Updated: Vandy, SEC lose a lot as Johnson walks away

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.

Please follow me on Twitter:

www.twitter.com/MrCFB

120 comments Add your comment

EgginDawg

July 15th, 2010
8:08 am

Area Sports Fan

July 15th, 2010
8:10 am

Tony, back in my day, foot-ball was game of leathered man vs leathered man tackling. Today, when I look for that on the google, it seems that foot-ball has changed. I don’t like it. I have no idea why many refuse to wear britches. True story, in 1937 we beat a young team of up starts from Cornell and started the southern foot-ball mens club. This eventually became Mary Mac’s Tea Room and then eventually the Georgia Tech foot-ballers we know today. Funny who things start like that. Nice work Tony.

Area Sports Fan

July 15th, 2010
8:14 am

Bobby Johnsom is a good man and a good coach. I appreciate the vigor with which he operates. Ha-zah to you Booby. Now enjoy your time and your family.

Mikey in SAV

July 15th, 2010
8:24 am

Bobby will be missed. Classy to the core.
Could make chicken salad out of chicken bleep better than anyone.

Hey, Area Sports Fan...

July 15th, 2010
8:27 am

…are you really 91 years old? If not, your story makes no sense…

Jeff

July 15th, 2010
8:29 am

Good one, as usual Tony. Although he certainly had a Sisyphean task, he did it with class.

Area Sports Fan

July 15th, 2010
8:40 am

I wish I was 91. I’d whip the stuffing out of you with an oinion bag, just like we did to the Kaiser. I’m 97 years old and typing on this keyboard diddly thing with a pencil and a chopstick I found on the floor.

Bobby Johnson once told me that to coach at Vandy is like coaching a team of muskrats against a team of polecats. You like the muskrats better but them polecats is just to dang fast. I laughed when Coach Johnson told me that. We was sitting in the front booth at a Chili’s in Nashville. I had french-fried potato sticks and tomato sauce. Bobby ate only lettuce and salt water. He was funny like that. I’ll miss him.

Beast from the East

July 15th, 2010
8:42 am

I thought he did a great job at Vandy. Tough (almost impossible) task to win week in and week out against the level of competition. Sad to see him go, but I wish him the best.

Musashi

July 15th, 2010
8:44 am

Good post Tony, Coach Johnson’s teams always seemed prepared to play and well coached. They certainly were no “gimme”. I can’t help wondering about the timing though, I wonder how his new recruits and incoming freshmen feel about it.

Asheville Dawg

July 15th, 2010
8:45 am

Bobby Johnson did amazing things with the Vandy program. He will be missed.

Dawgs97

July 15th, 2010
8:46 am

I cannot, for the life of me, fathom the defense of Bobby Johnson.

As a Georgia fan, I had always felt Johnson was a class act – until now. To quit on his program 6 weeks before the season, for whatever personal reasons he had, is ludicrous. If he’s not having health issues and there’s not a sex scandal, then he has an obligation to make that decision in December, just after the season. An obligation to give Vanderbilt the chance to decide who the next head coach should be.

Furthermore, the recruits that signed on to play for Vanderbilt signed on to play for Johnson. Yes, I realize these weren’t the 4 and 5 star guys because almost all of Vandy recruits probably weren’t offered by Georgia, Florida and Bama. However, they did choose Vandy over some other options and part or all of that decision was based on Bobby Johnson as the head coach.

If he resigned in December, at the end of SEC season, he leaves at an appropriate end to allow the University to name a replacement of their choosing and giving recruits planning to sign in February, a chance to either join with the new coach or sign elsewhere.

Two Vanderbilt fans I know had opposite reactions. One got every angry and defensive with me when I suggested this was a classless move by Johnson, the other agreed – it was.

GatorinATL

July 15th, 2010
8:48 am

I agree. Nice article. Bobby Johnson really is a class guy, persistant who did things his own way, and never complained. And once again, he’s doing what HE feels is best for him. I wish him well.

How2fish

July 15th, 2010
8:54 am

Best of luck Coach Johnson!

VandyFan

July 15th, 2010
8:54 am

He will be missed and can never be replaced. The timing is strange but I will never question Coach Johnson’s character or decision. He has earned that. Best of luck Coach.

[...] Vandy losing a lot in losing Johnson, writes Tony Barnhart of the AJC. [...]

joe

July 15th, 2010
9:02 am

Leave it to a dog fan, 97, to take an opportunity to rip a man who is nothing short of admirable. If you read Tony’s article, you’ll know why he did it…A-for his wife, B-for his staff. Whether he is there or not, the results probably wouldn’t have changed much either way. But thanks for yet another showing of just how idiotic UGA supporters can be…pathetic.

