College soccer’s Godfather

Although he has never managed at club level, Bobby Clark deserves to be seen as one of Scotland’s great coaching figures.

By Ian Thomson

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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Whether you call it coaching or teaching, he’s just so natural in the way he gets the best out of people and in the way he puts across his coaching techniques.

Four decades have passed since then Aberdeen manager Billy McNeill invited his veteran goalkeeper Bobby Clark to lead the club’s nascent youth training programme. Clark was approaching his 500th Dons appearance at that time in the summer of 1977 and his combination of domestic and international playing experience, coaching badges and a teaching background made him a valuable asset to the club.

As Celtic’s legendary European Cup-winning captain, McNeill had been part of the young side that achieved glory under Jock Stein’s guidance. It was a template that McNeill wanted to replicate – and also one that could save money for a prudent Pittodrie board. In Clark he had the ideal man: he had started his Aberdeen career as a part-timer while completing a physical education degree at Glasgow’s Jordanhill College, and had a clause in his first professional contract allowing him to continue teaching PE in schools after training.

McNeill replaced Stein at Celtic Park before he could benefit from Clark’s work, but Alex Ferguson would reap a rich harvest, famously leading the Dons past Bayern Munich and Real Madrid to clinch the 1983 European Cup Winners’ Cup with a core of youngsters – Eric Black, Neale Cooper, John Hewitt and Neil Simpson – that learned their trade during Clark’s sessions on the red ash car park behind Pittodrie’s main stand.

Clark turned 71 in September. He is regarded as something of a godfather on America’s college soccer circuit, although the curtain could soon be falling on his distinguished career. A five-year contract as head coach of the University of Notre Dame’s men’s team expires at the end of this year, when he will have completed his 30th season at the collegiate level.

Although he has never managed at club level, Clark’s achievements nonetheless position him as one of Scotland’s great coaching figures, and one that may yet have a few years left to give. “I feel I’ve got as much energy now as I’ve ever had,” said Clark from his office in South Bend, Indiana.

Notre Dame’s athletic directors have offered him a contract extension, while those who have worked closely with Clark cannot imagine his football odyssey coming to an end. But there are considerations beyond the football field. Clark’s wife, Bette, has accompanied him on every step of his journey: from Glasgow to Aberdeen; Bulawayo in Zimbabwe; the New Hampshire college town of Hanover; New Zealand; Silicon Valley in northern California; and to their current abode in America’s Midwest. Their three Aberdeen-born children – Tommy, Jennifer and Jamie – have planted firm roots in the United States.

Clark’s Glaswegian tones remain strong when he shares his trove of tales from more than half a century in the game. However uncertainty over what next year will bring prompts an unusual hesitation in his eloquent delivery. “I still feel very Scottish,” said Clark, whose brother lives in Airdrie, and his wife’s sister in Lossiemouth. “I think your children become American, but it’s hard for the first person to lose his close identity with his homeland.”

Former Aberdeen midfielder Neil Simpson was a 15-year-old schoolboy when he joined the initial crop of kids selected to train at Pittodrie under the guidance of Clark and Lenny Taylor, a teacher who ran the city’s secondary school select team. Simpson’s career came full circle in 2012 when he succeeded Taylor as head of Aberdeen’s youth academy and, while the game has changed markedly over the past 40 years, some things remain unchanged. “It’s the same values, same disciplines,” said Simpson. “You still need the same work rate, desire and commitment. Everything that was evident in the habits that Bobby taught me is still there.”

Simpson’s development accelerated under Clark during training sessions that were always high tempo and far in advance of anything that the young midfielder had experienced. He signed schoolboy forms within two months and turned professional after leaving school at the end of 1977. “Bobby and Lenny were thirsty for knowledge, and they were always keen to challenge the players and drive your competitive edge,” Simpson said. “They would do drills putting me up against another player that they were considering as a full-time prospect, just wee things like that to fire up the competitive nature and see who comes out on top.”

Aberdeen’s focus on youth continued unabated when Alex Ferguson replaced McNeill the following summer. Ferguson had introduced teenagers Tony Fitzpatrick, Frank McGarvey and Billy Stark into his first team at St Mirren and encouraged Clark and Taylor to press on with their activities. Indeed, the first-team boss was an avid spectator on Thursday evenings when the young Dons would play the best local under-16 sides, and he gave Simpson his debut in a League Cup tie against Hamilton Academical one month before the midfielder’s 17th birthday.

John Hewitt and Neale Cooper joined shortly afterward as Aberdeen’s talent pipeline began to flow. And Eric Black caught Clark’s attention when a North of Scotland select team played Aberdeen’s youngsters in a friendly, the Alness Academy pupil subsequently being invited to Pittodrie for a successful trial.

Joining Aberdeen’s reserve team for the 1978-79 season allowed Simpson to train with Clark every day. The young midfielder was struck by his mentor’s additional gym work which he did to ensure he was physically capable of withstanding the vigorous challenges that goalkeepers faced in that era. Clark would also stay after training for extra practice on gathering crosses and stopping shots, with the younger pros providing the ammunition. “Bobby was so enthusiastic in everything he did,” Simpson said. “He was a great role model because of his work ethic and he was always on hand to encourage and give advice. Whether you call it coaching or teaching, he’s just so natural in the way he gets the best out of people and in the way he puts across his coaching techniques.”

