HOOVER, Ala. — Few fans throughout the Southeastern Conference knew Robbie Caldwell before Thursday morning.
Vanderbilt’s interim head football coach held open a door for people at the Wynfrey Hotel the previous night, and one tried to tip him.
“A dollar and a half,” the big-boned, big-mouthed Commodores boss said with a big grin. “I gave it back.”
Caldwell’s anonymity diminished by lunchtime Thursday. Bobby Johnson’s replacement held court for 45 minutes, entertaining reporters and an ESPNU audience with handfuls of hilarious tales.
“I know the first question you’re probably asking is, ‘Who is Robbie Caldwell?’” the coach said. “Very few people know me.”
Caldwell, Johnson’s close friend of more than 30 years, is a rural South Carolina native who oozes down-home Southern charm despite obtaining a degree from Furman University.
“My first hourly paying job was on a turkey farm,” Caldwell said. “I don’t know if I should tell you what my job was, but I was on the inseminating crew. That’s a fact. That’s what we did every afternoon.”
“Coach Caldwell’s job with the turkeys, that’s a famous story,” said Commodores senior linebacker and long snapper John Stokes, a pre-med major who spent May in Africa working with AIDS researchers. “Some of the anatomical details of that story probably shouldn’t go in the news. He’s a great storyteller. He reminds me of Jerry Clower. He’s a funny guy.”
Caldwell came to Vanderbilt as an assistant in 2002. Even some of the Commodores have admitted they know very little about their new leader. He previously coached the offensive line and handled player discipline issues.
“I play defense and don’t get in trouble, so honestly, I’ve never dealt with him that much,” first-team preseason All-SEC linebacker Chris Marve said. “He’s making a great effort to get to know us better, and for us to get to know him. We’ll get there.”
Added star tailback Warren Norman, the reigning SEC freshman of the year: “Y’all know just as much as I know about him. He’s a funny guy.”
The Commodores could use some lighthearted tales after last season, when they went 2-10 (0-8 SEC) just one year after their first bowl appearance since 1982.
“I’m definitely more for the team than any individual accolade, so the fact that we were struggling bothered me more than it made me happy having a good season personally,” said Warren, whose 1,941 all-purpose yards last season broke Herschel Walker’s SEC freshman record. “Any time you’re not having a great season as a team, it affects you and it’s disappointing, no matter how great of a season you’re having individually.”
An optimist would suggest that Vanderbilt’s expectations have come back to the bottom, so it has nothing to lose. The Commodores scored five offensive touchdowns and 71 points in eight conference games.
“I think you will see a big change in our offense as far as production,” Caldwell said. “We’re right on the edge.”
The Commodores lost 27 games by a touchdown or less in Johnson’s eight years. Caldwell watched every agonizingly close loss in person, but his optimism remains.
“I’ve always been appreciative of every job I’ve had, whether it was working on the turkey farm, pouring concrete or driving a tractor,” Caldwell said. “I thought that was the greatest job in the world when I was driving that tractor. It’s the same way here. We’re going to take it one day at a time, but you honestly can’t help but think about things you would love to accomplish and get done here.
“We’re going to be realists, but you’ve got to be a little bit of a dreamer, too. ... We think we’re in a very good situation here.”
He was helping line the practice field two weeks ago, and now he’s a head SEC football coach.
“I’m just thrilled to have an opportunity,” he said. “I told my wife, ‘If it’s two days or 20 years, I will now be able to say, hey, I was a head coach one time.’ I never really dreamed of it. The last few years, I started getting to that age where you wonder, ‘Will I get that the chance?’
“I’m honored, man. This is the greatest thrill of my life other than my child being born. It’s just tremendous.”