So sudden. And with only days, literally, before fall preseason practice. What would Vandy do next? Enter Robbie Caldwell, longtime assistant coach, who had served as assistant head coach to Johnson and as offensive line coach.
By early August, the title of interim had been removed in Caldwell's title, and the Commodores were on their way to preparing for Northwestern, the season opener in Nashville Sept. 4.
"We are finalizing a new contract for Coach Caldwell and after conferring with our Board of Trust, I have removed the interim from his title as our head coach," said Vanderbilt vice-chancellor David Williams last week. "We are both pleased with this new agreement but with the season upon us, getting our team ready for Northwestern is the most important thing for our coaches. We are excited about having Robbie Caldwell as our head coach and maintaining continuity with our excellent staff."
Commodore players seem to have bought into the Caldwell way.
"Coach Caldwell's got a lot of enthusiasm, and to me that's kind of a breath of fresh air," said sophomore John Cole, who had 36 catches for 382 yards and a touchdown last season. "Having somebody right there talking to us the whole time, being enthusiastic, it makes a difference and I could tell a difference. While the practices under Coach Johnson and Coach Caldwell were both very similar, there were some unique qualities that Coach Caldwell brought to practice."
So what does Caldwell and staff inherit as far as a football team? Certainly he and his staff know it. They recruited it and coached it.
One year after playing in a bowl game for the first time since 1982 and winning one for the first time since 1955, Vandy slipped back into more familiar territory with a 2-10 mark in 2009. The Commodores at 0-8 were the only winless team in the Southeastern Conference. Vandy returns five offensive starters, six defensive starters, and senior punter Brett Upson.
"Our goal has been to build depth," Caldwell said. "It's slowly coming along. I think we only have 10 seniors this year, so we've got a very young team. You look at the sophomore class, there's 29 sophomores there. We've been able to redshirt a few people. My philosophy is this: if they're ready to play, play. I don't care what year they are. We hope to get more people ready. Each year our goal is to bring in better than the year before. That's what we've been trying to accomplish."
Linebacker Chris Marve (6-0, 230, junior) is back to lead the defense. The Memphis, Tenn., product was second-team All-SEC last season and led the league in tackles with 10.1 per game and 121 total for the season.
He tied for second in the SEC in forced fumbles with three and had 18 tackles against Georgia Tech, which was best by a league player last season.
Safety Sean Richardson (6-2, 215, junior, Linden, Ala.) is back. He led all SEC defensive backs with 84 tackles, including 43 solo stops.
Sophomore tailback Warren Norman (5-10, 190, Stone Mountain, Ga.) was a second-team All-SEC selection as a return specialist and was named SEC Freshman of the Year by the Associated Press and the SEC Coaches.
Tailback Zac Stacy (5-10, 202, sophomore, Prattville, Ala), though injured much of the year, rushed for 478 yards and three TDs. That rushing total ranks 7th all-time among Vanderbilt freshman backs.
At quarterback, Larry Smith, a junior, has a big edge in experience. But he will be pushed by senior Jared Funk and junior college transfer Jordan Rodgers.
Smith, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound, junior, started nine games in 2009, completed 106 of 227 for 1,126 yards with six touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Funk (6-2, 210), a senior, has not attempted a pass in college, but appears to have the strongest arm on the team. Rodgers (6-2, 210), a junior, is a junior college transfer who passed for 2,219 yards and 19 TDs at Butte, Calif., in 2009. He's the younger brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The Rebels and Commodores meet in Oxford on Sat., Sept., 18, at 11:21 a.m. CT. Ole Miss leads the all-time series 47-35-2.