NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The day was Sept. 6. A Monday. Not one of the more memorable days in the short tenure of Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea.
The Saturday prior, Lea had lost his debut with the Commodores, a 23-3 letdown to visiting East Tennessee State at Vanderbilt Stadium. So when Scott Brower entered Lea’s office about 48 hours later, Brower’s proposal was not high on Lea’s to-do list.
“We recognized that was not the right time to start anything,” Brower said.
But Lea filed the visit away. And when January rolled around, he reached out to Brower to start talking about how there could be a collaboration between the retired U.S. Army brigadier general—who also is director of Vanderbilt University’s Bass Military Scholars Program—and the former Vandy fullback who was embarking on his second season in charge of the Commodores.
Brower knew some of his graduate students who needed community service activities could speak to Lea’s team about their experiences. And Lea could rely on Brower’s wealth of knowledge about developing culture and leadership.
“One of the things coming out of Year 1, as I spent the majority of my time with kind of the bottom 10 percent of the roster in terms of performance and buy-in, was recognizing the need to have someone who was paying attention to what’s strong and to the burgeoning leadership here,” Lea said. “What better person to do that than a guy that is a one-star general, that ran Fort Campbell, that has been in multiple combat positions, in leadership positions, in special forces? He brings such a unique perspective and life experience that has an immediate impact.
“He is also, beyond his experience, just a really impressive person. He’s smart and has a passion for connecting with young people. It’s been an incredible asset and an incredible resource for us, and I just appreciate his willingness to be involved every day.”
It was Vanderbilt alumnus and Clarksville, Tennessee, resident Jack Turner, longtime friend of Vandy football general manager Barton Simmons’ father, who suggested that Brower reach out to Lea. Brower had done leadership training with a few athletics teams in the past and knew that his Bass Scholars, most of whom are a few years older than the current student-athletes, could relate to the Commodores on a different level.
Since the start of the calendar year, about 20 student-athletes chosen by Lea and Vanderbilt Athletics’ Director of Mental Performance Kaelene Curry, ranging from true freshmen to fifth-year seniors, have met either weekly or every two weeks to help build leadership skills within the Vanderbilt football program. The open-forum meetings have also featured an array of guest speakers: veterans of the special operations community, Green Berets, Navy SEALs, helicopter pilots, Army Rangers, doctors, local and regional business leaders and politicians.
Each of those sessions begins with the student-athletes bringing a thought or concern or question to the table. Brower knew in the spring the Commodores were headed in the right direction.
“(Junior quarterback) Mike Wright said, ‘Hey, we’re going to have 33 new freshmen and transfers. How do we integrate them into the team? What is our responsibility as team leaders to integrate them into the organization?’ ” Brower said. “That’s a pretty mature approach and question about how to integrate them into Vanderbilt football and what we believe here. So we get to have those conversations in that room.”
A 1989 West Point graduate, Brower first served in Operation Desert Storm as a member of the 8th Infantry Division (Mechanized) in Mainz, West Germany. He later had staff assignments with the U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida, and the U.S. Army Special Operations Command in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and educational assignments at Command and General Staff College, the Naval Postgraduate School and the Air War College.
His combat service after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, included several tours to Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. He served in the 5th Special Forces Group, stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, for more than a decade.
During Brower’s final military assignment at Fort Campbell, he led the 101st Airborne Division and Fort Campbell as acting senior commander.
And while Brower has been working with Vanderbilt football for the entire year, much of his recent work will be visible this week during Vandy’s annual Salute to Service game when the Commodores face the Gamecocks of South Carolina at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at FirstBank Stadium. Game day activities include a howitzer display, a Nashville Army display, a Salute to Service button giveaway and a Salute to Service rally towel giveaway.
Brig. Gen. John Lubas will do the ceremonial anchor drop before kickoff.
On the sidelines to take it all in Saturday will be Brower, who knows he has had a small hand in building the Commodores into what they are today and what they will become in the future.
“Progress is incremental, but we are making the efforts through his expertise and his time to teach leadership,” Lea said. “That, over time, will amplify and build upon itself to create a program of leaders. There are already signs of impact, and I think that impact will grow over time.”