It’s a wise man who knows when the time has come, and Bobby Johnson is a wise man. He had given Vanderbilt University all he had for eight years of his life, and a man finally comes to realize that he has no more to give. In one season or another, Johnson’s teams had beaten Georgia, Auburn, Ole Miss, Kentucky, even Tennessee. And finally given his people a winning season, polished off with a bowl game, and winning it there in his Nashville precinct. Also, sharing “ Coach of the Year” prize in the confererence.
Bobby Johnson has been often graced as the “perfect man for Vanderbilt.” But how long can a coach go only surviving on bread and water? He had established winning as a tradition when he coached at Furman University, and what it earned him was an elevation to defeat. You can’t win coaching football in the Southeastern Conference if you’re coaching at Vanderbilt. Winning is preferred, defeat is a curse, but in general, it won’t get you fired.
It’s an institution of a special kind. The kind you find at Duke, at Stanford, at Northwestern, at Wake Forest, at Virginia, where winning is cherished, but academics stand foremost.
One day last week, Bobby Johnson decided he’d handled all the defeat he could digest. He walked into David Williams’ office and told him he was leaving. David Williams’ title is Vice Chancellor for University Affairs and Athletics. You see, Vanderbilt does it its own way. That is Vandy’s version of “director of athletics.”
Williams, it is said, tried to change the coach’s mind, but there was no change in Bobby Johnson. He had timing in mind, loyal as he is to the university as he is to his compatriots. It was puzzling to many that he should take his leave at this particular time, out of season, about a month before Commodore players began checking in.
As late as 10 o’clock on that morning, Johnson would meet with vice chancellor Williams, nobody had an inkling of his intentions. Nobody, outside of family. Oh, there may have been a hunch, but I doubt it, though Bobby finally explained, “Well, you can’t coach forever. There’s more to life than that.”
He’s a mild 59 years old, and there’s a lot of energy left in that body of his. Any cause to exercise any more of it in a barren situation? None at all — but he couldn’t walk away and leave the guys who’d been his assistants for years hanging by their thumbs. Too late to go shopping around for a successor. The obvious was, leave the job to Robbie Caldwell, who had been with him for years, as had most of the other staff. Call him “interim,” if you choose.
Bobby Johnson is that kind of man, loyal, honorable, unselfish. Fellow coaches knew and respected him for his high standards. In fact, the first call he fielded after the news hit the wire came from Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech. For several seasons, the two Johnsons had carried on a head-knocking rival when Paul coached at Georgia Southern and Bobby at Furman.
“He thought it was time,” a Nashville source told me. “He wanted to be sure his staff was in place, and that it was good for Vanderbilt.”
Over the weekend the first preseason workout was scheduled — voluntary, of course — and 76 kids reported. At Vanderbilt, “They get it,” as they say.
The Johnson standard remains in place.
Furman Bisher is one of the deans of American sports writing. The longtime Atlanta sports journalist is a member of the Georgia and Atlanta Sports Halls of Fame and in addition to his newspaper writing has authored multiple books on major figures like Hank Aaron and Arnold Palmer. He writes periodic columns for the Daily Post.