Robert Morris football turns around behind Bernard Clark Jr., its ‘beast’ of a coach
The 1988 Orange Bowl pitting No. 2 Miami against No. 1 Oklahoma featured countless future pros, including eventual first-rounders such as Michael Irvin, Keith Jackson, Steve Walsh and Bennie Blades.
However, it was Hurricanes sophomore middle linebacker Bernard Clark Jr. — making his first collegiate start — who earned MVP honors, finishing with 14 tackles in Miami’s 20-14 victory.
These days, Clark is just as valuable at Robert Morris. The second-year coach rapidly has rebuilt the Colonials (5-4, 4-0 Northeast Conference) after three straight 2-9 seasons. Robert Morris hosts Duquesne (6-2, 4-0) at 1 p.m. Saturday with first place on the line.
“We felt like last year we weren’t finishing games how we needed to,” Clark said.
“We had to turn the culture around and make sure we had the right attitude, the right guys. As corny as it sounds, it comes from the movie ‘Drumline,’ but ‘one band, one sound.’ ”
Listed at 6-foot-2 and 247 pounds during his playing days, Clark still looks like he could punish opposing running backs at age 52. That’s part of what endears him to his players.
“We all look up to Coach Clark. He’s a beast,” Colonials All-American senior tight end Matthew Gonzalez said. “We all want to be like Coach Clark when we grow up. He holds us accountable. He sets a high standard for everybody.
“They call him Tiger. People want nicknames like him. He’s a fun guy to be around. But when he’s on the field, we know we have to take things seriously.”
Gonzalez said players have watched highlights of Clark from the ’88 Orange Bowl, but their coach isn’t one to brag about it.
Dave Wannstedt, though, remembers it well. The former Pitt coach was the Hurricanes defensive coordinator that day, and he recalls delivering the news Clark would be starting in place of George Mira, the leading tackler in school history at the time who failed a drug test.
“I said, ‘Hey Tiger, we need extra film this week because you’re starting,’ ” Wannstedt said this week by phone. “He didn’t flinch. That was the great thing about him.”
Clark said telling his parents he would be starting was his favorite memory about that week.
“The atmosphere was something Coach (Jimmy) Johnson and Coach Wannstedt had prepared me for, because at that point, Miami had played in like six ‘Games of the Century,’ ” Clark said with a laugh. “My teammates were like, ‘Hey, you’ve done this your entire career here. You’ve been here for three years. (He had redshirted.) You know what we expect out of you.’ ”
Sure enough, Clark delivered in the matchup of unbeatens, helping limit a Sooners offense that had been averaging 499.7 yards to 255.
“It was a game where you couldn’t hide anybody,” Wannstedt said. “Oklahoma ran the old-fashioned triple option. On every play, your linebackers had to be involved.
“If he didn’t play well and know what to do and get everyone lined up, we weren’t going to win.”
Clark won another national championship as a senior when Miami defeated Alabama, 33-25, in the Sugar Bowl. The Cincinnati Bengals drafted Clark in the third round in 1990, but his NFL career lasted only two years because, as Clark put it, “I wasn’t a student of the game.”
Although Wannstedt said he saw coaching potential in Clark, it was nothing Clark considered until 1997. That’s when a friend asked him to help out at a high school in Lakeland, Fla.
“God guided me in the right direction,” Clark said. “To be honest with you, it’s not about the X’s and O’s but about the Jimmys and the Joes. I love working with these young men more than I like dealing with the X’s and O’s.”
Clark gradually climbed the coaching ladder, including a one-year stint as Pitt linebackers coach under Wannstedt in 2010. In 2014, Greg Gattuso, a former Duquesne coach and Pitt assistant, hired Clark as defensive coordinator at Albany.
Clark spent four seasons there before getting hired by the Colonials in December 2017. Achieving success, however, took more than a culture change. Clark needed talent, and his first two recruiting classes are making an impact.
Sophomore linebacker Aniel Buzzacco ranks ninth in FCS with 10.6 tackles per game, and senior safety Mason Gray, a transfer from Albany, is second on the team with 78 tackles. They have anchored a defense that allows 171 passing yards per game, eighth best in the nation.
Robert Morris was predicted to finish seventh of eight teams in the preseason coaches’ poll, so few saw this turnaround coming. Wannstedt, though, is not surprised.
“He knows what it takes to win from an effort standpoint, from a practice standpoint,” Wannstedt said. “He’s been around Heisman Trophy winners, Outland winners, a bunch of first-round picks, so he understands you have to have players to win games. He understands the importance of recruiting.
“He relates well to the players. He’s going to get on their butts and be as tough on them as I was on him, but the players are going to respond to him and respect him. He’s got a lot going for him.”
Jeff Vella is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .