Since the first time I had a conversation with Paul Johnson, seated in his office at Georgia Southern University, one thing sticks out in my mind: He never changes. He is comfortable with his life. My wife was with me, and he invited her to join us, which she did and soon joined in the fun herself.
A lot of coaches I know would have begun squirming about and looking for a way to bring this intrusion to an end. Not this coach. He has roamed the planet since he left Newland, N.C., (pop. 709), county seat of Avery County (pop. 17,167).
He played for a high school coach who left his mark on him as a lad. Western Carolina was his next move, but he never played football. He broke into coaching at his old high school, for the same coach he’d played for. Appalachian State was next, for a master’s degree, then the coaching whirligig began, at Lees-McRae, a junior college not far from his hometown.
From Lees-McRae to Georgia Southern to Hawaii to Navy, back to Georgia Southern, and this time his head coaching career was in gear. Navy called next, and what we were about to see was the formulation of a late-model football coach. His offense traveled with him wherever he went. It has borne all sorts of aliases, but he simply calls it “the option.”
He had dominated the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, that is, the championship of the three military academies. He took Navy teams to bowl games, an experience that had escaped the Middies for several seasons. He won the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award, and pretty soon he was coaching in the stadium that bore the Dodd name, and so, here we are. Same man, same coach, same offense and a similar result.
Georgia Tech was ready for a change, tiring of five- and six-loss seasons. Oh, Tech had been going to bowl games, such as they were, Silicon Valley, Emerald and so-on. So, Johnson inherited a team that had been recruited for a pro-style offense. A few players walked, and even Jonathan Dwyer was tempted, I’ve read.
The first spring game was a comedy of errors, officially nine fumbles, 14 by my count. Conclusion was, if Tech won four games, count the season a success.
Tech won nine. Tech won its division in the ACC. Most of all, it won the “Athens Bowl.” This against a Georgia team forecast to be No. 1 in the USA. It was Dwyer again, the kid from Marietta on a toss sweep 60 yards down the sideline, and a team that had been down 28-12 at halftime came back, and an upset was on the way.
It was too rich for the Yellow Jackets’ blood. By the time their date with LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl came up, they were convinced they were invincible.
“I kept trying to tell them,” Johnson said, “then some alumnus would tell them how great they were, and they began to believe it. LSU was one tough football team, and they found out the hard way.”
Back to the drawing board. Johnson is still Johnson. The message has landed. This is one good-looking football squad, a stirring collection of large, well-oiled athletes.
After days of 95 degrees, a cooling wind wafted across the green field, and there was evidence that Roddy Jones is on Dwyer’s heels, that Morgan Burnett, Cooper Taylor and Derrick Morgan should be the backbone of the defense, and if you’re looking for the most popular name of the moment, it’s Tyler. There are six Tylers in this bunch. And the coach is the same coach, same offense, same Paul Johnson I met 12 years ago.