Dec. 3, 2017
By John Heisler
Jim Phillips was working the phones hard.
Then a University of Notre Dame associate athletics director and sport administrator for men’s soccer, he had been tasked with doing the legwork as the Irish searched for a new Irish head men’s soccer coach.
As Phillips (now athletics director at Northwestern University) sought to compile a working list of candidates, a curious trend emerged.
Every person he talked to among those immersed in the soccer world listed Bobby Clark either as one of the best coaches in the country or as the very best.
Bobby Clark with daughter Jen and her family
The next line consistently was something to the effect that Phillips and Notre Dame had no chance of luring the current Stanford coach to South Bend.
“It was a kind of running joke on every phone call that was made,” says Phillips. “Bobby’s name would come up, and the next comment would be, ‘But you’ll never get him, so here are some other names.'”
But Phillips and then-athletics director Kevin White were undeterred.
“We just decided we needed to call him and let him tell us no,” says Phillips.
“I remember vividly calling Ted Leland, the athletic director at Stanford, to ask for permission to speak with him. He said the same thing, ‘I don’t think he’ll ever leave.’
“I said, ‘Ted, can you tell me about him, just your thoughts about Bobby?’
“He said, ‘Jim, he’s the best coach I have at Stanford right now.’
“Now remember you’re talking about an amazingly successful athletic program with 36 sports and all the Sears Cup trophies they’ve won.
“Then it was silent on the other end.
“He did not need to say any more than that.”
Bobby Clark spoils a couple of his grandkids.
Now that Phillips had the go-ahead to have a conversation with Clark, there was only one problem. Bobby and his wife Bette were on vacation in Turks and Caicos Islands.
Says Phillips, “It took a dozen calls to find that out and another dozen to find out the hotel he was in. He initially said kind of what the narrative was: ‘I love Stanford, I don’t know if I would be interested. Let me think about it, let me talk to Bette and when I get back to the states we can talk.’
“As soon as he got back I remember the conversation. We kind of sold him over the phone. We never actually met with him, he never came to campus. Kevin took a red-eye flight to San Jose, and they met in a Denny’s at two in the morning. And then Kevin got right back on the plane.
“It was the most unusual search. We never interviewed him face to face until Kevin went out there, and Kevin went with a contract. It may be a search never duplicated again.”
How many hours and phone calls did Phillips invest in the pursuit of Clark?
“Too many to count,” Phillips says.
“You’re dogged in the approach because you think there’s a chance you may be able to get the very best soccer coach in the country to come. So you’re trying to do everything you can to put your best foot forward and shine the best light on Notre Dame.
“True to Bobby Clark form, there was never any mis-messaging on his part. I told him, ‘We want to hire you, we want you to be our soccer coach.’ He was very forthright and honest, maybe too honest. He told me every step of the way how he was feeling about it–I could gauge as we talked more that there was more and more interest from him.
“The last call, I said, ‘I can’t send our athletic director out there unless I know you want this job.’ At that point, he said, ‘I want to sit down with Kevin. I think this is the right move for Bette and me.’
Notre Dame presents Bobby Clark with a new bike to ride to work.
“There were no games involved, no leverage of his current situation for more money or more years. Typical Bobby, just how honest and wonderful of a person he is.”
With that, Bobby Clark on Jan. 19, 2001, officially became the head soccer coach at the University of Notre Dame.
And, so, nearly 18 years later, a million memories and stories come flooding back from all those who have connected with Clark–who announced his retirement Tuesday–over the years.
“So, now that our whole family is still involved in soccer in some way shape or form, many people assume that we were pushed into soccer by my dad. However, nothing could be farther from the truth; when I was still in Scotland, I was at a two-room schoolhouse, and my dad coached the team for the whole school (all grade levels welcome). I had thought it sounded fun and then decided against playing. My dad asked why and I had recently watched an Agatha Christie play and stated, ‘I am going to be Miss Marple and also work on jigsaw puzzles.’ To which my dad just said, ‘Well, make sure that you become a really really good detective, you’re already quite good at puzzles.’ Never could I have asked for a better supporter of whatever I chose to do, but he was always there making sure that whatever I did, I was going to be the best at it that I could possibly be.”
