The Legacy of Larry Leathers

by Chad Bishop

Vanderbilt's senior assistant athletic director of communications to retire after nearly 20 years with Commodore athletics

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — I haven’t known Larry Leathers very long – certainly not as long as those of you who may be reading this.

I began covering Vanderbilt as a sports journalist in the fall of 2018, and although I had worked with Leathers in the past when the school I previously covered faced the Commodores on the gridiron, this was my introduction to working with “Larry Legend” on the daily beat.

It didn’t take long to understand how Leathers operated on a professional level. You were covering Vanderbilt football and you’d better recognize this was HIS team. These were HIS kids and he did everything in his power to promote them, take them under his wing, protect them, nurse them, grow them and send them on their way.

Come a little too close to the nest and Mama Bird was not going to be happy.

But, having a newspaper and journalism background himself, Leathers also fully understood the job the media had to do – and whether you were a student reporter or national television personality, he tried his darnedest to make things work out. And if you showed up to one of those super-early morning Vandy football practices he’d drive you down the street and buy you a cup of coffee and maybe give you a lede on a tasty feature.

Forward to the fall of 2019 when I was fortunate enough to accept a position inside the Vanderbilt Athletics communications office. My desk? Right next to the Legend’s.

Whatever time I arrived to campus – Leathers was there. When I left for the day – Leathers was there. He was never more in his element than when he was jumping up from his chair to amble down the hall to the football offices on a mission to handle whatever needed to be handled that day (and he did so much of the time in some serious pain thanks to an old knee injury. Want to know how much his student-athletes loved him? A linebacker crashed on top of him in celebration after a dramatic win against Arkansas back in the day and Leathers’ ACL gave out).

I also got to witness the personal side of King Cod (Leathers calls everyone ‘Cod’ and therefore he himself reigns above all the fishes). The side of him that took phone calls daily from friends and colleagues just to chat about life and family. The side that spoke with tremendous pride about his children. The side that bought himself, me and a coworker matching Vanderbilt beanies to don inside the open-air press box at Florida and he presented those to us as a surprise as if he was Santa Clause reaching into his bag of toys. The side that reveled in getting a chance to say hello to John Prine at Brown’s Diner on a regular basis.

The side whose eyes light up a different kind of brightness whenever he spoke of dear Susan, his wife.

So if I was able to take away all that from less than 24 months of working alongside Leathers, imagine what those who have known him for a much greater period of time would say? I asked them:

Derek Mason, Vanderbilt football head coach “Larry Leathers is one of the best Sports Information Directors in the business. He was a pro at his craft and challenged me to be better in my space as a head coach. He understood being truthful and transparent about what he saw which gained my trust immediately. Cod’s experience and contacts in the industry opened doors for me to speak to a national audience but stay uniquely Vanderbilt in our cadence and messaging. I will miss my friend and colleague, but make no mistake, he leaves Vanderbilt University in a better place because of his diligence to grow the brand of Vanderbilt football.”

Candice Storey Lee, Vanderbilt Vice Chancellor for Athletics and University Affairs and Athletic Director: “Larry Leathers has been an integral part of Vanderbilt Athletics for nearly two decades. The long hours, the relationships he’s built with student-athletes, coaches and media, the way he has mentored younger staff members – all of it has been noticed and greatly appreciated. Larry was never the story – he was always working behind the scenes to tell other people’s stories – but he deserves to have the spotlight on him for a while now that he’s retiring. We will miss him greatly.”

Greg Sankey, SEC Commissioner — “The Southeastern Conference is better for having had Larry Leathers working to promote and publicize Vanderbilt Athletics and its student-athletes for nearly two decades. Larry’s work ethic is second to none and his passion for Commodore athletics was evident every time I had the good fortune of seeing him at an event. I will absolutely miss seeing Larry in his work role and the SEC will miss him. I wish Larry all the best.”

Bobby Johnson, former Vanderbilt football head coach — “I always think of Larry in fast motion and smiling. He bounced, seemingly effortlessly, from task to task and always seemed to be in good humor. And Larry was as happy as any of us when our football team won a game, especially a big one. Larry was a phenomenal part of the athletic department and our football program. I am sure he will be missed by the Vanderbilt athletic community.”

