Clark stepped down as the Indians’ coach Tuesday after leading the Tribe to 233 wins, 17 conference titles, three state semifinal appearances and a playoff berth in each of his 25 years.
“It’s amazing how fast it went by,” said Clark, whose overall record stands at 252-71 and includes 14 seasons of at least 10 wins. “It’s amazing how fast I went from playing football for the Rotary Club as a 150-pound fourth-grader to today — and from when I hit one off the wall at Washington Elementary in baseball and missed first base, missed second base and tripped over third base and fell.”
Clark got back up from that missed step. He said he knew early in life what he wanted to do.
“This was the only job I wanted all of my life: to be D-B’s head football coach,” said Clark, a D-B graduate who began his head coaching career at Chilhowie High School in Virginia. “I had the only job I ever wanted for 25 years.
“I will miss Fridays and I will miss Sunday afternoons with the coaches. I loved everything about it. It was a blessing and honor to serve at Dobyns-Bennett.”
Current assistant coach Joey Christian was chosen the Tribe’s interim coach. The school announced that a national search will begin immediately to identify the next head coach.
Clark earned the respect of his coaching peers, including his biggest rival, Science Hill’s Stacy Carter.
“I consider him a friend, a mentor and everything,” Carter said. “He means a lot to me and all of the coaches around here. I’m happy for him. He’s been one of the great ones for sure.
“I don’t know how you replace a Graham Clark. I don’t know anybody who’s going to put in the time or who’s going to work any harder. But the biggest thing is the relationships he has in that community with those families. That’s going to be harder to replace than anything. He did a lot of things well. It’s a sad day for East Tennessee high school football because he’s such a big part of it.”
Chosen as the Big East Conference coach of the year five times, including 2017, Clark was a two-time Northeast Tennessee coach of the year. He is also a member of the Tennessee Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Clark said he never thought about retiring until this season. A call that went against the Indians in a gut-wrenching loss to Alcoa kick-started the retirement thoughts.
“When the back judge threw a flag for interference on fourth-and-6, when the game should have been over, that was in my stomach the next morning,” Clark said. “And seeing the disappointment in the kids’ eyes was tough.”
When the season ended, the thoughts intensified.
“The year would go from July to October, and you maybe see your son a couple of times,” Clark said. “And when Rusty came in, you maybe grab lunch on Saturday after looking at film for five hours.”
Clark said he wasn’t able to get football out of his blood.
“I never was able to turn it on and off,” he said. “That was good because it made me thorough. But it has been 41 years of it.”
He said it was difficult to tell his current players about the decision.
“I know there was a lot of sadness and tears in young men’s eyes today,” Clark said.
Part of what made it tough to say goodbye to the players was the fact the kids’ success was at the top of his list of things he enjoyed the most.
“It was seeing young people get their lives turned around if they needed it,” Clark said. “The relationships with the young people, that’s more than any of it. You see a guy get to go to college who probably wouldn’t have been able to go without football.”
Relief was part of the process as well.
“You wonder how you will feel next fall when it all cranks up again,” Clark noted. “But I might be catching a 5-pound bass on Thursday afternoon instead of talking to (the media).”
Clark said he will continue to keep an eye on the Indians.
“I look forward to supporting the young men in whatever way the new staff wants me to support them,” he said.
D-B athletic director Larry Shively said Clark’s success should be measured by the positive impact on individuals throughout his career.
“Through his passion for supporting our community and his players, both during their playing careers and beyond, he has improved and changed the lives of so many,” Shively said.