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#TGW: Beating the Odds

Aug. 2, 2014

By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word

– A not-so-funny thing happened Saturday afternoon, when Paul Johnson sat down in a room at the head of a table and fielded questions from media about the start of fall practice and the upcoming football season.

Historically, this is a tame situation, and that’s the way the train began rolling.

Eventually, however, some fuss grew to where a message came out of the day’s proceedings: turn down the noise.

While the Atlanta media contingent is not harsh by relation — that comes from someone who spent years covering the NFL and college sports and spent time in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Tuscaloosa, Athens, Columbus and other precincts where the literati ambled into every situation looking for blood in the water — Georgia Tech’s head coach was grilled a time or two.

Saturday, it went so-so.

First on the record, and then off after everybody in the room figured the proceedings were complete, Johnson was asked about external expectations for his program, whether they were fair, etc.

The Jackets were picked by ACC media to finish fifth in the Coastal division, lower than ever in Johnson’s six seasons at the helm, and that’s uncomfortable by itself.

As you’ll see if you read on, Johnson and his players do not appear to buy into that, yet waving a dismissive hand at the mention of the picks doesn’t work.

As a coach manages his or her program, that’s a tricky deal: the matching of external expectations against those generated not only within the program among coaches and players, but versus those held by the boss(es) within the athletic department is a beast of a balancing act.

Tech is in a tough spot trying to compete with its athletic colleagues, for sake of sky-high academic requirements and stream-lined academic offerings that narrow recruiting fields. That’s not new.

Yet many fans want many more Ws than Ls. And fans, one way or another, pay the bills.

So while good news came out of chats with athletics director Mike Bobinski, Johnson, and players, there was a partially-clouded sky left behind.

It says here that Tech can win bigger than most.

The school is fantastic, in a dynamic city where facilities tick upward, and there is a boatload of recruitable high school-level talent within driving range (although in many years, the percentage of Georgia players who meet Tech’s standards is low).

Still, it’s brutally tough to recruit with and win on a par with some of the others who orbit in the same universe as the Yellow Jackets. It just is.

It can be done, however, and on Saturday nobody embraced that notion better than junior cornerback D.J. White, who by the way has had perhaps the best offseason of any player in the Tech program.

If he knows the Jackets have been picked fifth in the Coastal, he’s not letting on.

“I don’t watch ESPN, I really don’t pay attention to it. Those things can be a bit of a distraction if you let it get to you,” White said. “We got coaches who are like, basically, `This is what everybody else says. We’re focusing on ourselves.’

“I tell the younger guys, `Block out the noise. What you do on a day-to-day basis is what matters.’ That’s where I focus.”

Johnson was onto something, if not laser-like, when he said, “Why would these kids not think they’re going to be good? They haven’t finished less than second or third in the division since we’ve been here. I don’t think they pay any attention to what [others] say. I don’t pay any attention to what [others] say, either.”

Last season did not go as well as many believe it should have. The Jackets were 7-6 and closed with losses at home to Georgia and in the Music City Bowl to Ole Miss.

That the Bulldogs overcame a 20-0 deficit, with a backup quarterback making his first start in Tech’s home, sticks in craws.

“Last year … we had some success, went to a bowl game,” Bobinski said. “Was it a year where we squeezed everything possible out of it? No, we didn’t. Last year for me was a year for me that sort of felt … sort of un-fulfilled. There were opportunities to win games where we sort of got in our own way.”

Johnson will, as Bobinski suggested, tell you the same thing.

The players know, too, that there is more potential for success than the Jackets have realized over the past few seasons.

And they do not, by the way, agree with preseason prognostications even though they do not process them all the same way.

Some, like White, blow them off. Others acknowledge them and try to use them to advantage.

“You try not to pay attention to that, but when you get slighted every year of course you’re going to notice,” said senior fullback Zack Laskey. “Personally, I take that as motivation to play with a chip on my shoulder. I try to play to prove to everybody outside of the Tech program.

“Everybody has a different way of motivating themselves. I tell guys that, `Hey, we’re not getting respect; I don’t know if that’s something that motivates you, but it’s something that motivates me.'”

Quarterback Justin Thomas falls in the middle.

“It doesn’t really matter,” he said of external expectations. “Sometimes, the team can react a certain way. As long as we play our level and nobody else’s, we should be successful no matter who we’re playing.”

It should be pointed out that Bobinski pointed out that Tech has had – as Johnson suggested – better-than-par success under Johnson.

He also feels that this team is well-positioned for this season to exceed expectations.

It has been written here recently that the Jackets appear to have a special chemistry building, and that – as Johnson also suggested – may have more to do with the level of success attained than recruiting rankings.

“I’ve been around a lot of teams in the course of my life, and what happens between seasons is as important as what happens when you prepare [in practice] for a season,” Bobinski said. “We’ve had a really, really terrific offseason.

“The guys have put in a tremendous, really strong summer of work and I know everybody always says that. Nobody ever says we had a [cruddy] summer. I get that. I will tell you that our players have really invested a lot. There is a vibe in the locker room, and … I like our launch point.”

The same goes for Johnson, who pointed out that Tech has during his tenure routinely surpassed external expectations. For that matter, nationally, there is a track record for underdogs doing better than you might think.

“Three of the five, or four of the five [teams in last year’s final national rankings], weren’t in the top 25 at the beginning of the season,” he said. “If you look at the six years since I’ve been head coach, we’ve been picked on average 3.9 [in the Coastal], and we’ve finished 1.8 so they hadn’t got it right.

“What makes them right this time?”

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