MUIR: Vanderbilt needs to make Clark Lea its next head football coach

Clark Lea, a Nashville native and a Vanderbilt alumnus, has shined as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator and is ready for the Vanderbilt head coaching job.


Clark Lea as defensive coordinator of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. (Notre Dame Athletics)

Alyssa Muir, Deputy Sports Editor

When you have the ability to hire a coach who’s currently in charge of the 12th-ranked defense in the country (on the 2nd-ranked team overall), you do it.

When said coach is also a Vanderbilt alumnus originally from Nashville, you definitely do it. 

Vanderbilt, don’t overthink this. Clark Lea is your guy. 

At just 38 years old, Lea’s best days are ahead of him—and he’s already had some pretty good ones. His defenses with Notre Dame have been nothing short of outstanding. This season, the undefeated Irish have been absolutely dominant on that side of the ball. Only three Power Five teams are allowing fewer yards per game than Notre Dame (Wisconsin, West Virginia and Clemson). 

This isn’t isolated to just this season, either. Since Lea took over as defensive coordinator in 2018, Notre Dame’s staple has been its elite defense. In the previous two seasons, the Fighting Irish finished 13th and 12th in defensive points per game, respectively. 

Lea has shown an ability to recruit big-time talent, as his past three classes have featured numerous four-star prospects that he was able to land over powerhouse SEC and Big Ten schools such as safety Kyle Hamilton and defensive end Isaiah Foskey. Perhaps more importantly, however, is the fact that Lea has also demonstrated that he can take a lowly-recruited three-star prospect like defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji and help turn him into a potential early-round draft pick. The next Vanderbilt coach will need to recruit higher-level talent but also be able to develop the guys who fall through the recruiting cracks. Lea has shown that he can do both. 

Speaking of recruiting, Lea would excel in that role at Vanderbilt. While it’s definitely easier to get guys to want to come play for the Irish than it is for the Commodores, it’s not a cakewalk. For one, you have to get guys to commit to four years in South Bend, Indiana, where the winters are dreary and the town has very little to offer apart from game days. Furthermore, similar to Vanderbilt, Notre Dame has high academic standards that recruits must be able to match. So the fact that Lea has been able to recruit defensive players in this setting bodes well for his ability to improve Vanderbilt’s recruiting as head coach. 

Moreover, Lea has the benefit of being a Nashville native who attended Montgomery Bell Academy and is a Vanderbilt football alumnus, which should give him even more of a boost in recruiting. He has a firm grasp on how athletics at Vanderbilt work, and he should be able to especially connect with local prospects. Plus, he’s close friends with Commodore legend Tim Corbin. He will be able to sell recruits on the chance to play in the SEC at a top-tier academic school in his exciting hometown of Nashville. 

Now, the common criticism of Lea is that he’s Derek Mason 2.0. And yes, some of the similarities are uncanny. Both were defensive-minded guys coming from elite academic schools, and both were defensive coordinators for exactly three years with dominant defenses. But I don’t think their time as Vanderbilt’s head coach would be similar at all. 

Lea is much better equipped to become a head coach than Mason was at that point in time. With the exception of Stanford, the rest of Mason’s career was spent at mostly low major schools in assistant roles. Lea, in contrast, was at UCLA, Syracuse and Wake Forest before making it over to Notre Dame in 2017. 

And while the Stanford teams that Mason coached were excellent, Lea’s Notre Dame squads have been national championship contenders in 2020 as well as in 2018. He knows how to win at the highest level and compete against the best of the best. 

Mason also suffered from an inability to make the right coordinator hires. His first coordinators, Karl Dorrell and Dave Kotulski, were fired after just one year. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig was with Mason for four seasons, but his results were inconsistent at best. Thanks to his numerous stops throughout his career, Lea is well positioned to use his various connections to make the right hires at coordinator in a way that Mason wasn’t. 

I get that after seven seasons of little success with a defensive guy at the helm, people want to go in an opposite direction. But for me personally, you need to hire the best guy available. Especially at a school like Vanderbilt that has struggled so mightily over the past seven years. And that guy is Lea. Even if he is another defensive guy. 

By the way, for anyone complaining about hiring a defensive coordinator, have you seen what has happened on that side of the ball this season? 

It’s been an unmitigated disaster, with opposing teams scoring 40 points with ease and players opting out or leaving the team seemingly every week. The team could use a guy like Lea to energize that unit and convince players to stick around the program. And then he will hit on a successful offensive coordinator hire with someone who knows how to utilize Ken Seals in the best way possible. 

Lea checks off several important boxes. Young. Inspiring. Good recruiter. Well-respected. Nashville native. Vanderbilt alumnus. Winning pedigree at a top five program. 

Don’t overthink this, Vanderbilt. Make Clark Lea the next head coach of the Vanderbilt Commodores.