On Friday afternoon, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons will take on the Michigan State Spartans in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at one of the greatest venues in all of sports, Yankee Stadium. While it’s not the original “House that Ruth Built”, it will no doubt be a thrill for players on both sides to have the opportunity to play at the home of the 27-time world champion New York Yankees. For Wake Forest football coach Dave Clawson, this trip to the Bronx means much more than playing a bowl game at a cool venue, as it marks the return to a place that will forever hold a special spot in his heart.
Clawson brings his Wake Forest squad into Yankee Stadium looking to cap off one of the best seasons in recent history. A win against the Spartans Friday will give Wake a 9 win season for the first time in over a decade as well as the programs 4th straight bowl victory. Once the game starts, Clawson’s mind will be focused on scoring points against a stingy Michigan State defense but in the days and hours leading up to kickoff, he will surely take some to reflect on his journey to becoming one of the best head coaches in college football. A journey that began 20 years earlier just 7 miles up the road from Yankee Stadium at Fordham University.
Back In the Bronx, Where it All Began
While some football historians may only know Fordham as the school where Vince Lombardi played his college football, it’s also where Dave Clawson got his first opportunity as a head coach and started to earn his reputation as a master of turning around struggling programs. In 1997, two years prior to becoming Head Coach at Fordham, Clawson began to make a name for himself as one of the brightest young minds in the game while serving as Offensive Coordinator for the Villanova Wildcats. While at Nova, Clawson’s offense helped lead the Cats to their first ever undefeated regular season as well as a #1 ranking in division I-AA. Clawson's offense featured two future Payton Award winners and NFL standouts in Brian Finneran and running back Brian Westbrook. After record breaking seasons in 1997 & 1998, Clawson was approached about a very unique yet challenging opportunity.
A Tough Decision
It was during the 1998 season that Fordham athletic Director Frank McLaughlin got a chance to see Clawson’s offense up close and personal as the Wildcats defeated Fordham 45-12 in the Bronx. After the 1998 season, when Fordham found themselves looking a for a new head coach, McLaughlin approached Clawson with an opportunity to become the youngest head coach in Division I-AA. You may think that a 29 year old assistant would jump at the opportunity to lead his own program, but the decision was not an easy one. In fact, many other coaches and some of his mentors actually advised Clawson against taking the position as they viewed Fordham as an impossible place to win. Although Fordham had a rich football tradition with Vince Lombardi and the “Seven Blocks of Granite”, that was back in the 1930's, and the current state of the program in 1998 was much different.
After a historic run in the 1940’s, Fordham struggled to stay competitive after World War II, ultimately dropping the program in 1954. After a 16 year hiatus, football returned at the NCAA Division III level in 1970 where it competed until 1988. The following year, the program made a leap to division I-AA by joining the patriot league. To say that Fordham struggled in the Patriot league would be an understatement, as the program had not had a winning season in ten years, while compiling a record of just 22 wins 80 losses.
In addition to its recent history of losing, Fordham was a prestigious Jesuit University with high academic standards located in the Bronx, NY. A rough urban setting with limited space and facilities often made it difficult to recruit the top talent needed to compete with other programs in the Patriot League and at the I-AA level. Setting doubt aside, Clawson ultimately decided to accept the job in 1999 and take on the challenge of resurrecting a program that had not been relevant since the 1940's. His first hire on staff at the time was current Wake Forest defensive line coach Dave Cohen as his defensive coordinator. Together Clawson and Cohen would rebrand the Fordham program and instead of focusing on what Fordham didn’t have, they used New York City as a recruiting tool that would help attract top football talent Nation Wide.
Tough Times Ahead
Things were certainly not easy early on, as Clawson’s first season as head coach ended with an 0-11 record in 1999 followed by 3-8 in 2000. While only winning 3 games in his first two seasons may have been difficult, perhaps Clawson’s biggest challenge as a head coach came early on in his third season. On the morning of September 11th 2001 while watching film to prepare for the upcoming game against crosstown rival Columbia University, Clawson and his staff were informed of the events unfolding at the World Trade Center just 15 miles away in downtown Manhattan. The attacks of September 11th hit close to home for many in the Fordham community. 39 Fordham students and alumni died that day, including one of Clawson’s former players who graduated a year earlier and worked in financial services on the 89th floor of 2 World Trade Center.
Turning it Around
After a difficult start to the 2001 season, the team finished with a 7-4 record. 2001 proved to be a turning point as it was the programs first winning season in over a decade. Clawson’s next two seasons in the Bronx would be his best yet going a combined 19-6, including a 10-3 record in 2002. The 2002 Fordham team went on to win the Patriot League Championship and earn its first ever berth into the I-AA playoffs. The biggest victory of Clawson’s career to that point came in 2002 I-AA playoffs, when Fordham knocked off Atlantic -10 Champ and #4 seed Northeastern University who was coached by another up and coming star, current Michigan Wolverine defensive coordinator Don Brown. Clawson would go on to lose to his old team Villanova in the national quarterfinals in 2002.
After going 9-3 the following season, Clawson left Fordham at the end of 2003 to take the Head job at the University of Richmond. Clawson would climb the coaching ranks until ultimately being named to his current role as head coach at Wake Forest, where he is once again building a championship program. It has been incredible to watch Dave Clawson’s career blossom over the past 20 years. From the youngest head coach in Division I-AA in 1999 to building Wake Forest into a program gunning for its fourth straight bowl win in 2019, who would have thought that Clawson’s incredible run as a head coach would bring him right back where he started, The Bronx!