Clark Lea

Lea's Commodore Connection Remains Strong

Looking from the outside in, some may have wondered whether or not Clark Lea was the right man for the job when Irish head coach Brian Kelly tabbed him to replace departing defensive coordinator Mike Elko back in January. After all, Lea would be a first-time coordinator at one of the most visible programs in the country.
But it made good football sense.
What Kelly saw from inside the program made it a natural progression. There would be stability and continuity. Lea had spent a season at both Bowling Green (2012) and Wake Forest (2016) with Elko before the pair again reconnected at Notre Dame for the 2017 season. Despite Lea being Notre Dame’s fourth defensive coordinator in three years, the defense wouldn’t be learning a new system. Rather it would be building on what Lea’s predecessor had started.
Plus, Lea had an immediate impact on defense during his first season in South Bend in ’17. In charge of the linebacker corps, Lea coached four players – Drue Tranquill, Te’von Coney Green Martini and Nyles Morgan – who each accounted for at least 75 tackles, a first in program history.
The bonus is that Lea brought with him a plethora of intangible experiences, both academically and athletically, that potentially give him a big leg up when relating to recruits and players. And it was at Vanderbilt — Notre Dame’s opponent this weekend — where a lot of Lea’s experiences culminated.
“I’m forever grateful for that decision to transfer (to Vanderbilt) because that one decision probably changed the trajectory of my life,” said Lea who spent a year at Birmingham-Southern and a year at Belmont before settling in at Vanderbilt in 2002. “I wasn’t thinking about it that succinctly at the time, but in reflection I needed to get to a place that I thought was the best possible launching point for me into the rest of my life. That was Vanderbilt.”
Lea grew up in Nashville rooting for the hometown Commodores. In high school, along with a group of buddies, Lea owned season tickets. His dad graduated from Vanderbilt as did his uncle and older sister. But Lea’s academics were not up to par and instead he headed off to Birmingham-Southern where he also played baseball. It was there that Lea became a national champion when the Panthers won the NAIA title in 2001, although Lea struggled with his personal expectations that season.Lea and his father attended the last Notre Dame-Vanderbilt game at Notre Dame Stadium in 1995.  
“(Winning the title) was awesome,” Lea said. “That’s a group of guys that I still stay in touch with to this day. We had a really healthy organization and I was able to see what that does for you in terms of what benefits you can reach in competition. Winning that was the result of a year-long effort by a group of people who had one goal in mind and pulled in one direction the entire time. It was amazing.
“At that point, though, I also was dead set on being a Major League Baseball player and I felt like that was something I was capable of. But that year at Birmingham I really played poorly and felt like I needed a fresh start.”
Enter Belmont University, a private liberal arts school in Lea’s hometown where he also played baseball. But another lackluster performance on the field forced Lea to start reassessing his goals, and he sought another transfer. The good news, however, was that Lea had built up his academic profile to meet the admission requirements at Vanderbilt. He also received a great deal of support from what is often an unexpected source — his head baseball coach.
“I had another year where I was disappointed with my performance and at that point it kind of hits you like, ‘Wait a second, this dream I’ve had is a little far-fetched,” Lea recalled. “In reality what I need to do is get the best possible education I can get, have fun being part of a team and don’t put pressure on to go beyond that.
“Coach (Dave) Jarvis (who is still the head coach at Belmont) sat down with me and said, ‘You only have four years to do this, and you don’t want to have any regrets.’ For a person to be so unselfish with his team … to tell me I needed to do what I needed to do to be happy and healthy…
“You don’t see that very often. Most people are protective of their own, and a player is their player. Coaches don’t want a roster of attrition. But he was so supportive of me. He’s another guy I still stay in touch with.”
Once at Vanderbilt, Lea hit the books hard and put baseball in the rearview mirror. He had been away from football for two years, but had the chance to become a walk-on fullback.
“I knew I still wanted to be part of a team and, with the help of our strength coach, I was able to build myself into a very average player,” quipped Lea, a two-time All-SEC Academic Team selection. “I don’t know that I belonged on that field, but I worked hard and carved out a little role for myself.”
In the end, Lea graduated with honors and went on to earn his master’s degree, both in political science. He entered the coaching ranks as a defensive graduate assistant at UCLA in 2006 for one season, after which he became the linebackers coach at South Dakota State — the same position he held at other stops before being named defensive coordinator earlier this year. And it was his early collegiate experiences, combined with his growing football IQ that helps him relate to a recruit or player possibly in a way that few other coaches can.
“This has all been pieced together in hindsight, and a lot of this comes through when I’m recruiting and sharing my story or sharing my background,” Lea explained. “Finding that open door at Vandy where I just kind of let go and started to flourish on and off the field … I think that’s helped me to understand what these guys need and what’s going on with them internally when they’re not having the success they want. It also makes me way more understanding of guys who need a fresh start or have to battle through the adversity that comes with falling short of your own personal expectations. Those parts of my narrative are impactful.”
Now, all these years later, Lea will be on the opposite side of the field when his alma mater comes to town. And how will that feel?