BOWLING GREEN, Ohio — After graduating from Williams College in 1989, Dave Clawson watched his friends disperse throughout the country for law school and Wall Street.
Clawson made $1,500 a year as a graduate assistant football coach at Albany and paid $129 per month for a dilapidated house he shared with six other coaches. While his friends began building their portfolios, Clawson qualified for food stamps and taped his windows with plastic during the winter to avoid an expensive heating bill.
He also took plenty of good-natured ribbing for his elite academic background. His fellow GAs nicknamed him “Preppy” and demanded he return to the Williams College Bursar’s Office for a tuition refund when he admitted to not knowing how to cook pasta. “There were 12 coaches at Albany, and the only one who wore penny loafers had no idea how to make spaghetti,” cracked Dave Cohen, a former Albany graduate assistant who is now the defensive coordinator at Rutgers.
Clawson, 46, has emerged as a maestro of building programs, having turned teams at Fordham, Richmond and Bowling Green into winners. Who knew that the Tao of program building could be rooted in lessons learned as an overworked graduate assistant?
Clawson worked odd jobs around campus, including teaching racquetball, bouncing at Across The Street Pub and opening up a pool at 5:45 a.m. Clawson’s defining job in Albany came teaching physical education at a local Catholic elementary school. Clawson invented a game called “Crazy,” in which 20 four-year-olds ran in circles and froze when he screamed the word, “Crazy.” Under strict instructions from other teachers to wear out the kids, Clawson taught them Cabbage Patch Dance moves, anything to tire them out.
“It was brilliant,” said Ed Foley, now the assistant head coach at Temple. “He figured out something he can do with four-year-olds.”
The enduring lesson that transcended from elementary school to the football field was a willingness to adapt to his personnel. By reviving winners in the heart of the Bronx, the ritzy Richmond outskirts and a wisp of an Ohio college town, Clawson has used approaches as varied as the places themselves. He has won with offenses both spread out and bunched together, with identities on both sides of the ball and with teams built on both skill and brawn.
“It’s hard to find good players,” Clawson said. “It’s easy to tweak a system. We try and be flexible with our system that can incorporate the best players on our team.
When Clawson arrived at Fordham in 1999 at age 31, he inherited a program that suffered through 10 consecutive losing seasons and hadn’t truly won at the Division I level since Vince Lombardi’s time there. Clawson angered his in-laws by moving to an area of Yonkers where his wife didn’t feel safe after dark. Things got worse when he went 0-11 in his debut campaign. “I took a bad program,” he said, “and somehow made it worse.”
But Fordham’s overhaul from punch line to postseason came in the form of a philosophical shift. Clawson studied Fordham’s recruiting patterns and realized that its lack of recent tradition, location and facilities meant that recruits in the Northeast corridor would rarely pick Fordham over Ivy League or Patriot League schools. “I thought the roster was full of kids that the only reason they came to Fordham was because no one else recruited them,” Clawson said.
So he built a recruiting model around the fact that Fordham’s national academic reputation outpaced its poor local football reputation. He focused on Catholic schools in cities like Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles and Cincinnati. In New York City, he recruited the Catholic League hard and shied away from the suburbs.
“Our answer was to find kids who want to be around New York City,” said Foley, who joined Clawson at Fordham. “They had a neighbor, lawyer, accountant, principal or teacher who went to Fordham and they knew it was a great academic school.”
Fordham stockpiled skill players and tailored an offense around them, with star tailback Kirwin Watson, who hailed from St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, epitomizing the new philosophy. Fordham ran a pro-style offense that exploited perimeter mismatches. As defenses compensated, Watson ran between the tackles. He set school records with 4,617 rushing yards and 48 touchdowns.
“We thought of it from the outside in,” Clawson said. “If we got people to spread with us, we were good enough to run the football.”
A 5-23 start at Fordham quickly flipped to a 24-6 finish, including a Patriot League title in 2002. Clawson’s best work may have been his football venture capitalism — enough to make his Williams buddies jealous — as he improved the football budget to $637,113 annually from $103,470 through cold calling alumni and grassroots fundraising.
Coach Joe Moorhead has led Fordham to a 7-0 start this season, its best since 1930. Former Fordham athletic director Frank McLaughlin said the program’s current success can be traced, at least in part, to Clawson.
“He took our program to the next level and established it,” McLaughlin said. “A lot of Fordham’s success today goes back to the strong foundation he put in there.”
When Clawson took over at Richmond in 2004, he crafted a completely different philosophy to win. He studied Wake Forest, Northwestern, Boston College and Stanford, attempting to emulate what worked at academically oriented Division I schools.
