Retirement gives Caldwell 1st head coaching job
AP Sports Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Robbie Caldwell has a thick drawl thanks to his South Carolina hometown, a place he notes had a population of 1,500 counting cats and dogs.
There were so few people he used to hunt dove out of his backdoor.
But Caldwell says he has always wanted to be a head football coach.
Now he’s getting his shot in arguably the toughest job in the mighty Southeastern Conference – at Vanderbilt, the smallest school in the SEC and the league’s only private institution.
And to make his task even tougher, Caldwell is replacing his old friend Bobby Johnson just seven weeks before the season opener.
Johnson, who first coached with Caldwell as graduate assistants at Furman in 1976, says “Robbie … tries to give you that little hayseed act a little bit.”
“He is a really smart guy, and he’ll do a great job.”
Caldwell was introduced Wednesday as Vanderbilt’s interim head coach following Johnson’s retirement from college football. Caldwell, 56, went from dressed in shorts to line a football field for practice to promotion from assistant head coach to the top job all within a couple hours. He needed a quick shower before meeting reporters.
Now he has only a week to prepare for an even bigger introduction at the SEC’s annual media days in Birmingham, Ala., where Caldwell will face hundreds of reporters. Vanderbilt officials scrambled to reflect the change in the team’s media guide, and the clock just keeps ticking. Fall practice opens in about three weeks, and the opener is Sept. 4 against Northwestern.
Whether he keeps this job past the season finale Nov. 27 against Wake Forest remains to be seen. Vice chancellor David Williams is giving Caldwell the chance to earn the job, but winning and how the Commodores play will be a big part of the decision at a program that has had just one winning season since 1982.
Caldwell said he isn’t feeling any pressure – yet.
“Well, I haven’t had time to think about it, but there’s pressure every week. We put pressure on ourselves more than other people, so we’re kind of used to that,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell has been a head coach only once before in 1977 when he coached the Hanahan High School baseball team to a 14-2 record. But Caldwell said he was the one who wanted to be a head football coach, not Johnson, when the men first started working together.
A Furman graduate and native of Pageland, S.C., Caldwell returned to Furman in 1978 and coached there through 1985. He moved to North Carolina State in 1986, a place he stayed through 1999 coaching the offensive line. He was named assistant head coach for his final three seasons, then moved to North Carolina for 2000 and 2001.
Then Johnson came calling, asking Caldwell to join him after being hired in December 2001 as Vanderbilt’s head coach. Caldwell quickly said yes. He has coached the Commodores’ offensive line since 2002 and was promoted to Vandy’s assistant head coach a couple years ago.
“We’ve come a long way from selling radio ads to supplement our salary to this point here,” Caldwell said.
“But again, I just thank Vanderbilt for the opportunity. And quite frankly when I came here people thought I was crazy. I left a major institution. We were doing well. … We saw and we believed. We still believe. We think we should get it done and continue to do so. That’s our goal.”
Folksy charm aside, Caldwell helped turn Chris Williams from an undersized project into the 14th pick overall in the 2008 NFL Draft. He has had seven players drafted by the NFL in his coaching career.
Center Joey Bailey has worked with Caldwell the past five years, and he thinks Caldwell is ready for the pressure of coaching in the SEC. He sees a coach so committed to his players that men he hasn’t taught in 20 years still call or drop by to talk with Caldwell, yet a man so competitive he can’t wait to get back onto the field after a loss.
“He knows football in and out. He works hard as anybody I think in the nation making sure we’re prepared. He knows everything the defense is going to do before they do it. He knows everything our offense should do. Without a doubt, he’s ready,” Bailey said.
“He might not like to admit it. He’s a very humble man. But without a doubt, he’s ready to do it.”
Johnson did his best to prepare the program for his departure with all the schedules and plans in place for this fall.
But this is a program that went 2-10 in 2009, finishing the season on an eight-game skid. The Commodores must improve an offense that ranked 110th nationally, averaging a mere 16.3 points per game in a number that was much worse against SEC competition.
Caldwell may tweak Vanderbilt a bit here or there. But the coach groomed by the same men who taught Johnson doesn’t have the time to make wholesale changes.
“I’m who I am. I’ve been coaching for a long time. Some say I’ve gotten too soft in my old age, but I look forward to the challenge,” he said.