Hand can rest easy with Vanderbilt in a bowl game

Friday, December 23, 2011 at 12:01am

Last December, Vanderbilt offensive line coach Herb Hand tossed and turned through many restless nights.

Most of these were spent on a couch – in the coaches’ locker room. Not because Hand couldn’t get away from the office but because he had nowhere else to go. 
The man who hired him – Robbie Caldwell – was no longer Vanderbilt’s head coach. While the university conducted a search for Caldwell’s replacement, Hand worried about his job security.

Not sure if he would be retained, he checked out of his apartment near campus and checked into the McGugin Athletic Center.

“It is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately industry ... it was a stressful time,” Hand said.

Hand had arrived in Nashville just four months earlier and took over the offensive line duties for Caldwell, who had been promoted to head coach in July after Bobby Johnson’s abrupt resignation.

Hand made the move alone. His wife and three children stayed back in Tulsa, where Hand spent the last previous seasons as a member of the University of Tulsa coaching staff. So close to the start of classes, Hand and his wife, Debbie, didn’t want to pull their children out of school. So Hand stayed in an apartment off Blakemore Avenue, waiting for his family to join him in the spring.

“It was trying,” said Hand, who has coached at seven schools over the last 20 years. “I had some other opportunities [after the coaching change] but I really wanted to be here – that’s why I came here in the first place.”

Shortly after James Franklin was hired as head coach, he began to assemble his coaching staff. He met and interviewed the assistants from the Caldwell-Johnson regime and decided to carry over just one to his staff – Hand.

“Herb is one of the first guys I met,” Franklin said. “Herb was living apart from his family and ... I had to kind of step over him [in the locker room] in the dark. Herb sacrificed a lot for this profession and this team.”

A year later, Hand is resting a little better.

Instead of sending out resumes and sleeping on a sofa, he has been reunited with his family and is preparing for a bowl game. The Commodores play Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl on New Year’s Eve in Memphis.

Hand’s patience still has been tested, but in a different way. When he moved from Tulsa, where he was an offensive coordinator and line coach, he was handed the reins to an offensive line struggling with depth.

That didn’t change much this season, as injuries forced the 42-year-old Hand to shuffle around bodies. He lost starting guard Jabo Burrow to career-ending concussion concerns just two games into the season. Center Logan Stewart battled back from a bout with mononucleosis and missed several games before his season ended in late November with a leg injury against Tennessee.

Thus, Hand asked many players to play multiple positions. In fact, sophomore Wesley Johnson played all three line positions – guard, center and tackle.

“The one great thing about the kids we have here is their versatility,” Hand said. “They are trained to play a bunch of different positions because you never know how things are going to shake out. I almost approach it like a basketball team in that you’ve got a sixth man and seventh man instead of just saying, ‘Well this guy is a backup right guard.’ He might be the backup right guard, the backup left guard and the backup center. They’ve got to be able to do anything.”

Also aiding Hand was that he didn’t have to teach new terminology and a new style to his unit. Though Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan brought in a new, multiple-set system, Hand said they were receptive to his approach.

After a rough first four games in which the line allowed 16 sacks, Hand and graduate assistant Jory Orck ironed out the kinks and worked around the injuries.

His unit gelled and allowed just eight sacks in the last eight games. The big guys upfront also paved the way for Zac Stacy, who set the school’s single-season rushing record with 1,136 yards and 13 touchdowns.

“When I got here everybody talked about the offensive line being such a big challenge,” Franklin said. “I’m just really proud of that group as a whole and Herb has a big part in that.”

Hand would like to continue contributing to Vanderbilt’s success.

After a roller coaster 2010 season, he has settled into his role this fall and knows everyone in the Hand family will rest a little easier if the future is more stable.

“If momma’s happy, everybody is happy,” he said. “My wife’s happy. We love it here in Nashville. We love the community. We love what Coach Franklin is doing with the vision and direction of the program. It has just been really a phenomenal year and we’re looking forward to finishing it out strong.”