Why should we care about Vanderbilt football?
It’s no power program. The university is regarded for its academics, not known for its ability to compete in the tough SEC. A glance at Bobby Johnson’s overall record won’t impress anyone. Is it really a big deal that he announced his retirement on Wednesday? Does it matter to the game?
Johnson began his coaching career at Furman University in 1976, working his way through several assistant roles and into the job of defensive coordinator. In 1993, he left to assume that title at nearby Clemson, but after a single season returned to Greenville, South Carolina to take the reins of Furman football.
In his time as the head coach of the Paladins he turned around a struggling Division 1-AA program, his efforts culminating in 3 consecutive trips to the divisional playoffs in 1999-2001. In his final season with the team he guided the Paladins to the title game before falling 13-6 to Montana. Despite the loss, it was one of the most successful seasons in school history. To this day, Furman is one of only 5 private universities to have appeared in the FCS (formerly 1-AA) championship game.
In 2002, Johnson took over at Vanderbilt, a university with little modern success and few bowl appearances. In the twenty years preceding Johnson’s tenure, the Commodores had exactly zero winning seasons. The closest they came to .500 over that span was Gerry DiNardo’s 5-6 campaign in 1991.
Johnson was taking on a thankless task. There were no illusions that his presence would suddenly undo years of football failures and lead to some untold glory. The man just wanted to coach D-1 football.
Think of Bobby Johnson as the anti-Petrino. He never had 5-star talent or eye-popping revenues to work with. He was mired at the bottom of the best football conference in the nation. There was no questioning his football acumen and coaching talent, and he certainly could have parlayed the opportunity into another gig. A less demanding, less discouraging gig.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, Johnson stayed with the Commodores for 8 seasons, despite inheriting a team coming off of a 2-win effort. In fact, over his first 4 years Johnson himself finished with 2 per season. But in the next 4, Johnson led Vandy to 21 total wins and the team’s first non-losing season in 2 decades. His 2008 team started the year 5-0, and though it ultimately limped to a 6-6 regular season, Vanderbilt earned a bowl berth for the first time since 1982.
And on December 31st, 2008, in Nashville’s Music City Bowl, the Commodores beat Boston College 16-14. It was the team’s first bowl win since 1955- a span of more than half a century.
It’s easy enough to dismiss Johnson’s overall record at Vandy. 29-66 won’t turn any heads. That, however, does not define his legacy. The 2008 season does. The bowl victory does. As does the fact that during his tenure, Johnson ended losing streaks against 8 different SEC rivals, including in-state foe Tennessee. Beating the Vols 28-24 in 2005 ended a 22-game skid.
Bobby Johnson never had a lot to work with, but he knew his job. To encourage, to teach, and to improve his teams and players in whatever ways he could. He was a classy guy, a loyal guy working in a time and in an industry when loyalty and determination aren’t easy to find.
Upon announcing his retirement, the 59 year old assured the media that the decision was not health-related. Nor did the move have anything to do with the program’s struggles over the years. His announcement caught the university by surprise, and the program now turns to former assistant head coach Robbie Caldwell, whom Johnson declared “ready” for the responsibility.
Of his retirement, Johnson had this to say:
“I’ve decided to retire, not resign. It’s a tough decision with which my wife, Catherine, and I struggled. This is a personal decision. Football is not life, but it’s a way of life and it consumes your life. You only have so many years to live, and you want to see a different way.”
Vanderbilt’s Vice Chancellor David Williams offered this response:
“I am saddened by the fact Bobby has made this decision. At the same token, as I’ve said to the staff, it’s our obligation to respect his decision. I did try to talk Bobby out of it. I tried to talk him out of it yesterday. I tried to talk him out of it last night, and I tried to talk him out of it this morning…[After speaking with his wife Catherine,] I could tell from her voice I had lost.”"
Johnson never won a championship. He never went to the BCS or earned a number 1 ranking. But he did serve as a reminder that coaching success is about more than winning. Befitting his career, he steps away with dignity and for the right reasons. And fans of the game should be sorry to see him go.