What do Alabama football, Duke basketball, Notre Dame football, Lakers basketball, UConn women’s basketball, Vanderbilt baseball, Oregon track and field, and Yankees baseball all share?
They each espouse strong cultures that bring accountability to each member of the organization to feel invested in success.
It’s true that uniting and defining sets of values are at the heart of every successful institution, from athletic departments to Fortune 500 companies. Without a clear culture, any organization is rudderless in its journey towards greatness. In short, a strong culture, one that can endure the vicissitudes that come to any program, is the key to reaching the mountaintop.
Now, culture isn’t something that can be artificially manufactured overnight. It’s not about cheap gimmicks, flashy marketing campaigns, or even about winning. Winning is a product of strong culture and, admittedly, Vanderbilt football hasn’t had a sustained winning mentality for much of its history. That doesn’t disparage the thousands who’ve competed, fought, and sweat to improve this program. At times, it wasn’t even their fault they didn’t succeed – it’s seemed that winning at Vanderbilt consistently was a feat as impossibly pre-destined as Sisyphus’s boulder was to roll back down a hill, for reasons every Commodore fan knows too well.
Finally, however, it seems there are leadership and alignment in place between the athletic department and Kirkland Hall. Finally, there is a concrete path (literally) to a brighter future with the #VandyUnited announcement of $300 million towards athletics and the recent strong hires for football and women’s basketball. This year has brought long-term hope for the future of Vanderbilt football and Vanderbilt Athletics. It has brought the focus back to the rich culture Vanderbilt already had and now it’s about how it can be optimized.
Although there have been unparalleled moves across the athletic department signaling culture changes for all teams, this article highlights the culture changes in what can be one of the university’s flagship programs: football.
At a recent football scrimmage (which have been open to fans under Clark Lea’s leadership) there was a simple and powerful gesture made clear to Commodore Nation. It was signaled from coach Lea as he individually approached fans who attended and genuinely thanked them for coming. It wasn’t for show and it wasn’t fake. It was a sincere gesture demonstrating the appreciation and understanding coach Lea has for each member of the Commodore family.
For Vanderbilt football to summit a peak it never has before, it will take a large and sustained group effort, every fan included.
Clark Lea, after all, understands the struggle that Vanderbilt football has been through, having struggled to win during his own time donning the black and gold. He’s also seen the culture in place at blueblood Notre Dame, a school that has similarities to Vanderbilt, but is meterorically more storied on the gridiron. On building a culture (even before the major facility announcements of #VandyUnited had been made), coach Lea said:
“Just because we get new space doesn’t mean that we’ve accomplished or earned it, you know? 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).”
Thus far, coach Lea seems to be building a strong culture focused on family, “Heartbeats and Habits”, and earning success. Below are a few more examples of the strong foundation Clark Lea and staff are building:
- There is a renewed pride of representing Vanderbilt University instilled in each player.
- Protecting the Vanderbilt brand and the Star-V is important. This includes respecting and taking care of the facilities. We’ve seen these values manifested through Clark Lea, Jovan Haye, and other staff members who removed snow from the Star-V logos during a recent winter storm themselves. That’s powerful imagery – anyone else have goosebumps?
- As of writing this article, the team is still earning their numbers and even the Star-V logos on their helmets. This is “Team 1” and there is no focus on the past or excuses of why Vanderbilt can’t be successful.
- On winning, coach Lea has said:
‘“We’re not putting governors on success here,’ Lea said. ‘We know that success is going to be the accumulation of small wins for us. We also know and believe that that mindset applied over time gives us access to any goal that we wish to achieve as a program. I’m not backing down from making statements about winning here and separating from our competition and the things we feel like are going to separate us long-term from a competitive aspect. Honestly, since I left my time as a player, just this idea to grow this program the right way, the first thing you’re going to have to do is just completely cut off this persistent negative mindset around the program, both internally and externally.’”
Now, it’s VERY early on in the Lea era of Vanderbilt football, but these actions have Commodore Nation ready to run through a wall. It’s led to early recruiting wins and renewed investment from donors. There’s a palpable energy radiating McGugin.
This fall when the whistle blows, the crowds file in (post-COVID!), and Vanderbilt takes the field, it is clear that a Clark Lea-coached team will have a core identity and defined accountability – and that’s all we can ask for in year 1. I don’t know if that leads to a drastically improved record, a bowl game, or a top 25 ranking in year one.
What I do know with certainty is when Vandy starts to fight, you better tune in for this new chapter. West End has never witnessed such a foundational culture for success from top to bottom and the climb starts now.