Little did Rich Clark know when he decided in December 2019 to stay one more full year as a teacher and three-season coach at Scarsdale High School it would be by far the most unique and challenging of his career as the initial epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic would soon hit close to home in March 2020, shutting down schools and throwing education and athletics into disarray. Clark braved the new world and adapted for the good of his students and athletes. Even on his official retirement date this week — June 30, 2021 — Clark was seen coaching one final time at the track as recent graduate Jake Coleman was making his final preparations to race the 5K at nationals.
In the classroom — and outside of the classroom whenever he got the chance — and on the cross-country trails and at the track, Clark was ever-present, always giving his full attention and effort for his entire career at JFK (1972-1981), Croton (1981) and Scarsdale (1982-2021).
With the exception of a season or two off, Clark has been a mainstay in Scarsdale’s athletic department perhaps longer than anyone in the history of the high school — 39 years — and with rosters averaging well over 100 student-athletes per season, it’s hard to believe anyone has impacted more kids in Scarsdale.
“Mr. Clark has been a great teacher, mentor, coach and friend,” Coleman said. “He always wanted the best for his runners and students. I know for a fact I would not be the runner or person I am today without him. He has changed my life so much these last four years and it is sad to see him retire, but I’m glad he stuck with me until the end.
“Of course I will still keep in touch with him, and I know that he made the distance team the greatest it could be. I don’t know what the team will look like next year without him. It certainly will not be the same, but I hope they will continue to pass on the things he taught. He was the greatest coach I could have asked for and I had a lot of fun running for him these past four years.”
Though Clark still loves teaching and coaching, he said that at age 73 he’s finally ready to retire. “I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done three seasons and rigorous academic schedule,” Clark said. “I’ve been happy with it, but it’s just I’m tired.”
He always knew he wanted to make a “clean cut” and retire from both teaching and coaching at the same time. He gets up at 4 a.m. each day. “I like to get up and read and just relax and listen to birds and whatever, but I couldn’t imagine just getting up and waiting till 3 o’clock to come in for practice,” he said.
He can now do that from the new house he bought near Lake Placid. “It’s right in the heart of the high peaks,” he said. “My views are amazing from my back porch. I want to be able to hike, snowshoe and cross-country ski.”
Many coaches and teachers have a hard time deciding when to retire because there’s always that next group of athletes or students that they want to be there for.
“I told Jake and Alexandre [Friedman] last year that I’ve got this one more year,” Clark said. “They said, ‘You always say that,’ and I said, ‘I know.’ Everybody told me I would know and this time I knew.”
Recent graduate Alexandre Friedman is also grateful Clark saw him through to graduation.
“My favorite part of Coach Clark was that he cared about everyone on the team regardless of how fast they were, and he wanted to make everyone the best runner they can be,” Friedman said. “When I was a freshman, he treated me with as much respect as he did with the older kids, and he would never push me aside if I had a question.
“Another thing is he wanted us to train as hard as we could, but he would never work any of us too hard to risk an injury. He knew what it took to become good in the sport, and he provided the team with a lot of knowledge and coaching experience. It’s hard to imagine the Scarsdale track and cross-country teams without him.”
With the spring of 2020 being canceled, the fall of 2020 being about a half a cross-country season and the winter of 2021 all but canceled as there were no indoor meets and the outdoor meets were snowed out, to end with the spring of 2021 being as close to a normal season as possible with the exception of not having states was a positive way for Clark to close out his career. But he knows that kids are still struggling with the effects of the pandemic.
“It has been brutal, but we’re all in the boat,” Clark said. “The kids I feel bad for. A lot of depression. A lot of kids I know tell me that the kids in college have been very depressed living at home and doing college work without going out.”
And just like he was there coaching Coleman, he traveled to Oregon this weekend to watch him compete at nationals. It’s his last hurrah and he couldn’t imagine a better way to bid farewell.
“I couldn’t coach without teaching or teach without coaching,” Clark said. “I think they complement each other. I think the kids see me in a different light than they do in the classroom, or they see me in the classroom in a different light than they see me outside. I think they would say that I’ve always been a professional. I think they would say that I was always prepared and then I was able to disseminate the information I have to them whether it be science, environmental science, biology, or track. I couldn’t do one without the other. I think they just dovetail so well together.”
Clark said he was up against “well over 100 applicants” for the Scarsdale High School science job and didn’t think he had a chance, but was relieved when then-Superintendent Tom Sobol offered him the job. He finished coaching Croton the rest of the school year and then began to make his mark at his new school as an assistant coach to George Blessing.
For several years he’s taught accelerated biology to freshmen and environmental science to seniors, though he had also taught many other courses in previous years.
