Earlier this month, the Oakland community lost a dedicated member and Contra Costa College mourned the death of one of its legends.
Phil Clifton, former track coach and chairman of the physical education and health services division, died on Nov. 1 of a long-time illness. He will be remembered at CCC as a steadfast coach and friend to Comet sports programs, having contributed 25 years to the college from 1969 to 1994.
Born Aug. 3, 1939, Clifton was raised locally, attending Portola Junior High School in El Cerrito with CCC physical education professor Tom Kinnard.
"I met Phil in seventh grade, and my first impression was that he was a great athlete and a good guy," Kinnard said.
Clifton went on to graduate from El Cerrito High School with Kinnard in 1957, leaving his own athletic mark on the school.
"Phil and I were on the football team together during the fall, but during the spring his thing was track," Kinnard remembered. "He was a good hurdler, and even competed in state competitions."
In 1969, Clifton joined CCC's faculty as a part-time PE instructor before finding his niche as track and field coach.
"He was a good coach," Kinnard said. "The kids liked him and he understood track. He was just what a coach has to be to be good."
PE professor and Pool manager Jim Ulversoy, who took one of Clifton's classes while he was a student at CCC, agreed. "Phil was able to take kids that didn't get the right coaching in high school and make them better athletes," he said. "That's really the mark of a good coach."
Ulversoy described Clifton's track program as solid, strong and with runners and hurdlers participating and placing in state competitions nearly every year.
"Phil was able to work with the track guys, as he was a track guy himself, and he had knowledge of track as well as the ability to psychologically motivate kids to train," Ulversoy said. "He got the best out of his team and created a good track program that he was able to maintain for many years."
Kinnard also spoke highly of the track program under Clifton. "Track is a difficult sport to be good at and win awards in, but his team was always in the running for the championship," he said. "Phil was a good teacher, a good coach and a good friend."
Even though his time as track coach is inarguably his greatest contribution to CCC, Clifton's reported good nature spread beyond the physical education department, according to Senior Dean of Research and Planning Tim Clow.
"Occasionally, Phil would wander up to my office and talk to students about career choices," Dr. Clow said. "I knew him for 24 years and always thought he was a nice guy."
Clow recalled with a laugh that Clifton's nickname was "Shaka," after his love for funk musician Chaka Khan. He fashioned little "Shaka" dolls out of wood for his colleagues and even had the moniker as his license plate number.
Clow commended Clifton's work while he held the position of division chairman of the PE and health services department.
"He was in charge of (renovating) the football field that had fallen into disarray. It was a real mess, and he was really the first one to start the construction 20 years ago by cleaning up the track and turning it into a classy stage for our athletic program," Clow said.
After he retired, Clifton became immersed in the large Baptist church in Oakland called Allen Temple, Clow said. "(Allen Temple) is very vocal and progressive in its approach, and Phil was very involved in volunteer work with them," he said.
Clow reminisced wistfully about his friend Clifton's raspy-voiced jokes and laughter, wishing he "could just hear it one more time."
"Around the time I met (Clifton), I had fixed up a large cabin in Tahoe that my family would spend Thanksgiving in every year," Clow said. As the larger part of his family was elderly and bothered by the high altitudes, only Clow's immediate relatives would make the trek to the large cabin.
"I began to invite Phil and his family along," Clow said. Clifton would even make a phone call back to San Francisco to wish the more reluctant members of Clow's family a happy holiday.
Contact Cassidy Gooding at email@example.com.
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