By Stewart Mandel
July 14, 2010

In most cases, if a coach amassed a 29-66 record in eight seasons at a school, the decision to leave would be made by the people signing his paycheck.

On Wednesday, however, Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnsonabruptly announced his retirement from coaching, and in so doing left a campus and city full of admirers simultaneously celebrating his tenure and wondering how the heck they will replace him.

Don't be fooled by that ostensibly meager won-lost record. Johnson, who came to Vanderbilt in 2002 after leading Furman to the Division I-AA championship game, injected more life into that long-suffering SEC program than it had seen in decades. The unquestioned high point came in 2008, when the Commodores went 4-4 in the nation's toughest conference and ended a 26-year bowl drought, beating Boston College in the Music City Bowl. That year's team started 5-0, cracked the Top 25 polls and even hosted ESPN's GameDay, all previously unthinkable milestones in Nashville.

But even before then, Johnson's teams had become notably more competitive than years and years of their predecessors. From ending a two-decade plus losing streak to in-state rival Tennessee and coming within a heartbreaking finish of knocking off Urban Meyer's first Florida team in 2005, to upsetting Georgia in 2006 and beating Steve Spurrier-led South Carolina in 2007 and '08, Vandy under Johnson ceased to be an automatic "W" for SEC foes.

Johnson coached the school's biggest star in decades, quarterback Jay Cutler, along with another first-round draft pick, tackle Chris Williams. All the while, the program maintained its high academic standards, one of just six FBS schools to post a Graduation Success Rate above 90 percent last season.

"We were in a lot of football games the last four or five years; people had to play well to beat us," Johnson said at a hastily called farewell news conference Wednesday. "We're recruiting better players. ... They expect to win. I think that's the best thing I could have done for this program."

Still, there will always be a ceiling at Vandy, as was evidenced last season when the injury-plagued Commodores slipped back to the basement with a 2-10 record (including 0-8 in the SEC). Johnson admitted to "frustration" Wednesday in discussing the toll of coaching at a program with such little margin for error. He lamented a slew of close, cruel losses over the years -- 26 by seven points or less -- a main reason Vandy fell short of bowl eligibility prior to '08.

However, that was as close as he came to revealing a specific reason behind the peculiar timing of his exit, which comes just a week before SEC Media Days and less a month before the start of preseason practices. He insisted the decision did not stem from health concerns for either him or his wife, Catherine. Apparently, it was just time.

"Believe me, there's not a great time for a college football coach to retire," said Johnson. "But if you don't have the investment in a season where it means everything to you, I don't think you should be coaching. That's what I would have been doing."

Credit the man for being honest, but one has to wonder if the unfortunate timing of his announcement will leave the Commodores worse off than if he'd stayed on one more year, even as an unspoken lame-duck.

Johnson will hand over the reins to interim coach Robbie Caldwell, formerly an assistant head coach and a member of Johnson's staff from Day 1. In fact, two-thirds of Vandy's staff has been together since Johnson's arrival, so continuity won't be a problem. Johnson also claimed Wednesday that he's leaving behind the best recruiting class of his tenure. (Sadly, the top-rated player in that class, Georgia running back Rajaan Bennett, was shot to death in February.)

But this is still a team coming off a 2-10 season, and one that might not improve considerably, which means the program is about to undergo months of uncertainty regarding Caldwell's future. It will be tough for him to recruit. Vanderbilt famously abolished its athletic department in 2003, and while its teams have flourished, this will be the first time vice chancellor David Williams -- a law professor by trade -- has had to hire a football coach.

Speculation commenced immediately Wednesday, with reporters and bloggers tossing around high-profile names like ex-Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer and ex-Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, both of whom will be actively looking to reenter the field. The truth is, there's no predicting whom the school might consider, and pedigree might not be as important as personality.

The stately Johnson proved a perfect fit for Vanderbilt. He proved you can still win, albeit in doses, at the Nashville private school, but even he ultimately got worn down by such a daunting challenge. Someone will inevitably step up to the plate, but he will have deceivingly tough shoes to fill.

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