Twenty years ago this fall, George MacIntyre guided the 1982 Vanderbilt Commodores to an 8-3 record, to an unforgettable win over Tennessee in the season finale, and to an appearance in the Hall of Fame Bowl.
Since that golden season of 1982, no Vanderbilt team has won more than five games. MacIntyre won five in 1984, and Gerry DiNardo and Woody Widenhofer both managed to equal that total. But in 19 long seasons, no coach since MacIntyre has been able to get the Commodores back above the .500 mark.
Now comes Bobby Johnson, the South Carolina native who left his mark on Division I-AA by coaching the Furman Paladins into the national championship game last December. Like many Commodore coaches before him, he comes with impressive credentials, optimistic words, and the obligatory hoopla and tickertape that surround the advent of a new era.
Already Coach Johnson has been met with the usual litany of questions from media and skeptical fans. What makes you think you can succeed where no coach since MacIntyre has succeeded, they want to know.
Even for MacIntyre, probably Vandy's most beloved coach of the last 50 years, success was not instant. Fans will recall that he won only one game in his first season, 1979. But in each of the three succeeding years, he doubled his previous win total, culminating in the eight-win season of 1982. Is it reasonable to expect Johnson to have a similar pattern of success?
Only time will tell. But for now, take a look at some of the eerie similarities between Johnson and MacIntyre.
· Both already had a full head of gray hair when they took the job. (Don't downplay that-- coaching at Vanderbilt will add more gray hairs before you know it.)
· Both had successful careers as head coaches at a lower level before taking the Vanderbilt job. Unlike Widenhofer and Rod Dowhower, who were both NFL career guys-- and unlike Watson Brown and DiNardo, who had little and no head coaching experience, respectively, when hired by Vandy-- MacIntyre had an 18-14 record at Tennessee-Martin, while Johnson brings a 60-36 record from Furman.
· Both MacIntyre and Johnson quickly assembled impressive, talented, hard-working assistant coaching staffs. MacIntyre's first staff included Dave Roberts, Mickey Jacobs and a young Philip Fulmer, and eventually he attracted Watson Brown back to design an innovative offense. Similarly, Johnson has assembled a staff with a unique blend of experience, youth, vigor and recruiting ability.
· Lastly-- both MacIntyre and Johnson each had prior mentor/pupil relationships with a coach who had won before at Vanderbilt. MacIntyre came back to Vanderbilt having previously served as assistant coach for defensive backs under Steve Sloan in 1973-74. The Commodores had gone 12-9-2 those two years under Sloan, and played in the Peach Bowl in 1974.
And Johnson? His position coach when he played for Clemson in 1970-72 was none other than... George MacIntyre. MacIntyre, as it turns out, played a pivotal role in Johnson's decision to go into coaching.
At Clemson under head coach Hootie Ingram, so the story goes, Johnson was moved, against his wishes, from wide receiver to defensive back.
"I wasn't feeling real good about it until George sat me down and told me what was expected of me," Johnson told VandyMania recently. "He explained to me how we were going to go about making me a defensive back, and how I could help the team."
MacIntyre's firm but gentle way of handling players made a lasting impression on Johnson.
"I fell in love with the way he coached me right then," said Johnson. "And I've always tried to coach people the way they'd want to be coached. I got that model from George."
The switch to defense was fortuitous, and later figured in Johnson's decision to become a coach, and specifically a defensive coach.
"I probably wouldn't have gotten that interested in coaching if it hadn't been for George," said Johnson. "I had not really planned to be a coach. In fact, George talked me into being a graduate assistant at Clemson after I finished my eligibility.
"George left [for Vanderbilt] before I did that, but I still went on and did it, and learned a lot from those coaches at Clemson."
Some 30+ years later, by a strange twist of fate, Johnson was reunited with his former position coach. When Johnson accepted the Vanderbilt job last Dec. 23, MacIntyre, though confined today to a wheelchair, made it to the press conference and symbolically passed the torch to his former defensive back.
"Bobby was one of my favorite players and he is a super football coach," said MacIntyre, like a proud papa. "I am so proud of what he has accomplished.
"When I arrived at Clemson [in 1970], the coaches sat around the table and said which players we wanted. I wanted Bobby for his integrity; it is amazing what kind of person he is."
Johnson's personality and coaching style is almost a mirror-image of MacIntyre's. They're both straight-laced and squeaky-clean-- banning cursing at practice, for example, is the kind of thing that MacIntyre might have done.
They're old-school-- no-nonsense, low-key and soft-spoken. Neither gives a whole lot of thought to what others were saying or writing. "I've never been one to be too much influenced by what other people say," said Johnson to the press at SEC Media Days last month. "I look at things the way I see them."
Now that's quintessential MacIntyre if I've ever heard it.
Go ahead, let the media scoff all they want. Let the writers vote Vanderbilt in the SEC basement. It's enough for me right now that when I close my eyes and listen to Bobby Johnson talk, I hear George MacIntyre.
And I dream of spending the holidays somewhere down south, just like 20 years ago.