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How Bobby Clark became a doyen of US college football 

by 06/10/2017 20:04:00 0 comments 1 Views
  • Bobby Clark has forged immensely successful career coaching Notre Dame 
  • Former Aberdeen goalkeeper recalled his rich and varied career in the game 
  • One of the major influences in life was Sir Alex Ferguson at Aberdeen  
  • He former Manchester United boss is: 'The most impressive man I have met'

By Hugh Macdonald For The Scottish Daily Mail

Published: 19:56 EDT, 6 October 2017 | Updated: 20:04 EDT, 6 October 2017

It does not take an education at any of the Ivy League universities of the United States of America to appreciate that the world is a small place.

But that clichéd observation is prompted by a chance remark in an otherwise fascinating and educational chat with Bobby Clark, former Aberdeen goalkeeper and now the Mr Chips of college soccer in his role at Notre Dame, where he has guided one of the most prestigious universities in the world to sustained success.

It is while discussing his roster of footballers that one asks about the story behind a certain Sean MacLeod, the only Scot on his squad. 

Bobby Clark (centre) is the head coach at Notre Dame and has led the college successfully 
Bobby Clark (centre) is the head coach at Notre Dame and has led the college successfully 

Bobby Clark (centre) is the head coach at Notre Dame and has led the college successfully 

‘Oh, that’s Ally’s grandson,’ says Clark, who was part of MacLeod’s squad for the World Cup in Argentina in 1978 in a career that saw him win a treble of Scottish Cup (1970), League Cup (1976) and Premier League (1980) with Aberdeen in an association that encompassed almost 700 matches.

‘He’s very like his grandfather,’ says Clark, of his Caledonian midfielder. ‘He’s bright, personable. He is on the film studies course and he would be a great actor.’

Notre Dame, of course, has been immortalised in film. Knute Rockne, All American was a filmic biography of a legendary coach. It starred Ronald Reagan and contained the immortal line: ‘Win one for the Gipper.’ This was a reference to dedicating a match to a recently deceased team-mate and Gipper became Reagan’ s nickname as he campaigned successfully for the presidency.

It illustrates how Notre Dame has seeped into the national consciousness since its foundation in 1842 in South Bend, Indiana. ‘I read once that the three greatest sporting franchises in the USA were the (New York) Yankees, the (Dallas) Cowboys and Notre Dame,’ says Clark, who has been at the university as head soccer coach since 2001 and has led the team to continued success, most notably a national championship in 2013.

Clark enjoyed a fine career with Scotland and Aberdeen before turning to coaching 
Clark enjoyed a fine career with Scotland and Aberdeen before turning to coaching 

Clark enjoyed a fine career with Scotland and Aberdeen before turning to coaching 

The nationwide profile is promulgated principally by the American football team rather than the soccer team, but Clark has not only formed a successful programme but made it part of the fabric of top-level university competition in the country.

Clark is now the dean of American college soccer at the age of 73. He graduated, though, after an intense period of study. It is remarkable to note that Clark qualified as a physical education teacher at Jordanhill in the same year (1967) that the Lions were winning in Lisbon.

His successful playing career was followed by coaching jobs in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and as the national coach of New Zealand.

He then lost out when applying for the coaching post at Princeton but they were so impressed that they offered him a reference for any similar job. Posts at Dartmouth and Stanford, both elite colleges, soon followed before Clark found his home at Notre Dame.

His success there has ensured he must always be asked why he never took up a post in professional soccer. His answer is simple but heartfelt: ‘I love teaching. I love soccer. The question I had to answer at one time was to teach or coach, but I know now that good coaching is good teaching. To teach is to coach. I can do both here.’

Clark challenges Derek Johnstone of Rangers in the 1979 league cup final at Hampden
Clark challenges Derek Johnstone of Rangers in the 1979 league cup final at Hampden

Clark challenges Derek Johnstone of Rangers in the 1979 league cup final at Hampden

His most influential mentors include Eddie Turnbull and Sir Alex Ferguson. Turnbull was Clark’s manager at Queen’s Park and then at Aberdeen. ‘I only went to Pittodrie because of Eddie,’ he says. ‘He made a huge impact on me as a player and, eventually, as a coach.’

