Clark Lea returns to Vanderbilt—but don’t call it a homecoming
No one knows Vanderbilt better than its 29th head football coach. Clark Lea is not only a product of the university, but a proponent of its future.
December 21, 2020
On Sunday, Dec. 20, Vanderbilt turned the page on a new chapter.
Just eight days removed from the conclusion of an 0-9, winless season—the first such performance since the inception of Vanderbilt football in 1890—the Commodores, led by Chancellor Daniel Diermeier and athletics director Candice Storey Lee, introduced their newest head football coach.
And if Sunday’s press conference is any indication, Commodore fans have plenty to look forward to in the Clark Lea era.
“Every decision I’ve made in my career,” Lea said, “was to hopefully have a chance at this job.”
As a former Vanderbilt fullback, Lea once found himself donning No. 29 on the field. Now, as the 29th head coach in Vanderbilt history, he returns home with hopes of leading the football program to new heights.
Before he begins, though, he has just one request: don’t call it a homecoming.
“A homecoming suggests this was an emotional decision,” Lea said. “And I can assure you, for me, this is a strategic decision. This is about my belief in the potential of this program.”
Lea, currently the defensive coordinator for a College Football Playoff-bound Notre Dame team, still has to finish the 2020 season before he takes the reins. However, in his introductory press conference on Sunday, he made it clear that the embers of passion for his alma mater still burn—despite coaching stops at UCLA, South Dakota State, Bowling Green, Syracuse, Wake Forest and now Notre Dame.
“Vanderbilt offers something of substance, something that lasts,” he said. “It centers on investment in people and the gift of an education that will permeate a lifetime. And I know this because I’m a product of this. This is my school. I was educated here. I was built here, and I’m so excited to share that with everybody in the community. I returned here with a simple mission, and that’s to win at Vanderbilt.”
Coach Lea may have his work cut out for him, but this Vanderbilt man sees the challenge as an opportunity.
From the diamond to the gridiron
Vanderbilt wanted a coach with a proven track record of success at the highest level. And Lea, 38, certainly fits the bill.
In just about three seasons as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, he has led a Fighting Irish defensive unit that has ranked in the top-15 in scoring defense the past two seasons, with a third top finish nearly complete. His group only flourishes as the competition stiffens; they allowed just 15 points per game in four matchups against AP top-25 opponents entering 2020.
His coaching credentials are exactly what you’d expect from an SEC head football coach, but his journey couldn’t be further from it.
“I had always felt like my impact in the world was going to be as a Major League Baseball player. That was my destiny and I determined that,” Lea said in an exclusive interview with The Hustler. “So I pursued that out of high school.”
Lea grew up in Nashville; he’s a graduate of Montgomery Bell Academy, where he lettered in both baseball and football. But he was certain, despite a standout football career, that baseball was his calling.
After falling in love as a player and a bullpen catcher for the local Nashville Sounds, Lea pursued a college baseball career. His first stop: Division-III Birmingham-Southern College.
It went poorly.
“It was a great year for me, but not as a player, not as a performer. I just felt like I needed a fresh start. I had been recruited a bit out of high school by Belmont, and I had [a couple friends] there,” he said of his decision to transfer to Belmont University. “It was a really comfortable landing point for me.”
As a sophomore in college, Lea returned home to the Music City. Still, though, he did so as a baseball player. In two years of school, he had still not yet considered transitioning back to the gridiron. As fate would have it, another poor season on the diamond made him reconsider.
“About halfway through the fall, again, it was performance-based. I just wasn’t playing well. I always say this—I felt like it was a story of self-discovery and, honestly, as I processed this, early on I was a little embarrassed. Why couldn’t I just find a place and make a decision? But I think it was more about understanding where I intended to be and where I wanted to be or what my vision was and what the bigger vision is.”
The bigger vision, for Lea, was a bigger stage. Not Division-III baseball, not mid-major Division-I baseball, but Division-I football. Better yet, Division-I football in the best conference in the country.
“I came here as a walk-on, I excelled as a student,” Lea said of his time at Vanderbilt. “Two degrees and three years of playing later, a scholarship, it really set me on my way.”
He earned his scholarship in 2002. Nearly 20 years later, through hard work and a dedication to coaching, it’s earned him a dream job. It’s earned him the dream job, according to athletics director Candice Storey Lee.
