Clark Lea on returning to and rebuilding Vanderbilt
Clark Lea had a piece of his past with him on stage at his first-ever SEC Media Days appearance.
Vanderbilt's first-year head coach brought with him his helmet from his playing days in Nashville. Lea played fullback for the Commodores from 2002-04.
Lea spoke second on Wednesday morning, following Nick Saban at the podium. Offensive lineman Bradley Ashmore and defensive lineman Daevion Davis followed him on the main stage.
Here are the highlights from the Commodores' appearance in Hoover.
What do you think from your perspective would constitute a successful season for your team? And how much do you focus on the win-loss record?
CLARK LEA: I won't place a win-loss record or won't state a win-loss record; I don't believe in doing that in any semblance. We'll say that every game we play, we'll have a plan to win, and we'll measure our results off our execution of that plan to win.
There are measurable things that show growth as a team, and there are things that can't be measured. I think both are important. 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 in the fourth quarter. 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.
The vision is that there's a fourth quarter game when we're on our sideline looking across the field at an opponent who's wilting under the pressure we're applying, because we're the best mentally and physically conditioned team in the country, that we know on our sideline that we're ready to pounce, and we understand that their margin for error is so small because of the pressure we're applying.
Those are the kinds of things I'm looking for as we measure performance as we get into the heat of this season—that ability to find ways to win those games late.
A lot of times, when a coach goes back to his alma mater, it's to kind of rekindle the glory days, like Steve Spurrier at Florida, Kirby Smart at Georgia. I don't mean this as a personal reflection on you, but looking up at the seasons you were there, pretty rough records. What do you remember about that time, and what about that made you want to go back to Vandy? Because I'm sure a guy with your success rate probably has had other opportunities or would have other opportunities to be a head coach.
CLARK LEA: Bob, let me say first, 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 there. That's through my experience.
As a competitor, the three years I was there playing were the toughest three years of my career, and it was hard, but it was formative. I watched Bobby Johnson methodically build that program into what became a bowl champion in 2008.
I jump in with, I guess, an accelerated perspective. I know the intricacies of what that program is about, how it fits in our university, what the recruiting profile should look like, and where the resources are.
So for me, it's seizing the opportunity we have to build something different to give this program a chance to be at its potential. I didn't return home to have a homecoming. Honestly, I thought your opening remark was going to be a statement to my—whatever I have, four catches for 27 yards in my career—whatever it was.
But in the end, this is about the belief in the student-athlete experience for me. This is a belief there are only so many programs in the country where you can truly go to a family and say, there are no compromises here. We talk in our building about being directed; your ultimate success 20 years from now.
When I say that to my team, I share with them that I was in those seats 20 years ago. So there's an incredible binding and messaging when you're at your alma mater. 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.
We don't apologize for being Vanderbilt. I mean, our expectation is to win. Hey, look, everything takes time to build to its potential, but smart people figure things out. So we're going to grip the bat and take our swing for the fences, and we're very proud of what we represent, and we're proud of what we're going to sustain over time at Vanderbilt.
Vandy finished second (to last) in total offense and last in points per game. You brought in your new OC, David Raih. What are some of the conversations you're having about boosting that offense and rejuvenating it?
CLARK LEA: We haven't paid a lot of attention to what we were, because everything changed when you change systems. It's more about the focus on what we will be. We need to design around matchups. 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.
To be honest with you, like as a defensive coordinator, life becomes pretty miserable in modern day offense, but now I get to step back and be the team coach, which means I can involve myself on that side, too.
I've got to say one of the things that was most impressive that Greg mentioned when we met last year before the game in Dallas—preparing for that team was challenging, not just because of the players, but the design was also really well executed. It reminded me of the impact a defensive coach can have on offensive structure, because ultimately we know what gives us problems, and designing around that can unlock performance around an offense.
Embedded in your question is situational work too, finishing drives with seven points, so on, so forth, all of which are part of the philosophy we're bringing and the mindset that we're developing within the program.