Dec. 1, 2013
Other Pete LaFleur Profile Features For 2013-14
By Pete LaFleur (’90)
When you hear Bobby Clark’s voice from afar, you can picture his face.
And when you see his face, beyond earshot, you still can hear that voice. It’s there, bouncing around your head – like one of those super bouncy balls, except in slow motion (or like a record, just not quite on the right speed … someone out there remembers records, right?).
Whether it’s his classic Scottish accent or that impish grin, with a little twinkle in the eye, it’s all genuine. It’s Bobby Clark. They are his trademarks, and if you get them together, the voice and the grin, well that’s a bonus.
But, as so many of us know, there’s much, much more. This is no simple happy-go-lucky coach, a “great guy” (overused term, in general, by the way) who makes us all feel better. You see, when you are a coach for a program, and at a university, that believes in the value of excellence – which certainly includes winning – it’s never enough just to be a great guy.
But, let’s be honest, it’s a great starting point.
The Notre Dame men’s soccer coach, now in his (lucky?) 13th season guiding the Irish, once again has his team on the precipice – oh, so close, to college soccer’s promised land. Clark’s 2013 squad heads into Sunday night’s NCAA round-of-16 game versus Wake Forest only a couple steps away from reaching the College Cup’s final weekend, a spot in the national semifinal field.
When visiting with Bobby Clark’s past players and assistant coaches – whether they be from Dartmouth (1985-93), Stanford (1996-2000) or Notre Dame (since 2001) – so many of them clearly are living testimonials to his coaching excellence. Several of them unflinchingly dub Clark the “John Wooden of college soccer,” placing him on a relative level with the legendary UCLA basketball coach.
These people from Clark’s life, past but certainly even present, quickly will bring up the longtime coach’s stressing of the point that “coaching really is teaching.” But these same people won’t let you walk away without understanding another important follow-up point: as much as he cares about teaching, Bobby Clark also is as competitive as they come.
Clark’s “teaching style” is centered on a learning process that includes a crucial element of fun and enjoyment. He insists that everyone associated with the program treat each other, all they meet – and even the game of soccer – with constant respect.
“Remember who you are, where you are, and what you represent.” That is one of Bobby Clark’s mantras to his team. As noted by current Notre Dame assistant coach Greg Dalby, a recent All-American with the Irish, Clark “says this short, but important, statement to the players whenever they are in public. It’s a great reminder of acting and living in humility.”
To provide you with a quick introduction to some of our contributors in this Bobby Clark retrospective … Four recent Notre Dame assistant coaches – Brian Wiese (Georgetown), Bobby’s son Jamie Clark (Washington), Mike Avery (Valparaiso) and Chad Riley (Dartmouth) – now direct their own Division I men’s soccer programs, as does former Notre Dame player Nate Norman with the Western Michigan women’s soccer team. Current Castleton State (Vt.) head coach John O’Connor was on Clark’s staff at Dartmouth, while current Wesleyan coach Geoff Wheeler was an assistant under Clark at Stanford.
Wiese and his family, including older brother Andrew, have become very close to the Clark family over the years. Both Wiese brothers played for Bobby at Dartmouth and Brian later was on Clark’s staff at Stanford. Clark often refers to Brian Wiese as his “third son” – so, you get the point, they’re the tightest of friends and colleagues.
Before we head into the sectional format of this Bobby Clark profile, the current Georgetown coach Wiese provides a unique comparison for his longtime coaching mentor.
“Bobby Clark is a little bit like Mary Poppins,” claims Wiese. “He shows up at a situation that is tumultuous and messy, uses a bit of magic to tidy everything up and right the ship, and flies off to help somewhere else leaving everyone wishing he would stay.”
When Clark left Dartmouth, Wiese was a senior on that team “and everyone was heartbroken, as the the program had been flying.” At Stanford, Clark left after he had “just created a juggernaut,” adds Wiese.”He has always been more interested in building a program up than sitting at the helm of one that is in cruise control. If he had stayed at Stanford, there is no doubt he would have a handful of national championships to his name, but that has never been what Bobby is about.”
Hold your horses there, Irish fans, don’t freak out just yet. You need to read this quote from Wiese to its conclusion:
“Notre Dame is now in that position of being the best team in the country on an annual basis, and I think Bobby has a feeling of some unfinished business there. A national championship at Notre Dame is inevitable as long as Bobby is in charge. It’s not a matter of if, but when. And then it could be a matter of how many?”
