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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

SEC Media Day: Clark Lea graces the stage for the first time in Hoover

Vanderbilt football’s 29th head coach took the stage alongside junior Daevion Davis and sophomore Bradley Ashmore in the conference’s annual media day in Hoover, Alabama.
Head coach Clark Lea participated in his first SEC Media Day on Wednesday in Hoover, Alabama. (Vanderbilt Athletics).

For the first time as Vanderbilt’s head coach, Clark Lea donned the podium at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama, on Wednesday. He brought junior defensive lineman Daevion Davis and sophomore offensive tackle Bradley Ashmore along with him to represent the Commodores.

“As a new coach you dream of guys who are just willing to take the plunge with you, guys that don’t flinch on the journey to what is possible, guys that take your vision, hold it true, and carry it to the team,” Lea said. “Both Bradley and Daevion have been incredible in that sense.”

The newly minted head coach also brought one prop along with him to his biggest public outing of his young career—his former football helmet from his playing days at Vanderbilt. The gold helmet with Vanderbilt’s patented star “V” took center stage alongside him at the podium.

“If you are trying to think about firsts that can still happen in the SEC, I’m pretty sure it’s a first to have a head coach’s playing days’ helmet with us,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said just before Lea took the stage.

The former Commodore fullback embraced the conference’s gradual return to normalcy—with this week being the first iteration of SEC Media Days since 2019—and provided refreshing words on the future of the program using thoughtful, Tim Corbin-esque vernacular and an ever-so-confident persona.

“This trip to Birmingham is a life moment for me. It’s a dream for any coach,” Lea said. “Let me say, there’s no better program in the country than Vanderbilt football, so that’s why I’m back. There’s an unyielding belief in what’s possible [at Vanderbilt].”

A Clean Slate

The theme of the day for the three Commodore representatives was no doubt the program rebuild that stands in front of them. As a first-year head coach taking over a program that has gone just 3-18 over the past two seasons, Lea has prioritized a clean slate and ground-up approach.

“I think it’s important at this point to recognize the fact that in this first iteration of Vanderbilt football—what we affectionately call in our building ‘Team One’— the overwhelming majority of players were recruited to a program that no longer exists,” Lea said.

Externally, that new approach has begun with a number of cutting-edge initiatives from the head man—one of which was the hiring of general manager Barton Simmons. Lea praised his childhood friend and former 247Sports national recruiting analyst for his unique approach to recruiting.

“We need to be authentically us. We need to focus on what it means to recruit to Vanderbilt, what it means to develop a team at Vanderbilt. So what I didn’t want in that role was anyone who was going to bring a cookie-cutter approach,” Lea said. “Barton, as an outside-the-box thinker, as someone who’s connected to recruiting but hasn’t been immersed in a recruiting operation, gives us that opportunity.”

Lea’s outside-the-box hire has certainly paid off thus far. With Simmons at the helm, Vanderbilt has had an impressive string of recruiting feats throughout the summer. Lea’s inaugural class, the Class of 2022, currently ranks 29th nationally and ninth in the SEC, according to 247Sports.

Internally, Lea’s initiatives have been just as unique. Mantras such as “Team One” and “Heartbeats and Habits” have been ringing throughout the new locker rooms inside of McGugin center.

“When Coach got here it was really sort of a clean slate. We’re starting from square one, whether that be in the weight room, on the field, mindset-wise,” Ashmore said. “We’ve just been working on that all offseason, and we’re working to perfect our mindset and perfect everything that we’re doing with the goal of winning every time we step on the field.”

Part of that clean slate has been an earn-your-number system, a tradition adopted from Corbin’s preseason regimen. Just this past week Mike Wright, Ken Seals, Elijah McAlister, Ashmore and Davis became the first five players to claim their numbers.

“It was surreal,” Ashmore said of earning his number. “It’s an awesome experience to have to work for something and have to earn something every day. You’re working every day throughout an off-season to earn this number that you’re going to wear on your back in the fall.”

The Process and the Culture

When starting from scratch, tempered expectations are necessary. Lea stressed that more than just wins will measure success in 2021, but his goal remained very clear: build a winning program year in and year out.

“In the end, I’m a competitor, and I didn’t come to Vanderbilt to do anything other than win. So for me, it’s about how we design this team, how we design our tactics, how we develop as people and as teammates to put ourselves in the best position to win games,” Lea said. “We can be the best physically and mentally conditioned team in the country. We can impose our will on our opponent late in the game.”

Coming off of a season that saw several key players opt out and 21 players transfer out of the program, Vanderbilt will be tested. Plus, most of the players on the roster were recruited by a former coaching staff. But Lea explained that everything that came before will need to be wiped away in order to foster a healthier culture of success.

“We haven’t paid a lot of attention to what we were because everything changes when you change systems,” Lea said. “The challenge of holding people to different standards and expectations in the same spaces that they occupied before is real. Everything they confront needs to be different, and we can’t be afraid to be drastically different.

But according to the players, buy-in has been authentic. From an energetic set of spring practices to a spring game that welcomed fans back to the stadium, there is certainly on-field momentum brewing for the Commodores.

“In our program now, in order to thrive, in order to be the player that you want to be, you just have to immerse yourself completely. Our guys are just diving in head first, no questions asked,” Davis said. “I definitely have learned to make it about the whole team and the program and the guys that come after me.”

Lea knows that great programs are not built overnight and that a combination of many recruiting classes, facility upgrades and player development successes will drive the ship forward.

“It’s a relentless job. It’s a job that takes constant time and attention,” Lea said. “But it’s also one of the most rewarding experiences at this point in my life, where every day I get up and my feet hit the floor, and good day, bad day, whatever, I get to be the head coach at what I feel like is the best university in the best city in the country.”

Alignment Upstairs

Aside from the catchy mantras and thoughtful words of wisdom, the defining aspect of the short Clark Lea era has been the announcement of facilities upgrades. Just five months ago, athletic director Candice Storey Lee announced the massive $300 million Vandy United facilities plan that will positively impact nearly every sport on campus.

“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,” Lea said. “We want people to walk on campus and say, ‘Hey, football is important at Vanderbilt.’ Vandy United is a huge momentum swing for us.”

With the new football operations building and indoor facility on the way and a set of recently completed state-of-the-art locker rooms, Lea and his staff have been using the commitment from the university to their advantage on the recruiting trail.

“We design at the source at Vanderbilt, not at the surface. We’re in lock step with our university and our department in our commitment to providing an experience that’s steeped in substance,” Lea said at the beginning of his press conference. “We believe that this is the best student-athlete experience in the country.”

The alignment Lea has so often spoken of early in his tenure is no doubt a refreshing sign for Commodore fans. In his pursuit of an elite football culture, Lea intends to use each and every advantage Vanderbilt supplies its students. From a top-notch education to the booming city of Nashville, Lea feels as though he has the perfect recruiting playbook in place for sustained success.

“In the end, this is about the belief in the student-athlete experience for me. This is a belief that there are only so many programs in the country where you can truly go to a family and say, ‘There are no compromises here,’” Lea said. “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.”

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About the Contributor
Justin Hershey, Former Sports Editor
Justin Hershey ('22) was Sports Editor for The Vanderbilt Hustler. He has been on staff since freshman year, previously serving as a Staff Writer, Deputy Sports Editor and Lead Sports Analyst. He majored in human and organizational development with minors in business and economics. In addition to writing, he hosts The Hustler Sports 30 Podcast, enjoys playing golf and is waiting for his hometown Philadelphia 76ers to complete The Process. For tips and comments, feel free to reach out to: [email protected]    
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