Why Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea keeps his emotions in check

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

The NBC cameras caught the typically stoic Clark Lea in a rare outburst of emotion.

After Notre Dame’s defense stopped Pittsburgh’s final drive in the final two minutes of a 19-14 win in October, the Irish defensive coordinator shook his headset with excitement and slapped hands with defensive analyst Chris O’Leary and senior defensive analyst Clay Bignell in their press box perch. Then Lea leaned back in his chair, stared ahead for a couple moments before the camera cut away.

The celebration may seem rather subdued compared to some, but Lea has trained himself to reign in his emotions. He describes his calmness as a learned discipline.

“I have blood pressure just like everybody else,” Lea said.

The robotic precision that Lea has used to lead Notre Dame’s defense in his first year as coordinator would seem to indicate otherwise. The No. 3 Irish (12-0) currently sit third in the country in passing efficiency defense (100.83), 10th in scoring defense (17.3 points per game) and 20th in total defense (331.5 yards per game).

Lea managed to make improvements in all three categories after taking over the defense from Mike Elko, who left Notre Dame for Texas A&M after one season. Elko, a fiery personality on game day, brought Lea with him to Notre Dame from Wake Forest. The two may share opinions on defensive schemes, but they coach with a contrasting demeanor.

“He’s very stable in all situations,” head coach Brian Kelly said a day after Notre Dame’s 24-17 win over Michigan in the season opener, Lea’s first game as defensive coordinator. “You don’t know if a bomb has gone off in the coach’s box because he has such a calm demeanor at all times. It makes it very easy to work with Clark in communication.”

Lea tries to eliminate all emotions on game day.

“The worst decisions I’ve made this year — and this would be a week-to-week reflection — have been a product of emotion rather than maintaining a strategic disposition,” Lea said. “That’s been a learning experience for me.

“Part of my nature and part of my awareness in general, even as a position coach, was you can’t do anything about the last snap. It’s about the next snap. There’s a finite amount of time on game day to figure out what you have to do to defeat the opponent.

“We’ve always tried to stay informative with our communication. Never cathartic. Never emotional.”

The decision to coach calmly came from Lea’s days as an athlete. Lea, who played college baseball at Birmingham-Southern and Belmont and college football at Vanderbilt, found he didn’t relate well with emotional coaches. He even felt his father was too emotional at sporting events.

“As much good as I’ve pulled from him in terms of work ethic and discipline and all the things that he handed to me both through lesson and also genetically,” Lea said, “one thing that I hated watching was him respond to my sister’s high school women’s basketball game. It was hard to watch.”

Lea said his father is still an emotional wreck when watching Notre Dame games. If Lea coached emotionally, he believes it would impact his players negatively.

“What’s the end goal? The end goal is to have these guys performing at the highest possible level you can,” Lea said. “How, in the moment, do you impact that positively? If you steer them in a direction emotionally that takes that away from them or somehow clouds their judgement in the moment, you’re creating problems for your player.”

In his first year as a defensive coordinator at any level, Lea has handled the learning curve in a high-profile position. His defense was tested early in the season as Notre Dame’s offense struggled to put up points with Brandon Wimbush at starting quarterback.

With Ian Book in the lineup, the Irish offense has made it a little bit easier on the defense. But there have been games — like Pittsburgh — when that hasn’t been the case. Lea’s defense hasn’t caved whether trying to stop Navy’s triple option or USC’s talented group of wide receivers.

The toughest challenge for Lea has been the transition from being singularly focused on his linebacker position group to expanding his focus to the entire defense. And doing that while keeping everything moving forward together.

“That’s been probably my greatest challenge: staying ahead,” Lea said. “But when you work with really good players and you work with capable assistants and work for a head coach that wants to help you grow and learn — it’s defensive coordinator, not defensive dictator.

“We work together to try to do the best we can to put the best product on the field, the most competitive product we can. A lot of that still comes down to relationships.”

Lea’s biggest challenge on the playing field will almost certainly come Saturday in the College Football Playoff semifinal against No. 2 Clemson (13-0). Keeping his pulse low won’t be easy against the Tigers. Their offense ranks No. 4 nationally in total offense (529.8 yards per game), No. 4 in scoring (45.4 points per game) and No. 9 in rushing (259.8 yards per game).

Freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence and sophomore running back Travis Etienne are among the best players at their positions in the country.

“When you have so many weapons and a quarterback that can get the ball to those weapons, you are forced to make decisions every snap of the game where you’re helping and where you’re not,” Lea said. “That’s the part of it that as we get into the game, we’ll have to be on our toes to adjust as we figure out how they want to attack us.

“But you have to be really careful in paying too much attention to the perimeter threats because the guy he’s handing the ball off to is really good as well. Their O-line and tight ends do a great job opening up vertical cuts and vertical seams.

“We have our work cut out for us. It is going to be a challenge. But you don’t enter this part of the season without that expectation, so there’s a part of it that excites you too.”

Whether there’s joy or frustration for Notre Dame on Saturday, it will be tough for cameras to catch from watching Lea. Just know that either way, it wasn’t easy.

“If it’s looked easy, I assure you that I don’t have any more hair to lose,” Lea said. “I’ve had a lot of fun. I’ve had fun coming to work every day with the players.”

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea stands on the field before the Notre Dame-Virginia Tech NCAA college football game on Saturday, October 6, 2018, in Blacksburg, Va.
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea fist bumps a player during practice on campus earlier this month.

WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) vs. No. 2 Clemson (13-0)

WHEN: Saturday, 4 p.m. (EST)

WHAT: CFP Semifinal/Cotton Bowl

WHERE: AT&T Stadium; Arlington, Texas

TV: ESPN

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Clemson by 13