Sports writers have a reputation for being cynical. I have no problem with that. The first high school football game I covered 33 years ago, the losing coach said, “Either we’re the worst football team in the league or I’m the worst coach.”
The next day, he denied it. Called me a liar. Eventually, he came clean. I felt like Bob Woodward. But it follows that every interview since has to pass through a trust filter. And when a coach says, “I’m not taking another job,” my first reaction is, “Did you ever coach at Hamilton High School?”
But I’m going out on a limb here: I believe Paul Johnson. He says he is happy and looking to stay at Georgia Tech, possibly forever. He says he is different, that his ego does not lead him through the marquee job classifieds like so many others. And when he says it, his nose doesn’t grow.
Johnson’s work at Tech is getting national recognition. There’s an obvious ripple effect. He gets mentioned for other potential jobs. Like Notre Dame. When the Irish lost to Navy on Saturday, it might have cemented Charlie Weis’ future, to say nothing of his shoes. At least one publication has included Johnson on a list of five potential replacements.
Tech has dealt with this before. Johnson’s name surfaced as a candidate at Auburn last year.
“I had an opportunity to leave last year — and for a lot more money,” he said, not naming the school. “But for me, it’s not all about that. I’ve always tried to look at like: Where would I like to live? Where does my family want to live.? That’s always been more important to me than the name brand of where you’re coaching.”
So a major job like Notre Dame wouldn’t be enticing?
“I just don’t think like that,” he said. “People might say, ‘Oh he’s full of crap.’ But really, I don’t. I mean, it doesn’t do it for me. Maybe it did when I was younger.”
When asked about the Notre Dame rumors, Tech athletics director Dan Radakovich said the school “will do everything within our power to keep Paul Johnson. I think we have shown that over the last two years and have created a very positive working relationship. Notre Dame is a great school. We happen to think Georgia Tech is a pretty great place, too.”
Understand something. While Tech is becoming a brand name itself, Notre Dame is bigger. Any coach who restores the Irish to an elite program becomes elite himself. Also rich. North Avenue just can’t compete with South Bend in stature or dollars.
But why would Johnson leave now? The Jackets are closing in on an ACC championship game berth in only his second season. The program is positioned to compete for conference titles, and therefore BCS bowls, every year. When asked if he could accomplish everything he wants to at Tech, Johnson said, “Sure. Would it be harder? Maybe. But I don’t know why you couldn’t.”
He stayed at Georgia Southern five years. He stayed at Navy six. He had offers to leave both earlier. When Radakovich phoned, Johnson spoke with his family, and they concluded it was now or never. He liked the Atlanta area, the school and the A.D.
“I thought I could win a championship here,” he said. “And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I had been listening about how the offense wouldn’t work for so long that I was like, ‘OK, I guess I’ll have to show you.’ ”
He understands the perceptions that there are bigger jobs. But, “As long as I feel like I have the trust of people where I’m at, and people are doing what they can to move the program along, not throwing obstacles in your path, I’m fine. That’s usually why you move. Or you just want another challenge. When I was at Georgia Southern, honestly, I could’ve stayed there forever. The program was on autopilot. I played golf at the country club. But something about Navy piqued my curiosity. And it was the same thing, people saying, ‘You can’t win there.’”
He is showing you can win at Georgia Tech. There’s no reason to leave now.