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Vanderbilt Football: Clark Lea Comes Home to Tackle the SEC's Biggest Challenge

Clark Lea has a tough task ahead in trying to rebuild Vanderbilt's football program.
Clark Lea, Vanderbilt Commodores football

The Nashville native and Vanderbilt alum is set to tackle the SEC's biggest challenge

For first-year head football coach Clark Lea, Nashville is home.

It’s where he was born and raised. It’s where he graduated high school. And it’s where he returned over and over — first, after a year of collegiate baseball at Division III Birmingham-Southern College, which he describes as “a great year for me, but not as a player”; again, following a one-year stint as a baseball player for Belmont, after which he transferred to Vanderbilt and walked on to the football team; and once more, 17 years after his last snap in the black and gold, when he was named head coach of the Vanderbilt Commodores.

“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,” Lea says of his trajectory.

Since graduating from Vanderbilt, those decisions have taken him to six schools — UCLA, South Dakota State, Bowling Green, Syracuse, Wake Forest and Notre Dame — primarily as a linebackers coach until 2018, when he was promoted to defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. In that role, Lea thrived: The Fighting Irish made it to the College Football Playoff twice, and in 2020, Lea’s defense allowed just 19.7 points per game.

Now, as the 38-year-old Vanderbilt alumnus takes the helm of the program he once played for, he has just one request: Don’t call it a homecoming.

“A homecoming suggests this was an emotional decision,” Lea says. “I can assure you, for me, this is a strategic decision. This is about my belief in the potential of this program.”

And the potential of this program, according to Lea, is boundless.

“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,” he says. “But I’m interested in finding out.”

Lea certainly has his work cut out for him. In December, he inherited an SEC program that had reached a new low. Former head coach Derek Mason, who has since been named Auburn’s defensive coordinator, was fired after an 0–8 start to the 2020 season. Mason’s record over seven years had dropped to 27–55, and Vanderbilt’s 12-game SEC losing streak — which grew to 13 after his departure — is the second longest in school history, trailing only the 23-game skid from 2000-03.

This is nothing new to Lea, who played fullback for part of the program-worst drought. He says he still carries some of the pain from countless heartbreaking losses. In order to rebuild and redirect the trajectory of Vanderbilt football, he would need an army of support. And in his star-studded staff, he’s found just that.

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“We have some really good people, men and women, that are coming together to get behind this effort,” Lea says. “The truth is, when families choose to send their sons here, there’s going to be an army of people that are going to be around them, supporting them through the experience.”

At the time of his hiring, Notre Dame was still in the College Football Playoff, so Lea was forced to serve double duty. He built some of his staff while coaching the Fighting Irish; better yet, his hires made waves in the coaching carousel before he even set foot on West End.

Lea’s coordinators have a history of success. Justin Lustig, the special teams coordinator, previously held the same position at Syracuse, and his units flourished. David Raih and Jesse Minter, his offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively, come bearing an abundance of successful NFL coaching experience.

The position coaches are no different. Norval McKenzie, Lea’s running backs coach, is a fellow Vanderbilt alumnus who produced an all-conference running back at Louisville (Javian Hawkins); Inoke Breckterfield, his defensive line coach, built best-in-show defensive lines at Wisconsin and coached Aaron Donald at Pitt. The list goes on, and with each name comes a unique background of proven success.

But perhaps the most intriguing part of his staff — the part that truly makes Vanderbilt a unique destination — is the support staff. That includes director of operations Casey Stangel, who previously worked for Vanderbilt baseball under Tim Corbin, along with a newfound scouting department. Under that umbrella is Smoke Dixon, a former NFL scout, and Barton Simmons, the former director of scouting for 247Sports.

Simmons was an out-of-the-box hire, as he stepped into the role of general manager. A Nashville native and former classmate of Lea’s at Montgomery Bell Academy, he exemplifies Lea’s vision.

“Barton oversees our system for recruiting,” Lea explains. “I hired him not just because he and I were really close. I hired him because he’s an incredibly skilled evaluator. He’s got a great perspective on the landscape of college football.

“And he’s an outside-the-box thinker. For me, in that role, I needed someone that understood the unique aspects of being at Vanderbilt, the advantages that we can compound over time to create separation for this program, and someone that had the discipline and the patience to see those processes through.”

Lea says that Simmons will play an integral role in Vanderbilt’s vision for the future by identifying and developing good fits, both physically and academically. According to the head coach, the entire scouting department will lay the foundation for the Commodores’ “10-year plan.” Though he clarifies: “That’s not to say we’re waiting 10 years to be successful.”

Lea’s 10-year plan is that all decisions made in the present may open up avenues for short-term success. But ultimately, he believes this program should be evaluated 10 years from now, when he says it will have reached an unprecedented level of sustainability.

“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. This university, its mission and what it provides is something that is lasting for a lifetime,” Lea says. “But it has to be driven forward by people that are impassioned to find its level of success.”

Ten years from now, we may see physical renovations to Vanderbilt’s Nashville footprint. A new or improved stadium and new facilities are not out of the question, after the athletic department launched a $300 million capital campaign in the offseason. But in the meantime, as Lea focuses on short-term developments, he hopes to achieve a slightly different type of renovation.

“For me, the renovation starts in that locker room and the heartbeats in that locker room,” he says. “It’s a focus on building a team that has components of a successful team. That, to me, is way more important right now than the structures we’ll be filling.”

— Written by Simon Gibbs (@SimonGibbs26) for Athlon Sports' 2021 SEC Football Magazine.

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