By Michael Silver (Sports Illustrated, 5/6/2002)
Cal coach Jack Clark, whose rugby dynasty has long ruled the college game, has his Golden Bears just two games away from their 12th straight national title
Twelve years ago, on a cloudy April afternoon in Richland, Wash., Cal rugby coach Jack Clark matched his Golden Bears, the seven-time national champions, lose a regional final to Long Beach State. The Cal players were distraught; Clark, the team's zealous coach, was devastated. Though he had already made his mark on a grand sporting tradition--guiding his alma mater to three national titles before his 33rd birthday--he could see it fading, and that left him feeling powerless.
After the team returned to its motel, Clark left his exhausted players to their own devices. They gathered in a first-floor room and bawled like Dick Vermeil watching Brian's Song. Suddenly Clark, a 6'5", 250-pound former All-Pac-8 offensive tackle and U.S. national rugby team lock forward, barged into the room, and his players fell silent. Would he yell? Would he challenge their manhood? Clark started to talk, choked up and paused. Then, to the players' amazement, their often overbearing mentor began crying too.
"We're hurting right now," Clark finally said, "and the scar will never go away. We all have scars in our lives, and these scars are what we draw on at pivotal moments." As many of the players knew, Clark's metaphor carried a literal kick--the coach's left leg looked like a turkey drumstick with a bite taken out of it, the result of a shooting a decade earlier that ended his playing career and nearly killed him. "In a year's time," Clark continued, "you'll be able to touch this scar and say, 'I know what it's like to lose, and I refuse to feel it again.' What each of you chooses to do with these scars will define you as a person."
Then Clark and the players who would be returning the next season--including All-America loudmouth Ray Lehner, gritty captain-to-be Greg Chenu and irrepressible surfer dude Mark Bingham--spent several hours plotting their course: They'd trade their tears for blood and sweat. Among other things they conceived the still-dreaded April Drive, a relentless conditioning regimen that coincides with the Bears' toughest stretch of the season.
Clark's 1991 squad did earn a redemptive championship, beginning a tradition of dominance that would elevate U.S. rugby. This weekend in Virginia Beach, top-seeded Cal is expected to win its 12th consecutive national title. If the Bears lose to Army in the semifinal on Saturday or fall the next day to the winner of the Wyoming-San Diego State semifinal, it will be only their second defeat by a U.S. college opponent since that April afternoon in Washington a dozen years ago.
Thanks to Clark, who has a 317-58-4 record, with 14 national titles, in 18 seasons, the Bears usually have an edge on opponents in tactics and versatility. The coach changes his team's style to fit his personnel and to exploit opponents' weaknesses, and his recruiting prowess usually lands players such as current stars Matt Sherman (an All-America flyhalf) and Kort Schubert (a long-armed, aggressive flanker) who are quicker and more athletic than their competition. While the Bears have some size this year--fifth-year senior prop Jacob Waasdorp was a standout defensive tackle for the Cal football team, and junior prop Mike MacDonald is a 285-pounder--they've often been outweighed by their fiercest competitors, including Army, Navy and Air Force.
The only U.S. team to defeat the Bears during the '90s, archrival Stanford, now refuses to step onto the field with them. Since last year the Cardinal has declined to play the bullies across the Bay. "You have to admire their success," says Stanford coach Franck Boivert, who caused a national stink last year when, citing competitive imbalance and a fear of bodily harm to his players, he forfeited the annual Cal-Stanford game, which dates back to the turn of the last century. "Of course it's unfair--they have varsity status, and [we] do not. Right now, it's not interesting for anybody."
"What is that teaching your players about competition?" Clark asks indignantly. "We lose to Stanford in many sports, but if you want to make a Cal team quit, bring a weapon." As for rugby's varsity status, a designation Clark pushed for and received 11 years ago, he says, "Other than the letters on our players' sweaters, what does that really get us? It allows us some admissions help and affords us some things that go along with a high-performance program: access to tutors, medical staff and the weight room. But we don't give scholarships, and everything we have we've built ourselves."
