital of the World.” How does a city first known for its orchards become known for its runners? Former San José City College Track and Field Coach and Athletic Director Bert Bonanno has a lot to do with that. He’s quick to say there are a couple reasons behind this. One was that high school physical education teachers were once full time employees who were able to dedicate themselves to helping their students succeed on and off the track. It was this support structure that allowed world-famous Track and Field Coach Lloyd “Bud” Winter to refine his sprint techniques throughout his tenure at the then called San Jose State College between 1949 and ‘70. Winter’s sprint program was soon called “Speed City” where he helped coach Olympians, such as Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Ray Norton, Lee Evans, and Ronnie Ray Smith.

Bert Bonanno became Winter’s assistant coach for the freshmen track team after graduating from San José State. That was just the beginning of Bonanno’s amazingly successful career of coaching

Bert Bonanno at San Jose City College’s track

the likes of track and field champions Millard Hampton, Caitlyn Jenner then going by Bruce Jenner, Ed Burke, Mac Wilkins, Dave Laut, Harry Freeman, Fred Harvey, and Al Feuerbach, just to name a few.

He founded the San José Mercury News 10K Race and co-founded the annual Bruce Jenner Classic Track & Field Meet which was chosen to be the first Grand Prix athletics event of a series of meets that continue to this day. It was one of the only Grand Prix events held in the U.S. at that time. Bonanno and Coach Steve Haas co-chaired the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in 1984 and ’87. All these events were held at City College bringing in athletes from around the world.

Bonanno was a visionary and an influencer. Not only did he encourage Caitlyn Jenner to train at City College, but he talked Gold-medal Olympian and City College alum André Phillips into going to City College instead of directly to UCLA after high school. He helped Jenner raise money around the Bay Area for Jenner’s training, and helped bring nationally televised events, such as the Wide World of Sports, to City College’s oval. He advised City College alum and gold-medal Olympian Ato Boldon to run for Trinidad and Tobago to stand out from all the track stars in the U.S.

Bert was born and raised in Pittsburg, California along with his two brothers. He was accepted to UC Santa Barbara right out of high school but wasn’t ready for the university atmosphere and returned home a day later. He spent two years at a community college and transferred to San José State where he learned about coaching through their unique ‘Technique of Teaching’ program. Taught like a doctorate program, it blended lectures with practical coursework so students got a well-rounded idea of what they were expected to do.

Going on instinct, Coach Winter asked Bonanno to coach his inaugural freshman track program and Bonanno lived up to Winter’s intuition. Bonanno’s freshmen won the national championships two years in a row. A renegade at heart, Bonanno wanted a change after a couple of years, as he was curious to see what he could do on his own. He moved back to Pittsburg and started coaching junior high school students.

He and his staff started a pilot program where they experimented with different techniques. One brought to light how food insecurities related to school success. They fed a group of students right before a test and found that group consistently performed better on tests than the group who hadn’t eaten. From this, they ensured their student-athletes always had something to eat. His 9th grade runners were the National High School 9th Grade Cross Country Champions two years in a row.

“Success breeds success. Surround yourself with good people and you can do a lot…. [I’m] beholden to staff, administration, the chancellor, and college presidents who all saw that the success of student-athletes was important. They sent the message that ‘we are here for you.’

Bert Bonanno

In 1964, he was offered the national track coach position for Mexico to prepare the team for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Knowing no Spanish, he, his wife, and his four-year-old son went to Mexico. These were the first games to be held next to the U.S. border during the Cold War. Bonanno was hired by the CIA to keep an eye on coaches from inside the Soviet Union who were attempting to persuade Mexican athletes to support communism. He also worked with Jesse Owens to convince the Mexicans officials overseeing the Olympic games to replace the Olympic track with a Tartan track made by 3M, which they successfully did.

After the Mexico City Olympics, Bonanno was hired as City College’s Track and Field coach. In summers while working at City College, he was the national track and field coach for the Peruvian team during the 1972 Munich Olympics, and for the U.S. track and field team during the Pan Pacific Games in Auckland, New Zealand in 1981. Bonanno was head coach for the U.S. during the 1989 Indoor Athletics World Championships in Budapest, and again for the U.S. team competing at the Indoor Track and Field Championships in Glasgow, Scotland against Russia, England, and Germany.

He has coached athletes from around the world, and has a wealth of awards, including being inducted into the San José Sports Authority Hall of Fame. He was the first to receive the Bud Winter Sportsman of the Year award. City College offers the Bert Bonanno Scholar-Athlete scholarship each year to four City College athletes who help support their community. Bonanno retired from City College in 2003. His acumen, insight, and contributions firmly helped put San José City College on the map nationally and internationally. Bonanno attributes all his successes to those he worked with while at City College, stating that he surrounded himself with talented people.