A Living Legend
One good jumping off point when exploring the interesting life of Bobby Clark would have to be his status as a living legend – an element that links his past, present, and even future.
Clark’s distinguished professional career in the Scottish League spanned parts of three decades (1962-82) and saw him make more than 800 first-team appearances, 696 of which were with the Aberdeen Dons from 1965-1982. With the Dons, Clark won the 1970 Scottish Cup, the 1976 League Cup and the 1980 Premier League Championship. He also was involved in three of Scotland’s World Cup campaigns as a player in 1970, ’74 and ’78, contributing to the squad that advanced to the 1978 World Cup finals in Argentina.
For nearly 40 years, Clark held the British top-flight record for shutout streak (1,155 minutes; with Aberdeen in 1970-71), with that mark bested a few years back by Manchester United’s Edwin Van der Sar. Clark’s streak of scoreless minutes also stood as the world record for a brief time.
Clark’s strengths as a goalkeeper were his great ability at snaring crossed balls – a “mixture of jumping, timing and bravery,” notes his proud eldest son, Tommy. Clark also displayed tremendous organizational skills while directing the players in front of him.
“My dad’s great organizing abilities a `keeper were quite like coaching, really,” adds Tommy Clark. “You have the whole team in front of you and you’re giving orders, watching plays develop.”
In 2002, Clark was honored as one of the Aberdeen Dons’ top-25 players of all-time. All of the Clark children grew up with plenty of reminders that their father was a soccer icon. As a middle-schooler during the Clark family’s Dartmouth years, Jamie even started jokingly referencing his father as “Bobby Legend.” Such a moniker of course related to one of the biggest sports stars in the northeast at the time, Boston Celtics basketball player Larry Bird (Bobby and Jamie Clark both are avid basketball players/fans).
Even though he spent only one season coaching in Africa, Clark also developed a strong following among soccer fans in that area of the world.
“In Zimbabwe, my dad was given godlike status within the Christian tradition there,” explains Tommy Clark. “At one point, the Highlanders soccer board was meeting to discuss signing me and, while making reverential glances to the heavens, they mentioned that Bobby had `made the ultimate gift, sending us his son.’ “
While at both Dartmouth and at Notre Dame, Clark has been able to take one of his teams over to Scotland for a training and competition trip. Of course, the trip provided his assistant coaches and players with a front-row seat for viewing Bobby Clark’s legendary status.
Andrew Wiese was a senior during the Dartmouth soccer team’s visit to Scotland. When the the team would head into Aberdeen bedecked in team gear, the locals would proclaim with fondness: “Oh, you’re Bobby’s boys,” recalls the older Wiese brother.
“We all know he was a professional player, world-class in his day, but it sometimes gets lost what that actually means to the fans who lived those moments with him. It made me realize what it means to be successful. It’s not about hanging it around your neck and shouting it from the rooftops. It’s about doing `it’ the right way, whatever ‘it’ is.
“Do it right, and people will want to be a part of it. They’ll seek you out. And that’s what Bobby does so well to this day. You want to play well for him. You want him to be proud of your effort. He instills the inspiration to try and achieve your best, and what more could you ask for in a coach?”
The Notre Dame contingent made its trip across the pond in 2002 and members of that travel party similarly were impressed with the respect that the Scottish natives held for their native son.
“Bobby is one of Scotland’s all-time great goalkeepers, but he must have given up a ton of goals along the way – because every single cab driver in Scotland claimed to have scored a goal against him when they were boys,” jokes Avery, the former Notre Dame assistant coach now running his own program at Valparaiso.
Clark’s iconic status throughout Great Britain even had a funny anecdote from home soil, in fact right within the Notre Dame campus The worldwide-famous rock band U2 had been on campus for a week, rehearsing in anticipation of their show at the Joyce Center. As a result, the facility was on lock-down, making it tricky to gain entrance to the various team locker rooms and other such areas.
“The access issues that whole week frustrated Bobby, because he wasn’t quite sure who U2 were,” recalls Avery. “I am a big U2 fan and spent hours trying to explain to Bobby how big of a deal it was that this band was playing at Notre Dame.
