Bobby Johnson’s dry wit is legendary among those who know him best, and it just so happens that he bears a striking resemblance to comedian Steve Martin.
Go ahead and cue the “wild and crazy guy” jokes.
But what’s not a joke is this: Johnson is an absolute home run replacement for Archie Manning on the College Football Playoff selection committee, and what’s more, just having him involved in the sport again is a big win for college football.
The former Vanderbilt coach is the epitome of integrity. He’s smart, thoughtful and widely respected. He also loves college football, knows the game inside-out and has made a career of doing things the right way.
From all accounts, the chemistry on the committee was outstanding last year, and Johnson will fit right in, while not being afraid to ask the tough questions and look deeper into teams’ strengths and weaknesses.
“I’m honored to be a part of it,” Johnson told ESPN.com Friday. “It was a big change for college football last year. I think everybody really enjoyed the fact that you had one more game, two games counting the semifinals, and that you actually got some proof that somebody was better than somebody else.
“I thought the committee did a fantastic job last year. I really did. There are some sharp people on it, and being the new guy on the block, I want to learn from them and see what they’re looking at when they’re evaluating these teams and see what I can do to help out.
“I did tell them that I have a little experience watching film.”
Johnson, who played football at Clemson, will be one of four former FBS head coaches on the committee. He coached at Vanderbilt from 2002-09 and led the Commodores to their first bowl victory in 53 years in 2008 when they beat Boston College in the Music City Bowl. It marked Vanderbilt’s first winning season in 26 years and helped pave the way for the success James Franklin enjoyed at Vanderbilt in his three seasons in Nashville, the last two resulting in nine wins each year.
Johnson recruited and signed many of the key players on those Franklin-coached teams at Vanderbilt, including Jordan Matthews, Zac Stacy, Casey Hayward, Wesley Johnson and Andre Hal.
The antithesis of showy or flashy, Johnson has a genuineness about him that resonated with his players. He was a football coach -- and a good one at an exceedingly tough place to coach in the SEC -- but he always saw his role as being so much more than simply teaching kids to be good football players.
Sadly, I can still see the heartbreak in Johnson’s face and hear it in his voice following the tragic death of Vanderbilt signee Rajaan Bennett, who was killed in February 2010 by his mother’s ex-boyfriend in a murder-suicide while Bennett was trying to protect his mother and siblings.
“I knew how Vanderbilt would have changed his life,” Johnson said at the time, his voice cracking with emotion.
Six months later, Johnson decided to walk away from coaching and retired. He and his wife, Catherine, now live in Isle of Palms, South Carolina. Johnson is an avid golfer, but that doesn’t mean he’s strayed too far away from college football.
“People would say, ‘Come on over and watch the game,’ and I’d say, ‘Thanks, but I’m going to stay home and watch about six games,’” Johnson said. “The competitive juices still flow. You’ll see something happen and get upset with teams I don’t have any connections to. It’s almost like you’re coaching both teams when you watch a game now.”
One of the things Johnson especially looks forward to is zeroing in on teams from all over the country.
“When I was coaching, I hardly ever stayed up long enough to see a USC game or an Oregon game,” Johnson said. “To me, it’s intriguing with all the different possibilities and different styles of play now. That’s what makes it so fun. It’s sort of like people in the office hanging around the water cooler and arguing about who’s the best.
“We’ll be doing the same thing, but at a conference table.”