Bobby Johnson looks back
Oct. 3, 2012
Nashville sports historian Bill Traughber has recently written another book, Vanderbilt Football: Tales of Commodore Gridiron History. The 160-page paperback book can be ordered on historypress.net for $19.99.
The following interview with former Vanderbilt football head coach Bobby Johnson and Bill Traughber is exclusive to Commodore History Corner and VUCommodores.com.
When former Vanderbilt head football coach Woody Widenhofer resigned after the 2001 season, a familiar situation arrived at the athletic offices at McGugin Center. It was once again time to find another football coach after little success by a predecessor. After all with Widenhofer's departure, the Commodores had recorded three winning seasons since 1969.
Next was Bobby Johnson who had a 60-36 record as an eight-year head coach for Division I-AA (now FCS) Furman University. Vanderbilt hired Johnson after his Furman team took a loss in the I-AA national championship game. Johnson went from a consistent winner to an SEC university with a reputation for little successes on the gridiron.
"We had a lot of confidence in how we ran our program at Furman," Johnson said recently from his South Carolina home. "We thought if we used the same principles, same work ethic and the same things that we demanded from our players that we were going to have a chance to compete. It doesn't guarantee anything. Doesn't guarantee that you were going to win, but we felt like we could compete with the teams in the SEC and especially make the Vanderbilt program better.
"They didn't offer me more than a five-year contract. They still wanted results like every school and coaching staff does. We were confident that we could get things done during that contract period and hoped to work on another contract. Vanderbilt made a nice offer. There were already plans for improvements. They had started some improvements on the practice fields, which were desperately needed and the weight room was being renovated. We felt we could build on those things and try to keep the momentum going."
Johnson, 61, was born in Columbia, S.C., and attended Eau Claire High School. On the gridiron, Johnson played tight end/defensive end earning three letters. He was named South Carolina Lineman of the Year (1968) and awarded a scholarship to Clemson University.
Johnson lettered three seasons at Clemson (1969-72) playing at the wide receiver position and cornerback on defense. In 1971-72, Johnson was named to the ACC All-Academic team. He also led the Tigers in interceptions in his junior and senior seasons. Johnson earned his degree in management.
The South Carolinian began his coaching career as an assistant at Furman (1976-79, 1981-92). In 1980, he was Clemson's Athletic Academic Counselor and the Tigers defensive coordinator in 1993. Johnson then became head football coach at Furman (1994-2001). In Johnson's first season leading the Commodores, the team was 2-10 (0-8 SEC) with wins over Furman and Connecticut.
"We looked at the situation and were realistic, but weren't going to give up," said Johnson. "We looked at the situation when we were coming in and at that time we were not close to being competitive with most of the SEC. It was going to take a lot of work. We got a late start when we were hired.
"We got in there after the I-AA playoffs, which meant it was during the Christmas break and we couldn't call recruits since it was a dead period. You could call one time during the week, but you couldn't visit with any. Just because you change coaches and have a new attitude, and philosophy, things just don't turn around that fast. It takes a lot of hard work and patience. It takes a lot of dedication from the assistant coaches."
The next two years Vanderbilt was 2-10 (0-8 SEC) and 2-9 (1-7 SEC). Though the records were poor, progress was being made as games were more competitive with closer outcomes from previous years. The players were developing and there was optimism on the Vanderbilt campus.
"We felt like we were on the right track," Johnson said. "We were aiming to take the best players left from Coach Widenhofer's era and obviously those were the ones that wanted to win no matter who was coaching them. They were willing to work hard and do the things necessary to win games. Then we wanted to recruit the best we could to replenish the spots where other people had left.
"We wanted our recruits to have the same kind of desire to win and do the right things. Like graduate, be good citizens and represent Vanderbilt the way it should have been represented. You just keep on that pace with those goals and you are going to make progress. It was an every day thing. We tried to keep the ones that were there positive, happy and try to bring in better players and improve our team."
One of the policies that Johnson required from his players and coaching staff was a "no cussing" rule. This might not seem such a big deal within a football team, but the policy gained national attention being picked up by the New York Times.
"It was just a matter of discipline and respect," said Johnson. "That was a little bit misunderstood. I didn't make that rule to try and keep them from cussing in their normal lives. I don't think it is a good way of going around talking all the time, but that is their choice. But I would not allow it on the practice field. I think there is a way to practice mental toughness, class, and the things you need to do to show respect for your teammates. I'd been to so many practices that coaches cussed players and I would never allow one of my coaches to cuss a player. When coaches cuss players, well other players cuss players.
