A member of the O’Dowd Hall of Fame Class of 2004, Vanni served at O’Dowd from 1966-1973. He taught PE and driver’s education, and coached both varsity football and track.
It was because of his persistence that football was introduced as a sport in the fall of 1970. John Cecconi ’71, who served as a varsity team captain during the inaugural season, said the entire O’Dowd community owes a debt of appreciation and gratitude to Vanni.
“What is taken for granted today, was a major undertaking and leap of faith back in 1970. Coach Vanni single-handedly built the program from the ground up, from its basic organization to performing all the fundraising,” Cecconi said.
“At his Hall of Fame installation, I asked Coach Vanni what inspired him to start football at O’Dowd. He said it bothered him to see so many young men in his PE classes without an opportunity to participate in sports at O’Dowd. Coach Vanni knew football would make a big difference to them, not only athletically but also in the development of their character. Let us all remember Coach Vanni in our prayers and may O’Dowd never forget him and his unselfish contribution and legacy.”
When it came to football, Dold said Vanni’s “energy carried us through some very lean years as we learned how to play the game.”
“One of the first things he did was procure a weight machine, and personally led all of the new players in developing their bodies,” Dold said. “One of my favorite memories was the time he decided that we would sell Christmas trees to raise money for the football team. We bought a truck full of trees which were deposited behind the gym. Most of us coaches ran the tree lot, sleeping overnight in the coaches’ office,” Dold said. “With the money we raised, we scoured the Bay Area looking for equipment. We bought sleds in Marin County, shoulder pads in Monterey. With Brother Bernie McCabe driving we took the school bus all over the area picking up the equipment that would be used with those first teams.”
Kevin Donahue ’63, who taught and coached at O’Dowd from 1968-1974, said Vanni was a great mentor. “He took me under his wing and taught me the ropes of teaching,” Donahue said.
Donahue also served as an assistant football coach under Vanni. “I knew nothing about football at the time. But Joe taught me about football and also track. That gave me a better appreciation for other sports, which really helped me when I became an athletic director (Donahue served as the athletic director at San Mateo’s Junipero Serra High School for 30 years).
Vanni had a special Earth Day tradition, Donahue recalled. “He would invite some students and colleagues to spend the night at his home in Lafayette, rise at dawn, and run nearly 25 miles to school. We took the back roads, and it took about four hours,” he said. “He was a physical fitness fanatic and he was in great shape.”
Both Dold and Donahue said Vanni helped them achieve personal physical fitness goals. “He got all of us teachers out running the hills after school, no small feat given the fact that we were in such terrible condition. I credit Joe with pushing me to complete my first cross country mile and that led to a lifetime of jogging for me all over the Bay Area,” Dold said.
Vanni is survived by seven of his eight children Vicki Austin, Danny Vanni, Dominic Vanni, Louie Vanni, Gina Prince, Anna Smylie and Vincent Vanni, 13 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.