Sept. 3, 2010
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Any time you spend too much time in a musky room, you just want to get out.
After that, there's nothing like a breath of fresh air.
The Vanderbilt Commodores were in a dank basement after a difficult 2009 that saw them go 2-10 and not win a single Southeastern Conference game.
Larry Smith said that time was "frustrating." T.J. Greenstone likened it to a "slap in the face." It made Udom Umoh feel "sick."
A welcome cure for those ills has come through the Commodores' dedication to not play up to someone else's standards of Vanderbilt football, personified by the colorful Robbie Caldwell's wonderfully refreshing tenure as head coach.
Since being thrust into the job on July 14 after Bobby Johnson's surprising retirement, Caldwell, previously head of the offensive line, has been in charge of the Commodores at every position. His players already knew him a bit, but then he was unleashed on the rest of the conference.
There was barely a dry eye in the house after he spoke to the print media at SEC Media Days.
He wasn't delivering a heart-rending speech; he was discussing his country background, which included a stint working with turkey inseminators. Journalists used to hearing clipped platitudes from the regular heavyweights were laughing their heads off. Caldwell demonstrated a directness hardly ever exhibited by his SEC head coaching brethren; then again he'd only been a member of the family for eight days after Johnson's surprising retirement.
He hasn't let up since for the Vanderbilt family that he's been a part of much longer, and the positive momentum he's generated for the program in the weeks he's been a head coach, after decades as an assistant, has been a triumph. Talk about a quick learner.
Season ticket sales are up, fans' interests are piqued. People want to know: Can the Commodores battle back?
After all, great expectations have been replaced with Oliver Twist expectations for this team. Few outsiders believe Vanderbilt will move up from last year's spot in the back of the SEC soup line. The Commodores are younger, with only 11 returning starters, and the schedule is tougher, with 10 teams on slate that played in bowls last year.
And then there's the matter of a rookie head coach.
Well, forget media predictions, prognostications and predilections. On Sept. 4, everyone will be 0-0, including Caldwell, who's no stranger to challenges. Don't forget he's been wearing a Vanderbilt hat and a headset the past 95 games.
One of the best things about college football, and sports in general, is that it gives you a second chance just about every time, if you're willing to take it. No matter what went wrong the previous season, there's always next year to wash it away.
A short memory can go a long way.
Of course, short memory is also why the aroma of Vanderbilt's second-ever bowl win was wafted away by an eight-game losing streak in 2009. On the flipside, though, the odor of that slump began to disappear during spring and summer practices for 2010, as players and coaches took to the field and committed themselves to correcting last year's problems.
These players aren't here for shortcuts or easy ways out. They came here to work. Caldwell's gotten the headlines with his words, but make no mistake, every player here has shown a gritty determination to make 2009 a distant memory.
"Thanks for being here," Caldwell often says at Vanderbilt practices to the press contingent, seemingly as eager to hear him deliver another funny quote as they are to discuss the prospects of the Commodore secondary.
He likes having folks on hand to watch the team because he just wants people to give him and his group a chance. They have a chance because they decided not to wait until this season to put 2009 on the backburner. Caldwell and the Commodores opened the window early.
They are on board with each other because Caldwell loves Vanderbilt football.
This is not a quality that came about suddenly when he became a head coach. Check out what Joey Bailey, Vanderbilt's co-captain, had to say when asked about his offensive line mentor in June.
"Oh man, he's our Dad away from home, honestly," Bailey said. "No matter what time it is and there's anything you need, you can call Coach Caldwell. He'll be there for you and help you out any way you can. If you're sick and need something, he'll come all the way from his house out in Brentwood and come help you out."
The rest of the team - and the rest of the country - have seen that in full force since then.
And those sour thoughts by some of the Commodores about 2009? Gone, when discussing 2010.
Smith said confidently, "I'm in the best shape of my life." Greenstone promised, "We can be so much better." Umoh declared, "We don't want to leave anything on the field."
Caldwell has the shining, optimistic face of Vanderbilt's new beginning in 2010. Throw your expectations and fears out that open window, and take a deep breath of that fresh air.
It officially starts Saturday against Northwestern. See you at Dudley Field.