HOOVER, Ala.-- Former Furman coach Bobby Johnson told members of the press Wednesday that "Why did you take this job?" is NOT the question he's been asked most often as Vanderbilt's new head coach.
"That's number two," joked Johnson to the media members assembled for SEC Media Days. "Number one is, 'Do you know you look just like Steve Martin?'"
No, he didn't wear an arrow through his head as he addressed members of the print media. Dressed in a black suit and gold tie, the new Commodore skipper mostly played it straight. He patiently answered all the questions from the print media, even a few rather pointed ones. Then, after putting in the mandatory appearances for the TV and radio networks, Johnson proceeded to do interviews with half a dozen radio stations.
"That's the biggest adjustment for me between this league and Division I-AA is events like this," said Johnson. "There are more demands on your time outside of football."
Johnson was one of two head coaches making his debut appearances at Media Days on Wednesday-- the other was Ron Zook of Florida. Also appearing at the podium Wednesday were Auburn's Tommy Tuberville and Mississippi's David Cutcliffe.
Johnson told reporters his situation at Vanderbilt is comparable to that at Furman University, where in his eighth season as head coach he coached the Paladins into the 2001 national championship game. "We were a private school in probably the toughest I-AA football league in the country," said Johnson.
" I've always had a curiosity-- can our system work in a I-A situation? I'm convinced that it can. If you get in here and work hard, pick the right coaching staff, recruit hard, and get the players that fit into your system, that you have a chance to compete. We're confident we can."
A number of questions concerned what influenced Johnson to take the job, and why he thought he could improve on the results of his predecessors.
"The big difference is that Dr. Gordon Gee and his emphasis on athletics gives us a better chance. It doesn't guarantee that we're going to get it done, but I think it gives us a better chance than the coaches who have gone before me. So hopefully we can take advantage of it, and I don't have to answer that question any more."
Of his defense, Johnson said Vanderbilt would play an "aggressive" 4-3, but that that did not necessarily mean a lot of blitzes. "We like to attack the line of scrimmage. It doesn't mean we blitz a lot and play a lot of bump-and-run and man-to-man. I think you have to marry your system to your personnel.
"Most of the time we're going to allow the opponent to beat himself."
Several questions centered on the ongoing battle for the starting quarterback position between junior Benji Walker and redshirt freshman Jay Cutler.
"We're still learning about both of them right now," said Johnson. "We assumed at first that Benji would be the better runner-- then Jay showed us a lot of option moves in spring practice that proved that he could run.
"We thought Jay might be the better passer. Then Benji comes back and does some great things, makes some great plays, scrambling and throwing. They're very similar. They both fit our offense very well. It's a win-win."
Johnson said he would not name a starter before fall camp, and not at least until after a scrimmage scheduled for Aug. 17. "They're pushing each other, even in the offseason. We ran conditioning tests the other day. Benji comes in AFTER the conditioning tests and does a personal record. He's serious about it, and Jay is too. Jay will come in the next day and try to beat him.
"It's great competition, and the good thing about it is, they're still friends."
Senior captains Dan Stricker and Rushen Jones also served as Vanderbilt representatives and were grilled by the press. Stricker, a wide receiver who will contend for All-SEC honors this season, echoed the idea that Chancellor Gee has been a breath of fresh air for Vanderbilt athletics.
"That might have been the Vanderbilt of a few years ago," said Stricker, when asked why the administration had not been more supportive of athletics. "Dr. Gee has put a strong emphasis on athletics. The athletic department has been pouring money into athletics. [The football team] has new practice facilities. It's everything you'd want your facilities to be, and it's going to show."
Jones, a fifth-year senior cornerback, told reporters that the Strength and Conditioning program has gotten considerably tougher under Coach Johnson's regime. "The lifting workouts are a lot harder. The running workouts are a lot harder. It's going to improve us in the future.
"They're called 'voluntary' workouts, but you know you have to be there," continued Jones. "We've had a lot more players there this summer. You don't want to get off on the wrong foot with this new coaching staff."