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Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea has returned home to the West End to take over the football program at Vanderbilt. The Commodores have gone just 3-17 over the last two seasons with a 1-15 mark in SEC play. The new coaching staff in Nashville has a long road ahead.
The Commodores have a major talent discrepancy on their roster compared to the rest of the SEC and are in the first year of establishing a new culture under a first-time head coach. It could be ugly, but Clark Lea is firm in his belief that he can build a winner at his alma mater.
Creating a new Vanderbilt
There is no hiding from the perception problem that Vanderbilt football has. This is a program that is seen as the doormat for the Southeastern Conference and a school that has gone to just nine bowl games in program history. That is not a lot of winning history. Lea knows what he is inheriting but still believes this is a program that can be turned around.
“What we’ve experienced in the last seven months is rare, and that’s this opportunity to completely redesign an environment, and really in our redesign there’s been two objectives,” Lea told the media at SEC Media Days on Wednesday. “The first objective is to redefine what it means to be a Vanderbilt football player, and specifically, we want to assign the value of membership in this tribe internally. We want to no longer allow for external influence to shape opinions about what we do and how we do it. The second thing, the second objective is to build the best team in the country. The best team. I think it’s important in this point to recognize the fact that in this first iteration of Vanderbilt football, what we affectionately call in our building is team one, the overwhelming majority of players were recruited to a program that no longer exists.”
Year zero is a term that essentially describes a program that is down in the dumps. A long rebuild is scheduled for Lea, and the first year is going to be ugly. There’s not much this new coaching staff can do in year one other than set the culture. Losses are coming down the chimney regardless. The first-year coach seems to know that this is coming.
“But for us, there are no cheat codes to winning,” Lea said. “You can’t simply hack your way to sustained success. We have to go the long, hard way, but we’re going to do it together at Vanderbilt, and that’s what’s going to make this special.”
“So won’t place a win-loss record or won’t state a win-loss record; don’t believe in doing that in any semblance. We’ll say that every game that we play we’ll have a plan to win, and we’ll measure our results off our execution of that plan to win.”
Recruiting trend developing
One of the first hires for Lea was bringing in Barton Simmons to serve as the General Manager — Director of Personnel for the Commodores. The former Director of Scouting at 247 Sports had been on the media side of recruiting for years. Lea believes that this outside-the-box approach will help Vanderbilt and could be a trend in college football for years to come.
“Barton, as an outside-the-box thinker, as someone who’s connected to recruiting but hasn’t been immersed in a recruiting operation, gives us that opportunity,” Lea told reporters. “Barton is a friend. That’s not why he’s there. There is a trust level that we default to because we’ve known each other for so long. He’s incredibly smart. He thinks on his feet. He adapts, and he is growing in his role.”
“I’m excited not only with the results that we’re getting right now in recruiting, but also how this projects forward, and I think that absolutely it will be a trend in college football that will be followed.”
Youth in droves
Vanderbilt is building for the future. At media days, the coaching staff decided to bring offensive tackle Bradley Ashmore to Hoover. However, the offensive tackle is only a true sophomore. The former low three-star recruit from North Florida started five games last season. Ashmore will be a cornerstone piece of the new regime and a sign that this will likely be a slow climb for the Commodores.
For every team that appears in the main ballroom at The Wynfrey Hotel, there is a helmet on stage as the head coach and players field questions. For the ‘Dores, this program decided to throw it back. Lea brought the helmet from his playing days. It certainly looks like a former fullback’s lid.
After the bye, Kentucky will head to Starkville on Halloween weekend to face Mississippi State. Then the Wildcats return home for a big game against Tennessee at home to kick off November and what should be some football weather at Kroger before heading to Vanderbilt Stadium for what will likely be a sleepy afternoon kickoff.
This will be the last conference game for Kentucky this season and occurs in what will be a trap spot on the slate. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt draws the Wildcats off of a bye after nine straight games to begin the season. Kentucky is the more talented team, but this will be a unique spot.
Vanderbilt will be fresh and hungry for an SEC win. Kentucky needs to be ready to play when the program makes the trip to Nashville.