Candice Storey Lee: Bleeding black and gold

Athletic director Candice Storey Lee has invested in Vanderbilt since coming to West End in 1996.
Candice Storey Lee protecting the basketball during her college career mirrored with a picture of Lee smiling now. (Hustler Multimedia/Lexie Perez)
Candice Storey Lee protecting the basketball during her college career mirrored with a picture of Lee smiling now. (Hustler Multimedia/Lexie Perez)
Lexie Perez

“I just said yes and I feel like I’ve been saying yes ever since,” Candice Storey Lee said in an interview with The Hustler. 

On a sunny November afternoon, Lee reflected on her time at Vanderbilt with a grin and a deep sense of gratitude. At the age of 16, Lee committed to play basketball for the Vanderbilt Commodores. Lee’s time on West End began in August 1996 and she hasn’t left since.

Lee came from a military family with her father Willie Storey serving as a Lieutenant colonel for the Army. Lee was often forced to immerse herself in new cultures and find new friends throughout her childhood as her family moved between Alabama, Kansas, Virginia, Germany and Puerto Rico. Lee spent her teenage years in ​​Madison, Ala. and attended Bob Jones High School. In 2012, she was named to the Bob Jones High School Hall of Fame and 10 years later, she was inducted into the Huntsville-Madison County (Alabama) Athletic Hall of Fame.

Lee dominated on the hardwood during her senior year of high school (1995-96), averaging 23 points and 21 rebounds per game. Lee’s excellent play led her to be  named Alabama Gatorade Player of the Year and achieve all-state honors.

Before her senior year of high school, Lee attended a Vanderbilt elite camp in the summer of 1995. At the conclusion of the camp, she was offered a scholarship to play basketball at Vanderbilt by then-head coach Jim Foster. Foster had taken Vanderbilt to a Final Four in 1993, which was a big reason Lee decided to accept Foster’s offer right away. The academics that Vanderbilt had to offer were also a big reason Lee decided to become a Commodore.

“He [Foster] offered me a scholarship. I said yes. I didn’t talk to my parents. I didn’t think twice about it. I canceled all my official visits [at other schools],” Lee said. “Academics were really important to me and I just thought Vanderbilt had all the pieces. They had everything,” Lee said. 

As an undergraduate student, Lee studied human and organizational development at Peabody College. Lee redshirted her freshman year due to a torn ACL. After earning her undergraduate degree in 2000, Lee spent her final two years of eligibility playing for the Commodores while also completing her Masters in education (2000-02). She redshirted during the 2000-01 season due to suffering another torn ACL.

“I redshirted my freshman year and then I redshirted my fifth year, both because of my knees,” Lee said. “I’ve had seven knee surgeries.”

The year after though — during the 2001-02 season — Lee was part of the Vanderbilt team that went 30-7, won the SEC Tournament and made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. During Lee’s years as a collegiate athlete, she was named an SEC Academic Honor Roll awardee five times and was a captain. While Lee’s playing days were over in the Spring of 2002, she wanted to remain invested in Vanderbilt.  

Lee did exactly that and decided to work for the Vanderbilt athletics department at the age of 23. 

“The opportunity to invest in Vanderbilt has always been a no-brainer,” Lee said. “It was a no-brainer when I was 16. It was a no-brainer when I was 23 and I had a paid internship. I remember my mom was like, ‘well how much are you going to get paid?’ I was like, ‘I have no idea.’ I just said yes.” 

Lee worked as an academic advisor for both the men’s and women’s basketball teams during her first year as an employee of Vanderbilt. She was later tabbed the director of compliance for Vanderbilt, where she acted as a frequent problem solver. The three-year period from 2002-04 was vital in Lee’s growth as a leader and a problem solver.

In 2004, she was named the senior women’s administrator and associate athletic director. Lee spent 11 years in this role, while also earning her Doctorate in higher education leadership and policy in 2012. In 2014, she moved into the role of senior athletic director before being named associate vice chancellor and deputy athletic director in 2016.

