‘Best program in the country’? Maybe not, but Clark Lea and Vanderbilt show real progress


NASHVILLE, Tenn. — If they issued Vegas odds on coaches most likely to dish a viral media day quote, Vanderbilt’s Clark Lea wouldn’t exactly be among the favorites.

Lea is so defiantly pragmatic and generally thoughtful that his players have joked with him over the years that he profiles more as a philosophy professor than a fire-breathing football coach. A copy of the book “101 Essays That Will Change the Way You Think” sits on his desk.

In other words, they’d pass Prohibition laws on Broadway in Nashville before Lea would earn a reputation as a carnival barker.

Last year at SEC media days, however, Lea delivered a quote that was the most memorable one of the event and got aggregated everywhere from Fox News to Bro Bible: “We know in time Vanderbilt football will be the best program in the country,” Lea declared from the podium.

At a program that once went a half-century between bowl wins — from the 1955 Gator Bowl to the 2008 Music City Bowl — the quote went viral because it strained credulity.

A year later, some of the root of Lea’s boundless Commodores optimism is coming to life. There’s a massive, sprawling and noisy athletic facility overhaul underway at Vanderbilt — known as Vandy United — that projects to cost somewhere between $600 million and $700 million. It should deliver Vanderbilt the type of facilities that match the quality of the education on campus.

While Vandy United will touch every sport at Vanderbilt, the significant upgrades to every aspect of the football program’s infrastructure and stadium are signs that, finally, Vanderbilt is committed to being more than an attractive weekend getaway for opposing SEC fans.

“I would not have chosen to come here if I didn’t know the commitment would be there,” Lea told ESPN in his office on Monday, the same day he agreed to a three-year contract extension through 2029. “I think sometimes because I know what that commitment is and I believe in it, sometimes it feels a little lonely when you’re pushing that narrative without the visual representation of. So I think the construction is something that we can point out externally to say this is happening, now’s the time.”

The visual and audio evidence was apparent out Lea’s window. A crane nearly eight stories high marked the skyline at the far end of the stadium. At least four different backhoes clawed the ground, as the horseshoe at the end of the stadium had been gutted. Enough construction equipment was scattered around the stadium — only about 60 yards of which is usable for football for now — that it looked like something out of a toddler’s fever dream.

The corresponding build has already begun on the field. Vanderbilt showed meaningful improvement from Lea’s first year to his second — the Commodores went from 2-10 and winless in the SEC to 5-7 and winning at Kentucky and over Florida. Lea made clear that no one should throw a party for 5-7, but the progress has been significant.

“I think we’ve got to draw some lines at the idea that we’re celebrated for 5-7,” Lea said. “That’s not what we’re in this for. And we can look at progress and acknowledge that it’s being made, but we’re not going to be left satisfied with that.”

While the Commodores still have a ways to go on the field, there’s a long overdue plan in place for Lea and athletic director Candice Storey Lee to help solve one of the past century’s most vexing riddles: Why can’t Vanderbilt football’s brand aspire to the same rare air as the university’s brand?

The massive facility overhaul is a significant sign of that commitment and Lee’s vision. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey points to Chancellor Daniel Diermeier being bullish on athletics in his short tenure and Lee’s determination to see it through. “You now see the movement,” Sankey told ESPN. “It’s exciting for the future.”

The pitch is simple, as Lea calls it “one of one” in college football: the brand of Vanderbilt’s elite academics, the competitive platform of the SEC and the boom that Nashville is undergoing all combining for Vanderbilt to finally become a destination for top football recruits. Vanderbilt is building, with the hopes they will come.

“It speaks to the level of commitment the university has for our program,” Lea said over the construction rumble. “That football is important here. And that’s a hell of a statement. But it also just pushes this further down the line of saying you don’t have to make compromise in your choices.”

There are some quality players in place for the Commodores to capture a bowl bid on the field in 2023. Most promising is sophomore quarterback AJ Swann, who showed the moxie, arm talent and production — 10 touchdown passes and two interceptions in six starts — to win the job as a true freshman and cement himself as the program’s quarterback of the future.

He’ll be throwing to a strong crew of receivers, including Will Sheppard, who is one of the SEC’s most productive returning receivers with nine touchdown catches last year. (That was good for second in the SEC.)

There’s also a feeling that the accumulated talent on defense, including junior tackling machine CJ Taylor and rangy safety De’Rickey Wright, will put up more resistance. Vanderbilt finished No. 124 in scoring defense last year, and that included being near the bottom of the country in nearly every pass defense category.

“I hope that this season reveals the power of retention, retaining players, retaining systems, retaining staff familiarity, deepening relationships, deepening understandings,” Lea said. “That’s really what makes me most excited about what’s ahead of us.”

For the players and fans, there will be temporary inconveniences. The capacity for FirstBank Stadium at Vanderbilt this season will be nearly 30,000, down from 40,000. When the entire project is completed around 2026, there will be a plethora of premium ticket experiences available in a stadium of around 34,000 that better fit with the entertainment and sports options in Nashville.

Vanderbilt deputy athletic director Tommy McClelland, who is running point on the Vandy United project, said the alignment at the school between the chancellor, board and athletics has allowed such significant change to happen so quickly. And one byproduct is the Frist Family Athletic Village, which is the umbrella name for the massive building overhaul.

He points to the success that Tim Corbin’s baseball program has had — two national titles in the past decade — as a blueprint for what can be done when all the forces at Vanderbilt are aligned.

“We are situated so uniquely geographically in the conference that we’re in. The city that we have is a growing, vibrant city,” McClelland said. “It is a world-class education. When you combine the experience of elite athletics, elite academics and the ability to pursue all your athletic dreams, what’s possible is achieving at the highest level.”

Not surprising for a coach who keeps extra copies of the book “The Mountain Is You” to lend to his players, Lea is more about results than rhetoric. But as the ground moves around at Vanderbilt, it’s increasingly evident that for the first time in school history, there’s a clear desire for Vanderbilt to invest in football so the program matches the school’s academic brand.

“We shudder at the thought of being an academic school that plays football,” Lea said. “We want to be known as a really good football school. That means we take our football really seriously.”

Those signs are finally visible on campus. If you want to see them up close, a hard hat is required.


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