Pageland, S.C. is a classic American small town.
Born a little more than 100 years ago when a train depot was built just south of the North Carolina state line, its population as of two years ago was only slightly more than 2,500. Every July for 59 years, it has hosted a watermelon festival (the 2010 edition took place last weekend) to celebrate one of the crops that thrives in its sandy soil.
Yet even in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was big enough for gaps to develop in the life of Robbie Caldwell.
“My mother and father split up when I was young,” he said. “I still had both of them — one on one end of town and one on the other.
“But my coaches were there for me.”
It was those who instructed the star baseball and football player who filled in the gaps. They provided direction and discipline as needed and set an example the young man wanted to follow.
Their impact was immediate and profound, and it had a lot to do with the fact that Caldwell is now Vanderbilt’s football coach, following the sudden retirement last week of Bobby Johnson.
“My high school coaches were — it sounds like a cliché here — heroes of mine,” Caldwell said. “They meant that much to me. … I just admired the way they worked with young people … even though they screamed and hollered at you sometimes.”
Now 56 years old with more than 30 years of experience as a college assistant to his credit, Caldwell has done his share of screaming and hollering. And prodding. And loving.
He is outwardly passionate with his players, and for the last eight years those players have been Vanderbilt’s offensive linemen. He challenges them. He chastises them. His goal is to change them from boys into men.
“Definitely, he’s hard on his offensive linemen,” senior defensive tackle Adam Smotherman said. “But they end up being better players and even better men. Now I’m sure that will transfer to the entire team.”
Caldwell stresses that he does not yell without reason. Whatever the specific incident that prompts him to up the volume, at the root of it all is his devotion to those players and to the profession he chose.
Plus, he’s willing to admit when he’s wrong.
Three seasons ago in a game against Eastern Michigan, then-sophomore Bradley Vierling was at right guard and his job on a particular running play was to execute a specific type of block. He did so, but the player he blocked, Jason Jones (now a defensive tackle with the Tennessee Titans), still managed to make a tackle.
Vierling got an earful from Caldwell when he came to the sideline but stood his ground and insisted he had done his job.
“He said, ‘We’ll see on the tape,’ only he said it in a not very nice, aggressive fashion,” Vierling said. “It was early the next morning, he called me, woke me up and apologized. He was watching the tape and saw that I had executed my assignment.”
That kind of humility can be traced to Caldwell’s small-town upbringing.
“Players love him, and they love playing for him,” Johnson said. “He tries to give you a hayseed act, but he’s a very, very smart guy.”
The truth is that none of it is an act.
He is a skilled leader who has helped develop seven NFL draft picks, including three at Vanderbilt, and five All-Americans. He
is a small-town guy who revels in his upbringing and those who facilitated it, parents or not.
He’s also a coach — the head football coach at Vanderbilt.