How Clark Lea’s unrelenting work ethic paved the way for dream job at Notre Dame
Clark Lea has never been exposed to the easy road.
Take his Shell station shower, for example. In July 2007, Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator had just wrapped up his first year as a defensive graduate assistant at UCLA. The former Vanderbilt fullback was back home in Nashville, Tenn., for the summer, searching — so far, in vain — for a full-time job.
That’s when he got a call from South Dakota State head coach John Stiegelmeier.
“He never came out (to interview) in person,” Stiegelmeier said after Lea was promoted to ND’s defensive coordinator position in January. “I interviewed him on the phone, and I could just tell that, No. 1, he was a great person. No. 2, I knew he cared for kids. That’s important in our program, those two things.
“I knew he was going to work hard, and that was really important to me.”
Stiegelmeier offered the job, and just like that, Lea became the Jackrabbits’ linebackers coach.
And that’s when the hard work started.
“The next day I booked a flight to LA,” Lea said on a Thursday in June, leaning back in the chair in his office. “I packed my stuff up in a Penske truck and I started my way across the country.”
He drove for 1,700 miles and 25 hours — through California, through Las Vegas, through Utah and Wyoming. And, speaking of the latter, Lea passed through just as Cheyenne, Wyo., was hosting its annual “Cheyenne Frontier Days,” which is billed as “the world's largest outdoor rodeo and Western celebration.”
Which meant that, in southern Wyoming and western Nebraska, there wasn’t a hotel room to be found.
“I slept in my truck,” Lea said with a wistful grin. “I got up the next morning, showered at a Shell station, and that was my introduction to South Dakota.”
It wasn’t his introduction to hard work.
Growing up in Nashville, Lea’s father — Clark Lea Sr. — worked as the longtime team doctor for the Nashville Sounds, currently the Triple-A, minor-league affiliate of the Oakland Athletics.
“My dad worked his (butt) off for our family — late night calls into the hospital, not home until 9 or 10 o’clock at night, up early the next morning,” Lea said. “You don’t realize as a child how impactful that is, but I identify more of my drive and work ethic from watching him.
“And my mom, too. She’s a stroke survivor that will never regain the use of her left side in a full capacity, but she works and rehabs every single day.”
Maybe that example is why Ingle Martin, Lea’s high school quarterback at Montgomery Bell Academy, recently called him “one of the hardest, if not the hardest-working kid” on a team that won back-toback state titles. Maybe it’s why Stiegelmeier dubbed him “maybe the most thorough coach” he’s come across in more than two decades at South Dakota State.
Maybe it’s why, in Lea’s two seasons in Brookings, S.D., his scouting reports read more like meticulous football manifestos.
“I would hand out reports that were 75, 80 pages, and at South Dakota State they were keeping track of that,” Lea explained. “You punch in a copy code number before you run your copies. So when budget time came around, I was always sweating, because they’re going to look at my copy code number and be like, ‘Oh my God.’”
In 12 years as a collegiate coach, the copy code king has worked for everything. He’s earned it — at UCLA, South Dakota State, Bowling Green, Syracuse, Wake Forest and Notre Dame.
More importantly, he’s passed his parents’ imprint to the linebackers he molded along the way.
“The week I got my first start as a freshman, Lea told me, ‘Man, look: every day, when you come in, you have to earn it. You have to treat it like you don’t deserve it,’” said Zaire Franklin, a three-year captain at Syracuse and a 2018 seventh-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts.
“Him pushing me and holding me to that standard just became second nature to me. That’s why I practice the way I do now, why I play the way I do now.”
Let’s start with Saturdays.
On Saturdays last fall, Notre Dame’s four top tacklers — Te’von Coney, Nyles Morgan, Drue Tranquill and Greer Martini — were all coached by Lea. Coney’s 116 tackles were 41 more than his previous two seasons combined, despite the fact that he started just seven games in 2017. Tranquill notched career-bests in tackles (85), tackles for loss (10.5), sacks (1.5), fumble recoveries (3) and forced fumbles (1) in his first season as an Irish rover.
On Saturdays in 2016, Wake Forest linebacker Marquel Lee contributed 105 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles, severely outpacing his previous production in his only season under Lea.
On Saturdays at Syracuse in 2015, Franklin led his team with 81 tackles, despite being only a sophomore.
On Saturdays in 2009 and 2010, UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers pumped out 24.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and six interceptions, earning enough acclaim to leave after three seasons and become a second-round pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2011.
The Saturdays have been impressive.
But the real fun comes on Friday.
“His linebacker room is like a football grad school-level course,” said Franklin, who left Syracuse with 311 career tackles. “It’s like you’re taking a history class, with mathematics, with finance.”
And what would a classroom be if not for an occasional test?
“His pregame test is probably the hardest test I’ve ever taken in my life,” Franklin said. “And I’ve got a finance degree, so I’ve taken some crazy tests.
“He had formations. He had calls. He had tendencies. I feel like it’s stuff that I’ll be looking at now in the NFL. It’s stuff I had never had before.”
On Friday night, less than 24 hours before kickoff, Lea gives his linebackers a test that drills their knowledge of the next opponent. It is, on average, between three and five pages long. It is also segmented by situations — first and second down, third down, red zone and goal line.
This, in essence, is the test before the test.
