Putting the Country into Commodore Country 2/5/02
By Rod Williamson

Originally appeared in the January edition of the Flagship

Robbie Caldwell comes across more country than Cracker Barrel. He makes Grandpa Jones look like the Chi Town Hustler. You want to ask him for directions to the hayfield.

But looks are sometimes very deceiving. If you tried to type cast this old country boy, you'd be fixin' to make one whale of a mistake.

Robbie Caldwell may be pure country and his heart is still probably there somewhere but this guy didn't just fall of a turnip truck. As a matter of fact, he is widely regarded as one of the best offensive line coaches in college football.

He is one of the stars in among a strong galaxy of assistants who have come to Vanderbilt to join Bobby Johnson and build the Commodore's football program. He's one part Will Rogers, one part Dale Carnegie, another part Vince Lombardi.

Caldwell came to Nashville from the University of North Carolina. A member of the Tarheel athletic staff, upon learning that Caldwell was leaving to join Johnson put it this way:

"This is a tremendous loss for North Carolina and a tremendous gain for Vanderbilt. He's the best."

He's regarded as a top recruiter and he's coached a number of guys from the obscurity of the college trenches into the NFL. He's done it the old-fashioned way. Hard work.

"You name it I've done it from working on a turkey farm to pouring concrete to being a pipe fitter," VU's Assistant Head Coach says. "I couldn't even tell you what I did on the turkey farm in this magazine for fear of embarrassing people but the work had to be done. And that's what I like about this staff. They are not afraid of work, of getting their hands dirty."

He illustrates his point with a recollection.

"Our coaches helped landscape the dorm because they were running behind," Caldwell says. "Coach Sheridan said we weren't going to finish because they didn't have anybody to run the tractor. He looked at me and asked if I could drive that tractor and I said 'Yes sir' and we went out and did it. This school hired me and I'm here to work. If they need me to line the field, I'll do it. I've done it before."

He is as genuine and he is humble and that's part of what makes him a recruiter extraordinaire.

"When I go recruiting I tell the parents that I'm going to coach your son hard and I'm going to love him," Caldwell says. "I don't have any problem saying that. I know offensive linemen; I know what they go through. Been there, done that. I guess you'd say I'm a people person.

"I get close to these guys," he continues. "I'm very technique conscious, that's my specialty. I'm going to get them to play hard and I'm going to explain the whole game to them. I'm a stickler for being a good person off the field, taking care of your responsibilities. If you choose to attend Vanderbilt, you are obligated to do your best. I'm talking about in the community, the classroom and on the field. If you don't, you don't deserve to be at a fine place like this.

"I love recruiting," Caldwell continues. 'I like meeting people. I like to think I can talk to most anybody and I love to talk to young people. What better feeling in the world than to be a part of building something special?"

Caldwell has an renowned sense of humor, much of it self-deprecating. He would be right at home on the Grand Ole Opry stage. ("I always say that everyone loves a fat man, especially in December.")

"My whole family, mother, daddy, brothers and sisters all had the gift of gab -- great senses of humor. We love life. I just appreciate every day and appreciate being around these kids. Something will happen at practice and we'll hang a nickname on somebody. The camaraderie is important. This is a hard game, hard work. A sense of humor helps get you through it sometimes.

"My guys…first thing they have to understand…when it's time to work, it's time to work. But you can have some fun doing that work. Sometimes a joke will lighten the atmosphere."

Caldwell says he learned many years ago that story telling can help teach a difficult technique or give a boost to the memory process.

"I remember a few years ago I was trying to make a point about how to cut off a linebacker (block). To this young man I said 'Windage and elevation', which was a line from an old John Wayne movie. I said to him 'Son, you know who John Wayne is?' and he says 'No sir". So I told him to go to the video store and rent this movie. He came back in a couple of days and said 'Coach, I understand windage and elevation' now." I was telling him he had to lead those linebackers, they are moving."

He says he is a "stickler" for good conduct and effort on and off the field but, like the other new assistants, sees himself as a teacher first and foremost.

"We are teachers in this game. I don't mean to insult those people who teach for a living. I've done it and loved it. We are teachers of the game and teachers of life -- which is more important. My brother was a school principal and he told me was that if I was going to teach I had to be able to get on everyone's level -- the brightest of the bright and the lowest of the low. Somewhere they have to meet in the middle and I don't believe in lowering the standards."

It's about here that this old country boy starts to break the mold from the true hayseed. "A lot of people have asked me why I came to Vanderbilt," Caldwell admits.

"A lot of people, when they meet me, say 'Man, that guy is a dumb country hick.' I am, but that's not quite true. I'm pretty proud of my education. I talk slow and country and my sisters and wife get after me all the time but I am who I am.

"I love to sell academics, I'm a graduate of Furman and that's an academic school too. I proud of that, coming from a rural area.

"I like the way this staff - Coach Johnson, Coach Cain, Coach Kaiser, Coach Fowler - I could go on and on - this staff is close having been teammates and all, we like being around each other. We vacation together. In this business it's critical because we spend so much time together with football."

Caldwell brings old-fashioned values with him, values which Bobby Johnson has alluded to when discussing the family atmosphere he expects to foster in the program.

"My loyalty runs so deep it's sometimes a fault," Caldwell says. "I'm a company man. When I work for Vanderbilt, I work for Vanderbilt. I don't look over my shoulder for another job. I going to work hard and along the way I'm going to try to give the job a little flavor."

Flavor. He has more flavor than Baskin & Robbins and most of it starts with a capital "C", which stands for country and character.


Vanderbilt Athletic Department
2601 Jess Neely Drive
Nashville, TN 37212
615-322-GOLD (4653)