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

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

"She can get as hot as I am," he says somewhat admiringly. "It can get ugly. We get on the phone and I swear we don't need the receiver. She's loud and I'm loud and nobody can hear anybody."

Yet, somehow, they all have ended up on the same wavelength.

"I'm glad I didn't go anywhere else," Calcante says. "Other teams have problems, but they're not allowed to talk about them and they end up taking it out on the field.

"Sometimes we need to be yelled at. Sometimes we need to yell back."

Torgeson admits that such exchanges would not have been tolerated during the years he was playing and coaching football.

"It used to be my way or the highway," he says. "There was no water. We were passing out on the field. You did exactly what the coach said or you were out of there.

"That's not the way it is today. Kids respect discipline, but they also expect to be respected as a person."

But Torgeson is not afraid to goad his players to improve performance. During a tournament game last season, Torgeson, from the third base coaching box, flashed a sign to a slumping Fleming. It was a choke sign--both hands wrapped around his throat. "I was all over her," he said.

Fleming, though seething, came through with a hit and Northridge won the game.

"I don't treat them like men," Torgeson says. "I don't treat them like women. I treat them like athletes. People talk about gender equity, but some of these guys never have been allowed to be who they really are."

Guys? "Yeah," Torgeson says. "To me that's a non-gender term."

Last season, before playing arch-rival Fresno State in an NCAA regional, the Matadors were treated to special batting practice.

Pictures of Fresno State players were cut out and glued to a pinata. Northridge players were given turns with a bat.

Need it be mentioned that Torgeson looks to recruit a special breed? As much for talent, prospects are graded on attitude. The badder the better, it seems.

"I look for scrappers," Torgeson says. "How do they play when they're behind? Do they fold up their tent, or do they get tougher? How are they off the field? Do they spit? Do they hate to lose?"

The prototype: Barbara Jordan, a three-time Division II All-American who played for the Matadors from 1984-87.

"She was a pistol," Torgeson says. "She loved to play and she hated to lose. She had something to prove--to everybody. She was spunky. She had a little reputation as being a dirty player, but you always wanted Barbara on your team.

"She taught me a lot. Don't put the fire out. Keep it burning, just keep it in its place."

Torgeson as a football player was much the same way.

"He was one of those guys who always played better than his ability level," Schaeffer says.

As a coach, Torgeson has benefited from the same work ethic that allowed him to surpass expectations as a player.

"He has a completely thorough approach," says Janet Sherman, Northridge's top assistant and a former UCLA catcher. "He looks at every angle."

Torgeson's attention to detail helped Northridge rebound from a 2-0 loss against Fullerton last Sunday to defeat the Titans, 4-0, in the regional final at Northridge.

Between games, Torgeson instructed Northridge hitters to review tape of themselves at the plate, paying special attention to the way they were being jammed.

In the second game, they backed off the plate and started stinging the ball.

Whatever works. But success has not come without a price.

Since his 50th birthday, Torgeson has begun to reflect on his life and career.

"I've probably spent too much of my life here at school," he says. "My only regret is that I wasn't able to put both levels together, the competitiveness and my personal life."

Debbie Torgeson heard her husband admit as much last week as he was advising a friend during a postgame celebration at a Northridge pizza parlor.

"I don't think he even knows I heard it," she says. "But even though it wasn't said to me, it was very healing. Unfortunately, there is something about coaching that is all-consuming. Sometimes it eats you up and spits you out."

And sometimes a person can pick himself up and find his way to the top. Which is where Torgeson sat last Sunday, on the shoulders of a boisterous group of Matador fans after Northridge's regional victory.

"That probably was the most exciting time of my life here at Northridge," Torgeson says. "This has been so gratifying to me, to put a team on the field and win. We've made an impact. Finally I feel like maybe I have left a notch here for the university."

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