After a 2-10 season, I’m not sure Vandy fans or anyone, for that matter, expected Clark Lea to pull off the Commodores’ best recruiting class since 2013.
Vanderbilt’s 2022 class currently ranks 32nd in the country and includes 28 signees. Despite a brutal stretch of seasons, the vision from this coaching staff has struck a chord with recruits.
With that in mind, within the walls of the McGugin Center, this coaching and personnel staff believed they could do it. Behind the experience in the recruiting industry from Barton Simmons, the belief and confidence from Coach Lea, and the promotion from current upperclassmen, this staff was able to accomplish what no one thought was possible.
Of course, I would tell Vandy fans to temper their excitement but, that is tough to say at this point due to the pure lack of excitement and energy surrounding Commodore Football in the past 3-4 years. After Coach Mason was let go following a demoralizing loss at Missouri two years ago, the vibe I was getting from Vandy fans was as low as it has been in my lifetime.
In comes Clark Lea, the prodigal son of West End. As a Nashville native and graduate of both Montgomery Bell Academy and Vanderbilt University, Clark was a perfect choice. His dream of leading the Vanderbilt Football program had come true and he named Barton Simmons, his best friend, as the General Manager. As soon as he was hired, the vibe had shifted to a hopeful, yet hesitant outlook from the majority of Commodore Nation.
On the contrary, there was a common thread that I noticed. Clark’s relationships with his teammates at Vandy such as Earl Bennett, Norval McKenzie, Jovan Haye, and others, helped establish the foundation of his tenure on West End. Not only did his teammates want to help rebuild the program they still love to this day but, older Commodore alums instantly took notice. Former Commodores such as Chris Williams, Whit Taylor, Jim Arnold, Norman Jordan, and Watson Brown felt confident he was the man for the job.
All those former players have appeared on The Dore Report, which provided Vandy fans with some extremely interesting quotes.
Chris Williams, an All-SEC defensive end in 2003, joined the podcast before the 2021-22 season and spoke highly of his former teammate. He had recently visited Vanderbilt’s facilities to re-connect with Clark and speak with the team.
“The previous regimes, they were what they were but, I don’t think they realized the rich tradition we had. Regardless of wins and losses, you have a lot of guys who worked very hard in that place and that’s something that Clark has acknowledged. I’ve got four ex-teammates up there on staff and there are so many people that are still in the building that have been there for years, even up to Candice Storey Lee, who’s been there since before I got to Vanderbilt. It just feels like it used to feel when I was there.”
Chris also pointed to the impact Clark has had on former players combined with the knowledge he already had in regards to the Commodores’ facilities during his playing days.
“I think what he’s done there has had an impact on former players like myself. Clark knows what he’s got in front of him and I was lobbying for him before he got here. From a Vanderbilt perspective, you cant ask someone to come in from the outside of West End to evaluate our facilities and what we have. You’ve got to think outside the box because of the amount of space we have. You’ve got a guy that came in and can see the giant steps that have been taken since his playing days”
Whit Taylor, an All-SEC quarterback in 1982, compared the challenge ahead for Clark Lea to the transformation he and his teammates made back in the early 80s.
“I think they believe in him. It comes down to the players, they have to have a belief that they can play with anybody. I think we did that, we built a bond with our senior class. The summer before the 1982 season, every Senior stayed and worked out together. That was a bond between us and I think the younger guys saw the commitment we were willing to make to stay all summer was paying off.”
With any culture change, it starts with the players. The upperclassmen are often the most important aspect to shifting a culture because of the influence they can have on the underclassmen but, also the recruits coming in.
Taylor also described Coach Lea’s unique connection to Vanderbilt Football and the importance of fans bringing back their pride for Commodore Football.
“The one thing that I think most about Coach Lea is that he’s in it. He’s been there. He’s been in that locker room. He knows what it takes to play football at Vanderbilt. I think he’s getting some help from the university that, in my opinion, is overdue. My biggest hope, as a fan, is that others jump on board. It literally breaks my heart to see ¾ of the stadium in the other team’s colors. I just hope people will catch on.”
In addition to fans jumping on board, he also detailed how former players are realizing how much Clark loves Vanderbilt.
“When Norman, Watson, and I met with him, he spent two hours with us. His secretary was knocking on his door and he just let her knock. He walked us around the facility and went by every assistant coach’s office. He made every assistant come out and introduce themselves. Then, we walked down to the locker room and it was impressive. He also made the guys in the weight room stop working out and called them over to introduce them to us. He told them how much we meant to the program and that meant a lot to me. That’s the first time that’s happened to me.”
If that’s not music to Vandy fans’ ears, I don’t know what is.
“He knows the Vanderbilt culture. You have to change the culture. To change culture, you have to say this is what we’re going to do and I’ll be damned if anybody’s going to tell me different. Were going to keep to these standards and if you don’t do that, you’ll fail about 70% of the time. That’s a fact.”
