Clemson Practice Football

NOW: Clemson offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell, left, celebrates with center Jay Guillermo after a drill during NCAA college football practice Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013, in Clemson, S.

Vanderbilt Caldwell Football

THEN: In this Aug. 6, 2010 photo, Vanderbilt head football coach Robbie Caldwell leads a practice in Nashville, Tenn. Caldwell is known for his sense of humor, and that could help him as he takes on the toughest coaching job in SEC football. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Today's dip into the column archives comes thanks to a suggestion for one about which I'd long forgotten.

Or plum forgot about, I guess I should say.

In 2010, at the SEC Football Media Days, some character named Robbie Caldwell had his 15 minutes of fame — and took full advantage of all of them.

I was fortunate enough to be there in the huge ballroom for the whole spiel. Few reporters were.

Vanderbilt, no matter who the coach is, usually doesn't draw SRO crowds. As I recall, I was sitting there wondering what in the world I was going to write about that day … when this guy dropped into my life like a godsend.

But word spread quickly and by the time he finished, he had double the audience he started with.

I wish the story had a happier ending. But Caldwell eventually went 2-10 that season ­— funny only if you're not signing his checks — and was never really invited to a podium again.

Somehow, though, it slipped my notice that he's now the offensive line coach at Clemson, which means a lot of us missed a great interview opportunity before the national championship game.

Anyway, back to July of 2010 …


HOOVER, Ala. — Just when the SEC Media Days was about to turn into a way-too-serious pulpit for eradicating pimps and predators and agents from college football by the end of the week …

Along comes Vanderbilt.

For a breath of fresh air.

Vandy — stodgy, old tweed-coat, upper-crust, one-day-you'll-work-for us Vanderbilt — done gone and hired Jerry Clower as its dad-blamed head ball coach.

Suddenly — I'm telling you — the Commodores have a coach even funnier than their traditional football follies. Robbie Caldwell, I think he said his name actually was. Could've fooled me.

Guy probably should have been answering to Jim Earl or Ed Roy or Joe Bob Something.

But he was a welcome, light relief for an affair sorely lacking the fun of last year's Tim Tebow witch hunt or a Little Lord Lane Kiffin sideshow.

If it's true that you need a sense of humor to coach at Vanderbilt, then the Commodores may finally have found their man.

Turns out he got the job less than two weeks ago when Bobby Johnson up and quit, somewhat mysteriously, some in Nashville say.

Caldwell, a longtime assistant under Johnson, was literally lining the Vandy practice field for a high school camp when word came that he was about to be a head coach — well, interim head coach at least for now.

It was a little late in the game for a full-blown search, Caldwell explained.

So Vanderbilt hired the kind of résumé not generally associated with the SEC's nod to the Ivy League — former concrete pourer, pipe fitter and turkey farm technician (more, much more, on that one later).

Thus, the guy coaching the SEC's most literate athletes says of them: "We don't want to give 'em more'n they can chew on."

Hey, this could be fun.

Anyway, he was a little in awe and dadgum excited earlier Thursday to finally meet South Carolina's Steve Spurrier and Georgia's Mark Richt, neither of whom congratulated him on his newfound opportunity.

"No, not a one," he said. "No offense to them, but they don't know me. They have no idea who I am."

In a grid-erati setting where the pop star Spurriers and Richts of the world need a three-man police escort just to navigate the 30 feet between the Wynfrey Hotel's front door and the escalator, Caldwell enjoyed a hassle-free dinner at the hotel on the night before his first big brush with the media on Thursday.

"Last night I was opening the door for people and they gave me a tip," he said. "I thought, ‘Hey, that's great. How can you get it any better than that?'

"I got a dollar and a half. I gave it back to him."

Who IS this guy?

"Well, ah'm from Noo York, ohriginally, you'g tell by mah axecent," he deadpanned in an twangy drawl that actually can be pinpointed pretty much specifically to his Pageland, S.C., hometown (5 miles east of Mount Croghan, pop. 2,521 and counting).

Let's just say it's a long way from Pageland to SEC head coach for a good ol' boy who managed to fly under the radar as a respected offensive line coach for Furman before moving to Vanderbilt with Johnson.

"When I took a pay cut to go to Furman as a full-time assistant, my daddy said, ‘You're an idiot!' I've continued to live up to his words."

Pageland?

"You had to like watermelon, number one," he explained. "Because it was the Watermelon Capital of the World, we proclaimed it anyway. You had to like hunting and fishing. Frog-gigging.

"I was scared to death of girls, so that didn't interest me."

He got into athletics as a kid because, in Pageland, playing sports gave you a break from concrete pouring and whatnot, at least during the season.

"Basketball. I was probably the worst there's ever been, but I played it so I wouldn't have to go pour concrete," Caldwell said.

Or go to that turkey farm, where he's nevertheless proud as punch he got his first "hourly paying job."

"I don't know if I could tell you what my job was, but I worked on the inseminating crew," he said, later confirming that the job is just what it sounds like.

"It fertilizes the egg so they produce a better turkey. It's an interesting process. I'd be glad to show you sometime."

Evidently, the turkeys needed coaching, and that's about as much as we need to know about that.

"The wild turkey is one of the smartest animals on earth," Caldwell explained. "But a domestic turkey is the dumbest ol' thing … I guess that's why I worked so well with them.

"I done it all, too. If I told some of these ladies what they put in lipstick, oh my goodness, because I debeaked, blood-tested, vaccinated … it was pretty special."

If Thursday's news conference didn't wilt the ivy off the Vanderbilt English Lit building, Caldwell also didn't seem so sure he would be keeping Johnson's famous "no profanity" rule in place for practices.

"I'm no angel," he said. "I've got my faults, my wife will tell you. She'll school you up on it."

He conceded that he'd have to look up "profanity" in the dictionary, but did understand "cussing."

"It's just a sign of limited vocabulary sometimes," he said. "I know y'all can't tell it, but I do have an education."

High-brow Vanderbilt may be getting one, too, it turns out.

"I think it was a big adjustment for Vanderbilt with my culture," Caldwell said. "I tried to give them a little flavor."

Whether he can give the Commodores a rare winner is yet to be seen, of course, although it's pretty obvious he's going to make Vanderbilt more fun and entertaining.

"I'm excited," he said. He'll get over that, perhaps. But hopefully he never loses that marvelous, down-home sense of humor.

At the end of the comedy routine, he's still at Vanderbilt. He'll likely need it.


Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at shobbs@americanpress.com

More from this section

On the odd chance that the NCAA is paying attention — admittedly, a long shot considering the subject is baseball — the college game could turn Major League Baseball's current follies into a big plus.