March 2, 2011
On March 2, 1931, owner Harry N. Snyder of the NFL’s Portsmouth Spartans returned to that Ohio city from Indianapolis and announced the hiring of George “Potsy” Clark to be the team’s head coach. He indicated that he had been in negotiations with Clark at the Severn Hotel for six hours before reaching an agreement.
“There was a difference in the salary Clark asked for and what we are able to pay and it was some time before we finally came to terms,” said Snyder. The contract was said to be in the neighborhood of $5000. Clark was also being sought by Indiana University to be an assistant, but preferred the opportunity to be a head coach.
Clark succeeded H.W. “Tubby” Griffen, who had resigned two months previously. During the 1930 season, the team’s first in the NFL, the Spartans were 5-6-3 to place eighth in the 11-team league (there were no divisions at that point). With good talent to work with, Griffen was accused of being too lax. The Spartans promised Clark complete control over personnel.
Clark, who picked up his nickname as a child in Carthage, Illinois, played college football first at William & Vashti College and then at the University of Illinois under Head Coach Bob Zuppke. Following graduation, he accepted his first coaching job, at the University of Kansas, which was followed by service in the Army during World War I (in addition to seeing combat in Europe, he also coached service football teams).
He returned from the military to his first head coaching job, at Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University), which went 4-6 in 1920 and featured a wide-open offense. From there it was back to Kansas, where he was head coach for five years and the team tied for a Missouri Valley championship with Nebraska in 1923. After a year as an assistant at Minnesota, Clark became Athletic Director and head coach at Butler University. He did well in three years, but a shakeup of the athletic program forced his resignation. He sat out the 1930 football season, instead running an insurance business, but was eager to return to coaching.
Clark brought a new intensity to coaching the Spartans, and it paid off. The team went a surprising 11-3 in ’31, for a second place finish that was just a game behind the champion Green Bay Packers. In addition to Clark’s coaching, an influx of talented rookies that included tailbacks Dutch Clark and Glenn Presnell, tackle George Christensen, and guard Ox Emerson fueled the team’s rise in the standings.
The Spartans came even closer to a championship in 1932. Another impact rookie, FB Ace Gutowsky, joined the team and Portsmouth went 6-1-4 and, since ties didn’t count in determining winning percentage at that time, finished even with the 6-1-6 Chicago Bears at the top of the standings. A game was arranged between the two teams to determine the champion (while it is sometimes treated as the first NFL Championship game, it was not technically a postseason game since the result counted in the regular season standings). The contest was so hastily scheduled that the team’s best all-around player, Dutch Clark, had already left for his off-season job as basketball coach at Colorado College and couldn’t make it back in time to play against the Bears. Due to bad weather conditions, the contest was held indoors at Chicago Stadium on an 80-yard field and the Bears won, 9-0.
Dutch Clark was gone altogether in 1933, retiring for a year to coach, and while Presnell played well in his absence, the team lost two key games to the Bears. With the NFL now reorganized into divisions, the Spartans finished second in the Western Division at 6-5. It was, however, the end of the line for the franchise in Portsmouth. The team had barely made ends meet throughout its existence, and the Great Depression was adding to the burden of trying to field a pro team in a small city. It was a testament to Coach Clark’s leadership that the team remained competitive when gate receipts were low and meeting the payroll was an uncertainty (late in the ’33 season, both coaches and players were paid in stock instead of cash).
Following the 1933 season, the franchise was sold to George Richards, a radio executive who moved the club to Detroit and renamed it the Lions. Dutch Clark came out of retirement and the team started off with ten straight wins in ’34, including a record streak of seven consecutive shutouts. Two late, close losses to the Bears kept the Lions from winning the Western Division, but they firmly established themselves in their new city and were a solid 10-3.
The Lions won the NFL title in 1935, going 7-3-2 and beating the Giants in the Championship game. The team ran the ball with great effectiveness and was still formidable defensively. They dropped to third in ’36, but with an 8-4 record in the highly-competitive division. Nevertheless, in a stunning move, owner Richards fired Clark as head coach and replaced him with Dutch Clark, who acted as player-coach.
Potsy Clark didn’t stay unemployed for long, as he was quickly hired as head coach by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Brooklyn did not have the same level of talent as Clark had been used to in Portsmouth and Detroit, and had posted losing records in 1935 and ’36. They went 3-7-1 under Clark, but the addition of star tailback Ace Parker during the season had an effect as the Dodgers closed out with a convincing win over Pittsburgh and a tie against the Giants.
Following a .500 finish in 1938, the Dodgers sank back down to 4-6-1 in ’39 and Clark was gone. An ownership change in Detroit led to him being rehired by the Lions for 1940. While star tailback Byron “Whizzer” White, last with Pittsburgh in 1938, joined the team after completing a year as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, the club no longer had the overall talent that Clark had enjoyed previously and finished at 5-5-1.
Potsy Clark left pro coaching for good after the 1940 season. His combined record of 64-42-12 produced an outstanding .603 winning percentage and included a league title. At the time, only George Halas of the Bears, Curly Lambeau of the Packers, and Steve Owen of the Giants had accumulated more wins as NFL head coaches.
Clark returned to college coaching, as well as military service during World War II, putting in stints at the University of Grand Rapids and Nebraska. His last season as a head coach was in 1948 with the Cornhuskers, and his overall record at the college level was 46-47-7. He served as athletic director at Nebraska until 1954 and at California Western until ’56, when he retired from sports altogether.
Potsy Clark was a good administrator and strong disciplinarian as a coach. He was also affable and a great storyteller, making him a much-requested after-dinner speaker at sports banquets. As a NFL head coach, he was one of the most successful of his era and made the small-city Spartans a contender, as well as winning a championship with the big-city Lions.