Just got back from some boondock mountains with no internet access and was of course surprised to learn that Bobby Johnson is retiring from college football.
You know I think Coach Johnson was the right man to lead Vanderbilt, and you know I feared he'd be fired if he had another two-win season, and you know I thought that would have been a travesty.
Johnson has slowly built the Commodores into a team that opposing SEC teams respect. We've always had a couple of All-SEC caliber defenders in our lineups, especially in the Woodyball days, but now the guys on our bench are real SEC players. In the past, we'd sneak up on teams because they'd underestimate us. A sign of Johnson's success was his record against South Carolina over the past three seasons.
In 2007, the Dores stunned the Gamecocks in Columbia, and afterward their players expressed disbelief that they'd lost to lowly Vanderbilt. But I remember two things from that game:
First, the look on Chris Williams' face when he walked onto the field with the other captains. He was looking into the stands at the crazed Gamecock fans and he was smiling and nodding his head as if to say, "We can do this." And so they did.
Second, I remember looking at our guys on the bench. In the past, we'd have some athletes on the field but a bunch of scholarly looking guys on the bench. That year, we had big, strong, fast athletes on the sidelines.
In 2008, the Gamecocks came to Nashville angry and expecting revenge. They had a freakishly fast, nasty defense and they came out and punched us in the mouth and took a lead. But we never gave up and by the end, Captain Munnerlyn, the Gamecock defender who'd been so dismissive of the Commodores the year before after losing to them, had a meltdown, drew a couple of stupid personal fouls and had to be taken out of the game. It's not often that a coach takes Steve Spurrier to school, but Bobby did just that.
In 2009, we scared the crap out of the Gamecocks, who barely won at home.
Now we've got even better athletes, with our best recruiting class in history having reported to campus earlier this summer.
So why is Bobby leaving, and now?
Let's throw out some theories:
1. He really does want to spend more time with his family. Sure, that's usually a red flag that somebody's done something wrong or is about to get fired, but have you ever known Johnson to tell a lie? I mean, look at his recruiting class so far. Two commitments, one from the kind of skinny, basketball-playing project offensive lineman he's always had success with, and the other from a two-star quarterback from Florida with no other SEC offers. Sure, last season didn't help him any, but he wasn't going to look a kid in the eye and tell him to come to Vandy when he wasn't going to be here.
2. He's absolutely loyal to his assistants, part I. In the case of Ted Cain, maybe loyal to a fault. But if Johnson had retired at the end of last season, Vandy would have hired an external candidate who would have brought in his own staff. But Johnson retires a week before SEC media days, Robbie Caldwell is given his first and perhaps only chance to lead a college football team, and everybody on the staff keeps his job. And considering all the horrible predictions for this season, if these guys can win four or five games, they'll be heroes.
3. He's absolutely loyal to his assistants, part II. Fans, alumni and probably administrators wanted to see a better offense and a fresh new offensive mind or two on the staff. It's not unthinkable that he was given the ultimatum to improve the offense or give some of his guys their walking papers. But Johnson wasn't going to get rid of any of his coaches. The closest thing he could muster was demoting Ted Cain from offensive coordinator to tight ends coach and giving all the planning and play calling duties to Jimmy Kiser.
4. He wanted to keep his recruiting class intact. His final masterpiece, the school's best recruiting class ever, would have likely jumped ship if he'd retired at the end of the season. But now they're already in school, and as Kyle Woestmann pointed out, at least their position coaches are still here.
5. This is going to be a rough season. Would Johnson really be leaving if he thought this group had a chance to do something special? As we've said before, we should be poised to compete in 2011, but right now we've got too many questions at offensive line and on offense in general to even consider a bowl trip in 2010.
6. Then again, maybe Rajaan Bennett's murder was a wake-up call. Johnson talked about getting the most out of life. He wasn't the kind of guy to get torn up after a loss — angry, yes, but not blubbering or self-pitying — but he was devastated after Bennett's death.
7. He's going to be the athletic director at the University of Georgia. Just starting a rumor. But think about it: Georgia's players are wild and the school just lost its young athletic director, who got a DUI in downtown Atlanta and, as a police officer noted, had a young lady's panties (Bulldog red of course) in his lap and we know this because the young lady was sitting in the seat next to him and got arrested herself. Who's cleaner and more respected than Bobby Johnson?
Anyway, Robbie Caldwell's got his shot, and he'll be the head coach all season. He talked about how "happy" he was to have this chance, which makes you think he already knew Johnson was leaving and had processed the information.
Of course, that doesn't mean Vandy won't officially launch a search if we get off to a slow start, which is a strong possibility — nine of our first 10 opponents played in bowl games last season.
Caldwell's a great coach who could be an assistant anywhere in the nation. Now he gets rewarded for sticking with Bobby Johnson. He doesn't look like the kind of guy who'd get a shot to coach an SEC team, but then again you'd never expect Steve Martin to be a head football coach in the nation's best conference.
Best case scenario: The team has the kind of surprising season that wasn't predicted to happen under Johnson, the nation falls in love with underdog Vandy once again, Caldwell becomes a hero, and Vandy salvages a pretty good recruiting class and then starts working on a truly great one for the following year.
Worst case scenario: The team has the kind of terrible season that's being predicted, the administration drags its feet on finding and replacement, some of our bright young signees decide to transfer, and Vandy takes a huge step backwards.