The Captain and the Coach
If we take a quick nostalgic glance at the United States fifty years ago, Dwight D. Eisenhower was in his last few years as president. The Cold War was heating up to a boiling point. Richard Nixon and John Kennedy had yet to start preparing for the historic 1960 election. And we were in the last days of the “Leave It To Beaver” America, preparing for the wild invasion of the Beatles and a culture change across the country.
If we fine tune our focus, we can zero in on the University of California. In 1957, Don Clark took over as USC football coach and USC went 1-9, the worst year in Trojan football history. That was during the height of USC’s Pacific Coast Conference sanctions which stemmed from their earlier recruiting violations. In 1958, Coach Clark started turning it around as USC’s record was 4-5-1 with a 4-2-1 mark in the conference and came third. In ‘58, USC had two All-PCC selections, Marlin McKeever and Frank Florentino and former pro football Hall of Famer Ron Mix was playing alongside another lineman star-in-the-making, Monte Clark. In 1959, USC only lost two games, to rivals ND and UCLA. This was Coach Clark's last year. One of Clark’s assistant coaches, a gentleman named John McKay became his replacement. Three years later USC won a National Championship.
If we further tweak the microscope into that past, we can focus all our attention on Ron Mix’s fellow partner on the line, Monte Clark, who was an NFL legacy-in-training. Monte, a defensive and offensive lineman, from the small town of Kingsburg, California co-captained the 1958 Southern California Trojans where he lettered three years. In 1959, Monte was selected in the 4th round of the NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers. In the NFL, Clark was a starting defensive tackle and also started as an offensive tackle for the first three years of his career. After a neck injury, he was traded to the Dallas Cowboys. Clark became the Cowboy’s starting right offensive tackle. Monte was then traded to the Browns where he became their starting offensive tackle for the next seven seasons (’63-’69) including two World Championship games, winning the 1964 World Championship. This was during the Jim Brown era.
In 1970 after eleven years as player, Clark joined Coach Don Shula for six seasons as offensive line coach for the Miami Dolphins. Clark built what many consider one of the best offensive lines in NFL history. Nicknamed “the Mushrooms,” the line was responsible for helping the Dolphins become the first team ever to have two backs rush for over 1,000 yards in a single season. Former Miami linemen Larry Little and Jim Langer are both in the Hall of Fame, while Bob Kuechenberg continues to be nominated every year. Monte and his linemen were a big part of the Dolphins’ three Super Bowls and of course a huge component of the 1972 Dolphins “Perfect Season” team that went 17-0.
Monte left Miami to become Head Coach for the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions. As coach of Detroit, his 1983 team won their first division championship in twenty-six years. His career coaching regular season record was 51 - 67 - 1 (0.433) and he finished with a career postseason record of 0 – 2. His last season as a head coach was 1984. Monte’s NFL coaching career placed him in every NFL city across America, and put him in touch with such football luminaries as DonShula, Billy Sims, Willie Wood, Edward DeBartolo Jr., Jim Plunkett, and Jim Brown to name a few. As Monte tells us in the first part of the Herdblog interview, his fantastic journey on the gridiron started in 1956 at Marks Hall on the University of Southern California. We want to thank Coach Monte Clark for giving us this insight into his Trojan background and his extensive NFL career, and give him a rousing "Fight On!"
You are from Kingsburg, California, pretty far up north on the border of Tulare and Kings County which is above Bakersfield. That area is all very rural farm town. What was your high school experience like? What league did you play in? That's a small town now, so I assume back in 1954, the town probably had less than 1000 people. What was that like growing up in a tiny town like that?
Kingsburg, the town where I grew up is about 200 miles north of LA, 200 south of SF, and 200 from the coast. Yes it is a tiny place; only about 3,000 people back then. It was originally settled by the Swedes and still is dominated by the Johnsons, Olsons, Nelsons, and the Larsons. My wife Charlotte is from Kingsburg and both of her grandparents are Swedes.
One year ahead of me was a world class athlete and world class person named Rafer Johnson. Rafer won the gold medal for the decathlon, was a starter on John Wooden’s UCLA basketball team, he was the student body president at UCLA and was drafted by the then LA Rams although he never played football in college... The same core of athletes played every sport at Kingsburg High .I think I earned about 14 varsity letters playing football, basketball, baseball and track.
Playing along side a competitor like Rafer, I learned a lot about what it takes to be a winner. We won most everything in all the sports and the last couple of years I think we won all our football games except for one tie and one loss. Rafer’s brother Jimmy was in my wife’s class and Jimmy was a former all-pro corner for the SF 49ers and has been inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.
Just as a side note, Rafer was the person along with “Rosey” Greer, who wrestled the gun away from Sirhan Sirhan when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated at the old Coconut Grove Hotel in LA.
