How defensive coordinator Clark Lea's past prepared him for Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Clark Lea is more than just a muscle.

To be fair, he always was, even if you couldn’t see it. Back in 1999 — before he gave up a college baseball career to walk on Vanderbilt’s football team, before his encyclopedic scouting reports arrived at South Dakota State, before he was named the new defensive coordinator at Notre Dame — Lea was a high school senior at Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy.

He was a three-sport star, excelling in football, basketball and baseball.

And, among other things, he was an enthusiastic, motivated muscle.

“That dude looked like Hercules when he was in high school and college,” said Ingle Martin, the team’s star quarterback who later made a brief appearance in the NFL. “Just picture a little muscle. He was just a muscle.”

OK, maybe not just a muscle. Lea was also a leader, a defensive lineman and fullback with a reputation of relentless physicality. He was an ideal teammate, a willing worker and an exemplary student.

And he was a winner.

“He was going to be successful in anything he took to liking,” said Martin, who won back-to-back state titles alongside Lea in 1998 and 1999. “He was just a guy that people liked being around. He’s got a great work ethic and he’s smart. So you add up those three things, and he could be doing stocks on Wall Street. He could be a lawyer. He could probably be a doctor.”

Or, say, the defensive coordinator at his stated dream school, Notre Dame. Lea was officially promoted to that post on Tuesday, after spending a year in South Bend as the program’s linebackers coach.

But appearances aside, titles aside, Lea hasn’t really changed. He’s still a worker. He’s still a winner.

Now, he’s just a few pounds lighter.

“He just has always overachieved,” said Martin, currently the head coach at Christ Presbyterian Academy in Nashville. “If you give him anything, he’s going to give you everything he’s got. It turns out, what he’s got is pretty dang good.

“As a high school football coach now, I’ve dealt with him a little bit as he’s recruited several of the guys that I’ve coached. He’s first-class. He’s a guy that I’d want my kids to be around — the kids that I coach and the two sons that I have. You’re going to get your best from Clark, and he’s going to do it with integrity. He’s going to do it with honesty. He’s going to do it the right way.”

***

Preparation never has been a problem.

Never. Not when Lea and Martin won titles together at Montgomery Bell. Not when Lea was a first-year graduate assistant at UCLA in 2006, after wrapping up a three-year career as a fullback at Vanderbilt.

Certainly not when he got his first full-time coaching gig at South Dakota State in 2007.

“We use the term, ‘Leave nothing to chance,’ in terms of scouting reports and film watched and drills run on the field specific to the game or the weakness you had on the field the week before,” said South Dakota State head coach John Stiegelmeier, who has amassed a 148-97 record in 21 seasons as the Jackrabbits’ head coach.

“(Lea) may be the most thorough guy in terms of leaving nothing to chance and preparing his players.”

How thorough, exactly? Lea’s scouting reports are the stuff of legend in Brookings, S.D., a decade later.

“He broke the bank with his scouting reports,” Stiegelmeier said this week. “He used more paper in a scouting report in one week than I used in a whole season when I coached the position.”

That painstaking, paper-stapling, comprehensive preparation carried Lea — who has only ever coached linebackers — from South Dakota State back to UCLA, and then to Bowling Green, Syracuse, Wake Forest, and finally, to Notre Dame.

And, when Lea arrived in South Bend last winter, what’s the first thing senior linebacker Greer Martini noticed?

“Right from the get-go, his attention to detail and his coaching style was something that immediately got me,” Martini said on Wednesday. “I just think that his preparation during the season is as good as any coach around the country. He’s always prepared. He’s always on top of his stuff. As a player, to have a coach who’s always on top of his stuff, it goes a long way.”

Specifically, Notre Dame’s top four tacklers in 2017 — Te’von Coney, Nyles Morgan, Drue Tranquill and Martini — were all linebackers or rovers coached directly by Lea.

But Lea’s attention to detail seeps into every aspect of his life.

Take the phone calls, for example. The questions. The lists.

“Clark will call, and he will always have a list of questions,” Stiegelmeier said with a hearty laugh. “He’s always growing. He’s always on a mission.”

Lea asks about philosophy. He asks about family. He asks about motivational techniques. He asks about schemes and fall camp schedules.

He prepares, and he prepares to prepare. He leaves nothing to chance.

“He relayed the information in a way that I understood it,” said Martini, who finished with a career-high 75 tackles and two forced fumbles in his senior season. “I could go out on the field and once I saw it I could just react, rather than really having to diagnose it.

“He had us prepared so that when we did see looks that he had talked about, we were ready to play really fast and execute.”

***

In coaching, however, knowledge is not enough.

Not if you can’t communicate it and translate it to your players. Not if you can’t show a 19-year-old kid that you genuinely care.

Not if every message is laced with malice, mistaking a firm approach for a parade of pointless decibels.

“We create a family here, and I don’t know a lot of fathers that talk to their sons like coaches talk to their players,” said Stiegelmeier, who insists that his staff coach without the use of profanity. “So we start with family. We try to evolve to as deep a feeling as love for each other. When you say that to a player, you can’t say anything more powerful than that.

“Our profession, at times, it’s embarrassing when you go to a college practice and you hear the language used. We want to be a picture of how we release these guys into the world, a picture of character and hard work and doing things right.”

That’s the culture that Lea latched onto, that he adopted and embraced. In a video package produced by Notre Dame last April, the 36-year-old coach said that, “as a coach, if my family were out watching practice, I’d want my kids to see their father and I’d want my wife to see her husband. I don’t want to change personalities, even though we’re all competitive and we all have an edge.”

Lea’s edge is uplifting. It’s constructive, not destructive.

“For a player like me, he gives positive feedback,” Martini said. “He talks to you and he’s a great communicator on the sideline. He never raises his voice. He always keeps an even temper and relays the important information to you.

“As a player, I really appreciate that, because that’s the way I learn better. That’s what kind of won me over early on.”

Now, it’s Lea’s job to win over the rest of the Irish defense, to funnel the lessons learned over the last two decades into each one of his players.

It’s his job to prepare as if Notre Dame owns an endless supply of paper.

To quote Stiegelmeier, it’s his job to leave nothing to chance.

“Notre Dame fans need to know that they’re getting someone that’s going to give everything he’s got, and he’s going to do a job that I think they all would be proud of,” Martin said. “I think all of them would want him to coach their son … if their son was good enough to play football at Notre Dame.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame strength coach Jake Flint Defensive Backs Coach Todd Lyght and linebackers coach Clark Lea during practice, Friday, April 7, 2017, in South Bend. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