Fast forward to Sept. 11, 2018. Longtime athletic director David Williams announced that on Jan. 31, 2019 he would officially step down as Vanderbilt’s athletic director after serving in the role for 17 years. The athletics department was in need of a replacement. 

Despite being interviewed and considered for the athletic director role, the Commodores elected not to hire Lee. Instead, Vanderbilt hired Malcolm Turner. Turner spent just one year as athletic director before stepping down on Feb. 4, 2020. 

Two days after Turner’s departure, Lee was appointed by then-interim chancellor and current Wake Forest President Susan Wente to be the interim athletic director. Lee spent 105 days in the interim athletic director position before being named Vanderbilt’s athletic director shortly after the conclusion of the 2019-20 school year. 

On May 21, 2020, Lee officially became the first Black woman athletic director in the SEC. Reflecting back on the moment she was hired, Lee remains thankful to Virginia athletic director Carla Williams for helping pave the way to the position she’s in today. 

“I probably didn’t start to truly think about becoming an athletic director until right after Carla [Williams] got her job, probably in 2017,” Lee said. “She became the first Black woman to be a Power Five athletic director.”

Lee also expressed gratitude to her family at Vanderbilt, her husband Sean, her parents and her former boss, Williams.

“I always give my parents props because they’ve really done a lot to support me. My husband is amazing. I think, especially being a woman in a male-dominated space [it’s important] to have a partner, husband, a spouse that supports you. That’s been critically important for me,” Lee said. “David [Williams] has been instrumental in mentoring me and just being the champion for me and challenging me.”

Less than one year into being athletic director at Vanderbilt — in May of 2021 — Lee helped spearhead the launch of the Vandy United campaign, a $300 million investment initiative for athletics. The plan features several projects from enhancing Hawkins Field to building a brand-new locker room for the Football team.

“This [the launch of the plan] was during COVID-19. So at a time when a lot of places were sort of scaling back, it was very clear that the chancellor felt that it was important for us as an institution to lean into the areas that we thought were important, and athletics was one of them,” Lee said. “$300 million is a lot of money, but also that the first 100 million dollars came from the university and that set quite the signal that this university is invested in athletics.”

Although the Vandy United plan will put Vanderbilt athletics into a better place than it is now from a facilities point of view, there have been bumps in the road. In 2023, Vanderbilt Football went 2-10 and played home games at a construction-riddled FirstBank Stadium, which employed a makeshift scoreboard the entire season. Lee’s perspective, though, is more big-picture.

“It’s a privilege to be inconvenienced in the name of progress,” Lee said. “There’s some real progress that’s happening before our eyes. We’re not just talking about it. We’re doing it with great support. I’m grateful for that.”

Lee has hired several head coaches since becoming athletic director, but her most well-known hire was when she brought in Vanderbilt alumnus Clark Lea ahead of the 2021 football season. Lea had finished his third season as defensive coordinator for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at the time and was now ready to lead Vanderbilt to its first bowl appearance since 2018. More importantly, Lee was eager to change the culture around Vanderbilt Football.

Lea replaced Derek Mason, who went 0-9 in his last season as head coach for Vanderbilt. Mason spent seven years as Vanderbilt’s head coach, leading the Commodores to bowl games in 2016 and 2018, respectively. A key moment during Mason’s tenure as head coach was when Sarah Fuller became the first woman to score in a Power Five football game.

In Lea’s past three seasons as head coach, the Commodores have yet to finish a season above .500. Vanderbilt went 2-10 in 2021 and 2023, respectively. A highlight of Lea’s tenure was in 2022 when Vanderbilt went 5-7, including upset wins over SEC foes Kentucky and Florida. Although Lea’s program regressed in 2023, Candice Storey Lee is confident that Vanderbilt Football will turn the tide in 2024.

“I think that he [Clark Lea] has a deep commitment to growing healthy cultures and I think he is a very talented communicator,” Lee said. “I have the privilege of understanding the broad context of what we’re doing and I understand all the things that go into winning, and it’s hard to win, and we’re going to win.”

For Lee, not everything is about wins and losses. She believes relationships and developing cultures are vital in generating great atmospheres. Vanderbilt bowling has done just that under Lee’s leadership. 

