Jan. 8, 2009
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August 31, 2002: It's the curtain raiser on the Bobby Johnson era as the Commodores open their season in Atlanta against Georgia Tech.
Vanderbilt faithful are hopeful the fresh start will produce tangible results. Redshirt freshman Jay Cutler has been named as the surprise starter at quarterback, edging out the veteran Benji Walker. Word is he's pretty good.
I'm wearing a white polo shirt with the newly revised Star V logo, resembling our helmets. It had been a few years since I had worn a logoed shirt to a football game, preferring to blend into the crowd with neutral color garb. I was proud to identify with our new staff.
Then it was time for kickoff. Ouch! Chan Gailey's superior forces administer a woodshed beating on the `Dores, easily running over and through our out-manned guys. I'd seen my share of losses but this was at another level of futility. Luckily, Tech didn't have an appetite to run up the score after halftime any worse than it already was. Final: Tech 45 Vanderbilt 3. It wasn't that close.
I make my way down Bobby Dodd Stadium's sideline toward the visitor's locker room, wondering how our new coach will react to this humbling experience. Just nine months earlier Bobby had arrived from Furman as the Division I-AA National Coach of the Year. Now he needed to depend on the mercy of the opposing coach to hold the score down.
I go to the rear of the spacious room. The embarrassed and bruised Commodores silently filed in behind me, exchanging questioning glances and no doubt wondering how the new coach would unload his frustrations. Would he distance himself from this debacle by proclaiming that they weren't good enough to wear the uniform? Would they be chewed out?
Over nearly four decades I have had opportunity to hear a variety of post-game talks. I regard them as confidential; they are family matters although I'll divulge one time years ago I heard a coach explain to the team after a defeat that next week's opponent was not in the conference and therefore "we have a chance to win." An incredibly foolish thing for a coach to say, but unfortunately the story is true.
Back to Atlanta. Bobby Johnson enters and steps to the front. There is tension in the stale air. Total silence.
"I want you to know I'm proud to be your coach," he begins.
My bowed head snaps upwards and I blink in surprise. We had not seen that coming, judging from the steamy room's karma.
It was a masterful demonstration of leadership. "Our coach is one of us."
Coach Johnson then reasonably explains over the next minute or two that if everyone will continue to work hard, the team will improve. Young men nod in agreement. We are family.
During the long car ride home, my son asked me what I thought about our chances down the line.
"Don't worry about it," I replied, "we're being coached by big-timers."
I recalled that forgettable night seven long years ago on New Year's Eve as I scanned the LP Field crowd with nearly 50,000 Commodore partisans among the paid crowd of 54,000. We were in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl but as far as Commodore Nation was concerned it was the BCS National Championship.
Lasting achievement takes time. A current best seller says it takes 10,000 hours to perfect one's craft. Our cupboard was nearly bare when Bobby Johnson and his staff arrived a few months after 9-11. Aces and spaces - with too many spaces.
We lacked recent tradition; our fan base was beaten down. We were mocked by the pundits. The recruiting trail was long and often harsh. Our coaches looked for diamonds in the rough; luckily for us they had the keen eye to find some.
It required fully three years for the Johnson regime to get our program to the talent level it should have been the day he walked in the door. And it took another four years and some near misses for bowl eligibility.
As Commodore fans embraced and players danced for joy in the chilly aftermath of our victory over Boston College, a team that 91% of ESPN viewers predicted would extend its nation's best streak of eight straight bowl wins, many of us shared the same thought:
This was worth the wait.