Jack Clark issue: Clark is more than just a coach

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With graduation fast approaching, I can’t help but reflect on my Cal experience. Despite having some fantastic professors, I learned the most from someone outside academia.

That would be Cal rugby coach Jack Clark. And I didn’t just learn the difference between a ruck and a scrum.

I remember being apprehensive about taking the rugby beat in 2011. Jack Clark was the stuff of legends — a gruff, straight-shooting mountain of a man who ran a tight ship that did nothing but win and win big.

He would be extra guarded with me, I was warned, because of the tension with the athletic department that fall. The university had decided to strip Cal rugby of its varsity status the next year, and Clark was fighting it tooth-and-nail. What I gathered from all of this: Tread lightly.

He is by far the strongest personality I’ve encountered, and he has ruffled his fair share of feathers. But he stands for something, and I respect that. The commanding presence certainly did not become a teddy bear toward me, but he opened the door, treated me with respect and gave me great access to the team.

I was always a little nervous trekking up to the fieldhouse, but preview interviews became the highlight of my week. I knew I was going to learn something about rugby and, inevitably, something about life. I prepared more for those interviews than any others I’ve done.

I had to keep up — conversing with a person as intelligent and careful with his words as Clark was a thrilling challenge.

I found much to admire about the way he ran his program. It seemed he was using rugby as a training ground for life, a very refreshing perspective on the role of sports.

Clark demanded the best from his players, which could be difficult while regularly obliterating opponents. The “we have a lot to work on” quotes got old, but they really believed it.

Clark preached that you owe it to yourself and your brother to never be satisfied with good enough and to push to be better. Those are sports cliches uttered by most teams, but Cal rugby backed it up.

And excuses aren’t in Clark’s lexicon. While slaying foes on the pitch, his team was fighting to save its program. The Bears had to relocate “home” games to Treasure Island. They lost their practice field leading up to the postseason to accommodate teams displaced from the Memorial Stadium renovation.

These things could have become distractions, but Clark wouldn’t let that happen. I heard the same message echoed time and time again: “You can be a victim of your situation or put your shoulders back and get on with it.”

I still harken back to that approach and the ultimate outcome that year — an undefeated campaign, a national title and reinstatement to varsity status — as a shining example of overcoming adversity. When I’m overwhelmed, I recall Clark’s definition of mental toughness: the ability to focus on the next most important thing. When I catch myself being complacent, I remember his relentless drive for improvement. And I tagged along for a single season — imagine the guys who spend four years with the man.

Clark is doing much more than carrying on a remarkable winning tradition. He’s making men out of boys — the kind of men who treat people with respect, give everything their best effort and make their families and their communities stronger.

The kind of men who become American heroes, like Mark Bingham, who stormed the cockpit of a hijacked plane on Sept. 11.

What Clark has built will last far longer than the luster of trophies, and that’s worth its weight in gold. Cheers, Coach. Cal Rugby Forever.

Contact Christina Jones at [email protected]