A Leap of Faith: How Clark Lea brought Vanderbilt legend Earl Bennett back to West End
Despite never previously meeting Clark Lea, former Vanderbilt wide receiver Earl Bennett felt his energy and passion and decided it was time to come home.
September 22, 2021
Entering the 2021 calendar year, 13 of 14 SEC football programs had a director of player development on their staff. Nine of those roles were filled by alumni who returned to their university—eight of whom were former players—and one school even had multiple members on staff dedicated strictly to player development.
That lone SEC program without a position entirely devoted to helping players adjust and succeed off the field was Vanderbilt—the conference’s most rigorous academic institution. But just two months into his tenure, newly-minted head coach Clark Lea (BA ‘05, MA ‘07) changed that by hiring legendary Vanderbilt wide receiver Earl Bennett.
Bennett—or just “Earl” as he is known to Commodore student-athletes—became the third former Commodore to reunite with Lea on his journey to turn the tide of Vanderbilt football. He joined defensive ends coach Jovan Haye (BA ‘07) and running backs coach Norval McKenzie (BA ‘05, MA ‘10).
“When I think of us all being back, I think it’s amazing. Because very seldom are student-athletes afforded the opportunities to make that type of impact on the other side,” Bennett told The Hustler. “We have the experience of being at Vanderbilt, being on campus, going to class—it’s rigorous, this isn’t your average institution, it’s Vanderbilt.”
But Bennett’s path back to his alma mater was quite different from his alumni colleagues. Lea had personal relationships with both Haye and McKenzie, as they were teammates of his during his time as a Commodore. Bennett, however, met Lea over the phone just two weeks before taking the job.
“I actually met him for the first time on my first day of work. I had no prior relationship with Coach Lea before I got here,” Bennett said. “Never really had a talk with him but he called me randomly on a Friday and said he had this job and would love to have me on staff. That’s really how it happened.”
Bringing back former players to a successful program can be easy—the wins speak for themselves. But bringing alumni back to a program that has historically struggled is a different challenge.
Add on the fact that Bennett and many other alumni have had a broken relationship with Vanderbilt football after their graduation, and wooing any former players back would be quite the obstacle. That didn’t phase Lea.
“Surrounding these kids with guys that walked these spaces, that filled it with excellence and that will inspire the next wave, the next movement towards success within this program is critical for our program,” Lea said.
Excellence within the Vanderbilt football program has not been commonplace, but Bennett certainly brought it during his three years as a Commodore. The former All-SEC standout still ranks second in most every Vanderbilt receiving category, and after being selected in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft, completed six successful seasons with the Chicago Bears. He is loved dearly by Commodore fans everywhere, but since graduating, has been met with an underwhelming relationship with the place he still calls home.
“A lot of times when someone from the institution reached out to us [alumni], it was always just about giving,” Bennett explained. “Not at all did someone from football reach out and say, ‘hey Earl, what’s up?’ or ‘how was your experience as a player?’ or ‘what are some things you see that we can do better?’”
But Lea reaching out to him was different. This wasn’t a donation request, this wasn’t a request for him to speak at a banquet. This was about football. It was about realizing the potential of the place that still looms large in his heart. It was about impacting the players who have and will continue to come after him.
It also wasn’t the first time he had been contacted about returning to work at Vanderbilt in some capacity, though. Bennett, who holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Vanderbilt and is pursuing a doctoral degree in educational leadership from the University of Houston, never quite saw the fit that he was looking for.
“I had opportunities to come back and work at the university previously but I turned them down because the alignment wasn’t there,” Bennett said. “For me, it was important to understand [Lea’s] vision and how he saw the future trajectory of the program.”
So what exactly made this the right time? How did Bennett dive in after only speaking with Lea over the phone a handful of times? Well, it was the head coach’s vision that won him over.
“We had three calls. One, I wanted to learn more about his coaching philosophy. Two, I wanted to talk about his leadership style. And three, I wanted to understand his morals and values. I wanted it to align,” Bennett said. “Once we had those couple of conversations, I bought in. He did a heck of a job recruiting me and I really knew it was the right time to come back and make an impact after those three conversations.”
Bennett arrived back to West End earlier this year and has hit the ground running. His title is broad and that’s intentional. His priorities run in different directions each and every day—from widespread community engagement to instructional sessions on NIL and adjusting to college life.
“When you start looking at that from a recruiting or player development standpoint, you have people around these kids every day that show them how to navigate,” Lea said of Bennett and the player development staff. “I think that’s a great feature of this program.”
But certain objectives rise to the top of Bennett’s list of priorities, one of those being reuniting a neglected Vanderbilt football alumni base with the new era of Commodore football.
“There is a heavy emphasis on alumni for us because all four of us [Lea, Bennett, Haye and McKenzie] had the displeasure of not being connected to the program. As an alum, that is one thing you are passionate about,” Bennett said. “If we can’t have our alumni [backing] us, how can we expect other people to do it? Guys that bled, sweat, shed hair, skin on this field—if they aren’t behind us, how can we expect the community to gravitate behind us, too? So we have to start from within and gradually work out.”
In addition to reengaging alumni, Bennett has led strong efforts to connect Commodore players with the Nashville community in a number of ways. From school drop-ins to carrying on Turner’s Heroes, Bennett has looked high and low for ways to paint Vanderbilt student-athletes as community role models.
“Growing up in an urban area, I never saw any collegiate athletes come out and just say, ‘hey man, I am at Vanderbilt, you can be there too,’” Bennett said. “It’s important because our guys are role models…they need to understand that role model, leadership piece.”
Around McGugin Center, you may see him doing any number of other things as well, whether that be strolling the grounds at practice, running Vanderbilt Twitter takeovers with Barton Simmons, leading the team’s partnership with the NFLPA or helping make Vanderbilt football a more inclusive space.
He may not be catching game-winning touchdowns against Tennessee anymore, but Bennett is truly a jack of all trades. And he is an essential part of Lea’s vision to make Vanderbilt football the premier student-athlete experience in the nation.
“If there is anything that I can do to help this program, I am going to do it,” Bennett said. “This is home for me. I am passionate about this place, I love every single aspect about it. The staff has been amazing and I just look forward to continuing to build.”