The two key tenants he adapted were redshirting players and recruiting nationally. Clawson turned the direction of Richmond’s recruiting from the Northeast to the South and West. He targeted football-rich areas like North Carolina, Georgia and Texas, focusing on prospects with SAT scores around 1,100 instead of around 900. He pitched the value of education over level of play.
“The sell was, ‘If you’re not a Stanford, Northwestern, BC-type recruit, we’re the 1-AA equivalent,’” Clawson said. “We could get Conference USA-type players who were good students. Instead of saying that academics were the reason we couldn’t be successful, it was the reason we were going to be successful.”
Clawson overhauled his offense to match the type of players Richmond could recruit, scrapping the perimeter-based offense from Fordham in favor of a between-the-tackles attack. Richmond could attract big offensive linemen, tailbacks and tight ends.
With an established football infrastructure and plenty of funding, Clawson’s biggest priority at Richmond became changing the culture. Richmond players began spending the summers on campus, with the staff finding creative ways to get players jobs and housing and keep the weight room open. “We were trying to make football a priority for these kids,” said Mike Elko, a former Richmond assistant who is now the defensive coordinator at Bowling Green.
Richmond reached the semifinals of the Football Championship Series playoffs in 2007, and Clawson left to become the offensive coordinator at Tennessee. Tennessee did not promise Clawson a coach-in-waiting position, but it was intimated that if things went well, he could be elevated to coach-in-waiting as Phillip Fulmer got closer to retirement.
Things didn’t pan out. The Richmond team he left behind — stocked with the first class of players he redshirted — went on to win the 2008 FCS national title. Clawson led the SEC’s worst offense as part of a 5-7 season in which the school ousted Fulmer in early November.
“Dave’s an excellent coach,” Fulmer said. “He took a lot of grief here and there are some things we would both do over again. But my feeling or opinion on him hasn’t changed.”
After getting fired at Tennessee, Clawson landed the head-coaching job at Bowling Green before the 2009 campaign, a position back in his program-building wheelhouse. The low point in Clawson’s tenure came in final game of his second season. Western Michigan routed the Falcons 41-7 on a day so cold that Bowling Green players and coaches still have a visceral reaction when it’s mentioned. The home blowout loss in front of an empty stadium provided a fitting culmination to a disappointing 2-10 year.
“Worst year of football I’ve ever experienced,” said Paul Swan, now a senior linebacker. “It seemed like guys didn’t want to be there.”
Bowling Green reached a bowl in Clawson’s first season, as he inherited 22 seniors from former coach Gregg Brandon, Urban Meyer’s old offensive coordinator at the school. Clawson kept the principles of Brandon’s spread offense and led the Falcons to a 7-6 record. Yet with that senior class gone, eight scholarships lost to APR shortcomings and natural attrition, Clawson faced another extreme makeover. With assurances from AD Greg Christopher, who is now at Xavier, he redshirted heavily and built a program around a stout defense and balanced offense. That went against the prevailing tide of high-scoring #MACtion, an approach that ultimately gave the Falcons an edge by going against the grain.
After the 2-10 season in 2010, Clawson followed the familiar pattern of incremental improvement. Bowling Green went 5-7 in 2011 with 19 freshmen or sophomore starters. Those players went 8-5 last year with a loss to San Jose State in the Military Bowl.
This season, Bowling Green leads the MAC in scoring defense and ranks third in total offense. The players Clawson redshirted who got beat up for a few seasons are now 5-2 overall and 3-0 in league play. (Bowling Green’s losses came to Indiana and Mississippi State.) Bowling Green, Ball State and Buffalo are undefeated in the conference and could challenge No. 23 Northern Illinois, which is also undefeated, for the MAC crown.
“There’s an energy about what we’re capable of and an understanding of what it’s going to take to get there, which maybe we haven’t had before,” said Elko. “We’ve had energy at times, and that was young and naïve.”
Clawson’s come a long way from being so young and naïve that he couldn’t figure out how to make spaghetti. But his mindset hasn’t changed much from when he ran four-year-olds in circles around the schoolyard. While he has ditched the penny loafers, Clawson has remained intense without screaming and focused on putting a big-picture plan in place.
“Sometimes your presence and poise demands respect,” Foley said. “That’s how Dave operates with his staff and players. He’s strict and hard. When you don’t have to scream or curse or yell, you demand more respect.”
His players appreciate his approach, which can be best described as a steady boil.
“He barely shows emotion, and when he does it still seems like he’s trying to stay steady,” said senior offensive lineman Dominic Flewellyn. “He’s been preaching the same things since I’ve been here.”
It doesn’t take a Williams graduate to realize that the results, once again, are beginning to look the same.