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April 23, 2009The University of Central Florida has lost a legend. Eugene "Torchy" Clark, the founding father of the men's basketball program, passed away Wednesday at the age of 80.
UCF alumnus and basketball historian Bill Beekman authored this tribute to Torchy a few years ago as part of his "Dribblings" series chronicling the early days of mens' basketball at UCF, which was then known as Florida Tech.
Ask anyone that's taken one of his classes, and they'll tell you he was the best professor they ever had (like Daunte). I only met Torchy a couple of times, and I loved the guy. He often said his life was about "God first, family second and basketball third." If that's true, he's a lock for the Hereafter because he's a devoted family man, and the best damn basketball coach I've ever seen. Period.
Gene "Torchy" Clark was already a Wisconsin HS basketball AND football coaching legend when FTU AD Jack O'Leary called with the lure of creating the "Marquette of the South" at the young school. That dream would never materialize, as the necessary resources were never provided.
In his first eight seasons, Torchy and his band of nomads played home games at Orlando JC (now Lake Highland Prep), Oviedo HS and Winter Park HS, often at 9:00 p.m. after the Wildcat Girls' varsity games. More than once the University's administrators squandered opportunities for the promised 10,000, then 5,000+ seat stand-alone arena, settling for a 2,800 seat "Teaching Gymnasium" attached to the Education Building. Even that one was good for only one game in the 1976-77 season before a water leak under the hardwood scuttled the rest of the season.
Early on, the Torch's wife Claire had to wash the team's uniforms in their Winter Park home's laundry room, for gosh sakes! For years Torchy and Faithful Assistant Ray Ridenour ran their program out of a small, shared office on campus. [Does ANY of this sound familiar?] It's still amazing to me that out of all these adversities, they arguably created Florida's 2nd or 3rd best college basketball program of that era.
A funny, engaging and truly nice guy off the floor, the Torch WAS nuts once he passed through the arena doors. He'd walk to the bench with his sandy hair neatly combed, and very dapper in a tweed blazer, university-striped tie and an oxford shirt. Mere moments into the game, however, the jacket would hit the floor, with the tie askew and his rear shirttail hanging out. The sideline was his territory as he relentlessly paced the floor, barking at his players, muttering at the refs (or vice-versa) and shouting instructions to the floor, sometimes sitting on his haunches.
He'd get wild-eyed at bad calls or bad play, pulling at his hair while his face turned a bright crimson (hence the name Torchy). A slight, short man, it was a sight when he went belly-to-belly, eye-to-eye with a terrified 6'6+" player, head reared back as he screamed at any on-court transgression. He'd kick chairs, he'd throw towels, and he'd grab a player by the jersey and hurl him into the game. Reserves would fight over who had to sit next to the chair at the end of the bench, for when Torchy became irate he'd sit in that end chair, chewing out that hapless soul next to him who generally had nothing to do with the outcome of the game.
He played to the crowd, and the fans (often 3,000 of 'em) loved it. He'd pray, eyes heavenward on his knees, pleading for divine intervention from the referees. While arguing calls with officials, the game ball would mysteriously wind up tucked behind Torchy's back, hiding under his jacket. A loose ball heading out of bounds became a shortstop routine, fired back at the refs just in time for the out. He'd scream in disbelief at Faithful Assistant Ray Ridenour, who had no choice but to become bug-eyed and return the scream-in-disbelief. When particularly fed up you could find him sitting in the stands, chatting with the students about their classes and love life. He always told his players "You guys come and go - I'M the one they come to see!"
Make no mistake, though, it wasn't just a show - Torchy was always in the game. His teams may (occasionally) have been outplayed, but he was NEVER out coached. Torchy thrived on showing up the high-profile coaches and programs like Durham, Connor, Wissel, Wilkes, and (especially) Jucker; Florida State, JU, USF, Florida Southern, Stetson and (especially) Rollins.
Short on size, his teams compensated with speed, tenacity, and defense. They beat presses with court-length inbounds baseball passes, ran isolation plays for mismatches ("Mississippi!"), used the outside shot to set up the inside play, and ran the fast break with abandon. The Torch was "Run-and-Gun" before "Run-and-Gun" was cool. If a bigger, slower team insisted playing a zone defense, he'd stall until the opposition was shamed into a man-to-man where he had the advantage ("Oranges!"). Even his presses were offensive weapons, forcing numerous turnovers leading to easy baskets. Torchy always knew that there was always a way to win a game, any game. And he usually did.
The Torch retired after the 1982-83 season, just two years before the Knights would make the move to Division I he was always promised. In those 14 years as FTU/UCF's head coach, Torchy won 274 games, had three 19 and seven 20+ win seasons, won 76% of all games, and NEVER had a losing season.
His squads won the Sunshine State Conference twice, went to the Division II playoffs six times, going to the Final Four once. At least 3 of his players - Benny Shaw, Bo Clark and Jerry Prather - earned Division II All-American honors. He has been elected to the Wisconsin, Florida, Sunshine State Conference and UCF Sports Halls of Fame. He's still a student favorite on the faculty at UCF, and is revered by us old-timers as the best damn basketball coach we've ever seen. Period.
UCF would have only one winning season in the decade after Torchy left the program.