Bobby Johnson Redefined Winning at Vanderbilt

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Bobby Johnson Redefined Winning at Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson was never one to say, "I told you so."

He didn't make headlines for recruiting violations or scandals. He made them for banning his players from swearing.

He didn't promise the moon. He promised that he and his staff would work hard, and the results for the Commodores would follow.

Perhaps what was so remarkable about Bobby Johnson was that, given what he accomplished, he still carried himself with such a humble demeanor, right up until he retired Wednesday after eight seasons with the Commodores.

There was no self-adulation. There were high-fives and hugs after the latest upset victory for the players and coaches that he cared about and mentored.

There were no ego trips or extended dalliances with other schools seeking his services. There was a vow that Vanderbilt would be the last place he'd ever coach.

He just went about his business, day-by-day, working to achieve the goals he laid out for Vanderbilt when he arrived in 2002. With the help of hundreds of hard-working players whom he thanked emotionally in his retirement press conference on Wednesday, he did just that.

Before Johnson arrived, the Commodores hadn't had a winning season or beaten in-state rival Tennessee since 1982. They hadn't won a bowl game since 1955. And the idea of ESPN's College GameDay ever hosting its show on campus was laughable.

Johsnon set out to win, facing the toughest opposition in the country, while respecting the university's high standards for academics and personal conduct, and remembering the importance of fostering every student-athlete's development.

He did all that and more. He won where others lost in the rough-and-tumble Southeastern Conference. A 29-66 record at Vanderbilt may belie that fact, but look closer.

The 2008 SEC Co-Coach of the Year and third-longest tenured coach in school history wasn't just a top-notch football man, but also an outstanding leader of young men.

He made Vanderbilt respectable again, and he helped people re-examine how to define winning in college athletics.

Johnson didn't limit his definition of victories to the scoreboard. His teams didn't lead the nation in scoring, but they did in graduation rates and grade point average. The 2008 team that won the Music City Bowl didn't have a flashy offense, but they played superbly on defense and special teams, and more importantly, they played smart.

Sure, some under Johnson's tutelage like Jay Cutler and Chris Williams have gone on to professional football careers. The man could develop talent. But even more important were the hundreds who stayed in the classroom and out of trouble, and who made Vanderbilt fans proud to support a team defined by character and integrity.

Johnson leaves now on his terms. He recognized that there are far more things out there to experience than college football. And to his immense credit, he made it clear that no one should take on the immense responsibilities of being a head coach unless one is fully invested in the job.

In a sporting world where all too often personal ego supersedes what's best for everyone involved, Johnson put others first, in this case not only his team but his wife Catherine. Johnson took a look in the mirror and saw a 59-year-old who had spent more than half of his life coaching, and he and Catherine decided it was time for other things.

After eight years of fantastic service to this team and university, no one should begrudge that decision.

Some questioned the timing of his retirement, but as Johnson pointed out, there is no good time for a college football coach to retire. With last year's recruiting class locked in and the rest of the coaching staff intact, this was a comparatively normal coaching change compared to some of the craziness we've seen around the conference in recent years.

So this is a sad time and a happy time. We can lament the fact that Vanderbilt is losing a class act of a man who led the program out of the doldrums, but we can also celebrate that he changed the culture of Vanderbilt football.

Bobby Johnson was never flashy, but he was always classy, right to the end of his tenure.

He was the one leading the applause for his replacement, former assistant Robbie Caldwell, on Wednesday.

"College football is losing a great man today," Caldwell said.

The crowd of reporters and onlookers in the room agreed. Johnson probably didn't want applause for himself, but it rose up in the room after he finished fielding questions.

There was little else for him to say or that needed to be said. A man who put others first let the last eight years speak for themselves.

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