Current job: Defensive coordinator, Notre Dame (since 2018)
Career record: N/A
If you’re going to go with a coordinator, at least go with a successful one, right? That’s at least part of the appeal of Clark Lea, the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame.
Lea took over defensive playcalling duties at Notre Dame in 2018 and in his three years, the Irish defense has finished 13th (2018), 12th (2019), and 11th (2020, season still ongoing) in defensive points per game. And among Power 5 teams this season, only Northwestern, Iowa, and Wisconsin are allowing fewer points per game. It is fair to call Notre Dame’s defenses under Lea “elite,” and since he took over as defensive coordinator, Notre Dame has a 32-3 record. That’s good, right?
So why the hell would a coach like this be interested in the Vanderbilt job? Well, that reason should be pretty obvious. Lea is a Nashville native (Montgomery Bell Academy, Class of 2000) and a Vanderbilt alum (Class of 2004), playing three seasons for the Commodores under Bobby Johnson as a walk-on fullback. He’s also friends with none other than Tim Corbin, who reportedly has recommended him for the job.
Why he’d be a good fit: Did you read all of that? In addition to the big fat bullet point on his resume as one of the nation’s top defensive coordinators, he’s recommended by Tim Corbin and he played football at Vanderbilt. He’s probably about as familiar with the Vanderbilt football culture as anyone other than Derek Mason, James Franklin, and Bobby Johnson. If you were to create a candidate for the Vanderbilt head coaching job in a lab, it would probably look something like Clark Lea.
And if you’re going to hire a first-time head coach, it helps to hire one of the top coordinators in the business.
Why it wouldn’t work: You know who else was a three-year defensive coordinator at a peer institution and fielded some elite defenses?
There’s kind of a truism in coaching searches that oftentimes, you’re looking for the exact opposite of the guy you just got rid of, and at least superficially, Lea’s resume looks similar to none other than Derek Mason’s. Mason, after all, was the defensive coordinator at Stanford from 2011-13 and in his last two years, Stanford finished 11th and 10th in defensive points per game. And also like Mason, Lea hasn’t been a coordinator for very long: 2018 was the first time in his career that he was a coordinator, after a decade as a position coach. There’s certainly a chance here that Lea is just an overqualified defensive coordinator who might Peter Principle his way into a head coaching job and fail at it. We’ve certainly seen that one before, not just with Mason, but also Woody Widenhofer.
That said, there’s kind of an important difference here: David Shaw was kind of mum on whether Mason was ready to be a head coach in 2013, whereas Notre Dame really doesn’t seem to want Lea to get away, at least if their fans on the internet are any indication.
Overall thoughts: Here’s where we get into “checking boxes” versus “hiring the best coach.”
I have stated a preference for a coach with an offensive background (and, really, Candice Storey Lee said pretty much the same thing yesterday) and head coaching experience, and neither of those apply to Clark Lea, a defensive coordinator who would be a first-time head coach. With that said, it’s hard to imagine a better fit for the Vanderbilt job, and Lea’s connections to both Nashville and Vanderbilt are why he would consider the job.
Here’s the sticking point: Notre Dame is going to put up a fight to keep him. Of the Big Three candidates (Lea, Jamey Chadwell, and Will Healy), Lea is the only one whose current employer can afford to compete with Vanderbilt financially. Frankly, if Vanderbilt wants either Chadwell or Healy, there is nothing that Coastal Carolina or Charlotte, respectively, could do to keep them around, unless they just want to stick around until a better offer comes along. Notre Dame, obviously, is different: they can afford to make Lea a very highly-paid coordinator and, perhaps, could designate him the head coach-in-waiting for when Brian Kelly (who’s 59 years old) decides to retire.