‘We shouldn’t be afraid of expectations’

Lee tackles history and a VU program in disarray as interim athletic director

Friday, February 14, 2020, Vol. 44, No. 7
By Tom Wood

Candice Storey Lee has professed a burning passion for Vanderbilt and its athletics department, a fervor that has flamed for a quarter-century since she played for the women’s basketball team, and she fully understands the significance of her new role at the university and in college sports.

Lee, 41, was named Vanderbilt’s interim vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs and interim athletic director last week, replacing Malcolm Turner, the former NBA G League president whose departure from Vanderbilt after just a year on the job surprised fans, media observers and many in the sports world.

Lee is the first African American woman to serve as an athletic director in the Southeastern Conference.

“I’ve been at Vanderbilt for a long time and I’m as excited today as I was more than two decades ago when I first arrived,” Lee says, thanking interim Chancellor and Provost Susan R. Wente and the administration “for giving me the opportunity and just entrusting me with the privilege of leading this department.

“I’ve always been – and even as a child – attracted to the unique proposition of Vanderbilt … this space where great academics and athletics can intersect. We can be successful in both areas. I loved it then and I love it now.”

Lee says she recognizes the gravity attached to her new role as the SEC’s first African American female athletic director but says she considers it a responsibility rather than a weighted burden.

“I’ve heard from so many people. I’m so humbled by how people have experienced this decision. And it’s not lost on me the responsibility that I have that people who, both those who look like me and those who don’t, know that they can have opportunities to excel really in any space that they want,” Lee adds.

“I understand the responsibility that this is and I think that the most important thing is we have to get to the point where there are others. And we need a second and a third and a fourth, and then we will know we’re truly making a difference.

“But it is not lost on me. I am very grateful and I take the responsibility very seriously.”

‘Fiscally responsible’

Lee says she sees her mission as a combination of mending a fractured fan base, taking care of the student-athletes and tackling head-on the financial and facilities issues.

“We’ve been working very diligently on an athletic strategic plan, and that plan has been very comprehensive,” Lee says. “But that strategic plan is a first step. It’s going to highlight the priorities for the next four or five years, and we will make decisions based on those priorities.

“So that will be a first step. It’s not an end-all, be-all. It’s a first step,” Lee adds, emphasizing the phrase first step. “And that’s coming very soon.

From player to director

Candice Storey Lee, who played women’s basketball from 1996-2002, is only the fourth former Vanderbilt student-athlete to also serve as athletic director. And she has made history, becoming the SEC’s first female African American athletic director.

The others:

• Henry (Red) Sanders served as AD. Vandy quarterback from 1924-26, coach 1940-42 and 1946-48, and AD from 1945-49.

• Jess Neely began his collegiate football career at MTSU, then played halfback at Vanderbilt from 1920-22. He was AD from 1967-71 and interim in 1973.

• Tom Zerfoss played both football and basketball from 1915-20, was an assistant football coach from 1922-24 and AD from 1940-44.

“We’re going to be fiscally responsible. That’s a value of our department and our university. We’ve got to pursue new revenue opportunities and take care and be good stewards of the resources that we have. But we know we’ve got to invest to move forward and that’s what we expect to do.”

Lee says great expectations are part of the job.

“We shouldn’t be afraid of the expectations,” she says. “Commodore Nation has been very loud and vocal and passionate, and I share that same passion.

“And I think it’s OK for people to have expectations of us because we have them of ourselves.

“I just feel very privileged to work with the staff that’s out here with the coaches, and most importantly, to support our student-athletes. And we will remain committed to providing the very best student-athlete experience possible. We talk a lot about our parents entrust us with their sons or daughters and that’s a responsibility that none of us take lightly.”

She shrugs off comparisons to her mentor, David Williams, who died in February 2019, a week after retiring from 16 years as Vanderbilt athletic director, or Williams’ successor, Turner.

“I prefer not to compare myself to them,” Lee says. “I can just tell you from my perspective, I have sat in the shoes of the people who were called to serve and I hope that that lends itself to understanding what it is that these young people expect from us, what the staff needs to show up every day with energy and feel good about what they do.

“I think everybody who came before me did that their way. And I respect that but I can only do it my way.”

Hiring hailed

As quickly as Lee’s appointment was announced, congratulatory phone calls, texts, tweets, IMs and every other form of social media began arriving from both inside and outside the university.

Men’s basketball coach Jerry Stackhouse, a former North Carolina and NBA star who was hired by Turner, says he’s looking forward to working with Lee.

“She has an understanding. She played here, she understands what it looks like,” says Stackhouse, whose team recently snapped a 28-game SEC losing streak (including two tournament losses).

Candice Storey Lee, Vanderbilt’s interim vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs and interim athletic director, has the support of many in the Vanderbilt community, including her former coach.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“Quite frankly, there’s probably nobody better to really know how you need to navigate the world that’s here at Vanderbilt to get things done. We’re looking forward to her leadership.”

