Note: All Aggies' "Around the SEC" series will feature stories on all 14 programs in preparation for the 2021 season.
Clark Lea is a Vanderbilt alum. He bleeds the Nashville gold so much, his old helmet from his playing days was represented on the table during SEC media days on Wednesday afternoon in Hoover, Ala.
Most former players have a sense of nostalgia when it comes it remembering the good ole times. Coaches who are brought back to the stomping grounds usually have those positive stories when talking about the program.
Lea is no ordinary coach and doesn't have time for nostalgic moments. He has a program to rebuild, and rebuild might not even be the proper word.
"In this first iteration of Vanderbilt football, what we affectionately college in our own building is Team One," Lea said. "The overwhelming majority of players recruited to a program that no longer exists."
Maybe that's what the Commodores need. During the seven seasons under Derek Mason, Vanderbilt went to two bowl games. They never tallied more than six wins and hit an all-time low in 2020.
The last time a Southeastern Conference team finished with a winless record in conference play was in 2012 with Auburn at 0-8. Vandy takes the record thanks to an all-conference schedule last fall at 0-9.
So yeah, maybe nostalgia is better 30 years down the line when Vandy is back instead of looking at what once was huh?
"We don't apologize for being Vanderbilt," Lea said. "It's not --I mean, our expectation is to win.
"We're going to grip the bat and take our swings for the fences, and we're proud of what we represent, and we're proud of what we're going to sustain over time at Vanderbilt."
Lea isn't going by the book compared to other SEC programs. He recently hired Barton Simmons, college football analyst from 247Sports to be his head of recruiting operation as a "general manager" type role. The two were close friends during their time at Montgomery Bell Academy.
Another difference is players will earn their keep to make the football in the Music City. Earlier this year, Lea did not hand out jerseys, but rather t-shirts with names on the back.
One must earn their jersey number for the former Notre Dame defensive coordinator. So far, only five players know what they will don on Saturdays this fall.
"That's just what had to happen," offensive guard Bradley Ashmore said. "We were told that we were restarting, we were stripping it all by our head man, Coach Lea. He wanted a new culture, a new feel for us."
Seals were returned under center after a somewhat positive first year. As a freshman, he finished the year with 1,928 passing yards and 12 touchdowns.
The turnovers have to deteriorate. Last season, he finished second among starters with 12 interceptions.
Maybe new offensive coordinator David Raih can be the key. He understands what quarterbacks are looking for after spending time developing Kyler Murray and the wide receivers with the Arizona Cardinals.
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Prior to joining the desert franchise, Raih worked as wide receivers coach with the Green Bay Packers. Last season, the Commodores finished 11th in receiving in the conference.
Lea though is keeping his offense under wraps for now.
"We need to design around matchups," Lea said. "This is about how we use formations, motions, tempo to create pressure on the defense to get the matchups that are favorable to us. Every play needs to be a design, and we need to have a reason for why we're doing what we're doing."
For Lea, he wants to win. There is no denying that after being with the Fighting Irish for the past three seasons, winning is something that is non-negotiable.
Then again, who doesn't want to be victorious? The difference is, should Lea fail like Mason, a school he calls home will hand him the pink slip. This adds bonus pressure to a job that already is viewed as the "weakest" in the SEC.
"For me, it's seizing the opportunity we have to build something different to get this program a chance at its potential," Lea said.
The Commodores may one day be winners, but they're going to do it Lea's way. That's not a problem if each step of the way, there's growth and improvement. Only time will tell on that.
Lea's biggest strength may come in recruiting. He's a Vandy guy. He's a Nashville guy. He's as Tennessee as they come and his goal was always to return back to his roots.
He now has to convince the local talent in state to remain in it.
"It's a fertile ground, and we have to do a great job of being first in our backyard," Lea said. "Look, not everybody is going to be a fit for us, and that is what it is, but we need to make sure the guys that are looking for a place like Vanderbilt."
There's a blueprint in place, and a chance for Lea to change the lives of the next generation of Commodores. It might take time, but boosters could be willing to wait.
Lea is Vanderbilt, and Vandy's future should be brighter than its past.
"The vision is that there's a fourth-quarter game where we're on our sideline looking across the field at an opponent that is wilting under the pressure that we're applying because we are the best mentally and physically conditioned team in the country," Lea said.
"Those are the kinds of things I'm looking for as we measure performance as we get into the heat of this season, is that ability to find ways to win those games late."
CONTINUE READING: Around The SEC: Lane Kiffin At Full Speed Ahead In Year 2 At Ole Miss
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