Bobby Johnson: A Special Skipper

Bobby Johnson (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Would Cornelius Vanderbilt feel threatened by the amount of riches Bobby Johnson accumulated during his tenure in Nashville? Certainly not. Was this the greatest of coaches who has ever led VU onto the gridiron? No. Should he have retired last December or January instead of July 14? Of course. Yet, none of that matters in a larger sense.

It's time to celebrate a very special Saturday skipper in the history of Vanderbilt football.

There's no need to get lost in the intoxicating aroma of hagiography or the sweet mists of messianic praise that can and do infiltrate fan bases when the leader of their tribe encounters a poignant point of passage. Much as George Steinbrenner, initially a shipping magnate, had his flaws as a man, Bobby Johnson made a flawed decision as the pilot of the Good Ship Commodore on Wednesday morning. Johnson unnecessarily shook up the Vandy program just three weeks before the start of August practice.

On the field, Johnson toiled with a mind that – while razor-sharp on defense – had all the imagination of a bowl of porridge on offense. This was not a coach who walked on water. He was vulnerable the way all of us are, and he woke up Wednesday morning to the realization that the all-consuming stress of football coaching just wasn't worth it anymore. That's hardly a sin (anything but, as a matter of fact). In many ways, Bobby Johnson strikes an observer as thoroughly, even alarmingly… well… ordinary. There's no need to get carried away by a river of hyperbole and say that this man is the best coach Vandy's ever had (step forward, Dan McGugin).

Yet, the delicious irony of Bobby Johnson's Vanderbilt years is precisely found in his plainness. The unpretentious, humble, hard-working, no-frills style employed by VU's now-retired coach is exactly what makes him such a praiseworthy figure. Just as one should not try to exaggerate the nature of his accomplishments in Nashville, one should also avoid the equally powerful temptation to diminish Johnson's football feats.

Anyone within the Vanderbilt family knows that VU stands for the right things in college sports. Some say that this program has downsized over the past decade while virtually everyone else in the power conferences tries to expand. VU has maintained its reputation as an academic stronghold while the FBS and (in basketball) Division I are only escalating the nuclear arms race for college sports cash. In a realm that is quite clearly a business – the whole realignment fiasco from June lifted the veil with forcefulness and finality – Vanderbilt represents at least one outpost (Northwestern would be another) where the notion of a scholar-athlete isn't something to be laughed at. This reality, combined with Vandy football's snake-bitten history, formed the backdrop for the Bobby Johnson years.

An abiding commitment to holistic education formed the core of VU's priority system when this straight-arrow shot onto the scene eight years ago. An unflagging school-wide belief in the transformative power of sports is what animated Mr. Johnson as he took control of this program in 2002. The mandate wasn't just to improve the on-field product; it was to develop the minds and hearts of the young men under his care.

The Bobby Johnson reign in Nashville was unquestionably successful, but it shone so distinctly for reasons that transcend the magical 2008 season, which bestowed upon the program its first bowl appearance since 1982 and its first bowl win since 1955. The crowning dimension of the Johnson years is that this bearer of white-haired wisdom developed Vandy football players as people and athletes alike. Authenticity was not sacrificed at the altar of achievement. Virtue at the big "V" was not tossed aside in the quest for on-field victory.

Modest in the way he comported himself as a foremost representative of the school, Johnson honored the Vandy Way while crafting accomplishments that would be deemed quite modest at other SEC schools and downright disappointing at the brand-name pigskin powers in Dixie (Bama, Auburn, LSU, Florida, Tennessee, and Georgia). However, in a continuation of the well-worn yet entirely accurate theme being established here, Vandy isn't other programs. What Johnson built between the white lines in Music City is meager on an absolute scale, but substantial in a comparative context. Verily, Vanderbilt football found what was not necessarily the apex of excellence under Johnson, but certainly the proudest moment in its football history. VU is not a party school or a football factory, but on New Year's Eve of 2008, one can be sure that a university celebrated its pigskin prowess with unusual – and deserved – abandon.

It's quite an onus to own, isn't it? Much as Northwestern's basketball brainiacs have never reached the NCAA Basketball Tournament in the 72-season history of that event, Vandy hadn't tasted a bowl win in 53 seasons when Bobby and the boys prepared for the 2008 season. In games that sometimes presented a platter of rotten luck (Florida 2005; Arkansas 2006; Georgia and Tennessee in 2007) and, on other occasions, exposed the limitations of Johnson's coaching ability (Middle Tennessee 2005; Kentucky 2007), the Commodores came up short in wrenching losses that left them just short of Bowlville. The five-win seasons that littered the Gerry DiNardo years became a recurring feature of Johnson's tenure. As 2008 dawned, the program stood at a crossroads: Would it push just a little harder in pursuit of what – for VU – was the holy grail of Win Number Six, or would the steady stream of near misses remove the crucial dose of added intensity it needed to reach the mountaintop?