Jordan Matthews, San Francisco 49ers — “I never thought I’d see Vanderbilt football without Larry Leathers. Your kindness and consistent positivity are two things the program will miss the most. As a small-town recruit coming into Vandy I had no idea how to navigate the complexities of Division I football media, but having you as a guide and protector gave me the confidence to express myself in the best way possible. I’m sure I echo the sentiments of Commodores everywhere when I say thank you for everything.”

James Franklin, Penn State football head coach — “So happy for my SID Larry Leathers! College sports, the SEC and Vanderbilt will miss you. I probably didn’t tell you enough how much I appreciated your contributions and loyalty to our program and me personally. I wasn’t the easiest guy to corral at times, but I am grateful how you supported and guided an aggressive, young head football coach. It’s easy to know when someone genuinely cares about not only doing the job, but most importantly doing the job well … this is you. Larry, you were friendly, honest, loyal and positive. Congratulations on a fantastic career! Enjoy your time with Susan and the family — you are always welcome in Happy Valley!”

Khari Blasingame, Tennessee Titans — “Thank you Larry for always being instrumental in making sure our voices and accomplishments off the field got amplified as much as our play on the field was acknowledged. I’ll always remember our conversation about Sam Cooke and soul music before my senior year. You’ve got great taste. We will miss you at VU and wish the best for you in the future.”

 

 

Dave Neal, SEC Network —For 19 years I’ve had the pleasure of spending many of my fall Saturdays with Larry. It was always such a treat to get that Monday phone call from him to discuss the state of the program where his voice was filled with excitement, regardless of the Dores’ outcome the prior Saturday. He always felt that the upcoming Saturday was going to be the day Vandy put it all together. Few have matched Larry’s dedication and passion for his job, traits that never wavered over the course of two decades. His friendship means a lot to me and I wish nothing but the best for him as he moves forward in his life.”

Robbie Caldwell, Offensive Line Coach, Clemson — “Where do I begin, man? I’m am so excited for you, so happy for you and your family, yet so disappointed in the fact that this industry is going to lose such a great man. Everybody has witnessed your work as an SID, but they don’t get the chance to know you as a man and as the great person that you are. It’s amazing all you did for Vanderbilt to make it a better place all these years.”

Casey Hayward, Los Angeles Chargers — “Hey Larry congratulations on a great career. Thank you for being one of the most genuine guys to ever work with Vanderbilt. You always made my time around seem so effortless and easy. Thank you and I wish you the best of luck in the future.”

Herb Vincent, SEC Associate Commissioner of Communications — “Larry has been one of the most-energetic, responsive, passionate and hard-working people I have ever worked with in this profession. I am thankful to have had an opportunity to work with him over the past years. He is as genuine a person as I have ever known. I appreciate his friendship and hope to be able to stay in touch with him. He will always be a part of the SEC family.”

Joe Fisher, Voice of the Commodores — “Simply put, I couldn’t do my job without Larry Leathers. His notes, stats and storylines are vital to our broadcast. On top of that, I love sharing conversations over morning coffee. He knows all the players by face and name, not just number. He is pivotal in helping me prepare for our broadcast. I’ve never been around a person who cares for Vanderbilt football more than Larry Leathers.”

Zac Stacy, former Vanderbilt running back — “Larry Leathers gave me a voice. I was a shy kid from country Alabama who didn’t enjoy the spotlight or attention but just wanted to ball – was never comfortable with the media … but thanks to Larry I became more comfortable over time throughout my career. ‘When success comes people want to hear ya,’ he always used to say. But during that time me and Larry became close as well. Not because of his contributions to us on the field, but because he was one of the best human beings off the field. The stress of the job was noticeable but the professionalism went unnoticed. Thanks for everything you’ve done, not only for me, but to all the current and former players that’s bled black and gold. Thank you and anchor down.”

Willy Daunic, Nashville Predators television play-by-play — “I always appreciated two things in particular about Larry beyond his overall likability and hard work: 1) His emotional engagement in the coaches and players he represented. Whether the team was up or down, you could tell he was invested with them and desperately wanted them to succeed. 2) He went out of his way to help media members like me know important stories, themes or tidbits about the team or the players – stuff that went beyond what you see in a media guide that could help a broadcast. He would take the initiative on this whether it was to seek you out after a press conference or even call you the night before a game or interview. That effort made the difference.”

Adam Sparks, Vanderbilt beat writer, The Tennessean — “Larry has always focused on service. Whether it’s picking up a beat writer with car trouble, fetching coffee for a coworker or carrying heavy extension cords for the ESPN crew, he searches for ways to help. That attitude can’t be taught.”