“Bobby finally asked me how old Bono was, although he kept pronouncing it like Bo-Know. I told him he was in his 40s. Bobby thought for a minute, then matter of factly said “Grew up in Ireland, in his 40s … yeah, he probably knows who I am.’ “
Love of the Game
Bobby Clark was born as World War II was coming to a close, in 1945, the second son and final child of Tom and Marion (Maesy) Clark. Tom Clark had played a bit of semi-pro futbol, well before Bobby came along, but he spent most of his life as a bottling line manager for Joseph Dunn Bottlers Limited, which most notably packaged Guinness and Bass beers. Bobby’s brother George, four years his elder, had dabbled in futbol like any Glasgow kid would have at that time – but the younger Clark boy ended up finding his life calling on the pitch.
As “just a lad,” Clark played the sport wherever he could find it – formally at East Bank Primary School (grades 1-7) but also at various playgrounds and “stair lots,” akin to courtyards or alleyways. Raised in the southwest Scotland bustling area of Glasgow, Clark went on to attend Glasgow High School, which sponsored a sport that involved playing with a larger ball … but it was not futbol (soccer).
“Glasgow High School was an academic school, which meant they played rugby but not soccer,” explains Clark. “So I would play rugby at my high school in the morning but in the afternoon I played my soccer with the Sandy Hills YMCA team.”
By our count, per Clark’s telling, these childhood soccer games were played on at least four different surfaces – grass (extremely rare in Glasgow), dirt, concrete and, most interestingly, an entire field of compressed ash.
“Full grass fields would not last long in Glasgow. With overuse, they’d turn to mud,” says Clark. “We had a heavy steel industry and they would grind up the ash to make these ash parks where we would play a lot of our soccer.
“These ash fields had proper goals and all that. They allowed the kids to play all the time and the ash fields actually worked quite well, except when you had to make a slide tackle of course.”
The playground games featured a more improvised “field.” For starters, the games usually were played with tennis balls, as “very few kids could afford a real soccer ball but every kid would carry around a tennis ball, just in case,” notes Clark. The goal on one end might be marked by two piles of jackets, or between a couple exhaust fans. “One thing I vividly remember is that for one goal we used the gateway into an old air-raid shelter that was let over from the war,” adds Clark.
“Clark, Get In Goals”
Clark had been an accomplished field player and had no reason to anticipate that he ultimately would build his legend while playing in the goal. That all changed one day at East Bank Primary School, when the 10-year-old Clark made a life-changing position change.
The East Bank 6th-/7th-grade teacher, a Mr. McNaught, was looking to insert a different boy into goal and asked who could play the position. That’s when a lad by the name of Sandy Kelso played his small role in the Bobby Clark tale, blurting out, “Clarky is a good goalkeeper.”
That was all it took. McNaught ordered – Clark wants it clear, he was not asked but directed – that Tom and Maesy’s second son “get over there, let’s see you in goals.”
The next thing he knew, Clark was the starting goalkeeper on the Glasgow City Select team that won the Scottish Cup. He also helped East Bank win all the Glasgow Cups that year.
“I became locked into being a goalkeeper pretty quickly at that point, but I felt quite good about it,” recalls Clark. “And looking back at it now, I’m pretty happy with how things turned out.”
Clark and his buddies often had played a game called 3-and-1, well before his sudden transformation into a full-time goalkeeper. The game involved three players trying to score on one goalkeeper, and the first to score three goals then becomes the `keeper.
“Even in those days, I actually liked being the goalkeeper but I also loved playing certain games where as the `keeper I still could go out play in the field,” adds Clark. “I felt if I played that role as the `running goalkeeper.’ my team usually would win.”
Cradle of Coaches
Western Scotland has become known as a breeding ground for elite soccer coaches, including the likes of 1965-78 Celtic manager Jock Stein, 1959-74 Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, recently retired longtime Manchester United manager (1986-2013) Alex Ferguson, and Ferguson’s handpicked successor, David Moyes … one even can add Bobby Clark to that list.
Richie Graham, who played for Clark at Dartmouth in the late 1980s/early ’90s, has a deep understanding of western Scotland’s impact of professional soccer and the link between Clark and some of the other names on this list.
“The culture in western Scotland is a unique and important factor in creating great coaches who use values and culture to drive on-field performance,” explains Graham. “The success of Man U is not about the drills or tactics, but rather the values and culture Ferguson put in place. Ferguson then hired Moyes, because he knows he is likely to uphold these vales.
“I say the same holds true for Bobby, who of course played several years for Ferguson at Aberdeen,” continues Graham. “Bobby is a values-driven coach who creates as environment where an ethos centered on hard work, commitment, fun and fairness is what is required and expected of players.
“These values enhance not only on-field performance but also life performance – which is why Bobby’s impact stays with you for life. This is the Bobby paradox: he demands the win, but somehow cares more about you as a person.”