–Jennifer Clark, Bobby’s daughter and current women’s soccer head coach at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps
“I remember our first meeting vividly. We were all gathered together in the basketball classroom down by their offices. His reputation certainly spoke for itself, so we were all excited to hear what this great coach had to say, and we were certainly excited he was our coach. I remember one of my roommates saying in our dorm room after the announcement was made before this meeting, ‘Bobby Clark is our coach.’
“The team was excited. But, back to the classroom, the thing that I remember and think about daily is that Bobby asked us if we wanted to win a national championship, and the room exclaimed we certainly did. We were all excited for that moment, and then he said, ‘Well, everyone thinks and wants to win one now, it’s January.’ He then asked, ‘Do you have the will to work, the will to prepare better than everyone else in the country?’
“Those words have stayed with me from that moment on, and now it is something I ask myself daily, as well as asking my own teams if they have the will to do the work to be great. Bobby certainly got us working hard as a team, and he was right there with us working. I then got to understand this on another level being his assistant coach for six seasons. He certainly has the will to get the most out of his teams, his life, his abilities and that first meeting has always stayed with me.”
–Chad Riley, Bobby Clark Head Coach of Men’s Soccer
at Dartmouth, former Notre Dame assistant coach and 2003 Notre Dame team captain
Notre Dame celebrates Bobby Clark’s 200th win.
“Every preseason, one lucky freshman will hear Boss say, ‘It is a great day for the race!’ Usually a few players will egg on the poor soul and ask them what race is Boss talking about. The freshman will reply, ‘I don’t know,’ and then you will hear Boss bellow, ‘Aye the human race.’ That bit of fun reflects Boss’ love for people. He has given us all something that has shaped our lives.”
–B.J. Craig, Notre Dame assistant coach since 2008
“Prior to our Big East final match vs St. John’s in 2003, Coach Clark gave his pregame talk and then wandered out to the team bus. So focused on the task at hand, he innocently ignored all the red Nike bags lined up in front of the bus he walked on to. The St. John’s players and staff awkwardly stared back at a lost man looking for his team.”
–Greg Dalby, 2005-06 Notre Dame captain
and All-American, former Notre Dame assistant coach and
current Davidson assistant coach
“The real and best story involving Bobby Clark is in all the stories. There are constant themes and they most always revolve around people:
–Treat everyone with respect and dignity.
–Give everyone a role and make them feel part of it.
–Create a culture that is positive, productive, conducive to learning and fun.
–Have a sense of humor and enjoy the journey even when it becomes challenging.
–Go out of your way to serve others.
–Lead by example, especially as it relates to enthusiasm and work ethic.
–It is not so much the wins and losses, but the way one competes that is most important.
–Be willing to share knowledge and information openly so the game can continue to grow.”
–Steve Swanson, current University of Virginia women’s soccer head coach; previously hired by Bobby Clark in 1996 to be the Stanford women’s soccer head coach
“What I’ve come to see with Bobby’s former players is that it’s not usually until a few years after graduation when they truly come to realize how fortunate they were to have had the opportunity to play for him–and not because of the success they were part of on the pitch, but rather for the wisdom and life lessons he imparted. His influence helped them become better husbands and fathers. Proof of this comes every year on September 26, when Bobby’s phone and email are flooded with hundreds of birthday wishes from his lads, who reach out to wish him well and remind him how much he means to them. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
–Beth Hunter, Notre Dame associate athletics director and men’s soccer sport administrator
Bobby Clark with soccer administrator Beth
Hunter (left) and her husband Jake (right)
“In his humble fashion for giving people his time, Coach Clark tends to meet with any recruit who stops by the office or requests a meeting. On this occasion, an undersized, scruffy kid from Louisiana named Joseph Lapira stopped by. Bobby gave him his time and followed up in seeing him play. A few years later Joseph was crowned with soccer’s Heisman Trophy.”
“Notre Dame is the home of legends. One fall practice we were ready to train in Loftus. The boys were putting on their cleats, and Boss went down to the far end to politely ask a father and son, who were playing catch with a football, to come back later as we were scheduled to train. The father was great and thanked Boss on his way out for giving them some time. As Boss walked by the players, snickering burst into laughter as the boys shouted out, ‘Boss just flexed Joe Montana.’ Boss just laughed out, ‘Is that who that was?’ Joe was great. He came back after practice and the two legends shared stories. Not many know this, but Boss was not only famous in his own right as a professional goalkeeper, but he was known as ‘The Statue.’ There is no question that Boss could have a statue standing next to Rockne, Leahy and Parseghian for what he has done, but in his humbleness, he would rather be like Joe was on that day, putting others first and spending time with his lads.”
