Jon Clark had been part of the coaching staffs at big-time, tradition-rich football schools.
He worked in the Southeastern Conference (Auburn), the Big East (Syracuse) and the Mid-American Conference (Ohio).
And his experiences at those programs sometimes left him wondering if he was on the right path.
“I was moving up (the coaching ranks) and I’m seeing guys on their third marriage. Guys who drink too much and were never home,” Clark said. “I didn’t want to become that way. That was not the man I wanted to be.”
After leaving Idaho State in 2010 — where he was offensive line coach — Clark took some time to really consider his options.
While living with his brother in Lexington, he realized he was ready to go in another direction.
“I wanted to be in a position to impact younger kids,” Clark said. “The kids I was recruiting were less and less prepared to be men, just to survive.”
Clark found that opportunity at an unlikely place.
He was named the head coach at Madison Southern High School in January of 2011.
The coach took over a program that struggled to win games and also drew very little interest from the student body.
“My dad said there were more cheerleaders than football players,” Madison Southern senior Andrew Quintin said.
The Eagles were 2-29 in the three seasons before Clark arrived.
That, however, didn’t scare off the Ohio University graduate.
He embraced the challenge.
“When I saw a school with 1,100 kids that had 20 players on the roster, it screamed opportunity to me,” Clark said. “I’ve been around long enough to know that if you’ve got 1,100 kids, someone can run. There’s athletes. They just need motivation and someone to believe in them.”
Clark has been the driving force behind a remarkable turnaround.
Less than a decade after the Eagles lost 18-straight games (2007-2009), they are in position to accomplish something very special.
Southern (11-3) is set to take on Covington Catholic (14-0) on Saturday in the Class 5A State Championship.
Game time is set for 8 p.m. at Kroger Field in Lexington.
“They’ve taken the program from the very bottom and lifted it to the very top,” Southern senior quarterback Landen Stacy said. “It’s incredible.”
A lot has changed in a relatively short period of time.
The school’s administration invested a significant amount of energy and capital into improving the football facilities. The addition of a state-of-the-art weight room and a turf field were a huge step forward.
“Everything has been very intentional, very thoughtful and very well-planned,” Southern principal Brandon Watkins said. “The facilities have gotten a lot better.”
Those improvements — along with Clark’s enthusiasm, passion and drive — helped turned things around rather quickly.
The Eagles won just two games in 2011, but have won at least five games every season since.
“It was like starting a new program, but you had to break a lot of bad habits,” Clark said.
Led by all-state running back Damien Harris, the Eagles reached the region final (2013) for just the second-time in school history.
Southern continued to make history even after Harris signed with the University of Alabama.
The Eagles won their first-ever district championship in 2015. They’ve added two more titles in the past two years.
“We talk about trusting the process constantly,” Clark said.
That process isn’t just about football.
It’s about building character, being a positive influence and passing along important life skills.
“We’ve won games, but they are also teaching us how to become better young men,” Stacy said. “That’s more important than anything and that’s why things have changed.”
In his seven seasons at Southern, Clark has a 49-33 record. The Eagles have had only two losing seasons while winning nine playoff games.
However, Clark doesn’t measure the success of the program by just those numbers.
“I didn’t come here to project myself to a college job,” Clark said. “I could have taken a bigger job before I came here. I was looking for some place I could build a program the way I wanted to. I had an unmolded clay situation where I could shape into what I believed in.”
Clark has been able to do just that.
And he’s committed to staying with the program long-term.
He got married in 2014 and has become a loving father to his wife Erica’s two children — Cole (a seventh-grader at Farristown) and Cate (a second-grader).
“Once I met my wife, it was game over,” Clark said. “I got lucky. You don’t just stumble into a wife and amazing kids. I feel like the luckiest man alive.”
The administration at Madison Southern also believes they are very lucky to have Clark at the school.
“I think he’s found his calling,” Watkins said. “He’s done a great job.”