"Then the next thing you'd have is a player cussing some coaches. That was not going to happen on my practice field. If they wanted to go back to the dorm and cuss, let them do it. Believe me, I cuss. It was the same discipline for me, my staff as for the players. We didn't say we're all angels and we don't cuss in normal situations. That was a means of trying to make our team mentally tougher and concentrate on the important things and not the peripheral things. As with most things, that got blown out of proportion. The intent was never to discuss it. That was just the way people liked to look at it and it was pretty funny."
With just six victories in Johnson' first three seasons highlights were uncommon. The only SEC wins in that time frame were against Kentucky (2003) and Mississippi State (2004). There were some tough losses in 2004 with an overtime loss at Ole Miss and a 38-33 loss to Tennessee.
"The first three seasons were pretty tough especially the first one," said Johnson. "During the second half of that season we were decimated by injuries with a lack of depth. We go to play Tennessee in our last game and are down to a walk-on tailback that was not recruited. Not too many positives except we were discovering which players wanted to work hard enough to turn things around and work hard enough to make things better.
"Those are the things that we found out those first three years. We were identifying players willing to make it their top goal to be a Vanderbilt football player which means you can compete in the SEC and in the class rooms at Vanderbilt. You have to do both and can't do one without then other. We started to identify those guys and we felt like we were starting to build more of a team with those types of players."
In December 2004, Vanderbilt's junior tailback Kwane Doster was shot and killed during Christmas break in his hometown in Tampa, Fla. He was innocently sitting in a car with friends when another car drove up and fired gunshots into their vehicle. Doster died from his injuries and the Vanderbilt football team attended his funeral. The 2005 season was played in his memory.
"That was extremely hard," Johnson said. "I don't know if you can deal with it. It's a tough life's lesson. They all knew Kwane and respected him. He was an excellent player and a leader in high school. I think he was going to be the first member in his family to get a college degree. It was such a tragedy for a young man like that cut down in his prime. He decided to take a chance, come to Vanderbilt and lead a team that needed to be improved.
"At the same time to work hard enough to get a degree in a Top 20 rated university in the country. To lose that kind of player with that type of attitude was devastating, but also it told our players that we could do better. He showed the way. He showed us he was willing to do the things to get better. And they kept it up in his memory. He was with us in 2005 and there's no doubt about it. They talked about him a lot during that season."
Vanderbilt began the 2005 season win wins over Wake Forest, Arkansas, Mississippi and Richmond. The 4-0 start pleased Vanderbilt fans, but a six-game losing ensued, wiping out the great beginning. They lost their first game at Dudley Field to MTSU, 17-15. A late fourth quarter field goal attempt by the Commodores was blocked.
"We did have a good start with some quality wins on the road against Wake Forest who had been enjoying some success in their program and then on the road at Arkansas," said Johnson. "Everybody always talked about Vanderbilt getting in a situation where they get scared, they choke and can't win. Heck, every game we won we had to fight and we always came down to the end of the game. Those were huge wins at Wake Forest and Arkansas right down to the wire and our guys came through. They started to realize if they worked hard they could win.
"The game with Middle Tennessee State should have been won long before the field goal attempt. We just dropped passes, missed tackles and the things that you revert back to bad habits when you get in pressure situations. It was one of those situations. Our guys kept fighting after that. We went into the part of the schedule, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and the teams we didn't build a 4-0 record against and it make it tough, but we still competed against those teams. Again during that time of the year we were battling the depth problem we had every year. Our guys kept working at it."
Also in 2005, the Commodores lost in two overtimes at Florida, 49-42. A controversial official's call in the final minute of the fourth quarter eliminated a Vanderbilt chance for a two-point play after a touchdown. After Earl Bennett's TD reception, an official dropped a flag for excessive celebration.
Television replays could not back up the penalty call. The 15-yard mark-off meant an extra point kick instead of the chance at the win with a two-point conversion. Johnson made up his mind on the TD drive that he was going for the victory if his Commodores found the end zone.
"Same things we were doing against Florida should have won that game," said Johnson. "I think that was one of those games that was stolen from us. You can't say what you want to say [to the officials] because you want to watch the rest of the game on the sidelines. You don't want to hurt your team by getting a 15-yard penalty by saying something stupid.
"I never saw what Earl did until somebody had some unofficial footage. Obviously to anybody that saw it he did absolutely nothing, but hold out his hands to embrace one of his offensive linemen and hug him. I didn't see it so the guy told me it was excessive celebration. I didn't know if he was telling the truth or not."
