Notre Dame Fighting Irish - Official Athletics Website

Clark Lea: Things I Know

Jan. 28, 2017

My relationship with Mike Elko has been built over two stints working together –in between which we have shared a friendship and mutual respect – and I believe he’s perhaps the best defensive coordinator in the country. He’s not only a great football mind, but he also melds that with an ability to form relationships with young people–and the product on the field is the result of both these components. So the opportunity for me to continue to learn and grow with Mike was something that was exciting to me, especially considering the magnitude of the football program at Notre Dame.

Growing up, Notre Dame was actually my dream school. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite good enough to make the cut, so I guess I wasn’t their dream player. But it’s certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience to work here and represent Notre Dame. This program is unique in all that it encompasses–the history, the tradition and the program’s place in college football. Combine that with a degree that’s second to none. It’s just the kind of work environment you want to be in. However, ultimately my decision to come here hinged on one point and that was the ability to go to a place and compete for a national championship. As a competitor, what more could you ask for? There are a lot of things that made this a great fit for me, but as a competitor that aspect made it really easy.

My baseball experience was valuable to me –those coaches helped me tremendously (he played at Birmingham-Southern and Belmont). I think I always had the football bone in my body even as a baseball player. Sometimes I approached the game as if it were football, which usually led to poor results because the skill set is not quite the same. But even when I was playing baseball, I used to think about coaching football. There’s just no other sport that pushes you to your limits physically, mentally and emotionally the way that football does. The lessons and values inherent in football and the way you go through the process of building yourself as a player make the game so special. I’m a different person, a better version of myself today because of my football experience.

Notre Dame went to Vanderbilt to play in 1996. My dad went to Vandy, as did my uncle, so they were horrified when I wore my Notre Dame T-shirt to the game. My first time being on campus at Notre Dame was in 1995, when Vandy travelled to South Bend to play. It’s easy to fall in love with all that’s involved with game day at Notre Dame. In 2006 I was part of the UCLA program that came here and lost a heartbreaker on a last-second pass (Brady Quinn to Jeff Samardzija). So I was able to get here a couple of times prior, once professionally. I have a great respect for the place. When I was at Bowling Green, it was our one-year wedding anniversary. My wife was eight months pregnant, and we decided to drive from Bowling Green to Chicago. Along the way we pulled off just to look at the Notre Dame campus. It’s one of those places that gets you off the highway.

I am incredibly indebted to (Wake Forest head coach) Dave Clawson. He has really shaped me as a coach, as a thinker and as a processor more than anyone I’ve been with. It’s his systematic approach to building a program. There’s a focus on discipline–there’s something really powerful that he harnesses and applies in his process. He demands a lot of his coaches as well. Two times in my career I’ve been on a staff that was let go, and that’s a scary thing–both times he’s pulled me off the couch and given me an opportunity and a chance to grow and thrive as a coach. Chuck Bullough trained me as a linebacker coach. I cut my teeth under Chuck, and he believed in me enough to bring me back to UCLA when I was a very young coach. He also gave me an opportunity to work at Syracuse University. John Stiegelmeier is the head coach at South Dakota State–he gave me my first full-time job as a linebacker coach, which also led to me meeting my wife. Coach Stig has quietly built one of the premier programs in the FCS, and he has done it by being detailed, organized and demanding, while also treating his players with great respect. I learned a lot from Coach Stig about how to treat players, how to effectively communicate with players. We did not use profanity on the field at South Dakota State–you had to coach, teach and engage your kids every day. That left a lasting impact on me. Scott Shafer is another coach who has shaped me. I worked for him for three years at Syracuse and learned a lot about defensive football from him. He has a progression and believes it and sells it every day–he has been a powerful influence. Rick Neuheisel at UCLA–he taught me how to give a campus tour–one of the most relentless recruiters I’ve ever met. He’s another brilliant mind who gave me a chance at a young age and believed in me. Karl Dorrell got me started at UCLA when I was finished at Vanderbilt–I certainly would not be where I am now without that opportunity. Obviously I feel very fortunate and grateful to all the coaches that have helped me plot my course in this profession.

We’re coming in fresh, but we also need to embrace the program where it is. The standards are in place here at Notre Dame. We are focused forward–this is a talented team. Coach (Brian) Kelly has done some unbelievable things within the organization to grow leadership. These players are hungry to win. It’s a determined group. All you can ask for as a coach is to be with a group of men who are eager to be led and taught and grow through the process. So this is going to be a lot of fun for me to dig in, lock arms and make this team as good as we can make it.

I feel I owe it to these players to do my research so that I can give them my best from day one. I’ll watch a little tape of all of them and identify some things we can focus on improving as a starting point. That’s important. The start of the process of building trust involves being consistent and setting expectations, but also opening up a dialogue that leads to their improvement as players. When you do that you earn respect as a coach, and it allows for you to have influence in other areas of their lives outside of football. So I’ll want to watch a little film on each guy so I can know where we are starting and construct a vision for where we need to go. The cool thing is that anytime there’s something new it’s exciting, so I am eager to get to work. I am anxious because we do not have a ton of time, and there is a lot to get accomplished. The system must be installed and the players need to have a clear understanding of their responsibilities so we can go into the summer and really build toward the season. Mike (Elko) does a great job of structuring things to make this process efficient and effective, and I’m excited to be a part of building this system from the ground up–I’ve never had the chance to do that.

–Edited by John Heisler, senior associate athletics director