Success doesn’t blur Vanderbilt’s focal point
Posted: Friday, October 10, 2008 5:52 pm
By: By TERESA M. WALKER, AP Sports Writer
NASHVILLE (AP) — Bobby Johnson grips the podium with a hand on each side and starts taking questions. His answers come in his Southern drawl with his own dry humor.
The only difference between now and his first few years at Vanderbilt? These days he’s talking about his 13th-ranked Commodores handling the crush of national attention instead of preaching the need for patience as he did while breathing life into the Southeastern Conference’s worst football program.
The hardworking Johnson has kept the same low-key, optimistic approach since being hired in December 2001, and he is why the Commodores are enjoying their highest ranking since 1956 and a 5-0 start that is their best in any season since 1943 in a schedule shortened by World War II.
The reason is simple: Confidence has to come from somewhere.
“I just think it’s a necessity for the head coach to have confidence in his players. You can’t fool them. If you’re overmatched like we were early in our careers here at Vanderbilt, you just want to try to be your very best and see if you can overcome some odds,” Johnson said.
“When you get to the point where you feel like you can play with people, we expect our guys to play confidently. And if I don’t lead the way, they’re not going to feel that way.”
Receiver George Smith has been around Johnson for six of the coach’s seven seasons, and he credits the coach’s even keel and optimism for turning around a program whose last winning season came in 1982.
Vanderbilt is a win away from being bowl eligible for the first time since 1982 and matching the school’s best start since 1928.
They might reach both on Saturday when the Commodores visit Mississippi State (1-4, 0-2). Johnson will have a fan on the opposite sideline in Bulldogs coach Sylvester Croom.
“I enjoy watching Vandy play because I guess Bobby and I have both in our programs been underdogs. I always pull for him, and I’m happy that they’re doing well and I’m happy the way they’re doing it,” Croom said.
Johnson is drawing compliments from all over, including Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer.
“Bobby’s done a good job. They’ve had some nice wins, particularly the one this last weekend,” Fulmer said of a 14-13 win over Auburn.
After a 2-9 season in 2001, Vanderbilt tried to talk Stanford’s Tyrone Willingham into taking over, but Willingham declined the challenge of trying to revive the Commodores as the SEC’s first black head coach. School officials turned to Johnson, who had just been named the Division I-AA national coach of the year for leading Furman to the championship game.
Johnson came to Nashville and worked to find players intelligent enough to be accepted by the SEC’s only private university and athletic enough to play in college football’s deepest and toughest conference.
It took time.
He won two games in each of his first three seasons, then went 5-6 in 2005 with Jay Cutler. Vandy followed up by beating Georgia in Athens in 2006 and then-No. 6 South Carolina in Columbia last season only to finish 5-7.
“If you just keep banging away at it, you get better players in here. Yes … our talent level is better, we’re faster. I don’t know if we’re that much bigger, but we’re faster and more athletic. That gives you a chance to compete and not just be run out of the stadium when you go against some of these great teams,” Johnson said.
Now it’s time to include Vanderbilt in that group.
Johnson doesn’t worry that his ’Dores rank 114th nationally in total offense, averaging 278.8 yards per game. The stats he prefers includes the fewest penalties in the SEC with 16 — 12 fewer than Alabama — an SEC-best 11 interceptions and a defense holding opponents to 16.2 points per game, good for 24th nationally.
“You just don’t compare yourself to other schools. You see how we’re doing for ourselves,” Johnson said.
“They don’t beat themselves, they play for 60 minutes, they don’t ever quit on themselves and I think they just keep coming and keep coming and keep coming. And they win games. That’s the way we won last year,” Croom said of his own team’s bowl season.
That’s what Johnson wants for his Commodores with games against No. 10 Georgia, 11th-ranked Florida and No. 21 Wake Forest still left.
“Our guys are smart. You can’t hide it from them. They know the situation. They know the deal. I don’t think they’re obsessed with trying to get the sixth win. I think they’re just trying to get better,” Johnson said.
Why mess with what’s working?