Better Men, Better Husbands, Better Fathers: Bernard Clark Discusses his Football Career

Bernard+Clark+has+had+a+wild+football+journey%2C+and+CSN+sat+down+with+him+this+week.+Photo+Credit%3A+Sam+Anthony

Bernard Clark has had a wild football journey, and CSN sat down with him this week. Photo Credit: Sam Anthony

By Tyler Gallo and Nick Hedderick

Editors Note: The original version of this article stated that RMU Football’s first game against James Madison was on February 28 instead of February 27. – 02/09/20 9:52AM

Bernard Clark has had a battle-hardened path to where he stands today as the head coach of RMU football. He played for one of the most dominant college football teams of the 1980s, became a third-round draft pick in the NFL, and worked his way up the collegiate coaching ladder for more than two decades, being named the head coach of the Robert Morris in 2018. Clark is no stranger to new challenges, and the Colonials are about to embark on one heading into a brand-new conference in the Big South.

Clark, who grew up in Tampa, Florida, saw his football career start around the same age many kids try football out, suiting up for youth football in the Tampa area at the age of eight. He received more backing from one parent than the other, having his mother support the football lifestyle more than his father.

Following his youth and high school career, he attended the University of Miami as a middle linebacker in 1985. Clark enjoyed the ‘brotherhood’ atmosphere at Miami, growing up the youngest of four and being the only boy. The brotherhood of Miami was one of the main reasons he attended the school.

Clark at Miami. Photo Credit: University of Miami Athletics

“When I got to Miami, it felt like a brotherhood,” Clark said. “The guys there took care of me, and the camaraderie was unmatched. The greatest thing about Miami, even after winning five national championships under three coaches, was that the team was so good. When someone would mess up, it would be the other players keeping them in line.”

Clark joined Miami in the second season of Jimmy Johnson’s tenure. Johnson, a Pro and College Football Hall of Famer, coached Miami to a 52-9 record from 1985-88 and won a National Championship in 1987. Clark takes a lot of his coaching values now from Johnson.

“Coach Johnson’s degree was in psychology, and if I had a chance to go back to college now, I probably would have gotten a psychology degree instead of business management,” Clark said. “He was a player’s coach, his door was always open for conversation, and I will still reach out to him and talk to him from time to time, like on Father’s Day or when he got into the Hall of Fame.”

At Miami, Johnson allowed his players to be flamboyant and run up the score, which led to the 1987 Championship and another in 1989 under Dennis Erickson. While the coaches certainly helped fuel the success of those seasons, Clark testifies that the hard work of the players was key as well.

“Back then, it was National Championship or nothing being an independent team,” he said. “The thing that drove us the most coming back every summer was to win that championship. The thing I remember the most from Miami, even being 55-5 during my time there, was that guys believed we could win no matter what. We may have gotten in fights, but it was like a brotherhood.”

The Hurricanes of that era were infamous for their unfavorable reviews by the media, being known as the ‘Bad Boys of College Football’ and their 1988 game against Notre Dame colloquially being known as ‘Catholics vs. Convicts’. Clark was adamant that the ‘Convicts’ moniker did not affect the team, and Coach Johnson brought the team away from it.

“One of the best things about Coach Johnson and Miami was that he changed the graduation rate from 15-percent to around 80-percent when he left,” Clark said. “Catholics vs. Convicts didn’t bother us, I am just mad it wasn’t Convicts vs. Catholics.”

Clark’s college career was highlighted by his MVP performance in the 1988 Orange Bowl, a game he started in place of the suspended George Mira, recording 14 total (12 solo) tackles, as the undefeated Hurricanes knocked off the undefeated Oklahoma Sooners 20-14. The biggest reason for Clark being able to slot into the game so easily was the team having a ‘next man up’ mentality all year.

“We had a sign that ran from the training room from the locker room that read ‘Preparation + Opportunity = Success’, and I read that every day,” he said. “When the opportunity came, I was more than prepared. I knew I could slot in and not miss a beat. I think that spoke to the brotherhood at Miami. My dad spoke to me before the game and told me that I didn’t need to go out and prove anything, just to play my game. That was the biggest reason for my success.”

Following his Miami career, Clark was drafted in the third round of the 1990 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals, remembering that he did not want anyone at his house for a draft party, but returning to a house of more than 200 people. Clark suited up in the preseason for the Bengals before playing in the regular season. Suiting up in front of his family during the preseason in Tampa was a special moment, and getting knocked down in front of them was his ‘Welcome to the NFL’ moment, refusing to be taken out of the game.

Bernard Clark with the Bengals

The Bengals played to a 9-7 record in 1990, winning the AFC Central and making the playoffs. After routing the Houston Oilers on Wild Card Weekend, they traveled to Los Angeles to take on the Raiders, and Clark stepped up to play in that game. Despite the loss and being on the road, the atmosphere was unbelievable.

“That was the game that my teammate Kevin Walker injured Bo Jackson in that freak accident,” Clark said. “The atmosphere [in Los Angeles] was unbelievable. After playing in national championships and playoffs in the first year of [my NFL career], I believed it would keep rolling, but that is not how things turned out.”

