Candice Lee has officially held the title of Athletic Director just over six months, and she has already reached a decision that will largely define her legacy.
Firing football coach Derek Mason late into a winless season going nowhere was a bold move. Financial details of contracts aren’t disclosed at Vanderbilt, since it’s a private university, but the rumored buyout for Mason was large. In a pandemic year where finances are tight, the choice wasn’t the no-brainer most fans wanted it to be. But credit Lee for making the decision. And in doing so she helped unite a fractured fanbase by showing the administration might be serious about creating a competitive football program.
After Mason was dismissed, Lee highlighted two traits of particular interest when looking for his replacement: head coaching experience and someone with an offensive mind.
In the end Lee ended up hiring Clark Lea, the defensive coordinator from Notre Dame with no head coaching experience.
Early in the process, Lea was on almost every media/fan prospective list along with Coastal Carolina head coach Jamey Chadwell and Charlotte head coach Will Healy. Of those three, Lea was the only candidate lacking the key credentials initially mentioned by Lee.
Many fans wanted Chadwell, who is known for his unique, but entertaining, spread option offense. His coaching stock may never be higher than it is now after leading the Chanticleers to an 11-0 season. Some sources even had him as the prohibitive favorite early, but now it appears for whatever reason he was never a serious candidate.
Healy was another fan favorite as a charismatic young coach known for building winning programs from nothing at Austin Peay and Charlotte. We know he interviewed, but the word is he wasn’t a finalist either.
In fact, sources suggest a pair of wildcard candidates, Buffalo head coach Lance Leipold and Army head coach Jeff Monken, actually made it further along in the process than Chadwell or Healy.
But whatever the case, Lea was clearly the target the Vandy search committee zeroed in on quickly and never wavered. Even with the roller coaster of rumors going on, there was almost a sense of inevitability this is how it would play out. On paper, the fit certainly makes sense. Lea is from the area, playing high school at MBA. He started his collegiate career in baseball, playing a year at Birmingham Southern before transferring to Belmont to play his sophomore year. Lea switched to football when he walked-on at Vanderbilt, playing fullback two years for the Commodores.
Lea ascended the coaching tree rapidly. In addition to playing for Vandy, he also has experience coaching at prestigious academic schools UCLA and Wake Forrest before his current stint at Notre Dame.
So what prompted Lee to overlook her initial preferences to pick Lea? In her appearance on 102.5 the Game Monday night she explains:
“When I was able to look him in his eye, I knew, I probably knew from the beginning. But when I looked him in his eyes, we sort of recognized in one another the passion, knowing that this is a challenge but that we’re up for it. It’s hard for me to express, but I saw it.”
Lea was endorsed by his friend, Vandy baseball coach Tim Corbin, which certainly carried a lot of weight. He was also recommended by former Vanderbilt football coaches Bobby Johnson (who coached Lea) and James Franklin.
While a splash hire like Chadwell might have created more buzz, the reaction from Commodore Nation to Lea has still been overwhelmingly positive. Some consider him to be the “safe” hire, however you want to define that term. There were a few grumblings on social media about his resume being too similar to Mason when he was hired. However, the vast majority credit the search committee for their decisiveness, efficiency, speed, and discretion in getting it done before signing day December 16.
If you need further validation of the hire you can peruse the Notre Dame message boards where Irish fans are already lamenting his departure. Some are even convinced he will return to Notre Dame in a few years when Brian Kelly retires and Lea is ready for his first “real” head coaching job.
While we can laugh at their delusions, they’re not wrong that some bigger and more established programs were likely to come calling for Lea soon. Lee was wise to part ways with Mason and act quickly when she did. Lee and Lea are forever connected now, even sharing near identical last names. But hiring the right coach was only the first step. Lee also seems to understand that no coach will be successful without significant upgrades to the facilities. Fortunately, after years of promises, it appears that might finally be on the horizon.
Fans can argue whether this candidate or that candidate should have been hired, but we all know hiring coaches in largely a crapshoot. I’ll confess I wasn’t particularly excited when James Franklin was hired, and I thought Derek Mason was a home run choice. In that spirit, why can’t Lea be the one to lead Vanderbilt football to the point Franklin brought it, and even surpass that level? Mercifully, we have a clean slate. But we still have some promising pieces to build, most importantly at quarterback. As we sit currently, Vandy has the 29th ranked class according to rivals. For the first time in a long time, the rain clouds that have enveloped this program appear to be clearing.
Welcome to Vanderbilt Coach Lea. Anchor down!
Good stuff Brian. Just a note though, Coach Lea attended Birmingham Southern, not Georgia Southern.