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Feb 22, 2008

Clark following in his father's footsteps

For Jamie Clark, leaving his role as an assistant coach with the Notre Dame men's soccer program to take over the reins at Harvard was a tough decision.

It's become a sports cliché for a coach to talk about how the program he's departing has "become family" to him. But, in Clark's case, he means it literally.

"It is definitely very difficult to leave Notre Dame," Clark said. "I mean, first off, I'm leaving my father. He's been a coaching mentor, as well as my father, throughout my life."

Clark, the son of Notre Dame head coach Bobby Clark, was an assistant at Notre Dame for the past two seasons -- after spending four years in that role at the University of New Mexico prior to coming to South Bend -- and played under his father when Bobby coached at Stanford.

"He didn't really talk to me about [his decision] too much," Bobby Clark said with a laugh. "If I'd have gotten involved in it, I would have encouraged him to stay. … He knew what I wanted, but in a situation like this, it's got to be what Jamie wants. The big thing about being at Harvard is it's really his to deal with. I think it's a great opportunity. It's difficult, but at the same time I think you're very happy to move people onwards and hopefully upwards."

Moving upward from Notre Dame will take some work. While Jamie Clark was at Notre Dame, the Irish were among the top teams in the nation and produced a Hermann Trophy winner in Joseph Lapira. Leaving such a successful team made the move even harder.

However, seeing that the Crimson have the potential to be a top-tier team helped. Having recruited a number of his new squad -- either for Notre Dame or New Mexico -- Clark already is aware of many of his players' abilities even before they take the practice field for the first time. Harvard is also coming off two strong seasons, which could help make the transition even easier.

"John Kerr put this team right in contention," Clark said of his predecessor. "The best thing [about taking over the program] is you have the players knowing and believing they're a good team. What that means for me is that I don't have to create belief. But I do have to harness this talent and try to take them one or two steps further."

Coming from Stanford and Notre Dame, Clark knows how programs like Harvard set priorities and the rigors student-athletes face at these schools in particular.

"At the top institutions, academics are what matters most at the end of the day," he said. "I understand the demands. The nice thing is by being at Stanford, I was part of the team that lost in the national final [in 1998] and we were always ranked in the top five for our last couple years, so I know a balance can be done there where a top academic school can also be a top soccer school in the country. That's where we've got to go."

That's exactly what Harvard athletic director Bob Scalise wants to see and it is the reason he wanted Clark at the Crimson's helm. Asked what about his new coach appealed to Scalise most during the hiring process, the athletic director summed it up in a single word: everything. Then it came down to convincing Clark that it was the right move.

"We told him that we were interested in taking our soccer program to the next level and that we were interested in being his partner in this endeavor," Scalise said.

So Clark thought about it, and opted to return to his Ivy League roots. He had, after all, spent nine years of his childhood in Hanover, N.H., following Dartmouth as his father coached the Big Green soccer team. While Jamie's skills and passion for soccer blossomed during that time, it wasn't always evident to Bobby that his son would follow in his footsteps.

"Jamie was always a coach and when he played for me at Stanford he was a coach on the field … but I never really thought about [him actually becoming a coach]," Bobby Clark said. "It wasn't through me that he found this; it was being the assistant coach at the University of New Mexico. Really it was coach [Jeremy] Fishbein that gave him his first opportunity."

Jamie Clark credits both Fishbein and his father for having shaped him as a coach. As a coach's son, Clark knows there will be comparisons to his father, but he's also aware of their different strengths.

"I'm younger and have more energy at this stage in my career so I really have to use that," Clark said. "That is where I have an advantage. My dad's seen it all. He has experience with every situation, so that's something that I will grow with and learn as time goes on."

The hope is that the Crimson will learn, grow and succeed with him.

Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.