For City College’s Centennial celebration, we were able to talk with Coach Bonanno about how he got to City College and what (and who) made City College’s athletics program so incredibly successful.

After Coach Bonanno returned to the Bay Area from Mexico, there were two job openings, one at San José State and the other at San José City College. Bud Winter from San José State was going to retire, and in 1969 told Bonanno that he had the job if he wanted it. “Well,” remembered Bonanno, “my wife Betty is a lot smarter than me. She said, ‘the first thing we have to check is the medical.’ At that time, if you retired from City College, you received lifetime health benefits. That was impressive.”

The head Athletics Director Larry Arnerich made Bonanno interview six times for the position. “One of his questions was, ‘what’s wrong with the program?’” recalled Bonanno, who said, “the uniforms are really ugly and old.” Arnerich said, “the uniforms don’t make the program successful. It’s the coach.” “Larry,” Bonanno said, “believe me, they’re ugly.”

“‘Okay, let’s see if you’re successful, and next year I’ll give you new uniforms.’ That was Arnerich’s personality,” stated Bonanno. “He had so much wit that you had to carry Band-Aids because he would make you bleed. Bob Jones, who is City College’s historian and was our very accomplished men’s and women’s water polo and swimming coach, was on my hiring committee. He told me a year later, ‘Bert, you had the job from day one.’”

Bert Bonanno as a coach for the Mexican national team, with athletes, and bottom right with Jesse Owens in Mexico.

In addition to being athletics director, Larry Arnerich was also the founder of the Community Services program which was funded from San José city taxes. The San José Arena hadn’t been built yet, and this was a program Arnerich envisioned to help bring world-renown speakers and performers to City College. It soon put City College on the map, establishing the college as an integral part of the community.

“When I got there, I couldn’t believe the people who were coming to campus,” said Bonanno. “Martin Luther King, Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Cesar Chavez, Count Basie. We were the center of the city. He was a futuristic thinker. Too many people today say we can’t do that, or we’ve never done it this way. I’m an offshoot of Larry, who used to say, ‘stay positive. Stay away from negative people. Don’t let a ‘no’ knock you down.’ That mantra was why we became successful. We used it all the time and would say to the coaches, ‘don’t let anybody push you around. If you have a problem, you come to see me. Don’t take it on yourself.’”

The first thing Bonanno did when he arrived at the college was call a meeting with all the high school coaches that fed into City College. He told them, “’I can’t be successful without you. I need your help.’ Those are magic words,” he relayed. “Most people respond in a positive way when those words are said.”

Before Bonanno, the track team at City College consistently had around 14 to 15 students. After this meeting, the roster began increasing each year, up to 70 athletes at its peak. They had more athletes in track and field that year than the football team.

A big part of his success was having Bob “the Bullet” Poynter as his assistant coach who helped train sprinters. Poynter was a great sprinter himself who Bonanno became friends with while they were both at San José State.

City College’s track and field teams became so successful, they won the State Championships twice. Track and Field and Golf, under Coach Harley Dow who had been on the first San Francisco 49ers team, are the only City College programs to have won the State Championships twice. And under Bonanno and Steve Hass, they held the records for the most dual-meet wins which were meets between two colleges.

“I’m an offshoot of Larry [Arnerich], who used to say ‘stay positive. Stay away from negative people. Don’t let a ‘no’ knock you down.’ That mantra was why we became successful.”

Bert Bonanno

In 1976 Bonanno was appointed athletics director by College President Ted Murguia and Otto Roemmich, the district’s first chancellor. As Athletics Director, he was seen as someone who brought new ideas and often did what others thought wasn’t possible. He made sure any surplus funding the department had was rotated to different sports programs each year. He also established with each coach that if they had a problem, they could talk to him about it, and he would help them.

Open communication with his team was a fundamental aspect to Bonanno’s leadership. He saw how beneficial it was to talk about issues instead of staying quiet or getting angry. He understood that a unified team was more successful than one divided, so he always had sensitive conversations behind closed doors. Helping his staff and students maintain their self-image and self-esteem were extremely important.

“Success of the magnitude we had comes from corporations building a proper foundation,” Bonanno remarked, “such as listening, creating pros and cons, and being surrounded by a very bright group of staff members working towards the same goals. A lot of time was spent on campus talking to people to find out what was going on – in the Business office, with deans, going into beautician, health, and other classes to let people know they could reach out to me if they had a problem with a student-athlete so I could talk with them.”

Bonanno noted that “success breeds success. Surround yourself with good people and you can do a lot.” He acknowledged that he’s “beholden to staff, administration, the chancellor, and college presidents who all saw that the success of student-athletes was important. They sent the message that ‘we are here for you.’ The staff deserves the credit for all our successes. I may have been holding the flag, but they were marching in front.”

Bonanno recounted some of the numerous City College staff, administrators, and faculty who made significant contributions to the success of City College’s student-athletes and the athletic programs they participated in.

“There was Percy Carr who was the winningest basketball coach in the history of California community colleges. Percy was previously the assistant basketball coach at Stanford with a great record. He became the first African American coach on the City College staff. Because of him, we suddenly got some really good athletes coming into the program. He also started an academic retention program for athletes called the C.A.R.R. program – Corrective Athletic Retention Response. It was so successful it became famous around the state. His students transferred to universities all around the country and they all graduated.

Sam Huerta was an extraordinary men’s wrestling and softball coach. He won the Northern California Championship in wrestling and did a fantastic job starting the women’s softball team.

“John Oldham was an incredible baseball coach. We had major league baseball players come out of our program. Dave Righetti with the Giants, Scott Erickson, Ken Caminiti. We had some wonderful baseball teams, and football players, too.”

Top Left: Bud Winter and Lee Evans at San Jose State; Top Right: program for the 1989 Bruce Jenner Classic Mid-upper left: Millard Hampton & Caitlyn Jenner then known as Bruce; Mid-left: Coaches Harley Dow & Jim Wheelehan; Bottom Center: Bonanno and athletes after winning the 1976 California State Track & Field Championships – Bonanno is near the middle holding the State trophy

Bonanno discussed City College’s football teams under the guidance of legendary Coach Jim Wheelehan and Coach Howard Gay, who were the head and assistant football coaches while Bonanno was the athletic director and ran a very successful program. Bonanno pointed out that several players went into the NFL from City College, even the college’s first athletics director, Fred Silva went on to become an NFL and NBA officiant. A few of the NFL players who got their start at City College were Jim Cadile and Steve Kinney, who both went to the Chicago Bears, and Kim Bokamper, who grew up in Milpitas and played for the Miami Dolphins.

“Harley Dow and Bob Jones were my consiglieres,” Bonanno remembered. “I would call them in to run ideas by them to help me make decisions. Bob Jones was at City College in the early stages of the college, when it was still located at a high school.

“Don Stagnaro replaced Harley Dow as the golf, assistant football and assistant track and field coach. He was marvelous to work with.

Sam Nakaso was a wonderful coworker and volunteer. He was up for anything. Coach Steve Haas who took over for me as Head Track and Field coach, came from Occidental College. And Arnold Salazar, who just retired, was the athletic trainer at City College for 37 years. We called him the Magic Man. He would prep athletes for games and helped them recover if they were injured.”

“Steve Haas, who took over for me as head track and field coach after I became the athletic director, was absolutely marvelous. Everybody loved him on campus, and his wife Margie was a very special person. He came from Occidental College in L.A., and he was internationally recognized as one of the top track and field coaches in the state of California. He was an extraordinary coach who led a very successful track and field program. The proof was in the pudding with how well his program did at City.”

Haas was an incredibly skillful coach for student-athletes at City College. Olympic gold medalist André Philips recalled, “(Haas) taught me patience. He taught me stride patterns and race preparation. He was the first hurdle coach I ever had. He was an exceptional man in so many ways.”

When Bonanno first started at City College, it was 90 percent men. He said, “we need to hire a women’s basketball coach,” and he helped hire Terri Oberg. “Terri is a pistol,” Bonanno stated. “She came in and flip-flopped that whole program. We had kids coming from everywhere to play for us. Thanks to her, in 1998 we won the State Championship at UC Irvine.”

Bonanno advocated for coaches to have full time positions for as long as he was at City College which benefited the sports program and especially the student-athletes. It was no different with hiring a women’s softball coach which helped to make it a desired position nationally. “When we were going to hire a full time women’s softball coach,” Bonanno continued, “there were a lot of phone calls from really good candidates from places like the University of Illinois and BYU.

Then John Oldham called him and said, “Bertie, you have a candidate by the name of Debbie Huntze. She is the best.” Bonanno took note and said she “knocked the socks off the hiring committee. She understood community college. One of the counselors leaned over and said, ‘Bert, I think we just hired the new softball coach.’”

Bonanno agreed, “Debbie is a stalwart coach. Even today she is known nationally as one of the top softball coaches in California. It was marvelous after she and Terri came in. Because of both Terri and Debbie, we had teachers on campus who came to women’s basketball and softball games who had never been to any campus game before. That was pretty unique, and it started to unify the campus.”

