‘One of the best people I think I’ve ever known’

Former coach, teammates praise Vandy’s first home-grown coach in 30 years

Friday, January 8, 2021, Vol. 45, No. 2
By Tom Wood

Every new coach – no matter the sport or level of competition – knows all the right things to say when hired to take over a struggling program and energize fan support.

It’s all about, to paraphrase:

• Establishing a winning culture

• Putting together an electrifying offense to complement a dominant defense

• Holding everyone accountable, starting with the coaching staff

• Assuring fans there’s no program in the country with more potential, but it’s not going to happen overnight

• Embracing the opportunity to compete at the highest level in the best conference in the country.

New Vanderbilt head football coach Clark Lea knows his coach-speak as well as anyone. But listening to the 38-year-old Montgomery Bell Academy and Vanderbilt product deliver his upbeat message seems somehow different.

“As my feet hit the ground running … 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. But I’m interested in finding out,” says Lea, who Dec. 14 was announced as Vanderbilt’s 29th head coach. Lea held his introductory Vanderbilt news conference Dec. 20.

Part of Lea’s optimism that he can achieve where so many others failed is the fact that he played at Vanderbilt and knows firsthand what the Commodores need to succeed. A large component is Lea’s dynamic personality, less rah-rah than confident and inspiring.

Finally, there’s his track record, learning first from Nashville coaching legends and then working for some of the best minds in college football, including the past four years under Brian Kelly at Notre Dame, the last three as Kelly’s defensive coordinator.

The package sends a message of hope for long-suffering Vanderbilt fans.

“I think once it’s all said and done, if we’ve done our job and we’ve invested the way we should invest, there’s no limit on what we can accomplish here. That’s why I took the job,” Lea says.

It has been 34 years since Vanderbilt hired one of its own to helm the Commodores’ football program, that being Watson Brown (1986-90), now a sports talk show co-host. Since Brown’s ouster, Vanderbilt has been through seven head coaches from various backgrounds – the most successful being James Franklin (24-15), who departed for Penn State in 2013 – and Bobby Johnson (29-66), the 2008 SEC coach of the year.

Lea’s predecessor, Derek Mason (27-55), took the Commodores to bowl games in 2016 and 2018, but Vanderbilt never had a winning season during his seven-year watch and went winless in the 2020 COVID-shortened season, resulting in Mason’s dismissal Nov. 29.

“This has nothing to do with what’s come before. I don’t have any interest in spending time on what has been,” Lea points out. “The only thing I’m interested in is what is to be.

“And for me, it’s the creation of a program with everyone involved and everyone invested that rises to heights that right now we may not even know are capable. We can do that.”

Nashville roots

Lea being a homegrown product is the largest factor separating him from more than three decades of predecessors. He’s not just a Vanderbilt graduate, like Brown, who was born in Cookeville, but a true native son of Nashville and a three-sport star at Montgomery Bell Academy, where he excelled in baseball and football.

After graduating from MBA, Lea played on Birmingham-Southern’s 2001 NAIA championship baseball team and then transferred to play baseball at Belmont before switching to football at Vanderbilt.

Ricky Bowers, the Ensworth School boys basketball coach and athletics director who coached Lea during his high school football career at MBA, likens Lea’s return to Vanderbilt to the proverbial match made in heaven.

Former MBA, Belmont and VU athlete Clark Lea leaves Notre Dame for alma mater.

-- Photograph Provided

“He’s the guy … he’s every father’s dream for their daughter to bring home,” Bowers says. “He’s dependable and honest and hard-working and smart. I mean, he is just one of the best people I think I’ve ever known.”

Lea won two state high school football championships under Bowers, playing fullback –his position at Vandy – but primarily as a defensive nose tackle.

“He was the guy you could count on whatever the job was. And there was no job too small. He was always one of the hardest-working (players),” Bowers recalls.

Those MBA teams had a roster full of players who would go on to play major college football, including Ingle Martin (Florida, Furman), Barton Simmons (Yale) and Jonas Rodriguez (Yale).

Neither Bowers nor Simmons say they foresaw the MBA standout as a future Vanderbilt head coach, but that they did recognize something special in his makeup.

“I don’t know that Clark would have been one of my first couple of picks as a guy that would have gone on to be a head coach of Vanderbilt, only because that wasn’t really kind of where he was in his evolution at that point,” says Simmons, now is director of scouting with 247Sports.com and a national college football writer with CBSSports.com. He will be joining Lea’s staff as general manager.

