Paul Johnson is not like most head coaches. Georgia Tech just won its first conference championship in 19 years and went to its biggest bowl game in 43. Most head coaches react to this by pushing for raises for his assistants. Johnson reacted by giving Dave Wommack a pink slip.
Nobody likes to see people lose jobs, especially nice guys like Wommack. He’s one of those old school coaches who show up for work at 4 a.m. and looks a lot older than his birth certificate suggests. He’s 53 but looks 63. He gets too little sleep and lives with too much stress for too few successes.
But Johnson’s decision to fire his defensive coordinator should make most Tech fans smile because it reaffirms what we already knew about the man: He’s not the settling type.
Johnson acknowledged he had made this decision a while ago — sometime during an 11-win season. Contrast that with Georgia’s Mark Richt, who seemed to be the last person in Athens to acknowledge that defensive coordinator Willie Martinez needed to go. Richt made that decision over five weeks ago. At least two of his top candidates have turned him down (Virginia Tech’s Bud Foster and LSU’s John Chavis). How will it go over if Johnson fills his staff opening before Richt does his — and does it with a long-time impressive defensive coach like Al Groh, a rumored candidate?
There is no guarantee Groh takes the job, either. He certainly doesn’t need the money (Virginia, which fired him as head coach, still owes him $4.33 million over the next two years). If he decides to work, he might prefer returning to the NFL. But Groh’s a competitive guy who is quite enamored of the Jackets’ offense and the job Johnson has done at the school. It probably wasn’t just a coincidence that he watched a Jackets’ pre-bowl practice two weeks ago. At 65, the defensive coordinator’s job at Tech could be a nice way for him to slide into retirement.
Johnson denies that he already has offered Groh the job. When asked about his candidacy, he said: “I have no idea. There’s probably going to be a lot of candidates. … I would think he’s a guy who would be a great candidate if he’s interested. But I don’t know if he is. He’s collecting a lot of money up there [from Virginia].”
This much is certain: Whether Groh comes to Atlanta or not, Johnson sees an opportunity t0 do something special at Tech over the long term. He quickly grew weary of wins being so dependent on how many touchdowns his option offense produced. This was never intended to look like the Arena League (first team to not score loses.)
To some degree, Tech will go as the option goes. But weekly cataclysmic developments on the defensive side of the ball was getting old. The defense doesn’t need to allow 14 points or less to win games. It just can’t star in any more cartoons.
The Jackets scored 45 points at Georgia last season and won by a field goal. They scored 49 points at Florida State and won by five. Tech opponents this season scored 30 or more points six times. Including the final two games of last season (Georgia and the 38-3 loss to LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl), Wommack’s defense has allowed 30-plus points in eight of the last 16 games.
There’s only one statistic more stunning than that: Tech still went 5-3 in those games. But Johnson didn’t hide his displeasure with the defense, even after the wins.
Winning coaches often shift their program into auto pilot. But great coaches don’t rest. They don’t settle. The auto pilot button doesn’t exist on Johnson’s dashboard.