Oftentimes, a coach can be an excellent teacher coaching a specific position or unit, but falls flat on his face as a head coach. In essence, that is what happened to Monte Clark. Although he was instrumental in mentoring a stellar offensive line in Miami, Clark ultimately failed as a head coach for the 49ers and Lions due to a series of unfortunate events. This is his story.
Monte Dale Clark was born on January 24, 193y7 in Kingsburg, California. His athletic pursuits on the gridiron, basketball court, baseball diamond and track at Kingsburg High School got the attention of college recruiters from all over. After leading his team to a 55-0 triumph over Avenal in the championship game and earning MVP honors of the first Fresno City-County All-Star Game, Monte Clark earned a scholarship to USC.
These were not the dynastic Trojans of previous and later generations. While they were coming off a loss in the Rose Bowl to Ohio State and would enjoy winning seasons in Clark's first two years at the school, dark days were ahead. When he was a junior, the school hired Don Clark as their head coach and things quickly fell apart.
The team fell to an embarrassing 1-9 mark while Monte Clark embarked on his first season as a starter, lining up on the offensive and defensive lines alongside future Hall of Famer Ron Mix. The Trojans played better the following year, going 4-5-1 while both Clark and Mix blossomed into the leaders the team needed. When the season ended, Monte Clark was drafted in the fourth round of the 1958 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers.
Like his time at USC, Monte Clark came to San Francisco between periods of triumph. After enjoying several years with an offense filled with future Hall of Famers, including three running backs and quarterback Y.A. Tittle, times were changing in the City by the Bay. By the time Monte Clark signed with the team, Tittle had a year left with the organization before moving to New York.
Monte was moved to defensive tackle in San Francisco, witnessing the team drifting into mediocrity from the trenches. He was traded to Dallas in 1962 who then moved him to right tackle. Before he had stepped foot in their facilities, Monte Clark knew that his time in Dallas was not going to be smooth. With the franchise going into its third year of existence in an era before free agency, the writing was on the wall for another forgettable season.
Still, he accepted his new role as a right offensive tackle, starting with pride and conviction ten times that year as the team went 5-8-1, their best record yet. As an expansion team, the Cowboys were a revolving door in those early years, constantly looking for better players and schemes that would give them the best chance at victory.
With that in mind, Monte Clark was expendable and was traded to the Browns at the end of the season. Finally, after years of suffering loss after loss, Monte was going to a winning organization. Playing alongside Gene Hickerson, Dick Schafrath, John Wooten and John Morrow, Monte Clark helped pave the way for Jim Brown to lead the Browns to their last championship in 1964. It was his first whiff of true greatness and like an addict, Monte Clark wanted more.
Coaching in the Trenches
Soon after he retired as a player in 1969, Monte Clark was hired to coach the Miami Dolphins offensive line shortly after Don Shula moved to town. As a coach, Don Shula would become well known for his ability to win in any fashion. Whether it was on the ground or through the air, by legendary quarterback or little-known-but-always-reliable backup, Shula just had a knack at securing victory in any era.
In those days, Don Shula was married to the ground game. Despite their poor record for their entire existence, the Dolphins still had a lot of talent on the roster when Shula and his hires arrived. Players such as Larry Little, Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, Mercury Morris, Bob Griese, Nick Buoniconti and Manny Fernandez, Shula had a strong core group of men that had the potential to lead the team to much success for the next decade.
As 1970 began, the Dolphins signed guard Bob Kuechenberg and center Jim Langer to join Little on the offensive line, giving Monte Clark arguably the most impressive unit of his coaching career. What followed was a joyous time in Miami. Despite having never had a winning season, the Dolphins went 10-4 that first year, losing to the Raiders in the Divisional Round. The year after that, they went all the way to the Super Bowl, only to lose to the hungry Cowboys. Losing on that big of stage hurt and made the Dolphins determined to never suffer that feeling of anguish again.
They rode that emotion for the next two years. Led by the sextuple of Little, Langer, Kuechenberg, Morris, Kiick and Csonka, Miami won the next two Super Bowls, including a perfect season in 1972. In those days, no one could figure out how to get past the tremendous blocking of Monte Clark's offensive line. They were the perfect bodyguards for the triple threat in the backfield as well as for Griese and his reliable backup Earl Morrall
After beating the Vikings in Super Bowl VIII, Monte Clark was promoted to offensive coordinator in 1974, serving in that capacity through 1975 when he still had his eye on his lineman. By 1976 it was time for a change of scenery. With Miami in his rearview mirror, Monte Clark had his sights set on San Francisco.
Much like his first foray in San Francisco, Monte Clark joined the 49ers shortly after a good stretch. Much of the solid squad that had been to three straight playoffs to open the decade had left either for greener pastures or in retirement, including Clark's old quarterback, John Brodie.
Still, he inherited a pretty good roster, one which began the 1976 season 6-1, including an impressive 16-0 triumph over the Rams in Los Angeles. However, growing pains were just around the corner. While the team as a whole was promising, they never had a reliable kicker. By the end of the season, Steve Mike-Mayer would end the season 16th in the league in field-goal percentage. The 49ers would feel the effects of his ineffectiveness in a loss to the Cardinals that ended their five-game winning streak, watching in disbelief as he missed a chip-shot field goal as time expired in regulation and ultimately losing in overtime.
The 49ers would lose the next three games. As they lost to the Redskins (24-21), the Falcons (21-16) and the Rams (23-3), the 49ers watched their playoff chances dwindle. but despite the recent spate of losses, the team still had some fight in them.
In an effort that would highlight everything positive about their season, the 49ers pounded the Vikings' vaunted defensive line into submission, rushing for a season-high 317 yards. That effort helped San Francisco stun Alan Page, Fran Tarkenton and the eventual NFC champs 20-16. It would be the last true highlight of the season.
As the season came to a close, despite being out of the playoffs the 49ers had reason to be optimistic about the future. While Jim Plunkett and Scott Bull were so-so at quarterback, the team featured one of the better-rushing attacks in the NFL. Led by Derwin Williams (1,203 yards, third in NFL, Pro Bowl) and Wilbur Jackson (792 yards), the 49ers could run on just about any defense in the league. As an old offensive lineman and coach, it was clear that the team was buying into Monte Clark's philosophy.
But the Niners brass had other ideas. When Edward J. Debartolo Sr. bought the team from the Morabito widows in the 1977 offseason, he brought in Joe Thomas as his general manager. That was a problem for Monte Clark. Having previously worked with Thomas in Miami, he didn't want to deal with his kind of know-it-all personality. So Clark was fired.
Detroit and Later Life
After being fired by the 49ers, Monte Clark only had to wait a year to get another shot as a head coach in the National Football League as he was hired by Detroit in 1978. It's not always easy building a winner. Monte Clark didn't enjoy a winning season in his first two years at the helm.
However, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. After going 2-14 in 1979, the Lions earned the right to the first overall pick in the Draft, selecting Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims. He immediately sparked the Lions' offense, earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 1980, first-team All-Pro in 1981 and three Pro Bowl invitations. Detroit rode his coattails to the playoffs in both 1982 (albeit with a 4-5 record) and 1983, losing early both times.
After Sims injured his knee in 1984, he was never the same kind of player and ultimately retired after that season. The team suffered as a result of the injury and Clark was fired after 1984.
After Detroit, he served as Miami's Director of Player Personel from 1990 through 1004 and was their offensive line coach in 1995. But his relationship with Miami ended when they hired Jimmy Johnson. Clark also found time to coach the offensive line at Cal Berkley in 1998 and was an advisor for the Lions from 1999 until his retirement in 2008. He died on September 16, 2009 in Detroit.