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Shot Caller

Aug. 30, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

About this time a couple years ago, the estimable Furman Bisher wrote eloquently about how uncommonly comfortable Paul Johnson seems to be in his own skin.

You can read that here.

Georgia Tech’s head football coach can be made uncomfortable, though. Just try calling offensive plays for him. That’ll fit the man like a hair suit.

He has, after all, called nearly every offensive play nearly everywhere he’s been since 1979, long before he came down out of the mountains of western North Carolina to make bigger bucks and bigger calls.

It probably happens more than you think, but it’s still not standard for a college head coach to call offensive plays. So Johnson is not the rule, but an exception.

Johnson has said many times that he makes calls on feel, by watching what’s happening, reacting to the way an opposing defense tries to fit against his boys.

Yes, there are conversations with other coaches – some on the sideline, some upstairs – and feedback is received from offensive players, too.

But no, Johnson’s not like some coaches who enter a game with scripted plays to run to see how they’re defended with the idea of building the rest of a game from there.

He carries no cheat sheet, nor a laminated play card, and he calls the entire contest from the hip – not that plenty of research doesn’t go into the process ahead of time.

There was a somewhat humorous Q&A a couple years ago where’s Heather Dinich seemed amazed by Johnson’s free-wheeling way. See it here.

Johnson’s called a lot of plays for a lot of years, almost uninterrupted since Avery County (N.C.) High coach Elmer Aldridge hired his former player right out of Western Carolina University and gave his protégé keys to the offense.

That was a break, to be sure, circumventing a certain segment of Johnson’s dues-paying process. It also created a baseline comfort zone that’s been tough to shake.

“I was fortunate . . . had I gone somewhere else I probably wouldn’t have had that opportunity because I played for that coach,” Johnson said of Aldridge, whose son Mark is on the Avery County staff these days. “I guess he thought enough of me to allow me to do that.”

Johnson hasn’t always run the exact offense Tech fans see now. In fact, he ran a pass-oriented scheme when he was the offensive coordinator at Hawaii from 1987-’94.

There have been other adjustments, quite a few in fact, to his theories on moving the ball in stops at Avery County High (’79-’80), Lees-McRae Junior College (offensive coordinator in ’81-’82), Georgia Southern (offensive coordinator in ’85-’86), at Hawaii, Navy (offensive coordinator in ’95-’96), Southern again (head coach from ’97-2001), Navy again (head coach from ’02-’07) and at Tech.

You may have noted that gap at Southern, when Johnson was the defensive line coach in Statesboro in ’83-’84 for legendary curmudgeon Erk Russell.

Other than that spell he’s been at the wheel but for a very brief time — two games in ’97.

That arrangement lasted until the newly-minted boss came under the glare of the old boss, a certain bald Eagle.

“[At] Georgia Southern when I first got to be the head coach, coach Russell came over to me and said, `What are you doing?’ I said, `I’m walking around making sure everything’s going right,’ ” Johnson recalled.

“He goes, `Get your butt over there and coach the quarterbacks and call the plays and help your team win; that’s what you’re really good at.’ He said that’s why you got the job, not to walk around.”

So there you have it.

It would be too easy (not to mention nerve wracking) as a head coach, Tech’s top man said, to point the finger of blame if somebody else was running his offense, and the offense wasn’t running. Better to carp at oneself, apparently.

“The reason that I call the plays is I would find myself standing over there going, `That was dumb, and I wouldn’t do that,’ to myself. I said if I’m going to second-guess every call, then I just need to do it and I can second-guess myself.

“I’m sure we’ve got guys on our staff who can call plays, but that’s something that I just do and I know our system and I also know when I’m going to go for it on fourth down so I can call them on third down.”

Oh, to be a cell on the brainpan when Paul Johnson’s second-guessing himself.

Can you imagine that dressing down?

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