Area Sports Fan

July 15th, 2010
9:05 am

joe, your whining and whinging sicken me like a sack of rotten footstuff in my gullet. I threw a clothes pin at my monitor when I read your post. I thought you ought to know that.

Stop with the sissy talk and let’s discuss foot-ball. I think the new coach at Vandy will bring back the forward-pass to the half-back. I’m sure Tony will agree.

Area Sports Fan

July 15th, 2010
9:06 am

Pardon me, I meant a pitch to the full-back. The forward pass is what got them into this mess to begin with! I’m sure Tony will agree.

Vandy Student

July 15th, 2010
9:10 am

Great article. As a current student at Vandy I can say that what coach Johnson has done has really been appreciated, and he will be sorely missed. The 2008 season was unbelievable and having Gameday was an experience that neither I nor the university will ever forget.

82Dawg

July 15th, 2010
9:11 am

joe ….please do not put all UGA supporters in the classification as 97. The majority of UGA fans wish Coach Johnson well and realize that it is a huge lost for Vanderbilt and the SEC.

GATORZONE

July 15th, 2010
9:18 am

Dawgs97, I agree with you. This lovefest by Tony Barnhart is obscuring the fact that he left recruits and his team in the lurch. Why couldn’t he make it to December? I would be pissed if Urban quit right before the season as would any Dawg fan. Just because Vandy is not a powerhouse, they do have fans and this kind of thing stinks for their fanbase.

Dawg Nation

July 15th, 2010
9:22 am

I don’t expect it, but I hope there’s not a Damon Evansesque shoe about to drop.

jumbeauxtiger

July 15th, 2010
9:23 am

Good article Tony. Johnson is a good coach who was in a tough situation. He’s a class guy and you rarely, if ever, heard of any incidents with his players.

Geaux Tigers
Go SEC

GatorsRuleSECEast

July 15th, 2010
9:24 am

LOL, Vandy’s only road victory over a ranked team also occured under Johnson’s coach! He beat the mighty BullDawgs and according to AJC blogs…the best coach that ever lived…in 2006 when he defeated UGA in Athens. How does that feel Dawg fans??? To be the only ranked team Vandy has ever beaten? LOL

59bulldawg

July 15th, 2010
9:27 am

I first thought the timing was a bit odd too. But if he was as loyal to his his staff as Tony suggests, it makes perfect sense. However going back to his Furman days I have always had a great deal of respect for Coach Johnson and I wish him well.

kaptu

July 15th, 2010
9:29 am

His primary responsibility was to the university, not his assistants. His timing is terrible, uncalled for and, in a lot of ways, unforgivable.

Bad move.

Tony Kills Me.....

July 15th, 2010
9:38 am

Gen Neyland

July 15th, 2010
9:42 am

Vanderbilt is what Vanderbilt is. It’s a top notch educational facility that happens to be a member of the football crazed SEC. They’ve made changes within their Athletic Department over the years to become as competitive as possible on the field without caving on their primary principles as an institute of higher learning. For that, they lead our conference in the Character Building Department. Hope they get another from the mold of Bobby Johnson, if it ain’t broke…

Jake

July 15th, 2010
9:43 am

Tony, I was going to say what you said, “We need more Bobby Johnson’s in the SEC. He in my book is a winner. I have alwasy found myself pulling for Vandy, seems we all have the nature of pulling for the underdog. Not sure Vandy can replace him. Too, I admire you not telling all that he said to you, as you memtioned. Most press guys will not do this today, rather they spill the beans for their own personal glory, blowing their chest out to the public. Good writers long term, do what you did by not spilling the beans, knowing they want the next interview.

Otto

July 15th, 2010
9:50 am

Johnson may have quit knowing he would likely get fired at the end of the year and his staff would get disbanded for a new HC. By leaving now a HC search may never take place as the staff gets a 1 yr interview and may even be given a break given the timing of the coaching change. The players win if the staff succeeds as well as they would be with majority of the coaches that recruited them.

Whatever his reasons good luck to Johnson and congrats to the success that he had in raising the Vandy football program. Bobby is still a class act IMO.

Jake

July 15th, 2010
9:54 am

Bobby Johnson may have been the best coach in the SEC.

RxDawg

July 15th, 2010
9:55 am

Well said, well said indeed Tony.

