As track coach at La Salle, he left rich legacy

Posted: July 06, 2011

The phone would ring and before Penn coach Charlie Powell could even say, "Penn track and field," this voice would ring out, "Yo, Powell. Where's my check?"

Powell always recognized that voice, this guy saying that if he didn't get travel expenses this year, he was not bringing his team to the Penn Relays. "We're going to Drake!"

Then, the Penn coach would hear a familiar laugh, "this great high-pitched impish giggle." And the guy would hang up.

For 17 seasons, Charles Torpey was La Salle's track and field and cross-country coach. Torp, as he was known to his many friends, always had a gag or a crank call to make. For Penn's coach, the joke was that La Salle wouldn't travel to West Philly if the Explorers didn't get expenses.

"He was a real character," Powell said Tuesday. "An artist needs a canvas. An actor needs a stage. A teacher needs a classroom. I think Torp needed track and field to pull out the best traits that were in him. He's a real people person. Being a mentor and being a teacher of life is really what turned him on. It sounds trite, almost simplistic. But he really did love being a mentor."

Torpey was doing exactly that when he died of a heart attack Friday at age 58. One of his great runners, La Salle graduate Sean Quigley, had just finished a workout Friday at Valley Green and was off on a cool-down run. Torpey had been there with a stop watch when he collapsed.

His resumé tells you Torpey, married with three children, may have been La Salle's most successful coach over those 17 years. Between his men's and women's teams, Torpey won 13 Atlantic Ten cross-country championships. Between the fall or spring, men's or women's, he was A-10 coach of the year 16 times. He previously had a successful run coaching the University of Maryland.

He made just as lasting an impact with the runners who never medaled.

"He would coach anybody," said one of his current Explorers, Vince Perozze. "He would give my dad workouts."

There is a forum thread on Letsrun.com devoted to Torpey. On it, one former Explorers runner wrote, "Torp is a legend in the minds of any who met, associated or were coached by him. Turned decent high school runners into top-notch collegiates. Had a fire in him that blazed. A total mentor and remarkable man. . . . I say this fondly, that sometimes talking with Charles was an exercise in patience, but also a totally entertaining, inspiring experience. So headstrong. Knew running, but more, Torp knew how to fight, to overcome those barriers within ourselves to reach our potential. His love for track and field and guiding runners to pull the best they had out of themselves was truly a gift. My heart goes out to his family and those kids he adored."

Rachel Knox, a 2008 graduate, was known as Rachel Papin at La Salle, where she won three straight Atlantic 10 cross-country championships before she married another Explorers runner, Steve Knox. She said Torp could be intimidating to freshmen, but she would tell them they had to get over that and make a point of going to talk to Torp once a week, that they would be so much better for it and become more confident people. She did.

She said Torp's advice even helped her and Knox get back together after they'd broken up while at La Salle and before they were married. They now have two daughters, the youngest five weeks old.

On Sunday, about 100 Explorers from all the years showed up for an impromptu run at Valley Green, where the team had gathered every Friday during cross-country season. It also happened to be about a two-minute walk, or a one-minute run, from where Torpey suffered his heart attack. Some people walked, some ran 15 minutes, a few considerably more.

"Everybody did whatever they could," Knox said. "There weren't too many words spoken."

Powell said he'd just been out at the U.S. Track and Field Championships with Torpey. After they watched a couple of races together, Torpey asked Powell, a year older, how long he planned to keep coaching.

"Jeez, I don't know, probably all my life," Powell remembered telling him. "He smiled, gave that goofy giggle. He said, 'Me, too.' He just walked away."


Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.

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