How Vanderbilt's Candice Storey Lee went from gutsy athlete to interim athletics director

Adam Sparks
The Tennessean

Candice Storey Lee, a 6-foot-3 Vanderbilt basketball player, writhed in agony on the Memorial Gym floor, clutching her left knee.

It was fall 2000. Lee was a fifth-year senior, and it was her second ACL tear. Her playing career seemed to be finished.

Lee had given Vanderbilt so much. Why give anymore?

“Because I do what is needed for the good of the group. That’s what I believe in,” said Lee, now the recently  named interim athletics director at her alma mater following the abrupt resignation of Malcolm Turner.

After her knee injury, Lee heard a sixth year of eligibility was possible through a medical redshirt. So she rehabbed and hobbled through one more season. In 2001-02 , she played through pain to help Vanderbilt to 30 wins and an NCAA Tournament Elite Eight appearance in one of the best seasons in program history.

“We needed Candice, and she knew that,” said Chantelle Anderson, the all-time leading scorer in Vanderbilt women’s basketball history. “So she put her body through pain for her team – for Vanderbilt – because that’s what leaders do.”

Almost 20 years later, Lee walks with a noticeable limp across her office in Vanderbilt’s McGugin Center athletics administration building. Since playing her last Commodores game, the 41-year-old has suffered a third and fourth ACL tear and recently underwent knee replacement surgery.

“So if you see me walking around with my festive polka-dotted cane, that’s why,” Lee said with a chuckle.

How Candice Storey Lee went from intern to athletics director

Lee has taken on the tumultuous past two weeks with her lighthearted approach. Athletes, coaches, administrators and alumni have loved her comforting demeanor for years.

“I’ll never forget when I met Candice on my recruiting visit in 2003, when she was working in academic support,” said Shan Foster, the all-time leading scorer in Vanderbilt men’s basketball history. “Great rapport, very personable. She cared so deeply for Vanderbilt student-athletes. That’s what they will all tell you.”

Lee came up through the ranks. She was a university intern, athletics academic adviser, compliance director, associate athletics director, senior women’s administrator and finally deputy athletics director under David Williams and Turner.

When Williams died a year ago, just one week after retiring, Lee was called upon to speak at his funeral. She weaved just the right mix of words to draw tears and laughter in honoring her mentor.

“I’m sure God has a big job for David, but I just hope it doesn’t involve spelling,” Lee said during the eulogy on Feb. 15, 2019. “The man never used spellcheck in his life. Everybody knows that.”

Gail Williams, left, widow of former Vanderbilt athletics director David Williams, and Vanderbilt deputy athletics director Candice Storey Lee hug at the funeral for Williams on Feb. 15, 2019, at The Temple Church.

Williams’ widow, Gail, was delighted to know Lee is filling his former role.

"She is truly a role model to many, most particularly to so many young women that now can see they, too, have a place at the table," Williams said. "I know David is thrilled for her and for Vanderbilt, as am I, along with so many others." 

‘I don’t campaign for anything’

When Turner resigned after one year on the job amid accusations of over-spending, Lee was tasked with temporarily leading the athletics department.

A university news release announcing her appointment called the move “a landmark moment” because she is the first African-American woman to lead an SEC athletics program.

Does that mean she will take over the permanent position? Or will Vanderbilt conduct a search for its next athletics director? Lee will leave that to the decision-makers.

“I don’t campaign for anything. Never have. I won’t do that,” she said. “I am hoping that whatever is in my future, my reputation and body of work will speak for itself.”

Lee has earned three degrees from Vanderbilt – a bachelor’s in human and organizational development, master’s in counseling and a doctorate in higher education administration. She has been an administrator for her alma mater for 16 years and served in numerous liaison roles to the NCAA and SEC.

A military kid and an independent thinker

Lee calls Madison, Alabama, her hometown. But growing up, she also lived in Kansas, Virginia, Germany and Puerto Rico, as her father’s military career moved the family regularly.

Her father is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army. Her mom recently retired as a public affairs officer for NASA in Huntsville, Alabama.

Changing schools and making new friends helped Lee develop an outgoing personality. Her dad’s job influenced her approach to work, especially when it involved executing plans that she sometimes disagreed with while serving under Williams and Turner.

