Nov. 17, 2006
By Pete LaFleur
Notre Dame’s athletics program once again is off to a strong start, most notably on the soccer field as the men’s and women’s teams both are ranked in the top-10 and have combined for a 33-5-3 record. The similarities within the program’s run much deeper than wins and losses, even extending to the makeup of both coaching staffs.
The top-ranked Irish women are completing the program’s eighth season under head coach Randy Waldrum, whose staff has included his son Ben for the past four seasons. The Notre Dame men also feature a father-son combination, as sixth-year head coach Bobby Clark has been joined by his son Jamie – who just spent four highly-successful seasons as an assistant at New Mexico. Both sons have made noticeable impacts for their father’s teams and each is considered to be prime head-coaching material in their own right.
A closer look into the respective relationships between the Waldrum and Clarks reveals several other common themes, all grounded in an unending love for the game of soccer, a focus on coaching as a form of teaching, and a steady level of respect between father and son.
Randy and Diana Waldrum were careful not to push their only child into soccer but Ben finally made his debut with the Rockets under-six team and took off from there, annually ranking as one of his team’s star players.
“Ben was grasping soccer when he was 18 months old,” says Diana. “By the time he was two years, he would be standing there on the sidelines, intently watching Randy’s games. When the whistle blew for halftime, Ben would go out on the field and dribble from one end to the other. He was instant halftime entertainment.”
The younger Waldrum quickly learned the tactics of soccer, further strengthening a bond between father and son that reached another level when Randy started coaching Ben’s under-11 youth team.
“We would go out to eat after the games and those two would set up the soccer field with sugar packets on the table,” recalls Diana. “They were very close and have become even tighter – it seems that they are very close friends, rather than father and son.”
The family’s home in Oklahoma, when Waldrum was coaching at Tulsa, featured a long hallway that was barren of wallhangings. “I wasn’t allowed to put up pictures in that hallway,” says Diana. “It was Randy and Ben’s indoor soccer field and they played countless games in the seven years we lived there.”
The Waldrums had two moves ahead of them, first back to Texas as Randy started the Baylor women’s soccer program. Three years later, the disappointment of not being selected for the Texas head coaching position was tempered by a call from Notre Dame. The Irish were interested in having Waldrum interview for their head coaching post that ironically had been vacated when Chris Petrucelli went to Texas.
“The way things worked out, God was watching out for us and we could not have asked for a better place to call home,” says the current Irish head coach, whose adjustment to a new climate was made easier by the world-class ambience that pervades Notre Dame athletics.
“You don’t understand it until you come to Notre Dame, but once you are here you can see why it’s such a special place. To be able to share that with my son – while watching him grow as a coach – is even more special.”
Ben Waldrum’s promising collegiate and professional careers were slowed by a series of injuries, nonetheless gaining valuable experience while playing in Germany, Denmark, Mexico, the A-League and Major Indoor Soccer League. The 2003 and ’04 seasons then saw the younger Waldrum serve as a volunteer assistant on his father’s staff. Now a full-time assistant, he has helped shape a Notre Dame program that has compiled an 85-7-3 record over the past four seasons.
“Even when Ben was a volunteer, he made some key impacts on the team,” says the elder Waldrum. “He is so much more advanced in his knowledge of soccer than I was at his age. All of our assistant have helped improve me as a coach and you never can stop learning about the game, even from your son.”
The younger Waldrum has shown the ability to handle a variety of responsibilities, ranging from the extensive video area for scouting and game preparation to helping organize summer camps.
“Ben’s personality is more like mine – that’s probably why he and Randy get along so well – but when it comes to soccer, his personality mirrors his dad,: says Diana. “Randy’s background was in education and he even does lesson plans for soccer. Ben will do the same thing, planning it all out and looking at every detail.”
The Clark combination has been up and running for just a few months – as the men’s soccer program had to replace both assistants, after Brian Wiese was named head coach at Georgetown and Mike Avery went to Louisville. The 61-year-old Clark opted to add a pair of youngsters, bringing back recent Irish player Chad Riley (who coached at St. John’s in ’05) and filling the other spot with his youngest son.
“Jamie played for Bobby at Stanford, so in a sense they’ve worked together,” says Riley. “They see the big picture of the game very similarly while complementing each other in different ways.”
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.”
Clark began his college playing career at North Carolina in the mid-1990s but took the opportunity to play for his father in 1996, when Bobby left Dartmouth for Stanford. The Cardinal had struggled in 1995 (5-13) before doubling that win total in ’96, following the arrival of the Clarks. Jamie was the team’s top scorer as a midfielder in ’96 and went on to earn All-America honors as a defender in 1997 and ’98, ending his career with a loss to Indiana in the NCAA title game.
