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SOFTBALL / COLLEGE WORLD SERIES : Women of CSUN Stand by Their Man : Torgeson's Hardball Style Has Built Matadors Into a Softball Powerhouse

May 26, 1994|MIKE HISERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — When softball Coach Gary Torgeson was shaken by the initial bone-jarring jolts of January's earthquake, his first thoughts were not of his personal safety.

"Jiminy Christmas," he recalls thinking. "What's this going to do to our season?"

There are people who say Torgeson is obsessed with winning.

He wholeheartedly agrees. He was a loser once and couldn't handle it.

Long before he took over the Cal State Northridge softball team and became the winningest coach in school history, Torgeson guided the Matador football program.

His teams had a record of 8-24-1 in three seasons. Then he was fired.

In the tumultuous years that followed, Torgeson alternated between attempting to eat and drink himself to death. Neither habit quelled his bitter disappointment.

Salvation arrived 13 years ago--a second opportunity as a head coach.

The sport was softball, and under Torgeson, football and softball became intertwined.

"My style hasn't changed, that's for sure," says Torgeson, who takes a career record of 633-214-8 into tonight's game against Missouri, Northridge's first-round opponent in the College Softball World Series in Oklahoma City. "In football, I wanted my offensive linemen to be gnarly, guys who liked to rip people around, guys who had to be bailed out of jail occasionally. I look for the same type of fire in a softball player."

Torgeson recognizes the flames of competitiveness because they burn within him, occasionally singeing those closest to him.

Only recently has he reconciled with Debbie, his wife of 30 years, after a separation of more than four years.

Torgeson, 51, cites numerous reasons for their breakup, but his inability to handle failure as a football coach was foremost among them.

"I was a jerk for a while," he says. "I was bitter for a lot of years, really bitter."

Even so, he stayed at Northridge, remaining a part of the football coaching staff for six years after he was replaced as head coach.

"My loyalty always has been to the university," he says.

Indeed, Torgeson's roots are in Northridge. The school was built on land he romped through as a child. It was covered with orange and walnut groves then.

Torgeson graduated from what was then San Fernando Valley State in 1965. He was the Matadors' first four-year football letterman and, by age 31, was the school's fourth head football coach.

Being true to his school hasn't always been easy. When Jack Elway left to become San Jose State's head coach in 1979, Torgeson inquired about reclaiming the top job. Don't bother applying, he was told.

Three years after that, school officials approached him about softball, a fledgling program that just completed its third season. Go figure. Torgeson's only background in the sport came as a youth league coach.

He accepted the offer and in 1982 immersed himself in the challenge.

Reseda High football Coach Joel Schaeffer, who played on the offensive line next to Torgeson at Cleveland High and Northridge, says coaching softball provided his friend "with something to drown himself in."

Torgeson already tried to do the same with beer and junk food. All he did was gain weight, ballooning from 180 pounds to more than 240. Building a softball program was a more constructive release.

"I don't think anybody realized how tough it was for him," Debbie Torgeson says. "Gary had a vision. With all his might and strength, he believed he was the answer to putting Cal State Northridge football over the top."

Right school, wrong sport. Torgeson accepts that now.

"We were up against a lot more than we could handle," Torgeson says of his football days. "As I look back, I wasn't ready. I was a bull in a china shop. Arrrgh! Willing to attack anything. At that point I still believed that if you worked hard, you could make anything happen."

Sitting amid the clutter of his second-floor office in the Northridge gymnasium, Torgeson is wearing black sweat pants, a red Cal State Northridge polo shirt and a black and red "Matadors" cap. Torgeson's wardrobe is almost entirely red, white and black, in keeping with the school's colors.

In fact, Torgeson's use of black uniforms prompted the school to add black as an official color.

Dozens of photos, collages and inspirational messages cover the walls and bookshelves of his office. Conspicuous among them is a handwritten directive in bold black and red letters which reads, "There's no crying in softball!!"

Not at Northridge. Cursing and yelling perhaps, but not crying.

Torgeson coaches college softball's version of the Gashouse Gang. His players are outspoken, demonstrative, sometimes even crude. Extremely talented, too.

Several of the team's top players, including All-American outfielder Beth Calcante and outfielder Jen Fleming, are still around despite quitting or being kicked off the team more than once.

Torgeson recalls have telephone conversations with Calcante that left his ears ringing.

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