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VOL. 45 | NO. 35 | Friday, August 27, 2021

3 new coaches, 1 huge task

Big rebuilds await at TSU, UT, Vanderbilt

By Tom Wood

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Doug Mathews played football at Vanderbilt, coached at Tennessee and has lived the past three decades in Nashville, where he hosts weekend radio talk shows about college football and on Sundays follows the exploits of UT football.

So when writing about the state’s three new high-profile head coaches and the challenges that await them, who better to ask than Mathews?

Josh Heupel debuts at Tennessee on Sept. 2 against Bowling Green, followed two days later by Clark Lea’s Vanderbilt homecoming against East Tennessee State. Then, Sept. 5, former Ohio State Heisman Trophy winner and Titans star Eddie George leads Tennessee State against Grambling State in the Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic in Canton, Ohio.

The Ledger recently asked Mathews and Spencer Hall, a college football writer and editor who grew up in Franklin and recently launched his Channel 6 storytelling portal, to analyze the trio’s similarities and differences like they were breaking down game film.

Joining them are two of the three athletics directors who did the hiring – Candice Lee at Vanderbilt and Tennessee State’s Mikki Allen. Danny White, the new AD at Tennessee, declined to participate.

Coaching Carousels

States with three or more FBS and FCS head coaching debuts in the same season:

2021

• Tennessee: Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Tennessee State, Austin Peay (Scotty Walden was hired in Nov. 2020 and coached in the OVC spring 2021 season)

2020

• Colorado: Colorado, Colorado State, Northern Colorado

• Florida: Florida Atlantic, Florida State, South Florida

• Texas: Baylor, Lamar, Texas-San Antonio

• Mississippi: Jackson State (Deion Sanders was hired in Sept., made JSU coaching debut in spring 2021 season), Ole Miss, Mississippi State

2019

• Texas: Houston, Texas State, Texas Tech, Stephen F. Austin, Texas Southern

• North Carolina: Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, East Carolina, North Carolina, N.C. Central

2018

• Arkansas: Arkansas, Arkansas-Pine Blufff, Central Arkansas

• Florida: Central Florida, Florida, Florida State, Florida A&M

• North Carolina: Davidson, North Carolina A&T, North Carolina Central

• Texas: Rice, SMU, Texas A&M, Prairie View A&M

• Mississippi: Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Mississippi Valley State

Source: Football Scoop

Mathews calls them “three kind of uniquely different types of coaches, the way they came to be coaches and the way they came to be at their respective schools.

“All three of them are going to have opportunities in their respective areas to really build programs,” Mathews says. “It’ll be fun to watch, and I plan on following all of them.”

Following COVID-shortened seasons in which the three schools’ combined record was a miserable 5-21, it feels like each school found the right guy at the right time.

“One of the things that’s very exciting about hiring is that you have the opportunity to find someone that uniquely fits you,” says Lee, a former Vanderbilt women’s basketball player who was named AD in 2020. “I think we all got what we felt that we needed to advance our programs. It’s always exciting when you start the building process, right? It’s hard work but I would imagine that we all have wonderful opportunities ahead of us.”

Hall says he is most intrigued by TSU’s hire of the former Titans great.

“Case by case, the best bet for any of the institutions may be Eddie George. And that is not because Eddie George has a proven track record as a good coach; he doesn’t have a proven track record of any sort as a head coach,” Hall says, comparing it to a nonprofit’s executive hire.

“The thing that Tennessee State is doing is the same thing that Jackson State has done by hiring a former player (Deion Sanders) with a solid public profile. … I think that’s probably the best hire because what they really need to do is build capacity. You know, like … ‘We have to be able to raise money, raise our profile and generally improve the program across the board before we can really worry a whole lot about what’s on the field.’ So in that respect, yeah, I think it’s a great hire.”

Allen says each school filled a need and has no worries that George will succeed.

“If you look at a head coach – a lot of people miss the fact that he’s an educator, as well – Eddie is fully dedicated and committed to making sure any individual in our program that he touches will be successful after sports. So that was the first checkbox,” Allen says.

“The next checkbox was making sure that I had someone that was a football mind, that would take a CEO-esque approach toward building a championship-level program.

“So that’s what we get in Eddie George. He’s the full package, man.”

Allen, who played on UT’s 1998 national championship team, says his alma mater and Vanderbilt scored big with their hires.

“Clark’s a graduate of Vandy, so I know they’re excited to have a product of their own institution at the helm,” Allen notes. “He’s experienced and will bring some new things to the table in terms of recruiting and how they approach their business, which is great.

“If you look at Josh Heupel, he has a lot in front of him to restore the prominence of Tennessee’s program. That has to be done in recruiting, making sure that you keep a fence around the great talent around the Southeast.”

