Vanderbilt football coach Clark Lea had a simple message to Commodore fans in the days after a season opening 23-3 loss to East Tennessee State: don’t panic.
While that advice is easier said than done, Lea maintains he’s laying the foundation for a winning culture on West End. The winning part, however, will take some time.
“Look, I've said this before: Winning's a skill,” Lea said. “Winning his behavior. Winning his belief. You have to train to win, and we are in the process of discovering this as a program. The opponent's not going to cooperate in a loss. We got East Tennessee State's best shot, and our game wasn't on enough to handle that and counter-punch in the moment where we needed the counter-punch.
“So, there's a lot here that we have to work through as a program that is a part of our process. This is a part of our becoming a sustained, competitive program that's going to win at the highest level, and it's a challenge. But it's also a great opportunity for us and it's one that we're excited for."
Lea has his work cut out for him in convincing Vanderbilt fans to trust the process, if you will, following years of mediocrity under Derek Mason. And their trepidation is justified given how poorly the ‘Dores performed on Saturday.
On paper, Vanderbilt should have beaten ETSU. The Commodores outgained the Buccaneers 321-314, they had more first downs (23-13) and passing yards (236-135), but they came up short in the areas that mattered most.
ETSU controlled the possession battle (32:47 to 27:13), had a better third-down conversion percentage (40 percent to 33), and was 3-for-3 in the red zone where Vanderbilt was just 1-for-2. The Bucs also didn’t surrender a sack, whereas Vanderbilt allowed two while rotating both Ken Seals and Mike Wright.
That decision may have hindered VU’s chances of mounting any sort of momentum as neither signal caller affectively built any sort of rhythm.
“Where we have to step back and get the learning and say 'OK, where are the areas where we can apply more pressure? How do we extend those drives? How do we finish drives with touchdowns so that we can start to create a feeling of discomfort on the other sideline?’” Lea stated. “…It's a hard learning experience, but it's one that we can take and apply moving forward.”
Where Lea can win Vandy fans over, however, is by producing tangible results on the field. It’s one thing to point out what’s wrong every week; it’s another to correct those issues and show growth.
That’s where Mason failed.
"We don't all of a sudden say, 'Well that didn't work, let's go on to the next,’” Lea continued. “It's about finding the details that kept us from our optimal performance and not deviating from what we know to be true about our process, which is going to be consistent and it's going to be rhythmic.”
Lea inherited an 0-9 team that was decimated by the transfer portal. He’s having to not only change a culture that’s been rooted in and accepted losing, but he’s having to work with a fairly empty cupboard as well.
But a silver lining to it all lies in the fact that, despite a disastrous Week 1 performance, Lea appears to be sticking to his plan for how he envisions rebuilding the Vanderbilt football program.
The results, however, may take some time to fully manifest.
“We have to — as a program, as a staff and as players — take ownership over all the little details that go into winning, and winning is hard,” he said. “But I think once we have those details [show] themselves on the field, what you're going to see is an offense that knows how to be explosive and knows how to take what the defense is giving to them, and it can execute. Execution will lead to points, points will lead to applied pressure on the opponent and now we have a chance to do and to execute the vision we have as a program."
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_