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Clarke ready to rebuild at Laguna Beach
It was less than two years ago when Ted Clarke decided to take a spontaneous trip to south Orange County.
The longtime football coach, 57, was sitting alone in his Whittier College office on a Friday night, weary from recruiting trips to San Diego, Oregon and Washington.
Not long after losing his wife, Nancy, to cancer, his in-laws had helped by taking his two children up north to spend time with family. It was a chance for Clarke to escape for a moment, so he headed south.
He ended up at Capri Laguna, a hotel along Pacific Coast Highway near the beach. The experience was memorable and now, it’s one he’ll get to relive on a near daily basis.
“It’s a place that, over the past year-and-a-half, I’ve continued to be drawn to,” Clarke said. “What’s not to like about Laguna?”
Clarke, an experienced veteran in the sport of football, has been named Laguna Beach High’s athletic director after the retirement of Mike Churchill following the 2014-15 school year.
Like Churchill did in 2011 and 2012, Clarke will also act as head coach of the football program. He takes over for Corey Brown, who stepped down after two seasons at the helm.
Clarke brings with him a wealth of coaching experience. This will be his fourth head coaching job at the high school level to go with two assistant coach positions in junior college programs and a four-year stint as assistant head coach and defensive coordinator at Whittier College.
Though numbers for the football program are thin this season – the new coach said four of the program’s better players have transferred out – Clarke is attempting to start from scratch as evidenced by his voluntary workout with quarterbacks and receivers on Monday.
As athletic director, Clarke will attempt to maintain the level of excellence set forth by Churchill, who has already planned ahead to set Clarke up for his first year on the job.
“Things are pretty much set for the year and I’ll be doing pickup on his work. He’s a great guy,” Clarke said. “I’ve been in athletics my whole life, I’ve been around it my whole life and I believe everything I’ve done up to this point has prepared me for this job. I’m looking forward to it.”
Clarke, the son of a U.S. Marine, grew up in Mission Viejo. He played Pop Warner football in Mission Viejo, twice being selected as a junior All-American.
A linebacker, he also played his first two high school seasons at Mission Viejo High, before moving to San Diego County when his father’s post was moved to Miramar. He finished up his high school career at Poway High in north San Diego County before taking on two years at Palomar College. From Palomar, he earned a scholarship to Cal Poly Pomona.
From there, it was straight to coaching. He helped at Citrus and Glendale community colleges before his head coaching stints at Glendale, San Dimas and Ganesha high schools. Coaching at Ganesha, a small public school in Pomona, was a challenge.
“That was the hardest place I’ve ever been in my life,” Clarke said in regard to his coaching. “I was told it was like missionary work. It was a tough, tough gig.”
He assisted at Monrovia High for three games, leaving that post for personal reasons. Two years later, Whittier College coach Kirk Jellerson brought him on as associate head coach and defensive coordinator. Within that time he’s also served as wrestling and track coach at El Monte High, where he’s been teaching for nine years.
With the Poets, he was a recruiter for both Jellerson and current head coach Todd Stratton, but frequent trips away from his two children to San Diego, Oregon and Washington became grueling and he focused solely on teaching.
Earlier this year, Clarke felt that he was ready to get back into coaching and helping kids become men.
As fate would have it, upon searching for potential landing spots, he found one that caught his eye. He couldn’t pass it up. “It just felt natural,” Clarke said. “I started looking and Laguna Beach was open.”
Clarke is heavily invested in his two children, Ian and Hannah. Ian was a four-year band member in high school and is heading into his junior year at Whittier College.
Hannah plays volleyball and is entering a freshman season at Pasadena City College.
Clarke had to manage his passion for teaching and coaching, with taking care of his children. While Clarke was teaching at El Monte and preparing for a role as assistant coach at Monrovia High in 2010, his wife, Nancy, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“She came home complaining that she didn’t feel well one day,” Clarke recalled. “It happened that fast.”
Nancy Clarke, a teacher at Azusa High School, passed away in 2012 at the age of 52.
At the same time, the Southern California Interscholastic Athletic Conference, which housed Whittier College football, expanded its recruiting standards to allow coaches to travel and meet with recruits. Because of the rigorous schedule, Clarke had to step away from the sport to focus on teaching and taking care of their two kids.
“I was able to coach because my wife allowed me to. She paid the bills, she did the laundry, she did all the things that kept the homefront going,” Clarke said. “When she passed, all the duties she had, I had to assume. That impacted us tremendously, and it proved to be difficult.”
The turning point occurred on a Friday night working alone at Whittier College where it was “just me and the crickets,” he said.
Now, with one about to be a college junior and the other starting college and both with the capability of being more independent, Clarke is happy to be back in athletics – not that he ever left as Hannah plays volleyball in club and at Pasadena City College.
Clarke becomes the third Laguna Beach football head coach in five years and the 17th in program history. He officially started working as athletic director, June 19, the day after Churchill officially retired.
Monday was the first of his voluntary workouts. Senior-to-be quarterback Jack Simon was one of two quarterbacks working with five receivers.
The coach was cautious to say this season will be difficult, preferring to say that there will be plenty of obstacles to overcome. “It’s going to be a unique experience. There’s a lot of different types of kids here, and they’re bright,” Clarke said. “We have low numbers right now. We’re just building a program and we’re going to experience the growing pains of that process.”
Clarke knows how to project. His voice travels far, echoing off the hills to the north of Laguna Beach High as he reminds receivers to watch the ball all the way into their hands.
Clarke expressed that with such a small student body, Laguna Beach’s ability to remain competitive in athletics is impressive.
He’s met most of the coaches and already has praise for the staff.
During the final stretch of spring sports, Clarke had the opportunity to watch boys volleyball and baseball in their respective CIF playoff matchups.
“They’ve produced some amazing results,” he said. “They’re doing things right, which means it’s possible to build a strong football program here.”
Clarke is still in the process of building his coaching staff, but he has an offensive coordinator, Pete Mitchell Jr., who was out with him working on Monday. Mitchell played at Whittier College under Clarke.
But transfers have taken their toll. Clarke said two have transferred to St. Margaret’s, one left for St. John Bosco and a fourth left for Huntington Beach.
Still, Clarke is excited to connect with the players and try to increase the program’s numbers. Those are his first two goals over the summer.
He also understands the value of making a first impression. “It’s taken some time, and it’s taking some energy to craft what this will look like,” Clarke said.
“I’m not going to base this season’s success on wins and losses. I’m a process guy, and we are concerned with making sure we’re doing things correctly and that the kids share in the realization that this is a good program. It just needs to be nurtured.”
Clarke’s been through the toughest of challenges already and he responded through the nurturing of his two children. That alone could be seen as enough experience to be ready to lead Laguna Beach athletics.
Clarke still resides in Glendora and commutes more than an hour to get to Laguna Beach High. Still, the opportunity to spend more time with his children make it all worthwhile.
Less than two years ago, it was a spontaneous trip. Now, Laguna Beach is a place to call home.
“I just want to continue the operation that Mike put in place and I don’t want to just manage the program, I want to lead it,” Clarke said. “I’m happy to be here. It’s a great place and I feel it’s a good place to experience the last part of my career.”
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