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The pitchforks are starting to come out

Things tend to get bad when you lose nine games in a row.

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NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Mississippi Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Look: we’ve always operated on the assumption that Clark Lea was going to get plenty of time to rebuild things at Vanderbilt before the university really started judging him on his record, and a 5-7 record in his second season — including two SEC wins toward the end of the season — seemed like it would get him even more of a leash.

But things tend to happen when you embark on a nine-game losing streak that will likely reach 10 after a trip to Knoxville next Saturday. Seats tend to get much hotter when a losing streak that starts with a 16-point loss to Wake Forest and continues through a 47-6 debacle at a three-win South Carolina, with an 0-7 SEC record decided by an average of 22 points per game, when your offense has scored three touchdowns in the last three weeks while your best quarterback on the team stands on the sidelines for no apparent reason, or at least not any reason that you feel like explaining — well, that tends to shorten your leash. A lot.

So it’s not really a surprise that Joe Rexrode wrote this morning:

In Lea’s fourth season, the fruits of his staff’s evaluation and development of high school prospects need to be obvious all over the field, because the portal isn’t likely to yield significant help. The poachers will be back. And the outside negativity will be increasing.

More interesting, though? When your Athletic Director gives Aria Gerson an exclusive interview to hand down the dreaded vote of confidence.

“Clark Lea is our football coach until I say otherwise, and I am excited for he and I to continue working together to get this program where we expect it to be,” Lee said. “Yes, I expect Clark Lea to be back next season.”

A lot of fans on Twitter reacted as though Candice Storey Lee just announced that Clark Lea would be back next season, when (a) that’s not actually what she said, and (b) it’s generally not a good sign for your continued employment when your athletic director is publicly commenting on your continued employment. It’s known snidely as “the dreaded vote of confidence” for a reason: the reason why Candice Storey Lee is publicly saying this is not to announce that Lea is returning next season. Generally this kind of statement from the AD is either her floating a trial balloon to see if the coach has significant support within the fan base (as opposed to a situation where the emails she gets from cranky fans are not representative of the wider community), or it’s a power move to put the pressure on boosters to pony up for a buyout. (Something I’m pretty sure of is that Clark Lea was not Candice Storey Lee’s choice for the job anyway — remember, she basically described Jamey Chadwell as her ideal coach in her press conference ahead of the coaching search —and that move was imposed on her by either the chancellor or the big-money people, or both. That’s probably relevant now, though I’m not sure how.)

What it’s not is an unequivocal announcement that the coach will be back next season. Here’s what that looks like (this was from Malcolm Turner, in spite of the fact that Twitter now says it’s Candice Storey Lee):

Notice the lack of any weasel words in there: there’s no way to read that other than as an announcement that Derek Mason will continue being the head coach. Instead, I “expect” Clark Lea to be the head coach and that he’s our football coach “until I say otherwise”: well, that’s pretty equivocal. There’s a lot that can go wrong that changes that expectation. Lose by 70 to UT? Refuse to make any changes to your coaching staff? A bunch of starters jump into the portal as soon as the season ends? There are reasons why you could change your mind if you’re on the fence about it.

“There have been some things that I think we clearly have to get better at,” Lee said. “There have been some things that I think have been positives. ... We’ve got to get better, though, and we know we want the product on the field to reflect our vision. And when you’re building, that doesn’t happen overnight. So we’re taking the steps necessary to get to that point.”

Until this interview came out, I had spent most of the last few weeks thinking “he’s definitely getting a fourth year.” I’m less sure about that now.