HOOVER, Ala. — Usually when a coach is hired by his alma mater, it’s with the idea of rekindling past glory from his playing days.
Think Arkansas native Bear Bryant returning to Alabama. Or former University of Arkansas assistant Johnny Majors being hired at Tennessee, Ken Hatfield at Arkansas and Steve Spurrier at Florida. More recently, the example is Kirby Smart at Georgia.
Clark Lea, going into his first season as Vanderbilt’s coach, played for the Commodores as a walk-on fullback from 2002-04.
Those weren’t the good old days for Vanderbilt.
The Commodores had a combined 6-29 record when Lea played for coach Bobby Johnson while going 2-10, 2-10 and 2-9.
After enjoying some success with six bowl appearances in an 11-year span under Johnson, James Franklin and Derek Mason from 2008-18, Vanderbilt suffered its first winless season in 2020.
The Commodores finished 0-9 against an all-SEC schedule that included the cancellation of a game at Georgia because of opt-outs and COVID-19 roster issues within the Vanderbilt program.
As Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator last season when the Fighting Irish made the College Football Playoff, it seems logical Lea had better offers for his first head coaching job than Vanderbilt, or could have waited another season.
But Lea made it clear at SEC media days last week that he is fired up to be the Vanderbilt coach.
“Let me say first there’s no better program in the country than Vanderbilt football, so that’s why I’m back,” Lea said. “There’s an unyielding belief in what’s possible there. That’s through my experience.
“As a competitor, the three years that I was there playing were the toughest of my career. It was hard, but it was formative. I watched Bobby Johnson methodically build that program into what became a bowl champion in 2008.”
The Commodores finished 7-6 in 2008 after beating Boston College 16-14 in the Music City Bowl in their hometown of Nashville, Tenn.
“I jump in with, I guess, an accelerated perspective,” Lea said. “I know the intricacies of what that program is about, how it fits in our university, what the recruiting profile should look like, and where the resources are.”
Lea sees an opportunity coaching at Vanderbilt where others might see a program with a history of losing.
“The fact that we are at the best school in the league in the best city in the league and there’s this convergence of resources and leadership at our university, to me, this is the time to strike,” he said. “We don’t apologize for being Vanderbilt.
“I mean, our expectation is to win. Hey, look, everything takes time to build to its potential, but smart people figure things out.”
Lea played baseball at Birmingham Southern and Belmont before switching to football at Vanderbilt.
“So we’re going to grip the bat and take our swing for the fences, and we’re very proud of what we represent,” he said. “And we’re proud of what we’re going to sustain over time at Vanderbilt.”
Mason, who is now Auburn’s defensive coordinator, led the Commodores to appearances in the Independence Bowl in 2016 and Texas Bowl in 2018. But Vanderbilt was 3-18 in his final two seasons, including 1-16 in SEC games, resulting in his firing with one game left last year.
Vanderbilt was outscored 121-34 in its last three games by Florida, Missouri and Tennessee.
“Last year was a hard time, not winning any games,” sophomore offensive lineman Brady Ashmore said. “I’d like to say hard times build hard men, right?
“That season has propelled us to where we are now, and since January we’ve been putting in a lot of hard work, day in and day out in the weight room and on the field, in the classroom.
“So I’m just excited to put this product that we’ve been working on on the field this year and move on and create the best team that we can, win some games.”
Junior defensive lineman Daevion Davis said the Commodores aren’t dwelling on last season.
“It’s in the past,” he said. “We’ve learned what we’ve learned. We know what we have to fix, and we’re working on fixing it … moving forward right now.”
After Lea’s hiring, the Vanderbilt administration made a $300 million commitment to improve its athletic facilities, which have lagged far behind other SEC schools.
Football is getting upgraded meeting rooms, offices and training room; an expanded locker room; and an indoor practice field adjacent to the outdoor practice fields. Construction is scheduled to begin after this season.
“As shovels hit the ground, I think we’ll continue to see a positive impact in recruiting,” Lea said. “For this program to reach its potential and sustain success, this facility is going to go a long way in making that a reality for us. We want for people to walk on campus and say, ‘Hey, football is important at Vanderbilt,’ and this will be a visual example of that investment.
“My responsibility now is to prepare this team for when those facilities are built, that we’re ready to occupy them and win in them.”