Time to walk away

Notre Dame men’s soccer coach Bobby Clark hoists the national championship trophy Dec. 17, 2014. Clark has announced his retirement after 17 years at Notre Dame.University of Notre Dame photo

Win, lose or draw, the post-game script often stayed the same for the head coach who spent over three decades in college soccer working at three different schools.

Once the clock hit zero and the final horn sounded, he would slide his ever-present notebook back into his pocket. He would seek out the opposing coach and offer a handshake. Same went for the officials and any individuals on the other team who might had a good night against his guys. Then he would gather his squad for a few words before quietly leaving the pitch with an eye toward the next task.

It was that simple. That business-like. All the time. Win, lose or draw, you never could tell.

Such was the scenario on Sept. 14, 1985 following his first game as coach at Dartmouth. And on that magical day outside Philadelphia four years ago this month when Notre Dame captured the 2013 men's national championship. And, most recently, the afternoon of Nov. 19 on Alumni Field after a 1-0 loss to Wisconsin closed the curtain on another Notre Dame season.

It was game No. 605 in the college coaching career of Bobby Clark. Leaving the stadium that day, Clark carried a secret that only a select few knew. There would be no game No. 606. No next year.

After nine seasons at Dartmouth, five at Stanford and the last 17 at Notre Dame, after 369 wins, 156 losses and 80 ties, after four conference coach of the year honors, it was all over. Few saw it coming. But there were enough hints, even subtle signs dropped along the journey this fall, that it would be his last.

Nine days after that elimination game, on Tuesday evening, official word arrived on Clark’s retirement. But not before he sat in on one final head coaches’ meeting that morning at Notre Dame. Soon enough, he would be the former coach at Notre Dame.

It’s just time to go.

To go spend more of it with his wife, Bette, with whom he’ll soon celebrate a 50th wedding anniversary. To go be with his three children and seven grandchildren. To go and let someone younger take a job that requires 24/7/365 commitment. To go enjoy life a little more at age 72 without worrying and wondering what’s in store in the Atlantic Coast Conference. To go see what's next, wherever that might take him.

“It was a fantastic run,” Clark said by phone Tuesday morning, his thick Scottish accent failing to mask the waves of emotion that would engulf his entire being throughout an emotional train-wreck of a day. “I don’t know how to feel, but I’ve got to go through it. You want to go out knowing you were still doing the job well.”

Really well. None of his Notre Dame teams ever finished with a losing record. Only once – in 2011 – did the Irish fail to win at least 10 games. His teams were good in the Big East (two league coach of the year honors) and in the ACC (one coach of the year). The Irish made 16 trips to the NCAA Tournament during his 17 seasons.

Clark contemplated leaving in 2016. His contract was up. He was already north of 70. He coaxed himself to give it one more year, and then would talk with athletic director Jack Swarbrick at season’s end.

There really wasn’t much to discuss.

“Everything I did this year, I knew this year was going to be the last one,” Clark said. “That was very difficult.”

So were the nine days between the end of the season and the retirement announcement. Everything seemed so normal. The Irish followed through on their post-season rituals – from, in Clark’s words, meeting to “tidy up” the locker room after the season, to the ceremonial removal of the nets on the goals.

Through it all, Clark stayed silent. That was hard. Maybe the hardest. Many around the program operated as if he were coming back. Only he wasn't.

“Walking around campus, you’re thinking this will be the last time you’ll be the head coach at Notre Dame,” Clark said. “But you move on.”

A new day dawned Wednesday. The sun shined. Temperatures flirted with 50 degrees. It was an ideal day for some soccer. But something about the game had changed.

“College soccer is diminished because Bobby Clark’s not in it,” said Georgetown coach Brian Wiese, who played goalie for Clark at Dartmouth and spent five years with him at Stanford as an assistant and another five at Notre Dame. “I do this because of Bobby. It’s why I coach.

“It’s a little surreal not to have the old Boss around.”

The pinnacle

When Notre Dame and Maryland met in Chester, Pa., for the 2013 national championship, Wiese was in the PPL Park stands, just as Clark had been for him the previous year when Georgetown fell short of its ultimate goal. Sitting among his former Dartmouth teammates, and near former players from Stanford and from Notre Dame, Wiese remembers one thought about the Irish rolling time and again through his head as the minutes slowly passed.

Don’t screw this up. Not necessarily for themselves, but for the Boss.

“It’s so hard to get there,” Wiese said. “Once you do, you never know if you’re going to get back.”

Clark never had to worry about getting back. Notre Dame won 2-1 for its first national championship. Asked about what arguably is the highest point in his college coaching career, the former goalie deflected it away like a soft penalty shot. There were other teams just as talented, just as gifted, just as driven, that didn’t get the chance to cash it all in like that 2013 team. With so many snapshots from his 17 seasons in South Bend, Clark cannot single out one year, one player, one moment for fear of leaving out five or 10 or 15 just as special ones.

But Wiese knows how much the national championship meant to Clark.

“It’s what he deserves,” he said. “That was the consensus. When it did happen, it was like, ‘thank goodness.’”

Clark never figured to stick around long enough to see that 2013 championship season. He wasn't looking to leave Stanford. Then he did. If he could stay at Notre Dame for, say 10 seasons, win a few games, maybe even lose a few, he’d be ready to move on to the next challenge.

But Clark couldn’t bring himself to leave Notre Dame. So he stayed. Because of the place. Because of the people. Especially the fellow coaches he’d see daily around the Joyce Center. He looked forward to what became a morning routine of getting a cup of coffee in the coaches’ room. There, he’d cross paths with someone from a different sport, then just get to talking. About coaching. And talking. About family. And talking. About life. A two-minute trip often stretched into 20. Then 30.

Clark was as personable as he was professional. And he was a pro's pro.

“I just loved coming to work every day,” Clark said. “People were so energetic around the athletic department. It’s amazing how much I learned just getting a cup of coffee. I’ll miss that.

“I’ll miss the people.”

And they’ll miss him.

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Twitter: @tnoieNDI

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