“Coach Clark, in humble fashion, did not reveal who texted him before the 2013 national championship game saying: ‘Play the game, not the occasion.’ Turns out Sir Alex Ferguson texted his old friend earlier that morning about the pressures of playing in a big game.”
“He has continued to be that support, not only for me, but for all the players (and coaches) that he has produced. I know that when I have a troubling issue, whether tactical- or personnel- related, my first call is to him. I know that regardless of how busy he is, I will get a well-thought-out solution to the problem at hand.
“Just this summer, my dad and I spent a solid afternoon in his office, just the two of us and a white board, moving magnets around, X’s and O’s everywhere, working out the pros and cons of a bunch of different systems of play. This was in his only afternoon off between camps. The great thing for all of us who have looked up to him and use him a benchmark on how we’re doing is that he will continue to be one call away despite his retirement.”
“Every player of Coach Clark’s will remember pregame pancakes with Bette. I can’t imagine how many pancakes she’s made over the years, but I have fond memories of this tradition at his house preparing for games.”
Bobby revisits the Clark residence in Zimbabwe.
“Not a day goes by when I don’t think about how fortunate it was for me to cross paths with Bobby Clark almost 30 years ago at Dartmouth College. We have shared many moments together on and off the field since that time, but it really is our friendship which I cherish the most. He has made me a better husband (my wife would argue this), father, coach, teacher, leader and human being, not to mention he has given me a slight Scottish accent. He is Scottish, but the people of Africa, New England, New Zealand, the West Coast and, most recently, the Midwest would embrace him and call him their own.”
“Maybe it was due to the fact that there has not been a lot of Scottish coaches who coached in Zimbabwe, but I was shocked at the welcoming Bobby received when we arrived in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. I know he only was there for a short time but he was welcomed back like a son when we arrived. He is not one to enjoy the spotlight but the boys and staff had a good time watching him get a hero’s welcome home.”
“Everywhere we go, someone knows Boss. It doesn’t matter where they are from, they could be from anywhere in the world and Boss will always comment, ‘I played in that city in 1972 and we beat so and so,’ and the story will go into detail about the game and some landmark in that city or political view about the culture. When the team traveled to Zimbabwe in 2014, it had been 30 years since Boss had been back. We arrived at the airport with reporters out front to meet him and the story of ‘Former Bosso Coach Bobby Clark’ hit every newsstand in town. The highlight of the trip was seeing his old players coming out to say hello and thank him for what he had done in their lives, as if he had just come back home from a vacation. Boss’ influence on the game of soccer and on people spans the globe.”
“When we traveled as a team to Zimbabwe in May of 2014 for a foreign trip, it had been 30 years since Bobby coached the Highlanders F.C. and this was his first trip back to Zimbabwe. What was most astonishing to me was the media attention he received. Upon landing in Bulawayo, we were greeted not only by local journalists, but by a number of Bobby’s former players who he hadn’t seen since 1984. Throughout our time in Bulawayo, it was incredibly special to watch Bobby reunite with players he had influenced and mentored 30 years prior.”
“Roughly a year ago, the high school junior son of one of my longtime Dallas soccer club mates was being recruited both by Bobby to come play soccer at Notre Dame as well as by Stanford — and the father asked if I would be willing to speak with his son (also, a gifted student academically) concerning his collegiate decision.
“As my friend of four decades’ standing and his son sat at my kitchen table, I offered my view to this star recruit that, as a soccer standout and a serious student, he had the two very best options available in the NCAA ranks–but that there was one aspect to playing soccer for Notre Dame that no other university could match.
“‘Playing soccer for Notre Dame means that you will have a deep and involved relationship with Bobby Clark,’ I offered. ‘And the simple fact of having daily exposure to Coach Clark will transform the very manner by which you think and regard the world. Simply put, playing soccer for Bobby Clark will change your life in a profound way that you won’t find anywhere else. And I am confident that it will perhaps be the most important part of your Notre Dame soccer experience.’
“Trying to understand my words, the young man asked as to what made me so certain of my view. In response, I softly chuckled and said, ‘That’s easy. I never even had the opportunity to play for Coach Clark — but with the limited exposure that I myself have had to Bobby in my life over the last 15 years, I can definitely assure you that he has changed mine.'”