The Commodores ended that season with a 28-24 win at Tennessee. Jay Cutler's touchdown pass to Bennett late in the fourth quarter was the game-winner. Vanderbilt held off a last minute drive by the Vols to claim the victory. This was the first win in Knoxville for a Vanderbilt team since 1975.
"Obviously playing UT is something Vanderbilt should be excited about every year," Johnson said. "We went to Tennessee that year and felt that we had a good plan. During that time Tennessee was an outstanding football program. They had quality players and depth at every position. It was not anything like a jinx; they were just better than Vanderbilt all those years. That year we had some playmakers. We had Jay Cutler and some good receivers. Earl Bennett was showing why he was going to be a pro football player. We had some people who were faster on defense who could play in those games.
"We played well that day and made the plays. Again it came down to the very end. Sometimes when we would lose those games it would be said that Vanderbilt never wins close games. Well we had other ones against Arkansas and Wake Forest. We had a couple of bad calls in the Mississippi game. It was fourth down; if we make the first down we are going to win the game. They dragged Jay Cutler down by his facemask and there were many photos of it. It almost looked like it broke his neck. But they didn't call it and we didn't win the game. We had many opportunities that year to go to a bowl. But, it was the disappointing thing about that period in our program that we didn't get that done early enough."
The touchdown pass from Cutler to Bennett in the Tennessee game would be his last toss as a college player. Cutler holds Vanderbilt career marks in total offense (9,953 yards); passing yards (8,697 yards); attempts (1,242); completions (710) and highest completion percentage (57.2). He was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year and First Team All-SEC. Cutler was selected by Denver as the No. 11 pick in the 2006 NFL draft. He now plays for the Chicago Bears. Cutler had already enrolled at Vanderbilt when Johnson first arrived on campus.
"When I think of Jay Cutler, I think of a superb athlete who had a lot of confidence and a lot of talent," Johnson said. "He had a lot of desire to excel and win. He did a great job of bringing a lot of people with him as he matured. Jay was an outstanding leader for us. It was one of those things where I didn't have to bring him in to say, `Hey, you have to be a leader.' He was doing that from the get-go.
"Our players respected him so much not only for his talent, but also for his leadership abilities and his desire to be as good as we could possible be. You have to realize that he was elected captain for three straight years. I don't think I had a captain on any of my teams where I played, was an assistant or head coach that was a captain for three straight years."
The Vanderbilt administration realized that more than five years was needed to build the Commodores' football program and Johnson was given a contact extension. But still, the Vanderbilt football facilities were lacking in comparison to the other SEC members. But with a slow economy, plans for improvements were put on hold.
"I think they knew that I liked Vanderbilt and I was willing to stay through the changes and keep working to try and build a program that everybody can be proud," said Johnson. "Fortunately for me they felt that I could do it. That is why they gave me an extension. I appreciated that very much and the fact that they had that confidence in me. I think it was a mutual feeling.
"You constantly ask for things with the hope that you will get some of it. We had some pretty good starts and won some pretty good games. I think a huge problem was the downturn in the economy in 2007 and 2008. We had plans to completely renovate our facilities. We had a great plan."
In 2006, Vanderbilt was 4-8 (1-7 SEC) with wins over Tennessee State, Temple, No. 16 Georgia and Duke. The Georgia game was won by a late fourth quarter field goal by Bryant Hahnfeldt, 24-22. In addition, the Commodores lost games to Ole Miss, Alabama, Arkansas (SEC West Champions) and eventual national champions Florida by less than a touchdown.
Former Ole Miss head coach Billy Brewer said about Johnson's coaching performance, "The tough thing about the Vanderbilt job is that you can improve a lot from year to year and still finish last in the SEC East. For what he has, I think Bobby does a heck of a coaching job." Even with a losing record, college football writer Tony Barnhart suggested that Johnson deserved consideration for SEC Coach of the Year.
So was Vanderbilt close to going over the hump?
"There is no hump," said Johnson. "There is no magic game that you win that's going to guarantee you will win anymore. There is not a situation where you say, `Okay, we've arrived. We can relax because we've gotten over the hump.' There is no hump when you play Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida all those teams every year.
"The hump is there every week that you've got to get over. There is no magic. Look at Tennessee now. Do you think they were over the hump? They were on the mountain and they're struggling. And look at Florida, now they are struggling. It's a constant battle that you fight against and Vanderbilt has to fight a different war than the rest of them."
