Not many think highly of Vanderbilt's open coaching position this year. Why would they? The man whose stock rose the highest at Vandy's helm quit football altogether after a 2-10 season last year.
Bobby Johnson's abrupt retirement has thrown a wrench into the worn down and often malfunctioning gears of Vanderbilt football. In his wake, Robbie Caldwell slapped together a low-spirited two-win season that showed what football can be like at Dudley Field at its worst. Injuries, apathy, and bewildering playcalling led to Caldwell's quick demise and left the Commodores with a gaping hole at head coach. And unlike similar voids across the SEC in recent years, few candidates are clamoring for a shot to step up and take the reins.
In a discussion with Southern Pigskin's Ryne Hancock, this apathy came up several times - along with the term "coach killer." Obviously Vanderbilt presents several unique challenges to emerging coaches, and the team's lack of success has made Bobby Johnson's former position seem more like a graveyard than a stage upon which coaches can shine. While Northwestern and Stanford have made commodities of Pat Fitzgerald and Jim Harbaugh, respectively, their intellectual rival in the SEC has most recently produced Johnson and Woody Widenhofer - two men currently out of football altogether.
Yes, the past certainly doesn't hold many strong examples for coaches looking to come to Vanderbilt to make a name for themselves - but that's part of what makes this situation so unique. At a school with essentially no football tradition, the slate is clean for someone to come in and put in the work that generations will remember. The Commodores don't have a General Robert Neyland, LaVell Edwards, or even a Barry Alvarez that fans can fondly look back on as the architect of their program. This team has been rudderless since the days of Dan McGugin, aimlessly drifting through the SEC, occasionally careening into a bowl win but much more often posting two and three win seasons.
It's still not very appealing, but this isn't a position for the faint of heart. This is a position for the coach who is willing to take a big enough risk to become legendary. A coach who realizes finishing consecutive seasons in the AP Top 25 is enough to get your name on a building or street here. A coach who understands that beating Tennessee more than once every 20 years is enough to get kids growing up in Goodlettsville or Franklin to wear gold instead of orange. Someone who realizes that just one trip to a SEC Championship game probably means a lifetime of free drinks and tall tales of coaching heroism throughout the honky tonks and sports bars of Nashville.
Vanderbilt isn't a disgraced program, it's just a program with no foundation. Despite the administration's best efforts, the only recent coach to have built up any semblance of a structure was Bobby Johnson, and his base has been seemingly torn down by the past two years of futility (though the recruiting figures suggest that there's salvageable material in the wreckage). Candidates shouldn't shy away from the empty lot of Commodore football because of its reputation as a coach killer. The program offers much more than that.
Even coaches who brought this team to the heights of mediocrity have had the chance to move on to bigger and better things. For example, Gerry DiNardo, with 9 conference wins in 4 years, moved on to LSU. Bobby Johnson also appeared to be in line for a major coaching gig after his 2008 Music City Bowl win.
In the end, the opportunity exists, even though the team's history is littered with cautious tales of failure. A well-prepared, dynamic, and driven coach/coordinator can absolutely come to Nashville and raise their coaching stock. Hell, a 6-6 season would leave the fans satisfied and probably give the new skipper a myriad of tantalizing offers across the country. With few players graduating and a growing defense, a disciplined and talented coordinator could have this team competitive in SEC games again by next fall.
However, this team isn't just looking for a coach after 60+ years of futility, it's also looking for a father figure. Someone who can create a Vanderbilt tradition. Someone who can become a legend on Natchez Trace.
As fans and alumni, we're not looking for a caretaker who can stoke the fires and keep the meager Vandy fan base on board for a new more years, we're looking for someone to expand the team's reach and make Vandy relevant again. We need a guy who can turn the orange sweaters in the stands at Dudley Field into gold ones; who can make an Earl Bennett throwback jersey more popular than Tim Tebow's in Middle Tennessee and can bring Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso back to campus for a College Gameday visit.
Simply put, we need someone who isn't willing to let Vanderbilt take a backseat anymore. The Commodores are a franchise without a face; they've been that way for decades now. This team needs a coach who can embrace his standing in Nashville and make his team better as a result. If he can do that, Vanderbilt - and Middle Tennessee as a whole - will embrace him.
We're still waiting for our Barry Alvarez. In fact, we've been waiting for generations. Will the Board of Trustees be able to find him this time?