Virginia’s Carla Williams, the first female AD at a Power Five conference (SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12), issued a statement calling Lee “a brilliant person and a gifted administrator (who) is perfectly prepared to lead Vanderbilt athletics and she will do a phenomenal job.”

Added SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey: “I know the leadership skills she has developed will serve her and the Vanderbilt community well, and I look forward to working with Candice in this new role,”

Someone who knows about making history is outgoing Tennessee State University athletic director Teresa Phillips, who also played basketball for the Commodores.

In 2002, Phillips became the first woman to coach a men’s team following the suspension of coach Nolan Richardson III for his role in a fight during a game.

“It’s been a little bit, obviously, a man’s world,” she says. “If it wasn’t so, she wouldn’t be the first female AD in the SEC.

“Candice has already been exposed in this role through her side-by-side involvement and being included at such a high level by the previous AD. She knows all the ADs in the SEC, knows all the ADs regionally and she’s very highly involved on the NCAA national level and things like that, so this is not just some new type of jump-rope for her to be working with.

“She knows the jumps, and I think one of the big things is she probably has a lot of support over there in McGugin Center. You have to start there with that day-to-day support and move from there. And I’m not sure what she and the interim chancellor have discussed, but I know that Candice is going to be able to do the job that Vanderbilt expects her to do.”

“I would love for it someday to not be news that a woman is doing this job,” Phillips adds.

Phillips also says she would like to be involved in helping shape athletic policy at Vanderbilt.

“I certainly would love to,” she says. “You never stride too far away from home. I grew up at Vanderbilt as a young athlete, a student. I’m a Commodore still.

“I’m a Tiger. But I’m putting my paws down in a couple of months so, yeah, I would be very interested.

“Vanderbilt has its work cut out for it but has a lot of resources and so many positives to work out of and just trying to develop and have a vision for what the folks at Vanderbilt want out of Vanderbilt athletics.”

“She has the buy-in of the community, she has the buy-in of former players and alumni, and certainly has the respect of individuals across the SEC and college athletics,” Shan Foster says.

-- Vanderbilt Athletics

There are many challenges ahead – from dwindling attendance to improving to facilities and fiscal issues that reportedly led to Turner’s forced resignation – that will test Lee’s leadership. But the coaches reporting to her express confidence in her ability to right the Commodores’ ship and see smooth sailing ahead.

“Candice and I have worked together at Vanderbilt for 18 years,’’ baseball coach Tim Corbin says. “It has been very enjoyable to watch her grow from a model student-athlete to someone who now models the behaviors of a strong leader in college athletics.

“I look forward to working with her in her new role.”

Football coach Derek Mason calls Lee “a serving leader,” adding that “she’s an administrator that understands what it is in all facets. I mean, she was a student-athlete here, she got her master’s here, she got her doctorate here. That experience gives you a different platform, a different lens, to look at things in terms of being a leader, being an administrator.”

In making the announcement, interim chancellor Wente called Lee “a trailblazer,” adding that “her unparalleled work ethic, energy and vision, and steadfast commitment to the Commodore family, will only build on our momentum.”

Serving leader

Lee says she has been in contact with incoming Chancellor Daniel Diermeier, who takes office July 1.

“I appreciate his support of our department, as well,” Lee notes. “It’s been made very clear (the athletics department is) an important part of this institution and we’re going to move forward together. The ‘One Vanderbilt’ theme is real and we’re living that out.”

Retired women’s basketball coach Jim Foster adds perspective to Lee’s appointment, saying he always knew she was special.

“When she walked in the front door, you knew you had something special,” Foster says. “(Lee is) very, very bright. Very good on her feet, terrific with people. When Candice speaks, I think people listen because they know it’s going to be a well-thought-out argument or discussion or theory or whatever it is she’s speaking about. I think she was a leader from Day One.”

Foster tells a story that reiterates with her leadership qualities.

“The timing of my leaving was not great relative to Vanderbilt because there was a banquet. And I left to go to Ohio State, and they had the banquet, and Candice – a player – took over the emcee responsibilities and did an unbelievable job of making it a very rewarding evening for a lot of people.

“Candice has always been a person that put others ahead of herself. I don’t think she’s a person that goes through life on a journey or a mission that’s about Candice Storey. I think she’s on a journey or a mission about others.

“As someone who has great fondness for Vanderbilt and has two sons that are graduates of the university, I think they’ve placed athletics in very, very capable and competent hands.”

Get to work

Valentine’s Day officially marks her 10th day of sitting in the athletic director’s hot seat, and says she’s thoroughly enjoying the job for which she has spent two decades preparing.

“I’ve been where our student-athletes are, I’ve been a staff member, I’ve walked these halls and these streets and these paths with this community. And I couldn’t be more proud to serve in this capacity,” she says.