Phil Torrens, who never ran track or cross-country as an athlete but coached both sports with great success at Denison, died Jan. 15, 2023 at age 76.
Torrens led the Big Red to multiple North Coast Athletic Conference championships in cross-country with the men’s and women’s programs. He also had the honor of seeing one of his best runners, Dee Salukombo ’12, qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics as a marathoner representing the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Coach T was more than a running coach — he was a life coach,” Salukombo said. “Since I left Denison, I’ve remained close to the family and I’ve never run a race without calling him the night before.”
Torrens, who played football in high school, didn’t take up running until after marrying his wife, Sarah, in 1969, the same year he quit smoking. He did it to lose weight, never dreaming that running would become a passion and a life calling.
The Muskingum College graduate taught history and government classes at the high-school and middle-school levels while also coaching football. Eventually, Torrens transitioned to cross-country and track and field, and in 1979 joined the Denison staff.
A lifelong farmer, Torrens enjoyed simple pleasures: working the land on the family’s 500 acres, raising cows, pigs, and “his beloved” sheep, and drinking Coors Light.
“He was very old school in that way,” said his daughter Ellen Carter ’09. “He knew what he liked, and he worked for everything he had.”
His greatest joy, however, was coaching runners. Torrens endured a series of health episodes requiring surgeries to his heart, hips, and back, but none of the setbacks prevented him from coaching at Denison until his final days.
Although he may have been “old school” in his approach to life, his athletes remember him as a progressive coach. Salukombo said Torrens valued the input of his runners, treating them as individuals. Brock Babock ’03, a member of Varsity D Association Hall of Fame, remembers Torrens as someone who understood the importance of education in the life of athletes.
“Coach really related to us,” Babcock said. “He knew that athletics was only part of the Division III experience at Denison. He would push us, but he knew that 99.9% of us were not going to compete professionally or in the Olympics. We were at Denison to get an education, and he treated us as student-athletes.”
Torrens served as the head cross-country coach until 2015, winning multiple NCAC coach-of-the-year honors, and was an assistant track coach during the same span. Over the past seven seasons, Torrens worked as an assistant in both programs.
“I did not fully realize Phil’s impact as a coach, mentor, and friend until I started working with him on a daily basis in 2011,” head track coach Mark FitzPatrick said. “I will be forever grateful for my time with Phil.”
Humility was so important to Torrens that he asked his family not to hold a public service. “He told me he never thought he did much in his life,” his wife, Sarah, recalled. “But after he died, we heard from so many people who said that he was an influence in their life.”
The family will hold a celebration of life ceremony in his honor July 15 on campus at Lamson Lodge.