Feb. 3, 2018
By John Heisler
Cell phone calls are a dime a dozen these days for most everybody.
And some day, these particular ones may disappear into the fabric of what Clark Lea hopes will be a long and productive coaching career.
But, at least for now, Notre Dame’s new football defensive coordinator is not likely to forget two he received last month.
The first came Jan. 4, a random Thursday three days after Notre Dame defeated 17th-ranked LSU in the Citrus Bowl.
Lea and his family were skating in the middle of the day at the Compton Family Ice Arena on the Notre Dame campus.
Lea’s cell phone buzzed and on the line was Irish head football coach Brian Kelly.
“He reached out to me and reassured me that he wanted me to be here,” says Lea. “He had a lot going on in his world at that moment, so the call meant a lot to me.
“And I’m stumbling off the ice on my skates, taking that call.”
The call came because 2017 Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko that same day had taken the job as defensive coordinator at Texas A&M.
The night before that call from Kelly, Lea had thought the Irish defensive staff would remain status quo.
“I was at the (Jan. 3 Notre Dame) basketball game against NC State, and all the news reports had (LSU defensive coordinator) Dave Aranda going to A&M. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s that.’
“Then the next day the news (of Elko going to A&M) broke, and it all came at me pretty fast at that point.”
Lea had every hope that he would be considered a strong candidate to replace Elko, yet there were no guarantees.
“You just have to wait and see the course of action,” Lea says. “And while waiting, stay in close communication with Coach Kelly and (senior associate athletics director for football administration) Chad Klunder.
Lea and Kelly discussed the opportunity-and Lea’s theme was continuity. The Irish defense in 2017 made huge strides in a variety of areas, from sacks to turnovers forced to red-zone defense (Notre Dame ranked 29th nationally) to scoring defense (the Irish rated 31st at 21.5 points per game). All that came for a team that ended 10-3 against a schedule ranked the third most difficult in the nation by the NCAA.
“There was no need for an operations manual because of that continuity. The organizational structure here was not going to change with me,” says Lea, a 2004 Vanderbilt graduate whose coaching resume also includes stops at UCLA, South Dakota State, Bowling Green, Syracuse and Wake Forest. “In that spirit, I didn’t need to put anything on paper.
“So the conversation with Coach Kelly was more about him just checking that I felt personally ready to take this step in my career and understanding all that goes into this position at this university.
“I really had a year to interview for the job without knowing.”
That second cell phone call to remember also came from Kelly-and it came with a job offer.
“I was picking up my kids at ECDC (Early Childhood Development Center, a pre-school on the Notre Dame campus).
“I stepped into one of the empty classrooms to have this conversation-it was all so surreal,” says Lea.
“Then we all went out for lunch at Cre-Asian (a restaurant a few blocks from campus), and my wife Allison and I had a chance for a short celebration. Short only because my wheels were already churning, focused on the work that was ahead.”
Once the news became official, Lea’s phone really lit up.
“You’re hearing from high school friends and high school coaches, college friends and college coaches. I even received a special call from Brad Gioia, the headmaster of my high school.
“It was an overwhelming representation of all the people who contributed to my growth to get me to this point in life. That part was the most meaningful. And it was also a reminder that I will continue to need others to invest in my growth if I am to be successful in this position. It’s all very humbling.
“Then you wake up the next day, reality sets in and you go to work.”
One early challenge on the defensive side involved decisions by two Irish players with eligibility remaining-linebacker Te’von Coney (he led the 2017 Irish with 116 tackles) and lineman Jerry Tillery (56 tackles, nine tackles for loss and a team-leading 4.5 sacks in 2017)-who both had submitted their names to the NFL for evaluation. Those decisions had to be made by Jan. 15.
“Those conversations had already started,” says Lea. “And the advice never changes. If you feel like a player is better served coming back, it doesn’t matter who the coach is. It’s about having another year to be productive and to grow and develop.
“On the flip side, as a player, it helps when you have an idea of what’s awaiting you next. They are returning to work with people they know and trust-and in a system they are comfortable with.
“Selfishly we wanted them back and strategically it made sense for them to come back-but we do this for them. If their decision had been to move forward, we were going to support them and cheer them on.”
Lea remembers being at home the day after he had been named the new Irish coordinator.
“I had a look of uneasiness on my face, and my wife asked me, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I said, ‘I just got the opportunity of a lifetime, and I’m staring down a hole in the middle of the defense.’
“So to have those guys (Coney and Tillery) come back gives me some peace of mind about the leadership structure. For them to anchor the defense and know the expectations will allow all of us to continue to grow and develop in ways that will help us to be successful.
“What I’ve said to every player I’ve talked to is this: ‘We’re going to go out and build on what we’ve started.'”
Lea also knows his new role is all about doing.
“There’s one response to the work that needs to be done, and that’s to be deliberate and set your jaw and go to work. It’s being intentional and trusting your training. I have to stay connected and stay true to that.
“I will lean on the things that have helped me be successful as a linebacker coach-the player relationships, the day-to-day motivation. That will be my starting point, and from now until Sept. 1 I will spend time honing skills that will allow for me to be effective as a play-caller and an adjustor.
“In the past I have shared with players that no matter what position I’ve held, even as a player in college, there was always a pit in my stomach saying, ‘I’m not good enough, I’m not worthy.’ That pit drives me to make sure I’m paying attention to detail and not leaving anything to chance, ensuring that systematically we’re set up to be successful.”
Lea loved the text he received from one of his former players at Syracuse, linebacker Zaire Franklin.
“This was a guy that started for us as a true freshman and ended up being a three-time captain (2015-17) there. He is a phenomenal young man,” says Lea.
“When he got elevated as a freshman I said to him, ‘You’re going to need to earn this every day.’
“And he was anxious to send that same message to me in return.
“He said, ‘Congratulations, I’m going to tell you exactly what you told me-you’ve got to earn it every day.’
“As a coach you love that because you feel like you were heard and understood and that your words were impactful.
“The opportunity here is not the outcome. The outcome is what I’m going to invest in this role with the understanding this isn’t about me. This is the players’ defense. We’re responsible for setting the course as coaches and building relationships. That gives them something they can believe in and anchor on to-they’ve got to take it from there. That’s the formula.”
Lea appreciates that he will still have that pit in his stomach on any given day-and that’s probably a good thing.
His career as a defensive coordinator lies dead ahead.
And, like his original message to Franklin and the one he received back a few weeks ago, Lea expects to earn his way every single day.