For his own part, Clark has a specific theory as to why such legends as Shankly, Stein and Ferguson (and, of course, himself) all sprang from the same region of Scotland.
“Young soccer players of that time did not have very much parental or adult involvement during those early stages. They had to think a lot and sort things out themselves,” explains Clark. “Top players often had to take the roles as leaders and organizers, and that helped them form coaching abilities earlier than normal. It will be interesting to see if that area of Scotland continues to produce the same quality of coaches.”
Before being called up to Aberdeen, Clark spent a couple years with second-division Queens Park, where he benefitted greatly from being coached by Eddie Turnbull. A tremendous player in his day, Turnbull went to Germany after his playing career to study native soccer methods.
In years prior to Turnbull’s arrival, Queens Park had trained significantly on the running track with less time spent doing on-ball drills. Turnbull essentially flipped the priorities.
“For my money, Eddie Turnbull was the best coach in Scotland at that time,” claims Clark. “When Turnbull arrived, every player had a ball and everything was done with a ball, plus a small bit of running. Every practice, players were involved in working the techniques and tactics – it was a revolutionary approach in the country at that time.”
When Turnbull was named coach at Aberdeen, located in the opposite corner of the country (northeast), he took his trusty goalkeeper Clark along with him to the first division squad, in 1965. Years later, at the end of his Aberdeen career, Clark played four seasons with the Dons while being coached by future legend Ferguson. During this time, from 1977-82, Clark and Len Taylor also ran Aberdeen’s youth program and Ferguson had a keen interest in scouting the future talent.
“Alex Ferguson often would be observing the youth players, and we would have daily conversation about potential players,” says Clark. “Without knowing it at the time, I was able to glean so much knowledge from these discussions”.
Bobby Clark and his future wife Bette (pronounced Bet) Sutherland met while both were attending Glasgow’s Jordanhill College. They raised their three children – Tommy, Jennifer and Jamie – primarily in Scotland, in addition to some of those pre-adult years in the United States – plus a year for the entire family in Africa and two years in New Zealand, for Jamie and his parents only.
Noted for her deep knowledge of soccer and her tremendous support of her husband’s teams – including whipping up legendary pancake breakfasts for the entire team – Bette has been a central part of Bobby Clark’s success for nearly 50 years.
“Ever since we met in college, Bette and I have been very close friends. She is the smartest person I know and has been an unbelievable support throughout our life together,” says Bobby, who has joined Bette over the past few years in enjoying time with their six grandchildren.
“I was lucky to marry a great woman who was the person I credit for raising our three children. Fortunately, they all enjoyed soccer so I was close to them in that capacity, but their mum was a tremendous influence on all of them and they all dearly love her.”
All three of the Clark children have been involved with the game of soccer, collegiate and otherwise, during their postgraduate careers. Both sons, Tommy, a 1992 Dartmouth graduate, and Jamie (Stanford ’99) played for their father’s teams, while middle child Jen (Dartmouth ’94) has her A-level coaching license and has been a collegiate women’s soccer coach at Stanford (assistant), Claremont McKenna (head coach) and currently at Middlebury (assistant), where her husband Mike Morgan is the men’s tennis coach. Morgan previously was an assistant tennis coach at Notre Dame.
Tommy Clark played professionally in Zimbabwe, New Zealand and New Mexico, before later graduating from the Medical School at Dartmouth. The Clark’s oldest son is founder and CEO of Grassroot Soccer (grassrootsoccer.org), an international AIDS awareness and education organization that reaches youth in Africa through soccer clinics.
Although Bobby Clark never even nudged any of his children into coaching, it’s become a highly successful endeavor for the family’s youngest child. Jamie – who converted from midfield to the defense at Stanford and promptly earned All-America honors – played professionally for Major League Soccer and in Scotland. He then essentially fell into a four-year assistant coaching position at the University of New Mexico, joining first-year head coach Jeremy Fishbein’s staff in 2002.
Jamie Clark had been training in New Mexico while helping his brother set up the Grass Root Soccer web site, before receiving a life-changing phone call from Fishbein looking to gauge his interest in a coaching position. Jamie later coached on his father’s staff at Notre Dame for two seasons (2006-07) before embarking on an impressive career running his own Division I programs, at Harvard (2007-08), Creighton (2009) and at the University of Washington since 2011. If the Huskies and the Irish reach the NCAA semifinals (Dec. 13, in Philadelphia), it would be Jamie Clark coaching against his father’s Notre Dame team.
