Johnson proving you can win at Vanderbilt

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Vanderbilt offensive tackle Thomas Welch has spent most of his nights this week doing what any football player in the SEC does the week of a nationally ranked showdown.

Forget the film room or even the hottest party on campus. Welch has been sequestering himself in the library for hours at a time.

Midterms are fast approaching at Vanderbilt.

"Last Saturday on our open date, I was in the library for four or five hours," Welch said. "I've also got a paper due, so I've got a lot to get ready for."

Somewhere along the way, Welch will also manage to squeeze in Saturday's football game. Don't think he's not excited. Don't think everybody on West End Avenue isn't excited.

It's only been since World War II that the No. 19-ranked Commodores last started a season 5-0, but that's the opportunity that awaits them Saturday when No. 14-ranked Auburn visits Vanderbilt Stadium in the kind of storyline usually reserved for Hollywood.

Come on. Vanderbilt, a top-20 school academically, playing a game in October that means something in the SEC race and ESPN's "College GameDay" on hand to watch it?

"I have a lot of pride in the fact that I'm at a place like Vanderbilt," said senior safety Reshard Langford, one of the team captains. "Not everybody can do what we do. I keep my head high every day, because this is a special place."

Indeed it is, and this is shaping up as a special season for the Commodores, who've historically led the football-crazed SEC in GPA's, but not much else.

Well, maybe losses. But we won't go there. This team refuses to go there, so why should we?

Remind quarterback Chris Nickson, center Bradley Vierling or any of the Vanderbilt players for that matter that the Commodores have had 25 straight losing seasons and only one winning season in SEC play over the last 47 years, and they barely flinch.

"We let what's happened in the past stay in the past," said redshirt freshman receiver Jamie Graham, who also plays on the Vanderbilt basketball team. "We know this is a new generation, new players and a new team.

"We want to change the program around."

Bobby Johnson had a similar vision when he arrived in Nashville in 2002. At the time, he was the fifth different head football coach at Vanderbilt in the preceding 13 years.
But whereas some of his predecessors fought the rigid academic standards that make coaching at Vanderbilt such a daunting challenge in the SEC, Johnson embraced them.

His recruiting pitch, though, included a twist.

"We don't want you if you just want to come here to be a doctor or a lawyer," Johnson said. "But if you want to come here to be a doctor and a lawyer and you also want to be a good football player, then this is the place for you."

It's taken a while for enough of those rare prospects to heed that call. Johnson never won more than two games his first three seasons at Vanderbilt, but the quality of player the Commodores are recruiting now has never been better.

As a result, their ability to close out games has never been better, and their ability to genuinely compete in the SEC has never been more realistic.

Case in point: Vanderbilt has won 14 of the last 29 games in which it has played, including wins over three nationally ranked teams. Moreover, three of those losses have been decided on a kick in the final seconds.

And keep in mind that Johnson has been able to accomplish this resurgence at a time when the SEC is as strong and balanced as it's ever been. It's not as if the rest of the league is backing up to Vanderbilt. Rather, Vanderbilt is catching up with everybody else.

"Bobby has just the right temperament and understanding of this place, and that's important," said David Williams, Vanderbilt's vice chancellor for university affairs and athletics. "Not only do you need time and stability to do this job, but you need someone who is on their own mission and that mission is, 'We're going to get it done here, and we're going to maintain it.'"

Perhaps the best thing to happen to Vanderbilt's football program was Johnson interviewing for Duke's head-coaching job last offseason. The Blue Devils were prepared to spend some serious money on football, as evidenced by the $2 million David Cutcliffe received to put together his staff, his $1.5 million annual salary and the commitment to upgrade facilities.

"I was ready to listen and anxious to see what they were going to do with their program," concedes Johnson, who soon withdrew his name from consideration.

When he sat down with Vanderbilt administrators following his trip to Durham last January, Johnson didn't make a bunch of heavy-handed demands.

What he did ask for was a promise to upgrade facilities at Vanderbilt, in particular the McGugin Center.

"He didn't ask for anything for himself," Williams recounted. "The only thing he asked for was the opportunity to make the program better."

The Vanderbilt administration delivered with $42 million in planned upgrades, beginning last summer with renovations to Vanderbilt Stadium. The McGugin Center will also get new locker rooms for the players, new coaches' offices, new position meeting rooms, a new team meeting room, expansion of the training facility and updates to the academic center.

"I would have loved to have had those changes five or six years ago," Johnson said. "But I think with what we were going through at the time, the administration was like everybody else. They wanted to see some progress. We did make some, and they said, 'Well, we can invest in this program, and it's going to pay off.' "

Even though Johnson didn't seek a raise following his talks with Duke, Williams said he was given a bump in salary as well as an extension. Vanderbilt is a private school and doesn't release coaches' salaries, but Williams confirmed that Johnson's total package was somewhere around the $1 million range.

Williams is also braced for other schools to come knocking on Johnson's door at the end of this season. His message to those suitors: Come on.

"I expect Bobby Johnson to be the coach next fall and the following fall, and we'll do what we have to do to make sure that happens," Williams said. "I think as long as we do our part, Bobby is very happy here.

"What he wants to do is not just reach that pinnacle, but maintain that pinnacle."

At Vanderbilt (and in the SEC), that's always going to be a monumental undertaking.

Johnson, who coached powerhouse Division I-AA teams at academically renowned Furman before coming to Vanderbilt, estimates that probably only about 15 percent of the recruiting pool the rest of the SEC works off of is available to Vanderbilt because of the school's strict entrance requirements.

And just because that 15 percent consists of prospects with strong academic backgrounds doesn't mean all the other schools aren't recruiting them.

"People don't understand sometimes why we can't just go in and get most of those kids we want," Johnson said. "Well, it's not like everybody else in our conference all of a sudden stops recruiting them just because they are good students."

Before Johnson and his staff even put together a working list of potential recruits, admissions weeds out those prospects it deems as having no chance and then puts a second group of recruits into a category where more information is needed before anybody is willing to sign off, Williams said.

An athletics policy that's been in place for the last three years stipulates that any incoming prospect deemed at-risk academically by Vanderbilt must enroll that summer and take six credit hours. If that prospect gets anything less than a C in those classes, he's not allowed to practice or play that fall.

"That's our rule in athletics," Williams said. "We took it to admissions and said, 'Give us a chance, and we'll police ourselves.'"

Even with the tight academic standards, Johnson has continued to upgrade the talent level each year. He and his staff have been masters at evaluating prospects, projecting where players will play in college and then developing those players once they get to campus.

For instance, Purdue wanted quarterback Jay Cutler as a safety. Chris Williams, the third offensive linemen taken in last year's NFL draft, came to Vanderbilt weighing 240 pounds.

Welch, who will start at right tackle Saturday for the Commodores, was a quarterback in high school. Reilly Lauer, who will start at left tackle, was a defensive end in high school. Broderick Stewart, the Commodores' starting defensive end, was a wide receiver in high school.

The other thing the Commodores have been able to do this season is close out games. They've outscored their first four opponents 51-10 in the second half.

"I think our guys have a confidence that they can make plays and are not afraid to try and make plays," Johnson said. "They're not sitting back hoping that we win. They're making a conscious effort to win.

"That just comes with a little bit of confidence, and that confidence comes with having better players and having a few wins under your belt."

And at Vanderbilt, being able to find the library also helps.