Putting the Country into Commodore Country
By Rod Williamson
Originally appeared in the January edition
of the Flagship
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.
"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
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
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
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
"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.