We’ll look at recruiting later, but first, here’s a deeper look at all three coaches:

Hard work ahead at Vandy

There’s no direction but up for Vanderbilt, which ended the Derek Mason era with an 0-9 record in 2020, the first goose-egg season since it began playing football in 1890.

Clark Lea faces the largest rebuild in Vanderbilt history after last year’s winless season.

-- Photograph Provided

How much improvement can Vanderbilt show in this inaugural season under the 38-year-old Lea? Difficult to say, but he is a driven coach who understands the school’s academics, culture and challenges on and off the field.

Lea was a Montgomery Bell Academy standout who played college baseball at Birmingham Southern and Belmont before transferring to Vanderbilt. There, he was a fullback from 2002 to 2004.

Lea has told everyone to forget the past and focus on building the future.

He calls the 2021 squad ‘Team One’ and won’t discuss win-loss expectations for this fall. Instead, he aspires to mold, shape and build a winning culture.

“As a new coach, you dream of guys that are willing just to take the plunge with you, guys that don’t flinch on the journey to what’s possible, guys that take your vision, hold it true, and carry it to the team,” says Lea, who spent the last five seasons at Notre Dame, three as defensive coordinator.

“What we’ve experienced in the last seven months is rare, and that’s this opportunity to completely redesign an environment,” he explains. “The first objective is to redefine what it means to be a Vanderbilt football player and, specifically, we want to assign the value of membership in this tribe internally.

“The second objective is to build the best team in the country. The best team.

“Being a team isn’t about the accumulation of talent. That’s part of it. But for us it’s more defined in what each team member is willing to do for the next,” he adds. “What’s the level of investment in each other, what’s the level of care in each other, how do you add value to experience of your teammate Those are the things that we look at.”

Players appear to have bought into that message, noting the difference a year makes in attitudes and aspirations.

“There’s been sort of a fundamental shift in attitude, the way we perceive practice and the way that we perceive games,” senior offensive lineman Cole Clemens says. “Coach Lea uses an expression – ‘the lens in which we view our experience’ – which is basically the definition of attitude. That shift in attitude is definitely the biggest change I’ve seen since I’ve been back.”

Sophomore quarterback Ken Seals, who threw for 1,928 yards and 12 touchdowns as a true freshman, says football is fun again.

“The message is that, ‘Hey, you’re not trying to survive this. Like, we’re actually playing football, have fun. Like, don’t just get through it.’ And so, it’s been a message that’s been well received by everyone on the team and I think guys are finally starting to let it soak in.

“It’s just fun playing football, so I think that’s the best thing about it is we’re on the same page in that aspect and it makes it a lot more enjoyable for us.”

Junior defensive lineman Daevion Davis expects Vandy to surprise some foes this fall.

“For the 2021 season, the sky’s the limit. Everything is in front of us here,” Davis says. “There’s a new standard – a new culture here.

“I think that will show a lot on the field coming this year. So I think that’s kind of the difference here.”

Mathews, a classmate of Lea’s father at Vanderbilt in the late 1960s, calls Lea a hot coaching commodity who chose to pursue his dream job.

“One of the things that impresses me is that he certainly could have stayed at Notre Dame and, at some point, would have gotten a top-quality job. I don’t think there’s been doubt about that. He chose to come to Vanderbilt, knowing that pickings are kind of slim over there right now,” Mathews says.

“There’s only one reason why you do that – you come in here to build a program. And I think he is well on his way to doing that. Now, it’s going to be a long hard road – we all know that – but, again, he knows the university, he knows the area, he knows what he’s getting into. He knows what he wants to do.”

Asked if Lee can succeed in his goal of turning Vanderbilt into a winning program, Hall qualifies his opinion.

“Let me put it this way … it depends on what your definition of success at Vanderbilt is,” Hall says. “Vanderbilt, I think, wants to become competitive again. They’ve demonstrated that by spending money on infrastructure, by spending money on facilities. They’ve demonstrated that by hiring a coach who has a good reputation overall.

“But most importantly, they’ve hired somebody who wants to be there. This isn’t a job that he’s settling for. This isn’t a job that is his backup. This is an opportunity for Clark Lea and that’s really, really good because it’s a very challenging job.

“That’s probably gonna get you through some of the rough spots and through some of the challenges you’re going to face as the last team in the division. That’s where Vanderbilt is. Vanderbilt is going to be working its way up all the way from the bottom,” Hall adds. “They have an institutional commitment to be slightly better than that. If that’s your definition of success, Clark Lea is a great hire. … That sounds like I’m damning with faint praise. Given what Vanderbilt did over the past couple of years, I think that’s the goal.”

UT’s similar message

Heupel built his reputation as a coordinator of high-powered offensives and got his first head coaching job at Central Florida, where he went 28-8 in three seasons.

Josh Heupel brings an impressive resume to UT, where transfers have left the cupboard depleted.

