Caldwell Rings in New Era at Vandy

HOOVER, Ala. -- Minutes after interim head coach Robbie Caldwell took the stage at SEC Media Days, the Vanderbilt football program became interesting. There's no guarantee he will improve on the two wins the Commodores had last season, but there's no doubt he will be entertaining.

For Robbie Caldwell, the whirlwind week continued Wednesday night in the lobby of the Wynfrey Hotel. Common courtesy for him was to hold the door for a man walking behind him, and to his surprise, the man put $1.50 in Caldwell's hand as a tip.

Such is the life of the unknown SEC football coach. And Caldwell couldn't enjoy it more.

His good friend Bobby Johnson retired last Wednesday as the head coach of the Commodores, pushing Caldwell into the job and representing Vanderbilt in Hoover.

"Here I am, I go from lining the field to I'm head coach in the SEC," Caldwell said. "I'm telling you, what a thrill. It's a dream."

It's not just hotel patrons that don't recognize him. Caldwell hasn't received a welcome from any coach in the conference, but he doesn't attribute it to disrespect. He puts the other coaches in the same category as everyone outside of diehard Vanderbilt fans. Not many people know who he is.

"No, not a one," Caldwell said with a grin and a nod about other SEC coaches. "No offense to them, but they don't know me. They will."

Caldwell's blunt personality is what the Vanderbilt program needs. Consider him the opposite of former Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin. While trying to create interest in his program, Caldwell allowed his personality to show and won over a room full of cynical media members by being himself. He didn't need outlandish statements. He didn't need to call out other football programs.

Instead, he allowed his roots to shine through.

Caldwell turned a question about the expectations of Vanderbilt administration for him into an answer that involved talking about his first job, which came working for the insemination team at a turkey farm in his hometown of Pageland, South Carolina.

"All I know how to do is work," Caldwell said. "I've been a worker all my life. I grew up in it. My wife said, ‘You can't talk about anything but football.' I can. I can talk about pouring concrete, farming, being a pipefitter, all those things, working on a turkey farm. But nobody wants to hear that. Those are the things that I did prior to getting into football. That's the God honest truth."

Those turkey fields are where he learned work ethic. He'll tell you how the worst part came in picking up the dead ones who may have been sitting in the field for up to a week. He's "de-beaked," given blood tests and vaccinated the turkeys enough to create one of the wildest stories at SEC Media Days in recent memory. But the genuine nature of his voice makes it easy to believe him, no matter how crazy the story.

"A wild turkey is one of the smartest animals in the world," Caldwell said. "But a domestic turkey is the dumbest thing. I guess it's why I worked so well with them. We had to put sprinklers out there to keep them from smothering out there in the summer when it gets hot. If you don't believe it, research it."

He has spent so many years on the sidelines of college football, he's not even sure how long it's been. "30-something years, I really don't know how many" is his only response.

However, Caldwell will remind the media that it's not his first time as a head coach. It came in 1977 when he coached the high school baseball team to a 14-2 record and a berth in the state playoffs. Pertinent to the conversation? Probably not. Not everything that comes out of Caldwell's mouth is.

But he is genuine.

"Obviously I'm a country boy," Caldwell said. "I enjoy my roots. I like to think I'm a humble guy. I try to do what's right. I've told you already I'm not an angel. I wish I could say that, but I got my faults. My wife will tell you. Just ask her. She'll school you up on it."

Coach Johnson created an atmosphere in his tenure that involved the assistant coaches. That's why Caldwell doesn't expect to see much change in the offensive or defensive schemes. All of the coaches on staff have been making decisions since they started working at Vanderbilt.

It'll stay that way with his assistants, too. He's not going to "head coaching school," a term the Vanderbilt assistants use to describe when a head coach gets a job and two weeks into it "he's got all the answers."

He'll trust his coaches. It's what made Coach Johnson a respected member of the SEC coaches, and it's what Caldwell plans to use to do his best in having the word "interim" removed from his title after the season.

One thing that might change will come at practice. Coach Johnson had a strict policy that didn't allow coaches or players to cuss on the field. Caldwell isn't trying to make the program out to be unwholesome, but he thinks he might have been the one to struggle the most with the policy.

"You know, I'm no angel, that's for certain," Caldwell said. "We certainly do try to live by that. But, you know, (cussing) is just a sign of limited vocabulary sometimes. I know y'all can't tell it, but I do have an education."

The times have changed with Vanderbilt head coaches at SEC media events. The university always known for it's academic prowess instead of its athletics is now coached by a man that plans to strengthen both.

The bittersweet feeling of losing the chance to coach under a close friend was cancelled out when Caldwell was named the interim head coach. He comes across as aloof at times, but his sincerity makes up for it. Caldwell can boast for hours on stage about the accomplishments of Vanderbilt players off the field. He'll talk about the school's new program of recruiting football players that want to become doctors.

But the sincerity in his voice and his passion for football won't go overlooked.

"This is the greatest thrill of my life other than my child being born."
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