NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Clark Lea has wanted to be the football coach at Vanderbilt most of his life. He now has the job big enough to lure him away from being defensive coordinator at Notre Dame.
Lea said his career arc had to align with this opening and the fact it did confirms he was meant to be Vanderbilt’s coach.
“This was a place I was meant to take on, a challenge that I was built for and I'm excited obviously about it,” Lea said Sunday. “I didn't know that I would get the chance, certainly get the chance this early. But you know, by God, I'm not going to screw it up, I can assure you that.”
Vanderbilt held Lea's introductory news conference via Zoom before Notre Dame was announced as the fourth team in the College Football Playoff. The Fighting Irish will play No. 1 Alabama on Jan. 1 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and Lea will work with Notre Dame before turning to rebuilding his alma mater.
The 34-year-old Lea is a Nashville native who grew up attending games at Vanderbilt Stadium with family members who graduated from the university. He even gave up a baseball career after playing at Birmingham-Southern, then Belmont, to walk onto the Commodores' football team.
Lea remembers winning only six games in his three seasons between 2002 and 2004 with then-coach Bobby Johnson. Lea, who earned a graduate degree in political science at Vanderbilt, said he knew he had to work elsewhere if he wanted to become the Commodores' head coach some day.
He went to UCLA, then took his first full-time job at South Dakota State before going to Bowling Green, Syracuse and Wake Forest.
Lea has been Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator for the last three seasons and has coached in eight bowl games. The Fighting Irish made the College Football Playoff in 2018 behind a defense that ranked eighth in the nation in yards allowed per play (4.53).
He also remembers not being allowed to work out in the training room one year because a team playing in the Music City Bowl had the area reserved. He said he was upset about the Commodores' circumstances and was desperate to improve the program.
“Every decision I've made in my career was to hopefully have a chance at this job eventually,” Lea said.
Vanderbilt has a new chancellor in Daniel Diermeier, who started July 1, along with a new athletic director in Candice Lee, a former women's basketball player with the Commodores. Diermeier has made clear Vanderbilt must spend money to improve its athletics.
The chancellor said Lea stood out among the candidates for understanding Vanderbilt along with a track record of success and commitment to building a winning culture.
“Today is day one in the proud future of the football program at Vanderbilt," Diermeier said. "We’ll turn the page to a new chapter, and we’re excited to do it together.”
Vanderbilt just finished its first winless season in program history, and Derek Mason was fired after the seventh of nine losses in his seventh season. Mason was 27-55, the sixth-winningest coach in program history.
Lea would not say specifically what new facilities might be needed, but knows investment is coming. The football stadium had its last major renovation in 1981 — eight years before Lea was born.
“The facilities, when they come, they'll come,” Lea said. “We'll all celebrate them. They'll be great.”
Follow Teresa M. Walker at https://twitter.com/TeresaMWalker
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25