Last Call For Caldwell

On a night when his team made Wake Forest look a lot like the club that won the 2006 ACC championship, Vanderbilt coach Robbie Caldwell had to feel a certain sense of relief. His rough autumn, in part the result of being thrust into a mid-July spotlight created by Bobby Johnson, made these past three months quite arduous and taxing.

Now that Commodore Caldwell won't be around in 2011, the VU program can move forward. This is a decision the school has to get right; the call for a new coach must be done well post-Caldwell.

The news that broke before Saturday night's season finale represented an event that was simultaneously sad yet unsurprising and, moreover, necessary for the future of the VU crew. One last loss in a not-very-happy campaign shows why this football operation needs not only a change, but a change to something very specific and precise: a system. Tony Barnhart, the unofficial king of Southern football writers, tweeted as much on Saturday when rumors – later debunked – surfaced that Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper had been offered the Vandy coaching job right after it was announced that Caldwell wouldn't be returning. To some, the notion of hiring an unheralded off-the-radar figure seems stupid, but to Barnhart and this columnist as well, the wisdom is evident. Vanderbilt needs an offensive system, and Saturday's loss to Wake Forest showed why.


It's a fool's errand to think that Vanderbilt, which has lacked a discernible identity on offense – with or without injuries – can stockpile enough depth or top-shelf talent in the cutthroat environment of the SEC. Make no mistake, VU has recruited some very exceptional athletes over the years – Jay Cutler, Earl Bennett, and D.J. Moore – and needs better skill people in order to rise from the bottom of the SEC East. However, the debate is not whether VU can bring talent into the fold; the debate is whether VU can recruit enough depth, at least in the short term but probably in the long run as well, to win games straight-up against a full SEC schedule.

If Bobby Johnson or Robbie Caldwell had their druthers, Vandy would have become an old-fashioned slobberknocker team with a straightforward power running game mixed in with some play pass action and a quarterback with enough agility to make plays with his legs. The Dores have gained glimpses of this ever since Jay Cutler went to the NFL, but the unfortunate truth is that this team has lacked a coherent vision on the offensive side of the ball in recent years; even the 2008 season was a rollercoaster that brought forth numerous shaky performances while the defense did most of the heavy lifting. This reality was on display against Wake Forest.

It's true that you won't succeed when your quarterback – Jared Funk – is under constant pressure, but the point also remains that Vanderbilt didn't offer Wake Forest's defense the kinds of ingredients that are making other offenses, inside and beyond the SEC, so newly formidable in this modern era of football. The visiting Demon Deacons, you see, have been downtrodden in their own right, and coach Jim Grobe has undergone a post-2006 nosedive that has been even more pronounced than what the Commodores have endured after their 2008 joyride. Yes, Wake carved out a better record than Vandy in 2010, but since the Demon Deacons reached much greater heights than VU – making the 2007 Orange Bowl – it's fair to say that Grobe has fallen harder than Bobby Johnson and Robbie Caldwell did. This looked like a game (before kickoff) that Vandy could win, but when the proceedings got started, it was immediately apparent that Wake had a much better idea of what to do and how to do it.

Wake's ascendancy in 2006 was built on the spread. Shotgun looks, some zone-read runs, and quick passes to the edges kept defenses off balance, and on Saturday, Wake's offense – while perhaps not devastating – was certainly very effective in the first half of play. The Deacs got Vanderbilt's defense on a pendulum, stretching the Dores horizontally and then slipping in handoffs between the tackles. Josh Harris (138 yards) and Josh Adams (42) yards totaled almost 200 yards on the ground, as the Deacons played the game faster, sharper and comprehensively better than the VU crew did. Wake quarterback Tanner Price completed only 10 passes for 73 yards, but he did enough to make Vandy reconsider loading up the tackle box in a first half that saw Wake accumulate 24 points and coast to a 24-3 lead just a few minutes before halftime. Wake didn't need to throw the ball in the second half, as the bottom-feeder in the ACC Atlantic Division wasn't tested at all. The team that had more of an idea of what it wanted to do on offense was the team that won the game, supplemented – of course – by superior line play and an evident physical advantage.

As the Vanderbilt football family moves forward, then, the key is not just to bring in talent, but to find a system and the man who will implement it well. With a system – be it the triple-option from a service-academy background, a spread option from a Chip Kelly disciple, or a tempo-based spread passing attack from someone such as Kevin Sumlin at Houston – Vandy can do something better and more important than merely bring in talented athletes: It can use the framework of a coherent offensive system to gain, as former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said, "a schematic advantage." The merits of this line of argument are obvious.

With a triple-option attack, Navy is winning nine games a year on a regular basis. The program didn't enjoy such success in the several years before then-coach Paul Johnson installed the offense in 2002. Oregon has won back-to-back Pac-10 titles with the spread-option offense. Rich Rodriguez has failed at Michigan because of the lack of a defense, but there's no question that his style of offense has made his teams more prolific and productive at West Virginia and now in Ann Arbor. With a system, you don't necessarily need the best players; you merely need compatible players. The triple-option or flexbone used by Navy is particularly attractive because it can chew up clock and keep the ball away from opposing offenses; it's also worth considering because you can run it even with undersized (but agile) offensive linemen. However, even if a triple-option maven isn't chosen as Vandy's next coach, the other systems in evidence at Oregon, Auburn and Michigan would also improve the Commodores' prospects if the right guy can oversee them on the practice field. It is said in sports that good teams really aren't competing against opponents, but against themselves and their own standards. By having a system which involves a core set of principles, players can learn specific skills and become very proficient at them. This enhances player development and lends structure to game-planning and recruiting alike.

The more you think about it, the more Vanderbilt needs a system coach for its next hire. Leave the politics and the financials aside; VU needs to know what kind of approach it needs before it tabs the candidate the school wants.

Robbie Caldwell, bless his heart and his sincere, down-to-earth soul, couldn't give Vanderbilt football the systemic staying power it needed in the SEC. Now, the university has to nail this next coaching decision. If it does, the 2008 season's results could become a reasonable expectation once again. In light of the 2009 and 2010 trails of tears, that would be a very good thing indeed in Music City U.S.A.

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