Vanderbilts coach search reaches crunch time
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It's been nearly two weeks since head coach Robbie Caldwell stepped down as Vanderbilt's football coach, but for most hard core Commodore fans it likely feels like two months. As soon as Vanderbilt held it's hastily prepare press conference (few in the media even knew it was happening prior to it's odd 10:45 am start on Saturday morning), speculation rushed through the media as to who the likely candidates might be.
And speculation didn't take long to become controversial. Just hours after Caldwell's departure, a local radio show host announced that he had learned that Vanderbilt's next football coach had already been selected, and would be announced within 48 hours. Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper eventually had to turn off his cell phone to quell questions about the ill-fated prediction that proved to be false. According to those closest to the search, not only was Jasper not set to be announced as the head coach, he wasn't even a candidate to do so.
Speculation then turned to "A list." Since Vanderbilt really doesn't have a so-called coaching tree to pick from, the names thrown out were as wide and varied as college football.
What was missing, however, were names from programs not at the D1-A level. Eight year head coach Bobby Johnson took Vanderbilt to its first bowl game win in over two decades, but when he was hired, one could hardly say it was big news. In fact, many felt it was no real news at all. Johnson had won a 1-AA national title at Furman, but after losing Gerry DiNardo to LSU -- and enduring the dark years of Rod Dowhouer and Woody Widenhofer -- most Vanderbilt fans wanted a more exciting choice.
But it wasn't for lack of trying. Vanderbilt cast a wide net, and then chancellor Gordon Gee milked his network (mostly from his first stint at Ohio State) to get a list that would impress potential season ticket holders and the media. At one point, Gee felt that they had successfully landed a Big Fish, and made a fateful mistake: He went public with his glee, and gloated that VU's new head coach would "shock the world."
Well, when those fateful words were uttered, it set off a chain reaction that essentially created just enough panic among it's most wanted list to get all of them to run for cover. Vanderbilt is determined to not make that mistake again.
Mixing metaphors: Going back to the drawing board after being left at the altar is not good for P.R., or for the eventual new coach's much-needed honeymoon period. And eventually it didn't do much for then-athletics director Todd Turner's job security. He was canned in a reorganization that eliminated his job from the athletic department's org chart.
There can be no question that Johnson was a solid choice for VU. But after screwing up their attempts to hire Gary Barnett and/or Tyrone Willingham, VU was left looking as if they were taking table scraps. The school is not going to make that mistake again: Despite around-the-clock reporting by VandySports.com and The Tennessean's Jeff Lockridge, VU's powers that be (namely chancellor Nick Zeppos and vice chancellor David Williams) are not leaking a word about who is on their list, or how the search is going.
The clock is ticking down to midnight. VandySports.com believes that Vanderbilt plans to pick a coach as early as this weekend, and certainly no later than next week.
But two weeks is a long time to keep a nationwide coaching search completely under wraps, and now that it appears the school is on the verge of slimming their long list to a short one, it's increasingly clear who Williams and Zeppos are targeting -- and who may be the favorite to take over the job next week.
Early on, Williams, the de facto spokesperson for VU athletics, made it clear that the school was going to get this hire right. Based on its successes in hiring Tim Corbin to run its baseball program, Kevin Stallings to run men's basketball, and Melanie Balcomb to run women's basketball, Williams knew he needed someone with their unique work ethic and skill sets. Namely, he wouldn't settle for candidates that hadn't done enough in their careers to prove they would work hard and long enough to deserve a seven figure salary.
And that brings us to salary. Even though the school has paid its football coaches well, Vanderbilt has always been on the low end of the "good" scale. It appears that is about to change: Rumor is VU will pay its new football coach upwards of $2 million per year, with as much as a seven year agreement. That's enough to attract virtually anyone who isn't experiencing eternal marital bliss at their current employer.
Fans shouldn't expect Vanderbilt to announce they are hiring Mac Brown or Steve Spurrier. First, those kinds of coaches aren't leaving for any opportunity, and second, they aren't likely to want the challenge of building a winner over inheriting one. That appealed to Corbin, and appears to still drive Stallings and Balcomb, and that's a big reason why those three continue to remain on West End.
But that doesn't mean Vanderbilt cannot hire their next Corbin, Stallings or Balcomb. Each of those three have turned down numerous other job opportunities, and each has elevated their respective program into a perennial top 20 status. Stallings and Balcomb had proven themselves as head coaches at a lower level, whereas Corbin had never been a head coach before moving to Vanderbilt.
As we near the weekend, the short list of finalists will likely emerge. That list will likely include some of the top assistants in the sport (Gerry DiNardo was considered by some to be the No. 1 assistant coach in the NCAA when he took the Vandy job). But it appears that list will also include at least one (and perhaps more than one) unexpected name. A head coach at another successful school. Or perhaps an assistant that most believe Vanderbilt could never get.
One thing everyone can be assured of: when Williams cuts his big list down to the small one, everyone on that list will have passed both their search committee's process and passed the litmus test with Williams, Zeppos and a handful of higher-ups in the booster community. In other words, Vanderbilt won't allow anyone to make the final list and then jump ship after they are offered the job.
That's probably why, today, Air Force's Troy Calhoun, one of Vanderbilt's top targets, agreed to a contract extension stretching to 2015 -- rather than agree to be put on Vanderbilt's list of finalists. And it's why Temple's Al Golden opted out early.
These are exciting times for Vanderbilt fans who have suffered through decades of being the butt of every football joke. Will Vanderbilt indeed get this one right? Only time will tell, but it appears the school is willing to do whatever they can to give them exceptional odds at big time success.