There are many factors that lead to having a successful program, but the one that may be the most important is also one of the most overlooked: coaching stability. Having stability in a coaching staff can make or break a team, and in no sport is stability more important than it is in football.
As a team becomes more successful, the coaches on the staff become more attractive to other programs, and are often swept away by more lucrative offers. The effect of losing a coach here and there may not have an impact that is noticeable at first. Over time the personnel losses begin to mount, and even the most successful teams have a dip in success.
No one understands the importance of having continuity on a staff more than Vanderbilt Head Coach Bobby Johnson. Of the nine assistants under Johnson, seven have been with him since he came to Vanderbilt in 2002. That consistency has played a major role in Vanderbilt's rise from the bottom of the SEC standings.
"We like the continuity for several reasons, one of which is we spend a lot of time together," Johnson said. "When you are working day in and day out, you want to be with people we like and that is what we have. We feel comfortable amongst each other."
In a day and age where most coaching jobs seem like revolving doors and the days of having icons such as Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden seem far-fetched, the continuity of Vanderbilt's coaching staff has been an anomaly in an uncertain time.
With the departures of Phil Fulmer and Tommy Tubberville from the SEC after last season, Georgia's Mark Richt is the only SEC coach who has been at the same school longer than Johnson has. Richt, along with four of his assistants, are entering their ninth year in Athens, just one year longer than Johnson's tenure in Nashville. Johnson's tenure at Vanderbilt is not only long in relation to others in the league, it also has quietly become one of the longest in school history. Only three former Commodore coaches have had longer tenures than Johnson's eight years, and no coach has been at VU this long since Art Guepe coached the Commodores from 1953 to 1962.
In Johnson's time at Vanderbilt, the 11 other SEC schools have gone through 24 different head coaches. Alabama, Mississippi and Mississippi State all are on their third head coach since Johnson started in 2002.
While the Commodores have not been immune to departures by assistant coaches, their stability still is a rarity in an uncertain profession. During Johnson's tenure, only three coaches have left Vanderbilt, but many others have had opportunities for new challenges.
"A lot of people have had opportunities to go other places and a lot of times people will say the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, but we have peace, tranquility and continuity, and you can't buy that kind of stuff," said Robbie Caldwell, who was one of Johnson's original hires at Vanderbilt.
Of the nine assistants on Johnson's staff, only defensive line coach Rick Logo and running backs coach Des Kitchings haven't been with Johnson during his entire tenure at Vanderbilt. Although they are new to Vanderbilt, they felt an instant connection to the staff. It is a connection that comes from a shared coaching philosophy as well as a literal connection through the coaching tree.
In some way or another all nine members of Vanderbilt's staff are linked through past experiences.
Johnson joined the coaching ranks in 1976 as a defensive ends coach at Furman. At the time, Caldwell was working as a first-year graduate assistant at Furman, while Vanderbilt assistant head coach Bruce Fowler was a freshman walk-on and Vanderbilt quarterbacks coach Jimmy Kiser was playing receiver for the Paladins.
In the late 1990s, Vanderbilt receivers coach Charlie Fisher worked at N.C. State while Caldwell coached the offensive line and Kiser conducted the offense. Caldwell and Kiser were at N.C. State together from 1986 to 1999 and while they were there, they coached Logo, who was a defensive tackle for the Wolfpack. Also while in Raleigh, Caldwell recruited Vanderbilt linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator Warren Belin. Belin ended up playing at Wake Forest, a school Caldwell and Kiser faced in the ACC.
In 2000, Caldwell made the short move down Tobacco Road to coach the offensive line at North Carolina for two years. While with the Tar Heels, Caldwell met Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant, who was a graduate assistant at UNC in 2001.
The newest branch on the coaching tree is Vanderbilt running backs coach Des Kitchings, who joined the staff before the 2008 season. Kitchings' connection to the staff is with Johnson, whom he played for as a receiver at Furman in the late '90s.