As for the people complaining about the timing…hello it’s summertime. There is nothing going on right now, so much nothing that it’s officialy arrest season for football players across the country. An SEC head football coach is a year round job, there really is never a good time to step down. But if it’s got to be done, than July is just as good as any other time if not better than most.

SOGADOG

July 15th, 2010
9:56 am

That call against Vandy in the Florida game in 2005 helps make the case against the changes to the excessive celebration rule this year. A bad excessive celebration call will often change the outcome of a game which can change the outcome of a season.

T3

July 15th, 2010
9:57 am

With Bobby Johnson’s resignation/retirement
goes ANY remaining class out of the SEC.

Honor & Integrity have NO CHANCE in the SEC, where lying, cheating, regular acts of criminal behavior by athletes(UGA & others), recruiting illiterate players thru Special Admissions programs(UGA & others), etc. etc. etc. are…THE STANDARD PRACTICE, year in and year out.

Vandy is THE ONLY exception to those rules. And, so is Bobby Johnson.

Barnhart is the #1 cheerleader for the BLATANTLY CORRUPT organization
know as the SEC.

To hear Barnhart sound magnanimous about Johnson and Vandy
made me throw up in my mouth.

T3 is m

July 15th, 2010
9:59 am

Hey T3 aka m:

((((( 30-24 )))))

RxDawg

July 15th, 2010
9:59 am

“Furthermore, the recruits that signed on to play for Vanderbilt signed on to play for Johnson.”

WRONG, the players sign on to play for Vanderbilt University. Just as our players sign on to play for the University of Georgia. All players have to accept the fact that you might have different coaches sometime throughout your career.

Think of your job, do you work for your boss? Or do you work for your company?

GATORZONE

July 15th, 2010
9:59 am

You guys wouldn’t be so forgiving if your head coach pulled a stunt like this. Whatever his reasons. It is crappy for his fans and players.

Otto

July 15th, 2010
10:01 am

Also on top of the reasons listed above retiring in July does not impact practice or recruiting of new players. The argument could be made that Johnson retired at the best time.

If a coach retires at the end of the year we always hear how the coaching search damages recruiting for the next season as signing day is so close.

Otto

July 15th, 2010
10:02 am

Yes I would not be so forgiving if my coach pulled a Favre.

Gatorzone

July 15th, 2010
10:03 am

Enter your comments here

RxDawg

July 15th, 2010
10:03 am

Hey GZ “I would be pissed if Urban quit right before the season as would any Dawg fan”

Just so you know, I wouldn’t be pissed if Urban quit right now ;)

Hehe, just kiddin. I want him there so we can rise up and beat him. If Urban quits, I want him to say “I couldn’t beat those dawg gone Dawgs anymore”.

Gatorzone

July 15th, 2010
10:03 am

Thanks Otto. Tony spins a good story, but the truth is if your coach did this the last thing you would call it is a class move

Gatorzone

July 15th, 2010
10:04 am

Yeah, RX, I realized that I left off the part about if Richt did it you guys would be mad.

T3

July 15th, 2010
10:05 am

Dear idiot 30-24.

m…not by a long shot.

But thanks for sounding uninformed and immature.

Gatorzone

July 15th, 2010
10:06 am

On another note, congrats to Mississippi. At least you are number one in something:
http://health.msn.com/health-topics/articlepage.aspx?cp-documentid=100261061&GT1=31036

T3 is m

July 15th, 2010
10:14 am

Hey m,

“To hear Barnhart sound magnanimous about Johnson and Vandy
made me throw up in my mouth.”

Yeah, you’re real mature. Go back to what you do best, flogging the bishop.

#2 BAMA FAN

July 15th, 2010
10:32 am

Guys I live in Nashville and used to have season tickets at Vandy and Bobby Johnson is one hell of a
football coach and human being. The man had 2 players get murder on his watch and all that close games would take a toll on a human being. I wish the man the best of luck and we will miss Bobby Johnson very much. The guy who broke the story George Plaster who is a Vandy homer could not believe it was happening at first but it really shocked the vandy fans and Nashville as well!! RTR

SEC FAN

July 15th, 2010
10:32 am

Johnson’s teams were always well prepared. Johnson did as well as anyone could have done at Vanderbilt. He did a lot more with a lot less at Vandy than Richt has done at UGA. Johnson’s coaching ability merited a head coaching job at a more competetive place than Vandy.

T3

July 15th, 2010
10:39 am

Dear idiot 30-24.

Like I said above…”thanks for sounding uninformed and immature.”

How2fish

July 15th, 2010
10:40 am

T3 you try and throw the SEC under the bus with your drivel and you call someone else informed and immature? Please stay on the porch.