On paper, Saturday’s final regular-season game between Wake Forest and Vanderbilt doesn’t look like much.
It pits two struggling teams, trying to snap lengthy losing streaks. Wake Forest comes to Vanderbilt Stadium with a 2-8 record and on an eight-game skid. The Commodores (2-9) aren’t doing much better, having lost their last six.
This game could mean a lot more, though. It could be the last game for Vanderbilt’s Robbie Caldwell. The first-year head coach took over in mid-July – just seven weeks before the season opener – when his predecessor Bobby Johnson abruptly retired.
There were reports two weeks ago that a multi-year deal contract was in place to keep Caldwell as the head coach. Vanderbilt Vice Chancellor for University Affairs David Williams, however, told FanHouse.com on Nov. 8 that nothing had been finalized and the school wasn’t “negotiating a new deal right now.”
Since then, there has been no formal announcement and Caldwell said Monday at his weekly press conference that he does not know if he will be back once the season ends.
“I’m just going to keep working,” Caldwell said. “I can’t control that. I’m trying to work on things I can control.
“If it is my last game, well I’ll be sad because I have enjoyed my time here at Vanderbilt. But hopefully it won’t be. But if it is, I understand. It is the life of a football coach unfortunately this day and time. ... There is nothing in stone. As a coach, you live from one year to the next and you hope to go from there.”
Caldwell had little time to prepare for his first season but he wasn’t new to Vanderbilt, having served as offensive line coach since 2002.
He made his first hire in August when he picked Herb Hand, previously at Tulsa, to coach the offensive line. Caldwell then made another big move when he promoted running backs coach Des Kitchings to offensive coordinator on Oct. 25. Kitchings took over for Jimmy Kiser, who returned to coaching the quarterbacks.
It hasn’t been smooth sailing, obviously, as the offense has continued to sputter and injuries have forced younger players to step in sooner than expected.
Another year would give Caldwell a chance to bring in his own recruits and allow more time to implement his own system. Thus, a quick decision from Williams would benefit Caldwell, especially from a recruiting standpoint.
“We got some guys committed ... what I try to tell people is you got to choose a school for a school first and then go from there. Never base it on the coach,” Caldwell said. “Obviously you want to be around people you enjoy and it is important. I think most of the guys we are recruiting understand that and hopefully they are coming for the right reasons.”
Caldwell appears to have the support of his players.
Senior running back Kennard Reeves won’t be back next year but said he has been impressed with Caldwell’s desire to be a players’ coach.
“He is very personable,” Reeves said. “He tries to be in the mix of things. He tries to stay in your face and he tries to be the players’ coach and be a lot more personable.”
Freshman wide receiver Jordan Matthews said the first hand-written recruiting letter he received was from Caldwell and that was recruited personally by the coach.
“I would love to see Coach Caldwell stay. Me and him are great friends and we have a great relationship. I love him to death,” Matthews said. “I do have a good relationship with my coaches and I hope to see them back here.”
• Quarterbacks Larry Smith and Jared Funk both took some hits on Saturday against Tennessee. Smith injured his arm and had soreness in his knee. Funk also injured his knee and it swelled up by Sunday morning, Caldwell said.
“It will be interesting to see who is the survival of the fittest (Tuesday) out there at practice,” Caldwell said. “I think they will both be OK.”
If both are healthy enough to play, Caldwell said Smith will get the start. He has started every game this season, though Funk has played in seven games. Funk entered in the second half of Saturday’s game and was 9-for-14 for 146 yards, a touchdown and one interception. Smith was just 11-of-27 for 76 yards and threw and interception.
“Larry is our quarterback,” Caldwell said. “He has done a good job of getting beat on and hit on. Jared did a good job of coming on in relief. So it will be a toss up. We’ll see. I don’t know how (Smith’s) arm is going to affect him throwing. After we get through planning (Monday), see how much we are going to do of what (either passing or running) will determine that.”
• Upon further review, Matthews thought his 16-yard touchdown catch on a pass from Funk against Tennessee should have stood. The apparent score midway through the fourth quarter was wiped away because officials flagged Matthews for illegal touching.
They ruled he stepped out of bounds on his own and, by rule, he couldn’t be the first player to touch the ball after he came back in bounds. Two plays later, Funk threw an interception.
“We went back and looked at the film and I got pushed out of bounds,” Matthews said. “Coach (Caldwell) is pretty adamant about the fact that I got robbed on the play. A lot goes on, sometimes that is what happens in the game of football. You just got to bounce back from it and I was glad I was able to (score) later on in the game. But it was kind of deflating having a touchdown taken away.”
• Caldwell’s alma mater will be searching for a new head coach.
Furman coach Bobby Lamb announced last week he would resign after this season. The Paladins (5-6) lost their last regular-season game on Saturday to Georgia Southern.
Lamb had been at the Football Championship Subdivision school in South Carolina for nine seasons, taking over when former Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson left to coach the Commodores in 2002.
Along with Caldwell, four other current Vanderbilt coaches have ties to Furman. Assistants Ted Cain, Bruce Fowler, Kiser and Kitchings all coached and went to school there.
Cain, Vanderbilt’s special teams coordinator, had two stints for a total of 10 years at Furman. Fowler, the Commodores’ linebackers coach, was with the Paladins for nearly 20 years before coming with Johnson to Vanderbilt. Both could be strong head coaching candidates to replace Lamb.
“I don’t know what the outcome will be but I will certainly jump on the bandwagon for all of them,” Caldwell said.