To many, Bobby Johnson could not have picked a worse time to retire as Vanderbilt football coach.
The 59-year-old stepped aside last Wednesday after eight seasons on the job. When he did, the start of practice for the coming season was less than a month away, and there were fewer than seven weeks until the first game.
But the overwhelming sentiment among those connected to the athletic department and the entire Vanderbilt community was that he could not have left the football program in better shape, relative to what it was when he took over in 2002.
“Did he leave this place better than he found it?” Vice Chancellor David Williams said. “… I don’t think there’s any question about that. That’s a question you don’t even have to [ask]. This football program is in much, much, much, much better shape than when this staff came in when Bobby came in.”
Johnson managed just 29 victories in eight seasons with the Commodores.
Still, that was four more than in the previous eight seasons — a span that included three different coaches. In 2008, Vanderbilt had a winning season (7-6) for the first time in 23 years, and it won a postseason bowl game for the first time in 53 years. And there was a victory over Tennessee in 2005, which snapped a 22-game losing streak in the series.
In a way, though, it was the losses that defined Johnson’s tenure.
There were 66 in all, but many of them by the slimmest of margins. A 49-42 defeat in double overtime against Florida in 2005 ranks among the most memorable games he coached.
“All I know is we were in a lot of football games the last four or five years,” Johnson said. “I know people have to play well to beat us. We’re recruiting better players. That gives us a chance to compete. When you get a chance, sometimes your guys come through and play like champs and can beat the very best.
“… The [coaches and players] expect to win, and I think that’s the best thing I could have done for this program.”