“Jamie had a great feeling for the game, a great playmaker,” says the elder Clark. “He would organize the team and was like a coach on the field, much like Chad Riley was in his career. I lost two great assistants but I don’t think I could have rebounded any better.”
Clark went on to play for the San Jose Earthquakes and was one of five finalists for Major League Soccer rookie of the year before seeing his next two seasons hampered by injuries. He met a similar fate trying to play for a first-division team in his father’s native Scotland before heading to New Mexico, where his brother Tommy was completing medical-school residency. The older Clark brother also was involved in the Grass Roots Soccer charitable organization and enlisted the help of Jamie in developing a Grass Roots web page.
During his time in New Mexico, Clark had trained in the area and struck up a friendship with members of the New Mexico soccer program. He tried one final time to return to playing but met more frustration as his body broke down. That’s when fate turned around, as former UNM associate head coach Jeremy Fishbein was named the Lobos head coach.
“Jeremy called to offer me a coaching position and I jumped at the opportunity,” says the younger Clark. “I was able to make a positive out of a negative. When you reach the point when you can’t play, you want to be a coach.”
The resulting job opportunity left his father feeling proud – and in need of deflecting credit. “I had nothing to do with Jamie getting into college coaching, he did it for something to do and because he loved soccer” says the elder Clark, whose daughter Jennifer recently was a college women’s soccer assistant and head coach for several years.
New Mexico enjoyed unprecedented success in Clark’s four seasons, capped by a trip to the 2005 NCAA title game (a loss to Maryland), and the overall experience played a key part in his development of a coach. “It was important that I not coach for my dad – I had to go elsewhere and grow with my own credibility,” says the younger Clark, who was approached with several head coaching offers while with the Lobos.
“I had grown up being this `armchair quarterback’ with thoughts on coaching in theory. But now I was hands-on, dealing with players and adding the whole human element. Jeremy was a great coaching mentor. He allowed me to have a lot of input but had us work hard and stay focused on always improving the team.”
The recent openings on his staff allowed Bobby Clark a rare chance in the twilight of his coaching career.
“It was a great opportunity to have somebody you know can do the job and it’s somebody who played for you,” he says. “To work with someone close to you is very special. Notre Dame is a fabulous school that offered me a great challenge when I was 55. Now to have my son join in trying to make Notre Dame the best team in the country – I couldn’t ask for more.”
Even though the younger Clark has been on the job just a few months, those who interact with the coaches already have picked up on several similarities between father and son.
“Jamie doesn’t have that Scottish accent but he and Bobby have a similar vocabulary,” says Riley. “One of the biggest things is that they stand the same way. Sometimes, you can’t tell who is who from far away.”
Riley’s four years as an Irish player give him an added perspective on the impact made by his fellow coaching newcomer.
“Jamie does a great job with the video breakdown,” says Riley. “Today’s player can relate to that because it gives a very vivid visual of your weaknesses and those of the opposition. All of that combines seamlessly with Bobby, who is such a great teacher of the game on the field.”
Many sports-oriented families are reluctant to see the children follow in the footsteps of their coaching fathers, knowing the various pitfalls and high stress levels that come with the weekly “roller-coaster” ride. But anybody who ever met Bobby Clark – or Randy Waldrum, for that matter – knows that both men have a clear focus on their primary goal.
“I always tell people that I’ve never worked – because coaching is really just teaching. And if you are just teaching your passion, I can’t think of a better way to earn your living,” says the elder Clark.
“If Jamie feels the same, I can’t think of a better profession for him. I’m happy any time my children are involved in coaching or teaching. It’s always enjoyable to observe how they are looking for the standard that you once demanded from them.”
As it turns out, such a pursuit of excellence – as a gift to his father – was the primary driving force behind Jamie Clark’s move to Notre Dame.
“I don’t think there’s a coach who deserves to win a national championship more than Bobby does and helping him achieve that was my main goal in coming to Notre Dame,” he says. “Bobby deserves a title for all he’s done for the game and I’d be thrilled to help make that happen.”
Randy and Diana Waldrum often talk about retirement, usually concluding they will settle down wherever Ben is coaching. Their son recently turned in an impressive head-coaching debut in the summer of 2004, with the W-League’s Fort Wayne Fever.
“In the ideal world, I would love to one day step down and become Ben’s assistant,” says the elder Waldrum. “He is going to be a tremendous head coach and that would be a special way to end my own career, giving back to him after all he has done for me.”