NASHVILLE, Tenn. | Saying there's never a good time for a football coach to quit, Bobby Johnson retired abruptly Wednesday as the Vanderbilt Commodores' head coach.
Vice Chancellor David Williams announced the news in a post on the university's athletic website Wednesday just before a news conference. Minutes later, the 59-year-old Johnson stepped up to a podium and said he was retiring from college football.
Johnson called it a very difficult decision but one not prompted by health concerns for either himself or his wife. He said he began seriously considering retirement a month ago, and he informed Williams in a meeting Monday.
“Football is not life, but it's a way of life and it consumes your life,” Johnson said. “You only have so many years to live, and you want to see a different way.”
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Johnson's retirement comes a week before he was scheduled to appear at the Southeastern Conference's preseason media days, nearly three weeks before players report for fall practice and just seven weeks before the Commodores' opener Sept. 4 against Northwestern.
Johnson is a Columbia native who played football at Clemson, graduating in 1973 with a degree in management. He earned a master’s degree in education from Furman in 1979 and went on to coach the Paladins’ football team from 1994-2001. He was an assisant coach with the Paladins from 1976-79 and 1981-92.
News leaked out Wednesday morning with WGFX-FM 104.5 The Zone citing sources that Johnson was resigning. That came four hours before Vanderbilt officials planned to inform the Commodores themselves, so the news conference was hastily scheduled. Coaches left reporters to speak with players.
“I am saddened by the fact Bobby has made this decision,” Williams said. “At the same token as I've said to the staff, it's our obligation to respect his decision. I did try to talk Bobby out of it. I tried to talk him out of it yesterday. I tried to talk him out of it last night, and I tried to talk him out of it this morning.”
Williams announced that Robbie Caldwell will be the interim head coach after serving as assistant head coach. He will be given the chance to keep the job with his performance this season.
“This is something we had to do overnight, so this is how we will handle this overnight. We might be doing something different next week, next month, but this is where we are right now,” Williams said.
Asked if he would perform a national search for a replacement, Williams said he has a coach now.
“I'm not searching for anything other than a victory and a lot of them,” Williams said.
Johnson started coaching in 1976 at Furman and finishes with an 89-102 record overall. He led Vanderbilt the past eight seasons and went 29-66, coaching the Commodores to their only non-losing season since 1982 in 2008 with a win at the Music City Bowl that gave them a 7-6 record. He went 2-10 in 2009.
“This is quite a shock to us,” said Caldwell, who learned of Johnson's decision Wednesday.
Caldwell has never been a head coach before outside of a stint as a high school baseball coach for one season in South Carolina. He didn't even have time to alert his family with the news and had to quickly change from shorts to pants for the news conference.
As Caldwell answered questions about whether he was ready to be head coach, Johnson interrupted.
“He's ready,” Johnson said with a smile.
Johnson had become just the third coach in Vanderbilt history to hold the job for at least eight years, joining Dan McGugin and Art Guepe. Johnson went 29-66 at Vanderbilt and coached the Commodores to their only non-losing season since 1982 in 2008 by winning the Music City Bowl.
That was only Vanderbilt's second bowl win ever and first since the 1953 Williams had that trophy brought out and put on a table during the news conference.
Johnson also ended losing skids to eight other SEC teams during his tenure, including a 22-game string to Tennessee in 2005.
“They expect to win,” Johnson said of the Commodores. “That's the best thing I could've done for this program.”
But he lost the top recruit of his incoming class in February when Georgia running back Rajaan Bennett, the highest-rated player ever signed to Vanderbilt, was shot to death at his home. Asked about competing in the SEC as the league's only private school, he cited a stat that Vanderbilt had lost 26 games by seven points or less during his tenure.
“That's kind of tough,” Johnson said.