Twelve years ago, on a cloudy April afternoon in Richland,
Wash., Cal rugby coach Jack Clark watched 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.
he'd said, "I hope you don't mind that I drive a Pinto."
Clark is as much a fixture in Berkeley as veggie burgers.