Georgia Tech has been playing football since 1892, and in that time only one football coach in 117 years has had a better start to his career than Paul Johnson.
Not Bobby Dodd, who has a stadium named after him. Not John Heisman, who has a trophy named after him. Not Bill Lewis, who … well, not Bill Lewis.
Johnson has coached 20 games at Georgia Tech. He is 15-5. The lone coach to open more impressively: William Alexander (18-2) in the 1920s. The world was different then. College football was different. Academics were different. There weren’t recruiting pressures or scholarship limits or a possibly defensive athletic director telling the world that you just can’t win consistently at places like Georgia Tech.
So do seasons of 9-4 and 6-1 count?
“If you have the right people and the right support mechanisms in place,” athletic director Dan Radakovich said, “you can be successful here.”
His comments this week echoed those of two years ago. It was the first time I had a chance to sit down with Radakovich for any length of time since he replaced Dave Braine, who made the very public mistake of saying the Yellow Jackets “will never” win consistently because of the school’s high academic standards. Braine’s intent was to take some pressure off of his coach, Chan Gailey. Instead, he cut him off at the knees in recruiting and alienated fans.
Radakovich came in with a different philosophy. He met briefly with his coaches before his introductory press conference in 2006. He told them, “Guys, I don’t have a whole lot of time here. There are only two things that are important to me: Win and don’t cheat.” His belief: It could be done at Tech.
We can’t foretell the future. This is only a 20-game sampling. But think about this: Johnson came in with a relatively foreign offense and he is winning largely with Chan Gailey’s recruits. The thought of slipping significantly any time soon doesn’t seem likely. He is universally embraced by his players, students and alums. It’s a comfort level Gailey never experienced.
Hard to imagine, but Johnson’s biggest challenge now might be keeping the masses grounded. The Jackets are coming off an upset of fourth-ranked Virginia Tech. Fans stormed the field. They tore down the goal post, paraded it down the street and hacksawed it into pieces for souveniers. You would’ve thought a Ph.D. on campus had just learned how to manufacture jet fuel from leftover mu shu and banana peels.
Fortunately, keeping everybody grounded isn’t difficult for Johnson. His look back on win over Virginia Tech was typical of all others: moments of praise punctuated by three-punch verbal combinations of what everybody did wrong.
“We’ve played pretty good at times,” he said when asked if he ever has been fully satisfied after a game. “I remember winning the national championship [at Georgia Southern], 59-24, and gaining like 640 yards and they had about 240. We played pretty good. But you’re always striving for the perfect game. When you become satisfied and lower the standards, I don’t know if you’re doing the kids a service. You’re doing them a disservice. You have to keep raising the bar and pushing that this is what you’re looking for. If we had won every game this season, that would be different. But we haven’t.”
He considered for a moment that, “I probably need to do a better job of accentuating the positive sometimes.”
But seconds later, it was as if the Paul Johnson mini-me sitting on his shoulder slapped him on the head.
“I don’t care if they think I’m never gonna be satisfied,” he said.
There is no wrong answer. His methods work as well as his offense. Twenty games in at Georgia Tech, he is nearly without peer. There goes one perception.
♦ Georgia Tech head coaches through 20 games
William Alexander (1920-22) 18-2
Paul Johnson (2008-09) 15-5
John Heisman (1905-07) 14-4-2
Bobby Dodd (1945-46) 12-8
Pepper Rogers (1974-75) 12-8
Chan Gailey (2002-03) 11-9
George O’Leary (1995-96) 11-9
Bill Fulcher (1972-73) 10-9-1
Bill Lewis (1992-93) 10-10
Bud Carson (1967-68) 8-12
Bobby Ross (1987-88) 5-15
Bill Curry (1980-81) 2-17-1