You can be a team leader whose playing career is marked more by overcoming personal adversity than achieving personal glory. You can be a true student-athlete who values both roles by earning two degrees during your playing career and adding a third degree down the road.
You can be a team player who works your way up through the ranks, embracing and embodying the unique values of your university, so that you are ready, willing and able to answer the most important call of your career when it comes.
You can be all those things, regardless of your race or gender, and grow up to be a Southeastern Conference athletics director.
That's the moral of the ongoing story of Candice Storey Lee. In her latest chapter as a shining symbol of the Vanderbilt Way, she's become the school's interim vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs and interim athletics director. She's also the first female athletics director at Vanderbilt and the first African-American female to serve as an AD in the history of the SEC.
"While the significance is not lost on me, it's really important for me to say that I understand the responsibility that comes with being the first of anything," Lee told the SEC Blog. "The biggest thing is that I want to use the platform to say that there are so many capable people who just need opportunities. If that is something positive that can come from this, I'm so happy to be the first. I'm very humbled, and I feel very privileged."
Lee's new role is a privilege earned over a long and distinguished career of almost a quarter century at Vanderbilt. It's hard to imagine anyone better suited to take on this challenge in the wake of Malcolm Turner's resignation after one year on the job.
Lee remembers her initial attraction to Vanderbilt being the women's basketball team's run to the 1993 Final Four. She was a high school freshman in north Alabama at the time, a basketball player herself, and Nashville was only about 100 miles straight up Interstate-65.
"In my mind, it was the perfect place," she said. "You had a great women's basketball program, but then of course, it had great academics. I thought of it as the best of both worlds."
While being recruited as a high school senior, she had the opportunity to attend a Vanderbilt elite camp, spend time on campus and meet some of the players and coaches. After the camp, she was offered a scholarship. How long did it take her to say yes?
"Not long at all," she said. "It was a very easy decision for me." It was so easy that she canceled her scheduled official visits to other schools.
So began a journey that would lead her from student-athlete to student affairs intern to men's basketball academic advisor, from compliance director to senior women's administrator to deputy athletics director - and now to interim athletics director.
As a player for the Commodores, she was a team captain and four-year letter-winner who twice was named to the SEC Community Service Team - and who received not one but two medical redshirts because of injuries.
"As a student-athlete, I was a reserve player, and I did battle injuries most of the time that I was here," Lee said. "It really made me stronger, and I started to understand that there are lots of different ways that you can impact. It was a really valuable lesson for me that I think I apply even now. Even now, there are many different ways to influence and impact. If I had to summarize my time as a student-athlete, it was tremendously amazing, valuable and challenging. It was the absolute best thing for me."
She made the most of her fifth and sixth years on campus as a student by adding a master's degree in counseling to her bachelor's in human and organizational development. Her first post-master's position on campus was a planned one-year paid internship in student affairs. About six weeks into that role, she was offered the chance to serve as an academic advisor for the men's basketball program.
Again, she couldn't say no. She was off and running toward a career in athletics administration at her alma mater. Along the way, she earned her third Vanderbilt degree, a doctorate in higher education administration.
"I did not know I would end up in athletics," Lee said. "I did not know I would be at Vanderbilt this long. When I look back on it now, I probably shouldn't be that surprised because I learned some valuable lessons here, formed some great relationships here, really just grew up here. So I guess now in hindsight it makes more sense than I thought."
She was tutored by mentors such as David Williams, the long-time Vanderbilt athletics director, who passed away a year ago.
"He was a giant in many, many ways," Lee said. "He was my mentor. He was my boss. He was my professor. He certainly has been critically important to my time at Vanderbilt, but I've been really blessed to be around so many great people here, whether that was professors to other administrators, and not just at Vanderbilt, but in the Southeastern Conference. I really have relied heavily on and been blessed by being able to interact with some amazing administrators in this league."
She remembers that after being named Vanderbilt's compliance director - "with no compliance experience; that's an interesting experiment - I was immediately embraced by Greg Sankey and so many people at the SEC office who just helped steer me in the right direction."
Williams thought so highly of Lee that he put her in charge of the athletics department's day-to-day operations four years ago, preparing her for the day she might succeed him. That day has come.
Lee has too much on her plate to be concerned that her title has the word "interim" attached. She's leading the way as the department completes its strategic plan, which should be announced soon, and strives to live up to the ideals of a university where "everybody is highly motivated and competitive and really good at what they do."
"My focus has been on continuing the work that has been started here," she said. "We're not pushing pause on anything. We're moving forward. We have had great momentum in athletics, and that continues."
As does her personal momentum as pioneer and role model. It's reflected in the reaction her promotion has sparked on campus.
"Perhaps I'm naive, but one of the things that blew me away after the announcement was the number of female student-athletes who said, 'Oh my gosh, do you know how cool it is to have a woman leading our department?' They were just blown away," Lee said. "I really appreciate that. From all of our student-athletes that I've heard from in general, it seems like the sentiment from them is: 'You've been in our shoes. So we appreciate that you know what we've been through.'
"And I'm quick to say I know it's been 20 years. I do hope the fact that I've been in your shoes counts for something. Hopefully, they feel supported as young people. That's been part of our foundation as an athletics department and as a university for a long time, a commitment to the student-athlete experience. To have the opportunity to contribute to what is foundational for us, I feel very privileged."