Reactions from shock to disbelief spread around Vanderbilt circles Wednesday after the sudden retirement of football coach Bobby Johnson.
“I found out (Wednesday) morning just about the time everyone else did,’’ said National Commodore Club senior director Lucy Jones. “I’m sick – this is one of the hardest days for me in the 28 years I’ve worked here.
“Bobby was just so much a part of the Vanderbilt family – in essence, he’s who we are.”
Jones has been through numerous coaching changes – in all sports – during her time at the university. Johnson’s tenure (he had the longest run of any VU football coach in the last 40 years) and the timing of the announcement (less than a month before the start of practices) combined to make this unique.
“I’ve seen many coaches come and go, and he was one of the best,” Jones said. “I totally understand his decision, and I’m happy for him.
“He always tried to do things the right way – what you see out of him was just that, it was what you get. I am happy for Bobby, Catherine (his wife) and all of his family, but we are losing a special person.”
Johnson met briefly with his players Wednesday afternoon. He detailed his thinking to them, and then after remarks from interim coach Robbie Caldwell and vice chancellor David Williams, the players held their own meeting under the direction of the leadership group.
“I was pretty shocked,” senior defensive tackle Adam Smotherman said. “Me and nobody else saw this coming. He made his decision and I respect it. I just wish him nothing but the best.
“Our only option is to get through this. … Everybody will be counting us out now. We owe it to ourselves, our fans and the entire community to work hard and do our jobs.”
Smotherman and others expressed confidence in Caldwell, a lifelong assistant who worked under Johnson for the past eight seasons.
“I’m so happy for Robbie, he has had eight great years, and I know he will do well in his move up,” Jones said.
Former Mr. Commodore mascot (1971 and ’72) and long-time Vanderbilt season-ticket holder Kenny Diehl was in borderline shock when he heard the news.
“My initial reaction was stunned disbelief,” Diehl said. “It’s still unclear to me why all this happened now instead of right after the season was over. It affects recruiting not to mention practice is so close to starting.
“It’s sad in a way. I like Bobby Johnson a lot. Like they say, when one door closes, another opens up. … I cannot ever remember a coach resigning or retiring from a football program this close to the start of the season. It’s most unusual. But I wish him well.”
Johnson led the team to a winning record (7-6) and a victory in the Music City Bowl in 2008, but the Commodores followed up with just two victories last season.
“I don’t know much of how this all came down – but I take him at his word when he said he didn’t have his entire heart and soul into it,” said former Vanderbilt baseball player (1960s) and season ticket holder Jim Hitt.
“It looked like he just got tired of butting heads with the powerhouses of the SEC, although he did the very best he could and gave all he had. It reminds me a little of coach (Jim) Foster (former women’s basketball coach who resigned to go to Ohio State). “Bobby is a very decent and honorable man. He had some great wins over his time here like the ones at Tennessee, Georgia and Arkansas, and some tough losses, particularly the double-overtime game at Florida.”
Jones probably spoke for many Vanderbilt fans when she said, “I’m heartbroken. But at the same time, I’m very happy for Robbie.”