Note: I talked to Bobby Johnson shortly after Noon on Thursday and updated this blog.
It was Sunday, Nov. 6, 2005 and Bobby Johnson was not a happy camper. The truth is he was pretty damn mad.
The Saturday night before Johnson’s team had lost one of those gut-wrenchers that perennial underdogs like Vanderbilt always seem to lose: The Commodores, led by Jay Cutler and Earl Bennett, came up on the short end of a 49-42, double overtime game at Florida.
Vanderbilt was in position to win the game in regulation when Cutler threw a touchdown pass to Bennett with 54 seconds left to bring the Commodores to within one, 35-34. Before the score Johnson had already made up his mind that he was going to go for two points and the win.
But guess what? On the touchdown play Bennett was called for excessive celebration. It was a bogus call. After the game Johnson called it stupid. But stupid or not it pushed the ball back 15 yards so Vanderbilt had to kick the extra point to tie. Florida won the game in the second overtime.
I watched the game in New York where I was working for CBS. By the time I got back to Atlanta on Sunday Johnson had looked at the film and was steaming. I sent him an email because I thought the call was just horrible. He wrote me back and on the record would only say that his team was “disappointed because we had the opportunity to win.”
He shared a lot of thoughts off the record which I am not at liberty to disclose. Let’s just say that the head coach at Vanderbilt felt his team was not treated fairly on the road.
I thought about that game and that exchange yesterday when Johnson suddenly announced his retirement a week before SEC Media Days were set to begin. Robbie Caldwell, his long-time assistant, will serve as interim head coach for the 2010 season.
It is an unusal time to walk away from coaching, to be sure. The first reaction from people around the league was concern that health might be an issue. It was not, said Johnson who, at 59, is in great shape and still hits a golf ball nine miles.
But to listen to Johnson’s press conference was to get little clues. Over the course of eight seasons there were a lot of losses like the one to Florida in 2005. Johnson lost 66 games in eight years at Vanderbilt. Twenty-six of those losses were by seven points or less. That’s a lot of heartache.
“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 it a different way. In fact, I do. Some guys want to coach with one foot in the coffin. But I want to do some other things.”
I don’t have to tell you that Vanderbilt is a tough job. It’s a small, private school with high academic standards in a conference that has won four straight national championships and five of the last seven. Only three coaches in the history of the school (Dan McGugin, Art Guepe, Johnson) have held the job for eight or more years. It can be argued that at this point in history, when the SEC is so dominant, the Vanderbilt football job is more difficult than it has ever been.
But what Johnson did after leaving Furman and taking over in Nashville in 2002, was close the gap between Vanderbilt and the rest of the SEC East, which was enormous. Week in and week out, the coaches in this conference would tell you, Vanderbilt became a very tough out under Johnson. What Vanderbilt may have lacked in blue chip talent the Commodores made up for with good coaching and a relentless approach to the game.
Johnson would never use Vanderbilt’s academic standards as an excuse. He saw them as an asset, not a liability. He had the SEC, an education worth about $240,000, and the city of Nashville to sell. “That should be enough,” he once told me.
And if you wanted to see Bobby Johnson get irritated, watch his face when a young reporter suggested that Vanderbilt should simply lower its expectations in football. His coaches were every bit as good as the coaches as the bigger schools and his players worked just as hard–if not harder–than the other teams in the SEC. The man would not back down and because of it Vanderbilt football did some things many thought were impossible.
In 2005 Vanderbilt started 4-0 before losing six straight games. One of those games was the highly-controversial loss to Florida, which kept the Commodores out of a bowl. But Vanderbilt salvaged the season by beating Tennessee and breaking a 22-game losing streak to the state rival.
In 2008 Vanderbilt started 4-0 again and was ranked in the Top 20 when ESPN brought College Game Day to Nashville. Later that day ESPN would televise a prime-time matchup with Auburn. Vanderbilt won 14-13 and posted a 5-0 start for the first time since 1943.
Vandy stumbled after that losing five of its next six, including a 17-14 loss to Mississippi State and a 10-7 loss to Duke. Still, Vanderbilt went to its first bowl game since 1982, beating Boston College in the Music City Bowl.
Johnson was very popular among the media and his fellow coaches because he told the truth. In a profession filled with huge egos, he managed to strike the balance of taking what he did very seriously without taking himself too seriously.
But on Wednesday Johnson admitted that fighting the fight for eight years and all of those close losses had taken their toll. “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t have an effect,” said Johnson. “Sometimes I would call it frustration instead of being beat down physically and mentally.”
I heard and read speculation yesterday that after a 2-10 record (0-8 in the SEC) in 2009 there had been some grumblings about Johnson. The offense was very bad last season, averaging only 8.9 points in eight SEC games. Johnson reassigned some coaches on the offensive staff but didn’t fire anybody. Some thought that wasn’t enough but if you know Johnson you knew that firing coaches was not going to happen. This coaching staff had been very loyal to him and they had all suffered through too many close losses together.
And have you looked at the Vanderbilt schedule? The non-conference slate includes Northwestern, at Connecticut and Wake Forest, all good teams. The Commodores play LSU (Sept. 11) and Ole Miss (Septl 18) in September. Given the offensive problems, another tough season looked very possible.
I finally talked to Bobby Johnson a little after Noon on Thursday. And in the final analysis, here was a man who looked at his life and career and then looked at the woman he absolutely adores, his wife Catherine, and decided that it was best to leave the stage a year too early instead of a year too late.
“The fact is that with the recruiting class coming in we feel good about the future,” Johnson said. “Yes, it’s tough going through this now but when I met with our guys they understood and were ready to go back to work. I would have expected no less from them.”
And about the timing of the decision? My take is that after all of those tough years together, Johnson felt his staff deserved a chance to carry on without him. If he had left last December that probably doesn’t happen. Now Caldwell and this staff have a year to prove to Vanderbilt that they can get the job done.
“They were owed that,” Johnson said.
Some Vanderbilt fans won’t like that and it’s understandable. But my belief is that Bobby Johnson felt that his first loyalty after Catherine was to the men who had slugged it out in the trenches with him for the past eight years at Vanderbilt and years before that at Furman.
The coaching profession, particularly at this level, eats a lot of people up. Look at what it did to Urban Meyer and he’s only 46 years old. I believe that Johnson finally decided that, at 59, the prudent thing to do would be to go out on his own terms.
“If you don’t have an investment in a season where it means everything to you, then I don’t think you should be coaching,” Johnson said.
Johnson spent Thursday returning phone calls to friends and reporters who had called to check on him. One of those calls, said Johnson, came from “Mr. Bisher.” That would be Furman Bisher (who attended Furman) who has told me more than once that he admired all the things that Bobby Johnson has always stood for.
“That is always nice to hear,” Johnson said.
Vanderbilt and the SEC are going to miss Bobby Johnson because he stood for all the right things. We don’t have enough men like him in college football.
Programming note: Our summertime version of “Talkin’ Football” airs tonight at 6 p.m. on CSS. Please join Bob Neal, Brady Ackerman, Mark Schlabach and me as we discuss this topic and set the stage for next week’s SEC Media Days.
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