Coach Bobby Johnson Cracks a Smile

Saturday, after the Vanderbilt versus Rice football game, I moved up to Vanderbilt University's star walk, shoved by the stirring, sweaty, heated masses that were pushing for positioning along the route.

Someone yelled, "They're coming!" The players appeared, making their way back to the locker rooms. Applause. Cheers. Shouts. Three children in front of me outstretched their arms and hands, showing enough earnestness to amuse me rather than annoy me.

As the players walked by, one kid yelled, "Just touch my hat! That's all I want, please just touch it!" Another kid stuck out his hand and attempted to put his little paw on the shoulder pad of every passing player.

After a thorough stream of players had walked by, the excitement of the crowd built even louder. Some asked what was happening. Others felt as if a celebrity were coming.

There was.

Hustling through the star walk, Vanderbilt football coach Bobby Johnson hastily brushed past the crowd, surrounded by no less than three bodyguards. Coach Johnson wore his trademark stone face. I thought to myself in a poor attempt of an analogy that if Vanderbilt football could have a messiah, Coach Johnson must be it. The crowd, the bodyguards, the excitement of a team's emergence in a status almost unseen before, the chanting . . .

"Bobby! Bobby! Bobby!" The crowd chanted his name in a rhythmic cadence.

As Johnson sauntered up the ramp to the locker room, a smile cracked on his face. I saw it.

After seven years, Johnson's plan appears to be leaking out. He knows where he is going with this football squad. Quietly, on the Vanderbilt practice fields, Johnson has been building his very own monster. Taken from parts of previous teams, seasons, and attitudes, infused with coaching on fundamentals and morality, this monster came to life after winning and a sense of competitiveness pumped life into it.

Johnson received staggering applause. Then, he disappeared back into the locker rooms. The crowd disbanded but not before shouting a rousing "VU!" chant that drifted in pieces across those fans walking back to their cars.

Meet the reason for Johnson's smile. Vanderbilt has three wins and zero losses. Miami of Ohio, the University of South Carolina, and Rice University felt the brunt of Vanderbilt's long awaited redemption.

These teams were not and are not bad teams by any stretch of the imagination. Miami of Ohio was picked to win its football division, the Mid-America Conference. Miami of Ohio almost beat the great University of Michigan. The Gamecocks of South Carolina contain Steve Spurrier, instant credibility; furthermore, the Gamecocks were knocking on the door of upsetting number two-ranked University of Georgia. The Gamecock squad ultimately lost 14-7. Finally, Rice went to a bowl game last year. Rice tore open its previous opponents of SMU (56-27, 466 total yards of offense) and the University of Memphis (42-35, 430 total yards of offense).

Much as advertised, Rice jumped out early in scoring with its no-huddle, passing offense against the highly touted Vanderbilt defensive secondary.

Coach Johnson's monster would lash back after each score. 7-0, 7-7, 14-7, 14-14, 21-14, 21-21. By the second half, the old-timer Vandy fans sitting behind me became believers. The teams of old would have played the same as the first half of the game or crumpled. This Vanderbilt team shut out Rice in the second half, and it dumped another 17 points on the Rice Owls.

At 3-0, it would appear the secret is out. The home games versus Auburn and Tennessee are already sold out. At 2-0, the Vanderbilt stadium had the most fans I had ever seen for a non-conference foe, especially one known to be just as bad as the Vanderbilt football teams of old.

Coach Johnson must be losing grip with veiling his very solid, competitive football squad. I watched on ESPN when he wildly pumped his fist after Jared Hawkins ran for the final first down that would defeat the Gamecocks. The dismantling of the potent Rice offense caused Johnson to let slip his emotions again.

Coach Johnson, you cracked a smile. I saw it.

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