Lea also has hired Justin Lustig as special teams coordinator, Casey Stangel as director of football operations and Norval McKenzie, who played football with Lea at Vanderbilt, as running backs coach.

Stangel, who has worked the past three years with VU baseball in operations roles, is the only female director of football operations in the Southeastern Conference.

Additionally, Inoke Breckterfield of Wisconsin is expected to be named the new defensive line coach, per a report from The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman.

Justin Lustig of Syracuse will join Lea’s staff as special teams coordinator.

“(Lea) was accountable, he was a competitive, he was tough, he was a fantastic teammate, he was as good of a teammate as they come, but I just don’t know that that was necessarily what I envisioned for him," Simmons says.

“But then over the course of his college career, I think a switch sort of flipped for him somewhere along the way and he just started to really develop a real resolve and just became so focused about achieving that really high level in the coaching world.”

Bowers, in citing Lea’s people skills as what sets him apart from other coaches, cautions that it could be an area to work on in his first head coaching experience.

“When I listened to him describe what he was hoping for at Vanderbilt, he was really describing himself, I think,” Bowers says. “Which is very genuine, and he was really articulating who he is when he was describing what he was hopeful for, for the program, you know.

“You know, he’s a learner, he’s a really good listener. He cares. He lives a sort of others-first life. That’s why I think him being a head coach might be a little challenging for him because, you know, most head coaches are sort of full of ego. And maybe that’s a requirement of it, but we’ll find out because Clark is clearly not full of ego.”

Well-traveled

While best friend Simmons might not have seen him as a future Vanderbilt head coach, Lea says it’s a dream job come true. But to make that dream a reality, Lea knew he would have to go and learn from others to build his resume.

“I’ve always had an interest (in the Vanderbilt job),’’ Lea says. ‘When I made the decision to come and play here, to walk on to the team, and coach (Bobby) Johnson supported that, I was fulfilling a lot of what was a childhood dream, to be a part of this.

“The ability to elevate and to be on scholarship was something that was surreal to me. But we won six games in three years, and I can remember in the wintertime – because I was always a guy that was working toward our goals – I can remember wanting to train in the weight room around the Music City Bowl and I couldn’t get in the weight room because Boise State was using it.

“In that moment, I was so upset about where we were and so desperate to get this program where it should be. That was as a player. So I think as I transitioned and thought I wanted to get into coaching, every decision I’ve made in my career was to hopefully have a chance at this job eventually.”

“I’ve always believed in the potential of this program,” Lea says of Vanderbilt.

-- Photograph Provided

Simmons saw the evolution and drive that has carried Lea throughout his coaching stops at UCLA, South Dakota State, back to UCLA, Bowling Green, Syracuse, Wake Forest and Notre Dame.

“It started as soon as he was done with college,” Simmons recalls. “I just remember going to his apartment, and he had all these letters laid out that he was writing to coaches trying to get a foot in the door.

“I remember going out and visiting him when he was at UCLA, and he was a guy that would wake up at 5 in the morning before workouts, before anything else, and just to read for personal development and take notes on what he’s reading.”

Those ingrained traits served Lea well.

“He just sort of really became that kind of guy that was just very disciplined, very thoughtful and very detail-oriented in terms of doing it the right way and building himself up the right way,” Simmons adds.

“I think that’s why he’s gotten to this point. (It) was just sort of this no-shortcut sort of approach … that things will work out, and here he is.”

In talking about his coaching travels, Lea brought up influential coaches in his career like Kelly at Notre Dame, Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel at UCLA, at Bowling Green and Wake Forest with Dave Clawson, and at Syracuse with Scott Shafer.

But he also discussed two even more important coaching influences with local ties, longtime Lipscomb and Northern State basketball coach Don Meyer, who died in 2014, and Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin.

“Coach Meyer, I used to go to his basketball camps as a kid, and I had a notebook from when I probably was 8 or 10 years old from a basketball camp where I had written down at that age to know the thrill of an all-out effort,” Lea recalls.

“My friendship with him – obviously when I was 8 and 10, I think I was scared to death of him, honestly – but my relationship with him in coaching flourished. I used to go and with every opportunity sit with him, and the energy he had as he was battling cancer and he had his accident, he would bounce around the rooms, he would be so energized to give up his time and give up his resources.

“It was deeply impactful and meaningful to me, and he had a simple approach to things. It was not anything that was fancy. It was just about rolling your sleeves up and going to work and treating people the right way and being true to your process.”

Lea says his interactions with Corbin were just as meaningful when Lea played at Vandy and will continue to be in the future.

“I used to watch Coach Corbin every morning when I was a player. He would be on the treadmill at 6:30 in the morning ... I admired his doggedness, his determination and 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,” Lea says.

“All coaches are different, and there are different ways to get success, but there’s a certain personality I think that I connect with. I felt like I saw that in him. So he has been incredibly helpful to me. I have learned so much from him.”

Martin expects same old Lea

Ingle Martin, who spent several years playing professionally before taking the head coaching job at Christ Presbyterian Academy in 2011, expects great things at Vandy for his former MBA teammate and lifelong friend.

“Vanderbilt is in a really great spot,” Martin says. “Clark has proven that he’s a thorough coach that looks at every possible angle and comes up with a good plan. I assure you that he’s done that with this decision.

“In his press conference, he said that this is not an emotional decision, that this was a calculated decision. I trust that he did his due diligence and his research and if he chose to come to Vandy, then I think there’s some pretty exciting stuff coming down the pike for Vandy. They’re going to be pretty excited about what Clark brings to Nashville.”

Martin says the Lea that Vandy fans see today is pretty much the same as the one he has known since they were teenagers playing for MBA.

“For me, I’ve gotten to be part of just because I’ve been coaching high school for most of the time that he’s been coaching college. We’ve been fortunate enough for him to recruit a couple of our kids, so I’ve known him on a professional level and as a 13- or 14-year-old kid.

Clark Lea’s defense at Notre Dame helped the Irish to an undefeated regular season this year.

-- Photograph Provided

“He definitely displayed traits and characteristics that would lead you to believe that anything he decided to do, that he was going to be successful in,” Martin notes. “For him to have chosen coaching to get into, I’m not surprised at all. He gets the most out of himself and those around him. Vanderbilt’s getting somebody who’s going to do an unbelievable job for that community.”

Martin says he has no plans to join Lea’s team but is happy for both him and Simmons to reunite.

“I’m excited for Barton and for Clark, and I think the biggest thing is when you start comparing what’s happening on West End Ave., to what’s happening in the rest of the SEC, I’m not sure that Vanderbilt right now is not in the best position as far as people hiring new coaches and new staffs – which is pretty remarkable.

“Again, Clark’s a really smart guy. He’s going to do it his way. He’s going to get people around him that share common values and beliefs … people that I think will work extremely hard.

“So for Barton to join – with his notoriety and his reputation inside of the business – that’s just unbelievable. And the match is really great for the kids at Vanderbilt and all the supporters of the Vanderbilt football team.”

Shared vision

Lea knows rebuilding a program isn’t a one-man operation.

It takes a quality staff and a fully supportive administration. Lea says he has that in new Vanderbilt chancellor Daniel Diermeier and athletics director Candice Storey Lee.

“I’ve always believed in the potential of this program. I’ve always believed in it, and I want to be clear that Vanderbilt is special way beyond one person,” Lea states. “This university, its mission and what it provides is something that is lasting for a lifetime.

“But it has to be driven forward by people that are impassioned to find its level of success. When I met with the Chancellor and when I met with Candice, I was just struck by not only how energized they were to find that competitive advantage and maximize this moment to move the program forward, but also how relatable they were.

“There was such a common ethos, a common vision, for how we can get this done together. The energy and enthusiasm to do it in a way that maybe it hasn’t been done before. So those things, to me, set it apart as a job that not just was home but a job that we could maximize and deliver to new heights.”

Diermeier makes clear he wants to see Vanderbilt athletics in general and football in particular reach new heights.

“We are proud of what we’ve accomplished but we are not satisfied. We are proud of the success of our programs (referring to baseball, golf and bowling, and SEC women’s soccer team champions),” Diermeier says.

“There are areas where we must do better and nowhere more than our football program. Our goal is to achieve sustained success for the long run, and to do that, we need to build the right culture – a culture of excellence.

“We need to set our aspirations high and we need to have the right people in place to execute that vision and then we need to support them.”

Lee, the Southeastern Conference’s first female athletics director, calls Lea a perfect fit for the job. Like the new football coach, Lee is also a former Vanderbilt athlete and knows what it will take to revive the program.

“When I made the decision to go in a new direction with our football program, I was set on finding a transformational leader,’’ Lee points out. “Of course, I was looking for one who shares our values, our commitment to helping our student-athletes succeed on and off the field. But I was also looking for a program-builder one with the vision and ability, as Chancellor Diermeier said, to sustain success.

