If he doesn’t win, at least he’s funny
By MICHAEL CASAGRANDE
Special to the Ledger-Enquirer
HOOVER, Ala. — Doggonit, Robbie Caldwell sure as heck loves his new job.
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By golly, he’s not afraid to say it.
Brimming with his down-home Southern charm, the newly appointed interim Vanderbilt head coach charmed the room at his first SEC Football Media Days on Thursday morning. When he was done, an almost unheard of applause rang through the Wynfrey Hotel conference room from an appreciative and entertained pack of reporters.
Channeling more Rodney Dangerfield than Nick Saban in front of the microphone, Caldwell ripped through a catalog of self-deprecating one-liners that referenced his weight, coaching experience and his tenure working on a turkey farm.
“I don’t know if I want to tell you what my job was, but I was on the inseminating crew,” he sheepishly said. “That’s a fact. I worked my way to that job.”
Jokes aside, the challenge Caldwell, 56, faces is a steep one as the perennial SEC bottom feeder. He inherits a program that went 2-10 under Bobby Johnson, who abruptly retired from coaching July 14. Only two of Vanderbilt’s 2010 opponents didn’t play in a bowl game a year ago, with winless Eastern Michigan representing the closest thing to a sure-win this season.
As a lifelong assistant, though, Caldwell is excited about just taking the head job for a change. He was offered a similar role with North Carolina State after a coaching change in 2000 with quarterback Phillip Rivers coming back, but he opted to take the offensive line coaching job at Vanderbilt instead.
Though the “interim” tag is still attached to his title, Caldwell said he got the assurance from the school that he is the man for now at least.
“Here I am. I go from lining the field to I’m the head coach in the SEC,” he said of the job he never dreamed of landing. “I tell you, what a thrill. It’s a dream. I can still walk into places and nobody knows me. Last night, I was opening the door for people and they gave me a tip.”
Coming from rural Pageland, S.C., Caldwell is proud to claim the watermelon capital of the world as his hometown.
He did his share of hunting, fishing and frog gigging before sports came into his life.
“If you played a sport, you didn’t have to work during a practice time,” he said. “That’s why I played basketball. I’m probably the worst there’s ever been, but I played it so I wouldn’t have to go pour concrete. That’s a fact, tell you the truth.”
After playing college football at Furman, Caldwell served as an assistant at his alma mater before moving onto N.C. State. As he reached his mid 50s, he started wondering if he’d ever get the chance to be a head coach.
Johnson’s sudden resignation opened that door that seemed like would never open. Within hours of his old boss stepping down, Caldwell was officially the new man in charge.
“My family was in a panic,” he said. “All they heard was ‘retirement.’ They were all in an uproar, crying and carrying on. They never heard about the part about me getting to be interim head coach.”
But that’s where he is. And, by darn, that’s where he’d like to stay.
He’s not planning on a return to that turkey farm anytime soon.