Jack In The Box: Perfect Option, Perfect Choice

Dec. 2, 2008

By JACK WILKINSON
ramblinwreck.com

Let’s make this short and sweet as the second half in Sanford Stadium: Paul Johnson, ACC Coach of the Year. The perfect option on anyone’s ballot, and a justifiably runaway choice. And you thought sportswriters were clueless.

Reading time? Less than three minutes. Or about the length of your average Georgia Tech scoring drive in this anything-but-average autumn.

From the moment he arrived on the Flats, from his first “To Hell With Georgia!” last December when he was introduced at halftime of a basketball game, Johnson changed, well, just about everything. The offense, certainly, with more options than a fully-loaded Escalade. The one that riddled Georgia for 409 yards rushing last Saturday and stopped the bleeding, and the losing, after seven long, long years. “You can’t do that with this offense,” Johnson joked, grinning at critics of the option. “It’s three yards and a cloud of dust.”

He said so smiling. He doesn’t talk smack, like some coaches. He does talk the truth, like it or not. He gets in players’ faces when necessary. Just ask Embry Peeples, the 18-year-old freshman A-back whom Johnson memorably grabbed by the facemask on opening night after Peeples messed up. Accountability. That’s what Johnson also brought with him from Annapolis in his overflowing bag of option tricks.

Accountability, and toughness, too. “He makes men out of boys,” said Darryl Richard, a mountain of a man on the defensive line who’ll soon receive his MBA from Tech, and who’s been known to talk stocks with the head coach before practice.

Johnson not only installed the option that once dominated Division I-AA, then service academy football and, last year, ended Notre Dame’s 43-year dominance of Navy. He changed the culture at Tech, and the expectations. Eight isn’t enough when you can win nine.

On November 4, 2007, I sat in Manuel’s Tavern, glued to the tube. The only guy in the joint who watched every blessed play of Navy’s 46-44 triumph. That day, Johnson out-coached Irish coach Charlie Weis. And I remember thinking, and saying, “Wouldn’t it be great if Johnson coached Tech?”

It wasn’t just the plays he concocted on the sideline. It was the toughness and resilience the Middies brought to the fray. The same toughness and resilience the Jackets have displayed this fall, especially in last Saturday’s spectacular second half.

Most prognosticators picked Tech to win three or four games this season. Sports Illustrated forecast a 3-9 record. Reverse those numbers and you’ve got the Jackets: bowl-eligible for a 12th straight season, likely headed for the Chick-fil-A Bowl, or perhaps the Gator.

Certainly, not Boise-bound yet again.

Not with Paul Johnson, the first Tech coach to win nine games in his maiden season.

“It was a great group of assistant coaches and a group of players and there’s a lot of outstanding and there’s a lot of outstanding coaches in the ACC,” he said of his Coach of the Year honor. “So it’s humbling to win the award.”

Humbling. That’s the word Johnson used a month ago to describe how it felt to be coaching against Bobby Bowden, after defeating the legendary FSU coach 41-38 — the first time Tech beat the ‘Noles since FSU joined the ACC in 1992. Humbling. That’s how many opposing coaches — and defensive coordinators — felt after facing Johnson’s option this season.

And now that Georgia Tech has been officially invited to the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Eve? Humbling’s hardly the word. That invitation is richly-deserved by the ACC Coach of the Year, his staff and his players.

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