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Playing On The Big Stage

Jan. 14, 2008

by Simit Shah

It all started with a phone call.

While a snowstorm knocked out the power and heat in his Annapolis home Thursday night, Paul Johnson and his family made the decision to accept an offer to become Georgia Tech’s next head football coach.

He called athletics director Dan Radakovich Friday morning and set in motion a whirlwind of events for the next 12 hours.

Johnson, his wife Susan and teenage daughter Kaitlyn flew down to Atlanta on a private jet with associate AD Wayne Hogan and arrived on campus shortly after 4 p.m. While his family waited upstairs, Johnson was whisked into the player’s TV lounge, which also serves as the venue for post-game press conferences.

Within a minute of his arrival, Johnson was wearing a microphone and fielding questions from the voice of the Yellow Jackets Wes Durham for a short interview that was quickly posted on ramblinwreck.com.

He then moved to the opposite side of the room and posed for a series of official publicity photographs against a black backdrop. At the photographer’s direction, Johnson alternated between smiling and serious poses and then added another set with a Georgia Tech helmet and football.

About an hour before he was introduced as Georgia Tech’s new football coach, Johnson took his first steps along the home sideline at Bobby Dodd Stadium. As he posed for more photographs, including several with his family, the background included the reason he made the leap from Navy – Georgia Tech’s four national championships.

“I think there are several things that made this the right choice,” he explained as he stood on the field. “There’s the tradition, the history and a chance to play in a great conference, but the biggest thing for me was the chance to play for a championship. Anyone that is a competitor wants to play on the big stage.”

Johnson got his start on the smallest stage possible growing up in tiny Newland, North Carolina (which is located just 60 miles from Bobby Dodd’s hometown of Kingsport, Tennessee). The town, which currently boasts a population of just over 700 people, provided the first audience for his offensive philosophies.

As a ten-year-old playing with his brothers and neighborhood friends, he would draw up plays in the mud, orchestrating the adolescent scoring drives.

“He’d say, ‘You block this way, and you run a long route, and I’ll play quarterback,'” his younger brother Tim told the (Raleigh) News & Observer last year.

Johnson did go on to play quarterback, as well as linebacker and offensive line, at Avery County High School. He later became the school’s offensive coordinator, continuing the development of his offensive philosophy.

He would continue to hone that system during offensive coordinator stints at Georgia Southern, Hawaii and Navy. Georgia Tech got to see it firsthand in 1996, when Navy beat the Jackets 36-26 at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

“I remember we won the game, and it was a big win for us,” he said, recalling his only previous visit to Bobby Dodd Stadium. “Our quarterback, Chris McCoy, was from Georgia and had a big day. He ran for a couple of touchdowns and caught one too. We had a lot of success scoring points that day.”

Is that the kind of output that Georgia Tech fans can expect next fall?

“I hope so,” he responded. “I hope fans enjoy what we’re doing. We have a pretty broad offensive package. We’ll figure out what gives us the best chance to be successful.”

While his option-oriented offense has evolved over the years, make no mistake that it’s his offense. Johnson knows it inside-out. He not only calls his own plays, he doesn’t even use a play chart during games.

“I’ve pretty much always done that,” he said. “We’ve been doing it for a long time. I feel like we’re playing a certain way, and we can adjust once the games starts based on what’s working. We make a lot of adjustments, so there’s no use in scripting.”

Johnson’s next task as Georgia Tech’s football coach did require a script, as he and his family moved into a green room set up just across from the player’s lounge where the media was beginning to gather.

As he prepared to tape a video message urging fans to buy season tickets, his attention was diverted to a flat-screen television playing highlights from the past season as a staffer attempted to mute the volume. Johnson laughed as Durham pointed out that many of the players prominently featured will be back next season.

Johnson almost made it through the ticket message on the first take, but he faltered after not being able to make out a word on the script being held a few feet away. Two takes later, he had nailed it and then settled onto a plush leather coach to continue with the duty of selling the Georgia Tech program, autographing about a dozen footballs for director of promotions Jennifer Pierce.

His wife and daughter sat on another couch just a few feet away. Susan Johnson sported a gold blouse, admitting that it was fortunate that Navy had similar school colors. Upon her arrival, she had been given a silver yellow jacket pin for her jacket. Her daughter had Buzz pinned to her sweater.

“Oh my,” said Susan Johnson when asked about the events that had unfolded in the days and hours leading up to final decision. “It’s been real hectic. It’s amazing how one phone call can start your life in a whole new direction. It’s been great though, and we’re glad to be back South.”

Johnson’s move to Atlanta certainly brings him closer to his personal and coaching roots. His wife is also a native of North Carolina, and eight years of his career were spent in Statesboro at Georgia Southern.

“I really enjoyed my time in Georgia,” he said. “I have a good relationship with a lot of the high school coaches. They play such great high school football in this state. We have a great product to sell here at Georgia Tech.”

At his previous head coaching positions, Johnson was immediately in a rebuilding mode. At Georgia Southern, the storied Division I-AA program had slipped to 4-7 in the season before Johnson took the helm in 1997. Navy had won just one in game in two seasons prior to Johnson’s arrival in 2002.

The circumstances that Johnson inherits at Georgia Tech are much different. The program is headed to its 11th straight bowl game and is just a year removed from appearing in the ACC Championship game.

“Certainly the cupboard is not bare here, and that’s one of the things that attracted me to the job,” he said. “I think there’s a great talent base in the program, and there’s great talent in the state in terms of recruiting. It’s an exciting opportunity to be very successful.”

With the press conference less than 30 minutes away, the Johnson family enjoyed some of the final private moments together. Earlier, Johnson had struggled to answer if there was anything about him that might surprise people. His wife similarly struggled, but they did offer up that his favorite TV shows (via Tivo) are “Two and a Half Men,” “Rules of Engagement” and, of course, “Friday Night Lights.”

As the press conference neared, Johnson met with Radakovich, President Wayne Clough and senior associate AD Paul Griffin. The group then made their way into the player’s lounge where a gaggle of TV cameras, reporters, athletic department staff, current players and fans awaited.

Afterwards, Johnson glided through a series of one-on-one interviews with various media outlets before meeting with his new team for the first time.

Several times, he reiterated that he’s ready to start his new job immediately. He’ll head back north to tie up a few loose ends before returning Monday to start recruiting and assembling a staff.

However, there was one important task that he did address before anything else.

“The only person that I talked to since I agreed to take the job was my mom,” Johnson said. “We decided this morning to take the job, and I called her pretty soon after that. I knew she wouldn’t be real happy if she read it in the paper.”

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