By HELEN ROSS
Clarence Stasavich was a winner. Conference championships, bowl games, even an NAIA national championship were all part of his legacy at Lenoir-Rhyne College and East Carolina University.
What likely brought him the most pride, though, were the players he coached who followed him into the profession. Men like Marion Kirby, the longtime Greensboro Page coach who followed his mentor into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, and Dick Kemp, who played with Kirby on that NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) title team.
But his influence stretched beyond the football field. In fact, one of Coach Stas’ former players, Hank McCrorie, said that his coach helped give him the confidence to begin a second career as owner of a boutique wine called Burly after 40 years as a sales executive with Pfizer.
“If you ever had the experience of going into the film room with Coach Clarence Stasavich, you know what it’s like to be terrified,” he told the Lenoir-Rhyne website in 2019. “He made men out of boys.”
Stasavich was born in Illinois, but he came to Hickory, North Carolina, to play at Lenoir-Rhyne and for all intents and purposes never left the state. He was all-conference in football and basketball, while also playing two years of tennis and one season of baseball.
Stasavich graduated from Lenoir-Rhyne in 1935 and after three years at Campbell College, he returned to his alma mater as an assistant football and basketball coach and head tennis coach.
World War II soon intervened, though. Stasavich enlisted in the Navy where he became a commander on a tank ship and participated in landings in Tunisia, Sicily, Anzio and Normandy.
When he returned to Lenoir-Rhyne after the war, Stasavich took over the football program and led the Bears to nine North State Conference or Carolinas Conference titles and the 1960 NAIA crown. Both Kirby and Kemp figured prominently in that national title game in St. Petersburg, Florida as the Bears ended Humboldt State of California’s 20-game winning streak.
Late in the game with the Bears trailing 14-12, Kemp ran 25 yards to the 2-yard line, but Lenoir-Rhyne couldn’t get the ball in the end zone. So Stasavich called on Kirby, his freshman kicker who had already missed two extra points, for the potential game-winning 23-yard field goal.
Even though one of Stasavich’s assistants yelled “No,” as Kirby entered the game, he managed to make the kick and the Bears were victorious. Lenoir-Rhyne, which had been the national runner-up the previous season when Stasavich was selected NAIA Coach of the Year, finished 11-0-1.
“If I didn’t make it, I was afraid I might not have a ride on the plane home,” Kirby jokingly told Our State magazine in 2016.
After the success of his 1959 and ’60 teams, Stasavich was interviewed by Sports Illustrated. Among the topics of conversation were the offers from major colleges that he had turned down and the coach had a heartfelt response.
"I'm a schoolteacher at heart, and here I have the opportunity to teach,” he told the magazine. “What I like to do is take a kid and teach him football. It's a great joy to see a youngster develop and go on from college to become a useful citizen. At a big college I would be mostly a football administrator."
Two years later, Stasavich, who all but perfected the single wing offense, moved to East Carolina where he coached for eight seasons, posting a 50-27-1 record. Under his guidance, the Pirates went to three straight bowl games and won the Southern Conference title in 1966.
Stasavich was selected as the NCAA College Division Coach of the Year in 1964 when East Carolina finished off a 9-1 record with a win in the Tangerine Bowl. The Southern Conference would later name its football championship trophy after the highly-respected coach.
Stasavich gave up coaching after the 1969 season but continued as athletic director, a post he had assumed in 1963. During his administrative tenure, East Carolina made the transition to NCAA Division I in football.
Inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 1970, Stasavich died of a heart attack in 1975. A day later, the Pirates beat UNC for the first time – which had been one of his dreams – in a 38-17 drubbing in Chapel Hill.
A street on the Lenoir-Rhyne campus is named Stasavich Place, which seems particularly fitting for a man who always wanted to live close enough that he could walk to work.