The man, the myth: Deconstructing Cal rugby legend Jack Clark

Derek Remsburg/Senior Staff

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Two weeks ago, near the middle of Witter Rugby Field, Jack Clark stood in front of his players as they waited for his halftime speech.

His Cal rugby team was behind St. Mary’s by 15 points — the first time the club was trailing an opponent at halftime all season. Cal’s undefeated regular season was in jeopardy.

Clark looked into the eyes of his players, who donned their blue and gold striped jerseys and formed a semicircle around him. “Let’s put something into this thing,” Clark calmly says over the buzz of more than 2,000 fans in attendance.

His tone was less like a rugby coach than it was like a teacher encouraging his students to put in more effort. The halftime talk ended quickly afterward.

“When he talks, all eyes are on him,”says Bob Driscoll, who serves as the athletic director at Providence College and who worked in the Cal athletic department from 1987-2001. “There is an unconditional belief in him. When he says something, it is absolutely authentic and believable.”

His players retook the field and knew exactly what to do.

At 6-feet-5-inches with broad shoulders, Clark is still built like the offensive lineman he was at Cal. He is an imposing figure. Even in a group of rugby players, the 57-year-old stands out.

But his resume is more outstanding than his stature.

In 30 seasons as head coach of the Cal rugby team, he has won 22 national championships and compiled a 558-70-5 overall record as coach of the Bears’ 15s team with records unmatched in collegiate rugby history.

“I don’t think there is a better American coach,” said Mike Flanagan, head coach of the Navy rugby team. “We see where American rugby can be. He has built the team — and shown us how to do it.”

Straddling the line between being supportive and being direct, Clark has also been able to connect with his players on another level. The coach, who is famous for his inspirational post-championship talks, also knows exactly what to say, just at the right moment.

With his team trailing the Gaels at halftime, Clark was at his calmest. The players didn’t need their coach to get their face; they knew exactly what to do.

“He knows how to put things into perspective,” says Gary Hein, who played rugby at Cal from 1984-88. “With regard to any given game, moment in time and season.”

In the first 15 minutes of the second half, the Bears exploded for three tries. And for a second, after the Bears scored a late try to give them a 16-point lead late in the second half, Clark even took part in a momentary celebration. Clark pumped his first forward, like a boxer jabbing with a right hook.

The celebration came from a different Jack Clark, who normally paces back and forth on the sidelines emotionless, even if his team is up by triple-digits.

It was a rare moment of emotion from the usually stoic coach. It was a glimpse into one of many Jack Clarks.

Before he became the face of American rugby, Clark was a letterman in football, basketball and track and field in high school. Rugby was not even on his radar.

After three semesters at Orange Coast Community College, close to his hometown of Huntington Beach, Calif., he took a scholarship to play football at Cal, where he started in the spring of 1976. At Orange Coast, he was first exposed to rugby, so  he knew a “little bit” about the sport.

“I thought it was always great, from the very first time I saw it,” Clark says. “There is a little bit of basketball and a little bit of football involved. So it always looked very attractive to me and fun to play.”

But it wasn’t until Clark came to Cal that he first played the sport. After his football season in the fall, he and a dozen of his teammates joined the rugby team in the spring.

“It was just kind of a natural migration,” Clark says. “I think somebody just tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Let’s go — you’re going to play rugby.’”

It turned out to be the perfect sport for the big and athletic Clark. But it wasn’t until he was cut trying out for the Philadelphia Eagles in the National Football League in 1978 that he became devoted solely to rugby.

He was selected to join the U.S. National Team, and in October 1980, he was the only American starter for the World XV team at Cardiff Arms Park in Wales.

Already playing for the National Team, Clark had aspirations to continue his rugby career overseas and to play at the highest level that he could.

“I would have been in New Zealand somewhere making tackles undoubtedly and ended up with a bunch of good stories,” Clark says.

But one month later, on Nov. 10, 1980, the course of Clark’s life — and playing career — changed.

At an after-party of a restaurant opening in San Francisco, a woman came into the party, saying she had been accosted. When the assailants tried to follow her in, they were forced to leave by the other people in attendance.