“I never pushed coaching on Jamie but at Stanford our staff always felt he was a coach in the field, a great playmaker who also could organize the team on the field” notes the proud papa. “Jamie has a good brain for soccer and for all sports really. There always will be similarities between us, but he’s very much his own guy.”
Jamie Clark was immersed in sports throughout his youth. “It was basketball all day and soccer all night,” he says. “Most kids get plenty of exposure from just playing but I also would watch the training sessions for my dad’s teams and then he and my older brother Tommy would discuss soccer tactics at home. I was around the game maybe three times as much as the average kid and came to understand soccer at a different level.”
Former Notre Dame player Chad Riley later coached for the Irish, including a couple years alongside Jamie Clark. It usually was easy to tell Bobby and Jamie Clark apart, but not from a distance.
“Jamie doesn’t have that Scottish accent, but he and Bobby have a similar vocabulary,” noted Riley, during the 2006 season. “One of the biggest things is that they stand the same way. Sometimes, you can’t tell who is who from far away.”
In a couple weeks, the father and son could be standing in close proximity to one another, coaching their respective teams for a chance to reach the NCAA title game.
Coming to Africa … and America
Shortly after retiring from his playing career in 1982, Clark had several options open to him: teaching, coaching, or even becoming a full-time sportswriter for a local Aberdeen newspaper (he already had dabble in writing a sports column for some time). Coaching ended up being the path he took, but that route initially took him to an entirely different continent.
During his days at Jordanhill College, Clark had a class lecturer by the name of Roy Small, a FIFA-sanctioned soccer coach who had been in Africa during the early 1980s before returning to Scotland. Small called Clark, essentially out of the blue, and asked his old student if there was anyone that he knew who could come out to Zimbabwe and run the the Bulawayo Highlanders club team in the Zimbabwe Super League.
Clark indeed had someone in mind: himself. “This was a great opportunity for me to take my family to Africa and for me to see if I enjoyed coaching,” says Clark. “We all loved our year in Zimbabwe and I realized that I liked coaching. We had a tremendous year, with no television which I guess would be hard for people to fathom now. Of course, the experience made a deep impact on Tommy and led to him helping found Grassroot Soccer.”
Twice previously in his career, Clark actually had spent a couple off seasons playing professionally in the United States, essentially with a roster comprised mostly of fellow Aberdeen players. Clark and his Scottish teammates played the 1967 offseason with the Washington Whips of the United Soccer Association and nine years later he was a member of the San Antonio Thunder of the North American Soccer League. (Close your eyes on that one and picture Bobby Clark at the Alamo, in the mid-1970s).
Austrian native Hubert Vogelsinger had been running an assortment of soccer camps throughout the United States and became familiar with Clark during that summer of 1976. A former collegiate coach at Yale, Vogelsinger became the latest person to somewhat randomly call Clark about a coaching opportunity, one that came open in 1984, as the Clark family was returning from Africa.
“Vogelsinger asked me if I ever fancied being a college coach in the United States and he essentially put me on track for interviewing with Princeton for their open head coaching position,” recalls Clark.
Princeton ultimately hired Bob Bradley (yes, the future U.S. Men’s National Team coach), but Clark had interviewed well. So well, in fact, that the Princeton representatives called back to indicate that they would be more than happy to serve as a reference for Clark’s future job applications. Such an opportunity came one year later and Clark was hired in 1985 to become the next men’s soccer coach at Dartmouth.
As you might assume, Clark clearly was intrigued by the American collegiate scene, so much so that he was willing to uproot his entire family and move to America. The merging of high-level, young adult athletics within an academic environment was the perfect combination for Clark. A life combining sports and studies had been part of his life for several years, starting at Jordanhill College but even continuing in Aberdeen. You see, when agreeing on his contract with Aberdeen, Clark had stipulated that he be able to teach every afternoon at a local high school.
“I loved learning about the U.S. collegiate system and it was something I truly believed in,” says Clark. “In retrospect, I made the right decision bringing my family to America and pursuing a career as a college coach.”
A Diverse Sportsman
Bobby Clark’s nearly 30 years in America have included being involved in several sports other than soccer. During his first two years at Dartmouth, he also served as coach of the junior varsity lacrosse team, despite having no knowledge of the sport, “but I was a teacher,” Clark always is quick to remind us.
