May 31, 2005
ORLANDO - Eugene "Torchy" Clark, the first men's basketball coach at UCF, is profiled in the current edition of Pegasus magazine. The story in the UCF Alumni publication, details Clark's success at UCF. Clark coached at UCF from 1969-83. With 274 victories, he is the all-time winningest coach in school history.
Clark, who is now fighting cancer, also taught at UCF for many years. Scott Wallin's story on Clark is below.
For more information on Pegasus magazine, please visit www.ucfalumni.com
HONORING A LEGEND BOTH ON THE COURT AND IN THE CLASSROOM
BY SCOTT WALLIN, `97
The coach says he has one more victory left in him.
Nobody is doubting his word.
Few opponents who ever went up against a team coached by Eugene "Torchy" Clark were able to get the best of him. Clark isn't about to let cancer change that.
When a tumor was discovered in Clark's jaw during a visit to his dentist in late 2004, he did what he does best. He went to his trademark full-court press with the goal of turning the disease into just another beaten-down opponent.
At age 76 and having undergone a 12-hour surgery and rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, Clark, who stands as a true FTU/UCF legend, is as upbeat as ever. His unique perspective on the world, sense of humor and clever banter are still in full force. Take this anecdote, for instance:
"I asked a guy one time -- he's a good friend of mine -- `what do you think of Claire?'" Clark said recently. "He said `well she's not going to go out with you or anything like that.' I just talked to him the other night and I said `we've been married 55 years.'"
Clark loves finding the humor in everything. "I just get a kick out of certain guys in certain situations. Sometimes, they're standing there watching when it's all happening."
They were watching as FTU basketball was hatched in 1969. Clark was seemingly a world away, an established and successful basketball/football coach at Xavier High School in Appelton, WI, where in 10 years he was a combined 277-35-2 in both sports. He could have coached there forever but was intrigued at the prospect of leading the birth of FTU's program, one that had no gym or scholarships to offer players.
Clark came and turned it into one of the most magical rides in school history.
"We played in reversible shirts," Clark said of the early days. "If we were ready for a jumpball and both teams had black on, you'd say `no problem, we'll just change our shirts over here.'
"It wasn't the grand and glorious job that it is now, but it was great. Everybody came to our games. We got new uniforms, got scholarships and we really tore it up good."
That would be an understatement. Clark is the school's all-time winningest coach with 274 victories, compiling 14 winning seasons and a trip to the NCAA Division II Final Four in 1978. Along the way, he built a reputation as a man who adequately befit his nickname. "Torchy" burned brightly with plenty of enthusiasm, intensity and candor. It wasn't an act, but rather an approach that came quite naturally for Clark.
"A guy said to me one time `that was quite a show you put on tonight,'" Clark said. "I said `that wasn't any show. We were coaching.' I think when you're animated and you're involved, you don't really care and I really didn't. It makes a difference. Anyone who has a little tornado in them, their team is going to play better ball.
"There's such a passion in coaching, you could almost say `you're going to get the flu and you could die' and you'll say `well, we'll take care of that after the game.' Somebody else would say `I better go home and rest.' There's a passion in coaching."
Rocky Bleier experienced this passion. He is Clark's most famous former player, having suited up for Clark in football and basketball at Xavier High. Bleier went on to become captain of Notre Dame's football team and a decorated Vietnam War hero before winning four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The bond they shared in high school has grown stronger through the years with Bleier fondly recalling Torchy's method-to-his-madness stories that hold their impact today.
"We were 14, 15, 16 years old and he needed to get our attention and our focus," Bleier said. "He'd be sitting on that bench and he'd be yelling and screaming and he had this knack of kicking the bench with his heel and all of a sudden you'd hear `bam!!!' You knew something went wrong.
"But Torchy made an impact. Not one player or student who went through his class wasn't impacted by Torchy or will ever forget Torchy, and I think that's a legacy that becomes very important."
Those who played for him at FTU feel the same way. Two players in particular from his early teams -- Russ Salerno, '70, and Jim Flanagan, '71 -- remain close to their former coach for guidance and friendship.
Salerno, who grew up without a father, says Clark is one of the three most influential men in his life and credits him for much of the success he has achieved. Flanagan calls Clark "one of God's special creations," adding "he may not be a very big man in stature but he has the heart of a lion."
Salerno, senior vice president for United Heritage Bank, has helped lead a community fund-raiser to help offset costs the Clark family incurred during their stay in New York for the surgery. Salerno has heard from fans who remember the early days of FTU basketball and how influential the program was on campus.
"The thing about it was, all the faculty was there," Salerno said. "I mean, the business department, the education department, the science department ... we were kind of the rallying point for the school at that time."
UCF hasn't forgotten either and is making sure Clark's legend is secure with the College of Education renaming its gymnasium the Eugene "Torchy" Clark Gymnasium at a ceremony. The College of Education also created an endowment in Clark's name to support scholarships for undergraduate students enrolled in physical education and graduate students in the sports leadership and program enhancement.
"This is a great honor for my dad," said Bo Clark, who played for his father from 1975-80 and finished as the school's all-time leading scorer. "That's where this whole program started and sometimes people forget about the great spirit and great crowds we had during my dad's run.
"When you look at what he did for that program, it's just amazing. This makes him feel like he's appreciated and that's important."
The scholarship endowment also recognizes Clark's many years as a professor at the college. He retired from the Department of Teaching and Learning Principles just over a year ago. "Most people think of Torchy as a coach, but first and foremost he is a teacher," said Sandra Robinson, dean of the College of Education. "That's what made him so successful as a coach. He can explain things in ways people can understand. Warm tributes from his students confirm that many learned as much from his example as what he taught in class."
The College of Education served as home to FTU sports from 1970-78. Calvin Miller, who was the first dean of the College of Education, remembers when Athletic Director Frank Rohter approached him about hiring Clark.
"Frank Rohter came to me and said `the guy we need to develop our program is currently teaching in high school and coaching football and basketball very, very successfully in Appleton, WI," said Miller, now retired and living in Brevard County. "I said `well, does he have a master's degree?'"
Rohter convinced Miller he had to interview Clark and he accepted the job with the condition he would enroll in the master's program and earn his degree in three years. Clark delivered on his promise.
"It was one of the finest decisions we ever made," Miller said of hiring Clark. "I guess I would say he's one of the finest individuals I've had occasion to work with professionally. He's very different and had his idiosyncrasies but to me they were all good."
Plenty agree and they're letting Clark know what he meant to them. He has received hundreds of cards and calls from well-wishers. Former UCF quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who took classes from Clark, while at UCF, calls regularly, as does another famous alumnus, country music star Mark Miller, a member of Sawyer Brown.
All of the outpouring lifts Clark as he battles onward against the disease. No matter how tough it has been, Clark only seems to get tougher. He sees that final win within reach.
"(The support) gives me another coaching obligation," Clark says. "When you're coaching, you want to give them the win. When you're in trouble, and they're praying for you, you just have a little more duty.
"I think I'm going to be OK, though. I don't ever predict anything but I have a good guy (doctor), I'm getting good radiation and I am a fighter. There's no question about it."