Vanderbilt's Caldwell gets his shot

Robbie Caldwell is one of the most unassuming guys you’re ever going to meet in coaching.

So when he says he’s not really looking at the big picture, he means it.

The big picture for him is whatever’s next on his to-do list.

“I went from lining the field to being a head coach in the SEC. I’m spinning like a top,” joked Caldwell, who found out a week ago that he’d be the one leading Vanderbilt’s football team this season following Bobby Johnson’s abrupt retirement.

His down-home humor is legendary to those who know him best. Having grown up in Pageland, S.C., Caldwell can hold court with the best of them.

He’s also been one of the more respected offensive line coaches in the business and one of the more underrated recruiters in the SEC.

Now, he gets his shot as a head coach, even though he didn't see it coming as recently as two weeks ago, and has never allowed himself to be consumed by the thought of one day running a program of his own.

And who cares that he has an interim label attached?

“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.”

Caldwell understands there are no guarantees for him or his staff past this season, but he also points out that the current Vanderbilt chancellor, Nicholas Zeppos, also once wore the interim tag.

“Vanderbilt has done right by us in every way, and that’s why I’ve stayed here as long as I have … because they’re people of integrity,” said Caldwell, who was wooed unsuccessfully by Lou Holtz and more recently Steve Spurrier to return home to South Carolina and coach on the Gamecocks’ staff.

One of Caldwell’s closest friends in coaching (or anywhere, for that matter) is Johnson. They were graduate assistants together in 1976 at Furman when they first started in coaching.

Their philosophies are similar, but that doesn’t mean you won’t see some things that look different under Caldwell, particularly on offense. The Commodores never scored more than 16 points in going winless in eight SEC games last season and were held to 10 or fewer points in six of those games.

“I’ve been fortunate to coach under some good coaches and have a few ideas that might make a difference and might not,” Caldwell said. “We’re not going to make wholesale changes. We can’t, because in two weeks we’ll be teeing it up. But we’ll tweak some things here and there.”

Caldwell was encouraged by the way the Commodores ended spring practice offensively and said their final scrimmage was their best one. More than anything, he thinks this group of players will be more comfortable in the spread offense and has a better understanding of how everything fits together.

“I think you will see a big change in our offense as far as production,” Caldwell said. “We’re right on the edge, but you’ve got to understand that this is a defensive league.”

One thing that won’t change under Caldwell is the way the Commodores go about their business, both on and off the field.

“We will absolutely retain and maintain the class and integrity that Coach Johnson ran this program with,” Caldwell said. “I’m talking about doing things right and doing things that best fit the players for their future. There are many ways to measure success, but we will uphold the integrity of this school.”

As for what’s realistic to expect on the field after last season’s disappointing 2-10 finish, Caldwell said the key will be finding ways to win those games hanging in the balance in the fourth quarter.

It’s something that has haunted Vanderbilt seemingly forever. But during Johnson’s tenure, the Commodores lost 27 games by a touchdown or less.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that they were in those games and had a chance, which was one of Johnson’s most impressive accomplishments.

On his watch, Vanderbilt went from being an easy out in this league to a game everyone had to take seriously.

“That’s the challenge, that next step,” Caldwell said. “Was it a play that wasn’t made? Did we get tired and simply couldn’t maintain our level of play? Could we have coached better? We’re all in this together and will look at every aspect.

“But I can tell you what we hope to accomplish is to take it to another level, and the way you do that is by winning those close games.”