Coach Bobby Johnson will forever be known to Vanderbilt fans as the man who brought the football team from terrible to "occasionally mediocre" in just eight short years. These same Vanderbilt fans will also recognize that last statement for the true compliment that it is. Johnson, facing a severe handicap in recruiting and talent pools, was able to take the Commodores from a perennial doormat and build them into a team that, in Johnson's own words "teams had to play well to beat." And Johnson did so much more for this squad then turn them into a team that simply lost tough games.
The tip of the iceberg when reviewing Johnson's career is to look at his best wins. Here are Bobby's finest - note that all of these wins also made up KJIV's Top Three Most Memorable Moments from last week. That's no coincidence; for many Vandy fans, Coach Johnson was the be-all/end-all when it came to memorable football moments. As a result, he'll be the standard by which all upcoming head coaches are measured in Nashville.
5. vs. Kentucky, November 15, 2003 - In honesty, it was tough not to make #5 a conglomeration of Johnson's most exciting - and most heart-wrenching - losses. Over the past eight years, Vanderbilt has lost 26 games by seven points or less, and many of those were contests in which the 'Dores were never expected to compete. Lost in the record books is just how amazingly watchable Vanderbilt football became under Johnson's watch. The Commodores were still losers most of the time, but they evolved into a competitive team that learned to win a few games with the right veteran leadership.
Of course, since this is a list of the team's best wins, we'll start with Johnson's first big one. Vanderbilt hadn't won a SEC game in nearly three years when Kentucky came to town. Their conference losing streak stood at 23 games until Jay Cutler threw four touchdown passes to lead the 'Dores to a 28-17 victory. Despite defeating a lackluster Kentucky squad, the students rushed the field anyway, carrying the goalposts away to the campus where utilities crewmembers cut the posts into pieces for faithful fans to take home as a keepsake.
4. at #6 South Carolina, October 20, 2007 - It was a game that Vanderbilt wasn't even supposed to be in, let alone win. Apathy was at such a high level that no local television coverage was offered in Nashville and many fans, like myself, were forced to listen on the radio instead. Rather than be another step on Steve Spurrier's road back to national relevance and a BCS Bowl, the Commodores jumped all over South Carolina in the first quarter and bullied them throughout the second half to send the Gamecocks on what would become a five game skid to end their season. Vandy, sitting at 5-3 at that point in the season, looked poised for a run at a bowl game, but lost their last four games to fall shy of eligibility.
3. vs. #13 Auburn, October 4, 2008 - The infamous College Gameday game is the high water mark for football at Vanderbilt Stadium. Despite Lee Corso's predictions, the Commodores stormed back from a 13-0 first quarter deficit with some of the team's patented slop-ball. The offense was clunky and often out of sync, but the team's defense held the Tigers to just 208 yards - just 75 after the first quarter - and the 'Dores held on to win the biggest game in Vanderbilt Stadium history. The win propelled the team to #13 in the AP Poll, and though they would lose six of their next seven games, this win built up the team to...
2. vs. #24 Boston College, December 31, 2008 - The Commodores put their "win ugly" mantra on display against the Eagles in the team's first bowl win since 1955, failing to score an offensive touchdown but winning regardless. Larry Smith made his debut as a starter at LP Field and looked serviceable enough to lead Vanderbilt into the future, but the real story was the pressure created by the defense, which forced 3 turnovers including the muffed (sort of) punt that led to the team's only touchdown, as well as Myron Lewis's fourth quarter interception that sealed the game. Boston College, despite being favored, was never able to get in a rhythm against a Vandy team backed by a considerable home-field advantage. However, the most telling story about the ugliness of this game is that Brett Upson - Vanderbilt's punter - was named the game's MVP.
1. at Tennessee, November 19, 2005 - The Bobby Johnson era's defining moment was led by its defining player, Jay Cutler. Cutler's success with the Commodores was limited, but he shone brightest as a junior against the team's fiercest rivals in Knoxville. With an offense that featured SEC receiving leader Earl Bennett and future first round choice Chris Williams (all currently reunited with the Chicago Bears, coincidentally), Vanderbilt shot out of the gate with four straight wins in 2005, but was sputtering to the finish line after six consecutive defeats. Tennessee was also in the midst of a slumping season, but still could look back on over two decades of owning the Commodores for confidence.
But with 1:11 left in the ball game, Cutler-to-Bennett shattered that confidence, as well as 30 years of frustration in Neyland Stadium. The Commodores got the ball back with 1:40 on the clock and trailing by three, but the Volunteer lead wasn't built to last. Bennett's touchdown, which capped a 167 yard receiving day, sunk the Volunteers and ripped bowl eligibility out of their hands. Most of that was Cutler's fault, as he finished the day with 315 yards passing and three touchdowns.
Rarely can a Vanderbilt fan stand proudly in Neyland Stadium. Bobby Johnson made that happen. And because of that, November 19, 2005 will always shine as his brightest day on the Commodore sideline.