Interview: Perry Clark talks local hall of fame honor, Tulane career, race relations

  • icon
  • icon
  • icon
  • icon

Monday was a tale of a lifetime for Perry Clark.

The former Tulane head basketball coach got word that he was being honored with induction into the Allstate Sugar Bowl Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame as a tribute to his great past with the Green Wave.

By the middle of the day, Clark addressed the present, announcing that he was retiring as assistant basketball coach at South Carolina after seven seasons.

By Monday night, Clark was talking about his past, the present and the future of the country on All Access on 106.1 FM NASH ICON.

“What a tremendous honor it is to go into the New Orleans Hall of Fame,” Clark said. “It’s really important to me because it’s about the whole city and I thought that in my time there at Tulane, our program, we tried to reflect the spirit, the character of the city. To be able to be recognized like that for our contribution was in that period is extremely important to me. It will always be cherished. Through it all, it was a very magical time.”

While he is from Washington D.C. and has coached at many stops, the Crescent City is special to Clark.

“New Orleans is like home to me,” Clark said. “I think it’s just a magical city. I think the people there are very, very special. I’ve always said if you love them, care about them, and have some humanity with yourself, they will embrace you, they will support you and they will care about everything that you do. It’s just a really, really special town.”

While Clark was incredibly successful, he gave much of the credit to his former boss, the president of the university in his tenure at Tulane.

“I’ve got to take my hat off to Dr. Eamon Kelly,” Clark said. “He was the reason I was hired. He might be the smartest person I’ve ever met I my life. He had a way about himself of being able to understand people and break things down. He was a tremendous influence to me when I was there at Tulane. It was his vision and he let me know from the very beginning to take your time, do it right, and do it with kids that can do well in the classroom and that can be a credit to the university. It wasn’t a gun to my head to win right away.”

While Clark had great players, including Anthony Reed, Jerald Honeycutt, Carlin Hartman, Kim Lewis, Pointer Williams, LeVeldro Simmons, David Whitmore, Rayshard Allen, Greg Gary and others, he surrounded himself with great coaches.

“Ron Everhart has gone on to a tremendous career,” Clark said. “He’s at West Virginia now. Todd Bozeman went on to be the head coach at the University of California. Jimmy Tillette, who went on to be the head coach at Samford. Billy Kennedy, everyone knows his success at Texas A&M. I was blessed to have some really, really fine coaches.”

College basketball was perhaps at its peak in the early 1990’s when Clark was building his outstanding program at Tulane.

“We had five teams from Louisiana that all went to the NIT or NCAA in one year,” Clark said. “It was really, really good. Dale Brown, you can’t talk about Louisiana basketball without tipping your hat to the man. He was the guy that made it alive, made it relevant, made it important. Tim Floyd was tremendous at UNO. He pushed us in a lot of ways because he’s such a great coach and was building a really fine program. Louisiana Tech and ULL were very good.”

Clark remembers his biggest wins at Tulane.

“The first has to be when we beat Memphis, who was ranked in the top ten our first year, when we only won four games,” Clark said. “Our win at UNO (1992) when we went over to Lakefront Arena and won by 22 points. Our first win against Louisville ever on the road. We beat Indiana in the Rainbow Classic with Bobby Knight. Our win against Illinois State that allowed us to go to the Final Four in the NIT was big as well. Beating UNO at home in overtime when David Whitmore hit the winning shot in the famous ‘time out’ game was another one.”

Clark remembers being humbled after a huge victory.

“We beat Memphis in the game I mentioned,” Clark said. “We get home, I try to turn on the lights and my lights are out. I forgot to pay my electricity bill. I turned around, I get in the car and I come back to the office and I literally sleep at my desk on the night of my biggest win and I said, ‘Clark, nobody will ever believe this.’ The first thing I did the next day was get somebody to pay my bills for me.”

It appears that the illustrious 45-year coaching career, including 42 years at the college level, may be over for Clark as he announced his retirement Monday after seven seasons at South Carolina under Frank Martin.

“I’m retiring, I’m not retired,” Clark said. “I’m still looking to do some other things. The timing was just right. There’s such a transition going on right now with the virus and everything. I just wanted to take a step back, kind of revisit and see how this thing was going to play out. It’s been a great run here. The only thing coming here that I felt like I wanted to do was get to a Final Four and we were able to do that here (2017). That was really, really exciting and coach Martin has been tremendous. I’m hopefully going to be spending some more time in New Orleans.”

In the wake of the George Floyd tragedy in Minneapolis, Clark reflected on where we are in society and where we are headed.

“I think back when Dr. (Martin Luther) King marched in the Civil Rights movement and there was tremendous change in this country, it was done because culturally, it was mixed,” Clark said. “A lot of folks were involved in trying to do the right thing. What you’re seeing now in the lot of the demonstrations, not in the violence but in the demonstrations you see it’s culturally mixed. I think when you have that environment, then it’s very difficult for racism, for abuses to flourish or to take hold.”

Clark feels the voices of the oppressed must be heard and that change must occur.

“When everybody’s standing up and saying that is wrong, this is against humanity, this is not the way it’s supposed to be and fight against it, then it is very hard to have some points of views and philosophies and take some action and I think that is what has transpired with the demonstrations over the past week. The thing that has always made this country great has been its ability to stand up when it needed to stand up for what was right and go to any length to make sure that we adhere to certain principles. I think that hopefully, this will be an awakening and a push for that.”

Clark had a bit of apprehension when he accepted the head basketball coaching position with the Green Wave.

“When I first came to Tulane, I was the first black coach at Tulane and there were folks that were skeptical,” Clark said. “They wondered whether or not I would be successful. I used to tease Dr. Kelly. I said, ‘I know you guys figured I’d be here about a year or two and you’d go out and get yourself a real coach. I just threw a monkey wrench into it. He would laugh and everything but I was embraced in New Orleans and I was embraced because I think people understood my sincerity, understood what I stood for and philosophically, we were on the same page.”

Clark knows there is still a long way to go with race relations, trust, understanding and equality.

“Philosophically, it is about justice and everybody getting an opportunity to try to better their lives and do the best they can is still extremely important,” Clark said. “I’m not Polyana with it. There are some pitfalls and there are certainly some land mines that are out there, but I think that being able to stand up and talk about those in a real debate and dialogue I think is extremely important.”
The feeling of being ostracized or discriminated against never hit Clark in his time at Tulane.

“The humanity that I felt in New Orleans was incredible,” Clark said. “Just the care that people there have for each other, especially when you struggle, when you’re down or you’ve been dealt a bad hand, I used to always tease Pat Swilling and Rickey Jackson that that’s why people love the Saints because it always seemed like they were battling back from the bottom of the deck and that’s why the city just loved them because they gave their hearts and souls all the time and I tried to take that same attitude at Tulane.”

Clark will cherish the Hall of Fame induction for himself and for a community.

“I feel like I represented the whole city,” Clark said. “That’s the way Tulane should be. That’s what it should stand for. It is a very, very special university. It has so much to offer for the fabric of what New Orleans is about.”

Perry Clark is coming home for the induction, whenever it occurs following the subsiding of the current pandemic. Here is hoping he stays for a while in a place that he fully embraces and a place that that embraces him right back.

  • < PREV Interviews: Ron Swoboda, Perry Clark, Andrew Doak on All Access
  • NEXT > Harmon earns Freshman All-American honors from Collegiate Baseball

Ken Trahan

CEO/Owner

Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Sports Media Association, National Football…

Read more >