It's hard to follow Stanimal's incredibly good and thoughtful piece on the retirement of Bobby Johnson. So I'm not really going to try. Instead, I'm going to talk about Coach Johnson's retirement as an opportunity for the program going forward. Let me be clear: I don't think Coach Johnson's retirement is good for the program, or that we are better off without him than we are with him. But he's out, and unless he pulls an Urban Meyer or Billy Donovan and changes his mind (something that seems exceedingly unlikely), he will be watching Vanderbilt football at home. (Incidentally, let me also take this opportunity to invite CBJ to the VSL masthead). So the question is: now what?
Why This Is an Opportunity
Coach Johnson and his staff were responsible for turning Vanderbilt's football program around. 29-66 over his 8 year tenure, Johnson drastically improved the squad and made the team more competitive than they had been in quiet some time, even if the Commodores' overall winning percentage was just .305 in that time. Vanderbilt appeared in their first bowl game since 1982, and won their first game since 1955, a fact Vice Chancellor Williams made all to clear when he demanded the Music City Bowl Trophy into the press conference. There is absolutely no doubt that Coach Johnson left the program in better condition then he found it.
Still, entering into the last season of his contract, there were some Commodore fans who wondered whether CBJ and his staff had taken the team as far as he could. With a team that struggled mightily on offense, and shined brightly on defense, I don't think it would have been unfair for Williams to re-evaluate the coaching staff after this season. Here's the problem: rightly or wrongly, because of his Music City Bowl win, Bobby Johnson and his staff, probably had jobs as long as they wanted them. I could be wrong about that, but if that was the case, could you really blame the administrators given what Commodore football was before Johnson? With Johnson out, the powers that be can more frankly have the conversation about the best way forward.
With the installation of Robbie Caldwell as interim Head Coach, Vanderbilt officials will have a chance to dispassionately evaluate the coaching staff in place to see if this is the correct one without the blind loyalty to Bobby that would have most certainly hindered a frank conversation about the best way forward (loyalty, I might add, that was deserved). Caldwell deserves this opportunity and I hope for his sake, and the sake of the progress the program has made, to say nothing of my personal desire to see a good product on the the field, that this team thrives under his leadership. I will say, parenthetically, that unfortunately, "thriving" at Vanderbilt means something different then other places. For example, I fully believe that if Caldwell wins 4 or more games this year, it's a no-brainer he should have the interim removed from his title. As important as the head coach is, one a program does not make. Now, even if sooner then we hoped, and under circumstances that are less then ideal, that conversation is possible. Vanderbilt has been given a opportunity, perhaps not of their choosing, but certainly one from which they can ultimately benefit, to determine the best way forward.
No Lame-Duck Coach
This point is debatable for a couple reasons, but I think it's worth discussing. First, it's more likely than not that if he wanted an extension, Bobby Johnson would have gotten one. Second, so long as the title "interim" precedes the Head Coach title, recruits are rightly skeptical about what they are signing up for. While this is all true, given Johnson's announcement today, it seems very likely that if he didn't retire today, he would have at the end of this season. At least now, Caldwell and the rest of Johnson's staff, have the opportunity to earn their jobs, something that would seem unlikely if Johnston retired at the end of this season as opposed to before it even began. Recruiting, either way, will probably be effected, but given the strength of recent classes, that concerns me less. Again, this is not a situation that any of us would have wanted, but now that it's here, we've got to make the best of it. Williams now has a chance to see for himself what this coaching staff can do and he (and the fan base) should have a clearer idea of what he have both on the field and on the sidelines based on the Caldwell's teams performance.