He hasn’t coached a single down of a single game, but the writing is already on the wallor at least on the sports pagesfor Bobby Johnson. To judge from the pronunciations of the Media Geniuses, Vanderbilt’s new football coach is all but assured this season (and, probably, for his entire tenure) of slogging around the same miserable swamp as his recent predecessors along the not-so-wild West End.
By my unscientific reckoning, Vanderbilt has purchased almost as much advertising space in The Tennessean’s sports section over the past month as the paper has devoted to coverage of Vandy’s football program. That’s no knock on The Tennesseanjust a reflection of reality and reader interest.
The marketers at McGugin, who had the foresight to dangle free tickets as a lure, were encouraged enough by the large turnout for Sunday’s fan appreciation outing to hope the event heralds a stampede of irrational exuberance not seen since dot-coms were trading at $300 a share. Still, the Woodyball slogan of “Have fun, expect to win,” which goes little further than groundhog Punxatawney Phil in neck-sticking-outness, sounds like a battle cry compared to what I’ve been hearing from Vandy fans: “Will this year be better than I’m afraid it’s going to be?”
It’s at times like this that I’m particularly grateful for the long memory of my 79-year-old father. He has never seen a Vanderbilt football game and wouldn’t know Bobby Johnson from Adam’s off ox. But he would tell you there is reason to believe that Johnson can get it done. That’s because my dad is a lifelong fan of Baylor, his alma mater, and he knows that you just never know.
Baylor is the Vanderbilt of the Big 12: a small, private school swimming in a pond full of aggressive neighbors with big teeth. Rooting for the Bears requires the genetic stubbornness of a mule, who will labor under your yoke for years for the chance to kick you squarely in the head just once.
In 1922 and 1924, Baylor won Southwest Conference titles, then went 50 years before capturing another. During one forlorn stretch that began in the late ’60s, the Bears won only three games and lost regularly by margins that would have embarrassed even Joe Billy Wyatt. The morning after a humiliating 63-8 loss at LSU, Baylor’s bear mascot was found dead in its pit area, hanging by its collar from a tree branch. No note was found, but some fans were convinced it was suicide.
The winter after the bear’s demise, Baylor hired a new football coach, Grant Teaff, who was such an unknown name that most people in Waco couldn’t even pronounce it correctly. For marquee value, Teaff made Bobby Johnson look like Steve Spurrier. He’d been the coach at San Angelo State, which makes Furman look like Florida. San Angelo isn’t quite the unwashed armpit of Texas, but you can smell it. Except for barbecue and chicken-fried rattlesnake, it’s such a humble spot that even Wacoans take a condescending attitude toward it.
A lot of Baylor faithfulmy dad will insist he wasn’t among themmade three assumptions about Teaff: (1) That he must have been the only candidate with any college head coaching experience who applied for the job; (2) that he was even seeking the job meant he was probably nuts; and (3) if he wasn’t nuts then he would be after two or three miserable seasons. (Draw your own parallels to Johnson.)
But Teaff surprised everyone in his first year by finishing 5-6. The Media Geniuses were so surprised, in fact, they named him SWC Coach of the Year for 1972. Two years later, he won a championship (and national coaching honors).
I witnessed the pivotal game of that 1974 season, and my father has a poster of its finale to prove to himself that it really happened. Texas, which had won six straight league titles, led 24-7 at halftime. Improbably, Teaff’s team scored 27 straight points and won 34-24. They left the scoreboard lights burning all night at Baylor Stadium, and people drove in from miles around just to satisfy themselves that they hadn’t heard their radios wrong.
Another time, Teaff ate a worm (in case you were wondering why San Angelo is poorly regarded) as a way of inspiring his underdog team against Texas. Baylor won, 38-14. He didn’t exactly establish a Florida State, and the planets in the old Southwest Conference had to align just right for Baylor to win a title, but Teaff pulled off two during his tenure and came within one victory of two more. On average, his teams earned bowl berths every other season, and they more than held their own against Top 10 opponents.
That’s not to say that Bobby Johnson will enjoy any such success. For a small, private school, the SEC of 2002 is a much harder row to hoe than the SWC of the ’70s. Bad as Baylor was, Teaff did not inherit a team that had gone 20 years without so much as a winning season. And while Johnson is winning praise for providing much needed discipline, he has yet to prove he can actually win games at Vandy.
Neither, however, is it demonstrable that Johnson is foredoomed to fail, even if history here is not on his side.
For one thing, the cellar is not as deep for Vanderbilt as two losing decades might indicate. Had they won a mere handful of close games, the Commodores might have savored several winning seasons (and at least one bowl bid) since ’82. Until last year, they had established a pattern of playing their best against the best teams.
For another thing, the cupboard is not quite as bare as the absence of an experienced quarterback and running back and the departure of 27 lettermen (most in the SEC) might make it appear. Seven starters return on each side of the ball, and the ’Dores should be improved in the offensive line, wide receiver and secondary units.
Given a schedule that includes Georgia Tech and all the usual SEC suspects, with only two games in which they’d now be considered solid favorites, it’s not for nothing that Vandy is pegged to finish last (again) in the SEC East. Then again, I keep thinking about that scoreboard poster, which my dad still has, though my mother finally made him remove it from their bedroom wall. I wonder whether he trotted it out on Sunday, when Grant Teaff was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Johnson might become another Teaff, or he might be another Rod Dowhower. Gumpian as it sounds, at this point you (and the Geniuses) just never know.
How it looks from the La-Z-Boy
Titans 0, Geniuses 0
C.M. Newton used to say that nothing in the world was more insignificant than the first half of a basketball game. Of course, C.M. didn’t have much coaching experience with NFL preseasons. After the Titans’ 28-26 win over the Rams last Saturday, analysts of both the professional and armchair stripes strained to figure out what it all meantmostly ignoring the strong possibility that it meant absolutely nothing.
Titans fans were reassured to see strong performances by Eddie George and Kevin Carter, whose stats last year were not so strong and dog-poot pitiful respectively. They were less than reassured by Steve McNair’s poor passing and the lack of production (except in penalty yards) by the first-team offense. They were delighted to see a would-be backup runner, Robert Holcombe, churn well against would-be backup defenders.
As if we needed further affirmation, the game also proved that fans will bring money and sportswriters will devote space to any NFL on-field event. (See, it’s happening again.)
Other than that, we won’t know whether you’re seeing anything meaningful from the Titans until we see a whole lot more.