“If you understand Clark and the deliberate and thoughtful manner in which he operates, you know he’s been preparing for this for a long time,” Lee said Sunday. “You also know that he earned this opportunity. And this isn’t just any job for him. This is the job for him.”
A program built on relationships
Lea has been fortunate enough to learn from a number of terrific coaches over his 15 years in college football. From each one of these relationships, he says he’s learned unique lessons that he can now employ at Vanderbilt.
He spoke thoughtfully of each and every one of these mentors Sunday, beginning with his high school head coach Ricky Bowers at Montgomery Bell Academy and ending with his current head coach at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly.
“I am a part of all that I have met,” Lea explained. “There’s gonna be a lot to learn in this role, and that’s where I’m gonna continue to lean on those people that have propped me up, along with Chancellor Diermeier and Candice [Storey Lee] as we get this thing rolling.”
Each name was followed by a tidbit of wisdom he gleaned, demonstrating his desire to be a lifelong learner. And that life of learning dates back to his days as a child in Nashville, where he encountered one of his first coaching influences, legendary basketball coach Don Meyer.
“I used to go to his basketball camps as a kid, and I recently, during quarantine, was going through some old notebooks,” Lea said. “I had a notebook from when I probably was eight or ten years old from a basketball camp where I had written down at that age to know the thrill of an all-out effort.”
As he prepares to tackle the challenge of building a football program at Vanderbilt, another coach sure to make an impact on his life will be Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin. Lea said that he has admired Corbin’s work ethic and success at Vanderbilt for many years. Now, he will have almost unlimited access to the two-time national champion skipper.
“What he did with the program here: taking it from a state of mediocrity and building it into a national standard. That is the blueprint. But before I was in this position, he’s just a guy that you wanted to get around. What is the formula? What’s his secret? What is it that he does? How does he pull it out of people?” Lea said. “Certainly I’ll look forward to many more conversations with Coach Corbin, because I just have to go across the street now.”
Lea is facing a number of uncertainties as he transitions into his first head coaching job, including his roster construction, assistant coaches and facilities. However, the basis of his coaching philosophy will remain unchanged. He will lean on the relationships he has built for guidance while working to cultivate new relationships at Vanderbilt— and that starts at the very top.
“When I met with Chancellor [Diermier] and when I met with Candice, I was struck by not only how energized they were to find that competitive advantage and maximize this moment to move forward, but also how relatable they were,” Lea said. “There was such a common ethos, common vision for how we can get this done together.”
The ‘alignment’ that Lee has spoken of surrounding Vanderbilt athletics was evident to Lea. His eagerness to develop relationships with both Chancellor Diermier and Lee will be important in his pursuit of success at Vanderbilt.
But with a new group of players now under his tutelage and a 2020-21 recruiting cycle that is not yet complete, Lea will turn his attention to fostering relationships with his student-athletes.
“This is going to start in relationships all across the board, it’s going to start in back corner conversations with our team, where we’re challenging the state of affairs and we are purging the negativity from the operation,” Lea said. “There’s gonna have to be an element of trust that’s defaulted to as we get this going. But that trust is gonna give way to really deeply embedded friendships and relationships.”
As Lea begins these conversations with his new team, he will lead by example and embody his own coaching philosophy by seeing through his commitment to Notre Dame as they prepare for the College Football Playoff.
“Part of my angst in all of this was if we’re gonna be about relationships and about commitment, then it’s of the utmost importance that I follow through on the relationships and the commitment that I have in South Bend,” Lea said. “I was so excited when talking to Candice about that, because the word she brought up was ‘integrity’ and the idea that I’m fully supported in my efforts as the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame by the people here at Vanderbilt.”
Developing players first and foremost
To win at Vanderbilt, where recruiting is tough and you regularly have to line up against teams like Alabama and Florida, you have to be able to develop players. The Commodores don’t inherit the same amount of raw talent that other SEC powerhouses do; they have to cultivate it over time.
Lea has shown an ability to do that throughout his time at Notre Dame. Take star defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundej as an example. Ogundej was just a three-star recruit when he came to South Bend. He was initially committed to Western Michigan, and he’s exactly the type of prospect that Vanderbilt often lands. However, under Lea, he has become a player that will not only be drafted, but might be picked in an early round.
