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Bulldog Meets Teddy Bear: Dartmouth’s Clark Keeps O-Line in Line

  • Keith Clark, Dartmouth College football's line coach, talks with a Big Green player during a Sept. 21, 2010, practice on the Blackman Fields. Clark hails from the Pittsburgh area and played at Pennsylvania's Lafayette College. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint » Purchase a reprint »

  • Dartmouth College offensive line coach Keith Clark directs a Nov. 15, 2017, drill on Memorial Field. Big Green tackle Ben Hagaman is at left. Dartmouth hosts Princeton today in the Ivy League teams' season finale. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint » Purchase a reprint »

  • Keith Clark, a Dartmouth College football assistant coach, listens to a tour guide during the team's Sept. 20, 2013, visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Big Green made the visit the day before playing at Butler University. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint » Purchase a reprint »

  • Dartmouth College offensive coordinator Keith Clark, right, celebrates a victory at Yale with Will Guinee on Oct. 11, 2014. Clark has been with the Big Green since 2009 and has coached 26 years in the Ivy League. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint » Purchase a reprint »

  • Dartmouth College football assistant coach Keith Clark welcomes his son, Kaelan, to the end of an Aug. 25, 2010, practice on the Blackman Fields. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint » Purchase a reprint »



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, November 18, 2017

Hanover — Dartmouth College’s football linemen were slogging through drills behind Memorial Field’s north end zone on Tuesday. A gray, chilly day had dissolved into a cold twilight, and there wasn’t much energy as, one by one, the defensive linemen tried to run over or around their offensive counterparts and sack an imaginary quarterback.

Blowing the whistle to end one matchup, offensive line coach Keith Clark took several steps into the battle zone and paused, glancing left and right at the padded behemoths.

“This is a 4-second drill,” Clark said, a slight edge in his voice. “Not a 2-second drill.”

No one sprang into wild action, but the drill’s intensity rose. When Clark speaks, people listen because 26 years of Ivy League coaching experience wrapped in a state trooper’s demeanor is not easily ignored.

The Big Green enters today’s season finale with visiting Princeton in the hunt for its 19th Ivy League title, and Clark is a significant reason why.

With a growl worthy of a pirate captain and a measured stare, the 6-foot-3 Clark can make a gruff first impression. Observe a little longer, however, and a more nuanced man emerges.

The western Pennsylvania native is a cerebral teacher who demands his players exhibit proper footwork, hand placement and posture even as they’re half of a 600-pound collision. His sense of humor is legendary, sarcastic and sometimes cutting. It’s often delivered in deadpan style. You might not want to be the target of a Clark barb, but you’ll chuckle along with everyone else when you recall it.

“He lightens the mood and reminds us it’s a game,” said Dartmouth defensive coordinator Don Dobes. “At the same time, all the little details matter a lot to him.”

Jack Siedlecki, who coached Yale from 1997-2008, was an assistant at Pennsylvania’s Lafayette College when Clark played offensive tackle there during the mid-1980s. Siedlecki said Clark’s mastery of minutiae and his contagious enthusiasm for it rubs off on his charges. Clark worked at Yale for 12 years before coming to Dartmouth in 2009.

“The offensive line is the hardest place to coach, because you’re working with five guys and a tight end in one scheme,” Siedlecki said. “You absolutely have to have a teacher there, someone who can do it on the (dry-erase) board and walk through it on the field. Someone who understands all the steps the kids have to learn.”

Phil Berton, a junior lineman whom Clark has trained to play center, guard and tackle, and who also dabbles at tight end, said his coach synthesizes large amounts of complex information and presents it in ways his troops can easily digest. Counter to common perception, offensive linemen need to be among the smartest players on the field, but a defense’s formations and modes of attack are bewildering if studied from scratch.

“His two main things are effort and perception,” Berton said. “He sets a high bar with his expectations, but he’s very clear about them, so he doesn’t need to be screaming at us all the time.”

Clark is the only child of a mother, Joan, who taught high school, and a father, Ken, who sold various items from grass seed to power tools and equipment. The family lived in Venetia, Pa., an unincorporated and rural area south of Pittsburgh and not far from the better-known suburbs of Upper St. Clair and Bethel Park.

A neighbor worked for the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, so during their heyday of the 1970s and ’80s, Clark attended nearly every home game. He started his own lawn-mowing business and attended Peters Township High School, where his high school coach despaired whether the redheaded kid would ever crack the starting lineup.

“Somehow, the determination light went on, and I found a passion in the weight room and just for working in general,” Clark said. “I was tired of being a fat kid and not as good an athlete, and I decided to do something about it.”

The Naval Academy came calling, but Clark wasn’t sure he could handle its rigor in addition to the demands of school and football. So he went to Lafayette, where he started at left tackle for three years, wrestled for two and majored in metallurgical engineering. There were still steel mills looking for technical help back home, and it seemed a good way to aid future employment.

“My interests were reading and writing and political science and government,” said Clark, who pondered a career in national-level law enforcement. “But I was good at math and science, and once I was embedded in engineering, I had the mentality that it wasn’t going to beat me, as opposed to really enjoying it.”

Coaching stops at Lafayette, Rutgers, Maine and Wagner led to a five-year gig at Columbia, where the Lions briefly revived during the mid-1990s. At Yale, he was the offensive coordinator his last nine years, a role he reprised with Dartmouth for six seasons. The Big Green shared the 2015 Ivy League title, its first since 1996, but after last year’s 4-6 mark, head coach Buddy Teevens fired three coaches and busted Clark back down to the offensive line.

“It’s a blow to your ego, and it sets you on your heels as far as what the future holds,” Clark said. “You’re embarrassed and mad at your boss and mad at yourself. You go through different stages, but at the end, you still have to show up and coach your guys. I owe it to them and the people I work with.”

Clark’s had to swallow his pride, but it doesn’t appear he’s made waves or even a ripple. He actually seems reinvigorated by returning to his roots.

“He’s a professional and a company man,” Teevens said. “We had a long conversation, and I opted to keep him because he’s a gifted instructor and he’s a loyal guy.”

The silver lining is that Clark enjoys a few more hours at home per week during the season. He lives in Lyme with his wife, Kristen, and their 10-year-old son, Kaelan, a budding hockey player who’s well-known around the football field and offices. Reading, saltwater fly fishing and the occasional cigar occupy some of the coach’s free time during the spring and summer. Clark earned a martial arts black belt while at Yale, but fatherhood has put that discipline on hold.

“Keith has an amazing work ethic and he’s tireless,” said Kristen Clark, who was introduced to her husband when she worked in Yale’s publishing services division. “I never realized how unstructured I was until I met him, but he’s fun and he gives Kaelan every bit of time and energy he can.”

Clark said being a father has enhanced his coaching, because he’s now more cognizant that his players are someone else’s kids. That doesn’t stop him from barking instructions, however. They flew consistently during a Thursday drill, when he reminded his linemen to arch their backs, stick their chests outs and deliver violent, precise blows to oncoming rushers.

“Knock his arm off your throat!” Clark shouted, amid the sounds of popping shoulder pads and creaking knee braces. “Stop his first move and anticipate his second.”

There’s no telling exactly what Princeton will deliver today. It’s a strong bet, however, that Clark will have his men prepared.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.