 

 

John Sisk, head strength coach, Georgia State — “Larry has always been a true pro. He has been a voice of so many in athletics. That voice was always used in portraying people as real. He has a gift to show more than just what is on the surface. That gift will be greatly missed. I truly appreciate his friendship and professionalism – he has touched more people than he will ever realize. I wish him and his family nothing but success as he continues on his journey.”

Joe Rexrode, The Athletic — “Larry went out of his way to help journalists, calling them with ideas, speaking off the record about things to help someone gain a better understanding of a situation and constantly looking to bring great Vanderbilt stories to light. He pushed for more access rather than attempting to limit it at every turn as some in the profession feel compelled to do now. He could give and take a joke. Also, he’s the first person to call me, ‘Jo Jo,’ and I must say, it’s kind of grown on me. Larry will be missed by all Nashville media who encountered him and I hope he’ll still hang around the press box during football games. Can’t imagine a Vanderbilt football game without that rapid-fire voice in the background.”

Josh Cooper, The Athletic — “Larry Leathers is the common thread from student reporters of my era — 2001-05 — to today. I met Larry when I was covering spring football for The Vanderbilt Hustler in 2002 and was immediately drawn to his magnetic personality. I loved working with him and his enthusiasm was infectious. After I left Vanderbilt I’d find any excuse I could to work on a Commodores football story just so I could work with Larry. He was simply the #GOAT of college SIDs and a great friend. Wishing nothing but the best to him and Susan and their sweet family … If there’s anyone in this world who deserves a happy retirement it’s Larry.”

Chris Harris, WSMV-TV — “The thing that stands out most to me about Larry is how much he cares about Vanderbilt. I could always tell he was giving everything he had to the job, and in turn, he always tried to make sure I was taken care of depending on what sport or athlete I was covering at that moment. That’s all I can ever ask and hope for as a media member trying to do my job. Larry is great because he has the perfect personality for his role. He’s dedicated and honest with the right sense of humor, no matter the setting. People come in and out of your life and effect you in different ways. There are those that, when you think of them, you smile. Larry is one of those people. I can’t believe he won’t be part of the staff at Vanderbilt anymore, but I’m glad I got to be around for part of the time he was. Larry, all the best to you and your family going forward.”

Kyle Parkinson, Associate Athletic Director of Communications, Arkansas — “Larry Leathers is one of the most unique humans I’ve ever met. The man has lived an incredible life from coast to coast and has the stories to back it up. From walking the Appalachian Trail as the Scalded Dog (everyone who walks the Trail gets a nickname) to watching the ponies run at the Sonoma County Fair to stories of Woody, Bobby and James on West End, Larry Leathers will make you smile. I’ve never seen nor do I think I ever will see another person drink so much coffee or leave full or half-full cups of coffee around a building than Larry. I’m sad to see him leave Vanderbilt but I hope his golf game benefits from the extra time. Appreciate ya Cod!”

Teresa Walker, The Associated Press — “Larry Leathers has been the man I’ve dealt with for two-thirds of my career with AP and I’ve always been grateful for his eagerness to help on any and all issues at any time of the day, week or year. Larry also is someone that I always knew would do his best to move heaven and Earth to help me in any way he could. Can’t ask for anything more than that! Thank you Larry!”

 

 

Amanda Brooks, Manager of College Networks and ESPNW — “When I came to Vanderbilt back in 2008, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted. I was fresh out of college, starting grad school at Vanderbilt Divinity School and needed a work-study job. Long story short, I started the next week with the athletics communications staff and after a few action-packed weeks (College GameDay at Vandy, anyone?!), I was punted into my career in sports PR and away from religious academia (a point of pride LL still jokingly shares with all who will listen). Over my two years of grad school, Larry and the guys guided me, supported me and cheered me on as I navigated a brutal academic load, a separate work-study job and another sports PR gig on top of assisting them with as much as they’d let me take off their plates. He has told me he’s proud of me more times than I could ever attempt to count. Larry started as a boss, became a mentor and now I’m proud to call him a dear friend. As he always says and says it best: love ya!”

Kyle Shurmur, former Vanderbilt quarterback — “Larry, you’re the man. You were always positive and kept us in check. You put up with all of us divas for so many years when we didn’t want to do media, but you always made it run very smooth and I always had zero problems with doing those jobs. That’s all because of you. I appreciate everything you do and Vanderbilt is so very lucky to have had you for so many years.”

