Notre Dame's Clark Lea hired as new Vanderbilt football coach

Adam Sparks
Nashville Tennessean

Vanderbilt hired Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea as its new football coach, the university announced Monday.

Lea, 38, is a Nashville native and former Commodores player. He graduated from Montgomery Bell Academy, played baseball at Birmingham-Southern and Belmont and then then walked on at Vanderbilt to play football. He's also a friend of two-time national champion Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin.

Next week, Lea will be introduced in a press conference. He will coach No. 2 Notre Dame against No. 3 Clemson in the ACC title game on Saturday for a possible berth in the College Football Playoff.

“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 release. “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 (athletics 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.”

RELATED:5 things to know Clark Lea, expected to be named Vanderbilt's new football coach

Lea knows the Vanderbilt program, and he’s been a successful assistant coach at premier programs. Before serving as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, Lea was a linebackers coach at Wake Forest, Syracuse, Bowling Green and UCLA.

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea has overseen improvements in the Irish defense in his first season as the team has reached the College Football Playoff.

“Clark Lea is the leader we trust to continue the challenging but exciting work that will elevate the Vanderbilt football program to unprecedented heights,” Lee said. “He embodies the demonstrated commitment to success, the integrity and the strategic thinking that it takes to build a winning football program, and help our student-athletes reach their full potential.

"He understands the important role that athletics plays in the life of a vibrant university, and that outstanding scholarly pursuits and top-notch athletics are integral parts of the Vanderbilt experience."

Lea replaces Derek Mason, who was fired Nov. 29. He had a 27-55 record in seven seasons along with two bowl appearances and three wins over rival Tennessee. 

Lea steps into one of the toughest jobs in Power Five conferences. Vanderbilt needs facility upgrades. Its high academic standards provide a smaller recruiting pool than other SEC programs. And, historically, winning has been difficult. 

Since 1953, only two of the last 14 coaches left Vanderbilt with a winning record. Steve Sloan went 12-9-2 in 1973-74 and left for Texas Tech. James Franklin went 24-15 in 2011-13 and took the Penn State job.

Lea needs to hire a staff and solidify Vanderbilt's recruiting class with the early-signing period beginning Wednesday. According to, the Commodores have 20 commitments, ranked 13th in the SEC and 49th nationally.

On Nov. 30, Lee said she was looking for a coach with “a demonstrated ability to run a program,” and a good offensive plan. Lea has never been a head coach, and he's a defensive coordinator.

Lee said the head coach didn't have to be an offensive coach, but he needed a strong offensive coordinator on his staff. Vanderbilt has a building block in quarterback Ken Seals, who broke the program's freshman passing record this season.

It's a critical hire for Lee, who was promoted to athletics director in May, and Diermeier, who became chancellor in July. 

“We set our aspirations high to fill this critical role in our athletics program, and Coach Lea exceeded our expectations in every way,” Diermeier said. “Most importantly, Coach Lea’s values align with our own, and that will be a powerful combination going forward.

"I think we’ll look back and see this decision as a key moment in the evolution of our athletics program, and our efforts to create an environment where our student-athletes can compete and succeed at the highest levels.” 

Reach Adam Sparks at and on Twitter @AdamSparks.