- Associated Press - Saturday, August 21, 2010

NASHVILLE, TENN. (AP) - Robbie Caldwell might have missed his true calling _ the Blue Collar Comedy Tour.

The South Carolina native with a thick Southern accent has a way of telling stories with perfect comic timing. Just listen to him explain away the 15 pounds he lost in his first couple weeks in his new job.

“I know it’s hard to believe, but a fat man forgets to eat,” the Vanderbilt coach said with a deadpan delivery.

His good ol’ boy persona was so refreshing that he earned a round of applause from a room of reporters, including a standing ovation from a few, in his debut at Southeastern Conference media days last month. Coincidence or not, his bosses later removed the interim from his title and started work on a new contract.

Good thing Caldwell has a sense of humor.

He’ll need it in the SEC’s toughest job at the league’s smallest school and its only private one. Even so, his friends say he’s more than ready for his first top job and caution against underestimating him because of his accent or humor.

Bobby Johnson, who retired July 14 to clear the path for Caldwell’s promotion, has been close friends with him since both were graduate assistants at Furman in 1976.

“We’ve heard those stories many, many years, and Robbie has them down. He does a good job. They are true. It’s all true. But Robbie also has a good way of spinning it, trying to make you think he’s just not serious about everything,” Johnson said. “Robbie’s down to earth, tells you exactly what he’s thinking, and I think that’s going to be a great asset for him.

“He won’t abuse it. He won’t do crazy things. He’s smart.”

Caldwell enthralled reporters at SEC media days talking about his first job working at a turkey farm, using up all 40 minutes allotted to him. His answer to how that happened?

“I had no agenda. No plan. I was just going in to be honest and answer everybody’s questions. I was dead serious, and they thought it was hilarious,” Caldwell said.

Virginia Tech quarterbacks coach Michael O’Cain has seen Caldwell’s skills up close from the time he was the quarterback and Caldwell his center at a North Carolina-South Carolina all-star game. They also worked together as assistants at North Carolina State, and he couldn’t be happier that his old friend finally has his first head coaching job at the age of 56.

O’Cain cautions that Caldwell comes across as an unsophisticated country boy. Don’t fall for that act. He says Caldwell is very smart, a skilled recruiter, an excellent football coach and a great person.

And yes, Caldwell is much funnier than he is.

“I could tell the same story, and it wasn’t very funny at all. He’d tell the story, and everybody would roll out of their chair laughing,” O’Cain said. “He’s got that knack about him. He’s a very good people person, enjoys people and has a lot of fun.”

Caldwell returned to Furman in 1978 after a stint under Dick Sheridan as a high school offensive line coach. He followed Sheridan to North Carolina State in 1986, including two years as assistant head coach. He spent 2000 and 2001 at North Carolina before Johnson convinced his old friend to join him at Vanderbilt.

Johnson said Caldwell’s true strength is his ability to soak in information and teach players so they respond, even to the point of using different approaches to reach individuals whether it’s through music, history or girlfriends.

“He has a great ability to demand a lot from his players, but at the same time care a lot about his players. To me, that’s a great talent to have as a coach,” Johnson said.

Chicago Bears tackle Chris Williams, a first-round draft pick in 2008, is among those very excited that Caldwell now is Vanderbilt’s head coach. He recalled how Caldwell posted a picture of Jim Otto for inspiration, since replaced by photos of the Commodores’ own top linemen. Williams predicts the current team will rally around Caldwell.

“He’s a guy that you want to show up and work hard for. He’s that kind of coach,” Williams said.

Anyone mistaking Caldwell for a teddy bear who can’t discipline his players will be mistaken.

Kansas defensive coordinator Carl Torbush worked against Caldwell for many years before they worked together at North Carolina, and he listened in once when Caldwell called the Western Carolina coach about an incoming transfer. The offending player sat in front of him having skipped classes a couple days.

Robbie had him scared to death. The old boy didn’t miss anymore classes, graduated and did very, very well. … I don’t even believe he had anybody on the phone anyway,” Torbush said.

Caldwell has even more challenges than most Vanderbilt coaches.

Johnson retired with coaches temporarily working in the stadium while crews were renovating and expanding the coaches’ offices. Caldwell moved them back in during the first week of August with coaches settling in while workers finished installing base boards, lights and exit signs.

Boxes have been stacked throughout the hall and in Caldwell’s new office with the big window overlooking the stadium. So they faced unpacking at the same time running practices for a team coming off a 2-10 season.

How tough is winning at Vanderbilt? Well, the Commodores’ lone winning season since 1982 came in 2008, when they went 7-6 and won their first bowl game since 1955. Caldwell faces a difficult schedule with SEC games against LSU, Georgia, Arkansas and Florida, while Northwestern, Connecticut and Wake Forest fill up the non-conference slate.

Torbush believes Caldwell can provide great stability given time.

“People should realize Robbie had quite a few chances to leave Vanderbilt because other people wanted him, and he stayed there because of his loyalties to Vanderbilt and Bobby Johnson. Hopefully they’ll do the same thing for Robbie,” Torbush said.

Kind words that Caldwell sees as a comedic opening.

“We’ve upgraded the program every way except maybe the head coaching spot,” he said.

And about that ovation at SEC media days? Caldwell insists he didn’t know what they were doing.

“That was so kind. I thought they were getting up to leave,” he said.

___

AP Sports Writer Andrew Seligman in Bourbonnais, Ill., contributed to this report.