Clark – who gained the rare distinction of being a professional futboler who also had a college degree (in physical education, from Glasgow’s Jordanhill College) – further distinguished himself on the links, as a near-scratch golfer who played the game almost daily during his time in Aberdeen. While keeping up with his golf game when he could while in America, Clark also developed into quite a talented squash player at Dartmouth.
“Bobby always has been competitive in everything he does, and squash was no exception,” notes O’Connor, the former Dartmouth assistant. “He even played a little basketball and was a good rebounder, but a lousy shooter.”
Clark even teamed with O’Connor, current Maryland head coach Sasho Cirovski and current Virginia head women’s soccer Steve Swanson as the rotating roster for the team that won the inaugural 3-v-3 soccer tournament at the National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention. That 3-v-3 tournament has grown to be a widely popular event at the annual NSCAA gathering.
“Bobby was very proud of winning that tournament and with how we played,” recalls O’Connor. “He saw it as a teachable moment for those watching as well as for those we played against, many of whom were former pros and college All-Americans.”
Coast to Coast
Before embarking on the second leg of his college coaching career at Stanford, Clark spent two years as head coach of the New Zealand National Team. During that time, he not only coached the full national team, but also directed the younger Olympic squad plus the under-20 and u-17 teams.
Similar to their stay in Africa, the Clark’s (Bobby, Bette and Jamie) enjoyed their time in their new country. In fact, New Zealand apparently has been a popular destination for the Scottish people for some time (have to put that one under the who knew? file).
Much as he had done at Dartmouth, where he guided two of his teams to the NCAA quarterfinals, Clark immediately breathed new life into the Stanford program. His five seasons in Palo Alto (1996-2000) produced two more seasons that reached at least the NCAA quarterfinals, highlighted by an NCAA runner-up finish in 1998.
Clark’s primary title at Stanford actually was Director of Soccer, as he coached the men’s program while overseeing both the women’s and men’s teams. One of his first tasks was hiring a women’s coach and he tabbed Steve Swanson, whom he had worked closely with during their years together at Dartmouth (where Swanson was the women’s coach).
Swanson, of course, now is head coach of the Virginia women’s team that has gone nearly unbeaten (24-1-0) and is two games away from winning the 2013 NCAA title. Swanson ultimately spent large chunks of 10 seasons working in close proximity to Clark, five each at Dartmouth and Stanford. Along the way, some things naturally rubbed off.
“I nearly got a Scottish accent from being around Bobby so long,” jokes Swanson. “Whatever success I have in the game is directly related to that man. It’s hard to spend time with him and not learn many important things. I picked his brain all those years.”
Swanson holds fond memories of the cooperative spirit between Clark’s men’s programs and his women’s programs during those 10 years.
“At Dartmouth, the budget was pretty limited and I’ll never forget Bobby insisting with an equipment sponsor that if they wanted to sponsor the men’s soccer team, they also would have to sponsor the women,” says Swanson, who also helped coach the Upper Valley Lightning local youth club team that Clark had helped revive.
“At Stanford, it was similar as the men’s and women’s programs ran our summer camps together and combined a lot of our fundraising and things like that. It was very much a partnership with the programs and that’s something I miss. But Bobby and I were together a lot – our wives likely would say too much. One of the things I always enjoyed and admired was how inclusive Bobby was. A lot of people are not that way. It’s their territory and they want to control their turf.”
Clark counts himself fortunate to have coached at three prestigious universities, all with a “great percentage of high achievers.
“I love all the messages that Notre Dame gives out and what it stands for,” continues Clark. “There is tradition. There is faith, tradition and there is the pursuit of excellence. These are great things to have.
“There is something about when you come to Notre Dame, they want you to be a great athlete but they also want you to be a good person, and that fits very well with my philosophy. We want guys who are good students and good people, but we also want excellence and we want to win.”
Notre Dame was the only men’s soccer program in the nation to produce multiple 2013 CoSIDA Capital One Academic All-AmericansÂ® (33 total honorees), led by senior forward Harrison Shipp – the Academic All-American of the YearÂ® who also so happens to be the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year. Shipp carries a 3.88 cumulative grade-point average as a finance major while his teammate, sophomore midfielder Patrick Hodan, is a 3.91 student as a prospective finance major (Hodan was a third team Academic All-American). Of the final 16 squads remaining in the 2013 NCAA Division I Men’s Soccer Championship, only Notre Dame, Marquette and UCLA have an Academic All-American on their rosters.
