Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Bernard Clark

Linebacker Bernard Clark and head coach Jimmy Johnson celebrate after Miami's 20-14 victory over Oklahoma in the 1988 Orange Bowl

Some football players have a knack for playing their best in big games. Former University of Miami linebacker Bernard Clark was one of those clutch athletes. He wasn't an All American. He played briefly in the NFL as a backup linebacker. You won't find his name on the list of great Hurricane linebackers like Ray Lewis, Dan Morgan or Micheal Barrow. But when national championships were at stake, no linebacker in UM history took his game to a higher level than Bernard Clark.

Born and raised in Tampa, Clark was given the nickname "Tiger" by his parents when he was a baby. He would always squirm, growl and fight like a tiger when his parents would try to lift him from his crib. Despite a fine career at Tampa's Leto High School, Clark wasn't considered a big name or a blue-chip recruit. His college choices were Miami and Oklahoma State. Clark came to Miami as part of Jimmy Johnson's first recruiting class in 1985. The Hurricanes were coming off a disappointing 8-5 season and Jimmy Johnson was already under fire. The Hurricanes finished the 1984 season with three consecutive excruciating losses to Maryland, Boston College and UCLA in the Fiesta Bowl.

Many questioned if Johnson was the right coach to lead UM after inheriting a program that had won a national championship under his predecesor Howard Schnellenberger. Three UM assistant coaches, Bill Trout, Christ Vagotis and Mike Archer, all quit or left the program by the end of the 1984 season. All three were leftovers from the Schnellenberger regime. The instability in the coaching staff began to affect local recruiting. Dade County's top high school players were no longer considering the Hurricanes and went elsewhere. They included Hialeah Miami Lakes receiver Michael Timpson (Penn State), South Miami linebackers Keith Carter (FSU) and Derrick Thomas (Alabama) and American High offensive lineman Chris Pettaway (LSU). But what fans and critics didn't know was Johnson was quietly assembling a great recruiting class without much fanfare.

Bernard Clark was part of a 1985 recruiting class that included quarterback Steve Walsh, defensive linemen Greg Mark and Jimmie Jones, defensive backs Bobby Harden and Kenny Berry and offensive linemen Bobby Garcia and Rod Holder. It was a small class of players that was not rated high by the recruiting gurus. But this group would go on to become the winningest recruiting class in Hurricane football history. From 1986 to 1989, the Canes went 45-3 and won two national championships. UM finished no lower than #2 in the nation in those years and never lost a home game at the Orange Bowl.

When he signed his letter of intent with Miami, there was nothing particularly special about Clark. He was just another name in a list of anonymous freshmen. He redshirted his freshman season in 1985 and didn't play a down, while developing his skills on the scout team. In 1986, he finally got on the field, but his role was limited to special teams and coming in on "garbage time" when the Hurricanes would blow out opponents and play in the fourth quarter. By 1987, it appeared Clark was no more than a career backup player. George Mira Jr. was the team's starting middle linebacker and UM's all time leading tackler. The Hurricanes went undefeated during the 1987 regular season and Mira was a tackling machine. But just before Miami's national championship showdown with #1 ranked Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, Mira and offensive lineman John O'Neill were suspended by the NCAA for testing positive for steroids. Bernard Clark would finally step out of the shadows and get his chance to start at middle linebacker in the biggest college game of the year.

The Sooners featured a high-powered wishbone attack that averaged 420 yards rushing per game. Without Mira, many believed the Canes would not be able to stop Oklahoma's running game---everybody except Bernard Clark. He spent his first three years of college as an unknown and now it was his time to shine. He was determined to make the most of his opportunity. To stop Oklahoma, Miami's defense had to play disciplined assignment football. Clark's responsibility to was to stop Oklahoma's fullback Lydell Carr. Clark responded by making 14 solo tackles and Carr was relegated as a non-factor. The Hurricanes beat the Sooners 20-14 to capture UM's second national championship. Clark was named the game's defensive MVP.

Clark's stunning performance in the Orange Bowl brought big expectations. How could he top that performance? He finally became the team's full time starting middle linebacker in 1988. The Canes, once again, were college football's premiere team. While Clark played well, he didn't quite play up to expectations. His play was inconsistant. There were times when he wasn't a factor in some games. He wasn't even the most productive linebacker on the team, as fellow Tampa native Maurice Crum led the Canes in tackles with 110. Clark was not the prototype Miami linebacker. At 240 pounds, he was bigger and thicker than the typical Miami linebacker of that time. Miami preferred recruiting smaller and speedier players to play the linebacker position. The Canes finished the 1988 season 11-1, their only blemish was a controversial 31-30 loss to eventual national champion Notre Dame.

The 1989 UM football season was about redemption. Jimmy Johnson had left UM to become the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Dennis Erickson was brought in from Washington State to become the new Canes head coach. The young men who made up the 1985 recruiting class were now fifth year seniors. This group was determined to leave UM on top. But to do this, they would have to beat Notre Dame. For Bernard Clark, this game was personal. Notre Dame had beaten Miami thanks to a controversial fumble call on Canes fullback Cleveland Gary in the fourth quarter in 1988. Notre Dame won the national championship and 23 consecutive games. Miami players believed the championship was stolen from them. They would not let it happen again.

On November 25, 1989, the Orange Bowl was in a frenzy. A then-record crowd of 81,634 packed the stadium. Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz would call it the loudest and most hostile atmosphere he had ever seen. But the Orange Bowl crowd was the least of Notre Dame's worries. Bernard Clark and the Hurricane defense would turn in one of its greatest performances. After Miami took a 10-0 lead, the Irish answered with ten points of their own. Late in the second quarter, Notre Dame linebacker Ned Bolcar intercepted a Craig Erickson pass and returned it for a touchdown to tie the score at 10-10. Notre Dame appeared to capture the momentum and had the Canes on their heels. Then, all of a sudden, Bernard Clark took over the game. With less than two minutes left in the half, Notre Dame quarterback Tony Rice threw a pass in the right flat in the direction of tight end Derek Brown. Clark cut in front of Brown, intercepted the pass and returned it all the way to the Notre Dame 5-yard line. Three plays later, UM fullback Stephen McGuire scored and the Canes took a 17-10 lead and never looked back. The Hurricanes won 27-10 and Clark made an astounding 17 tackles. He dominated from start to finish, making the first and last tackles of the game. It is still the best game I've ever seen played by a University of Miami linebacker. Down went Notre Dame's 23-game win streak and the Canes would capture their third national title.

Bernard Clark would go on to play two seasons in the NFL with the Bengals and Seahawks which consisted just 28 games. He never recaptured the glory in the NFL he experienced at Miami. When his playing career ended, he decided to go into coaching. He eventually returned to South Florida as the defensive coordinator at Florida International University in 2004 under then head coach Don Strock. In 2006 he left FIU to become the defensive line coach at the University of South Florida. He then returned to FIU in 2007 when former UM teammate Mario Cristobal was hired as head coach. He is currently the defensive coordinator at Hampton University in Virginia.

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