Bowled Over

Bobby Johnson: “Rather than having just a few talented star players, we’re pretty good at each position now.”
Bobby Johnson: “Rather than having just a few talented star players, we’re pretty good at each position now.”

The man responsible for leading the Commodore football team to its first postseason win since Sputnik orbited the earth is not necessarily doing the things one might expect after such a feat. He’s not going to the beach. He’s not going on a fishing expedition with friends. The 2008 SEC Coach of the Year is conferring with his staff about how to summit the next proverbial mountain: winning the Southeastern Conference Championship. 

Well, actually, before embarking on that trek, he’s first setting the record straight about the Coach of the Year honor that his conference peers bestowed upon him at the conclusion of the 2008 season. 

“That award should say ‘Coaching Staff of the Year’ because that’s exactly what it is,” Johnson said a few days before his Commodores defeated Boston College 16–14 in the Music City Bowl—a relatively new postseason game that Vanderbilt University hosted for several years before it moved to the much larger NFL stadium just a few miles east across the Cumberland River. That would soon be the setting of Johnson’s culmination so far during his seven-year tenure at the helm of the Commodore football team: its first bowl appearance since 1982 and its first postseason victory since 1955, the same year Ray Kroc flipped his first McDonald’s burger. 

Bobby Johnson knows exactly how much the Commodores’ appearance in the 2008 Music City Bowl—not to mention its dramatic come-from-behind victory—means. But this is no time to marvel at recent success that some say marks a metamorphosis from lovable loser to formidable opponent, at least not in Bobby Johnson’s mind. This is a time to move forward in a calculated and disciplined manner. 

“We want to compete for championships in the SEC,” says Johnson. “We haven’t been that far from it the past two years, but that little bit we’ve got left to go takes a lot of hard work to get it done.” 

sports-johnsonCoaches often speak in vagaries, leaving room for reporters and fans to fill the void with their own vision for the program. But what Johnson is talking about is clear: “That little bit left” translates to “more depth at all positions.” 

The hard work of building toward the 2009 season is already well under way. Johnson says he and his de facto Coaches of the Year are assessing the returners and drawing up the game plan for recruiting talent with the potential to make sportswriting legends Grantland Rice and Fred Russell proud.

While Rice and Russell spent the 1950s weaving beautiful tapestries in the minds of sports fans across America, a young Bobby Johnson played among the timber-tall pines of Columbia, S.C. He learned to be diligent and disciplined. Johnson credits his parents and five siblings with instilling the no-nonsense work ethic that has long been his hallmark—and that of each team he has coached. 

“I worked with the coaches at Furman as my first college job,” Johnson says. “I could see how hard they worked. And when I started coaching with them, I wanted to match that effort and make sure I was pulling my weight.”

And pull his weight he did. Immediately after coaching the Paladins within a touchdown of winning the NCAA I-AA national championship game in 2001, Johnson took the helm of a languishing Commodore football team. And he opened his first press conference at Vanderbilt with a joke: 

“I know what you’re thinking,” he deadpanned. “This guy looks just like Steve Martin.” 

With four of the previous seven seasons ending with a fan-crushing nine losses each, a little levity was welcome. There hadn’t been much to smile about at Commodore press conferences for quite a while. Unfortunately, the levity was short-lived: Johnson and his staff, most of whom had followed him from Furman, would eke out two wins in each of their first two seasons. 

In their third season, however, the Commodores would realize benefits of the rejuvenated emphasis Johnson had placed on recruiting. With a rough-and-tumble quarterback from Santa Claus, Ind., named Jay Cutler under center, the team started to play with the discipline Johnson had preached since day one. The team opened the season with a string of wins much like it would in 2008. Although the 2005 season was one win shy of the six needed for bowl eligibility, a win over the Tennessee Volunteers in Neyland Stadium helped relieve the sting from that shortcoming. 

The team underperformed the following season. And with Cutler’s eligibility behind him, the Denver Broncos selected him in the first round of the 2006 NFL Draft. It was a proud moment for the Commodore faithful, but fans and media types opined that perhaps the ’Dores’ best chance to put together a winning season was now wearing No. 6 in Mile High Stadium. 

“Jay was a very good player,” says Johnson. “But if you look at his career from a freshman to a senior, we had better players around him—better receivers and better linemen who allowed him to display his talents.” 

And that became the model that led to formation of the 2008 team. 

“We felt that if we continued to get the good players around our star people that we’d have a better chance to be successful,” he says.

While Commodore fans turn their attention to the hard-court and to Tim Corbin’s remarkable baseball team and equally impressive stadium, it’s business as usual for the disciplined Bobby Johnson and his coaching staff. It’s the same thing they’d be doing had they posted a 2–9 season—but this time their on-the-field successes are making it increasingly easier to recruit players to launch the campaign for a Southeastern Conference championship. 


Paul Levy contributed to this story. 

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