Vandy's Robbie Caldwell, the SEC's Rudy
Caldwell doesn't look or sound like Nick Saban or Urban Meyer or Mark Richt. He's got a deep Southern accent, a corpulent build, and appears as comfortable in a suit as a sinner does in church. Five minutes into his talk Caldwell addressed his relative anonymity, "I can still walk in places and nobody knows me," Caldwell said. "Last night I was opening the door for people and they gave me a tip. I thought, hey, that's great. How can you get it any better than that?"
One moment Robbie Caldwell was lining the practice field -- seriously -- the next he was being announced as a head football coach in the most competitive football league in America. So competitive in fact that Caldwell told me on the radio earlier this week that he hadn't heard a word of congrats from another coach in the league.
But even with his relative anonymity -- Caldwell confessed to meeting Mark Richt for the first time at media days -- already Vanderbilt's new coach feels incredibly familiar.
He's the kind of coach you had in Little League if you grew up in the South, the type of man who would have taught you in Sunday School, a good ole boy in the best sense of that word. He's a regional relic in a time when the SEC has gone corporate and national. In fact, Robbie Caldwell is the man most like your average SEC fan.
Can he compete with the corporate coaches in the SEC? The men who strip away humor from life and have become football monks, Svengalis of the spread?
I don't know.
But if you're a native Southerner, I think you have to root for Caldwell to succeed. Even if, as seems likely, Vanderbilt will be favored in just 1 of its 12 games this season. We've all seen the movie Rudy, but we've never seen a coach who shared this much in common with the Notre Dame walk-on. Caldwell is Rudy, down to his grit, down to his determination, down to his unlikely rise to the top of the coaching pyramid.
You want head coaching experience? Caldwell's is limited ... "I told my wife," Caldwell said, "if it's two days or 20 years, I will now be able to say, 'Hey, I was a head coach one time other than in 1977 when I was a head baseball coach.' We were pretty good, by the way. We were 14-2, had a chance, made the state playoffs."
Yep, the high school state playoffs as a prelude to the most competitive football in the nation.
Asked to describe himself, Caldwell drawled, "Well, I'm from New York, you can tell by the way I talk."
Over the laughter, Caldwell continued, "No, obviously, I'm a country boy. I enjoy my roots ... I try to do what's right. I've told you already I'm not an angel. I wish I could say that, but I got my faults. ... I love people ... I feel like y'all are human just like me. ... I know you'll look after me. I appreciate that."
Asked what growing up poor, the product of a split family, was like in Pageland, S.C., Caldwell described a Southern boyhood where, "You had to like watermelon, number one, because it was the watermelon capital of the world, we proclaimed anyway. You had to like hunting and fishing. Frog gigging. I was scared to death of girls, so that didn't interest me. And I played ball."
In barely three sentences Caldwell revealed more about his boyhood than Nick Saban or Urban Meyer have revealed in decades as head coaches. That's because if you ask a question, Caldwell will honestly answer it. He's disarmingly sincere, not a member of the present coaching generation. Modern day head coaches treat every question as a ticking time bomb that needs to be filibustered, avoided and discarded. Caldwell treats each question as an opportunity to give you an honest answer.
That's refreshing and endearing. Halfway through his talk, I was already praying that Caldwell would find a way to win a few games in his first season at Vanderbilt. Some coaches have formulated a new offense as a proving ground for a head job. To hell with that. Caldwell has inseminated turkeys. Seriously. "I don't know if I should tell you what my job was (at the turkey farm)," Caldwell said, "but I was on the inseminating crew." That was in 1968 or 1969, at least three years after Steve Spurrier had won his Heisman at Florida, Caldwell was "fertiliz[ing] the egg so they produce a better turkey in the hatchery."
All of this steadfast honesty rubbed some in the media the wrong way. How else to explain the most arrogant question of SEC media days so far. Caldwell was asked, "Culturally speaking, was there an adjustment when you went to Vanderbilt?"
For the first time all day, the tension level in the room rose. The clear intent of the question was to suggest that Caldwell was too rough around the edges, not elite enough to fit in at the private school. Only the new coach defused the tension beautifully, calling the perfect audible. "I think it was a big adjustment for Vanderbilt with my culture," he said.
Then Caldwell smiled. Looking for all the world like the winner of American Idol, the coaching search version.
After his 40-minute discourse ended, Caldwell turned to the man pointing out the media members asking questions and thanked him for his help. Then he climbed down off the dais and thanked the stenographer. He was the only coach to thank these individuals in two days of media interviews thus far.
It's a small sign, but a noticeable one. Most SEC coaches are only concerned with looking up at the teams above them, at the challenges they've got left to conquer, at the top of the mountain where they hope to one day arrive. They have no time to look down at the people who assist them in arriving there.
On Thursday Robbie Caldwell looked up, but he also looked down.
It's a small gesture, but it's an honest one.
Come September 4th, when he leads the Vanderbilt Commodores onto the field against Northwestern, Robbie Caldwell will be the unlikeliest head coach in America.
And I can't wait to see what's going to happen when the ghosts of the SEC's regional past conflicts with the SEC's corporate present.
But I'll tell you this much, I'm rooting for Caldwell.