Sunday, January 11, 2009

It's been eight years since Charlie Strong almost became Vanderbilt's coach — so what happened?

Without a doubt, Vanderbilt made a great choice when it hired Bobby Johnson as head football coach in 2001. Remember the other finalist for the job?

It was Charlie Strong, the exceptional defensive coordinator for the national championship Florida Gators. Strong was the first black coordinator in the SEC when he took the top defensive job for Lou Holtz's South Carolina Gamecocks in 1999. He was Ron Zook's defensive coordinator at Florida and was kept on when Urban Meyer took the Gator's head coaching job.

It'd be interesting to know what would have happened at Vanderbilt with Strong at the helm. Strong recently told a newspaper that he would have gotten a head coaching job with a Southern school by now if he hadn't married a white woman. I don't think he was talking about Vanderbilt. I can't imagine that would have kept him from getting the Commodore job. Maybe the Auburn job. Some folks speculate online that Strong actually was offered the Vanderbilt job before Johnson but turned it down because he thought it was beneath him.

Anyway, we made a good choice with Johnson, but I think another team would be wise to pick Strong. Maybe he'll have to go to the NFL to get a top job. We'll see.


GeraldBall said...

Charlie Strong was offered the Vanderbilt job and turned it down, not because he thought it was beneath him, but because he thought that a better job would soon come. His thinking so was justified, because he almost got the Cal job and the Michigan State job soon after. (The only thing that kept him from getting both jobs is that Marvin Lewis, now Cincinnati Bengals head coach, applied for them both, and both schools chose Lewis only to have him decline their offers. For either school to then turn around and offer Strong after having been turned down by Lewis would have ... well I won't get into that, but if you want to blame anyone for Charlie Strong's not being a head coach by now blame Marvin Lewis, who never wanted to be a college coach to begin with ... were it not for Marvin Lewis both Cal and Michigan State would have black head coaches.)

I feel that Strong's turning down the Vanderbilt job was a mistake. In the past Vanderbilt was a school that no one could really compete at. But thanks to the booming black middle and upper class in places like Atlanta and Charlotte, there are now enough black athletes who academically qualify to build a winning program. Who proved that? Bobby Johnson! The only reason why Johnson has not had even more success is his refusal to be more realistic as to the offense that he will need to run at Vanderbilt, where I think that he would be able to get decent dual threat or running QBs as well as your generic TEs, FBs, RBs, and interior OLs, but I honestly don't think you will be able to attract WRs or passing QBs consistently.

Had Strong accomplished half of what Bobby Johnson did at Vanderbilt, he would have been made head coach either at a big time school or in the NFL long ago. So he is probably kicking himself. But first he needs to go kick Marvin Lewis instead of making his wife a pawn or spectacle the way Barack Obama did with his late grandmother.


Great post. I believe the Tennessean and the university reported at the time that Johnson had been chosen as head coach and that Strong had also been a finalist, which in retrospect appears to have been a round-about way to announce that Strong had been offered the job without making Vanderbilt look like it had been rejected.

At the time, I didn't know much about Johnson and wanted Strong to get the job because I wanted Vanderbilt to have better athletes and also to have a more diverse student body. Both have happened in the last seven years since Johnson arrived.

You're exactly right about the black middle and upper class in Atlanta. Bobby Johnson has gotten a ton of talent out of the Atlanta area.

Also, former chancellor Gordon Gee took huge steps toward making Vanderbilt a place where athletes and students who don't fit the Dallas socialite mold would feel more welcome. While his move to abolish the athletic department was much publicized and viewed by some as the death penalty for Vanderbilt athletics, it actually was a move to make athletes more a part of student life. Also, Gee was much more willing than his predecessor, Joe B Wyatt, to accept a hard-working student-athlete whose test scores were slightly below the rest of the student body. (See the Ron Mercer fiasco.) Likewise, Johnson has a nice feel for spotting the type of kids who will do well at Vanderbilt, and the types of athletes (see Earl Bennett, D.J. Moore and Chris Williams) who fly under the scouting radar in high school.

But you're right: He must do something about the offense!

Thanks for the post.

GeraldBall said...

Wow, I had forgotten about the Ron Mercer thing! I have always pulled for Vanderbilt (I regret the leftward drift of your seminary though!) and I badly wanted Strong to take that job. After seeing Vanderbilt beat UGA, Tennessee, and even beat Steve Spurrier the past few years, I know that Strong does too.

As for your offense, Johnson ran option - oriented offenses at Wofford, and also ran an option offense his first couple of years. Then he goes to the pro style offense to get Cutler drafted, which was appropriate. But he stays with it rather than going back to the option with Chris Nickson. Neither Nickson or Mackenzi Adams had the ability to be pro QBs, so why not run something that allows you to win games and recruit?

Now Georgia Tech is a real threat to suck up all that option talent from the Atlanta area, so Johnson's long term success is going to depend on the passing game. We will just have to see!


The only way Vanderbilt can move the ball is with surprise and trickery. Johnson would love to line up and control the line of scrimmage and knock people off the ball and pick up 3.5 yards and a cloud of dust on every play. In the Music City Bowl, we faced third and one on five or six occasions, including while we were trying to run out the clock late in the game, and we ran up the middle and didn't convert a single time. I remember Cutler running the option with little success as a freshman and then Cutler looking like the pro quarterback that he is as a senior (with a great deal of credit going to then-freshman Earl Bennett). I think Nickson and Adams would have done well in the option. The rising sophomore, Larry Smith, has a much stronger arm than those guys but whether we'll have any deep talent at receiver remains to be seen. Lots of possession receivers and some very good tight ends.