Master Craftsman

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Editor's Note: Jack Clark, the Cal rugby team's head coach and the Daily Californian Men's Coach of the Year, has assumed almost mythic proportions in the Cal athletic community. He has built Bears rugby into one of the great dynasties in the history of collegiate sports and won 17 national championships since they began in 1980.

Daily Cal rugby beat writer Zack Rosenthal sat down with Clark shortly after he coached Cal to its 10th straight national title Sunday in Tampa, Fla.

Daily Californian: I talked to (Cal Athletic Director) John Kasser a couple of weeks ago and he said, "Jack Clark could coach any Cal team to a national championship, he just happens to coach rugby." Is that an accurate assessment?

Jack Clark: He's the boss, you know. It's certainly flattering to hear that, but I've only been involved to two sports at Cal - football and rugby - and I love both of those sports dearly. But I love busting out of my office to watch the women's softball games every chance that I get, or heading to anywhere anytime we are sending a team out in blue and gold. I love watching it, I love spectating it. And every once in a while, the whistle blows and it's over and it's sort of a privilege to be there. The athletes are really giving it up. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose but I always think it's a privilege to witness it.

DC: Is there ever any resentment by any other programs, players or coaches towards you and your program because of your success?

JC: Yeah, I think sometimes there is. But I think that it's understandable that there would be a bit of jealousy. We like the underdog in America and we're not the underdog here. I think that every once in a while there's a bit of it, and sometimes it gets unpleasant, but by and large I think that we're the flag-bearer of quality rugby. If you think on it, (other teams) don't want to be a national champion and not beat a worthy champion, and we're that champion.

DC: How do you compare this year's team to other championship teams you've coached?

JC: I'm not comfortable comparing teams, but I would say that this has been a very, very enjoyable year. I thought that the boys played hard for each other every step of the way. We tried to be perfect in the middle of the season and we were hard on ourselves in big victories, and we were building to this point where we knew we could come here and we knew that we could compete for a championship. They were a great bunch and I have a great deal of satisfaction knowing that they have achieved their team goal - one of their team goals. And you know, I reckon they'll be friends for the rest of their lives, and that's rewarding.

DC: You were a little concerned because you had such a young team this year. You were starting a number of freshman and sophomores, how were you able to pull the team together and make them play this well?

JC: Well, good players make you a good coach, that's No. 1. There's a contribution that a coach needs to make, but I think that it starts with a great deal of respect for the players that you get a chance to coach. Our freshmen played well this season, but it's an easy place for a freshman to be. When you've got Russell Cole, Matt Kane, Brian Meux, John Taylor, Mike Freeman, Andy Tamayo, that's a good senior class. There's a lot of leadership in that senior class and the class right below them have a lot of leadership. If you're going to break in as a freshman, you break in with a lot of guys who know the ropes and know how to prepare to win.

I'm already half-nervous for next year, thinking about those seniors being gone and that doesn't imply that I don't have faith in the team. But you know, you learn the ropes over four years. You know what needs to be done, and you know when to be happy and when to still have the eye of the tiger.

DC: How big of a loss is it going to be losing that big group of guys?

JC: They stand out not just by their play but by their character. Can you replace a guy that links every ball in the tackle like John Taylor does? Yes. Can you replace a guy who wins every line-out ball thrown to him like Matt Kane does? Yes. Can you replace a guy who can anchor every scrum like Russell Cole does? Yes.

That's not what I'm worried about. I'm worried about the character and the leadership that they bring to us. Can you replace that? Well, the proof is in the pudding whether we can replace that. We can find a way to win a ball next year and we can find a way to link a ball, but those guys have made a great contribution to who we are and how we think about ourselves. You know when they speak they speak with the team's voice and that's really critical. None of those guys speak with their own voice. I've been around those boys for four or five years and I've never heard them say "I" once. They say "we" and "us." Can you replace that? Yeah, we'll have to, but I will never take that for granted.

DC: You let (team captain) John Taylor make the calls on the field, whether to go for points (on penalties) and whether to change the kicker. Is that something that is unique about your relationship with John or is that something that you have used to your advantage over the last 10 years?

JC: I think it varies. You need to develop a partnership with your leaders on the field and then you need to learn to trust each other. I mean, John needs to trust me. I don't want John to do what I want him to do just because of authority. I want him to do it because he trusts what I'm doing. And how can I ask him to do that if I don't trust him and his gut on the day?

