The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference
The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

Vanderbilt's Lea not lacking in confidence

19 days ago
Kevin Scarbinsky
Photo: AP Photo/John Bazemore

Clark Lea's introduction to life as a head coach came in the SEC at a Vanderbilt program that had not won a conference game in a season and a half. It went about as well as you would expect.

Vandy's conference schedule started with the Georgia team en route to a national championship and progressed through seven more teams that would reach a bowl game. The Commodores did not win any of those games, and with the exception of a one-point near-miss against South Carolina, every defeat came by at least two scores.

You might think that going 0-8 in the league and 2-10 overall would dampen Lea's enthusiasm or dent his confidence, but during his second appearance at SEC Football Media Days, he still sounded convinced that he's in the right place at the right time.

"We know in time Vanderbilt football will be the best program in the country," Lea said.

It would be easy to hear that prediction and question Lea's bravado, but if you were in the room, his statement sounded like an honest belief grounded by separate truths. The scoreboard is not the sole measure of a successful program, and he is under no delusions about the work to be done or the distance to be traveled.

"A year ago I talked to you about the strain of resuscitating a program, aligning a group of people who had come to find themselves under new standards and expectations while not having made the choice to be a part of it," he said. "These standards and expectations had come to define their daily life, and by the time I was in front of you last summer, we had partly accomplished our goal of driving compliance within the new program model.

"Once we reached the season, we were forced to confront our reality, and our physical, mental, technical and tactical deficiencies were evident from the start."

It was especially evident in Lea's first conference game as Vanderbilt witnessed the distance from where it stood to the top of the mountain. Final score: Georgia 62, Vandy 0.

"Last fall was a necessary experience for us," Lea said. "The adversity of the fall broke off all the parts of us that were fake and unbelieving. It stripped us down to our studs. From there, we started our build."

One sign of progress: Despite the transfer portal, more than 50 Commodores returned. Another: A team that looked bigger, stronger and faster during spring practice. More breadcrumbs in the right direction per Lea: "Small conversations and interactions, small habits, winning choices, silent commitments, work in the shadows."

Lea's opening statement, the longest of the event so far at 17 minutes, continued as part shining-city-on-a-hill campaign speech. It stood in stark contrast to the opening remarks of Mississippi State coach Mike Leach, which lasted, in their entirety, for seven seconds.

"Appreciate that. Any questions?" Leach said.

After one season and two off-seasons on the job, Lea has identified the relevant questions. It's his job to find more answers.

"As I said a year ago, there are no cheat codes, shortcuts, no hacks that will allow this to happen overnight," Lea said. "When you're smart in design and disciplined in your approach, you win out in time. That's Vanderbilt football."