With the 57th annual Stu Clark Tournament concluding on Thursday evening — third-place game at 6, followed by the championship around 8 — some spectators may be curious as to the origin of this Las Vegas holiday basketball tradition.
Stuart “Stu” Clark, the tournament’s namesake, was one of New Mexico Highlands University’s most accomplished coaches and mentors.
According to Maurilio Vigil’s 1992 book “Defining Our Destiny: The History of New Mexico Highlands University,” Clark brought some impressive credentials when he came to campus in the 1930s. He had been an All-American athlete at the University of Illinois and he went on to coach at the University of Wyoming.
Clark in 1932 became coach of NMHU’s football, basketball and track teams. He’d stay through the late ‘40s.
In football, Clark’s teams peaked in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, going 5-1-1 in ‘39 and upsetting a national power Regis College for one of the program’s signature victories. The 1941 team went 5-3.
In basketball, Clark led the Cowboys to a share of the New Mexico Conference championship and a berth in the national Amateur Athletic Union tournament in 1940, as well as two more conference titles in 1942-43 and 1946-47. Clark’s 1939-40 Cowboys featured Woody Hutchinson, who scored a then-school record 430 points that season. Hutchinson’s record was broken two years later by another of Clark’s players — Joe “Mayo” Armijo.
“In addition to further eleveating the level of competition and play of Highlands’ teams, Clark endeared himself to local athletes who loved and respected him as a second father, counselor and mentor,” Vigil wrote, noting that Clark’s charges included a number of players from the area who went on, in turn, to coach new generations of athletes.
Among them were Verlon Davis, Gillie Lopez, Ralph McGwire, Earl Nunn and Beltran Sedillo.
Clark was recognized in the late 1950s with the naming of the old campus gymnasium (now the NMHU student center) in his honor.
The Stu Clark Tournament was introduced in 1953.