"Is that Phil?" Johnson deadpanned, referring to Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, who Monday had announced he was skipping this week's festivities. The room roared with laughter.
On a day in which many of the reporters' questions were mundane and the answers predictable, Johnson broke the monotony and charmed the crowded room at the Wynfrey Hotel with a number of antics. Before taking the stage, Johnson also rearranged the helmets of the SEC East schools so that the Vanderbilt helmet, positioned last alphabetically, appeared in front. The move brought a smattering of giggles from the assembled scribes.
Asked later if he was surprised to be "the only coach at Media Days from the great state of Tennessee," Johnson said yes. "They didn't stop me today at the border when I crossed over the line into Alabama."
While much of the buzz on the first day of Media Days concerned Fulmer's controversial decision to skip the event, Vandy's Johnson has plenty to be light-hearted about going into his third season as Commodore skipper. With 21 of 22 starters returning and a roster dominated by fourth- and fifth-year players, the Commodores hold great hopes of improving on the 2-10 records of the past two seasons.
Asked if the Commodores are thinking bowl game for this season, Johnson quipped, "Yeah, we think about bowl games a lot.... in fact, we watched a lot of them on TV last season.
"Our players certainly have that as a goal. They're working hard, and believe me, they're preparing for something other than 2-10."
For the second year in a row, the Commodores' player representatives were defensive end Jovan Haye and quarterback Jay Cutler, both of whom are now fourth-year juniors. Johnson said having a quarterback with the experience of Cutler, who now has 21 starts under his belt, is one of his team's biggest strengths.
"Jay and Jovan are two guys who could play for any team in the conference and excel," said Johnson. "Jay is 6-4, and he's up to about 225 or 230 pounds. He's got a great arm. He can run. He can run the option and operate the passing game. He's a born leader.
"He's made it his mission this off-season to cut down on his mistakes, and that's a great goal for our quarterback.
"Jovan, we think, is a great story. He didn't play football until his junior season in high school, and he redshirted his first year at Vanderbilt, so he's only been playing football for about four years. In spite of that he's got the ability to do some spectacular things on the football field."
The 2004 Commodores' blend of depth and experience should easily be the best yet for the Johnson era at Vanderbilt. Still, despite his team's uncharacteristic maturity, there are concerns.
"Our biggest concern is probably depth, especially on the offensive line," Johnson said. "We feel like we have good players at the offensive line, but probably not the depth you need to be successful in the SEC.
"And secondly, our kicking game is relatively unproven. We have high hopes for several of them, but the fact is that all of our kickers are still unproven."
The Commodores open the season Sept. 4 with a home game against South Carolina. Johnson said there are pluses and minuses to opening the season with such a momentous game.
"It certainly brings a sense of urgency to our practices," Johnson said. "When you only have 29 practice opportunities to get ready, it makes it important that you use every one to the maximum. It makes it kind of tough to get ready.
"On top of that, our players will have to be in school for the week-and-a-half before they play that game. Last year the calendar worked out that we didn't have to start until the Wednesday before the game. But this year, to have to concentrate on football at the same we're starting classes is going to make it tough.
"But the flip side of that is that our players know how important that game is. It really gets our players' attention and helps them focus."
Other coaches appearing Tuesday were Auburn's Tommy Tuberville, Arkansas' Houston Nutt and Florida's Ron Zook. The three-day event continues Wednesday with appearances by players and coaches from Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Kentucky.
The 2004 Vanderbilt football media guide made its debut Tuesday at Media Days. The 200-page volume, the biggest ever, features captains Justin Geisinger, Chris Young, Jay Cutler and Jovan Haye on the cover. The back cover features junior linebacker Moses Osemwegie, senior guard Brian Kovolisky, junior cornerback Dominique Morris and junior receiver Erik Davis.
Fans should be able to purchase the guides, an indispensable source of team information, at McGugin Center later this week.
Of the SEC players who appeared Tuesday, Haye probably made the biggest fashion statement. The junior was dressed in a white plaid suit trimmed in orange along with an orange shirt, which caused one reporter to remark that he "looked like he just stepped off of the NBA Draft show."
Haye credited teammate and roommate Kelechi Ohanaja as his fashion consultant. "Yeah, I had Kelechi pick this one out," he laughed. "I always have to get his help for something this big."
Haye admitted to having been nervous at last year's Media Days, but said nervousness hadn't been a problem for him this year.
Coming next for VandyMania subscribers: A series of exclusive interviews and reports from SEC Media Days, beginning tomorrow.