From left to right: Bonanno, his wife Betty and his children Marty and Gina; as SJCC Athletic Director; with André Phillips; with Millard Hampton

Faculty were essential to the team, and Historian Dan Epstein and English faculty Chuck Hunter and Anne Heffley were “teachers who exemplified the desire to help student-athletes succeed,” stated Bonanno.

“Sharon Hernon was in the Business Office and was a key person we worked with,” Bonanno said. “She once noticed wrestling had a match one evening at College of the Siskyous and Sam Huerta hadn’t put in a meal voucher request yet, so she created it and called him to let him know. She was an integral part of the staff.

“Chuck Southward was the liaison between counseling and athletics and also a part of the team. He was always very involved and invaluable to us. As was Judy Rookstool who became the dedicated athletics counselor. She once said she didn’t know anything about athletics, but she learned it well. She has a doctorate in civility. She once gave a presentation to a group of college administrators about civility.

“The interactions between staff, custodians, groundskeepers, and maintenance were paramount to our success. I want to pay homage to this group. Custodians were the people who knew what was going on on-campus. They were right across from my office, and maintenance was right next door. Since we had many sponsors because of the Jenner Classic, we would share the giveaways with everyone, such as polo shirts, jackets, and hats.

“The administrative assistants I had were all impeccable and handled so much me, some things I never even knew. There were the game announcers who came year after year to announce for us.”

And certainly not least, Bonanno thanked all the “wives and husbands of coaches and staff who had to be attuned to their spouses who often didn’t get home much later than 5 or 6pm.”

This teamwork was, at its foundation, what made the athletics department thrive under Bonanno’s tenure. This unifying teamwork went all the way to the college presidents and chancellors who stood behind him. It allowed him to follow his visions for the future and explore the unexpected which accomplished so much for the department and the college.

Unity, teamwork, and communication were all central players in Bonanno’s strategic plan. If he saw an issue, he tackled it directly, just like when he and his staff noticed P.E. enrollment began to decline. “At first, we had big enrollments in P.E. Everyone wanted to be in a class. Then as other areas started tightening up, we started shrinking, too. So, we came together to explain the importance of physical education to the Academic Senate so they would make it a graduation requirement.” This change was something Bonanno was very proud of.

Some of Bonanno’s favorite moments from his thirty-three years at City College include getting Wide World of Sports to come to campus – twice. “It gave more notoriety to the college,” explained Bonanno. “Television can do some amazing things. We have the Mount Hamilton range about 15 miles away. But with the camera, it made it look like it was right on the campus. People called me, saying, ‘I didn’t know that mountain was that close to the campus!’ The campus was abuzz when the large television media trucks and vans were in the parking lot for Wide World of Sports and the Bruce Jenner Classics. It was a big deal then.”

For all the hard work everyone did, Bonanno believed in maintaining a light-hearted atmosphere when he could. For example, with the help of some of his friends in the custodial department, they would occasionally rearrange people’s offices overnight. Staff or administrators would come back to a completely different office, with different furniture, or with nothing in it at all. Each year, he and the staff would go off-campus for Christmas parties. He planned it a month in advance. They would play games with prizes, exchange gifts, tell stories, and most importantly laugh.

“Really, the best stuff for me is to see the students on my track teams go out and be successful in life,” said Bonanno. He was glad to have learned a long time ago not to treat all student-athletes alike. “They are all different in how you communicate with them,” continued Bonanno. “It was really important to decide, as soon as you could, where they fit in the parameters.”

To get positive feedback, Bonanno advised his staff, “say to someone, ‘I need your help. What would you do?’… It always equals success.”

Bert Bonanno

As the athletic director, he would have meetings with each individual team without their coach in the room. For example, with the women’s softball team, Bonanno would write on the bulletin board “Expectations as a student-athlete at San Jose City College.” He would say what he expected of each player – to sit in the front row of each class instead of the back and not to embarrass themselves or him by swearing.

He also had a specialist from Macy’s come to campus with a rack of clothes to teach the men’s and the women’s sports teams how to dress for an interview. The specialist would also show them different ways to wear a top so it didn’t look the same, extending their wardrobe and their budget.

And he would always tell his athletes, “if something is happening to you, whatever that may be, my office door is always open to you. It doesn’t have to be about sports, it can be about anything on your mind.” Bonanno would add, “Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear, but what you really feel.” Bonanno is still in contact with numerous alumni who often call him.

These are all things he is very proud of, including advising his staff during meetings what his secret is to getting positive feedback. “Say to someone, ‘I need your help. What would you do?’ Or ‘what should I do?’” Bonanno concluded, “it always equals success.” Those magic unifying words.

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