The next season the Commodores, were 5-7 (2-6 SEC) with SEC wins over Mississippi and South Carolina that was ranked No. 6 at the time. Standing at 5-5 and that elusive bowl bid within reach Vanderbilt lost to Tennessee 25-24 after a last minute 49-yard field goal bounced off the left upright. Then a loss to Wake Forest ended the season.
Vanderbilt began the 2008 season with a 5-0 run that included wins over Miami (Ohio), South Carolina, Rice, Mississippi and No. 13 Auburn. The Commodores were ranked 19th in the country before the Auburn game played in Nashville. The surprising start attracted national attention as the ESPN's College Gameday crew set up on the Vanderbilt campus for the first time ever.
The 14-13 victory over Auburn gave the Commodores a 5-0 record for the first time since 1943, a World War II-shortened season. They dropped the next six of seven games, but become bowl eligible at 6-6.
"We felt good about the season when were coming in," said Johnson. "Not a lot of people were excited about us, but I think we were underdogs when we went in against Miami of Ohio in the opener. We had some good players that year and playmakers like D.J. Moore. He was just a fantastic player.
"We just hung in there and made some big plays. We had that good start then we hit that part of the schedule playing Florida and Georgia and those people. We had some disappointments and had a great win over Kentucky to be bowl eligible and we were very fortunate and happy to be doing it."
For his effort, Johnson was named Co-SEC Coach of the Year along with Houston Nutt (Ole Miss) and Nick Saban (Alabama). Vanderbilt did not have far to travel for their bowl game against Boston College, which was in Nashville's Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl. The Eagles were ranked 24th in the nation at the time. The Commodores prevailed 16-14 on a touchdown when a punt bounced off a BC player into the end zone and Sean Richardson pounced on it for Vandy. Hanfeldt's three field goals were the difference. The Commodores were 7-6, first winning season since 1982 and the first bowl win since 1955.
"We were very excited about it because it had been awhile between bowls for Vanderbilt," Johnson said. "It was one of the things we were working for and to get competitive in the league. To get to a bowl and being able to win it was a longtime goal. That gave us a winning season, which was big. We didn't want to be 6-7. We wanted to be 7-6. We wanted to be champions and we were the Music City Bowl champions.
"We were actually glad it was in Nashville. Everybody was saying, oh gosh you didn't even get to leave town. Our guys were having fun. About 97 percent of our players said they had never spent the night at the Opryland Hotel. So this was a new experience for them no matter where we went. It was going to be fun for them and they enjoyed it.
"We came out and were playing a very good Boston College team. They were second in the ACC and lost in the championship game. They had won eight straight bowl games. The great thing I think about that game is we did not have a penalty and did not have a turnover. Without a great deal of offense we won the football game."
Throughout the decades the belief that Vanderbilt football had been unable to find consistent success due to a lack of depth. Every coach Vanderbilt football employed complained about that issue. The appearance has been that the Commodores could not endure four full quarters of football. Injuries, which are a part of the game, would enhance that weakness.
"We were beginning to develop depth," said Johnson. "When we first got there it was not very strong and there are many causes of that. Bad luck, injuries, players who don't want to stick it out and not confident enough that they can compete in that league. And the lack of a great walk-on program that a lot of schools have was missing. You try to talk a kid into coming to Vanderbilt as a walk-on and tell him he has to pay $50,000 to come here. That is a hard sell.
"Most schools pick up two or three players from walk-ons that can compete in the SEC. We were not that fortunate. There were a lot of reasons, but I thought we were starting to build some depth. Again most of the games that we were winning were in the fourth quarter. We didn't jump ahead of everybody and just ease through the second half. We had to battle.
"We had enough people that would battle for a win. In the South Carolina game that year Darlron Spead was one of our best defensive backs that had an interception that set up a score for us. He got hurt in that game. We had two or three guys we felt could put in the secondary to take his place and play well. It was getting better, but it still wasn't on par with the top programs in the SEC."
The 2009 season was a disappointment especially coming off the first winning season in 26 years and a bowl victory. The 2-10 (0-8 SEC) record revealed wins over Western Carolina and Rice. The Commodores were winless in the conference.
"It was extremely disappointing," said Johnson. "Again we were playing tough teams, losing a few close games and that is how one of those seasons happen. Sometimes you lose some confidence and I think our players lost some confidence that year. It was a tough season to go through."
On July 14, 2010, Johnson shocked Nashville and the Vanderbilt community with the announcement of his retirement. The timing was questioned since football practice began in a couple of weeks. Johnson was asked when he first thought about retiring from coaching.
