As the most successful coach in the entire Cal athletic program, Jack Clark certainly had nothing to prove. But he felt he might have something to contribute to his country by volunteering to help coach the U.S. Marine Corps rugby team.
So, he gave the Marines' athletic director at Marine headquarters in Quantico, Virginia a call in 2006 and volunteered his services. Turns out the Marines were looking for a rugby head coach and who better than a guy whose resume included 18 national collegiate championships (it's now 19 ), head coach of the Collegiate All-America team from 1985-92, head coach of the USA National Team from 1993-99, and general manager for the national team from 1993-2003.
All that and the man was volunteering his services. The A.D. told Clark that his orders would be in the mail. That's right, his orders. It is the military, after all.
The orders instructed him to report for duty at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, that October and that's exactly what he and his No. 1 assistant, Tom Billups, did. It proved the start of a relationship that has been beneficial to all and has left Clark with an admiration of Marines that is nothing less than awesome.
The weather that October seemed more like a North Carolina summer than a North Carolina autumn - temperature and humidity both in the 90s. But it was October so the air conditioning in the rugby team's barracks was turned off.
"Not one of those guys ever said a word." Clark said. "They don't think that way. There's no complaining. I would never had known if I hadn't gone down to the barracks." He had to find a colonel to get the air conditioning turned on.
The armed forces rugby season lasts only three October weeks - two weeks for training and one week for the tournament - which is why Clark is able to coach the All-Marine Rugby Team. October is the off-season for college rugby.Clark and Billups have coached the Marines the past two years. They plan to do it again next October when the championships will be held at the Army's Fort Benning in Georgia.
Many of the Marines on Clark's last two teams had just returned from Iraq or Afghanistan. "They're war fighters." Clark said. "If they're deployed, or about to be deployed, they're not going to be let off to play rugby."
So, Clark gets the Marines who just returned from deployment - and many had been deployed three, four, five times, or more. One had been deployed nine times since September 11, 2001.
Marines might be in fighting shape, but that doesn't mean they're in rugby shape. They just don't have the opportunity to train like that when they're in battle. Clark gave his Marines the same fitness tests he gives his Cal team and was discouraged by the low scores. But he was amazed by their effort on the field.
"Fitness scores are irrelevant because Marines don't quit." Clark said.
Even though most of his players were below the national championship level in ability, Clark decided to conduct training camp like he would for a U.S. National team or a Cal team. He thinks it was the right decision.
"I told them we would coach them like they were pro rugby players and they appreciated that." Clark said.
Clark learned that a Marine captain on the team, who had just returned from Iraq, had lost several of his men during one of his missions.
"He came up to me and said, 'Coach, I've had a really rough year and this is the best thing that's happened to me. You made this a real athletic experience.'"
Clark said he never tired of listening to the Marines' stories - and every one of them had a story to tell.
On a visit to a Wounded Warrior Facility, one Marine shared he had been seriously injured when he burst through a door and was hit by an exploding grenade, knocking him backwards. Two more grenades then exploded at the same spot as the first.
"All he said was, 'The first grenade saved my life.' Clark recalled. "Not, 'I got messed up bad,' or anything like that. But he figured the first grenade saved his life because it knocked him backward and out of range of the next two grenades. That's the way a Marine thinks."
No matter how seriously a Marine is injured, or how exhausted he might be, his main thought is, "I've got to get back with my boys." Clark heard that theme told over and over again.
"A Marine's greatest fear is that he won't be there when it all goes down." Clark said.
When Clark first took over as the Marines rugby coach in October 2006, he was presented with an American flag (above) that was flown over Camp Ripper in Iraq on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. It is one of his proudest possessions.
"It's impossible to be any more generous." Clark said. "We enjoy our freedom on their sacrifices and here they are thanking me. They appreciate that a civilian would give a damn - and I give a lot more than a damn."
Rugby practices at Cal have been a little different since Clark became the Marines' volunteer coach. The Marines taught him something about communication that he has incorporated into his coaching methods.
He noticed that a Marine would immediately question him if he didn't understand something the coach was trying to teach with a "hold" reply. And once a Marine did understand a point, he'd respond with a "Check" or a "Roger."
"When people's lives are on the line, you better make sure you understand what's being said." Clark noted. "Communication can't be just one way. You need an exchange; you have to get a response."
So, since 2006, Cal rugby players respond with a "Check," when a coach or another player communicates something.
The All-Marine Rugby Team will face a stiff challenge next October when they try to unseat Air Force as the four-time defending champion at the Armed Forces Championships. In the meantime, Clark will be trying to lead Cal to its fifth straight collegiate rugby championship and its 17th in the last 18 years.Article written by
(Daily Cal, 1960-64)
Jack Clark- Head Coach