Clark recalls that training at Queen’s Park consisted of running laps and then doing sprints. Turnbull arrived and dictated that everything had to be done with the ball. ‘Even as a goalkeeper, this was innovative because he encouraged me to start play from the back by throwing the ball out rather than kicking it,’ he says.

The other major influence was Ferguson, who at 36 was just a couple of years older than Clark, when he arrived at Aberdeen in 1978. ‘I was already working with under-age teams and we had a good crop coming through,’ he says, recalling such names as Neale Cooper, Neil Simpson, John Hewitt and a goalkeeping crop that included Nicky Walker, Gordon Marshall and Bryan Gunn.

He remembers Ferguson as a constant presence at youth matches, concerned with every aspect of the club. 

‘He was also decisive,’ says Clark. He recalls that Hewitt once scored two goals in an under-age cup final and Ferguson asked about the contract status of the youngster. ‘He was told that John had not yet signed,’ says Clark. ‘Alex replied: “Get it done today”. It was.’

He also adds that Eric Black, the wonderful striker, was recruited after Ferguson watched him score against an Aberdeen youth side. ‘Again we were told: “Get him”,’ recalls Clark.

Clark spoke of his rich and varied career and incredible experiences in the game 
Clark spoke of his rich and varied career and incredible experiences in the game 

Clark spoke of his rich and varied career and incredible experiences in the game 

Clark and Ferguson enjoyed a reunion in the hallowed halls of Notre Dame. ‘He is the most impressive man I have met, the best speaker I have heard,’ says Clark, who has had the opportunity to listen to the great and good who visit, graduate from and teach at Notre Dame.

‘He came over to present our national championship medals and spoke so well to the players.’

The former goalkeeper, though, has developed his own style of coaching. He laughs that innovations such as video analysis and GPS tracking have forced him to delegate more to his assistants but his method is of such substance that modern devices enhance it rather than change it significantly.

Clark has the resources of Notre Dame at his fingertips and he uses them. But it is the ethos of the university that best reflects his principles. There is a belief that the students must be built on five pillars: intellectual development, social development, spiritual development, skills development and physical development. This extends to the football team.

‘We try to do things in the right manner,’ he says. ‘Winning is great and I am a competitor but there is more to sport than that. Essentially, it is about becoming better not only as sportsmen but as people.’

He points out that the attraction of coaching in the university has been one of service and also of being part of a collective. ‘The players here do not leave after training and go home,’ he says. ‘They live in dorms, study and work with each other.’

The idea of service is ingrained in Clark. The university has a strong declaration of faith and service, and Clark recalls his graduates with a sense of both pride and satisfaction. More than 30 of his players over the years have gone on to play in the MLS, a league that he sees improving with every season.

The former stopper is content in the USA and happy to raise his family there 
The former stopper is content in the USA and happy to raise his family there 

The former stopper is content in the USA and happy to raise his family there 

But Clark also points out that his players have headed to medical school, high finance and public service. 

He is as likely to be visited by Gregg Lemkau, the co-head of Goldman Sachs global investment banking division, as an MLS player or an eminent doctor. All will have played soccer for Notre Dame. All remain close to the alma mater and the coach.

So, how long can Clark continue and will he remain in exile from Scotland? ‘This was a great environment to bring up my family,’ he says of the USA, where his three children have graduated to successful careers, including one son as an up-and-coming coach.

‘But I still have a wee house in Lossiemouth and I could still well return. My wife goes back for visits regularly but I am restricted by my work here, though I do love returning to Scotland.’

Retirement would give him a decision to make, but it is not yet imminent. ‘I think it will just hit me one day,’ he says of any thoughts to walk away. ‘I am lucky. I love my job. I love the adrenaline that comes with it and I am fortunate to have great assistants who lighten my load.’

He adds: ‘I am still learning as a coach. Life, I suppose, is all about getting better.’

The lynchpin of Notre Dame has unwittingly summed up his vocation, his philosophy of both sport and personal life.

Bobby Clark, the coach dedicated to making not just players but men.

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