Vanderbilt's past leaders failed football, and new ones are trying to fix it | Estes
Notre Dame played at Florida State on Sunday night. I wonder how much that crossed Clark Lea’s mind, that he could still make a run for it. Just push the gas pedal, take Interstate 65 through Alabama and be back with the highly ranked Fighting Irish in time for kickoff in Tallahassee.
It’s a long drive. He could've used a helicopter instead.
The best part of Lea’s debut weekend at Vanderbilt, without question, was his helicopter. He took one Friday night to watch prospects in games at Pope John Paul II and Montgomery Bell Academy — his old high school.
That was fun.
Then Lea's Commodores showed how badly those prospects are needed in an embarrassing 23-3 loss to ETSU.
That wasn’t as much fun.
And it's not going to be fun around Vanderbilt's program this season, I'm afraid. Its players have already spoken a lot about a demanding offseason and being taught by Lea’s staff to overcome adversity — “for eight months now, we’ve been tested,” said defensive lineman Daevion Davis.
None of it showed on the field Saturday night. ETSU looked hungrier, faster, stronger, more physical. It’s not necessarily that the Commodores didn’t fight. It’s that they weren’t good enough when they did.
Huge gap between Vanderbilt and its SEC opponents
Lea was unhappy after Saturday night’s game, but he didn’t sound all that surprised.
“Not shocked. Obviously, extremely disappointed and believe in our team,” Lea said. “… We have a long way to go, but I knew that heading into the season.”
This past month, Lea opened up Vanderbilt’s preseason practices in their entirety to the media. That sort of thing used to be common years ago, but it’s unheard of in the present-day SEC, whose football coaches tend to be among the most paranoid people on the planet.
I couldn’t print most of it, but I’d learned a good bit already about these Commodores.
When people asked how things were looking at Vanderbilt, my response was usually along the lines of, “I like the coach. I like what he’s trying to do. But he needs players.”
That's still what I'd say after the first game.
A lack of effort and technique can be coached. A lack of ability can’t.
And as bad as Vanderbilt football historically has been, I can’t recall a time when the talent gap between the Commodores and the rest of the SEC was this vast.
That's not an exaggeration, and it didn’t happen by accident. It’s a direct consequence of a decade in which SEC schools became a lot wealthier and 13 of 14 used that money to escalate an arms race, investing heavily into football programs, lavishly spending on more and more luxurious facilities and expansive budgets for recruiting and staff.
Vanderbilt was the one that didn't. It typically hasn't over the years for football.
It’s not wrong for a respected university to prioritize academics. I’m just saying an SEC school can’t neglect its football program financially as Vanderbilt has and not expect competitive repercussions on Saturdays. Those are crystal clear now, and they are worsening.
Vanderbilt has started to invest more in athletics
Vanderbilt’s roster is going to look a lot different by the 2022 season. That’ll be by design. High roster turnover between coaching staffs in college football tends to wait a season. It’s between that first year and the second that the real change happens. That's when recruits who fit better are brought in to replace those who don’t wish to be a part of it any longer.
Lea aims to find out who those keepers will be. This season, I believe, will become a grueling march to that end.
Which leads back to that helicopter — or rather the point it was intended to make.
Lea could have easily driven to local high schools Friday night. But he knows that if he shows up in a helicopter, it makes a splash. Kids notice it. Parents notice it. There are tweets and headlines. I’m writing about it in this column.
It’s a tactic that high-profile coaches like Nick Saban and Kirby Smart have popularized in recruiting. Vandy support staffer Barton Simmons — a long-time reporter in the recruiting industry — knows that, too. When Simmons tweets out how Lea is traveling, he understands the social media response it’ll receive.
Maybe Vanderbilt would have approved this sort of unnecessary expense in years past, but opulence for football hasn’t often been The Vanderbilt Way.
That has started to change under chancellor Daniel Diermeier and athletics director Candice Storey Lee, who hired Lea.
Diermeier is an admitted sports fan who attended Saturday night’s game and worked his way through the press box beforehand, shaking hands and holding conversations. Since starting the job last year, he has been pledging to anyone who’d listen — students, alumni, fans, media — that Vanderbilt is finally going to invest more in athletics.
That has already manifested itself in subtle ways — like an expanded recruiting staff for Lea or various upgrades to the infrastructure of Vanderbilt’s football headquarters — and not-so-subtle ways. A helicopter trip, for example.
There really are reasons to look at Vanderbilt football's long-term future with hope, maybe more so than ever before.
It's difficult to see them, though. To notice it at ground level, you must be willing and able to see through the carnage of a dismal and gloomy present.
After a 20-point loss to ETSU, that’s nearly impossible.
A helicopter would help.
Reach Gentry Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.