It’s well established that Robbie Caldwell offers a good quote. After an injury-prone practice, he once joked that he couldn’t explain the bad luck: “I didn’t even stretch, went through one of the drills and didn’t pull nothing. Maybe I don’t move fast enough.”
Whether he is revealed as a good head coach, though, it won’t be for lack of dedication. Caldwell has garnered the full support of the Commodores with his enthusiasm and approach to the job that became his just over a month ago, after eight seasons as a Vanderbilt assistant and more than 30 in the college game.
An old friend of former head coach Bobby Johnson, Caldwell joined Vanderbilt’s staff before the 2002 season as the offensive line coach, but his connection to many of his current assistants predated that, some as far back as their playing days in the 1970s at Furman. When he became head coach, it was simply a new branch of the same coaching tree taking over. In terms of cohesiveness, the transition is more like George H.W. Bush following Reagan than George W. following Clinton.
“I hope I’ll carry over just what Coach Johnson established here, and that is a team that will fight to the finish, play every play,” Caldwell said. “If I can get every one of them to play every down like that play is going to determine the outcome of the game, we’ll be where we want to be.”
Characteristically, Caldwell can be too modest evaluating himself. He has said that he’ll be satisfied with doing half the job Johnson did. But his coaching colleagues say they have watched Caldwell quickly transform into a head coach. The changes they’ve seen regard his role, not his personality.
“I think the biggest thing is that a lot of the other players are around him more, he can see the whole team,” strength coach John Sisk said. “He’s coaching the same way he’s always coached, but obviously his role has changed. He is trying to add his personality to what Coach Johnson had done.”
Sisk said Caldwell is more hands-on as a head coach. It can be seen on the practice field, when he throws his arm around a player to reward good effort. It is evident off the field in the way he eased worried mothers of freshmen with humor as they checked their sons into fall practice. His long-time colleagues, now working under him, have registered how Caldwell reaches players.
“He hasn’t changed at all,” offensive coordinator Jimmy Kiser said. “He’s got a lot of enthusiasm, and the players have responded well. We lost a great coach, but they’ve moved on and really accepted Coach Caldwell.”
Caldwell himself has noticed some changes after just a few days of fall practice. An offensive line coach for decades, he now praises the defensive line for breaking through to the backfield. Outside the film room, Caldwell said he hadn’t seen skill position drills in years. He’s had to take a few steps back to get the full picture as head coach.
“I’m a little calmer,” he said. “I don’t get wired up as much because I have to look at every position. When you coach a group like offensive line you get all jacked up, it’s a little more emotional.”
At practice, Caldwell lumbers across the field in a bear-like shuffle, patrolling position drills. He lets assistants take the reins as he oversees with his hands on his hips, Panama hat on his head. Caldwell individually calls out players and interjects nuggets of coaching in between reps. He breaks into a full gait when he needs to rush the team into the next drill. The feeling that the head coach is guiding every aspect of the team resonates.
He has a typical goal to win by taking it one game at a time, but with so little under his belt as a head coach, it’s hard to fully evaluate Caldwell. His deftness with X’s and O’s is not game-tested.
“The changes in terms of what we’ll see in a game is hard to say because it’ll be his first time at it,” Kiser said. “It’ll be kind of interesting but he’ll be ready, he’ll do a good job.”
Caldwell’s enthusiasm, commitment and leadership, however, are unquestionable. If players match his dedication, good things can follow. Caldwell cares deeply about Vanderbilt football. It’s evident in the little things he does — running across practice to stomp down a loose patch of turf, unconsciously picking up scraps of plastic from the field — as well as what he says.
“I love every one of them [Vanderbilt football players],” Caldwell explained. “I’m just here for them. I want to push ’em and prod ’em, and my definition of love is tough. If they need a butt-chewin’, we’ll give ’em that. If they need a hug, we’ll give ’em that, but I believe in every single one of them.”