SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Notre Dame assistant coach Clark Lea is a defensive coordinator masquerading as a philosophy professor. Or, perhaps, he’s a philosophy professor lecturing daily to the Irish defense. “When he’s up there,” Irish redshirt senior Drue Tranquill says of the defensive meetings, “you would think you’re in a lecture hall.”
Professor Lea starts every defensive briefing with the first slide declaring the boldest goal: national championship. And while that dollop of motivation could be used anywhere from Tucson to Orono, Lea has provided the direction to fulfill the vision. That includes imploring players to envision who they’d hug first on the field, and to imagine the feeling of confetti sticking to their uniforms. “You create this tangible experience,” Lea said recently in his office, “that you’re fighting for every day.”
Not even the widest-eyed Irish optimist could have envisioned Lea, 37, having such resounding success in his debut season. When coach Brian Kelly promoted him from linebackers coach after Mike Elko’s departure to Texas A&M last January, inherent drop-offs were expected. After all, this marked Lea’s first full-time coordinator and play-caller gig, and Michigan loomed in the opening game.
Twelve victories and the school’s first College Football Playoff bid later, Notre Dame’s defense has taken on the unflinching personality of its first-year coordinator. That confetti feels much more tangible than aspirational after the Irish (12-0) finished No. 10 nationally in scoring defense (17.3 ppg), No. 20 in total defense (331.5 ypg) and play No. 2 Clemson in the Cotton Bowl next week for a spot in the national title game. “Clark could be a professor,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly told Yahoo Sports. “But he’s going to be a great defensive coordinator for as long as wants because he has that unique ability to connect with players.”
Along the way, Lea’s forged a leadership style of compelling contrasts – more bookish than boisterous, meticulous while remaining a high-end motivator and an “almost fully functioning vegetarian” who shuns the sport’s red-meat subculture of “frothing at the mouth and spewing profanity.” The philosophy professor maintains a simple syllabus: “In order to have influence, you have to have a relationship,” Lea told Yahoo Sports in his office recently, summing up his philosophy. “You can’t expect to enact change in someone if they’re not willing to hear you.”
Lea, of course, is quick to deflect Notre Dame’s success to the players. The Irish are thriving in the scheme that Elko brought from Wake Forest two years ago. Lea came with him as the linebackers coach, and since becoming coordinator has evolved the 4-2-5 scheme to become more multiple and led Notre Dame 26 spots higher in total defense national ranking and to a 21-place improvement in scoring defense. Defensive back Julian Love, lineman Jerry Tillery and linebacker Te’von Coney all earned Associated Press All-America honors. “In college football, if you can get a talented group of guys with their cleats in the grass on the same page,” Tranquill said, “you’ve got a really good chance to play great defense.”
But they’re far more effusive about his style than his schemes. Lea prides himself on personal connection, with his philosophy being that he needs to develop a close enough relationship with players so he can reach them. “I have a side conversation going with almost every player on our defense,” Lea said. “They need to know the heartbeat that’s in front of them.”
Tranquill recalls a turning point in his season – and relationship with Lea – coming during fall camp. Lea called him to his office and told him what Tranquill refers to as the “corny story” of a prune bush. The basic moral of the story was that Lea had a prune bush, its appearance aggravated him and he needed to pare it down before it blossomed.
This fall camp, Lea worried that Tranquill was losing some of his edge. He’d stopped coming out to practice early and was caring too much about superficial things like gear. “He was really trying to connect with me,” Tranquill said, “and basically he was just giving me tough love.”
Lea complimented Tranquill along the way, imploring him to be more like the “Mike Tyson, roll-up-your sleeves guy” that he’d flashed earlier in his career. The pep talk resonated with Tranquill, who has 75 tackles this season and is the gritty soul of the Irish defense. “I think I got back to who I was, and what made me different as a player,” he said. “Just the blue-collar work ethic, willing to come and grind each and every day and not caring what my gloves look like or whatever.”
Julian Love, who projects as a first-round NFL pick, got a call from Lea at 10:30 p.m. one night during camp. It started with bouquets of compliments about Love’s talent and how glad he was to have him as a mainstay on the defense. Love listened, and waited for the flip side. “That’s Coach Lea,” Love said. “He’ll gas you up and tell you the good things he loves about you, so then he can come in with the stuff you need to improve.”
The conversation continued with a plea for Love to work before practice on technique, stressing nuances he needed to improve like his feet getting too wide and trying to punch while moving laterally. “That just shows,” Love said, “how much he cares.”
A decade ago, Lea spent two seasons as linebackers coach at South Dakota State. Along with meeting his wife there, he refined a coaching style that he still employs. His old boss, John Stiegelmeier, told Yahoo Sports that Lea consistently delivered the same motivational formula: “Four positives for every negative, helping find a way to a guy’s heart without threatening his self-esteem or belief in self.”
It delights Stiegelmeier that his current linebackers coach, Jimmy Rogers, who played for Lea in 2007 and ’08, carries the same connective ethos. That philosophical pass-down fits perfectly with how Lea hopes to impact his players: “This is a very personal experience you go through, and the relationship that will be left as a result of this experience is really important to me.”
Lea’s own experience shaped that philosophy, as he played college baseball two seasons before walking on at Vanderbilt to play football. He earned a scholarship, started his coaching career at UCLA as a graduate assistant and bounced around a geographic kaleidoscope of schools from South Dakota State to Bowling Green to Syracuse to Wake Forest before landing at Notre Dame. “What you see is who he is,” said John Sisk, who was Lea’s strength coach at Vanderbilt. “You’d think he’s coaching the Cowboys if he’s coaching pee wee football.”
Lea linked up with Elko at Wake Forest, an odd couple on the surface bound by high-end intellect – Elko graduated from Penn – and a passion to connect. But there’s plenty of differences, as Elko would decline eating a steak while recruiting with Brian Kelly in order to eat fast food. Lea only eats meat about once-a-month and jokes he’d weigh 500 pounds from not working out if the stress of the season hadn’t suppressed his appetite.
But the consternation over the transition to a first-year defensive coordinator has long subsided everywhere else in the Notre Dame program. Twelve games into Professor Lea’s tenure, it’s clear he positioned his players to ace their exams. “He fits Notre Dame so well,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. “He’s straight out of central casting for us.”
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Josh Gordon’s career hits another bump in the road
• College football’s early signing period winners and losers
• Watch: Recruit’s heartwarming signing announcement
• Kansas City star QB inks Hunt’s Ketchup deal