If there was one regret Clark had in his career it’s not pushing for sustainable living at the school and within the community. “We who live in Westchester, in Scarsdale specifically, we are not living sustainably,” he said. “We think we are. When the kids graduate they just don’t understand the lifestyle we live is just not sustainable on a world stage. We’re doing that a little bit in environmental, but it’s too little too late. I wish we were a green school with a sustainability background and curriculum K through 12. It has to be that way and in all subjects. It can be because there are schools out there, but that’s the only regret I have.”
Outside of the classroom and off the trails and track, Clark has mentored four Eagle Scouts for their final projects, including forging outdoor classroom paths near the public library and the A-School. The two most recent are the fitness stations at the high school installed by the Bandsma brothers, Ward and Simon.
“I’ve gotten kids outside,” Clark said. “We went to the Adirondacks with our environmental science class two nights, three days, never done before and now we’ve been doing it to the Taconic Outdoor Education Center. We’ve done water quality studies, too.”
Ann Marie Nee, a 1994 SHS graduate, was a member of the track team for six seasons under Clark, started teaching in the district in 2003, coached 14 seasons of track under Clark from 2004 to 2012 and runs The Scarsdale Teachers Institute, for which Clark has taught and arranged many popular classes. Even though she didn’t have him as a teacher, Nee “really admired” Clark as a high schooler.
“He makes everyone feel welcome on the team whether you are there to get in shape or whether you are there to win states,” she said. “He made kids realize the person you’re really competing against is yourself. He put a lot of emphasis on getting a personal best. No matter what, he was there for you.
“The track team was a home for everybody and for boys and girls. Even kids who had special needs came on the team and found friends there. Kids who I saw in 2004 are still running the roads of Scarsdale. He built a great community of track folks and a lot of them are still going.”
She remembers in the days before internet sites that housed results Clark keeping meticulous spreadsheets of performances and understanding every single event when coaches were more generalized than they are today in the distance, sprints, hurdles, jumps and throws.
“He made it his business to understand every event in the track and field lineup and could give good advice in any of them,” she said. “His strength was being out there on the track with his watch knowing what to say to get you to do your best every time.”
Nee appreciated back then about Clark what she appreciates about him decades later, which is his ability to create a bridge between the classroom and athletics. He could break down the science of different types of exercises or the chemistry of the body, the importance of rest, stretching and nutrition.
“He was a role model for showing you there are so many different ways of looking at something and what’s in the classroom doesn’t just stay in the classroom,” Nee said. “As a teacher he was famous for breaking out of the four walls of his room. It wasn’t just to get the workout in, but it was to appreciate the living environment around us.”
Trails and track
Athletic director Ray Pappalardi said he isn’t sure if Clark’s successor is currently on staff or will be a new person coming on and he doesn’t know if it will be one person overseeing all three seasons the way Clark had for decades. “Right now we’re going to take one season at a time,” Pappalardi said.
Pappalardi said Clark’s impact goes well beyond the high school years.
“I think his greatest legacy is sharing the value of lifelong activity for running in particular,” Pappalardi said. “In all of the decisions he’s made and the way he’s run his teams he’s tried to model that for the kids and his program allows all levels to be able to participate. He really gets it. Kids, even if they may never be fast enough to earn points for a team or qualify for a big meet, they can still develop this lifelong love of running that will keep them healthy through that lifestyle and improve their overall well-being. That’s been the incredible part about Rich, while at the same time having a competitive team.”
For the 2019-20 school year, Clark was named the National Federation of High Schools Coaches Coach of the Year for boys cross-country not only for New York State, but of a larger area of states that includes New York, New Jersey, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont. “I think those two awards are a tribute to that,” Pappalardi said, while Clark said he was “flabbergasted” at the honor.
While Clark has been known more as a distance coach in recent years, that’s because he’s had fuller, more specialized coaching staffs in the winter and spring. When he was at JFK and when he started coaching at Scarsdale he became knowledgeable in all of the events, though at times if he needed to bring in an expert he would. One time in particular for 1990 grad Inga DeNunzio, he hired a throwing coach to work with her and she became a four-time New York State champion in the shot put.
“Inga is arguably one of our best athletes,” he said. “You have to be resilient yourself as a coach, otherwise you become one-dimensional. I didn’t want to be and I don’t think I have been. I can do pretty much all the events and I will help out with the high jump and hurdlers and things like that. It’s been fun.”
That said, having a proper coaching staff is ideal and has been key to the program’s success over the years, as has the longtime work Clark has done with Blessing back when he first started and more recently Doug Rose, Chris Mullen and Tom List, in addition to DeNunzio.
