Aug. 8, 2017
Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Many college football fans around the country would have no idea what to say to a coach who’s won 67 percent of his games over 20 seasons as a head coach, has had only three losing seasons versus eight double-digit-win seasons, has won two national championships (and was runner-up for another), owns five conference championships, has taken teams to three conference championship games in nine years while playing in a Power 5 conference, has finished first or second in that conference six times, and, maybe most remarkably, has never been fired.
Georgia Tech football fans can simply say, “Good morning, Coach Johnson!” (They can expect a “Good morning” in return from the personable Newland, N.C., native.)
However, this year they may want to try “Happy Anniversary!” as 2017 marks Paul Johnson’s 10th season on the Yellow Jackets sideline.
“At times, it’s gone by really fast and, at times, it’s been slow,” said Johnson, the longest-tenured coach in the ACC and 13th-longest in the country. “Ten years is a long time to be anywhere and in this profession that’s a long time. It’s the longest I’ve ever coached anywhere.”
Johnson, who rebuilt an empire at Georgia Southern (5-for-5 in Southern Conference championships and NCAA Division I-AA playoff appearances with two national titles and a runner-up finish), then turned around Navy (winning five of the Midshipmen’s record seven-straight Commander-In-Chief trophies), has had similar success at Georgia Tech.
He begins `17 as the fourth-longest tenured coach in program history, behind only College Football Hall of Famers William Alexander (25 years), Bobby Dodd (22) and John Heisman (16). His run is the longest on The Flats since Dodd retired following the 1966 season.
He’s continues winning, a lot. Beginning season No. 10 with the Yellow Jackets, he’s fourth all-time in school history in wins (70) and has won more games through nine seasons than every previous Tech coach besides Dodd (74). Among active coaches, Johnson’s 177 career wins rank fourth, behind only Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly (230), Alabama’s Nick Saban (205) and Kansas State’s Bill Snyder (202), all of whom have coached longer and none of whom had to rebuild programs the way Johnson has.
While he still hasn’t won respect in some circles — the `17 Jackets were picked third in the ACC’s Coastal Division despite coming off a 9-4 campaign and riding a four-game winning streak into the season — he’s won undying loyalty from his players.
“He’s really consistent in the way he coaches. He believes in what he does and that’s something that doesn’t waiver with him at all,” said junior linebacker Brant Mitchell. “He’s fully involved with what he does with his coaching staff. I think that really helps his coaching and the program itself. I think that’s why he’s been around so long, because he’s consistently successful with what he does.”
“Coaches come and go all the time,” said senior wide receiver Ricky Jeune. “Coach Johnson’s been here for a long time. He’s a great coach and he’s a great leader.”
Johnson, of course, credits the players for the winning. He has a point, as they are the ones who must execute his vaunted spread-option offense, the complex attack that grounds up and wears down opposing defenses.
In a college football world that’s constantly seeking the next big thing, Johnson has stuck with a system that works and has run it, literally, into one of the nation’s most productive attacks on an annual basis.
Doing it his way and flying in the face of fashion leaves him open to second-guessing and has drawn cynicism from those who call it outdated, ire from those who issue unfounded accusations of intentional illegal blocking, and questions, questions, questions from those trying to understand. Johnson doesn’t lose sleep over any of it — that insomnia is reserved for the opposing defensive coordinators, like Tennessee’s Bob Shoop.
Actually, he kind of gets a kick out of it.
“I wonder if I coach for 59 years if I’d ever have to quit answering about the offense,” he said, with a laugh. “It’s been 32 years [and] we’ve won a few games and a couple of championships along the way. You’d think that at some point you’d be able to quit answering that question about the offense.”
His players don’t question him.
“It’s definitely different but I think it’s a lot of fun. It’s something that a lot of people don’t see, so it creates some challenges for defenses because they don’t see it and they can’t really replicate the speed and how we run it,” said senior offensive lineman Andrew Marshall, who is entering his fourth season in the patented scheme. “I think it gives you an advantage in that aspect. It’s fun to play in and is kind of a different mentality. We’re known to be tougher and just run the ball as much as we can. So I think it’s fun, especially as an offensive lineman, it’s just a tough, get-after-’em kind of mentality.
“It can get in (opponents’) heads,” he added. “People don’t like different. They like seeing the same type of offense every week. Coordinators like seeing that and playing it the same way. But you can’t play us the same way you play everybody else just because we’re very different. I think there’s a little bit of pride with it, knowing that opponents respect it that much.”
It can even get into the heads of the Jackets’ defenders, who loathe it only slightly less than opposing defenders, as they see it every day, but respect it just as much.
“It’s extremely difficult,” said Mitchell. “It’s crazy. You have to have your eyes right. If you don’t have your eyes where they need to be, you will get lost in a hurry.”
But Johnson’s success is about more than just an unorthodox offense.
“A lot of people talk about, `Oh, the triple option this, the triple option that,’ but as a team we respect him. We know that he knows the game,” said senior defensive end KeShun Freeman. “It’s a really great thing having a coach be here so long and not having to change so many coaches.”
“Coach Johnson is just an old-school, hard-nosed coach,” said senior defensive back Lance Austin. “He wins games and you can never go against that. When you win and you’ve got that style of play, that unique offense, it will keep you there for a while.”
Johnson agrees. It may sound like an oxymoron but he’ll just keep on doing what he’s always done while also being able to make adjustments along the way.
“As long as you win on Saturday, everything’s great and you’re a great coach,” he said. “Just don’t lose one because then you forget everything that you knew and you’re not very smart and people have caught up with you and they have the blueprint. You get all those things. I put more pressure on myself than anybody’s going to put on me, anyway. I’m pretty competitive. As far as the pressure, a lot of times people say, `This guy’s on the hot seat, that guy’s on the hot seat.’ Everybody’s on the hotseat. That’s the nature of the profession.
“I think everything changes,” he added. “It’s a lot different than it was when I first started coaching in about every way possible. You have to be able to adjust and go as you go through.”