-- Photograph Provided

If Heupel, 43, can equal that success at UT, Vols fans will be thrilled following last year’s 3-7 record and an NCAA investigation that ended the Jeremy Pruitt era. Central Florida didn’t face the same caliber of competition as the ultra-powerful Southeastern Conference, but UT has had only one winning season since 2017.

Heupel also seeks a culture that is rooted in his philosophies and understanding of the game. He says he’s looking forward to opening night, running onto the field with his team in front of a packed house to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Neyland Stadium.

“(We’re) excited to continue to build the culture that we want to be here at Tennessee individually and collectively as a football team,” says Heupel, who spent the summer building relationships and preaching the ‘Vols For Life’ message.

“That ties into the program that we want to have at Tennessee. We want to be innovative but we want to have fun,” adds the former Oklahoma quarterback who led the Sooners to the 2000 national championship.

“I believe in the player experience, having played the game at the highest level. Being able to hoist the trophy as a player chasing that championship is something that you’ll never forget. It’s a journey that you’ll never forget. But those relationships are really important as well, and we want to live those things out every single day.

“That pays forward once we get on the football field. I believe that connection matters when you face adversity, that you know the person standing next to you, to the left or the right, and you can depend upon those people.”

Senior defensive back Alontae Taylor says this season’s expectations are so much higher than previous years and credits Heupel for that turnaround.

“I have a lot of faith in this team. I’ve been playing for this team for a very long time. I see the hard work that we put in,” Taylor says. “At the end of the day, college football is a thing where anything can happen, so I have a lot of faith in our team and a lot of faith in our coaches. … Looking forward to that and trusting in our team. Because I see what they can do and I just hope we can show that to the world.”

Mathews, who like Heupel grew up in Oklahoma, says the UT coach has the right plan.

“One of the biggest things he’ll bring to Tennessee is really off the field,” Matthews says. “He comes from a program of the University of Oklahoma, which not only has a tremendously deep football tradition but also of all the schools that I’ve ever watched and been around, I think they really honor and want their former players involved immensely.

“I think he’ll bring back that closeness with former players and former coaches. We’ve already seen that. It’s kind of what those three individually bring to the programs they’re now coaching at.”

Hall says he knows the Vols’ offense “will not be boring” but the defense is concerning.

“I don’t know if they have a scheme – or have the talent – to prevent the other team across the field from scoring 30 points a game. Or 40 points a game,” Hall cautions. “That’s a difficulty when you play that style of ball because they will attempt to be more up-tempo (and) score as many points as possible.

“The problem when you do that is you inevitably hand the ball back to the other team, and that hasn’t exactly been a strength at Tennessee. Not that Tennessee has had many strengths over the last couple of years, period.”

TSU optimism runs high

When Eddie George retired from a stellar NFL career – all but one season with the Titans – he thought he was done with the sport. Coaching never entered his mind.

TSU is banking on Eddie George’s impressive list of accomplishments to help sell the program.

Now George is the face of Tennessee State.

“This whole experience has been surreal for me,” says George, who was hired in March. “I’ve said this in other interviews … If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans, you know?

“Seven months ago, my plan was to build my business, work on my acting career … prepare my youngest son for high school football this year, which is what I’ve been doing.

“Looking at what my oldest son is doing in grad school at USC film school … and quite frankly trying to build speed in my driver and trying to get that thing to go straight instead of hooking right. So that was my focus,” recalls George, the 1995 Heisman Trophy winner and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

“But earlier this year, I was presented with an opportunity of a lifetime that I had first resisted. Once I truly embraced it and looked at it, I said ‘this doesn’t come around often.’ I really did some soul-searching and I felt like, ‘Hey, you know what? Let me see what I can do with this program.’ And bringing in the right people, inspiring these gentlemen to reach greatness on all levels, has been truly fascinating and surreal.

“It’s not about me anymore. It’s about these young men and pouring (myself) into serving them on a day-to-day basis. And that’s been fulfilling,” George adds.

His players are excited to be playing for George and his top-notch staff, which includes former NFL coach Hue Jackson as offensive coordinator and Brandon Fisher as defensive coordinator. Fisher’s dad Jeff coached George when he played for the Titans.

Back to college

Former NFL greats now college head coaches

• Greg Ellis, Texas College*

• Eddie George, Tennessee State*

• Deion Sanders, Jackson State*

• Ed McCaffrey, Northern Colorado

• Tyrone Wheatley, Morgan State*

*HBCUs

“I feel like it’s exciting because I can pick his brain, I can learn from him and he can help my game go to another level because that’s what I want to do,” says TSU redshirt freshman running back Devon Starling, a Cane Ridge High School product who transferred to TSU from Memphis. “I feel like Coach George coming here is a great role model.

“He’s just been a great addition to this program because he’s able to help everyone out to actually learn the game because who’s a better brain to pick than a Heisman Trophy winner and (College) Hall of Fame (and) NFL running back?”