“There’s no way for a player to take the field prepared for every single thing he’s going to face,” Lea said. “But as I’ve tried to hone in on what, as a coach, I can do to help the player, it’s not to burden them on Friday night.
“It’s to put in front of them the key things that I think are going to show up in the game, or the things that I think are going to be most critical for us to execute maybe in a scoring situation, or a big play that’s been on film three or four times, and you want to make sure we have the ability to pass off coverage or fit a run.”
And, since Lea’s linebackers will be taking on USC or Stanford or Michigan together, they also take the test together. They pass or fail together.
“I do give a difficult test,” Lea conceded. “I do try to make it more efficient for the guys, but they do it together, because sometimes they can be the best teachers. So they’ll get in a hotel room together and they’ll work their way through it. If someone, as they’re going through, has an issue, the question is raised and they communicate it.”
In Franklin’s two seasons under Lea, there were plenty of questions raised and communicated.
There weren’t quite as many correct answers.
“It took all 10 linebackers on the team,” Franklin said, “and we still wouldn’t get 100 percent.”
Speaking of pregame preparation, Lea’s was a little different.
“When I was in middle school, Rudy was released, and every Wednesday night before our Thursday middle school football games, my routine was that I’d put the VHS on Rudy, and I’d sleep on the couch and watch the movie,” Lea says.
“That’s where I got juiced up for games. That’s where I fell in love with it.”
For two consecutive seasons, Lea’s love ran directly up against his family’s favorite school. In 1995, he soaked up his first game inside Notre Dame Stadium, watching the Irish trample Vanderbilt, 41-0. A year later, he attended again as Notre Dame eked out a 14-7 win in Nashville.
Lea’s father, Clark Lea Sr., attended Vanderbilt. His uncle attended Vanderbilt. His sister attended Vanderbilt. Heck, Lea later walked on the Vanderbilt football team in 2002, eventually earning both a scholarship and a master’s degree.
Still, the record shows that when the teams played each other, Lea was wearing an ND T-shirt.
“I think it kind of broke my dad’s and uncle’s heart that I was on the dark side,” Lea said with a laugh. “At the same time, I think my dad was excited that I was driven toward something that was special.”
There’s no doubt that Lea was driven. First it was to baseball, a byproduct of years spent around the ballpark and summers in high school serving as a bullpen catcher for the Nashville Sounds. He even briefly chased a college baseball career, first at Birmingham-Southern College (2001) and then at Belmont (2002), before conceding that his future might be in football.
“I had two frustrating years in baseball, and baseball is a game where there’s a negative return to emotion,” Lea said. “Football is one where you can let frustration kind of fuel you. Football is a little bit easier game to play with a chip on your shoulder. So I carried that with me to Vandy.”
Of course, Lea never got his Rudy moment at Notre Dame, joking that “I wasn’t quite a good enough student and I wasn’t quite a good enough player.”
Even now — at his dream school, better late than never — Lea approaches his job like he isn’t good enough. To quote his younger self, he treats it like he doesn’t deserve it.
“The minute I think that I’m a defensive coordinator just because I have the title is the minute that my edge will slip,” Lea said. “In fact, when I first got the position I was texting with Zaire, and he sent that quote back to me.”
Clark Lea deserves this destination.
There he was, finally, sitting in an office down a narrow hall inside the Guglielmino Athletic Center, with framed photos of Notre Dame Stadium hanging on the wall. On his desk, there was a neat stack of books on the history of ND football — each one designated for summer reading. On another wall, across from a white board, a series of stick-figure drawings were presented proudly like crude Picassos.
“That’s C3. That’s his work,” Lea said, beaming, referring to his 5-yearold son, Clark III. “(He has) free reign. You’ll find post-its behind chairs and under the desk. Sometimes he leaves little notes and little messages and little hockey players.”
Not so long ago, Clark Lea Sr. was taking his son to work and letting him catch baseballs in the bullpen.
Like father, like son.
In more ways than one, Lea’s life has come full circle. The middle school kid who fell asleep watching Rudy on Wednesday nights is here, in South Bend, a first-year defensive coordinator.
This is why he flew across the country, then drove for 25 more hours and slept in a truck in western Nebraska. It’s why he sweated the monthly budget, an un-anointed copy code king. It’s why, according to former UCLA defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough, he “stayed all kinds of hours.”
This was the destination.
Just don’t tell that to Lea.
“You get jobs like being the linebackers coach or defensive coordinator at Notre Dame or the linebackers coach at Wake Forest or Syracuse or wherever, and it’s very easy to fall into a mindset of entitlement — that somehow this new position defines me or this new position validates me, or I’ve arrived at some level,” Lea said in mid-June. “To me, that’s the fastest way to lose the opportunity.
“What I have to confront every day — and everyone does — is that this is just a starting point. It’s a different launch point than being a linebackers coach was, but the process doesn’t change.”
So Lea’s process will continue — the scouting reports, the footwork drills, the pregame tests, all of it. Only now, he’s overseeing the entire defense and calling plays as well. It’s a lot of responsibility for a first-year collegiate defensive coordinator.
Now he has to prove that he deserves it — the destination and the dream.
“You’re not always smelling the roses,” Lea said. “But there’s not a time on my run around the lakes when I see the dome flash, that I’m not struck. Or the awe I feel when I walk out of the tunnel and you see the banners and Touchdown Jesus.
“Those things still tug at your heartstrings. They’re important parts of being here.” ❚