As private a person as Bobby Johnson is, he’s even more loyal.
So when you step back and survey his abrupt retirement Wednesday as Vanderbilt’s head football coach, the timing shouldn’t be all that shocking.
Granted, the news caught just about everybody off guard because it was a tightly kept secret that Johnson was even pondering retirement.
But by doing it now, he ensures that his staff stays intact for this season, and as it turns out, that veteran offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell gets a shot to lead the program as interim head coach.
Besides, as Johnson points out, there’s never an ideal time for a head coach to step down.
“I guess a lot of people think I’m crazy for walking away from this job right now,” Johnson told ESPN.com. “But it was the right thing for me and (wife) Catherine, the right thing for the program, the right thing for everybody.
“I know people have a lot of questions about why now and why I didn’t just retire after the season. Football commands every second of your life in the season, and if you’re thinking about retiring at the end of the season, I don’t see any way you’re going to have the right mindset to give it everything you’ve got. I don’t think I could have looked the players in the eye.
“So just trying to make it through one more season so I could retire didn’t make sense to me.”
Johnson acknowledged that the decision by Vanderbilt vice chancellor David Williams to make Caldwell the interim head coach was pivotal in his decision to step away now. Johnson is extremely close to his coaches, and several of them go back more than 30 years when they were all at Furman together under Dick Sheridan.
“It sure made my decision a whole lot easier,” Johnson said. “These guys (his staff) deserve it and have worked tirelessly. We have come a long way, and that’s because of some really, really hard work on their part. I’m glad they’re going to have an opportunity to see this thing through, and I think they’ll make it better.”
Johnson, who turned 59 earlier this year, conceded that last season wore on him. The Commodores were beset with injuries and suffered through their first winless season in the SEC since his debut season at Vanderbilt in 2002.
But Johnson said he didn’t exit the 2009 season with retirement necessarily on his mind. Rather, it sort of evolved as he and his wife discussed their future.
It was a little more than a month ago that Johnson said he seriously started thinking about walking away from football, and the urge to go in a different direction with his life only grew stronger after he and his wife went on vacation.
Johnson said he made his “final, final decision” to retire a couple of days ago after several conversations with Williams, who tried to talk Johnson out of retiring and even offered to sweeten Johnson’s deal if he stayed.
But this was a life decision that went much deeper than money for Johnson, who also had the option of announcing his retirement now and coaching this final season.
“That was discussed, but everybody came to the same conclusion, that I wouldn’t be too good doing it that way,” Johnson said. “You talk about the ultimate lame-duck situation. That would have been it.”
Johnson had wanted to tell his players and coaches before the press conference Wednesday, but the story began to leak out that morning.
He also understands how some fans might think his retiring three weeks before the start of preseason practice puts the program in a tough position, but he doesn’t see it as a detriment.
“If I had left right after last season, we probably would have lost more recruits,” Johnson said. “Right now, our guys are so far ahead of the game and have a preliminary game plan for Northwestern and are ready to go. The players will have to make a little bit of an adjustment to Robbie as head coach, but Robbie and I are pretty similar in our philosophies.”
As for Johnson’s legacy at Vanderbilt, raising the level of expectations at a place that’s been a perennial doormat in the SEC will be right up there. But so will providing the Commodores a blueprint on how to truly be competitive in this league.
Yes, his overall record at Vanderbilt might have been 29-66, but go back and look at all the games the Commodores were in over the last few seasons in the fourth quarter.
That’s not to mention beating Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee within the last five seasons, and in most cases, breaking long losing streaks to those teams along the way.
The 2008 season will go down as one of the best in Vanderbilt history. The Commodores won their first bowl game in 53 years, beating Boston College in the Music City Bowl. They beat three nationally ranked teams that season.
“From where we were in 2002 to now is night and day,” Johnson said. “I think we’ve proven it can be done at Vanderbilt. The only thing we’re lacking is consistency.”
Johnson still isn’t sure what he’s going to do with all of his free time. His wife loves to travel, so there’s your first hint.
“She’s sacrificed a lot over the last 34 years, so it’s time for me to pay her back a little bit,” Johnson said. “We have an opportunity to do some things, and we’re going to take it.”
He’ll still keep up with the Commodores and won’t completely give up football, although he vows not to sit around and watch eight or nine football games every weekend.
“It’s going to be strange, no doubt about it,” Johnson said. “I know I’ll miss it.”
Almost as much as Vanderbilt (and the entire SEC) will miss Johnson.
He ran his program with a touch of class, honesty and dignity that ought to be a model for everybody in college athletics.