Aside from Rafer and me, our QB Eddie Mascarin was scholarshiped at Cal, Guy Troisi; our full back got one at SC, a couple guys signed into pro baseball. Clarence Treat was a top national high hurdler at Occidental College and later went on to sing with Kenny Rogers and the New Christy Minstrels. Rafer’s brother Jimmy followed him to UCLA –like I said we had quite a core of athletes for a school of 400. Their were 82 in my class.
I can’t remember one day during high school where I didn’t stay after school to practice whatever sport it was at the time.
I must admit, it didn’t hurt that I was 6”5”, 255 lbs when I got out of Kingsburg High.
The town is so small, the city limit signs were on the same post-back to back and our number one industry was taking bottles back to the store; but it was a wonderful place to grow up. A couple of non-athletes smoked regular cigarettes but that was about the extent of the “bad apples”—we never heard of drugs.
What was your recruiting like, and what sold you on USC? Additionally, being a small town boy, what was the transition like for you to arrive in big, bad Los Angeles?
I was recruited by, UOP—then COP, Fresno State, Cal Berkley, Stanford and USC. I think my final decision to choose USC was my simple feeling that they cared about me more than the others. I was the MVP in the first annual Fresno County City–County all star game but I didn’t have all the credentials of my fellow recruits at SC—we just didn’t have the All-CIF stuff in the “valley”. I didn’t even know about all of that until I got there and found out most all my teammates we so honored.
I’ll never forget the first time I drove down to enroll in school. I was on the big freeways like the Harbor Freeway for so long I thought—it couldn’t plausibly be this far to USC. After getting lost in China Town, I finally got back on the “Harbor” then eventually pulled up and parked in front of my dorm—“Marks Hall”. I sat in the car quite a while wondering should I get out, go in and make a go of this whole thing or head back to Kingsburg if I could find it.
I soon became very comfortable and made some great lifelong friends in football and at Marks Hall. I like to tell people that our freshman QB at SC was David Nelson of Ozzie and Harriot. Tarzan (Mike Henry) was the tackle on the other side of me and we used to eat on weekends in the dorm where Marlo Thomas lived. I got to know Jack Linkletter and hung around a little with him occasionally. We used to get a part in movie as an “extra” at times so the “bumpkin” from Kingsburg loved it there. Some of my closest friends were a couple of players from Fresno San Joaquin Memorial, "Jingles”, (sidekick for the cowboy Wyatt Earp on TV everyday)
Larry Snider and Frank Fiorentino a starting guard for USC. Larry Boies from Chowchilla was a good friend too. Larry and I were in the same league all through high school.
Dennis Krueger an All American in football, basketball and track from Cody, Wyoming became a close friend, Dennis had a fantastic sense of humor—we still stay in touch. An example of his humor—once at a ski resort he headed to the front desk of the lodge to ask about using the men’s room. He was told it was under repair and wouldn’t be ready until Thanksgiving—his response was---"I think I can hold until Halloween but I doubt if I can make it to Thanksgiving!”
After my senior year of football at USC, I formed my basketball team named “The No Game Seniors” and entered the University Intramural League. We had a bunch of football players on the team and most notably Willie Wood, our QB, now in the NFL Hall of Fame as a Safety form Vince Lombardi’s World Champion Packers. We won the University Championship hands down—I believe Willie was better than anyone including the USC varsity basketball squad!
One of the disadvantages when you leave USC and go on to live in other parts of the country, I missed not being closer and continuing first hand with many of those friendships made at USC. I love hearing personal stuff about old friends---occasionally we make calls to each other and email is great for that. I love catching up on things and hearing from old friends. I must admit, some of the reams of material I get about recruits is a little more than I need to know at this stage but hearing anything personal is a joy and a treat and I can’t get enough of that. I’m in the phone book in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan if you want to surprise me.
What was it like to play under Don Clark? He employed a hurry-up offense. What was that like to play? What difference do you see in the coaches of fifty years ago, and the college coaches of today? You also had an individual named John McKay was as an assistant coach for Clark. This McKay character went on to have a pretty good career at USC. What were your impressions of McKay, and did you foresee him becoming a legendary coach?
John McKay was just coming to USC as I was forming the “NO Game Seniors” after my eligibility and getting ready to head off for the NFL.
In regards to playing for Don Clark I can tell you this, when I think of Don Clark the words class, gentleman, dignity, respect, honor and the term “a cut above” are the first things that comes to me. In my first half time session with the 49ers, we were losing and coach Red Hickey launched into a series of expletives—the likes I had certainly never heard from Coaches Jess Hill or Don Clark at USC. I put on my helmet during half time that first day because I thought the next move might be to start slapping players around.
In the next installment of the Monte Clark interview, Monte will expand further on his Trojan career, give us his thoughts on coaching in the '50s compared to the '80s and compare both eras to today's coaches, and finally Monte will tell us how his Trojan background has enriched his life.