It's true that the Bears have a resplendent rugby pitch, complete with rustic field house, in Strawberry Canyon beneath the beautiful Berkeley hills. Clark's recruiting pitch isn't too shabby, either: Come to the nation's best and most vibrant public university, and you'll win national championships and become a selfless, thoughtful and responsible adult.
Cal's opponents might love to collectively belt out a chorus of Hit the Road Jack, but Clark is as much a fixture in Berkeley as civil disobedience, veggie burgers and luxury SUVs with KILL YOUR TELEVISION bumper stickers. Last month he turned down what he dubbed a "dream job" as director of England's ultraprestigious Bath Rugby Club. Despite a lucrative financial package and Cal's offer of a two-year leave, Clark decided he couldn't bear to abandon his true love.
Clark fell in love with Berkeley the first time he set foot on campus, in the spring of 1976. A standout lineman at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif., Clark had planned to accept a football scholarship to USC or UCLA until, he recalls, "I came up here and saw the turn-of-the-century architecture, the stream running through campus, the view from the hills of the Golden Gate Bridge." As good as he was at football, he was even better at rugby. After graduating in 1978, he tried out for Vermeil's Philadelphia Eagles but was cut, so he played for the other Eagles, the U.S. rugby team. In October 1980 he was the lone American starter on a world all-star team that took on the Welsh national squad at famed Cardiff Arms Park. It was the last match he would ever play.
The following month Clark attended a party at the house of an acquaintance in San Francisco and went outside to help break up an altercation. He ended up squared off against a man with a 9-mm Magnum. The assailant, who was under the influence of PCP, fired at Clark, hitting him four times. One bullet shattered his left femur, another the left fibula. At San Francisco General Hospital, heavily sedated and suffering significant nerve damage in the leg, Clark was confronted with the possibility of amputation. One night, while drifting in and out of consciousness, he awoke to a lecture on prosthetic limbs from a hospital counselor. "I called up one of my mates," Clark recalls, "and said, 'I need you to get down here, and whatever you do, don't let them take my leg.'"
Clark hung on, enduring a 45-day stay at the hospital and then more than a year of physical therapy. Eighteen months after the shooting he ran a 10K. "When something like that happens," he says, "you're either going to be a victim or you're not." He found a job as an investment adviser and, on the side, as an assistant to the man he'd played for at Cal, Ned Anderson. The first national collegiate rugby tournament was held in 1980, and Anderson led the Bears to the first of four straight championships. In 1984 he retired and was succeeded by Clark. By '85 Clark was a vice president at Grubb & Ellis, a real estate brokerage. Come 1992, he had the financial independence to devote himself to Cal rugby full time.
The Bears have been playing the English-born sport for 120 years and have had only six coaches during that span. Three years ago Clark gave his players a bittersweet taste of that tradition. On learning that Jim (Truck) Cullom, a former Cal football and rugby star and rugby assistant, was about to succumb to cancer, Clark shuttled his players to nearby Alta Bates Medical Center. They marched past hospital security, ignored a censorious nurse and charged into the dying man's room. Then, Clark recalls, "we broke into the most soulful rendition of the California Drinking Song. When it was over, Truck looked up and mouthed something to his son, but nobody could hear him. He said it again, and then louder the third time: 'Go Bears.' Those turned out to be the last words he ever spoke. That is the Cal rugby experience."
Because of Clark the experience has been altered over the years. When Clark took over as coach, "the rugby stereotypes about drinking beer, singing songs and picking up women were more applicable," says Gary Hein, the fun-loving Cal rugger who won the Woodley Award, rugby's equivalent of the Heisman, in 1987 and '88. "We'd let our boxer shorts hang out during games and take off our jerseys every five minutes so the chicks could look at us." Clark waged war against those images and many others.
"Most of the teams we compete against are built around the traditional leadership model, where a small, charismatic minority leads the majority," Clark says. "I think that's a total crock. In our model everybody can and must lead."
Cal ruggers also clean up after themselves. Many a spectator has done a double take after seeing them, in full uniform, picking up trash on Witter Rugby Field after a home game. "We take ownership of our program," says MacDonald. "We do everything except cut the grass and paint the field."
