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Northwestern to face new coach in opener

The big news in college football today is the surprising retirement of Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson. Johnson will step down at the end of the July and assistant Robbie Caldwell will serve as the Commodores' interim head coach.

There's a Big Ten hook to this, as Northwestern opens the 2010 season at Vanderbilt on Sept. 4. How will the Commodores respond to the surprise development when they take on the Wildcats?

Coaching change is never easy, especially when it comes out of the blue and so close to the season. While Vanderbilt players are familiar with Caldwell, they have to be stunned by Johnson's decision and especially the timing of it. Although Johnson did a great job in a challenging situation in Nashville, Vanderbilt comes off of a rough 2009 season, and this news certainly isn't good for the program.

Northwestern found itself in a similar position in the summer of 2006 following the sudden death of head coach Randy Walker. Assistant Pat Fitzgerald was promoted to the top job, and had about two months to get the team refocused for the season. Northwestern won an emotional opener against Miami (Ohio), Walker's alma mater, but struggled to a 4-8 finish.

Although Vanderbilt's situation isn't nearly as traumatic, the coaching change occurs closer to the start of the season.

Fitzgerald told me he was "very surprised" to hear about Johnson's retirement. I doubt this changes Northwestern's preparation too much, although the Wildcats' coaches need to study up more on Caldwell, a longtime offensive line coach.