It became abundantly clear after Vanderbilt fired former coach Derek Mason following a 41-0 loss to Missouri on Nov. 28 that the school’s level of expectation needed to be raised.
Mason won just 27 games in seven seasons.
Enter Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea, who was hired as Vanderbilt’s head football coach last week.
Making her first major hire since taking over for Malcolm Turner in February, Vanderbilt Athletic Director Candice Lee sought a leader who would resonate with current players and help change the narrative that Vanderbilt isn’t cut out for the SEC.
“This is going to be a program that's build on relationships,” Lea said. “So how do we start to rehabilitate and rebuild? This has to be new. Just by nature of what we want to accomplish, it has to be different day-in and day-out.
“…There's going to have to be an element of trust that's defaulted to as we get this going…If [players] go into a place where they know they're getting better, they're getting coached at a high level, they're able to keep their dignity day-in and day-out, they're being taught by teachers that can be in other classrooms — that's motivating to a player.”
A graduate of Montgomery Bell Academy, Lea played baseball at Belmont before transferring to Vanderbilt to play football as a fullback for the Commodores from 2002-04. He is also close friends with Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin.
More than anything, Lea is a Nashville man through and through. Lea’s passion for his alma mater and knowledge of the Nashville area should pay dividends in recruiting — an area Lea plans to make an immediate impact in.
"Whether I have a personal connection or not, this needs to be Nashville’s program,” he stated. “The kids within our footprint need to feel the presence of a school, and the population boom should serve to benefit us. What I want to do is maximize that.
"I want to put a five-hour radius around campus, and I want to be the best school in the country at harvesting that area, building relationships and evaluating players. [Vanderbilt] is a national brand. The school will carry anywhere, especially with the elite education and the SEC. That’s a huge deal no matter where you are. But I think our efforts need to start here in our backyard, because there are so many good players. We don’t need to let them go anywhere else. Why do you want to go somewhere else? Everything you want is right here.”
Of course, Lea has his work cut out for him after seeing 10 players enter the NCAA transfer portal since spring. Vanderbilt has also come under fire recently for a failure to invest in its football facilities, a hot topic that has put the Commodores behind the eight ball when it comes to luring recruits to West End.
“I can tell you right now as an alum and as a former athlete here, this is very personal to me,” Lea added. “The facilities — when they come, they'll come. We'll all celebrate them. It will be great. But before the buildings, I'm interested in what this team's going to look like and how we're going to build that competitive mindset day-in, day-out.
“…My primary focus here, knowing that [facility upgrades] will happen, is not about being the architect of deciding what color the seats are or anything like that…What's important to me is that when you watch a game, you're watching a team that you can get behind, that you can rally behind, that you can believe in. A team that's competitive and a team that is tough, and a team that is reflective of this university.”
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_