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Teaching players to have some &#%@$!!! discipline

By Adrian Wojnarowski
Special to

Do you figure it's sheer coincidence that Vanderbilt is the least penalized team in the Southeastern Conference this season? Bobby Johnson doesn't.

Coaches are supposed to be educators. They're supposed to set examples. And so, even before he was hired at Vanderbilt University this year, Johnson had an unbending rule for his football program: Cursing is completely forbidden.

Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson
Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson says he can motivate his players without the use of profanity.
This goes for the practice field, the locker room, the meetings. This goes for everyone -- the head coach, the assistants, the players, the managers. This goes to the core of football's most traditional teachings: The installation of self-discipline and self-control. This goes to the heart of a university mission: An education for life.

Johnson played and coached under these guidelines for years at Furman University, but nobody noticed. Nobody cared. Now, this is the SEC. Now, this is a story. Now, people wonder: Is Johnson a religious fundamentalist? A prude? What's with him?

Bobby Johnson is a football coach in the toughest conference in America. And he wants to win. He's never used his program's policy as a moral grandstand, a reason to judge coaches and programs elsewhere. This is comfortable for Bobby Johnson. This feels right.

Still, this is the SEC, word spreads fast and suddenly he's hearing people get a little laugh at his expense. College football ought to pull up a chair and listen closely to him. Let's face it: This is culture that could use its mouth washed out with soap.

As an educator, a teacher, a football coach, Johnson has practical reasons for a curse-free environment. Yet, there is this truth, too. The swearing sounds awful.

"We just ask our kids to respect everybody and not use that kind of language," Johnson said by telephone this week. "I've been to practices where they yell it across the field all the time, coaches yelling at players, players yelling at players. To me, it's downright embarrassing.

"We're trying to break the chain. We're convincing them that it doesn't make them any tougher, make them play any better, to curse. In fact, I think it makes you play worse. When you're dreaming up nasty things to say about people, you're not concentrating on your job.

"Beyond that, I just hope this crosses over into their personal lives," he added. "I hope they take this with them once they leave here."

If people want to confuse the Commodore's civility for softness, let them. They've never watched this coach's winning seasons at Furman and they sure haven't seen him take this talent-starved team and darn near beat Ole Miss and South Carolina this season. Johnson insists Vanderbilt will win in the SEC, the way Stanford wins in the Pac-10, the way Northwestern won in the Big 10. He's going to recruit ambitious, smart kids from coast to coast, marching into living rooms with two promises for parents: Your son will get a world class education and he'll never be degraded and dehumanized.

"We're going to respect their son," Johnson said. "We'll never verbally abuse them. I don't know how many coaches physically abuse anymore, but it used to happen in college football. I just think it's important for a parent to know their son will be treated with respect. You can humiliate a guy until you break his spirit and I don't think it's necessary. The days of physical abuse are over, but I'm pretty sure the mental abuse still goes on."

When a player makes a mistake, and a Vanderbilt coach wants to throw a tantrum, he is forced to do something so novel in this culture: Stop, correct the mistake and teach. A good coach can get his point across without a diatribe of four-letter words and anatomically impossible directives that wouldn't ever be allowed to be spoken in a campus classroom or lecture hall.

Your job is to try to correct the situation rather than ranting and raving, embarrassing yourself and the players. We coach the way we'd like to be coached. We coach like we want our sons to be coached.
Vanderbilt football coach Bobby Johnson
"Your job is to try to correct the situation rather than ranting and raving, embarrassing yourself and the players," Johnson said. "We coach the way we'd like to be coached. We coach like we want our sons to be coached."

For those who consider Vanderbilt as the laughingstock loser of major college football, they ought to consider that, just maybe, the Commodores are the pride of the nation's most shamed, corrupt conference. Whomever isn't on probation in the SEC, is probably under investigation. Across the state, in Knoxville, they revel in Vanderbilt's modern history of Saturday afternoon humiliations, but people should understand that the University of Tennessee's 8 percent graduation rate for the class entering the 1995-96 school year trailed their conference rival in Nashville by just 92 percent.

Yes, Vanderbilt had a perfect 100 percent rate.

"What should count is the graduation rate of the kids who stay four and five years in the program," Johnson said. "That's a figure nobody can make excuses for."

As the NCAA hired Indiana University's Myles Brand to take over as its president on Thursday, it did so with him vowing to scale back college football's arms race, the breakneck spending that is strangling budgets and compromising academics. Other fledgling football programs with Vanderbilt's dismal won-loss record are typically obsessed with spending themselves into contention: Building bigger weight rooms, bigger practice facilities, bigger offices.

At Vandy, officials tell Johnson that building bigger character in his student-athletes is still the priority.

"We are not sports franchises," Brand said recently. "I do not want to turn off the game. I just want to lower the volume."

Brand lowered the volume on Bobby Knight at Indiana, but he'll never have the authority to lower the volume within college football unless administrations themselves want to do it.

There is a culture of excess and vulgarity that goes completely unchallenged in college football. Over the years, things gets done over and over -- from purchasing players to academic fraud to, yes, needlessly vicious verbiage. There is no legislating common decency in college sports. Sometimes, it starts with one coach making a stand: When a university professor, or the mother of a player, visits a Vanderbilt football practice, they'll never be embarrassed by what they hear.

Maybe this isn't much in the cesspool of major college football, but it's something. It's sure something.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to He can be reached at

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