Observing what was happening, Clark was not eager to get involved. He felt that other people in attendance — San Francisco 49er players and other rugby players — could take care of the situation.

But as he tried to go outside to help clear the men out of the street, he was hit in the back of the head by one of the assailants.

Clark chased the man across the street when suddenly, he faced a man with a gun, a 9 mm Magnum. He had “no way to go and no way out.”

He was hit four times.: twice in his left leg, once in his right knee and once in his hand.

Clark was rushed to the hospital and underwent multiple surgeries. After two months in the hospital, losing 40 pounds and suffering “debilitating” pain, he faced possible amputation.

“It was important for me to fight through that,” Clark said. “You can always give up your leg, but there is only a period of time you can fight for it. And I wasn’t done fighting.”

Even though he recovered well enough to start training, and he felt like he could play rugby again, Clark decided against it.

If it hadn’t been for that shooting, Clark thinks now, he may never have got into coaching rugby and would have lived a completely different life.

“Who knows, I may have never coached,” Clark says. “It is funny how things that seem like tragedies at the time are ultimately blessings.”

With his rugby career over, Clark turned to an investment banking job, where he became a senior vice president of a firm. But he found the job unfulfilling and decided he wanted to return to sports as a coach.

As a young athlete at Cal, Clark appreciated his coaches, who he said “made the contest really come alive.” He even thought about coaching other sports, but by then, Clark had fallen in love with rugby.

Clark returned to his alma mater, in 1982, and served as a volunteer assistant coach under Ned Anderson, his former rugby coach at Cal. After serving for two years as Anderson’s assistant, the two men switched roles.

Anderson served as Clark’s assistant for a year and then handed him the reins. In 1984, Clark became the sixth coach in the Cal rugby program’s history.

In 1985, Clark’s second season as head coach, the Bears won the national title.

“He built on the strong foundation that was already here,” Anderson says. “He has taken it to another level.”

Less than 24 hours after the St. Mary’s game, 60-odd Cal rugby players sat in gray Cal rugby T-shirts, and blue shorts with notebooks in front of them. At the Tahir Family Team Theater, in the depths of the university’s newly completed athletic center, the team was holding a postmatch review session.

In the film room, Clark is the professor. He paces in front of the team, moves his arms back and forth and opens the meeting by summarizing his initial thoughts from the match.

The satisfaction from the team’s comeback win was still evident. Players and coaches had momentary laughs about the game when recalling it from memory. But for the most part, Clark and coach Tom Billups were back at work.

Despite his full control of the team, Clark still knows when to let go and delegate work to his players. When one of the players brought up the team’s “big-time” scrumming ability as an area of concern, Clark said to his older players, in the front row, “Can I leave that one with you guys? We all got to opt in.”

When the meeting shifted to film, so did the tension in the room. Billups controlled the computer, and Clark controlled the silence. Both coaches used laser pointers to identify specific structures of players or efforts that they did not like.

Clark emphasized that he was not satisfied by the team’s performance.

“How come you didn’t bring that up when you were jumping up and down throwing your hands up and down like a madman?” Clark asked when one of his players celebrated prematurely in the St. Mary’s match. “Guys in blue and gold jerseys don’t do that.”

The players responded in unison: “Yes, coach.”

After showing the first 15 minutes of the match, Clark emphasized that the Bears controlled large moments of possession in the St. Mary’s defensive half, and that the team had given the Gaels chances to score by turning the ball over.

It did not look like a team being dominated. Just one not executing.

Billups and Clark continued to run the film. The two teams traded penalty kicks and the Gaels held on to an early lead.

But by then, Clark had already made his points: Play needs to improve, Stay focused and the first half was not as bad as it seemed.

“OK, that’s good here,” Clark said, directing coach Billups to stop the film.

The last shot on the projector was the scoreboard. It showed his team down three points with 10 minutes to play in the first half.

Bypassing the team’s dramatic comeback in the second half, Clark went back to the front of the room, ready to lead his team back to work.

Stephen Hobbs covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected]