Clark Lea is on a mission to rebuild Vanderbilt football, and he won’t be going at it alone

During the first practice of his head-coaching career last Wednesday, Clark Lea would not admit to being overwhelmed. That will be left for some future assessment. But the sights, the sounds, the decisions, the task of taking over Vanderbilt — one of the most football-challenged programs in the country — does have an impact.

“The horn blew one time when it shouldn’t have,” Lea explained. “Those are things we have to work through.”

If those out-of-cadence moments bother the new coach, well, they shouldn’t. There are significantly larger issues at Vanderbilt. Lea knows that. Since 1974, one coach (James Franklin) has left the school with a winning record. The last winning season was 2013. The facilities could use some sprucing up, to put it charitably. This is a school that once eliminated the athletic director position.

For large stretches of its history, Vanderbilt has been the SEC’s whip-smart little brother who could do your math homework but couldn’t hit a Wiffle Ball. Lea intends to change that perception because, well, he must. The emotional investment demands it.

“There were a lot of heartbreaking moments here. I think I carry those with me,” said Lea, a former walk-on fullback for the Commodores under Bobby Johnson. “Some of the pain I felt after so many frustrating losses, that will never leave me.”

That’s part of what playing Vanderbilt football has done to Vanderbilt’s new coach. The job of raising the Commodores to respectability has become a vocation. In his three seasons donning the uniform from 2002-04, Vanderbilt won six games. As a senior with Jay Cutler as his quarterback, he rushed once for 1 yard. Lea also left a piece of himself behind. The year after he graduated in 2005 with a degree in political science, Vanderbilt started 4-0.

“I shared in that success,” Lea said. “Those were still my teammates. You felt like, watching from afar, that was built on the effort we had on some really hard times. Those challenges are what drove me into coaching.”

Those Commodores also finished 5-6, going 1-6 down the stretch.

“How do we get this to where no one else has to experience this level of disappointment?” Lea wondered.

The answer to that cosmic question has been floating in midair for so long at Vanderbilt, it might as well have hangtime. At age 38, Lea chose to come back to his alma mater after riding to the top of most hot “young coaches” lists. That was after coordinating a defense that helped lead Notre Dame to the College Football Playoff. That was after twice being “hired off the couch” while out of work by current Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson.

Lea had to earn this opportunity, and that’s why he decided on the first day of practice that his players wouldn’t wear numbers.

“We’re going to earn everything in this program,” Lea said. “We [must] understand we rent those numbers; we don’t own them.”

The surprise isn’t that Lea is a head coach at a tender age; it’s that the opportunity came at Vandy. Athletic director Candice Storey Lee originally stated she preferred a sitting head coach with offensive background. So much for that.

“I understood what I was looking for even if I didn’t perfectly articulate it. But, you know, lesson learned,” Storey Lee said.

“We talk a lot about small wins,” said Commodores baseball coach Tim Corbin, Lea’s mentor and confidant. “You might not get the outcomes you or the fanbase want on a scoreboard. An electronic scoreboard is not going to give you the outcomes you’re looking for right now.”

The pair are linked at the cerebellum: two cerebral coaches who bonded one day 17 years ago when Lea decided to transfer from nearby Belmont University. It is less than a half mile between the two campuses, but it might as well have been a canyon. Lea was taking a leap of faith to a new school and a new sport. He had been riding the bench at Belmont playing baseball.

“I hit .400,” Lea said proudly. “Two-for-five.”

Upon leaving Belmont, Lea applied at two schools — Georgetown and Vanderbilt. Walking on in another sport at his hometown school made the most sense.

“This was a broken program at that time,” Lea said. “Coach Johnson inherited a really, really challenging situation. I became valued because there was a relentlessness to my work. There’s this unyielding belief as to what’s possible here.” 

Lea was curious about the successful baseball coach who came to the weight room each morning to run on the treadmill. One day, Lea introduced himself.  A friendship formed. Corbin went to lead the Commodores to four College World Series appearances and two national championships.

Lea went out into the world beginning his own mission. He has earned his shot replacing Mike Elko as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator in 2018. In 2019, the Fighting Irish allowed their second-fewest yards per game (320.2) since 2000. Lea’s defense caused 66 turnovers in three seasons. The unit reflected coach Brian Kelly’s vision to match up physically with the superpowers surrounding them.

“The thing that Clark is attracted to is teachers,” Corbin said. “He is attracted to teachers, and he is attracted to wisdom. I’m not saying that for me. He’s a very curious young man.”

One of those teachers is Tony Dungy, who advocated for Lea during the search. Dungy had encountered him during production meetings as an NBC analyst for Notre Dame games.

“I think we all understand any advocacy from Tony Dungy is held in high regard,” Storey Lee said. “From what I just know from Tony Dungy, he’s not putting name behind somebody unless he believes in them.”

Rick Neuheisel was raving through the phone this week. The former UCLA coach hired Lea in 2009 on the recommendation of his then-defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough. Lea was an analyst/go-fer who quickly proved his worth.

“It’s like a defensive player,” Neuheisel explained. “You look at him and you’re saying, ‘He’s not a great player, but he’s always where he’s supposed to be and always making the tackle.’ That was Clark.”

So much so that Lea was coordinating UCLA’s defense at age 28 in the first Pac-12 Championship Game at Oregon in 2011. That was not known until now.

“At the end of his time there, I made him the coordinator,” Neuheisel said. “I never announced it.”

The only reason UCLA was in the game was because USC was ineligible for the postseason after the Reggie Bush investigation. The Bruins lost 49-31, but a statement had been made.

“We kept it under wraps,” Lea said. “I learned so much from Rick. … I learned how to give a campus tour walking around UCLA with him. He pushed me out of my comfort zone. I’m an introvert by nature. There are times you’re not allowed to be an introvert.”

It’s funny how the profession functions. Lea did not reach out to Corbin to make a phone call, one that might have clinched the job for him.

“I didn’t feel like it was natural for me to rally people around me with calls,” Lea said. “I wanted Candice to get to know me without any interference from the outside.”

Then there is the story of Lea’s now-offensive coordinator at Vanderbilt. The two worked at UCLA together because David Raih would not say no.

“David Raih was an artificial joint salesman who came to my [introductory] press conference at UCLA and stayed in my office for five hours waiting to talk to me,” Neuheisel said. “He was literally on his way to Las Vegas to get an award for being the guy who sold the most hips.

“He said, ‘Coaching is what I want to do.’ I said, ‘You’re nuts. Just go away.'”

Neuheisel dared Raih to show up two weeks later. Once again, Neuheisel made him wait for hours in his office. Once again, Raih wouldn’t go away. The former orthopedic device salesman — at the time making six figures for Zimmer Inc. — was hired as a volunteer. Raih has spent the last six seasons in the NFL working as an offensive assistant with the Packers and Cardinals. His time has arrived, too.

Lea’s high school teammate, Barton Simmons, was hired as the Commodores’ general manager. The former teammates at Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy won two state championships together. They remained close as Lea climbed the coaching ladder and Simmons became 247Sports’ national director of scouting. Basically, Simmons was the recruiting industry standard.

Editor’s note: 247Sports is a property of CBS Sports.

At Vanderbilt, Simmons is be in charge of roster building and talent evaluation. He and Lea have the same vision, a “10-year plan.” Ten years? Only 11 of the 130 FBS schools employ coaches who have been there at least a decade.

“There is risk to this for sure,” Simmons said. “I would not do this if I thought I’d be looking for a job in 2-3 years. There are a lot of layers to it. It is anchored in the belief Clark is the best guy for the job.”

The Commodores football team gathers at midfield during spring practice.
Vanderbilt Athletics

Lea views his current mission almost as destiny. It’s bigger than winning games. It’s making NFL prospects out of three-star recruits. It’s betting on himself.

Kelly had his worst season at Notre Dame in 2016, going 4-8. At that point, Lea had a decision to make: stay at Wake Forest and get a promotion from linebackers coach to coordinator or go to Notre Dame as Elko’s linebackers coach.

“That was gut wrenching as I was trying to weight the options,” Lea said. “Ultimately, my wife finally said, ‘What do you want?’ I wanted to go to Notre Dame. I couldn’t pass on that chance.”

A year later, Elko left for Texas A&M, and Lea became coordinator.

“Three years later, I’m head coach of my alma mater,” Lea said.

Now it’s time to bet on others. It’s having confidence in Vanderbilt’s 26-year-old director of operations while Lea was in his final days at Notre Dame preparing for a College Football Playoff game against Alabama. Her name? Casey Stangel. (Unrelated to the legendary MLB player and manager.)

“There was a time when she was the only person in the building,” Lea explained. “She was like a one-man wrecking crew. … There were things that were so far off my radar. She immediately inserted herself as valuable contributor to our organization.”

Despite a Nashville native leading the program, there is nevertheless an overall assimilation to be made here. Nashville continues to blow up musically, culturally, and well, nationally. Coming out of COVID-19, Commodores football desperately needs to be a part of it. Seven years ago, Mason arrived as a similarly hot head-coaching prospect out of Stanford. The Cardinal’s former defensive coordinator won 27 games, averaging less than four wins a season.

Vanderbilt Stadium is the smallest in the SEC and likely to get smaller after renovations. That’s a positive. There is a need nationally to create a premium ticket for all events to make them more experiential, especially for that 20-49 demographic that makes up more than 60% of the United States population. It helps Vandy that its new coach is in that demo and has plenty of ideas.

No one is saying it out loud, but there is a vibe on campus: Vanderbilt needs to be more Texas and less Yale. The eggheads don’t have to be embarrassed to hit more than Wiffle Balls.

Lea made that first spring practice last week sound like performance art. Asked how he evaluates drills, he discussed “honoring the uniform” and wanting to hear “the crack of a huddle” and “response in unison to a coach.” In leading up to last Wednesday, the coach agonized whether the snap would make it from the center to the quarterback.

“Success for us is measured in the smallest of ways,” Lea said.

That’s why, when that horn blew out of turn at practice, the coach also had a flashback. It reminded him of being late for practice years ago at UCLA.

“Rick just absolutely laid into me,” Lea said. “He should have.”

You know, lesson learned.

Given all of it, Lea was asked if it would have been wise to wait for a more successful program to come calling before launching his head-coaching career.

“Ultimately, I’ve got to do what’s right for me. I’ve got to bet on myself,” Lea said.