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Just Vandy: Coach emits positive vibe in Music City

OPINION by Bob Wisener | July 23, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

At first glance, Vanderbilt football's Clark Lea sounds like someone you would not trust driving heavy machinery.

Just taking the position as head Commodore brings into question his qualifications, not that any program saver exists. Lea came to Nashville last year after three seasons as defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. Both are strong academic institutions, as you know, not so much in other athletic matters (except Vanderbilt, unlike Arkansas, has an NCAA title in baseball).

Notre Dame survived five years of Gerry Faust, a Cincinnati high-school coach who swam against the current and whose Fighting Irish Jimmy Johnson and Miami once beat unmercifully. After some additional washouts, the Fighting Irish did much better with Brian Kelly, who surprised many by leaving the Golden Dome for the LSU job in the offseason. (All that one needs to know about LSU is that it fired two coaches who won national championships, Les Miles and Ed Orgeron. Kelly will be judged on whether the Tigers can beat Alabama and the like.)

While at Notre Dame, Kelly reached the national-title game once, only to get clocked by Nick Saban and Alabama. Where the Fighting Irish, who have their own TV network but no true conference home for football, wind up in the new world order of college football -- specifically in which conference -- is a burning question.

Back to Clark Lea, whose first Vanderbilt teams made no waves, 0-8 in the league and 2-10 overall, while under the least pressure felt by any Southeastern Conference coach.

It's been said that if Vanderbilt could produce football players at the same high rate as its journalism department does writers, the SEC standings might look a lot different. Graduates like Skip Bayless, Dallas drive-in-movie critic Joe Bob Briggs ("Check it out!") and alter ego John Bloom, Roy Blount Jr. and Hot Springs' own Daniel Wolken, whose bylines for USA Today have included Sochi, Russia and South Bend, Indiana.

That said, Vanderbilt beat an Arkansas team in Fayetteville that suited out Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis among others. Such slip-ups created unrest between coach Houston Nutt, who in time fled to the safety of the TV booth, and the UA fan base.

Clark Lea need not lease a car to tour Music City with goodwill messages about Vanderbilt football, like fictional presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker by loudspeaker in Robert Altman's 1975 film "Nashville." The protagonist in that movie, a female country singer, you might remember, was assassinated during a concert at the Parthenon, not far from the swinging West End of the community that Vanderbilt calls home.

No such fate is likely to befall Lea, a Nashville native who played at Vanderbilt from 2002-04 and last year turned 40 in the first year as head coach at a school and in a conference where the attrition rate is high. (As a rule, Vanderbilt people don't get that distraught about football.) Nashville, with the NFL Titans and the NHL Predators, is becoming a pro town in ways that Memphis, which turned its back on the old Houston Oilers, never attempted.

Still, Lea had a sound byte worth noting from his second SEC Media Days in Atlanta. In his moment on stage before the cream of the conference's print and broadcast media, he said, "We know in time Vanderbilt football will be the best program in the country."

Alabama journalist Kevin Scarbinsky, a longtime SEC observer, wrote "it would be easy to hear that prediction and question Lea's bravado, but if you were in the room, his statement sounded like an honest belief grounded by separate truths. The scoreboard is not the sole measure of a successful program, and he is under no delusions about the work to be done or the distance to be traveled."

What was it a Chinese philosopher said? "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

It is a journey that a few Razorback coaches before Sam Pittman began but finished prematurely. Job pressures, temptation or merely being the wrong man in the wrong place led to their demise in Fayetteville. Pittman, coming off a 9-4 season, has the fans excited again, their passions whetted. At 60, he sees Arkansas as his last job before retirement and, with agent Jimmy Sexton's help, took steps in the offseason to sweeten his golden years.

Clark Lea, at 40, has time to salvage his career if the Vanderbilt gig doesn't pan out. One Notre Dame man, Gerry DiNardo, went to LSU after four years of 19-25 at Vandy. He lasted one game short of five years, banished before the Arkansas game of 1999, which the 2-8 Tigers won for interim coach Hal Hunter. Predictably, DiNardo had a winning record (32-24-1) at LSU. The LSU chancellor who fired him, by the way, Mark Emmert, is now president of the NCAA.

Then came Nick Saban to Baton Rouge, later alighting in Tuscaloosa, and things really have not been the same since in the SEC. Except at Vanderbilt.

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