Language always has meant something to Bobby Johnson.
He speaks in a slow, measured cadence – part of it a product of his Southern heritage and part of it a desire to make sure he says exactly what he means. One of his first acts as Vanderbilt football coach, one which got him a great deal of national notoriety, was to outlaw the use of curse words by his players during practices and games.
So it meant something Wednesday when he said he is retiring from college football after 34 seasons, the last eight as head coach of the Commodores. He went 29-66 after being hired away from Furman, where he also was head coach for eight seasons, and held the top post at Vanderbilt longer than any of the nine men who preceded him between 1962 and 2002.
“After much thought and consideration for everyone involved, I have decided to retire – not resign – I’m retiring as a college football coach,” Johnson said at a hastily assembled press conference.
Johnson’s retirement is effective July 31. Immediately, though, Robbie Caldwell, the assistant head coach/offensive line coach in recent seasons, assumes the role of interim head coach.
The timing of Johnson’s decision – SEC media days are next week, practices begin in less than a month and the first game (Sept. 4 against Northwestern) is fewer than seven weeks out – guaranteed that his staff would remain intact for the coming season because it left the university no time to pursue any outside options.
That too was consistent with the approach of Johnson, who has been fiercely loyal to his players and his assistants. Seven members of the staff have been with the program since Johnson came on board following the 2001 season.
“I would say there’s a cadre of great assistant coaches on there, and any one of them could have done the job,” vice chancellor David Williams said, “In our area, you try never to have this moment, but you do have to plan on succession planning, and that’s why you have an assistant head coach.
“So we didn’t hope this day would come, but we were prepared if it did come.”
Reason for leaving
Johnson stressed that his decision was not made due to any health concerns. Nor was it because he grew weary of competing in the most challenging college football conference while handcuffed with circumstances that do not hinder the other 11 members of the SEC.
At 59 years hold, he and his wife Catherine simply decided it was time to get on with the rest of their lives.
He said the two have talked repeatedly throughout the years about the day they would have the opportunity to enjoy their life together. Recently, those discussions began to happen more often and took on a more serious tone.
By late last week his mind was made up. He tried to meet with Williams then, but the two were unable to align their schedules until Monday. Having said he wanted to meet “about the season,” Johnson let it be known that the 2010 season would not include him on the sideline.
“Football is not life, but it’s a way of life, and it consumes your life,” Johnson said. “You only have so many years to live and you want to see a different way (of life). I do.
“Some guys will coach with one foot in the coffin. I want to do some other things.”
Williams made repeated attempts Monday and Tuesday to change Johnson’s mind. He offered alternative exit strategies and increased income. At times, he felt he would convince Johnson to stay.
“I called (Tuesday) night at 10 o’clock and Catherine answered the phone,” Williams said. “I could tell in her voice I had lost. … That’s the integrity of the man. He made his decision and he made his decision for the right reasons. When you make a decision like that, mere money doesn’t change your mind.”
The new guy
Caldwell never has been a head coach at any level outside of one season in high school baseball more than 30 years ago. He inherits a team that went 2-10 in 2009 but is a little over a year removed from a victory in the Music City Bowl.
Unlike many other long-time members of the staff, he did not come with Johnson from Furman. He did arrive with the others in 2002 but he came after 15 seasons at North Carolina State. As the Commodores’ offensive line coach he developed two draft picks, including Chris Williams, a first-round choice by Chicago in 2008.
“This is a sad day, yet a happy time for me obviously,” Caldwell said. “I’ve worked a long time as a loyal assistant, and I had the privilege of being asked to come here by Coach Johnson. College football is losing a great man today.”
David Williams said that he had no plans to search for a replacement and that details such as a raise in pay for Caldwell would be discussed in the coming days. At the same time, he gave no indication that he planned to lift the ‘interim’ from Caldwell’s title before the end of the season.
“Am I saying I’m giving him a 10-year contract? No.” Williams said. “Amy I saying he has a one-year contract? No. Who knows? He might not even like the job.
“… Your decisions are made, many times, for you by what happens on the field on the court in the pool or whatever. … Athletics is one of those things where you make you future. This staff is our staff. This is our football staff – it was our staff going in and it still is. My hope is next year, we get ready for the season this will be our staff.”
Collectively, that group already had completed many of the plans for preseason practices, and never during that time did Johnson say what he had in mind.
Caldwell, in fact, had to pull a coaching uniform to wear during the press conference because he reported to work Wednesday in shorts because he believed it was just a normal day.
“Believe me, there’s not a great time for a college football coach to retire,” Johnson said. “If it’s during the season, I don’t feel like a lame duck situation is very good. If it comes after a season where we didn’t play as well as we hoped, I don’t think that says a lot of great stuff for your program.
“This is the way we worked it out.”