Based off his comments on Dec. 20, Lea appears to be poised to make the same kind of impact as Vanderbilt’s head coach. Player development is at the forefront of his mind as he begins this new era.
“What we need to focus on is heartbeats and habits,” Lea said to The Hustler. “We need to focus on the day in and day out interactions that will build to the results we want. This is all about the steady application of our process, the consistent application of our process. I think that from that approach we are going to find the potential of this program.”
Lea knows substantial change in terms of on-field results isn’t going to come overnight. With a team coming off an 0-9 season, it will take some time for the work to translate into wins. But Lea has faith in his system and is confident that, with time, Vanderbilt will reach new heights.
“We want to win at the highest possible level and we believe we can do that,” Lea said. “And will that take time? Yeah, of course it will. But the one thing I’m going to have is endurance. We’re gonna start small and grow big and it’s gonna be day-by-day where we dig in together.”
While a lot of people are of the strong belief that winning and investments in athletic facilities are directly correlated, Lea doesn’t necessarily think that’s the case. He acknowledges that future plans for facility renovations are “something we can all get excited about,” but was firm in his statements that his main duty lies with his players and their growth.
“For me, the renovation starts in that locker room and the heartbeats in that locker room,” Lea said when asked about facilities. “It’s a focus on building a team that has the components of a successful team.”
When pressed further on the facilities issues, Lea remained firm in conveying what he values the most: the players.
“What’s important to me is that when you watch a game, you’re watching a team that you can get behind, that you can rally behind, that you can believe in,” Lea said. “A team that’s competitive and a team that is tough, and a team that is reflective of this university. Because we all deserve that. We all want that. I can tell you right now as an alum — just like Candice — and as a former athlete here, this is very personal to me. So I’m way more interested in what we can get done with respect to the people and the heartbeats in that locker room.”
Habits and heartbeats.
Both words were used multiple times, sometimes together and sometimes separately, throughout Lea’s press conference as well as his time with The Vanderbilt Hustler. It seems like these two words will be a staple of Lea’s messaging both to the media and to his team for years to come.
These words are significant. They show a commitment to the players and team culture above all. They show that the outside noise doesn’t matter; the only thing that matters is what goes on inside that locker room.
They show that a new era is among Vanderbilt football with Clark Lea at the helm.
Comparison is the thief of joy
“I don’t want to ever compare this program to another, because Vanderbilt is uniquely positioned,” Lea said of his alma mater.
Vanderbilt is often compared to universities such as Stanford and Northwestern off the field, but this head coach elected not to venture into on-field comparisons.
It wouldn’t be right of him to compare a Vanderbilt team coming off a tough 0-9 season to a program like Northwestern that has competed in the Big Ten championship game twice in the past three years.
Vanderbilt can’t compare itself to Stanford’s recent history of success, either. Stanford won three Pac-12 Championships in four years from 2012-2015 and made eight straight bowl games from 2011-2018. Vanderbilt has only made seven bowl games in its history.
Vanderbilt’s not there yet, but that doesn’t mean the Commodores never will be or that Vanderbilt’s potential is capped.
“I’m not looking to be Northwestern. I’m not looking to be Stanford. I’m looking to be the best possible version of Vanderbilt, and I don’t think any of us know what that can be right now,” Lea said. “But I’m interested in finding out.”
Vanderbilt offers a unique combination of world-class academics and SEC athletics in one of the most unique cities in the country. As an alumnus, Lea can pitch this to recruits better than any of Vanderbilt’s five head coaches in the last 20 years.
Whether that means he can take the program higher than the two nine-win seasons under James Franklin remains to be seen.
The roster is severely depleted after a season of opt-outs and outgoing transfers. Vanderbilt was barely able to field a team in its last home game against Tennessee, and it had to cancel its final game at Georgia. The Commodores finished with the first winless season in school history.
It’s a long road ahead to reach bowl eligibility, but Lea is up for the challenge.
“The message is we owe this program the chance to start anew. We owe it to everyone involved. I don’t want our team burdened by the history,” Lea said to The Hustler. “We can’t be held back by what has been. We need to focus on what can be. That’s going to be my message to the team; that’s going to be my message to the community, and certainly the student body.”