“When you’re the No. 2, sometimes you are blamed for the decisions of the No. 1,” Lee said. “But I am a military kid, so I understand structure and respect it. From a self-integrity perspective, I will always say what I think. But I will always follow decisions that are made.”

There certainly are shades of Williams in Lee. She hints at having her own ideas for the future of Vanderbilt athletics. But she also lives by principles instilled by Williams.

“He always made time for students. I recognized early on that no matter what you’re doing, you always make time for the people you’re serving,” Lee said. “And he always made time for his family. We’d be sitting in a staff meeting and his cellphone would ring. If it was his wife or son or daughter, he’d take the call.”

A surprising endorsement and a recruiting win

When Lee was named interim athletics director, she got almost universal endorsement for the full-time job. Most surprisingly, first-year men’s basketball coach Jerry Stackhouse was among them.

Candice Storey Lee is hugged by cross country athlete Harrison Thomas after Lee was announced as Vanderbilt’s interim athletics director Feb. 5.

Stackhouse, the former NBA G-League Coach of the Year, admittedly only came to Vanderbilt because of Turner, the former NBA G-League president and fellow North Carolina alumnus.

“I probably spoke to Candice more than I did Malcolm, honestly,” Stackhouse said. “Quite frankly, there is probably nobody better to know how to navigate the waters here at Vanderbilt and get things done than her.”

Football coach Derek Mason called Lee “the right person for the job.” But he also needed her to convince one of his prized recruits that the athletics department wasn’t unstable.

Turner resigned on the eve of NCAA national signing day, when football teams are trying to solidify their recruiting classes. Donovan Kaufman, a safety from Metairie, Louisiana, had committed to Vanderbilt. But Florida State, Memphis, Ole Miss, national champion LSU and others were trying to steal him away.

That’s when Mason remembered how comfortable Kaufman felt after a meeting with Lee during his official visit two months earlier.

“So I walked down the hall and asked Candice to get on the phone with Donovan (on the day before signing day),” Mason said. “That night, we knew exactly where we were (with Kaufman), and he stayed committed to us.”

‘Team captain has always been who Candice is’

Jim Foster said Lee always has been a subtle source of strength and reassurance. He’s the Vanderbilt women’s basketball coach who relied on her to fight through painful knee injuries. She served as team captain during that historic season.

Vanderbilt's Candice Storey, left, works around Mississippi's Meadow Overstreet.

“You can look at some players and know they’re special. You can look at some and know they get what it takes to succeed. In both instances, that was Candice,” Foster said. “She always understood the big picture. But she also knew what to say to lead everyone around her.”

It’s a consistent theme: Lee seemed to strike the right tone at Williams’ funeral, Shan Foster’s recruiting visit and on that phone call to Kaufman.

Last week, Anderson, now living in Los Angeles, tuned in to watch Lee’s first news conference in her current role. She saw her former teammate smile widely, speak confidently and emphasize a strong sense of responsibility.

“How she talks now is how she talked to us back then as our captain,” Anderson said. “You listen to her because she demands your respect in the way she speaks to you, the way she treats you and how hard she works every day. 

“Team captain has always been who Candice is. With or without the title, she is the captain.”


Family: Husband Sean Lee and son Andrew; father Lt. Col. Willie Storey, mother Angela Storey, brother Gerald Storey

Hometown: Madison, Alabama. But Lee also lived in Kansas, Virginia, Germany and Puerto Rico because of her father’s military career.

Favorite pastime: “I love to eat. I'll eat Mexican, Italian, soul food, anything,” Lee said. Not surprisingly, she met her husband at a cookout.

On the hardwood: On Vanderbilt basketball team from 1996-2002, lettering four seasons, receiving two medical redshirts and serving as team captain.

Bum knee: Took two medical redshirts because of knee injuries. Over the years, Lee has suffered a combined four ACL tears in both knees and recently underwent knee replacement surgery.

Favorite sports memory: In 2002, Vanderbilt women’s basketball earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, posted a 30-7 record and made an Elite Eight for a second straight season.

Reach Adam Sparks at and on Twitter @AdamSparks.