Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea was officially introduced as the new head coach at Vanderbilt tonight. His tenure with the Irish will come to a close at the end of this season.
Lea, 38, is a Vanderbilt alumnus and played fullback for the Commodores from 2002 to 2004. There are hopes within the Vanderbilt athletic department that he can have a tenure similar to the one Pat Fitzgerald has enjoyed at Northwestern, that of a zealous advocate for the program who builds it from the ground up after a long period of mediocrity.
“I’m excited to come back to Vanderbilt to lead a program, at an institution and in a city, that gave me so much and shaped who I am today,” Lea said in a statement. “Vanderbilt is a special place with a competitive drive that I believe can translate into winning. My excitement for the role grew as I spent time with (athletic director) Candice Lee and Chancellor (Daniel) Diermeier – it’s very clear they are united around a common vision for the future of the Vanderbilt Athletics program and football.”
Lea will immediately start building a staff and trying to convince those Vanderbilt commitments in the 2021 recruiting class, who chose the Commodores when Derek Mason was still the coach, to stick with the school through the transition. He'll likely be working the phones non-stop over the next few days as National Signing Day is Wednesday.
Lea is also not stepping away from the Irish just yet, however. He plans to coach the defense through the end of the season – as many as three more games – and he'll be in the press box as always Saturday when the Irish take on Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. Based on the statement the Commodores released announcing the hire, it seems as though getting to finish the season with Notre Dame was important to Lea.
“I want to extend Vanderbilt’s deepest thanks and appreciation to Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins, athletics director Jack Swarbrick and head coach Brian Kelly for their cooperation during this process," Lee said in the statement. "It is very important to all of us, and especially Clark, that he be able to fulfill his obligations with the Notre Dame program and its student-athletes as they prepare to face Clemson in the ACC title game for a berth in the College Football Playoff. The dedication and loyalty demonstrated by Clark exemplify his character, and what he will be for the Vanderbilt program."
Lea is in his third season as Notre Dame defensive coordinator, having taken over for his mentor, Mike Elko, prior to the 2018 season after serving under him on the Irish staff in 2017 and as the Notre Dame linebackers coach in 2016.
Under Lea, a Notre Dame defense that struggled mightily in 2016 has been rebuilt into one of the country's best units. The Irish have ranked 13th, 12th and 12th in scoring defense in Lea's three seasons at the helm after ranking 31st in 2017 and 62nd in 2016. Lea has recruited well, bringing in such talents as Kyle Hamilton and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and getting players to the NFL at a significant rate.
Although it will be difficult for the Irish to lose a rising star in the coaching profession, assistants getting poached for head coaching jobs is always a sign that a program is thriving. Getting to keep Lea's services for the season's stretch run is significant and the Irish have the resources to pay for a talented successor.