Student-athletes such as Shipp and Hodan are not the exception among the Notre Dame men’s soccer team, their type of academic excellence is more the norm.
When asked to identify his greatest academic influence at Notre Dame, Shipp did not hesitate. The person who has impacted him the most in the academic realm is the same individual who has shaped his life most on the soccer field: Bobby Clark, affectionately known as “Boss” to all of his players over the past 10 years or so.
“I’m willing to bet that `Boss’ does a better job than any other college soccer coach in the country in terms of stressing academics on an everyday basis,” declares Shipp. “On a fundamental level, he teaches us to use time efficiently and has certain policies, like the first two hours of every road trip are for study hall, with no movies.
“The academic climate within our team and the program gets ingrained within you pretty quickly. It’s really second-nature and just as much a part of who we all are as is our soccer playing style.”
Clark regularly provides his players with suggestions and tidbits for their academic livelihoods. The longtime coach stresses the importance of forming relationships with teachers early in the semester because, notes Shipp, “a teacher who knows you and understands you is more likely to help you out when you’re traveling and having to make up tests and assignments.
“The really effective thing is that `Boss’ will bring up these academic reminders in unexpected situations, like right after a big game in the postgame speech. Instead of focusing on the game we just played, he will jar us with reminders about getting ahead in our studies or talking to professors about having to miss a couple days for a trip. You take those message more to heart because you aren’t expecting it and it’s more impactful.”
Clark’s program at Notre Dame has a proven track record of preparing its elite-level players for the next level. Since 2008, 14 Notre Dame players have been MLS SuperDraft picks, the most for any school during that span. Recent Notre Dame players Matt Besler and Justin Morrow have cracked the U.S. National Team roster, with Besler becoming a regular on the U.S. back line.
Possibly most impressively, not only have the program’s elite players received their degrees from Notre Dame, many of them have done so in three and half years. Recent standouts who have graduated early before moving directly into the MPS include Besler, who was both a first team All-American and first team Academic All-American, along with the 2012 All-America duo of Justin Finley and Dillon Powers, the 2013 MLS Rookie of the Year.
Teaching to Win
As mentioned earlier, Clark’s former assistants and players are quick to stress that the pursuits of teaching and winning can go hand-in-hand.
“By nature, a coach is focused on winning. Bobby wins games by educating his players, which is why so many go on to coach or be in the game in different ways,” observes Graham, who admittedly has spent much time over the years studying Clark’s coaching and leadership style.
Graham is a part-owner in the MLS’s Philadelphia Union and has become quite involved in youth development in that region, noting that he “uses a lot of Bobby Clark’s wisdom when thinking through what we are trying to accomplish with the Union in youth development.”
Avery, the current Valparaiso coach, considers Clark to be the “ultimate teacher on the field,” one who takes a simple approach and “patiently instructs, encourages and corrects until it happens.”
Clark always has told his staff that a coach’s thumbprint is seen in how a team plays. “The players may change, but Bobby’s thumbprint is always there,” adds Avery. “Bobby’s teams have great consistency relating to the team shape, and the understanding of roles within that shape.
“His teams are always supremely organized, and that comes from his training and his teaching. Bobby uses just a handful of activities in training, and the brilliance in it is that they never seem to get stale or boring. He allows enough creativity and competition to keep the energy levels and motivation high, but at the same time he drills into his team how each individual role connects to the bigger picture. I have never seen a coach who does this as well as Bobby: transferring how they train, and the activities they use to train, to perfectly fit how the team actually plays on game day.”
Always known as a clever wordsmith, Clark loves to call upon the classic adage “festina lente” – an (apparent) oxymoron, meaning “hurry slowly.”
“Bobby’s passion is contagious and it permeates the culture of his programs,” notes current associate head coach BJ Craig. “Festina lente can describes a day in the life with Bobby best. He is up at 5.00 a.m. watching a game while working out, first one into the office, the last one off the field, and the last one to go home at the end of the day.
“Constant high standards, constant hard work, and constant improvement are at the core of everything Bobby does.”
Some coaches, especially those who have been at it for several decades, often take on more the role of administrator. They can be seen at camps and public events glad-handing and taking the credit for other people’s hard work.
Bobby Clark, umm, not so much.
“You will always find Bobby Clark on a field teaching,” says Craig. “One of the hardest thing for good players to do is to play simply, but the same can be said for coaching. Bobby keeps the game simple and you will learn more in a word or two than you will over a whole session from others.
