With Vanderbilt football in distress, Clark Lea grabs the wheel to change course | Estes

It hasn’t been going well. No other way to view it.

Vanderbilt football looks like a ship in distress. Players are deserting, the roster having been ravaged by the transfer portal. Crew members are overboard, with the coaching staff in flux after a disappointing season. And its captain is doing what's instinctive when his vessel has wandered into rough seas.

Coach Clark Lea is grabbing the wheel, and he’s redirecting course.

“No one enjoys the chaos,” Lea told The Tennessean recently, “because we all kind of want the certainty of order. We don't have that choice right now.”

These stormy past few weeks for Lea have been brutal. Though, I suppose, there's a silver lining in getting to start fresh after three seasons in charge.

Perhaps it’s not the worst thing to restock a locker room that just went 2-10 and still has Lea shaking his head and thinking of times, especially on offense, in which “I felt like I didn’t recognize what I saw and the level of compete that I was looking at.” That’s coachspeak for loafing on the field.

“That's troubling,” Lea said. “I mean, there's been nothing about the messaging or the direction or the culture or the environment of this program that allows for that kind of behavior.”

Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea walks the sideline in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Missouri, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea walks the sideline in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Missouri, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Some of those players are probably gone. Because a lot of Commodores are gone. Good ones.

If you were drafting from last season’s team, nearly all the early picks would be from the list of 17 scholarship players (so far as I write this) who’ve entered the transfer portal. Vandy's rooms for quarterbacks and wide receivers, in particular, have been pummeled past recognition.

Lea is adjusting quickly.

He’s taking steps that he said previously he didn’t want to take at Vanderbilt.

He has long said, for instance, that he didn’t want to lean heavily on the transfer portal as a shortcut. Now he doesn’t have a choice.

“It's naive to think that you can thrive in this environment now and not have some semblance of transaction embedded in the process,” said Lea, who acknowledged that an uptick in NIL support just “in the last couple of weeks” has provided “an ability now to go in the portal and be competitive.”

That’s not all. There’s something else that Lea has said he didn’t want to do.

While firing offensive coordinator Joey Lynch after the season, Lea also demoted defensive coordinator Nick Howell and – here was the surprising part – moved into the defensive coordinator role himself. For now, Lea said, he's planning to call the defense in 2024.

It’s not that Lea isn’t suited for the job. As Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, he was once a Broyles Award semifinalist.

It’s just that when I sat down with Lea in October, he rejected the notion, saying that, “for me to spend 80-100 hours a week as a defensive coordinator never seemed like a winning formula for me to become a really, really good head coach.”

What changed?

“I realized I missed that. I missed that engagement,” he said. “I've got a passion for teaching. ... The goal is that I can free myself up a little more just to focus on the football. I think that's really a healthy transformation for me heading into Year 4. I've laid the groundwork for community relationships, alumni relationships, things that hopefully will continue to sprout for us.

“But this is about improving the on-field product, and we're going to do everything that we can to do that, including me jumping back on the horse and involving myself with the defense.”

NIL boost: Lea explains Vanderbilt football transfers, outlines portal priorities

Previously: Clark Lea knows full well Vanderbilt football 'has not been good enough' | Estes

It's a tempting thought for a coach in a struggling program. Lea’s predecessor at Vanderbilt, new MTSU coach Derek Mason, once did the same thing. Mason ran the Commodores’ defense for a few seasons early in his tenure before ultimately hiring a true coordinator again.

After being hired in Murfreesboro last week, Mason went back to that when I asked what, in hindsight, he might have done differently at Vanderbilt.

“Learning as a first-time head coach, how to be a CEO, I thought I could just jump back and run defense,” Mason said. “OK, and I did, and we were successful. But that takes away from your program. You have to hire the right people at the right time.”

For what it’s worth, Lea did leave the door open to hiring a defensive coordinator before next season:

“I always hold the right to redirect course.”

True words.

And appropriate for the moment.

“Rather than spend time thinking about the context of where we are right now,” Lea said, “I think about ‘What will this look like in five years?’ And ‘How will I look back on this moment and say, 'That's when this shifted?’”

Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at and on the X platform (formerly known as Twitter) @Gentry_Estes.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Vanderbilt football coach Clark Lea is changing his course quickly