Bobby Clark: Shaping minds, not just professionals, at Notre Dame

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

One of the country's best coaches is happy plying his trade in the college game. 

If there's a dean within the NCAA Division I coaching fraternity, it is surely Notre Dame's Bobby Clark, who heads into his 31st collegiate campaign this fall.

Clark, 71, is revered in coaching circles, for his ability to teach the game as much as his success, of which there's been plenty. In nine years at Dartmouth, five at Stanford and 16 in South Bend, he has notched 358 victories and been to 21 NCAA tournament appearances, winning the 2013 national title with the Fighting Irish.

He has mentored several head coaches – among them his son, Jamie, in his seventh year in charge of the University of Washington's powerful program.

MLS once found its best coaches in college, including Virginia's Bruce Arena, UCLA's Sigi Schmid and Princeton's Bob Bradley. Clark, Scotland's backup goalkeeper at the 1978 World Cup, might have followed them into the pro game but for one thing: The rewards of college soccer were too great.

“I was never quite sure about the professional game,” Clark told FourFourTwo. “Because it's very much about ... it's just about wins. In college, you really affect [people] positively, whether it's the top player in your squad or the last player in your squad. You're always affecting.”

Jamie, 40, a two-time All-American at Stanford who played for the San Jose Earthquakes and in Scotland, spent two years on his father's Notre Dame staff after starting his coaching career at the University of New Mexico. It was an intense learning experience.

“My dad's very black and white in terms of right and wrong, smart decisions, even the way he sees soccer players. He likes smart soccer players, he likes good kids off the field, and [finding out] the depths in which he believes in doing things the right way and the proper way -- and a lot of times the longer way -- was eye-opening.”

Jamie went on to lead the programs at Harvard and Creighton before heading to Seattle in 2011. He has 113 wins and seven NCAA appearances in nine years as a head coach. Had Washington beaten New Mexico in a 2013 quarterfinal, he would have faced off against his dad in the final four. On Jamie's birthday.

That's the only way they're going to meet.

“I don't want to find out who his mother really likes,” Clark said. “I think I know that answer. I don't need to find out. ... If we play in the NCAA finals, that's fine. If we play in NCAA, that's it. I don't need to find out who my wife really loves.”

Clark started his coaching career with Zimbabwe's Highlanders and he had a brief term as New Zealand's national team coach between his stints at Dartmouth and Stanford. He might have gone to MLS -- there were talks through the years -- but Jamie thinks the lack of control over roster makeup was the biggest stumbling block.

Clark’s favorite part of coaching: “Putting teams together. And seeing how they progress.”

A conversation he had with Manchester United academy director Brian McClair somewhat altered Clark's perception of what he does.

McClair, working with Clark in a clinic, noted that for every 10 players he and his staff were working with, maybe one would pan out – but things were very different for Clark.

“‘All your boys, even your last boy in your squad, is going to leave Notre Dame with a Notre Dame degree,’ he told me,” Clark said. “Whether he's an All-American or the boy who's a practice player, everyone will leave Notre Dame as a success. I'd never looked at it that way.”

The job isn't to develop talent for the pros. It's to develop men for life, and if some of them happen to go pro, all the better.

“[College soccer] gets a tough rap, but if you are like my father and you are an educator -- and I have to try and emulate that -- well, I'm working with special, smart kids who want to get better,” Jamie said. “Now whether they're the very top-tier kids or the second-tier kids, my job is not going to change. It's to make that group as good as possible .... I don't see myself wanting to move [away from college soccer] anytime soon. I think it's too fun and too great of an age [to work with].”

More than half of MLS' head coaches played college soccer. It has generated players for decades. So did nearly every national team standout before Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley.

Clark has helped dozens of players get to the pros, including Matt Besler, Harry Shipp, Justin Morrow and Dillon Powers at Notre Dame, and Ryan Nelsen, Simon Elliott and Todd Dunivant at Stanford. His son coached Ethan Finlay at Creighton and Cristian Roldan at Washington. Besler, Morrow and Roldan are on the United States' roster for the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup.

“Obviously, we're getting fewer top-end players [in college soccer since the academy system evolved], so I think we should be getting greater plaudits for what we're doing,” Jamie said. “I think our value to U.S. Soccer should be increasing. Over the last 10 years, somewhere between 10 and 30 guys a year haven't even been touching college soccer. Your top 2 percent that are supposed to be special guys aren't going to college.”

It's the players another level down -- the Besler and Dunivant types -- who might not make it without college soccer. They are good players with outstanding character and drive.

“If it grows to 50 or 100 [skipping college each year], I think we're actually going to have more value,” Jamie Clark said. “No matter how many they take away, I actually think you're going to see it not changing in terms of the right-character guys who work and learn and are smart and are going to keep coming through the college system and be very good.

“I think our role in developing the next [Christian] Pulisic will be limited, because that guy should be in Germany, and that's clear for everyone. But when it comes to developing the next Steve Birnbaum or the next Cristian Roldan, college soccer will be valuable. If U.S. Soccer loses out on our development model, they're going to shrink their net, of players they can look at, by, I don't know, hundreds each year.”

Clark aims to prepare such players, and prepare others for their futures outside of the game. That, he finds, is more rewarding than building a winning MLS program would be.

He's one of the best at it, and everybody in the game recognizes that.

“I've been called many things, some good and some bad,” Clark said. “I think [when they call me a legend], they're telling me I'm getting old, very old.”

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