Men’s soccer coach adds to St. Louis soccer legacy

| Sports Editor

Courtesy of Jeff Pomranka

Joe Clarke encourages the Washington University men’s soccer team before a game at Loras College in 2012. Clarke earned his 400th career victory last Thursday night.

Four decades ago, Washington University men’s soccer head coach Joe Clarke took the soccer field representing Saint Louis University. The local kid out of McBride High School had been recruited to play for the SLU Billikens, then the best men’s soccer program in the nation.

“Everybody in St. Louis at that time dreamed of being offered a chance to play at Saint Louis University because they were the [UCLA basketball of soccer],” Clarke said. “Most everybody on the team was born and raised within 20 miles of the school, and you played for your city.”

Indeed, the Billikens won 10 national titles from 1959 to 1973, which still stands as the record for Division I men’s soccer. Clarke helped SLU win two of those titles in 1972 and 1973 and earned All-American honors in 1975 as a defender.

In a coaching career that has since spanned over 30 seasons between his alma mater and Wash. U., Clarke attained another milestone last Thursday night. His Bears defeated Principia College 3-0, earning him 400 victories as a head coach.

After graduating from SLU, Clarke played professionally for the St. Louis Stars and then the California Surf while concurrently earning a law degree at Pepperdine University. Clarke described it as a “busy” time, but he felt that continuing his education was important. In 1982, Clarke came back home to play for the St. Louis Steamers in his final pro season, and afterward, he secured the head coaching position at SLU.

Clarke led the Billikens to a 205-74-30 record in 14 years and reached the NCAA Final Four in 1991. After his only losing season (5-10-3) in 1996, Clarke resigned as head coach and was hired by Wash. U. in 1997. He immediately noticed the differences between coaching at Wash. U. and SLU.

“These guys are soccer players, and they are serious soccer players, but they are first and foremost students. That’s a complete reversal than what I had at Saint Louis University,” he said. “I had many good students, a lot of guys that are doctors and lawyers now, but they thought of themselves as soccer players, and that has a big influence on how you run your team.”

As head coach for the Red and Green for 17 seasons, Clarke has compiled a 195-88-36 record to improve his career coaching record to 400-162-66. Clarke has the most men’s soccer victories in school history and has guided his Bears teams to three University Athletic Association championships and eight NCAA tournaments. Yet he deflected much of the credit to his players.

“I would like to have done better than we’ve done here at Washington University, to be honest with you,” he said. “Any coach is based on the players that he gets, and if you have good players, most of the time, unless you really mess them up, you’re a good coach…We have been fortunate enough to have many good players while I’ve been at Wash. U.”

Senior goalkeeper Jono Jebson said that it’s been an honor playing for Clarke and was quick to praise his coach’s soccer acumen.

“He has a massive wealth of knowledge that he tries to impart on us to help us win games,” Jebson said. “He’s got so much soccer knowledge in his head that if I can understand maybe 5 percent of it, then I’ll be way better off.”

For Clarke, St. Louis is still home after all these years.

“I love Washington U., and I love coaching the guys on the team and all of that, but I think family is really why I decided to stay in a certain place more than anything else,” he said.

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