“I knew Clark Lea was the right person for the job. It was clear to me by the conviction in his voice, the determination in his eyes, the competitiveness in his spirit, and the commitment in his heart to educating and developing young people.

“We recognized in one another a shared passion for Vanderbilt and we understood what was at stake. We talked a lot about that. We also understand what we can be. The more we talked, the more affirming it was. … 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. You also know that he earned this opportunity.

“And this isn’t just any job for him. This is the job for him.”

Stadium renovations

VU’s director of athletics says she and Lea have a “shared passion for Vanderbilt.”

-- Photograph Provided

One of the biggest challenges facing Vanderbilt is facilities. The Commodores play in the smallest stadium in the SEC with a seating capacity of just more than 40,000. Its last major renovation was in 1982.

Lee doesn’t set a timetable on upgrades or new facilities but does say they are coming.

“We knew we couldn’t make such a high-quality hire if we couldn’t demonstrate our commitment to providing a first-class environment which includes first-class facilities and resources,” Lee says. “And I commend Chancellor Diermeier for partnering with me and making it very clear to the candidates where we’re going in no uncertain terms.

“So today, we stand at a turning point. With the support of our chancellor, with the commitment not only to compete and win but to transform, it is in fact a new day and we are in fact united.”

Lee says that “shared vision future (is) something we can all get excited about, but I want to be clear, too, in my stated purpose here. It has way less to do with buildings and more to do with our team. For me, the renovation starts in that locker room and in the heartbeats in that locker room.

“It’s a focus on building a team that has the components of a successful team. That, to me, is way more important right now than the structures we’ll be filling. I’m way more focused on the people rather than structures.

“But again, as time allows and when the timing is right, there’s a lot to be excited about on the landscape in the future that shows the commitment and shows that passion and energy that’s driving forward. But my primary focus is gonna be on building this team.”

Recruiting athletes, fans

At the heart of building the program is recruiting, both players and fans. But let’s start with the athletes.

Two days after Lea’s hiring was announced, the Commodores signed 19 players on National Signing Day Dec. 16 to go with two transfers. The incoming class was ranked No. 13 in the 14-team SEC and No. 49 nationally.

Defensive tackle Marcus Bradley (6-3, 270) heads the class, listed as a four-star prospect by 247Sports. The transfers are running back Re’Mahn Davis, from Temple, and former West Virginia offensive tackle Junior Uzebu.

Simmons, the 247Sports director of scouting, thinks Lea’s recruiting priority should be on finding quality players who fit into the school’s mission.

“He’s a great recruiter. He’s successful in recruiting in the same way he is successful in everything he does, in the sense that it’s substantive,” Simmons notes. “When he builds a relationship with a kid and with the family, it’s real. It’s meaningful. He gets to know them, understands what makes them tick.

“That authenticity and that substantive approach is really what makes him a great recruiter. And it’s why I think he’s a perfect fit at a place like Vanderbilt, where the approach never is going to be beating Alabama on the five stars. The approach is, or should be, really, early getting to know who are the right fits and then being able to recruit the guys that are the right fits in a really intense and substantive way.

“(It is) something he accomplished at a really high level at Notre Dame, and he’s got the ability to replicate it at Vanderbilt.”

Lea says he agrees that the rebuilding project will focus on “relationships” – with current athletes, with future recruits, with the fan base that he hopes to bring back into the fold.

“This has to be new, this has to be different. Just by nature of what we want to accomplish, it has to be different day-in and day-out,” Lea says. “There’s going to 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 because humans are still emotional beings.”

The future begins now

Following his hiring announcement, Lea returned to Notre Dame to help the Fighting Irish prepare for both the ACC championship game against No. 2 Clemson and the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl against top-ranked Alabama.

Both of those games resulted in losses, 34-10 versus Clemson and 31-14 to Alabama, a team his Commodores will face in 2022 in Tuscaloosa.

Now he’s back in Nashville full time as Vanderbilt heads into the 2021 season with an 11-game losing streak, including going 0-10 in the just completed campaign.

Lea knows the challenges ahead and eagerly awaits them.

“It’s gonna be a blast, and I can’t wait to invite everyone to be involved in this with us.

“You know, for everybody that loves this program and loves this university, this is an opportunity. But we have to realize and recognize the opportunity is not the outcome,” he says.

“The outcome will come in our shared investment, our commitment to the work and sacrifice required to transform this program. And if we do it the right way, what we’ll realize is by transforming this program, we in turn will be transformed by the program.”