The 1991 season played out a bit differently for Clark, playing one game for the Bengals before being waived, getting claimed by the Seattle Seahawks. He would play two games and spend three weeks there, but then be waived again and went right back to Cincinnati, spending the remainder of the season there. While Clark kept the mentality of playing on whatever team he was on, he still thinks the season was mentally tough having to move across the country and back.

“It’s tough when you’re working hard, but the [results] aren’t happening for you,” Clark said. “Mentally, it is tough, but when you’re [on a team], you play [for that team]. Having to get settled in Seattle for three weeks and then moving back to Cincinnati was a weird situation… but that’s the way football goes.”

Following getting cut by Dallas a year later, Clark joined the Orlando Predators of the AFL for two seasons, and he remembered how fun it was and how much he enjoyed the smaller field. He played there before selling cars for nearly five years and deciding to get into coaching.

After working with some high schools, Clark began his ascent up the coaching ladder, starting as the defensive ends coach at James Madison from 1998-99 and then became the linebackers and special teams coach at Liberty from 2000-03. While coaching was almost not an option for Clark, he enjoyed it nonetheless.

“Coaching was not something I wanted to do [after my career],” Clark said. “I never thought I would be coaching. I let God decide what my path was going to be after selling cars, and he brought me back to football. When I coached for the high school, I fell in love with it… I didn’t get into coaching because I wanted to coach football, I got into it because I was able to help young men become better men, better husbands, and better fathers. That’s always been my mantra. Football molded me into the man I am today, and to do that for other young men is the best thing about it.”

Following his stint at Liberty, he would bounce around for the next several years, coaching at FIU, USF, Hampton, Pittsburgh, and Colorado State with second stints at FIU and Hampton. He believes it was a mixture of the opportunity running its course or finding a new job elsewhere as the reason why he moved so much.

“[Moving] is a part of the job, especially if you want to excel,” Clark said. “Every place I have gone, I have learned something from it. Whether it was a bad situation or a good situation… you learn something everywhere you go.”

In 2014, Clark found a home as the defensive coordinator of Albany, a position he held until he arrived at Robert Morris in 2018, coaching the Great Danes to the ninth-ranked defense in the FCS. With defense coming at a premium in college football nowadays, Clark stressed the importance of defense in today’s game.

“No matter how crazy this game gets, it is always going to come down to two things, tackling and running,” Clark said. “If you can’t run and tackle, you won’t be able to win on defense. If you can’t run the ball down the field and score, you can’t win on offense. You have to be defensively and fundamentally sound.”

Clark joined RMU in the 2018 season, and after another struggle in NEC play in 2018, the team went 5-1 in 2019 and completely turned their capabilities around. He credits this to the job the coaching staff and players did.

Photo Credit: David Auth

“Coach [Dave] Plungas did a great job last season,” Clark said. “When he first got here, he designed the defense how he thought I would like… he did a great job of developing the defense better.”

The 2018 season got off to a rocky start, facing off against FCS powerhouse James Madison early on in the campaign in a game where RMU was thrashed 73-7, which is a team they will face again this season. This game was both a learning experience and a tough night altogether for Clark and the Colonials.

“I devoted my life to Christ, and part of that is not swearing,” he said. “If I swear, I do a 100-yard run for every swear. That game, we stopped competing, and at half I let loose. I had to do 1,800 yards of up-downs.”

After that strong season in the NEC, the team moved to the Big South, and despite losing some big names, Clark is happy with the team he has now, especially with players returning. He is also happy about being able to practically redshirt incoming freshmen this season due to COVID allowing players to have an extra year of eligibility.

Since Clark has stepped foot at Robert Morris, he has adopted the mantra of ‘Better men, better husbands, better fathers’ which is something that has surrounded the team ever since. Speaking on that, he wants to make sure every player and every recruit plays on the field the right way and is strong intellectually off the field.

“When guys come in, we really only promise them one thing,” Clark said. “Not that they’ll get a scholarship, not that they’ll start or play… but that they will graduate from college and play some great football. A lot of guys have NFL aspirations… but if you’re not going to class, you can’t even play here. When guys first get here, we talk to them about getting their degree. Not only are we teaching them about things they can learn in football, but things they can learn in life.”

The team is headed to the Big South Conference as an associate member before becoming a full member next season. While further travel will be difficult, the step-up in the competition is something Clark is looking forward to. As for his expectations for this season, he is ready to compete once again.

“I think all the players are chomping at the bit to play again,” Clark said. “The NEC had some great competition, but it is at another level in the Big South. Teams on our schedule like Kennesaw State, Monmouth, and James Madison are going to be a challenge. Plus we get to go to the South and get out of some of this cold weather.”

The Colonials will begin play on February 27 when they head to James Madison. Clark is starting his third year as coach of the Colonials and is ready to take on this new challenge.

You can follow Coach Clark on Twitter (@80sCane57) and RMU Football (@RMUFootball).