A quick glance at Bobby Johnson often creates the impression that Vanderbilt’s football coach is a senior citizen, thanks in no small part to his hair, which is uniformly silver. The fact is, though, that at 56 years old he still has several years to go before he achieves that distinction.
Yet he is one of the senior coaches in the Southeastern Conference, a rare occurrence at Vanderbilt where — for decades — the top post within the football program has been a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him proposition.
When Johnson and his peers along with some of their top players gather this week in Birmingham for the league’s annual Media Days, Vanderbilt’s coach will be as familiar as anyone with the process and to the members of the regional and national media who show up for the event.
“Some of the (coaches) have moved around to different schools and have been around longer than me, just not at the same school,” Johnson said. “We’re in a tough league and you just have to keep battling away and battling away.
“I’m not looking for the next job, I’m just looking to do a good job where I am. Whatever happens, happens.”
Johnson already happens to be third all-time among Vanderbilt coaches for longevity, having been in charge for 83 games (his record is 27-56). His tenure is the longest in nearly half a century since Art Guepe went 39-54-7 in 100 games between 1953 and 1962.
Among current SEC coaches, only Georgia’s Mark Richt has been on the job longer. Richt was hired in 2001, a year before Johnson took over at Vanderbilt.
By comparison, Florida’s Urban Meyer has been head coach at three different places (Bowling Green, Utah and Florida) during the time Johnson has guided Vanderbilt. Houston Nutt of Ole Miss has had two different SEC jobs, and South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier has been to the NFL and back.
“Bobby has just the right temperament and understanding of this place, and that's important,” David Williams, Vanderbilt's vice chancellor for university affairs and athletics told ESPN.com last fall. “Not only do you need time and stability to do this job, but you need someone who is on their own mission and that mission is, ‘We're going to get it done here, and we're going to maintain it.’”
Still, that sort of coaching consistency is in stark contrast to how Vanderbilt’s football program traditionally has functioned.
For example, the Commodores had six different head coaches during Vince Dooley’s tenure at Georgia, five during Frank Broyles’ 19 seasons at Arkansas, and four throughout Phillip Fulmer’s recently completed run of 16-plus years at Tennessee.
In between the legendary Dan McGugin, who won 197 games from 1904-34, and Johnson, Vanderbilt had 15 different football coaches. The average time the members of that group spent on the job was 4.6 years, a number Johnson is close to doubling.
“As far as football, we’re constantly changing and looking at different things and new things, and looking for better ways to do it,” Johnson said. “I don’t think we’re getting complacent or we’re staying in one place (philosophically).
“I think that’s very important because you have to look at that when you have a staff that’s been together for a long time. … I think we’ve progressed and have been willing to look at different things.”
The 2009 season will be Johnson’s eighth as head coach at Vanderbilt.
It is a notable number given that he was at his previous job — head coach at Furman — for eight seasons before he was named Woody Widenhofer’s replacement.
Not only that, but his eighth season at Furman was his most successful. That’s when he guided the Palladins to a 12-3 record and a spot in the Division I-AA national championship game.
It was a long way from his first season there, when the team went 3-8 or even three years earlier when his team had a losing record (5-6).
“You’ve got to keep moving, keep growing and keep exploring things and make sure you’re finding out what’s happening out there with the latest things,” he said. “If it can be a help for your program, don’t be afraid to try them.”
Johnson is so rooted in his current position that he now has the luxury of being able to face challenges outside of just Vanderbilt football.
In January, he was named to the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Board of Trustees, a panel which currently also includes luminaries such as Texas’ Mack Brown and Ohio State’s Jim Tressel.
The AFCA board sets policy and provides direction for the organization, which has more than 10,000 members.
Plus, his loyalty and longevity at Furman (he also was an assistant there for 16 seasons in an 18-year span) were recognized last month when he was named a 2009 inductee into the Furman Athletics Hall of Fame.
That ceremony is scheduled to take place this week, three days after his latest SEC Media Days appearance.
“When I find a good job, I like to stay there,” Johnson said. “I’ve had, basically, three great jobs. If you want to challenge yourself and do something different — that’s basically what happened when we went from Furman to Vanderbilt — [then] you try it.
“It’s not that I was looking to stay in the same place all the time, but there were challenges at Furman, there were challenges here and I like to try to get some things done before I move on.”