TSU, a member of the Ohio Valley Conference since 1986, is one of the storied HBCU football programs with 16 recognized national championships. The Tigers reached the postseason last in 2013 when the Tigers went 10-4 with a 1-1 record in the FCS playoffs.

But the Tigers fell on hard times in the last three years of the Rod Reed era, going a combined 9-19 including a 2-5 mark in the COVID-delayed 2021 spring season.

Count Mathews among those who think George can revive the TSU program.

“I’m sure he will lean heavily on his assistant coaches but, you know, with the way Eddie – kind of the gravitas he brings to that job, it’s kind of like when Deion Sanders was hired (by Jackson State) – they bring much, much, much, much more than just playing ability,” Mathews says. “They bring national recognition to a program. I think it’ll really help Tennessee State, I really do.”

The key to success

Recruiting is the lifeblood of building and sustaining a successful program. Easy to say, hard to do. Mathews says all three new coaches “understand that you must be able to recruit and get players from Middle Tennessee. This is an area that from an athletic ability, from a football-playing standpoint has really expanded greatly in the last 15-20 years.

“There are eight or 10 players – certainly, SEC-caliber players – every year now in Middle Tennessee and probably for Tennessee (statewide), even more than that. So I think they all three understand that if you can’t control the immediate area you live in, you’re going to have a very difficult time attracting enough players to put a winning program out there.”

Hall suggests Vanderbilt’s recruiting picture “is clearer than Tennessee’s just because of the players involved. Vanderbilt, because of the academic requirements, already has a pre-select bracket of players to choose from. With Tennessee, it’s going to be much more difficult to build your recruiting profile.

“Tennessee has really struggled since the end of the (Philip) Fulmer era with who they are in terms of a recruiting territory. So unless Heupel establishes that, until he really starts recruiting – not just talent, but talent that fits what they do – they’re going to continue to struggle.”

Allen says TSU George’s magnetic personality gives him a recruiting edge:

“What better person to walk in, eat dinner with a mother or an aunt or a father and look a kid in the eye and say, ‘Hey, you know, I was the best player in college football. I have multiple degrees in a bachelor’s and an MBA. I’ve owned businesses. I’ve been in arenas from commentating to Broadway. I’m taken on new challenges, new experiences, I’ve built relationships. I’m one of the faces of a professional franchise, and I can show you the way.

“I’m Eddie George and if you believe in me and you give me the next four years of your life and allow me to lead you, I’ll make sure that you win.’”

Hall says he expects TSU’s assistants to handle the “heavy lifting” of recruiting and sees George as “the closer. You want him in to sort of say, ‘Hey, I have credibility because I’ve been in the NFL, I know what it takes to get there and you have it.’ The closer doesn’t have to do the daily kind of ham-and-egg work of doing the recruiting.”

ADs have issues to tackle

With their coaches in place, the ADs can tackle other problems:

• Vandy is upgrading facilities with a $300 million investment. The initial phase includes a basketball practice facility, indoor football practice facility and football operations center and expanded McGugin Center.

• At Tennessee, there’s an ongoing NCAA investigation into recruiting improprieties that occurred before the new regime arrived. Legal expenses mount with no timetable for when NCAA penalties may be announced.

• TSU’s Allen says he has spoken with his Vandy and UT counterparts about scheduling a game in the future, which Vandy’s Lee confirmed. “We’re having discussions, and I’m happy to be in those discussions with him,” she says, noting the SEC’s recent expansion to 16 teams with the additions of Texas and Oklahoma will factor into future scheduling.

• While the SEC expanded, the OVC shrank to a 10-team league with the departures of Jacksonville State and Eastern Kentucky to the Atlantic Sun Conference. Seven teams play football – which could ultimately be a benefit, allowing the Tigers to play another HBCU rival.

• All TSU home games this season are at Nissan Stadium, what Allen calls “the impact of the Eddie George hiring.” In the past, TSU has played OVC rivals at aged Hale Stadium on campus and reserving the downtown stadium for homecoming and “classics.”

• Asked about TSU’s future in the OVC, Allen says the league is a good geographic fit but that he has been approached by different conferences. “Right now we’re standing still in in terms of just making sure that we represent the OVC. ... When those conversations come, we’ll listen and we will be ready.”

It’s ‘football time in Tennessee’

A 10-win season is one benchmark of success. But given what these programs have suffered in recent years, a combined 10 wins in this start-over era seems unlikely.

Maybe Vandy’s Lea has the right idea. Let others tally the wins and losses and focus on building from within.

“(I) won’t place a win-loss record or won’t state a win-loss record; don’t believe in doing that in any semblance,” Lea declares. “We’ll say that every game that we play, we’ll have a plan to win and we’ll measure our results off our execution of that plan to win.”

And have that first victory speech ready.

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