The corner in the lobby of the Vanderbilt football offices looks as if it was made for the 2008 Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl trophy, which now resides there.
The sparkling memento attracts the immediate attention of those who enter, yet does not stand out in a manner that seems forced. Someone who did not know better actually might think it had been there for years.
As much as anyone, though, coach Bobby Johnson understands exactly what it took to get that trophy there nearly two months ago. And while its presence represents a dramatic change in the performance and perception of the program, Johnson insists that consistency was the most important factor in securing it, just as it will be paramount to trying to get others to go with it.
“We felt like we could make it happen,” Johnson said. “We weren’t sure when. We were very fortunate to have a very good player in Jay Cutler here. He gave us an opportunity to do it.
“Then after that I think the work that we had put in sort of kicked in.”
With the 2009 recruiting class secured and the start of spring football a little more than two weeks away (workouts begin March 10, the spring game will be March 21), Johnson has had time to reflect upon and bask in the benefits of the Commodores’ most successful season in more than a quarter-century.
“When you do something like that, which most people didn’t expect us to do, there’s a residual benefit and good feeling that goes on for a long while,” he said. “But that real high that you had right after the game and when you got to celebrate with friends afterwards, that’s pretty special.”
In his estimation, the difference between the team that went 7-6 last fall and the ones that had losing records every year between 1982 and 2007 was that little changed from the six previous seasons under Johnson, who was hired in 2002.
Eight members of the coaching staff have been around for all seven seasons. Schemes and training techniques have been altered minimally, if at all.
In short, the Commodores’ breakthrough was the result of an erosion of bad habits and uncertain mindsets as opposed to some sort of seismic shift.
“Just stay at it; keep at it,” Johnson said his approach. “If we keep at getting better, we will get better. If you just want to stay where you are, that’s pretty easy to do, or if you don’t care you’re going to go really backward in a hurry. I think our whole team, our whole staff and our support people, they want to get better.”
He did note that the 2008 season and the bowl victory have created a different mindset and approach to the offseason training program.
“They have a bunch of energy,” Johnson said. “We haven’t had a single problem with anybody being late or missing – they’ve been great. So I expect spring practice will go the same way.
“Our guys know the situation. They know just as well as anybody (that) we want to keep momentum going, we want to keep that pride factor going; we want to make sure we’re doing everything we possibly can to get better.”
Johnson insists he knew almost exactly what he was getting into when he left Furman and accepted Vanderbilt’s offer to replace Woody Widenhofer.
Understanding how far the program was from competing consistently in the Southeastern Conference and for postseason bowl invitations, he said, made it easier to remain patient through the process, which was not a steady rise to the current level of success all involved have enjoyed.
“The people who hired me were very candid and very open and explained what the situation was and how much work it was going to be,” Johnson said. “I think we were in a situation to where we probably could have gotten to a bowl game a little earlier than we did, but some things didn’t work out here or there.
“Some of the things were bad luck, some of the things were playing against far superior teams and other things that maybe we didn’t do so well – that were our fault.”
As much as he has looked back on the process and the 16-14 victory over Boston College on New Year’s Eve, though, the school’s winningest coach since Art Guepe (39 victories from 1953-62) insists he and those around him have spent even more time looking forward.
“The whole staff and the whole program really enjoyed the experiences, especially the culmination of the bowl victory and the attention it brings to your program,” Johnson said. “We have an awful lot of pride now.
“We think we can better, need to be better. If we don’t get better we’re going to have a hard time duplicating that and a real hard time bettering it. I think we all understand – everybody in the program – that this has to continue and we have to get better than we are right now.”