Johnson being let off the hook at Vanderbilt
The media and Vanderbilt fans inadvertently have made the Commodores’ football program even more irrelevant by giving Bobby Johnson a pass for retiring three weeks before the start of fall camp.
But because Johnson was “classy” and “gentlemanly” during his tenure on West End – which he was and that’s great, but you also can read between the lines of those words when spoken about you by other SEC programs and come away with “lovable losers” – no one is calling him out.
Some insiders believe he waited this long to hang it up to ensure the future of his coaching staff. By pondering his future until the season opener was less than two months away Johnson left de facto athletic director David Williams no choice but to name an interim head coach from the staff (offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell, Johnson’s hand-picked successor) and keep the rest of the coaching roster intact.
“People retire,” Johnson said at his Wednesday news conference. “Believe me, there’s not a great time for a college football coach to retire.”
Maybe not, but there are better times than July 14. Johnson told ESPN.com, though, that had he retired right after last season it might have hurt recruiting. Really, Coach? You went 12-52 in the SEC during your eight-year tenure. Would your walking away truly have crippled the incoming class? Regardless of whom composes the class the team probably at least could go 2-10 and winless in the SEC like you did last year.
Yes, winning at Vanderbilt is difficult. Everybody gets that. Johnson had a hard time letting go of the close losses, and to his credit there were plenty of them (26 of his 66 losses at Vanderbilt were by seven points or less). But the Commodores are never going to be more than scrappy losers if moral victories are acceptable.
To give Johnson a pass is akin to taking another “attaboy” pat on the head from Florida or Georgia for having played them close. Vanderbilt ought to be tired of “attaboys.”
Universally media and fans are saying how much better off the Commodores’ football program is thanks to the Johnson era. Everyone points to the winning season in 2008 and the bowl win over Boston College. Big deal. It was a 6-6 regular season that would have been just another losing season to add to Vandy’s long history of those if it hadn’t beaten the Eagles in what essentially was a home game at the Music City Bowl. Let’s not forget the follow-up to the bowl appearance was last year’s return to bottomocrity.
Johnson indeed has been likeable and refreshing. He also went 29-66 in eight seasons. In four of those eight VU won exactly two games. He won only six games in the SEC East in his eight seasons. If that’s someone’s definition of progress they didn’t get a degree from Vanderbilt.
This would have been a perfect season for Vanderbilt to start anew. You look around the SEC East and there appears to be a chance to make some headway. Tennessee is in utter turmoil, and Derek Dooley doesn’t exactly strike fear. Kentucky has a new coach, too. Steve Spurrier at South Carolina is 65, and Georgia has been sliding for the past two seasons under Mark Richt. Heck, even Florida, whom Johnson never beat, had some touch-and-go moments with Urban Meyer after last season.
If Caldwell doesn’t do better than Johnson did last year all the former coach will have done is pushed the Commodores’ hiring of a new coach back a year. And that won’t have done the program any favors, especially at a time like this.