Clark Lea has found his niche.
The first-year Vanderbilt coach realizes he has a major rebuilding job on his hands in the SEC, but he knows what is possible in Nashville. This is the former Notre Dame defensive coordinator’s hometown. He played fullback here. He was raised here.
“Vanderbilt is an undervalued stock that has never quite been given a chance to develop long term,” Lea told 247Sports. “And even some of the past successes have come in short spurts, but not been able to sustain. What we’re trying to do here on the onset is take a 10-year, 20-year perspective on this, and say how do we repeat success over time.”
A 10-year plan? In the SEC? Coaches are lucky to serve five years as a head coach in the SEC. The only coach with a 10-year tenure currently in this conference is Alabama’s Nick Saban, perhaps the greatest college coach of all time.
Lea’s plans consist of a process of building around players who want to be developed. It’s a niche, he says, of players other SEC schools do not necessarily target.
“To win at Vanderbilt, we need to think outside the box,” he said. “We need to be able to look at things from a different vantage point and stay true to the things that we know that will deliver us the results on the field.
“We’re going to target a subset of student-athletes that is interested in no compromises. They want the very best in terms of education, they understand the long-term significance, the fact that a place like Vanderbilt can make them competitive long term in life.”
Winning is not a foreign concept at Vanderbilt. James Franklin won nine games and finished in the top 25 of the AP poll in 2012 and 2013. The problem: the Commodores have recorded just one winning season outside the Franklin era since 1983.
“We don’t plan to do anything but win here,” Lea said. “And we understand that’s a process. And that takes time. I think the sooner we redirect behaviors and mindsets and habits within the building, the sooner we’ll find the traction. We feel like success off the field begets success on the field.”
Leaning on Vanderbilt as the pinnacle of academia in the SEC is the cornerstone for his recruiting efforts. He also built a staff comprised of college and NFL experience, along with an off-the-field staff with different approaches on the recruiting trail. He hired former 247Sports director of scouting Barton Simmons to be the football program’s general manager. Simmons has long been widely respected in the recruiting industry for being on the leading edge of scouting but also identifying trends others might overlook on the recruiting trail.
“I have always been fascinated with building a roster and the evaluation process, scouting process, roster construction process, roster management,” Simmons said in January. “That is my passion. The reality is, I had a pretty sweet gig at 247. I enjoyed it. I had job security, worked for a great company, great benefits. No win or loss on a Saturday was gonna make me come into work on Monday with the idea that I might be fired the next day. A coach taking a new job wasn’t gonna mean that I had to move to Hattiesburg, Miss., the next week or something.
“I’m a Nashville guy. The quality of life is always gonna be No. 1 for me, and I had always talked to Clark through every stop. He’s always like, ‘When I get a head job someday, I’m gonna take you with me.’ I was like, ‘Good luck. I’m not going. Wherever you go, I’m not going.’ … Any other jump like this, there would have to be some compromise somewhere. This is just a perfect opportunity, and it’s time to get off the sideline. It’s time to get in a fight.”
Simmons and Lea grew up together in Nashville, where they first met in grade school. Now they’re trying to turn around their hometown program.
“I think we all know how talented Barton is,” Lea said. “It certainly wasn’t to run a podcast here, I can tell you that.”
The challenge is tremendous. Vanderbilt fired Derek Mason in 2020 and the Commodores finished 0-9, the first winless season in the program’s history.
Lea, who played baseball at Birmingham Southern and won an NAIA national title before transferring to Vanderbilt to play football in 2002, uses other programs on campus as an example. He bends the ear of Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin, who took over the program in the midst of six straight losing seasons. The Commodores had losing seasons in eight of 10 years heading into 2004. Eight years later Corbin led Vanderbilt to the College World Series in 2011. In his 12th year, he won the national championship. Since that ninth season in 2011, the Commodores have reached the College World Series four times and won two national titles while averaging 52 wins per year.
“Their success is assumed now,” Lea said.
Football and baseball are two different spheres, however. The football facilities at Vanderbilt might be the worst in the SEC. Still, plans are being developed to fix those inefficiencies. A renovated locker was under construction in February.
Like his approach on the field with developing players, he’s not settling or allowing others to take their surroundings for granted.
“Just because we get new space doesn’t mean that we’ve accomplished or earned it, you know?” Lea said. “That comes in the way we leave this program every day better than we found it. Those facility upgrades are great, there’s going to be bigger projects to be announced by the department that’s exciting when it comes, but for me the renovation starts with the team. It starts with the player, it starts with our mindset and our approach to our work. And that has been as energizing as anything here at the start (of my career).”