With so many members of the staff having ties that date back decades, the transition of working with a group that knows each other so well can be intimidating for a new coach, which is why having that familiarity with members on the staff is something Logo believes made his transition much easier when he joined the staff in 2006.
"(The familiarity) is very beneficial," Logo said. "You know the expectations and organization of how things are run as a player and as a coach. As far as being familiar with how things are done and knowing all the coaches and their personalities, it just meshes smoothly when you are in transition and it is certainly helpful, especially being one of the newer guys coming on staff."
Being a former player under coaches on Vanderbilt's staff also gives Logo a unique perspective on what it is like to work for and with members of the staff.
"You have three coaches on this staff who were my college coaches when I played (Cain, Kiser, Caldwell), so you know their expectations on the field and off the field. Going into coaching, it doesn't change," Logo said. "Everything is very familiar to me being on this staff because you get to see them from a player to a coach."
Like any relationship, people become more familiar with one another over time, and it is no different in the coaching industry. Members of the staff have been together long enough that they know what the others are thinking.
"Being together for this long means a world of difference," Caldwell said. "There is just so much that we kind of take for granted that other people don't have. The loyalty is strong. There is no one on the staff trying to take a job from anyone else. We do things together, and it is fun to come to work."
The familiarity with one another also allows the staff to avoid the type of hiccups other coaching staffs will have when they are all trying to get on the same page.
"We don't have to worry about a lot of little of petty things that I think get in the way of some staffs because we've been together for so long," Kiser said.
To Logo, the closeness of the staff makes it feel like everyone is part of the same family -- a family that extends beyond the coaches.
"There is always a tie to this staff, and we are all connected in some way," Logo said. "It is kind of an inner family circle we have among this staff, and you come to feel like you are at home, not just in your personal life, but when you come to work. It just makes it a lot easier for me since I've been here, and it is certainly beneficial to our wives and our kids because they've grown up with these guys and are very familiar with them and their families."
The closeness of the staff also is something that doesn't go unnoticed by members of the team.
"They all have ties to one another, and you can tell because they are close like brothers," senior center Bradley Vierling said. "It is absolutely a family atmosphere."
When teams are winning, everyone seems like a happy family. It is when the losses begin to mount that you can truly gauge how close a staff is. Vanderbilt won six games in the staff's first three years, and if there is one thing that the losses showed more than anything else it was just how close the staff is to each other.
"It is very easy for a staff to divide, particularly offensively and defensively, when going through spells of not being very good," Kiser said. "That happens a lot where people start pointing a finger. If you don't have a staff that believes in each other and is loyal to one another, it can divide your staff and make the working atmosphere very difficult. We don't have that issue and problem at all."
Continuity of the staff has been a big reason for Vanderbilt's success on the field, but it isn't the only place continuity among the staff has begun to pay off. It has also been noticed off the field in recruiting.
"When we first got here, guys in the SEC who recruited against us -- the first thing out of their mouths to recruits would be that no one has ever stayed at Vanderbilt long," Caldwell said. "We've heard it all from the recruits telling us what people have said. It was obviously a big task to try and get over that and to create a different mindset."
With the majority of the staff entering their eighth year at Vanderbilt, their commitment to the program can no longer be questioned, just as the administration's commitment cannot. Despite the Commodores' early struggles, the university stuck with the staff.
"The loyalty of Vanderbilt and what they did for us was just outstanding," Caldwell said. "They stood by us. They knew it was going to be a tough task and they stood by us. You can't thank Vanderbilt enough for that."
Just as Vanderbilt has stood by the staff, the staff has stood by Vanderbilt, which is uncommon in an industry that is constantly in a state of flux.
"Loyalty is just hard to find in this business," Caldwell said. "You see how cut-throat it is because the way things are win at all costs. Vanderbilt has stood by us, and we can't thank them enough for being loyal. In return, we've been loyal ourselves. You like to see a two-way street there and most times there isn't, so it is a pretty special place."