Who’s Next at Vanderbilt?
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 14, 2010
Bobby Johnson’s abrupt retirement opens up one of the least forgiving jobs in college football: head coach at Vanderbilt. If my math is correct, the Commodores are roughly three weeks shy of opening fall practice, which makes hiring a current F.B.S. — or even an F.C.S. coach — relatively difficult. In this case, you’d think that Vanderbilt has two options: one, promoting offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell to the top spot on an interim basis, thereby waiting until the conclusion of this coming season before making a national search; or two, hiring a known commodity — a former F.B.S. coach, for instance — currently out of work. Of course, the university could also look towards several current assistants. Let’s throw some names at the wall and see what sticks.
You knew this name was coming: Fulmer, formerly of Tennessee, has been itching to get back into the coaching game since being relieved of his duties at U.T. at the end of the 2008 season. What does Fulmer bring to the table? Experience, success, name recognition and recruiting success. Of course, Fulmer won’t be able to close down the borders at Vanderbilt quite like he did at Tennessee; in addition, some of the prospects he inked with the Volunteers wouldn’t, well, make the cut at Vanderbilt. Yet there’s no underestimating the cachet Fulmer surely carries in certain circles — after years of watching his Tennessee teams take the Commodores behind the woodshed, there’s no doubting the university views Fulmer as a hire capable of leading the program into consistent bowl contention. On the other hand, Fulmer’s teams did not always walk the straight and narrow — they don’t call it the Fulmer Cup for nothing — which should give Vanderbilt some pause.
This one makes sense. Groh has achieved moderate success at Wake Forest and Virginia, two schools with similar recruiting standards to Vanderbilt. He’s a defensive-minded coach, like Bobby Johnson, whose teams — often inept offensively, strong defensively — resembled the Johnson-led squads. Of course, it bears noting that Groh flamed out at Virginia, failing to maintain a consistent level of play before dropping to the bottom of the A.C.C. Coastal division in his final season. However, with his history — even if some is cringe-worthy — Groh would be a logical hire for the Commodores.
I think we can all agree that this would be wonderful. One of a handful of highly competent coaches currently out of work, Leach would bring his spread passing attack — and the wonderful success he experienced at Texas Tech — to the SEC. However, there’s no question that Leach would continue to be associated with many high-profile job openings at the conclusion of this season, at programs more prepared to win immediately and in the future than Vanderbilt. Obviously, he’d be a home-run hire for the Commodores; even a clear upgrade, with all due respect to Johnson. It’s still a pipe dream, unfortunately, as Leach — unless he’s not a viable candidate at more prestigious stops, which seems unlikely — could do better.
If I’m Vanderbilt, my first call to a current F.B.S. coach goes to Clawson, the former Tennessee offensive coordinator coming off a solid debut season at Bowling Green. What’s so attractive about Clawson? The success he’s experienced at historically unsuccessful programs, albeit those on the F.C.S. level: Clawson reversed a losing culture at both Fordham — this was a spectacular turnaround — and Richmond, developing the foundation at the latter that led to a national championship the year following his departure. While Vanderbilt is not a premier landing spot, it would allow Clawson to coach on college football’s brightest stage, undoubtedly an intriguing possibility. Would he be willing to listen to Vanderbilt’s overtures? Or would Clawson hold out for a program more conducive to immediate success?
It’s been a steep slide for Jagodzinski: from two highly successful season at Boston College; to a brief, unpleasant stint as the offensive coordinator with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; to the head coach of the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League. He was fired at Boston College after deciding to interview for the open New York Jets job — against the clear wishes of the B.C. administration — with many citing his lack of interest in remaining in the college game. If that was the case, I’m not sure if the Vanderbilt job would be enticing enough to draw Jagodzinski back to the F.B.S. ranks. If he does show interest, however, the Commodores could certainly do worse.
Like Fulmer, Coker would bring a sterling resume to the table: a proven winner, a proven recruiter — though this was partly to blame for his downfall at Miami (Fla.) — and a national champion. Unlike Fulmer, however, Coker is not currently out of work: he’s the inaugural head coach at Texas-San Antonio, set to open play on the F.C.S. level in 2011. Due to his commitment to the U.T.S.A. program, it’s doubtful that Coker would look to interview at Vanderbilt. For those thinking that Coker could do better, take note that he applied for the open Rice job following the 2006 season, a job that fell to former Texas State coach David Bailiff.
The current Auburn offensive coordinator would be, like Leach, a pipe dream. Malzahn could do better: his name is rapidly gaining in popularity, due to his overwhelming success as an assistant at Tulsa and with the Tigers. Which is unfortunate, as Malzahn would be a wonderful hire for Vanderbilt. For one reason, his offensive system would play wonderfully. It does not necessarily require stars to run at full capacity, thought that certainly doesn’t hurt, as we’re bound to find out with Auburn in 2010. Vanderbilt couldn’t do much better with a current F.B.S. assistant.
The former Fulmer assistant has experience in the region, first at Tennessee before taking his current job at Kentucky. He is due to take on offensive coordinator duties with the Wildcats this fall, following the ascension of Joker Phillips — formerly the coordinator — to the lead job, where he’ll replace Rich Brooks. While Sanders was forced out of U.T. following a poor 2005 season, he has, by and large, done a fine job as an assistant on the college ranks. You also must account for his ties to the area; he’s similar to Johnson in this regard. Malzahn would be the best choice, but Sanders, who has paid his dues, would not be a terrible option. Vanderbilt would likely be scared off by his lack of head coaching experience, however.
Four years ago, Vanderbilt’s chances at Kragthorpe would have been slim. This was post-Tulsa, pre-Louisville, of course. Since his disastrous three-year stint at Louisville, however, Kragthorpe is open for business. Would Vanderbilt be interested? Hard to say. I wouldn’t be, as I’m not confident in Kragthorpe’s ability to win consistently with the Commodores; if you can’t win at Louisville — even with Bobby Petrino’s players — you’re not winning at Vanderbilt. In his defense, Kragthorpe is one of the more competent offensive minds in college football. He’s a better offensive coordinator than coach, in my mind, unless he’s working at a school like Tulsa, a non-B.C.S. conference school on the fringes of the national conversation.
The current interim coach. Caldwell has long been a Johnson cohort, beginning at Furman, where both served as assistants, and continuing over the last eight seasons at Vanderbilt. This is what Caldwell brings to the table: familiarity with the university, for starters; consistent experience as an offensive line coach at both Vanderbilt and N.C. State; and, should this interest the program, knowledge of Johnson’s system. I would think the latter would be to his benefit. As an assistant, Caldwell has earned well-recognized praise as one of the top offensive line coaches in the Southeast. Given the short period remaining until Vanderbilt opens fall camp, it would not be a surprise in the least to see Caldwell lead the Commodores for the entirety of the 2010 season. Should he succeed — say, win five games — Caldwell would move to the forefront of any list to replace Johnson on a full-time basis.
Tags: Al Groh, Bobby Johnson, Dave Clawson, Gus Malzahn, Jeff Jagodzinski, Larry Coker, Mike Leach, Phil Fulmer, Randy Sanders, Robbie Caldwell, Steve Kragthorpe, Vanderbilt
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