Jim Arnold, an All-American punter in 1982, sat down with Coach Lea prior to last season and came away impressed with his vision and pointed to the importance of developing young players during a culture shift.
“I really like where he’s going. He’s doing a pretty good job on the recruiting trail after having kids transfer out. Quite frankly, that probably needed to happen. You want kids that want to be at Vanderbilt for the education and showcase their athletic talent. I don’t want a kid coming on campus that isn’t committed. Unfortunately, that’s our environment today. In my day, I’ve seen guys that were perennial pro-bowlers in the NFL that started college as a 2-star. Good coaches make great players. Vandy’s never going to be pushing the productivity of Alabama and that’s okay. We want to be Vanderbilt, not Alabama. The journey of 10,000 miles starts with one step. I think the step that we’ve taken with Coach Lea is a good one.”
In addition to the former players that have been outlined, odds are, there are countless other former Commodores who have appreciated the time, effort, and commitment Coach Lea and his staff have put in. Changing a culture is not easy but, even after a 2-10 season, the recruiting class that will be roaming the halls of the McGugin Center in the fall is the first step of a 10,000-mile journey.
The stories of former Commodores who have lived through the experience of a Vanderbilt student-athlete should resonate with fans but, also current players. From Vanderbilt legends of the past to the future greats ready to build a foundation, Coach Lea is doing everything he can to draw from the past. To Clark, making connections and building relationships with former players is just as important as cultivating relationships with his own players. To many people, that’s why they believe he will succeed.
Onto the future.
Just as several former Commodores have joined the podcast, we’ve also spoken to a few future Commodores who are eager to change the culture on West End.
Reese Mooney, the lone commit in Clark Lea’s 2023 recruiting class, recently visited Vanderbilt’s campus and felt a renewed confidence in his future coaching staff.
“Awesome trip to Vandy this weekend. The coaches are trying and working so hard to turn this program around. I really think they are also. They are putting in the work it takes. They’re getting the right players to come to play and be great students at Vandy also. I am super pumped.”
The Louisiana native will be on West End after the 2022-23 season and appears to be primed to be the leader of another strong recruiting class.
Grayson Morgan, a local product from Montgomery Bell Academy, committed to Vandy back in November and has full belief that his future coaching staff on West End will turn things around.
“I know they’re not where they want to be but, they got better each week, doesn’t matter the opponent. I love to see the fight in the players because you didn’t see that last year with the old staff. Coach Lea and I have a great connection, we went to the same high school and same thing with Barton Simmons over there. The stuff I’m going through at MBA is the same stuff they went through. I know that when I go to Vandy, they’re not going to let me down. They’re not going to stop until they can do that here.”
When asked about his message to Vandy fans, his answer was simple.
“Stay with ‘em. There are going to be bumps in the road, there’s going to be some tough losses. That’s just how it’s going to be until we can get it back to where it should be. Stay the course and keep following us and that will inspire recruits to come.”
For Morgan, his path to success at Vanderbilt likely means years of hard work, discipline, and development but, for a certain quarterback commit, early playing time is what caught his eye about Vanderbilt.
AJ Swann, a prized quarterback commit in the 2022 class out of Canton, GA, loved hearing Coach Lea talk about early playing time during their discussions. When asked about Clark’s message to him, he was confident in his answer.
“We can come in and compete from Day 1 in the SEC.”
Similar to Morgan, Swann echoed the same sentiment when asked about his message to fans. On the other hand, when asked about his goals, Commodore Nation may be surprised to hear his answer.
“It’s going to be a grind but, all I see is SEC Championship. We’ll make it there and we’ll win it. I know we’ll get there. Just stay behind us.”
From past players to future players, the common thread is simple. They’ll do whatever they can to bring Vanderbilt Football to places it’s never been before. Former players are willing to support Coach Lea and his staff in every way they can. Meanwhile, current and future players are willing to put in the work and promote Commodore Football with every bone in their bodies.
There may not be proof in the win column yet, or even next season but, this staff’s message to recruits is striking a chord with high school seniors and many believed that wasn’t possible after everything this program has endured the past few seasons.
After Derek Mason’s last season at Vandy, there were 21 players that transferred out of the program, which left Clark’s cupboard quite bare. After Coach Lea’s first season, 14 players have transferred out but, the more important number is the number of new faces that will be ready to play early and often next season. Currently, a total of 31 new players will be introduced to the Commodore locker room, three of them being transfers. The coaching staff will likely bring in a few more transfers but, as the number sits, this is exactly the type of overhaul Coach Lea needed. Boy, is he getting it.
By no means, will these players make a drastic impact on the field next season but, the foundation they will begin to lay exceeds the importance of how different the win column looks after next season.
The belief of recruits is there, the belief of former players is there, and you know the belief of the coaching staff is there. All that’s left is for Commodore Nation to take notice and begin to jump on board, as Whit Taylor said.