NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Vanderbilt has hired Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea as its new football coach, bringing back a Nashville native and former Commodores fullback to revive the program.
Lea will be introduced next week at a news conference. He currently is busy helping No. 2 Notre Dame (10-0) prepare to play No. 4 Clemson on Saturday in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game with a spot in the College Football Playoff on the line.
Vanderbilt athletic director Candice Lee thanked Notre Dame's president, athletic director and coach Brian Kelly for their cooperation during the hiring process. Lee said it's important to everyone, including Lea, that he fulfill his obligations to Notre Dame.
“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 in a statement Monday night.
The 38-year-old Lea is a Nashville native who played baseball at Birmingham-Southern and Belmont before walking on as a fullback at Vanderbilt, where he played from 2002-04. He is a two-time graduate of Vanderbilt, having earned a graduate degree in political science.
Lea said he's excited to come back to lead a program at a university in a city that helped shape who he is.
“Vanderbilt is a special place with a competitive drive that I believe can translate into winning,” Lea said in a statement. "My excitement for the role grew as I spent time with 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.”
Lea started coaching at UCLA and also has coached at South Dakota State, 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).
Diermeier, who started as chancellor on July 1, said the school had high standards for this critical job and Lea exceeded expectations.
“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,” Diermeier said.
Vanderbilt fired Derek Mason on Nov. 29 after he went 27-55 in seven seasons, including losing the first eight games of 2020. The Commodores (0-9) have lost 13 consecutive Southeastern Conference games, the program’s longest skid since dropping 23 straight from 2000-03.
On Monday, Vanderbilt canceled Saturday’s season finale at No. 10 Georgia due to a combination of falling below both the number of scholarship players available and position requirements for the game due to COVID-19 issues, injuries and opt outs. That locked in the first winless season in school history.
Vanderbilt at least generated some national goodwill this season by using Sarah Fuller at kicker. Last Saturday, she became the first woman to score in a Power Five football game when she kicked two extra points after becoming the first woman to play in a Power Five game on Nov. 28 by kicking off in a loss at Missouri.
The football stadium at the SEC’s smallest and only private university had its last major renovation in 1981. Diermeier and Lee, who had the interim title taken off in May, made clear last week they planned to involve their next coach in the planning process to upgrade facilities.
“We can do a lot,” Diermeier said last week. “And we have an enormous amount of assets and we need to bring them, we need to leverage them in order to advance athletics at university as a whole.”
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed to this report.
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