Several hours before the Bears set up Witter Field for their April 21 playoff match against Ohio State, Clark gathered his players to give them their instructions--what he calls "victory conditions." He said, "When it comes to the early scrums, we need to drill a screw in their brain. We need to tell them, 'Just 'cause you're a big, fit f--- and you shave your head, that doesn't mean you can stand toe-to-toe with our team.' I want them in a house of f------ horrors!" That afternoon the Bears rolled to a 62-6 victory to reach the Final Four.
Even on the campus that sparked the Free Speech Movement, few can match Clark's oratorical power. "I've come out of many a room ready to go jump on a grenade for him," says Ray Lehner, Cal's star prop from 1989 to '93. "We'd run till our bodies gave out. Hell, we were running 500-meter sprints the day we flew to Houston for the Final Four." Not surprisingly, Clark often invokes Lehner's '91 team in talks with the current Bears.
In April 2001 the '91 squad held a 10-year reunion that began with a reception outside the rugby field house and ended two days later with a pub crawl through San Francisco. Over the course of the weekend Mark Bingham, a flanker on that team, informed some of his old teammates that he was gay. Bingham had worried that the revelation would jeopardize his standing with his old friends, but most reacted as though he had said, "I hope you don't mind that I drive a Pinto."
"Mark was a member of the brotherhood," Clark says. "It's a lifetime membership, and he and his teammates sacrificed so much together that nothing could ever diminish that."
Well, almost nothing. The coach winces at the mention of Bingham's arrest at the 1992 Cal-Stanford football game for leaping out of the stands and laying a monster hit on the Cardinal's mascot, the Tree. But Bingham, for the most part, lived up to Clark's lofty standards once he left the program. More than once he fended off assailants on the streets of San Francisco, including a scary incident in which he wrested a gun from a would-be mugger. Friends also tell of Bingham's crossing several lanes of traffic to scoop a young girl out of harm's way.
Last Sept. 11 Bingham participated in a shared sacrifice that made the rigors of rugby seem trivial. After boarding United Airlines Flight 93 in Newark, he kept his cool when the plane was hijacked by terrorists, and he is believed to have joined other passengers in preventing their captors from striking a target in Washington, D.C. No one knows exactly what happened in the moments before the plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, killing everyone on board. Bingham's mother, Alice Hoglan, who along with other victims' relatives recently listened to the cockpit recording, is certain that her son had bravely taken one for the team. "We heard enough to convince us that there were some true heroes on board, and the terrorists were frightened," Hoglan says, choking up. "There was an amazing assemblage of take-charge, resourceful people used to acting decisively and as a team, and we heard them urging each other on. It was powerful, fierce and awesome.
"Mark lived vividly and unapologetically, and he had his share of fun," says Hoglan, "but he was gentlemanly and loyal to a fault, and he was a team player who knew how to motivate and inspire people. I'm really grateful to Jack Clark for at least attempting to whip my son into shape. Playing rugby at Cal was a rich and rewarding experience for Mark, and it definitely helped shape the values he carried with him into adulthood."
As Clark, sitting in his Cal office, contemplates Sept. 11's unfathomable horror, his voice trails off. It has been a trying year for Golden Bears rugby, and not just because of Bingham's death. In December popular senior scrumhalf Dominic Cooke smashed his car into a tree and was paralyzed from the waist down. The coach presides over his empire with a heavy heart. The titles bleed into one another, and he keeps turning boys into men, but to his dismay, everything else is beyond his control. Mark Bingham was our brother, and we miss him," he says, his booming voice reduced to a whisper. "He left his mark, and it will never be erased."
As Bingham once learned, and as Clark did before him, that's the way it is with scars. How you choose to deal with them--well, that's up to you.
Christopher W. Serjak writes: "Further to the article on Cal Rugby, the Bears extended their streak on May 5 2002 with a win over the University of Utah. They rolled through the bracket, winning by a combined score of 205 to 44."