Bobby Clark brings focus to struggling Irish program
Change is in the air.
After a 7-8-2 season in which the Irish men's soccer team failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, the Notre Dame athletic department decided not to re-hire interim head coach Chris Apple. Instead, they launched a nationwide search for a head coach that netted Bobby Clark, Stanford's head coach since 1996.
As the head of the Cardinal program, Clark's teams amassed a 71-21-12 record in five years, including a trip to the NCAA Championship game in 1998. Before Clark's arrival, the Stanford program struggled to finish above .500.
The native of Scotland becomes the third Irish head coach in three seasons. Mike Berticelli coached the Irish for 10 seasons before his sudden death last winter. Following Berticelli's death, assistant coach Apple was named head coach. Apple is now the head coach at his alma mater, Rochester.
Teaching the Game
Clark coached at Dartmouth before coming to Notre Dame and prides himself in his role as a teacher — a role many players found lacking in the program last season.
"I'd like to think that I am a teacher," Clark said. "I want to think that would be my biggest strength. Hopefully I can satisfy that need. That would be possibly my strongest suit."
In fact, it was that desire to teach talented student athletes that brought Clark to coach in America.
"I think that was the way I always looked at my reasons for coming to this country to work in soccer was the fact that I could both work with top-class athletes and I could also be a teacher," Clark said. "If I stayed in Scotland, there doesn't really exist that opportunity."
So Clark relished the opportunity to work with the caliber of athletes that play in the NCAA, first at Dartmouth, and later at Stanford.
"Coming to a Dartmouth, to a Stanford and certainly to a Notre Dame, this gives you a tremendous opportunity to work with smart young guys, who also may be the top athletes in the country," he said. "For me it's a perfect situation."
What Clark finds most attractive about such challenging academic institutions is the type of student-athletes they attract.
"Most people who come to places like Stanford and Notre Dame are very highly motivated," Clark said. "The one thing you can do when you take over a program, you can't change the personnel, you can't alter the skill level dramatically, but what you can alter is the attitude and the desire."
Clark noticed this trend just after arriving in South Bend and observing the Irish women's basketball team's run to a national title.
"What Muffet McGraw has done, as far as I understand she had no McDonalds All-Americans on her team, was win a national championship and win it well," Clark said. "We've got people that really want to do well in the college years."
The teaching started this spring, as the team practiced daily from mid-March on and posted a 3-2-2 record in exhibition games. The new head coach has seen only a glimpse of his new team, but is thrilled with what he's found.
"So far I am very excited. I think we've done a lot of good things," Clark said. "Having said that, I think we still have a long way to go. They're working, and that's the nice thing. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think it could be done. I wouldn't have left when I left if I wasn't sure that Notre Dame could attract the top student athletes so we can get a team that can challenge for national honors."
Players grumbled privately last season as Apple changed the team's offensive approach and starting lineup nearly every week. As the team struggled, the young coach frantically looked for a fix. The solution never really arrived, and along the way the continuity on the team fell apart.
"They have their system that they like to play," said rising junior goaltender Greg Tait. "They kind of try to teach us it and teach us how to apply it to every single team. They're not really going to try to change things up from game to game."
While Clark is less likely to make constant changes to his starting lineup, he stresses that every player on his team has a role.
"I'll be honest, you're not going to win a championship with 11 players," Clark said. "Last year's team at Stanford that I thought had a very good chance of winning a national championship, played 18 players. I had total confidence in any one of those 18 players."
"There's going to be some games when it's going to be working for someone, and there's going to be some games when its not. At least 16 players have got to come out. Everybody's got to be into it, that's the key. You can't be selfish; good teams aren't selfish. You can be disappointed at not having the goal you want, but you can't be selfish."
To be sure that everybody in the locker room is on the same page, Clark breaks his athletes up into three separate roles — all essential in a winning program.
"The team's going to fall into three guys: the guys that are pretty well your key players, your starters; the guys that are coming off of the bench; and your guys that are practice players," Clark said. "But I want the practice players to be pushing the guys coming off the bench, and I want the guys that are coming off the bench to be pushing the guys that are starting."
While Clark wants to make sure players know their roles, he doesn't want them to become satisfied and complacent.
"I want everybody out there to know their role, accept their role and in some cases not be satisfied with their role," Clark said. "Even the guys that are starting, I want them to be pushing and driving to be the best in the country. They're not going to be satisfied with just a starting spot, they've got to be looking for being the best in the country."
Still, one thing comes first on any team coached by Clark.
"It's very important that the players put the team first," Clark said. "And that's not easy because most of the players that come here have been in their own little environments where they come from and been star players. Some of them have to deal with not getting the key role. When you hit the elite level, you might not be in the same role that you had."
Bridging the change
While much of the Irish program has changed since the team played its final game on Halloween, one thing has remained the same. While Nino Berticelli, Mike's son who served as an assistant coach last fall, has left to pursue a master's degree at Thomas University in Florida, assistant coach Mike Avery remains on Clark's staff.
"Mike did a great job in the transition between Coach Apple and the new coach, me, coming in," Clark said.
The other assistant coach on Clark's staff is Brian Wiese, who played under Clark at Dartmouth and has remained at his side ever since.
"Brian played with me at Dartmouth and he followed me to Stanford and did his masters in engineering there," Clark said. "For the first couple of years he was doing his masters and we had a volunteer graduate assistant type of situation. When he finished his degree at Stanford, he decided he wanted to coach. He's been my full-time assistant for the last three years at Stanford."
Clark is not wholly unfamiliar with Notre Dame, having crossed paths with the program during the Berticelli era.
"In 1998 I came up and did a clinic for Mike here," Clark said. "I've known Mike over the years. In fact we helped Andrew Aris — the New Zealand boy — come here [when Clark coached the New Zealand national team]. He was on my under-18 squad in New Zeland and I recommended him to Coach Berticelli. Everyone's been touched at some time by Mike Berticelli."
While Clark maintains he was happy coaching at Stanford, the lifestyle and atmosphere at Notre Dame lured him to take a new position and move his family halfway across the country.
"They're both very good academic schools," Clark said. "They both have tremendous athletic traditions. From a family living point of view I thought South Bend would be a much nicer place to live. The only thing I can take out of that is the weather. Take away that I think it's a terrific place for my wife and I."
"We just really liked the atmosphere," Clark added. "It's a gut feeling. Maybe it's a Scotsman coming among the Irish, it was just a gut feeling."
All Sports Stories for Wednesday, May 2, 2001