"When I started coaching," joked Johnson. "It is just my wife [Catherine] and I. We talked about it all the time. My wife is a certified financial planner. She was retired, but still doing our financial planning. It was just a matter of thinking it through. When can you retire? When do you want to retire? Where do you want to retire? What are you leaving? Are you ready to do that? All those things came into play. It was a decision that we made together and we haven't looked back. We are having a lot of fun living in South Carolina where we grew up. It is just what we wanted to do."
It was suggested that Johnson waited so late in the summer to retire knowing it would be too late for Vanderbilt to hire a new head coach and coaching staff in order to save the jobs of his current staff for at least another year. Johnson always showed unselfishness and loyalty to his assistant coaches.
Johnson had met with Williams days before the announcement of his retirement to work out some details. Johnson was concerned about his staff and the direction that Vanderbilt football was aimed.
"We talked about keeping the staff there," said Johnson. "I think we both agreed that was the thing to do. Give them a chance to play that thing out. After that it was pretty much David's decision when to change staffs, when to do things like that. David treated me very well and that was not part of the problem. That is not why I retired. I retired for personal reasons. I think things should be and could be improved and David felt the same thing. We had made the plans together for the new facilities and we were anxious to get them started. David Williams wasn't holding back the money."
Robbie Caldwell, Johnson's assistant head coach and offensive line coach was named interim head coach in replacing Johnson. The tag "interim" was removed during the season. Under Caldwell's leadership, the Commodores were 2-10 (1-7 SEC) in 2010. Caldwell resigned and Franklin became the next Vanderbilt head football coach.
Recruiting is always the backbone for success in football especially when competing in the rigorous SEC. Vanderbilt does attract top-caliper players, but in the past not enough to compete for an entire season. So, how tough is it to recruit at Vanderbilt?
"It is not as tough as everybody thinks," said Johnson. "No. 1, there are a lot of good football players out there. If you work hard enough you can find them. There are plenty to go around, but you have to find them. Most of the battles we lost were with guys that were probably borderline students at Vanderbilt.
"They say they appreciate an opportunity to get a great education and work at it, but deep down they probably didn't want to work hard enough to do that all the time. We got a guy that is a good student or even above average student that really wanted a good education. One that really wanted to do something for his future, and not just gives you that line they want it. If they wanted to do it, we really had a chance to recruit them."
Johnson said that in his eight years at Vanderbilt the highlight was the 2008 season achieving a winning season, receiving a bowl bid and winning a bowl game. It accomplished a few goals for his program. All those happened in one football season.
Johnson left the Vanderbilt football program in much better position than when he took over in 2002. His players received dozens of SEC accolades and many developed into NFL players. Johnson's record at Vanderbilt was 29-66 (SEC, 12-52), but he left Nashville with class, respected, a long list of friends and admirers. He left a blueprint for Vanderbilt to succeed as two years later the Commodores were in the Liberty Bowl. Looking back, is there anything Johnson would have liked to do differently with his football program?
"There are always things that can be done better and improved as far as the basic philosophy of what we were trying to do," said Johnson. "The type of guys we wanted in our programs, and the kind of coaches we wanted to be representing Vanderbilt to me that's the big thing. You are representing a whole school, and how you do reflects on the whole school.
"We wanted to be great ambassadors for Vanderbilt. We wanted to be doing things the right way and let everybody know that Vanderbilt was a class university in every part of it including the football program. Could we have done things better? Of course, but as far as the big philosophy of our program I wouldn't have changed it."
Johnson and his wife are living outside of Charleston, S.C. So, what is retirement like for the Johnsons?
"The main thing we had to get settled here in Charleston and renovate a house that we owned down here," said Johnson. "That took a lot of our time, concentration and effort. After that we settled down and tried to start enjoying things down here with the opportunities to travel, but mostly golf and some fishing. We've traveled some, but we've got some big travel plans coming this fall and next spring.
"We will continue to do those things, but really still be a great football fan, be a great Vanderbilt fan. I'm glad to be a fan of Furman again and watch some games and those of my alma mater Clemson. I had a friend Eric Hyman who was the AD at South Carolina so we were watching some of those games. I'm enjoying all those things that were hard to do when you're working everyday and concentrating on your program."
If you have any comments of suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via email, WLTraughber@aol.com. Look out for Traughber's book on Vanderbilt basketball history, "Vanderbilt Basketball, Tales of Commodore Hardwood History" due online and in Nashville area bookstores around October 10.