How Kix Brooks, Children's Hospital brought Tommy McClelland to Vanderbilt athletics
In the summer of 2019, McClelland was a successful athletics director at Louisiana Tech with a reputation for raising money and building facilities. He was on the short list of possible candidates for AD positions at Power Five schools around the country.
But McClelland’s concerns constantly were on his 10-year-old son Lawson rather than his rising career in college athletics.
Lawson did not speak until he was 5 years old, and he was diagnosed with autism. That summer, his condition was especially difficult. And McClelland wanted a better plan to help his son develop as a teenager and young adult.
So McClelland and wife, Jessica, started praying for guidance.
Country star directs McClelland to Music City
That’s when the first of two phone calls happened that led McClelland to Vanderbilt, where he is now deputy AD and the point person for a critical fundraising effort.
McClelland called Country Music Hall of Famer Kix Brooks, a member of Brooks & Dunn and a Louisiana Tech alumnus. Brooks told McClelland that he needed to take Lawson to Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, where the country star is the advisory board chair.
In November 2019, Lawson spent two days at Vanderbilt’s Kennedy Center, which specializes in treatment and research for autism spectrum disorders.
“It was awesome,” McClelland said. “They gave us a game plan, so we would know what to anticipate for his life in terms of independence and how we can get there.
“It opened our eyes like, ‘Man, we need to be more open about where we’re willing to go and what we’re willing to do.’”
‘Before I’m an AD, I’m a father’
McClelland suddenly considered a new professional move for personal purposes.
His family loved living in Ruston, Louisiana. And McClelland had been on a good track to become an AD in a major conference. At McNeese State, he was the youngest AD in the country at 25. And then he became a rising star at Louisiana Tech in 2013.
“But before I’m an AD, I’m a father,” said McClelland, who also has a 9-year-old son, Grayson. “I just want what’s best for my kids.”
McClelland knew moving to a Metro area, especially one with a world-class children’s medical center, should be his top priority. So he decided to start looking around, even if it meant dropping to a lesser role in an athletics department.
That’s when the second phone call happened.
‘Where God wanted us to go’
In August, McClelland was behind the wheel on an 18-hour drive for family vacation in Colorado when his phone rang. It was a search firm calling on behalf of Vanderbilt, specifically athletics director Candice Lee, according to McClelland.
McClelland’s skillset matched what Vanderbilt sought, and he already knew Nashville had what his family needed.
“We had prayed for guidance, but not necessarily (Nashville). Just somewhere like what we experienced in Nashville,” McClelland said. “It just seemed like this is where God wanted us to go.”
Lee wanted McClelland, too. After 18 years working her way up through the athletics department, the former Commodores basketball player was named AD in May.
Lee wanted to pump new life into Vanderbilt fundraising, marketing and facilities projects — all areas of concern, and sometimes ridicule, for years. She said her search process was “intentional” in landing McClelland. And after identifying him, she introduced McClelland to her new boss, Chancellor Daniel Diermeier.
“I felt it was essential to add a deputy athletics director for external affairs to our department, and Tommy easily fit the criteria that I was looking for,” Lee said. “He’s well respected in our industry as a strong and engaging leader, has high integrity and a great work ethic.
“Importantly to me, our values align, and he brings valuable perspective having been an athletic director at two different institutions.”
‘My history is consistent’
McClelland could be a candidate for an AD job again. He knows that, but he bristles at the suggestion that he would leave Vanderbilt before accomplishing his goals.
“My history is consistent,” McClelland said. “I’ve only been to two places in a 13-year career. And I’ve tried to make a difference in the places I’ve been. I’m focused on helping Vanderbilt athletics.”
At McNeese State, McClelland raised more than $3 million in private donations and expanded the school’s corporate sponsorships. Elevated to AD only three years after playing football at Northwestern State, he already showed a knack for the job.
At Louisiana Tech, McClelland spearheaded the fundraising to build a $23 million football complex and stadium club level and then an $18 million press box/luxury suites project. He also increased revenues at both schools.
Those are great feats at schools in smaller conferences, but McClelland faces a tall order at Vanderbilt.
Need for football facility upgrade ‘not lost on anyone’
Criticism of Vanderbilt’s lack of facility upgrades is a long-standing storyline. McClelland knows that but puts it another way.
“There’s great potential,” McClelland said. “People in our industry see it as a sleeping giant.”
Vanderbilt Stadium has not undergone a major renovation since 1981, while all other SEC stadiums have received multiple face-lifts during that time.
The football team facility hasn’t changed much over the decades, but a locker room renovation will begin after the season. Lee said it will cost less than $5 million, and construction will be completed by summer.
McClelland said upgrading football facilities is an obvious need, but it pre-dated his arrival.
“Everybody recognizes the opportunity to advance the facility and infrastructure when it comes to football," McClelland said. "It’s not where it needs to be currently, but that’s not lost on anyone.”
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