Steve Keith, Vanderbilt track and field and cross country head coach — “Say it ain’t so! You’ve been a great friend and supporter of me and our program and I’ll always remember and appreciate that. Maybe now you’ll be drinking a better grade of coffee and hopefully not quite as much! Take care, enjoy your next adventures and don’t be a stranger. It’s been a real pleasure!”

John Russell, Photography Operations Manager/Marketing Solutions, Vanderbilt “Larry Leathers is one of my favorite people. He always has a smile on his face and a unique way of greeting people that makes them feel special. I was fortunate to work with Larry on numerous athletic events over the last 13 years I have been at Vanderbilt and even a few years before that covering games for The Associated Press. I especially enjoyed traveling with him on football road games. He has great stories and we share a love for Waffle House. There will be huge shoes to fill in Vandy Athletics after this week. Larry, I will miss you dearly! All the best in what comes next my friend.”

Brandon Barca, Senior Director of Digital Strategy, Nashville SC — “At the end of the day, Larry would give you a pat on your back for a job well done, but also the shirt off his back if you ever needed it. He’d give you a place to stay, a ride to the airport or even invite you to Thanksgiving dinner. Some of my favorite times with him were the Friday night meals before a big SEC road matchup and riding shotgun with him on the way to SEC Media Days in Birmingham every July. When Vanderbilt broke its bowl drought in 2008, we all rejoiced for people like Larry who had put their blood, sweat and tears into the program and always believed in the Commodores. Larry left his mark on Vanderbilt over the last two decades. The halls of McGugin won’t be the same.”

Dana Reynolds, Senior Social Media Strategist at Duke University Health System — “It’s tough being a woman in sports, especially being new. Working at Vanderbilt was my first full-time job so I was very nervous about everything. Larry was always such a comforting person even if he was annoyed at you. I don’t remember ever feeling left behind during trips at games or any other time we were working together. He welcomed me into his home every Thanksgiving because my family was in New York. It really brings a smile to my face thinking about that shared memory. I think Vanderbilt has been one of the few professional environments where I truly knew my coworkers and felt like they knew me and that feeling is in no small part because of Larry’s welcoming presence.”

Ryan Schulz, former Vanderbilt Athletics communications staffer — “During my 15 years in college athletics, including nine at Vanderbilt, I never crossed paths with anyone who was more passionate about the student-athletes and coaches they supported, more dedicated to their craft or more loyal to the university they worked for than Larry. He may not have ever scored a point, coached a game or attended a class at Vanderbilt, but the impact he made on the university and those who had the pleasure of working with him is immeasurable. Vanderbilt is better off because of what he did – I know I am.”

Jeff Lockridge, Former Tennessean sports journalist — “Aside from the many laughs, Larry epitomized how a true professional can build relationships, blending work and friendship with those in the media. His allegiance was, and always will be, to Vanderbilt University. He took the wins and losses personally. He was protective of his players and coaches. But Larry also made you feel like his loyalty was to you … because in so many ways it was. He cared about his job. But more than that, he genuinely cares about people. He wants others to succeed. In my time on the Vandy beat he did everything in his power to help me succeed and meet my many needs. I owe him a debt of gratitude for that. Larry’s job encompassed late nights, long weekends, travel, deadlines, those pesky football media guides, endless phone calls, ticket and press box requests, interview demands and trying to make and keep everyone happy amid daily conflicts. Larry did it all so well while showing you his smile. I’m very proud to call Larry my friend.”

Thomas Samuel, Associate Commissioner For Compliance Services, Southland Conference — “I worked with Larry for five years from 2005-10 in a time period where Vanderbilt started to have unprecedented athletic success across the board. From the very beginning of my time on West End it was obvious that Larry was vested in all things Vanderbilt and he especially enjoyed taking in the football team’s upset wins over nationally-ranked SEC teams before bowl game selections became an annual thing. Frankly, it was a pleasure to watch him excitedly celebrating those victories along with the student-athletes and coaches knowing the long hours they all put in behind the scenes. There are far too many individual stories to share in a quick note, I will just end by saying Larry truly was an asset to Vanderbilt Athletics for nearly 20 years and I wish him and his family all the best in wherever the day takes them. Congrats Larry!”

Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com. Follow him @MrChadBishop.

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