Twelve years ago, Oil 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 61 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.