HOOVER, Ala. -- If you can't win, at least win the room.
And Vanderbilt sure as hell can't win.
|'I can still walk in places and nobody knows me,' Robbie Caldwell says. (AP)|
Who is Robbie Caldwell? Exactly. On Thursday, Vanderbilt's interim coach introduced his Leno-quality standup act to a roomful of cynical media.
At the end we applauded. And we wanted more.
Caldwell is that good a story. Last week he was lining the field when someone told Vandy's then-offensive line coach to shower up, quick. There was a news conference. The equipment guy got him a pair of game pants and a Commodores' polo. Next thing you know a 56-year-old bald man named Robbie was put in charge of one of most futile major college programs in the country.
Caldwell doesn't look at it that way. It's a chance. Make that a long shot. Vanderbilt admits players they know who can do the class work. It hopes those players can also play SEC football.
All that is secondary for the moment to the man guiding those more-students-than-athletes. While out to dinner Wednesday night, Caldwell held the door open for a patron. The man tipped him $1.50.
"I can still walk in places and nobody knows me," he said.
In his hometown of Pageland, S.C., he used to hunt dove outside his back door. His football chops were established in several college stops as a top offensive line coach. Under Caldwell, Vandy lineman Chris Williams became the 14th pick in the draft two years ago.
But the reaction from Caldwell's wife Nora Lynn and daughter Emsley was stark raving fear when told Bobby Johnson had retired.
"There's a panic," Caldwell said. "It was, 'What are we going to do? Are we out of a job?'"
Thirty-plus years in the business does that to a coach and his family. The sudden lifestyle change has struck like lightning. Johnson was a respected coach but he was also 29-66. A couple of years ago, Johnson did the impossible, taking the Commodores to a bowl game for the first time in a quarter century. Then he went 2-10 in 2009. There were rumors that boosters wanted Johnson to change his offense, maybe fire some coaches. Knowing that the walls were closing in, Johnson might have waited until mid-July to retire in order to maneuver Caldwell, his right-hand man, into the job.
At that point Vanderbilt had little choice. There are few big names that are going to take the job in the best of times. Caldwell was the assistant head coach. At that point he had a belly, a Southern drawl and a dream going for him.
It is a nomad's life. Caldwell is like a million of his counterparts. They all want to be head coaches, but at some point in your life you accept your fate. Caldwell's was to be an offensive line coach. He was a good one at North Carolina, North Carolina State and Furman. When Johnson, a licensed pilot, wanted to hire him eight years ago, he got hold of a private plane and flew to Pageland.
To say there was a landing strip would be bragging. When Johnson was ready to fly home, he needed help from a few guys turning the plane around. That was 2002. Johnson had his man.
We had our comic who performed in front of an SEC media days' record of more than 1,000 reporters. We found out Caldwell's first paying job was working on the inseminating crew on a turkey farm.
"I'd be glad to show you [how to do it] sometime," he told the media. "We can get a Tom in here ..."
Uh, no thanks.
"If I told some of these ladies knew what they put in that lipstick, oh my goodness," he continued, "because I de-beaked, blood-tested, vaccinated. I done it all."
Uh, double no thanks.
We found out when Caldwell left Hanahan (S.C.) High School for Furman in 1978, he took a pay cut. His dad told him he was an idiot.
"I've continued to live up to his words," Caldwell said.
We found out there is no cussing on the Vanderbilt practice field. Caldwell wants mamas to be able to come to practice without being embarrassed.
"It's just a sign of limited vocabulary sometimes," the coach said. "I know ya'll can't tell it but I do have an education."
The preseason has started off way too serious with all this agent stuff. Even without it, the SEC itself is a bit too stuffy sometimes. It needs a good ol' boy who doesn't take himself too seriously. Caldwell probably figures, why not? The worst that can happen is he goes back to being an offensive line coach. If he somehow gets Vandy to a bowl game this season, he can write his own ticket. Or perhaps a bigger one. Johnson, at slightly more than $1 million, was the lowest paid head coach in the SEC.
Caldwell is still working under his offensive line coach contract until Vanderbilt figures out how to compensate him. The school is the only one at the I-A level that operates without an athletic department.
"I got asked on radio, 'What about all the coaches that have congratulated you?' I said, 'Not a one. No offense to them, but they don't know me ... They have no idea who I am,'" Caldwell said.
They will if Vanderbilt is able to climb out of the SEC East basement. Either way, Caldwell won't have to work for tips anymore.
"I gave it back to him," the coach said. "I wish I knew the name of the restaurant here. Golly, it was fantastic. By the way, I ate quail. I kept my heritage, there."