Monte Clark was a master at football’s trenches

Monte Clark led the Detroit Lions

Monte Clark led the Detroit Lions to the playoffs twice in seven seasons as their head coach (1978-84).

Few football players or coaches new both sides of the ball like Monte Clark, who spent five decades in pro football and won two Super Bowl rings.

Clark was a player, assistant coach, coordinator, head coach, and senior adviser to several teams from 1958 when he was drafted as a lineman in the fourth round by the San Francisco 49ers, to his final season in 2008 as a special front office consultant for the Detroit Lions. Along the way, the likable and well-respected Clark played with and against some of the greats of the game, rubbed elbows with legendary coaches, and found himself on the scene for many historic football moments.

The pinnacle of Clark’s career in professional football might have come on December 27, 1964, at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland in the NFL Championship Game. As the starting right tackle for the Browns, he drew the tough assignment of taking on Colts’ defensive end Gino Marchetti, a future Hall of Famer known for his fierce pass rushing skill. But Clark held Marchetti in check that afternoon and the Browns posted a stunning 27-0 shutout win to claim the title. It was the last time a Cleveland team won a championship until the Cavaliers captured the NBA title in June of this year.

While Clark had a great game that day protecting his quarterback and winning the NFL title, he achieved several other notable accomplishments as a player and coach. In 15 starts for the 49ers, the team that drafted him out of USC, Clark recovered two fumbles as a defensive lineman. Though he was young, he was a team leader. Clark knew right away he wanted to learn everything about the National Football League, with an eye on being a coach some day.

“I might have set a record for most questions by a rookie,” Clark said about his time with the 49ers.

Just prior to the start of his fourth NFL season, Clark was traded to the Dallas Cowboys, the laughingstock of the league at that time. The Cowboys were only two years removed from their embarrassing entry into the NFL when they went 0-11-1. Their head coach was Tom Landry, a native Texan with a square jaw who was set on building the Cowboys into a winning team. As part of his plan, Landry switched Clark to the offensive side of the ball, a move that had a huge impact on the young man’s career.

“Becoming an offensive lineman forced me to see the game differently, to think about it more strategically,” Clark said later after he was a successful offensive line coach.

Clark spent only one season under Landry before going to Cleveland, but he flourished in his new role as protector and run blocker. With the Browns he teamed with fellow offensive linemen Gene Hickerson, Dick Schafrath, John Wooten, and John Morrow to form a blocking scheme that helped running back Jim Brown. In Clark’s first season with Cleveland, Brown ran for a career-high 1,833 yards. That offensive line helped the team to an average of more than 140 yards rushing per game that season. Clark spent six seasons with the Browns, serving as part of a group that advanced to two NFL title games.

When Clark finally took over his shoulder pads for the final time he was 33 years old when first-year head coach Don Shula hired him as his offensive line coach for the Miami Dolphins. Quickly, Clark endeared himself to the tough Shula, shaping a fantastic “O Line” that included two Hall of Famers: Jim Langer and Larry Little, as well as all-pro Bob Keuchenberg. Under Clark, the Dolphins’ led the league in rushing three times and set an NFL record cor rushing yards. They also became the first team with two 1,000-yard rushers. One of those backs was Larry Csonka, of whom Clark famously said, “When Csonka goes on safari, the lions roll up their windows.”

In his second season on Shula’s staff in Miami, the Dolphins went to the Super Bowl, only to lose to Landry and the Cowboys. The following year the Dolphins went undefeated and won Super Bowl VII. In that game, Clark’s line helped the team to 188 yards rushing. They repeated the next year as they averaged 234 yards rushing per game in the postseason, capped by a victory in Super Bowl VIII over the Vikings.

With two Super Bowl rings on his hand, in his final season with Miami, Clark was elevated to the role of Shula’s offensive coordinator. The Dolphins went from 5th to 3rd in the league in scoring under Clark but they lost in the first round of the divisional playoffs.