–Rob Snyder, Notre Dame soccer player 1980-83
“College soccer and, to a lesser extent, college lacrosse (check his bio) has lost its best teacher and coach with the retirement of Bobby Clark. Bobby has been putting in so much time teaching a game he loves, to players he loves, in an environment he loves. The time has come for him to enjoy being with his amazing wife and family more. And, in particular, it’s important that his grandchildren get to know better the man who has helped shape the lives of so many in a positive, life-changing and lasting way.”
“I’d be hard pressed to find another head coach in the country who actually looks forward to sleeping in a non-air conditioned dorm during summer camp.”
“His favorite saying was, ‘Remember who you are, where you are, and what you represent.'”
Bette Clark with son Tommy and his family
“Bobby and Bette have become like family. What I will cherish most are the great memories from holidays and meals shared together, all the laughter, and genuine fun. They are gracious and kind, generous with their time, a joy to be around and amazing with our children. Bobby and Bette are an incredible husband and wife team who my husband Jake and I admire and seek to emulate in our own lives.”
“More than specific stories, I think often of Coach Clark’s daily approach. I have yet to come across a coach who possesses all the qualities Coach Clark does. He is a thoughtful man manager, a fun-loving personality, a gifted teacher, a great soccer mind and one of the hardest workers in his profession, while all together being incredibly competitive. I know I speak for a lot of his former players in saying we wouldn’t trade our experience playing and learning from him for anything. We were treated amazingly well by him, and we were given lasting wisdom that helps us in work, friendships, parenting, marriages and our daily endeavors.”
“In a world of many Roberts, there will always be, only one Bobby.”
“During a staff meeting a couple of years ago, the conversation sidetracked and somehow we ended up discussing candy bars. This led to Bobby telling us about a contest he and Bette entered in Scotland years ago to come up with a slogan for Mars Bars. Long story short, they finished in second place (with the slogan “Mars Bar, more meters per litre”) and won some prize money (which they used to purchase a washing machine of all things).
“I jumped online that afternoon and ordered a pack of 12 Mars Bars. When the candy bars finally arrived and were handed out at the following staff meeting, one bar was left unopened. We decided that candy bar would not be eaten until we won a second national championship. So, for the past two years, the unopened Mars Bar has been perched on the ledge of the white board in the soccer office. At Bobby’s final staff meeting November 28, when he informed his support staff of his plans to retire, we decided it was time to open the Mars Bar–which we did and offered a toast to Boss. Some people may toast with champagne, but at Notre Dame men’s soccer, we go for the Mars Bar–more meters per litre.”
Brian Wiese has connections to Bobby Clark that go back more than 30 years. Head coach at Georgetown since 2006, Wiese was an assistant under Clark at both Stanford (1996-2000) and Notre Dame (2001-05) after playing soccer (as his brother did) for Clark at Dartmouth.
His favorite memory of Clark took place at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania, site of the 2013 NCAA Men’s Soccer Championships.
“The game clock was winding down in the national championship game, there was a minute to play and it looked like things were going to work out for Bobby to win his first national championship. I just watched him for that last minute.
Lots more time for this for Bobby Clark in retirement
“For every Dartmouth, Stanford and Notre Dame alum it wasn’t as much that Notre Dame won the national championships as much as Bobby Clark won the national championship. That was the joy of that moment for everybody that has ever come across Bobby or been lucky enough to play for him.
“But the moment was one where he did what he does. He’s a man of routine, a man of ritual and there’s a right way to do things. He closed up his notebook and put it in his bag, he walked over and shook the Maryland coach’s hand, he walked over and shook the officials’ hands and he mingled with the Maryland players and shook their hands. And that’s the exact same thing he does after every single game, whether it’s the first game of the season and or when his team won the national championship.
“There’s no jumping up and down like a crazy man. This is how you do it. That’s one of the simple joys of Bobby. No win or loss or occasion trumps any other. It’s one of the wonderful things about him. Everything is done for a reason. There’s a right way to handle people. And it’s not ever about him.”
Leave it to Phillips to put a bow on the career of the man he helped hire: “He’s just one of the best coaches and best people I’ve ever been around.”
Adds Hunter, “Bobby closes his team banquet each spring with the City of Aberdeen’s official toast, and as he prepares for this next phase in his life’s journey, it’s fitting to offer him the same:Happy to meet, sorry to part, happy to meet again, Bon Accord!”