Clark’s uncertainty over whether to pursue a full-time career in coaching or teaching after he retired in 1982 contributed to him slipping away from the Scottish game. Offers from Brechin City and Montrose failed to entice him before he was tipped off about an opening at Highlanders FC in Zimbabwe by Roy Small, a Fifa coach who was in charge of Scotland’s youth national teams when Clark was in the squads. A fulfilling year as Highlanders’ coaching director nudged Clark toward coaching, although his doubts about entering the pro game persisted. Ferguson had written to him during his African assignment to outline future opportunities at Pittodrie, but a vacancy at Princeton University offered another attractive route.

Princeton flew Clark to New Jersey for a three-day campus visit, during which he talked to people involved in college sports and was dazzled by the school’s infrastructure and facilities. Clark realised that a college role would allow him to combine coaching with the mentoring skills developed through his teacher training and that was what he wanted to do. Now all he needed was to land a job. Princeton were impressed, though they opted to appoint a recent graduate called Bob Bradley, who went on to coach the US at the 2010 World Cup and recently became manager of Swansea City.

Clark’s name had been introduced to the US college community and it wasn’t long before another opening arose. Dartmouth College handed him the reins to its men’s team in 1985, and the Scot rapidly improved the fortunes of a team that was bottom in two of its previous three Ivy League campaigns. Dartmouth finished above Bradley’s Princeton in each of the next three years before the schools ended joint top in 1988 to give Clark and Bradley a share of their first coaching championships. 

“Bobby is able to engage everyone in a team,” said Brian Wiese, the current head coach at Georgetown University, who was Clark’s starting goalkeeper at Dartmouth for three seasons. “He’s able to get a group of players understanding each other, understanding a system and wanting to fight for a common cause. There is some real magic in that. He just understands people really, really well.”

Two further Ivy League titles followed for Dartmouth, pipping Bradley’s Princeton on both occasions, before Clark moved to New Zealand in 1994 to steer the country’s football development as head coach of the national team and director of the All Whites’ youth sides.

New Zealand qualified for the World Cup for the second time in 2010, and became the only team to leave the tournament without losing a game following draws against Slovakia, Italy and Paraguay in the group stage. It was a phenomenal performance by the Oceania minnows that can be traced back to Clark’s tutelage.

The Scot spent the mid-1990s becoming acquainted with every promising young Kiwi player, including Ryan Nelsen, an under-17 defender who would later captain Blackburn Rovers, and Simon Elliott, a defensive midfielder who also played in the English Premier League with Fulham. The on-field leadership provided by both players in South Africa was a huge factor in their country’s achievement.

Clark’s time in New Zealand lasted just two years after changes in federation personnel altered the landscape and prompted him to return to America and to join Stanford University. His time away from the college game hampered his initial recruiting efforts, so Clark turned to the players he was familiar with, bringing in Nelsen and Elliott. His coaching methods again brought immediate benefits for a team that had lost more games than it had won over the previous decade.

Stanford earned its first win in the season-ending national championship in 1998 and progressed to the final before losing out to Indiana. Nelsen had developed into an outstanding professional prospect by the time Clark led Stanford to its first No.1 ranking during the 2000 campaign, although success in the national championship proved elusive.

Clark’s accomplishments brought inquiries from the Major League Soccer franchises in New England, Columbus, San Jose, New York and Washington, but none could tempt him away. Nor could murmurings from Aberdeen during a period when the Dons had tried and then dispensed with Roy Aitken, Alex Miller and Paul Hegarty. Clark had misgivings about his potential job security and job satisfaction in the pro ranks, where managerial tenures are short and dealing with adults could blunt the energy and inspiration he derived from developing younger players.

The opportunity to build another strong college programme, this time at the University of Notre Dame, took Clark to his current role in 2001. The team, known as The Fighting Irish, had only qualified for the national championship on four occasions since first fielding a side in 1977 and only once had they progressed beyond the first round. Clark’s habitually quick turnaround earned him the Big East Conference’s coach of the year award in his first season and Notre Dame became conference champions in 2003 as the Scot built the squad into contenders for the national crown.

Graduates of Clark’s programme flourished: Notre Dame sent more players to MLS via the annual SuperDraft than any other school. Many have built successful careers in MLS and beyond. Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler started all four US games during the 2014 World Cup, while Nigerian forward Bright Dike only missed out on a place in the Super Eagles’ squad through injury.

It seemed unjust that Clark had yet to win college soccer’s greatest prize – the national College Cup tournament – when the 2013 edition kicked off. About a dozen of the leading sides harbour real hopes of surviving this 48-team elimination tournament, in which many contests are settled by golden goals or penalty shootouts. Staying the course takes talent and luck. Clark’s side ended that season ranked No. 3 in the US before putting together an impressive string of victories to reach the final, where they recovered from conceding the first goal to triumph 2-1 over Maryland.

“Defeat would have been crushing for me and all Bobby’s former players from Dartmouth, Stanford and Notre Dame that were there, rooting like crazy for him to finally get that first title,” said Wiese, who served as Clark’s assistant at Stanford and Notre Dame before moving to Georgetown in 2006.

Wiese’s use of the word ‘first’ is notable. He sees his mentor coaching for another 10 years or more, whether at Notre Dame or elsewhere. “It might be with a bunch of 10-year-olds out in the country, or some group back in the shadow of Pittodrie,” he said. “I hope for the sake of our sport that he does it for as long as possible.”

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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