It’s safe to say that a winning attitude is nestled comfortably in Wally Halas’ DNA.
He is descended from sports royalty. His great uncle, George Halas, was the legendary coach of the Chicago Bears, which steamrolled through the NFL in the ’30s and ’40s, earning the team the nickname “Monsters of the Midway.” Halas’ Bears once beat the Washington Redskins 73-0, the most lopsided victory in league history.
So when Halas ’73, M.P.A. ’93, returned to Clark University in 1975 as men’s basketball coach, and five years later took on the additional role of athletic director, he decided that the school where he played baseball and basketball as an undergraduate could no longer settle for good-but-not-great results on the court and field. Halas wanted .500 seasons to be anomalies, not the norm. He wanted new title banners to populate the gym rafters, and for Clark to be a factor in postseason play in every sport.
He wanted winners.
In tandem with a group of committed coaches and a crop of talented players, Halas led a resurgence from 1977 to 1989 that established Clark as a force in New England and national Division 3 athletics. The men’s and women’s basketball teams racked up New England championships, and each team twice reached the NCAA Final Four. Regional and state titles were won by soccer, softball, field hockey, volleyball and women’s and men’s tennis. All-New England and All-American honors were earned by individuals on those teams, as well as the swim, cross-country and track and field squads.
“One year, all the teams had a .630 winning percentage. That’s phenomenal,” says Elyse Darefsky ’79, a former three-sport athlete who remembers it well. “It really was a golden age for Clark sports. I’d call it a renaissance.”
Darefsky, Halas and former men’s soccer coach Massood Abolfazli ’76 have reached out to hundreds of former players and coaches to celebrate this distinctive sports era during Reunion Weekend. A reception is planned for 2:30 p.m., Saturday, May 19, on the athletic field at the Dolan complex. That evening at 7 p.m., a buffet dinner will be held in the Main Dining Hall, or, as many Clark athletes better know it, the former Alumni Gym. The night’s theme is “A Generation of Athletic Excellence.”
Halas recalls his own playing days in the early ’70s, before the Division 1, 2 and 3 designations were in place. Clark often competed against teams that gave full athletic scholarships, while Clark allotted one scholarship for the entire sports program. “We played a Division 2 schedule, but we had a Division 3 philosophy,” he says. As such, the outgunned Clark teams’ typically hovered around a .500 won-lost record or worse.
As athletic director, Halas was prepared “to show everybody in Worcester and New England that Clark could have great athletic programs. We have a national reputation for academics, and I wanted athletics to have that same reputation. The idea was that enhancing the reputation of athletics adds to the greater reputation of the school.”
“Every program at Clark was geared to earning an NCAA berth.”
Halas and his fellow coaches hit the recruiting trail, taking a more aggressive, and calculated, approach to bringing talented athletes to campus. Abolfazli, for instance, researched the areas of the country that sent a significant number of students to Clark, and began introducing himself to the soccer coaches and athletic directors in those communities. Nassau County on Long Island proved to be particularly fertile ground.
“I might not get the top two or three players from a particular high school on Long Island, but maybe I could get players three, four and five,” he says. “I wasn’t necessarily getting the superstars, but I was getting players that I could ‘coach up’; the pieces starting coming together.”
Once Clark declared itself a Division 3 school, it could no longer offer scholarships. But that didn’t deter the coaches from going after top players who were also being eyed by Ivy League and Division 2 schools.
Says Halas: “We simply outworked other schools. If they recruited twenty-five players, we recruited fifty. We were out there in the right spots, getting good kids to come to Clark.” He notes that Clark was able to point to the construction of the Kneller Athletic Center as testimony to the school’s commitment to sports, and he says that Title IX gave the women’s program “added momentum.”
The men’s and women’s basketball teams enjoyed remarkable success during this time. The teams were consistently ranked among the top five in the country in Division 3, and were wrecking crews against New England competition. Halas says the hard-court successes gave Clark’s coaches the leverage to recruit strong athletes in other sports.
“There was a sense of pride and success,” he recalls. “We were striving to be the best teams in the country.”
The program also expanded during this time, adding varsity teams in women’s volleyball, field hockey, softball and soccer, men’s lacrosse and men’s and women’s swimming.
Abolfazli, who in addition to his coaching duties worked as Clark’s first full-time sports information director, recalls that when he played soccer for Clark (earning All-America honors as a senior) he had four coaches in four years. “Each year it was the same story: ‘We can’t compete. We don’t have the facilities. We have a poor schedule.’ When the coaching position became available, it was time for me to man up or shut up.”
The Halas era, he says, brought a change in culture marked by increased stability in the coaching ranks and a commitment to reenergizing the Clark athletic legacy. He’s quick to point out, however, that the University can boast of other eras of high athletic achievement in its 125-year history. “It’s a cyclical thing,” he says. “While it’s nice that we’re commemorating a decade of sustained success, we can’t forget other periods of time when Clark sports did very well, either individually or collectively.”
Darefsky, who played basketball, softball and volleyball at Clark and later coached the volleyball team, is no stranger to organizing a memorable sports event at Reunion. She spearheaded efforts to recognize Clark’s first women athletes and install a plaque honoring Hazel Hughes, the former dean of women and the first women’s basketball coach.
“The big difference is that the women of the ’40s and ’50s were kind of a lost generation as far as being recognized as athletes,” she says. “This group [from the ’80s] still has its names on the plaques and banners on the walls. The event will be more of a party-type atmosphere than a nod to history.”
Halas left Clark in 1987 to coach men’s basketball at Columbia University. Later, he served for 15 years as the commissioner of the Scholar-Athlete Games for the Institute for International Sport based in Rhode Island. Today, he is associate vice president for leadership gifts at St. John’s University in New York.
He looks forward to catching up with former players and coaches on Reunion Weekend, and recalling a magical decade-plus that still resonates.
“We won a lot of games and were dedicated to what we were doing,” Halas says. “It was a fantastic time to be at Clark.”