“Bobby has a way of letting the game be the teacher and he teaches you how to make good decisions. The same can be said about life, too. He puts his trust in you and helps you learn how to make good decisions, life lessons that you will always have in your back pocket.”
The concept of “hurry slowly” seems to pervade Clark’s very existence. Consider the following testimonials (some a bit more relevant to festina lente and others loosely related, largely due to the humor):
– “Bobby claims to be the master of the unfinished sentence, but is not uncommon for him to be speaking about a game or player, fall asleep mid-sentence, and wake up in the morning picking up where he left off.” – B.J. Craig
– “One funny thing when I first started at Dartmouth was with our secretary Shirley Barnes. At that time, Bobby would handwrite letters to Scotland and he would spell in `Scottish’ with words like `programme’ and `labour.’ He would give the letters to Shirley to type up and she would correct those words, only to have him go back to her and nicely ask her to type them as is.” – John O’Connor
– “Bobby listens and he is fair and even. He is a master of how to use tone and emotion to evoke action. We once were at a hotel and a lot of the other guests were upset with travel issues, taking it out on the lady at the front desk. When Bobby reached the desk, he smiled and started by asking `How are you?` Of course, she really took care of us. Bobby told me a couple minutes later, ‘You’ll be surprised how far you can go in life when you start out a sentence with a smile.’ A wee comment, but so true. He took the time to connect and communicate with her and that made a difference. He does the same with his players.” – Richie Graham
– “I can remember Bobby in his office slowly pecking away on his computer, Bette’s polka-dotted reading glasses (he was always losing his own) would be perched on the tip of his nose, and he would roar for someone to come help because the darned computer wasn’t working correctly. Turns out Bobby was typing on his desktop keyboard while staring at the laptop screen.” – Mike Avery
And, of course, you can hear several “variations” on a theme pertaining to Clark’s greeting towards his team, even if there is a driving rainstorm or a foot of snow on the ground. “It’s a great Scottish day” is an old standard, as is “It’s a great day for soccer, lads.” When unsuspecting new freshmen are on hand, they will be baited with the line, “It’s a great day for the race.” What race, Boss? “The human race!”
Tactics & Technique
Bobby Clark exudes a wistful charisma, but it certainly is all business when the whistle blows. And his team follows that lead. Led by plenty of playful veterans, the 2013 Irish squad has its core style of play ingrained in their consciousness.
One such central tenet: pressing the other team
“Our mentality is one of focusing on doing the work and the little things now, so you don’t have to do the big tasks later,” says fifth-year central defender Grant Van De Casteele. “We try to be a good re-pressing team whenever we lose the ball. If you lose the ball and make a five-yard sprint to go get it again, that could potentially save the whole team from running 60 yards back into our own box and defending for five minutes.
“When you think about it like that, there’s no reason that you shouldn’t sacrifice your own five-yard run for the betterment of the team.”
A zonal system of defense has been a Bobby Clark staple for as long as anyone can remember, stretching back to his early days playing for Eddie Turnbull in the late 1960s.
“Bobby’s entire coaching philosophy is centered around playing as a team, and the zonal defense concept is a big part of that,” says Swanson. “His concept of having the 11 players on the same page on both sides of the ball is something he values and instills in all his players.
“Another core thing with Bobby is to have thinking players, not only skillful ones. They have to be unselfish and sacrifice for the team, with an emphasis on syncing, playing smart soccer, and being respectful of the game and all those involved with it.”
Norman, the current Western Michigan head women’s soccer coach, was a self-described selfish player in high school and through parts of his Notre Dame career. But he learned a valuable lesson through Clark’s discipline technique (or seeming lack of needing discipline), a lesson that already had helped with Norman’s own coaching career.
“Bobby Clark is such a great coach that he does not need to discipline – he creates a culture of respect that players have for him,” says Norman. “When you do something wrong, he does not have to come and yell and scream at you. He just comes and talks to you.
“And at the end of the day, you never want to let him down. That’s the worst punishment of all.”
One thing about conducting an interview with Bobby Clark: the man is always good to provide some vocabulary morsels to any sound bite, with the bonus factor being his distinctively deliberate Scottish accent. In one recent talk, he noted that a certain player needed to “acclimatize” a bit. But it’s possibly the more simple, signature words in his vernacular that carry a lasting presence. Words such as lads, wee (as in tiny) or mum (for mother).
The capper came recently, after an extended chat over the phone.
“Night, night,” he said.
A classic, genuine signoff. From a classic, genuine man.