Still only in his late 30s but with great success under his belt in Miami as part of a talented staff, Clark was a sought-after man for a head coaching job. Finally, on January 13, 1976, he was hired by the San Francisco 49ers, the team that had originally drafted him 18 years earlier. He was the youngest coach in the NFL at the time and he was also given the title of director of player personnel, essentially making him the Niners general manager.

Clark’s tenure on the San Francisco sideline was a rollercoaster. He led his team to wins in six of their first seven games and the young Niners were suddenly the talk of pro football. But then the team dropped an overtime game to the St. Louis Cardinals that started a four-game losing skid. Even though the defeated the Saints in the final game of the season, Clark’s team ended at 8-6 and did not qualify for the playoffs. The offseason held more drama: new team owner Edward J. DeBartolo Jr. asked Clark to relinquish his role as GM, but when he refused, he was fired. Clark’s short stay by the Bay was over in controversial fashion. At the press conference that announced the new ownership, Clark’s firing was announced and stunned the audience. One team executive said, “This is the sorriest day in 49er history.” Later, Clark would feel somewhat vindicated when the Niners went through a terrible stretch and hired four coaches in three years as they stumbled through the rest of the 1970s.

Clark didn’t stay out of coaching long, sitting out one season. Then, on January 11, 1978, he was named head coach of the Detroit Lions, another storied franchise struggling through a poor period. In a reversal of his season in San Francisco, the Lions lost six of their first seven under Clark, but the team jelled to win six of their last nine games and finish the ’78 season with a 7-9 mark, a one-game improvement.

In Detroit, Clark found a home and he eventually spent nearly 30 years associated with the team. One of his first decisions was to make Detroit-native Gary Danielson his starting quarterback, replacing veteran Greg Landry in a move that was unpopular with fans. In Clark’s second year in Motown, Danielson was hurt and the team drifted and played terribly, losing 14 of 16 games, six losses coming by ten or more points. The poor season landed Detroit the #1 pick in the 1980 NFL Draft and the team selected running back Billy Sims, the Heisman Trophy winner out of Oklahoma. Sims lit a fire under the Lions and the team won their first four games in 1980. But inconsistent play by the offense led the Lions to miss the playoffs despite a 9-7 record. Through the ’80 season, Clark had four years of head coaching experience and his record was 26-36, but things were looking up in Detroit.

Clark’s philosophy in Detroit drew on his experience: build a running attack behind the offensive line and a pass rush with the defensive line. It worked pretty well with the dynamic Sims and a pass rush known as “Silver Rush.” The Lions made the playoffs in 1982 and the next year they won the NFC Central Division title. In the playoffs they faced Clark’s old team, the 49ers. In a thrilling game, Sims scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter but the Lions missed a field goal with eleven seconds on the clock to lose a heartbreaker, 24-23. The image of Clark on the sideline, hands clasped in prayer as kicker Eddie Murray lined up for the last second field goal was symbolic of the Lions “close-but-no-cigar” success of that era. After his team fell to fourth place, Clark was fired three days after the end of their 1984 season.

In seven seasons as head coach of the Detroit Lions, Clark had a 43-61-1 record. His career head coaching mark was 51-67-1 and he was only 47 years old. Still widely respected, it seemed Clark would get some offers, but few came in the NFL. As a result, Clark stayed out of the game until 1990 when his old friend Don Shula tapped him to return to be his offensive line coach, the role Clark had first taken after retiring as a player. Clark spent two years in Miami before being let go under the Jimmy Johnson regime. In 1998 he was hired by the Lions to be a special adviser to the team in what some saw as a charitable gesture by the ford family. But Clark maintained close ties to the football operations of the team, and he was helped create and develop several plans for the new training facilities at Ford Field.

An NFL champion as a player, a two-time Super Bowl winning assistant coach, Clark was 72 years old when he died on September 16, 2009.

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