Nick Howell was hired at Vanderbilt as defensive backs coach on January 7.
On March 9, he was promoted to defensive coordinator.
The logical next promotion would be to head coach in May. But Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea has been in Nashville for just one season. The Commodores went 2-10 last season and 0-8 in the SEC. And that was an improvement. Vanderbilt was 0-9 in 2020 under Derek Mason.
Lea, who was Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator from 2018-20, has actually made some impressive hires, considering where he is. Howell, 42, was the defensive coordinator at Virginia from 2016-21 and at Brigham Young from 2013-15 when he became defensive backs coach.
Howell replaces Jesse Minter, whom Lea hired as defensive coordinator a year ago from coaching defensive backs with the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL under John Harbaugh. But Minter left after one season to be Michigan’s defensive coordinator under Harbaugh’s brother Jim Harbaugh.
Lea’s offensive coordinator is also a battlefield promotion. Joey Lynch was hired as pass game coordinator and quarterbacks coach a year ago after serving as offensive coordinator at Colorado State in 2020 and as Ball State’s offensive coordinator from 2014-19. Last August, Lea demoted his original offensive coordinator, David Raih, one week into August camp with Lynch taking over the play calling.
How do you get demoted like that in practice? Either Vanderbilt’s defense was really good in August or there were some really bad play calls by Raih, who was a wide receivers coach in the NFL in 2019 and ’20 at Arizona and in 2018 at Green Bay.
Even Auburn coach Bryan Harsin didn’t work that quickly. He at least waited until after the third game of the season to fire wide receivers coach Cornelius Williams.
Raih was let go after the season and has not caught on anywhere yet. That’s the dark end of Vanderbilt. If you can’t stick there, where do you go? The other end is it represents entry to the greatest football conference in the nation through not even the back door – more like the mother-in-law cottage in the backyard. Lea wasn’t going to get a head coaching job anywhere else in the SEC, for example.
After one season at Vanderbilt, Lea does return most of his original staff, which is a good sign. And his losses are understandable. In addition to Minter moving up to Michigan, his former defensive line coach went to Washington for the same post and his former cornerbacks coach went to Louisiana-Lafayette to become defensive coordinator. Those were more upwardly mobile than escape moves.
Vanderbilt, which is a private school and does not have to release its salaries, must be paying its coaches a lot. SEC hazard pay, I’m thinking. The Commodores last had a winning season in 2013 at 9-4 under James Franklin, who also went 9-4 in 2012. He left for Penn State.
What Franklin did at Vanderbilt remains one of the most remarkable success stories in SEC history, along with what previous coach Bobby Johnson did. Vanderbilt did go 7-6 under Johnson three years before Franklin’s arrival ahead of the 2011 season. Johnson inherited a much worse program in 2002. The Commodores were coming off 20 straight losing seasons at the time. In year four, Johnson was 5-6 and won in year seven.
Franklin built his winner while neighbor Tennessee was mired in its third and fourth consecutive losing seasons. The Vols’ future appears more promising now under Josh Heupel.
Lea may have a much more difficult job. So do Howell and Lynch with spring practice opening next week. The Commodores finished last in the SEC and 118th out of 130 FBS schools in total offense with 312 yards a game and 14th and 118th in total defense with 457.7 yards allowed a game.
“Nick will be an excellent culture builder for us, and he has already started building relationships with our men. He is skilled at building an environment to drive the style of defense we want to see at Vanderbilt,” said Lea, who clearly has a great attitude – now.
Mason, 52, had that at one time, but by the end, he was beaten down. He had enough of Harsin in one season at Auburn and is now defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State.
Lea is just 40. And you can lose at Vanderbilt and get another job. That happened to Gerry DiNardo, who parlayed his best season at 5-6 in 1994 into the LSU job.
Recruiting players is always the best path to winning, but hiring an excellent staff is almost as important. Ed Orgeron’s LSU program nosedived after a national championship in the 2019 season to 11-12 because of poor hires. He had players until the end.
Lea at least continues to have good coaches for now.