Clark was not a runner growing up. He played tennis in high school — “not very well” — and didn’t discover running until later on. When he was pre-med in college everyone in his study groups smoked, so he started, too. He was drafted into the U.S. Army after college and he kept up his unhealthy habit since cigarettes were 10 cents a pack “or something ridiculous,” he said.
When he got out of the Army he realized he could no longer get up and down the court playing basketball, so he finally quit cold turkey and soon discovered that he had a knack for distance running.
He’s run five marathons, over 100 road races 5K and longer, and excelled in a 10-mile road race in 52 minutes, 45 seconds and a mile in 4:45. The mile time came in 1980.
“I was shocked,” he said. “I was 33 and I had smoked all that time. I said, ‘What an idiot, why didn’t I run track and cross-country in high school? I love the distance and I could do it. It just mentally made me tougher so that’s why I like it. I love distance runners. They have the mental attitude that I have.”
What makes Clark extremely proud is to hear from alumni who are not only still running, but their children as well. “I taught them to run for life and it makes me happy,” he said. “That’s amazing.”
Many alumni have recently reached out to thank him, share their post-Scarsdale stories and wish Clark well. “It just makes you feel good,” Clark said. “It’s everybody. It’s not necessarily the best. We have nice kids here in Scarsdale. They’re very bright, they’re aware, they keep in touch and they’re kind to an old man. It makes you feel good.”
With great fear of leaving someone out or forgetting some of the many great experiences, Clark did put together a list of highlights of his tenure at Scarsdale after coaching perennial championship teams at JFK:
His first experience when he was assistant was with “The Redhead,” Mark Sullivan, who was a great 400-/800-meter runner who went to the Golden West in California in the 800.
David Ginsberg won Section 1 titles in the 3,200- and 1,600-meter races and went to states in Baldwinsville in the 1,600 along with the 4x800-meter relay team that finished with a new school record.
DeNunzio was a four-time state champion in the shot put and traveled to nationals in San Jose, California.
Tommy Marx went to states in the 3,200-meter in Kingston and, in an “absolute Monsoon rain storm,” went from 15th with four laps to go to finish with an amazing kick to finish sixth overall.
Yukiko Watanabe won Loucks Games in the high jump and went on to states.
Tom Vogel made states in cross-country in 2000, the first runner in several years to get to states.
Jessica Retelny took fourth in the 100-meter dash at states in 2004.
Jeremy Whyte, whom Clark called “one of my hardest workers,” went to states in the triple jump in 2006.
Julian Sheinbaum made seven state meets and excelled in cross-country and track (3,200/1,600/1,000/800) with records in the 3,200 and 1,600/mile and finished third in cross-country at Norwood. He also led the 4x800-meter relay to the state meet in 2008 and the distance medley relay to third place at indoor nationals in 2008.
Sam Kohn, Ilkyu Lee and Miles Kirwin led the boys to a “totally unexpected” repeat of the Westchester County Championship after the graduation of Sheinbaum, Jacob Wexler and David Carlin.
Greg Crowley was an outstanding steeplechase runner who was strong at states and nationals, and a multistate meet qualifier.
Sisters Brooke, Kendall and now Avery Bensche have been dominating and owning the girls high jump for several years now.
Nico Bernard, Eric Jacobson, D.J. Matusz, Ward Bandsma and Daniel Asher all contributing to the “fantastic year” in 2019 by winning states in the 4x800-meter in school record time.
2020 grad Daniel Asher with a great, very gutsy 12th place performance at the state cross-country meet in the snow in Plattsburgh — “totally unexpected” — with the second best Section 1 time.
Additionally, Clark developed the cross-country course at Westchester Community College in 1998, and hosted the state championships there the next year, and in the fall of 2017 he established the Scarsdale Invitational at Croton Point Park.
“Coach Clark has made a lasting impression on the team,” rising senior Lizzie Hurshman said. “He taught us a lot about how important self-discipline and accountability are and that is something that I can contribute to my success as a runner and will always carry with me as I go throughout life. He always pushed us to be the best and know how capable of success we are.”
Measuring success for a track coach is different than looking at the wins and losses for a team sport coach. Clark’s legacy is strong with state and nationals qualifiers and championships, but it’s the thousands who came through his no-cut program at all different levels of ability and stuck with it in high school and beyond who are the true reward.
Nee would like to see Clark’s name etched onto the plaque by the new gym with the other “Coaches of Distinction” that were honored — Art Resnick, Marty Shaw, Jack Kaminer and Ron Bouchier — when the gym opened in 2004.
“I can’t think of a more deserving coach with that much of an impact on that many kids,” Nee said.