The VU crew, as we all know by now, achieved the elusive bowl-winning goal that had been hovering over the program like a dark cartoon raincloud. However, lost in the shadows of the Music City Bowl triumph over Boston College is an even greater truth: The Commodores answered the above question the right way. Before the great oh-eight accomplishment became reality, Bobby Johnson got his kids to keep trying in the first place.

Sure, that '08 team produced face-plants against Mississippi State, Duke and Tennessee. Yes, it still didn't deliver a winning regular season. Admittedly, the magic sixth win against Kentucky might not have happened if the Wildcats hadn't roughed VU punter Brett Upson THREE SEPARATE TIMES! (We'd still be in overtime at 24-all if UK had roughed Upson only once.) Yet, the narrative still emerged, and the Nashville night at LP Field still rang with joy on December 31, 2008, when VU walked off the field with a bowl trophy in its clutches.

For all that Johnson and his staff lacked in terms of offensive brilliance in that 2008 campaign, their commitment to the classical virtues of sport – perseverance, character, industry, selflessness, sacrifice, and humility (all without the allowance of profanity, a Johnson hallmark) – lifted them a little higher than their weaknesses suggested. The 2008 team wasn't a great team, but it forged a moving and memorable monument to everything that is right in collegiate athletics, to everything sports romantics claim these games can produce inside the human person.

I grew up loving sports because The Games People Play – while so evidently trivial in a larger context – nevertheless taught me so many lessons within their relatively safe confines.

Life isn't fair (felt when a favorite team got screwed by a bad call in a big game).

Better to lose honorably than win in a tainted way (experienced when a favored team escaped due to an evidently bad call at the very end of a game).

Show up. (In other words, don't disrespect your opponent by going through the motions and assuming victory.)

Work hard and with humility. (Phrased differently and more expansively, do only your assigned task and don't try to be the ball-hogging hero who tries to do everything by yourself.)

Trust your teammates. (That is appreciably self-explanatory.)

Pay the price, otherwise known as "put yourself in position to succeed, and to surmount the bad breaks that might come your way on gameday." (An example: If a horrible pass interference call causes you to concede an unfair touchdown, make sure you lead by nine points at the time, not five.)

These pearls of wisdom make sports an always-present teacher, if only the human person will subjugate his ego and allow the illumination to filter into his mind. (They prepared me for tough truths whose consequences are far worse than coming up short on the scoreboard.)

By all accounts, Johnson allowed his position as a coach to double as the job of a life teacher, an imparter of values just like the recently-departed legend, John Wooden of UCLA fame. Johnson tapped into the power of sport throughout his VU career. In 2008, he did so with enough persistence to become just the second coach in Commodore history to win a bowl game (Art Guepe being the other). For lil' ol' Vanderbilt, that's a titanic testament to holistic heights of unquestioned quality.

And of course – once more with feeling – it's not even the best part of the story. What really makes Mr. Johnson such a treasure in the history of Vanderbilt football is that he never compromised his or VU's values while registering his beautiful bowl breakthrough.

He didn't dominate or dazzle. He didn't author a full-fledged revolution or astound the masses.

Johnson simply did what too many men fail to do when they inherit the big chair and assume a place of awesome power, dizzying visibility, and pronounced prominence.

As a football coach in the Southeastern Conference, where football is treated like a religion, it is so easy to change who you are in the pursuit of success. It is so common for SEC coaches (look at Nick Saban and Bobby Petrino, for instance) to lose hold of their integrity so that they can win games on Saturdays. Lie your way into a job offer? Berate players and staff in a sport where the athletes do not (yet) get paid? Many of the winningest coaches in college football – with a number of them residing in the SEC – have held aloft a crystal trophy in early January but have failed to manifest the right values as a matter of course. Johnson never sniffed an SEC East title, let alone a BCS bowl game, but it can be said with complete confidence that the profanity-free fellow, formerly of Furman, didn't become a monster once he went from the small time to the big time. His climb up the coaching ladder to a station of SEC centrality did not warp his priorities or corrode his moral fiber.

Bobby Johnson kept being ordinary, the best person he knew how to be. He steadfastly refused to become a lesser man as a result of increased appetites. He resisted the temptation to become the kind of person – found so often in human history – whose artistic or creative accomplishments existed in an inverse relationship to the level of his personal virtue.

Johnson did something only one other Vanderbilt football coach had ever managed to do – win a bowl game. Yet, that taste of gridiron glory, that sip of the sweet nectar of triumph, occurred without any ethical shortcuts or moral concessions. Johnson did it his way - the way we should all handle our chosen professions. The way we should all live our lives.

Wednesday, a very special Vanderbilt man exited stage right. To people throughout the VU community, this man merely exhibited the virtues and values one expects at this distinguished university. Yet, for the world beyond this slice of Nashville, it must be said – without any of the hyperbole referred to at the outset – that in being so noticeably common, Bobby Johnson gave the college football world one very uncommon Commodore.

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