Clark Lea vs. the Volunteers

Vanderbilt head coach grew up attending rivalry before being a part of it as player, coach

by Chad Bishop

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Clark Lea isn’t just a Vanderbilt alumnus, or the Vanderbilt head coach, or a former Vanderbilt fullback – he’s a life-long fan of the Commodores.

And that meant growing up he had very little interest in the university on the eastern side of the state.

“We were anti-orange in our house. This has always been an easy call for me,” Lea told WNSR this week. “If I have any regrets about the way I was raised it was that I wasn’t able to appreciate what (former Tennessee women’s basketball coach) Pat Summit built at Tennessee until I was a coach later on in my life.

“But we were black and gold through and through so that was kind of how we rolled in our house.”

Lea will face the Tennessee Volunteers as a head coach for the first time at 2:45 p.m. CT Saturday inside Neyland Stadium. But it won’t be his first time in the historic venue nor standing on the opposite sideline of the orange-and-white.

Growing up in Nashville, and with his father Clark Lea Sr. being a Vanderbilt alumnus, Lea Jr. attended many Vanderbilt-Tennessee games through the years before graduating from Montgomery Bell Academy. He and his family had season tickets about 40 rows up behind the visitor’s bench close to midfield.

In high school, Lea said he and his friends moved behind the end zone to be a little more involved in the fan experience.

Then, in 2002, Lea transferred as a baseball player from Belmont to become a walk-on fullback for Bobby Johnson and the Commodores. His first two meetings with the Volunteers were not especially memorable. 

Vanderbilt hosted Tennessee in 2002 at what was then called The Coliseum (now Nissan Stadium) and lost 24-0. It was held to 196 yards of total offense – five of which came on a Lea carry – while starting quarterback Jay Cutler and starting running back Kwane Doster were sidelined via injury.

The Commodores traveled to Knoxville the following season and were met with an even worse fate. Tennessee scored 41 points before halftime and eased to a 48-0 victory in front of 100,496 fans.

Lea had two rushes for 3 yards in that contest while Vandy managed only 191 yards.

“The one in ’02 was at (the Tennessee) Titans Stadium,” Lea said. “What I remember at that game is blowing a run-blocking assignment and they tackled us in the backfield and forced a fumble on the play.”

Vanderbilt fullback Clark Lea (29) is honored on Senior Day in 2004 alongside his mother, father and sister.

In 2004, back at Vanderbilt Stadium for Lea’s senior day, Vandy trailed 28-20 at halftime to Tennessee before 10 third-quarter points by the Volunteers proved to be the difference. Cutler threw for 314 yards and three touchdowns and the Commodores had the ball with 2:07 minutes to play down 38-33 – but Cutler was picked off to end the affair.

“Not a lot of great memories from those (first) two, and yet I think the hard work that we put in unlocked the ability for (Cutler) and Earl (Bennett) to connect in (2005) which is something I celebrated from afar.

“It was senior day here (in 2004) so obviously that was a special day. It was a back-and-forth game where we fought back and fell just short. I think in the moment it was the disappointment of coming short, but certainly in recollection that was a special day. Again, you see an uptick in what became a 4-0 start in ’05. Proud to have been a start of that momentum.”

On Nov. 19, 2005, Vanderbilt trailed Tennessee 24-21 in Neyland Stadium. But Cutler’s touchdown pass to Bennett with 1:11 on the clock gave the Commodores the lead and eventually their first win over Tennessee since 1982.

Lea didn’t get to join in the celebration with his former teammates during that one. Four years later, however, Lea boarded a plane from Los Angeles to Knoxville and was on the sidelines coaching UCLA’s linebackers.

The Bruins would go on to win 19-15 over Tennessee allowing Lea to finally leave Neyland Stadium on the winning side of things.

— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for
Follow him @MrChadBishop.