Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea and Vanderbilt have finalized a contract to make him the next Commodores football coach, according to multiple sources. The move marks a homecoming for Lea, who is from the Nashville area, played at Vanderbilt and has both undergraduate and graduate degrees from the school.
Lea, 38, has emerged as one of the country’s top assistant coaches, as he’s on the cusp of helping the Fighting Irish to their second College Football Playoff appearance in his three seasons as defensive coordinator there. They’ve gone undefeated in the regular season in both 2018 and this year.
Lea’s success at private, academically oriented schools like Notre Dame and Wake Forest was appealing to first-year Vanderbilt athletic director Candice Storey Lee. She valued his role in building and shaping the No. 2 Fighting Irish into a national title contender. She’s also a Vanderbilt graduate and former athlete at the school and her priority in her nascent tenure is to unlock the potential of the football program.
Lea brings a background at private schools that should help him rebuild Vanderbilt from its winless season in 2020, as the school hasn’t had a winning season since James Franklin left for Penn State in 2013.
At Notre Dame, Lea earned his reputation as a rising star in coaching by taking over as the Irish’s defensive coordinator in 2018 after his mentor, Mike Elko, left for Texas A&M. Lea entered that opportunity as an unknown commodity and inexperienced play-caller. In his debut season, Notre Dame went undefeated in the regular season and reached the College Football Playoff, finishing the season 12-1.
This season, the 10-0 Irish have one of the nation’s top defensive units, as they rank No. 12 in the country in scoring defense at 17.1 points per game. Lea has been nominated for the Broyles Award, which is given annually to the country’s top assistant coach.
Lea’s success has led to myriad job interest from other schools. Lea finished second at Boston College last season and has turned down interest from multiple Group of Five schools. Lea is well regarded at Notre Dame, where his players appreciate his professorial style and relish his ability as a motivator and the lengths to which he goes to build personal relationships.
In an interview with Yahoo Sports two years ago, Lea summed up his connection-based philosophy this way. “In order to have influence, you have to have a relationship,” Lea said. “You can’t expect to enact change in someone if they’re not willing to hear you.”
The ability to help resuscitate a program that meant so much to him held significant appeal to Lea, who still has strong ties to the Nashville area. Lea played baseball at two other schools before transferring to Vanderbilt as a walk-on football player and playing three seasons from 2002-2004. Those who know Lea said when he spoke about coaching at Vanderbilt, the passion for the school, job and opportunity came through in the emotion in his voice.
Storey Lee has made clear in her brief time in charge that Vanderbilt is going to be committed to becoming competitive in football in the SEC, as significant facility overhauls and additional staffing infrastructure are in the works. The school recently hired former Louisiana Tech athletic director Tommy McClelland as a deputy athletic director for external engagement and to support the football program. Vanderbilt also hired Kristene Kelly as the deputy athletic director for internal affairs, who will help build out areas like weight training and nutrition, which are integral for Vanderbilt’s development as a program. The early stages of Storey Lee’s time at Vanderbilt feel like the pivot points at both Stanford and Northwestern when those schools decided to become more serious about their football brands catching up to the elite status of their academic brands.
Lea will follow through on his defensive coordinator duties at Notre Dame, which is undefeated and faces Clemson in the ACC championship game on Saturday. It would be stunning if the Irish didn’t appear in the College Football Playoff, which means Lea will be splitting time over the next few weeks as the CFP games are on Jan. 1 and Jan. 11.
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