The uneasiness around Vanderbilt football head coach Bobby Johnson’s abrupt departure transformed almost completely into jubilation for successor Robbie Caldwell’s prospects within a 24-hour time period in the week after the retirement announcement.
Hot on the heels of Caldwell’s standing ovation from the rabid press at SEC Media Days came the leaked info that Tulsa co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Herb Hand was leaving Conference USA to fill Caldwell’s vacant role.
“We’re so excited to have (Herb Hand) in our family,” Caldwell finally announced on August 6, 2010. “There’s not enough expletives to describe him. Not only is he a great coach, he’s got a pedigree a mile long.
“Not only that. He’s a great man, great person. He’s the kind of man you want your son to play for. And so he’s a perfect fit for our staff and he did us a great honor by coming and joining us and we’re just thrilled to death.”
You might have already heard of the 41-year-old Hand before this move. If not, you should have.
Along with current Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn (unanimously regarded by national media as the next hot assistant who should land a FBS head-coaching gig), Hand guided Tulsa to No. 1 national rankings for total offense in 2007 and 2008.
During the latter season, Tulsa’s total offense topped out at 570 yards per game and 90 touchdowns. The Golden Hurricane’s rushing offense, powered by Hand’s line, ranked fifth nationally with 268 yards per game to go along with 40 rushing TDs.
Before his three-year tenure at Tulsa, Hand served six years as the recruiting coordinator/tight ends coach for a West Virginia program that made the 2005 Sugar Bowl and won three Big East titles.
More so than even Caldwell’s own elevation, stealing Hand away from one of the nation’s most consistently prolific and elite offenses is the greatest (or at least the flashiest) hire for a Vanderbilt sports program since Tim Corbin took over the Diamond ‘Dores. With the exception of 2007, Hand has coached in a bowl game every season this decade.
Had Hand stayed at West Virginia, he may have already joined other prominent Mountaineer assistants in making a successful jump to the head coach’s chair, such as former wide receivers coach Butch Jones (Central Michigan/Cincinnati) and last season’s associate head coach/recruiting coordinator/tight ends coach Doc Holliday (Marshall).
Ergo, it wouldn’t have been objectively surprising to see the Rich Rodriguez protégé’s name on a short list for Vandy head coaching candidates, had Vanderbilt vice chancellor/de facto AD David Williams decided to go with a national search instead.
And while he’s only the offensive line coach in name right now, it’s hard to imagine the Commodores settling for many more of the inside QB draws on third down that have continually deflated the fan base’s enthusiasm over the years.
"Herb also fits perfectly into what we do offensively at Vanderbilt,” Caldwell said. “He has tremendous knowledge and understanding of the offense we introduced last year. Herb will walk into the first practice and be right at home."
While it may seem somewhat disingenuous and self-serving for a coach who’s been involved in Vanderbilt’s offensive slide of the past few seasons to compare the spread system in place on West End to that of a proven virtuoso, it’s an affinity Hand embraces.
“There’s a lot of similarities in the general scheme,” Hand said. “It was kind of funny when I first decided to take the job, they sent me a playbook. And I was looking through it and what I would know as a certain play... I’d look at the name that they had for it and it was just different words. So the biggest thing is just learning the (new) terminology.
“It’s a spread, no-huddle (offense) and we just try to pressure people with tempo and being able to operate fast.”
Hand is tasked to hit the ground running in developing an entirely new line rotation, devoid of returning starters. Fortunately for Vandy, this is not Hand’s first rodeo with that kind of situation, which provides another key clue to the value Caldwell saw in him.
“My first year at Tulsa, we had to replace four starters from (2006),” Hand said. “Of the four guys I replaced them with… the right tackle had zero career starts; the center had two career starts, an offensive guard who had never played center before; the left guard had zero career starts; and the left tackle was a defensive lineman and we took him to offense. He’d never played offensive line before.
“We led the nation in total offense (that 2007 season). So it’s not something that’s going to be new to me. I like the challenge of it having got to meet the guys and kind of evaluate them on film. Based on what they did in the spring, I’m very encouraged.”
Though upbeat, Hand did lament that he had to start teaching his new guys “at ground zero” with only 29 practices left before the opener. There’s a sizable chunk of mutual “carry-over” in terminology for himself and his new disciples to learn.
Keep in mind, this is a guy who could have sought much greener pastures with his resume, at least in terms of winning programs and name recognition. In his introductory presser at Vanderbilt, Hand did give a nod to the allure of coaching in “the best conference in football” and his pre-existing relationship with the offensive side of the staff, most notably his longtime friend, wide receivers coach Charlie Fisher.
“I first knew him at Clemson. I’m a lot older so he may not even remember me,” Caldwell chuckled.
Hand added, “I'm just very appreciative to Coach Caldwell and his staff for getting me this opportunity. I'll give the Vanderbilt coaches and players everything I have as their offensive line coach.”
And, hopefully for Vanderbilt, a lot more than just that in the future. There’s a stark contrast between Hand’s coordinator accolades and the offensive legacy of the Johnson era.
Even though Hand’s Hurricane unit fell relatively precipitously from the top last season to 35th nationally in total offense (averaging 410 yards per game while breaking in a new core), none of Johnson’s eight Commodore squads ranked higher than 46th in that category or averaged more than 396 yards per game (both marks set during future NFL first-rounder Jay Cutler's senior year in 2005).
Four of Johnson’s Vanderbilt offenses finished in the 100s (bottom 10-15 percentile). Ironically, the worst of those was the 2008 Music City Bowl champions, who finished 117th of 119 FBS teams while averaging a meager 256 yards per game.
It’s doubtful that Hand and his innovative skills will be able to significantly influence this team’s schemes with so little time to prepare for the Sept. 4th opener at home versus Northwestern, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to him.
“A lot of people think that it is an odd timing because of how quick it is before camp,” Hand acknowledged, “but for me, it was perfect timing.”
Before Hand’s hire materialized out of left field, Caldwell had done nothing yet to distinguish himself on the field from his predecessor. Though there are still weeks left before the Caldwell era officially begins in box scores, it is a signal change that this tweaked coaching regime plans to open up the offensive schemes far more than last season’s anemic performance.
“As I’ve said before, we’re trying to improve in every phase,” Caldwell said, “so we really stepped up our game here by hiring him (to help) in the offensive line.”
While he should provide a crucial resource for new offensive coordinator Jimmy Kiser this season, it would seem like just a matter of time before Hand entrenches himself with more power and input on the staff.
Perhaps for Caldwell to set himself apart as an SEC-caliber head coach, he seeks to lean on seasoned commodities like Hand, let them do their jobs, and step out of the way.