As head coach of the Lady Volunteers track & field, as well as women’s cross country program, J.J. Clark seemed a viable candidate to assume the reins of the men’s track & field teams after the announced retirement of long time coach Bill Webb.
On June 22, 2009, Clark did just that, making Tennessee Track & Field the first sport at the university to merge the men’s and women’s programs, and only the ninth school in the conference to undertake such a direction.
From 2002-2009, Clark captured two NCAA Championships and six SEC Championships in indoor track & field.
Coaching year-round runners has its advantages according to Clark, many of whose All-America runners this spring, Phoebe Wright, Chanelle Price, and Brittany Sheffey, all ran cross country for Clark in the fall.
To Coach Clark, the fall is an excellent time not only to win races on grass, but to change his athletes surroundings and give them an opportunity to excel somewhere else besides the track.
“The idea of getting a great base in the fall is fun and mixing it up,” Clark said. “I think it takes different mindsets to put the miles in week after week, month after month. I like that focus and being able to do that and inspiring them to do things they didn’t think they could do in that area.”
In seven XC seasons at UT, Clark has produced one All-America and 13 athletes who have combined for 27 All-South Region certificates.
Clark also holds the best record ever for a women’s cross country coach at Tennessee, with a 723-195-1 record and 18 victories in 47 meets in seven years.
The consistent state of running and competition he puts his athletes in can grow daunting, admits Clark, who is optimistic that the long grind of the year will pay-off his students in track & field championships in the spring.
“The challenge is you have a youngster who is going all year,” Clark said. “You have cross country kids who are going cross country, indoor, outdoor and its real challenging. We do have a top four finish in outdoor, but it’s hard winning SEC cross country and winning SEC outdoor.”
“I believe our program, especially in our conference, we do one of the better jobs of having an SEC title type team in cross country and being in the top ten outdoors. We’re going to be a cross country team, we’re going to be a track team; we’re going to be both. I tip my hat off to my staff for helping me pull this off year to year.”
Olympic coach is another title you can add to Clark’s impressive history, after serving as 2008 U.S. Olympic women’s middle distance coach most recently.
Three of his most famous pupils were surprisingly to some, his wife Jearl Miles-Clark, and his sisters Hazel and Joetta Clark.
The three members of “Team Clark” finished one-two-three in the 800 meters of the Olympic Trials, winning a right to represent the U.S. in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
“At first it was just competitive,” Clark said. “It wasn’t even family, it was just she’s in my event I want to be this person I want to be that person. At first that was prevalent, it calmed down and we became a team to beat anyone else.”
“That’s something that you’ll probably never see again, family members being coached by a brother and husband and it’s just looking back now, a phenomenal situation. At the time I thought it was just normal.”
Clark would also help Jearl and Hazel advance to the 2004 Olympic games in Athens, Greece, where Miles-Clark had a sixth place finish, while Hazel suffered an injury and could not compete.
In 2008, Hazel would qualify for the women’s middle distance team, again to be tutored by brother J.J.
“Now I look at it, we were on Bryant Gumbel, we had magazines interested in doing stuff, People magazine did a spread,” Clark said. “In track and field you do that and you know you’re doing something pretty special.”
Clark doesn’t describe his relationship with his sisters as a child as the typically competitive, athletic family.
Rather, it’s a story of respect, love and support.
For J.J.’s father Joe Lewis Clark however, the authority was prevalent and strict.
Joe Lewis Clark was a principal of Paterson, New Jersey’s Eastside High School, a drug-infested, crime ridden school which the elder Clark saved from state government takeover in 1983 by instituting an unconventional system of control including locking students in and consistently wielding a bat.
The story was so powerful, it became a film adaptation in the 1989 biographical-drama “Lean on Me”, in which actor Morgan Freeman portrays Clark Sr.
“He is very wise, very talented,” Clark said of his father. “That’s a balance I try to bring…Knowing the meaning of when to press and when to push and when not, he’s done a good job.”
For the first time this spring, a Tennessee track & field coach will lead both programs into the conference championships and two weeks later, the NCAA championships.
With a pedigree such as Clark’s, it’s no surprise the university selected him.
The women’s indoor track team is looking to defend its first place finish in the SEC, and perhaps more importantly the NCAA National Championship in indoor it won in 2009.
At the helm then was Clark, and it doesn’t seem unlikely that the younger and wiser coach won’t soon be at the helm of greatness again soon.