The life and legacy of Saddleback College coach Bill Cunerty


Former Saddleback College football and golf coach Bill Cunerty, pictured left with COX 3 broadcast partner Kevin Turner, died on Thursday, Oct. 22 from Parkinson’s disease. The Mission Viejo resident was 74. File photo Dan Albano, The Orange County Register/SCNG

Bill Cunerty died from a battle with Parkinson’s disease on Oct. 22. He was 74 years old and a longtime resident of Mission Viejo. Cunerty is survived by his wife Claudia, daughter Kelly, son-in-law Cameron, daughter Shannon, son-in-law Ben, three grandchildren and sister Patty. 

 One of the titles that Bill Cunerty will be remembered for is being head coach of the Saddleback College Gauchos football team from 1995 to 1998. Under his coaching, the Gauchos went undefeated in 1996 and won the national title.

Saddleback quarterback Johnny Stanton runs past a blocked defender. The Gauchos were defeated by the Tigers, 38-18, in the 2015-2016 season. Cliff Robbins/Lariat 

Mark McElroy is the head football coach of the Saddleback Gauchos and was mentored under the auspice of Cunerty from the age of 17. Although he never played under him during high school at San Clemente, his younger brother played for Cunerty at Capo Valley.

“While I was at Saddleback as a student, I was a colleague and asked him for advice on many occasions— everything from teaching and coaching to personal advice,” McElroy said.“He’s the finest coach and teacher I’ve really ever known. He’s gifted with a great memory so if he met you once he would remember your name and things about you.”

Cunerty’s colleagues all agree that he was a wonderful storyteller and a great encourager.

“He always made you feel better about yourself when you walked away from him, “ McElroy said.

Carol Ziehm worked from 1984 to 1995 as a classified employee and part-time journalism instructor at Saddleback. She was hired full-time in 1999 and retired in 2018. Ziehm was also a student on the Lariat in 1981-82.

“He was a wonderful colleague, teacher and coach who loved helping young people succeed,” Ziehm said.“He coached and taught at Dana Hills [High School] and Capistrano Valley [High School] before Saddleback.”

Three seasons of recognition and a winning career made Cunerty a “beloved coach and friend,” many who knew him said.

Cunerty coached Saddleback men’s and women’s golf teams. Saddleback became the first community college in California to win state titles in three different sports. The men’s golf team won six state crowns.

John Adams of San Clemente is one of Cunerty’s golf protegees. Adams wrote for Lariat News under Carol Ziehm in 1987 and played golf for Saddleback from 1985 to 1988.

“I was a baseball kid for 14 years and had the itch to play golf,” Adams said. “In August after I graduated high school, I literally walked off the baseball field at Saddleback in my uniform and walked up to Bill on the driving range and told him I wanted to try out for the golf team.”

Cunerty thought this might be a practical joke from the baseball coach and told Adams to take the afternoon off and come back the next day. Cunerty told Adams that he had thought about him all night because he, too, had been a baseball player turned golfer. Adams started the team as a “red shirt,” meaning he would not play that first year.

“What I want you to do is go get a job at a golf course and eat, sleep and breathe golf,” Cunerty said to Adams.

Adams listened to Cunerty’s advice, he played golf, earned a scholarship to Arizona State University and became a Professional Golf Association player. 

“I go back to that first day when I met him and it is instilled in my mind that meeting him changed the course of my life,” Adams said. “If he’d have said ‘no,’ my 20 years in the golf industry would not have been. He took me into his family and treated me like a son.”

Cunerty was also a journalism major at the University of Southern California. He broadcast high school games with Kevin Turner and Vince Ferragamo with COX3 Sports News. It is said that “he was quick to praise players while mixing in his coaching insights, stories and humor.”

Turner began working with Cunerty as co-commentators with Ferragamo in 2003.

“Bill and I go back to the early 80s,” Turner said. “A number of my friends at Arizona State played at Saddleback and I heard about this savant and guru who coached there. I met him at the Santa Ana Bowl broadcasting the game in the early 90s after graduating AS after I moved back to Southern California.”

Cunerty and Turner shared a mutual acquaintance, Kurt Aaron from San Clemente High School, who went on to become an All-American football player at Saddleback.

Turner was doing the High School Game of the Week on radio and Cunerty was doing a radio show with Dimension Cable Game of the Week covering regional sports.

In 2003, Cox Communications reached out to Turner to work with Cunerty and Ferragamo to host Cox Free Game of the Week. 

“For 14 years, we worked together on Friday nights having a blissful time covering the best high school football in America,” Turner said.

 Over 80,000 viewers tuned in for the games on Cox. Cunerty’s last cable television broadcast was the Orange County all-star football game in the summer of 2017.

“I would hope that the Saddleback honors him with some sort of press box and recognize his unwavering and steadfast commitment to junior college football,” Turner said.

During his career, Cunerty sponsored about 20 young men a year with endorsements and influenced scholarships totalling over a quarter of a billion dollars in the timespan of 40 years, according to Turner. 

“He was a great friend, a good golf partner, an icon, a mentor and a community treasure to Southern California, specifically South Orange county,” Turner said. “Bill Cunerty’s reach rivals anyone I’ve ever known. He was one of the most generous human beings one could ever know.”

Vince Ferragamo, 1976 National Football League Hall of Fame quarterback, broadcast on COX3 sports news with Cunerty from 2003 to 2017. Ferragamo said in a statement to the Lariat:

“He was one of the great football minds. He was an elite quarterback trainer and one of the first originators of the modern-day ‘no huddle 4 wide spread offense.’ I had the privilege of working with him on COX high school football game of the week and he had great analysis and recall of all players and former coaches. No one knew the players and coaches better than him. Local broadcasting lost one of the greats. We will miss him dearly.”

Kevin Turner (left), Bill Cunerty and Vince Ferragamo with COX3 sports news broadcast high school football on Friday nights. Kevin Turner/Courtesy

Dan Albano writes for The Orange County Register in the sports department. His main focus is on high school football and aquatics. He compiles the top 150 football players to watch in Orange County before each season.



Cunerty was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in April 2017. His wife, Claudia, of 51 years had been his caretaker in the last year of his life in hospice. Cunerty had survived two heart attacks, diabetes and two battles with colon cancer.

“He was a strong Christian,” she said in an interview with The Orange County Register. “He knew he was going to heaven.”

Two years after the Gauchos won the national title in 1996, Cunerty retired from coaching football at Saddleback on the advice of his doctor due to health reasons. He was 51 years old and stayed on as a golf coach and English teacher at Saddleback.

“It was a really hard decision,” Cunerty said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1998. “I keep asking, is this the right decision? We prayed about it for a long time and this is the right thing for my health and for the football program right now…the program means so much to me that it deserves someone who can give it 100% of their time.”

Cunerty’s unique career spanned more than 40 years and showcased his array of talents and passions. He was also on the Board of Governors and the president of the Southern California Golf Association. Cunerty was inducted into the California Community College Football Coaching Association Hall of Fame in 2016. 

Claudia Cunerty told The Register that a funeral memorial service will be streamed live at a later date.