And John's gut is pretty good. I won't let the team be a victim to a captain-in-training, don't get me wrong. But John is not a captain-in-training. He's a seasoned captain. What's great about John is that it doesn't affect his play, he can think for several other people on the field and then still go play a good game, which is the hard part. You know, when you're sore from all those tackles and you're tired yourself and you've got your own problems, to think for other guys and to manage the game as the captain is very difficult. John has done a great job.

DC: Do you ever feel as though your team doesn't get enough recognition in California? You know, not playing in front of 60,000 fans, like the football team, and playing here in front of a couple hundred. Do you ever wish that could change?

JC: No, it's not like that. It's the exact opposite of that, that is at the core of (our) culture: It's that we are thankful for anything that we do get, and that no one owes us anything, and it's that we don't want that life. We want the life that anything anyone does for us is special, and that we are prepared to contribute to our own success. That's why those boys build up that field and take it down. I want them to know that a rugby field isn't just a patch of grass that you walk through, but that it's something that they can take ownership in and take pride in. Some athletes might take tape off when the game is finished and literally throw it on the field and some programs might actually clean the field when they are done playing and I want to be at that end of things.

DC: Your overall record was 17-3, with all three losses coming to Canadian teams (the University of Victoria and the University of British Columbia). Does it make the season any less sweet to come out 1-3 against those teams that you work so hard to beat every year as your toughest competitors?

JC: I doesn't make it any less sweet at this moment. We were disappointed to lose those games, but when we play those guys early in the year it's very difficult for us. We are coming off just six weeks of training and they are coming off an entire autumn. Any time that we win those games, I'm ecstatic. And what we did this year when we went up there, we were pretty unlucky against (the University of British Columbia) and we played pretty well against (the University of Victoria), so I saw great improvement in that stand.

You know those Canadian teams are a good measure for us of where we're starting and where we're ending. The UBC coach is a good friend of mine, Spencer MacTavish, and Spence shook my hand after that game in UBC and he knew that they had stolen one, and he said, "You're right on track aren't you?" And I said, "Well, I think so. I'm sorry to lose. Congratulations, but I think our team is in front."

DC: Why did you give up the job as the coach of the national team?

JC: I made the decision to step down after the World Cup in 1999 based on the fact that I think that teams need a fresh voice after a while. College athletics is pretty rare. The players leave so it's easier for your voice to resonate. But after a while I think that teams need a new voice. I think you've seen that in professional sports when really good coaches find success at different places, they keep moving. They do it because the players stay longer and have a longer tenure with their teams. I also wanted to get back to spending more time with my Cal program. It had become a bit of distraction. I spent 200 nights in a hotel room last year, and I don't want to do that the rest of my life. And I don't want to travel oceans as much as I have.

DC: How about your plans for the future? Do you have any plans to leave your legacy any time soon?

JC: I've always said that I would really like to grow old at the position. I really think that it's what I'm supposed to do and I find it to be a very rich experience to be among these guys and to coach them. I just can't imagine leaving. I've been offered some pretty good rugby positions around the world and while they're exciting and sound challenging, the fact is that I really can't see myself anywhere else. I can't get a picture of myself coaching anywhere other than at Cal, that's really what I think that I'm supposed to do. I can't even imagine leaving.

Sometimes the college environment can be a difficult one, it's a fight for resources and as they say the politics are so vicious because there is so little at stake. Sometimes it's pretty hard, but at the end of the day there's a lot of support and as long as we're still graduating kids like we graduated this year. And as long as we're still trying to achieve and still have the resources to achieve, it's a dream position for me.

DC: We know how intense you sometimes get on the field. Are you having fun? On and off the field, are you having a good time?

JC: It's a rich, rewarding life. I'm almost sick before the games and I wonder sometimes because I want so badly for those boys to have success that I wonder why I do it, let alone why I take that knife's edge where it's exhilarating success or this horrible failure that I worry for them. And I carry that with me, I don't know how not to. Right down to these boys' psyche, how they'll think about themselves if things go well. Will they show the right humility? And if things go poorly, will they take it too harshly? The word that comes to mind is not fun. At the end of the day, coaches lead a pretty neurotic life.


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