Shawn Clark probably has a few black-and-blue marks on his arms.
It’s because Appalachian State’s first-year head football coach is still pinching himself to make sure he’s not dreaming.
“Oh, without question,” said Clark, a Charleston native. “We were sitting around the other day and Dale Jones — he was here for 23 years and went to Louisville and I brought him back as our defensive coordinator — and he looked at me and said, ‘Can you believe you are the head football coach at App State?’ And I said, ‘It’s a dream come true.’ ”
Indeed, it is.
After starring at George Washington High School, Clark became a star offensive lineman for Appalachian State from 1994-98. He was a two-time All-American and an All-Southern Conference selection three times.
Clark went on to coach at Louisville, Eastern Kentucky, Purdue and Kent State before returning to Appalachian State in 2016. But no matter where he was coaching, Clark’s dream never changed.
He aspired to be the head coach at his alma mater some day.
“As a young coach in this profession you work a lot of hours,” said the 44-year-old Clark. “And you sit there and think, ‘Why the hell am I doing all these hours and working like this?’
“I’ll never forget the conversation. My wife [Jonelle] and I were at Eastern Kentucky and she asked me the same question: ‘Is this really worth it?’ I told her, ‘I want to be the head coach at Appalachian State.’ And she kind of chuckled and said, ‘All right, OK.’ ”
That was back in the early 2000s, when Clark’s dream seemed so very far away.
“Then, you fast-forward and 15 years later,” said Clark, “we’re back in Boone [North Carolina] and I get the chance to be the head football coach of a storied program with a lot of tradition. It’s a place that I don’t see myself leaving.
“I’ve got my ties in the ground here and I want to retire in Boone. If they’ll keep me, I’ll stay.”
That sentiment is seldom heard these days. Most young head coaches are upwardly mobile, intensely striving to climb the ladder of success to a big-time job.
“That was the question here,” said Clark. “Two years, two new head coaches. The administration was worried if I would leave again and I told them, ‘Put it in my contract. Make it so I can’t leave.’ And they did.
“I have a $5 million buyout right now. It goes down a million [dollars] every year. So, I’m excited about it. I grew up only rooting for a couple of teams my whole life and this was one of them.”
But even the habitually enthusiastic Clark never saw this one coming. Besides the usual trials and tribulations inherent to being a first-year head football coach, he has all the COVID-19 issues to handle.
“I know,” he said. “It goes back to when I was first hired and you hear this analogy all the time. At the time, I think I was drinking water out of a fire hydrant. Not only were we getting ready for a bowl game, we were recruiting, we were in the midst of doing a $60 million end-zone facility and they were wanting my ideas on that and we were out on the road recruiting ... and, then, this hits.
“You game plan or have a book to get a head job — and I mentioned this earlier in the week — I just took that book and threw it out the window. None of it applies right now. It is a fluid situation that is moving every day.
“Literally, I have five calendars that I’m working off of right now. A regular start with August 6th coming to camp. And, then, a September start, an October start and a spring start. It’s frustrating, but it is what it is.”
Clark obviously has prepared well. But he also has another factor in his favor. When it comes to dealing with COVID-19, the most-veteran head coaches aren’t any more experienced with handling a pandemic than a first-time head coach such as Clark.
So, it levels the playing field.
“I know it,” said Clark. “We were very fortunate because we started spring ball very early. We started the first of March. So, we actually got 11 practices in. And we’re a very senior-heavy football team this year with nine returning starters on offense and seven on defense. So, I feel very good with where we are right now. The values of our program haven’t changed.
“I’ve played here. I came back as an assistant coach for four years. I know the landscape. I know the players. I know what we’re good at and we’ll continue to do that.”
If it sounds as if Clark is living the dream, it’s because he is.
And the best part?
He made his own dream come true.