In 2023, Vanderbilt bowling became the first Vanderbilt team to bring home gold under Lee’s tenure as athletic director. Although Lee was unable to travel to Las Vegas to watch the bowling team compete against Nebraska in the National Championship, she was cheering from afar. 

“I was unable to travel to [Las] Vegas when they won the championship but we had a watch party with one of our corporate sponsors,” Lee said. “Everybody wants to win so to finish on top is big time. It was really special. I’m so happy for John, who is our head coach and Josie, who is our associate head coach and for everybody affiliated with that team, particularly the student-athletes.”

While there may be work to do from helping Vanderbilt Football earn its first bowl appearance since 2018 to completing the Vandy United project, Lee looks forward to the tasks ahead. Since the age of 16, Lee has bled black and gold and is the perfect leader for Vanderbilt. 

“I was a student here. This is my home. I hope that is evident when people engage with me,” Lee said. “I hope people remember me as someone who operated with joy and enjoyed what she did. I take the work seriously [and] try not to take myself too seriously. I love what we get to do.”

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About the Contributors
Andrew Wilf
Andrew Wilf, Former Sports Editor
Andrew Wilf (’24) is Sports Editor for The Vanderbilt Hustler. He is from Livingston, N.J., and is majoring in history and minoring in business. He joined the sports staff his freshman year, previously serving as a Staff Writer, Assistant Sports Editor and Deputy Sports Editor. Beyond writing for The Hustler, he is also the host of Anchor Analysis, Commodore Clash and Live From West End. In his free time, Andrew enjoys watching the NFL and playing golf. He can be reached at [email protected].
Lexie Perez
Lexie Perez, Graphics Editor
Lexie Perez (‘26) is from Northern Virginia and is majoring in climate studies and human and organizational development and minoring in business in the College of Arts and Science. She enjoys listening to 70s and 80s pop music, doing the daily Wordle and rooting for the Nashville Predators and Cincinnati Bengals. She can be reached at [email protected].
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Jason Allison
4 months ago

Just hire back Joe Fisher & that will bring some of us back into the fold. Never should have let him go & stood beside him. If loyalty really matters, then make this right! Bring back Joe!

Carlos Thomas
5 months ago

YES! She is a proven loser!

Vanderbilt athletics needs to diversify its pedigree to have any chance of being a winner! What has this person done OUTSIDE of being at Vanderbilt all of her adult life? Placing her as the head of the athletics department demonstrates that the university is NOT serious about athletics as a strategic driver of its brand! Which is a Vandy tradition.

Gordon Gee effed-up the athletic department by removing the athletic director as a position within the administration. He was attempting to “de-emphasize” the importance of athletics at VU….eventually, he placed his chief counsel, David Williams, into some pseudo-athletic directorship. Williams had never been an AD and learned on the job. Despite his lack of experience he was well verse in the “Vandy Way”: satiate the key stakeholders, don’t spend too much money, and above all “play nice” because WASPy Vandy folks like to stay in their comfort zone. Williams groomed Candace from the time she graduated from undergrad until he died and what we have now is a continuation of William’s philosophy: The Vandy Way 2.0.

Let’s be clear here, college athletics has had at least 2 paradigm shifts since Candace Lee started working in VU athletics in the oughts. VU athletics continues to choose to stay behind the exponential curve caused by the transfer portal and NIL. Guess what, THAT’S AWESOME! I LOVE IT! I believe in the traditional marriage between academics and athletics but that notion is passé and VU athletics needs to find a D-III conference that they can compete in. VU needs to be realistic about the reality of being competitive in the SEC in the age of NIL and the transfer portal. The “magical” Vandy degree has a limited value proposition for this generation of athletes. Unless you provide a winning experience and substantive compensation, VU will continue to lose out in the age of transfer portal and NIL. Is Candace Lee the right person to lead this effort? Can anybody help Vandy through this perpetual morass? Sure, but you can’t have the Vandy Way 3.0 and believe that you will have a successful program!

Dr. Carlos A. Thomas
c/o 1992