“I like restoring a piece and watching it come back to life,’’ the Walworth resident once told me. “It’s like preserving history.”
As we learned from Stark’s glory days as a football player and coach, desks, cabinets and chairs were not the only things he refurbished. Decades before quarterback Eric Dungey and coach Dino Babers restored the luster and sheen to Syracuse University football, Stark and Ben Schwartzwalder performed a similar reclamation in Orange Nation. Like Dungey and Babers, they brought a program back to life.
Schwartzwalder showed up on campus in 1949 after winning a national small college championship at Muhlenberg (Pa.) College. SU alumni and benefactors were somewhat underwhelmed by the hire, but the man who often referred to himself as Ol’ Ben didn’t seem bothered that he didn’t receive the “Orange-carpet treatment.” Schwartzwalder was just six years removed from parachuting behind enemy lines during the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The slings and arrows of skeptics were sloughed off as minor annoyances by the man who had dodged bullets, grenades and death during World War II. Schwartzwalder drolly addressed his critics by noting that “the alumni wanted a big-name coach and they wound up with a long-name coach.”
It would take talent to revive a Syracuse program that had gone through three head coaches in five years and had won a total of nine games the previous four seasons. Early on, Schwartzwalder was able to unearth several diamonds-in-the-rough, including center Jim Ringo, who would go on to earn All-American honors, several NFL championship rings with Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, and a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But his most vital recruit wound up being Stark, a sensational three-sport athlete, who once scored 78 points in a basketball game for Syracuse’s Vocational High School. The son of Greek immigrants was so talented at hoops that the Syracuse Nats of the National Basketball Association wanted to sign him once he graduated from high school.
But football was Stark’s first love, and after a year honing his skills at Staunton (Va.) Military Academy, he accepted Schwartzwalder’s offer to return home to play collegiately.
“I had gotten to like Ben when he was recruiting me,’’ the affable 88-year-old told me last week. “And family was important to me, so I figured it would be great to be able to play in front of them.’’
Before the start of his sophomore season (freshman weren’t eligible to play varsity back then), Stark beat out veteran Avatus Stone for the starting quarterback job. And he wasted little time justifying Schwartzwalder’s faith in him as the Orangemen raced to a four-touchdown lead in the 1951 opener against then-Eastern college football power Holy Cross. But late in the third quarter, as SU was ready to add to its lead, Stark wound up breaking his left leg. His season was over. Though devastated, he committed himself to rehabilitating his leg once the cast was removed, and looked stronger than ever at the start of the 1952 season.
“The guys were very optimistic about our chances that year,’’ Stark said. “We thought we had a very good team. We thought it might be a special season.”
It was, as SU defeated Holy Cross and Penn State on the way to a 7-2 record and a No. 14 ranking in the final Associated Press poll. The Orangemen’s only losses were to a Bolling Air Force Base team comprised primarily of semi-pro players, and that season’s national champion, Michigan State. Years earlier, Syracuse had turned down two invitations to the Rose Bowl, but in 1952, Chancellor William Tolley was more than happy to see the football team accept an invitation to play Alabama in the Orange Bowl in Miami.
“We were really excited about that,’’ Stark said. “It was a dream come true.”
A dream that would turn into a nightmare. Schwartzwalder had always been a taskmaster, but he took it to another level in preparation for the first bowl game in Syracuse history. The Orangemen headed south two weeks ahead of time, and Ol’ Ben put his players through hard-hitting, twice-a-day practices in the sweltering heat. SU was competitive early on, as Stark tossed a touchdown pass to cut the deficit to 7-6. But the Orangemen ran out of gas in the second half, as Alabama scored 40 points on its way to a 61-6 rout.
“When we came out in the second half, it was like when you visit the optometrist and they put drops in your eyes,’’ Stark said. “We were blinded, overwhelmed. We had nothing left.”
Despite the embarrassing loss to a Bama team so deep that future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Bart Starr couldn’t crack the starting lineup, the foundation had been laid by Stark, whom Schwartzwalder called the best quarterback he ever coached. Although Stark would be drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second round of the 1954 NFL draft, his playing days were nearing an end. Instead, he would make his mark in coaching. He was an assistant on SU’s 1959 national championship team, and after stints as offensive coordinator at Rhode Island and Harvard, he became head coach at the University of Rochester. He spent 15 years there, earning national small college coach-of-the-year honors after leading the Yellowjackets to an 8-1 record in 1970.
The affable Stark still bleeds Orange, and will be watching intently when 9-3 SU meets West Virginia in the Camping World Bowl in Orlando, December 28. “I love what Dino and Dungey have done,’’ he said. “They’ve really elevated the program.”
It’s a subject with which Stark is intimately familiar.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.