How will Clark Lea win at Vanderbilt? His approach is so cerebral it might work | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

Vanderbilt’s new football coach sounds nothing like one.

For starters, Clark Lea doesn’t talk much about football. For months now, he has been explaining his plan to revive Vanderbilt’s program in lingo more Tony Robbins than Vince Lombardi. Of course, Lea wants big, fast, strong guys who can run, block and tackle. But he isn’t saying that.

Instead, he’s saying he wants a player who “understands the complexity of the competitive landscape and can navigate that mentally in a disciplined manner, to never be too high or too low.”

Oh.

Translation: “We want to be the best mentally and physically conditioned team in the country.” Lea wants football to become so important to his Commodores that they can’t give in when things get difficult.

Because they will get difficult. As a former Vanderbilt player and Nashville-area native, Lea knows it as well as anyone.

The Commodores have three victories — only one of them an SEC game — in the past two seasons. Since 1982, they’ve enjoyed only three winning seasons. Two of those were under current Penn State coach James Franklin, who was lightning in a bottle for Vanderbilt.

Franklin was unique, a boisterous type and an energetic salesman who injected an unfamiliar swagger into this program while punching above his weight on the field and in recruiting. No other coach could emulate that.

Lea seems unique in his own way, but indeed, he’s nothing like Franklin.

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Truthfully, Lea isn’t like most football coaches I’ve encountered in a couple of decades covering the SEC. I search to come up with a comparison. I hesitate to even mention this, but only one pops into my mind as resembling Lea’s overly cerebral, process-oriented talking points — this coach wears a straw hat and yells a lot at practices in Tuscaloosa. But to even begin to compare Clark Lea to Nick Saban at this point is laughably unfair to both.

While Lea was a good defensive coordinator at Notre Dame and could probably teach a heck of a political science course (he owns a master’s degree in that from Vandy), he hasn’t experienced one game as a college head coach.

It’s too soon for him, and there are signs. Ploys like withholding numbers from players' jerseys — as Lea did for Vanderbilt's first spring practice — might sound good in theory.

But like so many other things Lea is doing and saying, it'll be brilliant if he wins and cheesy if he doesn't.

Again, this is Vanderbilt. He's probably not going to win, at least for a while. Lea had to expect that when he left a playoff-contending program in South Bend to take this job. 

He'd been eyeing this job for years. It's his school. His highbrow pitch wouldn’t play the same elsewhere. But I think it’ll play here. I get a sense — premature as it is — that Lea might be what Vanderbilt’s program needs.

His approach is more about building culture than assembling talent, and it's heavy on symbolism. Lea didn't just remove numbers. He literally cleaned walls. He’s starting fresh and forcing attention to the future while ignoring everything Vanderbilt football has been — including what it has not.

“I don’t really care about the history and tradition of this program,” Lea says. “I don’t really care about what’s happened in the past, and I’m certainly not burdening my team with that.”

Strange to think a former Vanderbilt player would say something like that.

But actually, the fact that Lea is a former Vanderbilt player gives him license to say that. An outsider wouldn't be so familiar.

An outsider also wouldn't know to say this:

Vanderbilt fullbacks Matthew Tant, left, and Clark Lea pose for a photograph during the Dore Jam at the practice field on Sunday.-

“I think too often here," Lea says, "we allow the value of this experience to be assigned by other people. To me, that’s counterproductive. ... No one can tell us what it means to be a Vanderbilt football player or a member of this program. We define that by what we're willing to invest in this program and sacrifice. ...

"What we can't have is internal vandalism, which means players or coaches that behave in a manner, that think in a manner, that communicate in a manner, that undercut the value of this program."

It’s with that quote that it finally dawns on me. I know who Lea sounds like.

Tim Corbin.

That’s not a coincidence. Lea has been picking Corbin’s brain since he was a student at Vanderbilt and Corbin had just arrived on campus.

College baseball's top coach is an unfair comparison for Lea, too, but I’m not the one making it. Corbin is. He says he sees a little of himself in Lea, who was once a college baseball transfer that up and decided he wanted to play SEC football.

“Most people would say, ‘No, no, no, stay where you are. Stay in your lane. Don’t do something stupid like that,’ ” Corbin says. “Not only does he do it, but he plays. He earns a scholarship and he’s a leader on the team. Those fibers that have been built with him — much like they were with me — when people say that you probably shouldn’t do something and you do it and then you’re rewarded through your actions, there’s a true belief system that’s been built on real experiences where you say, ‘No, we can do this. I’m not going to talk about it, but I know I can do it.’ ”

Vanderbilt baseball is an example of successfully building a championship culture before the program was ripe with major league talent and flush with fancy facilities. Corbin proved, actually, that you could do all that at Vanderbilt. 

How'd that happen? Actually, says Corbin, establishing a winning culture is “simpler than you think.”

“It’s more about really paying attention to the things that really matter,” he says. “And what really matters is the daily organization of the kids. It’s really doing small, incremental, tiny things really well. … It’s not about clothing. It’s not about stadiums. It’s none of that. It has nothing to do with that. It’s the feelings people get from working with one another that unifies them, and when they feel their collective energies moving in the right direction, then that’s something that’s going to be felt with the staff and felt with their team.”

Probably the wisest thing Lea – or any football coach at Vanderbilt – is to take advantage of the fact that Corbin is a few steps away. 

But still, for Lea, this is football in the SEC, not baseball. All the best-laid plans in the world may not beat Vanderbilt's odds in his sport.

Too many past failings. Lea doesn’t dispute it, though he describes them in terms of things that haven’t been done, not things that couldn’t be done.  

“So much of what I’m attempting to do here – and what we’re attempting to do – is kind of let go of what’s been and focus on what we’re going to create moving forward,” Lea says. “… Ultimately, once we have that shared ethos and shared vision, it’s going to be a team that no one wants to play.

“I don’t know when we’ll be at that point, but that’s the starting point to me.”

Ethos? Definition: "The distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature, or guiding beliefs of a person, group, or institution."

The vocabulary, the messages, it's unlike any football coach you've heard.

And yet, it's so … Vanderbilt.

Reach Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.