Paul Johnson doesn’t cheat. Doesn’t like cheaters. Calls the suggestion that he would cheat “almost insulting.”
“I’m sure I cheated in board games,” the Georgia Tech coach said. “And when I played, yeah, you’d do stuff. Move the ball forward. Move it back. Kick it. Maybe grab a guy where you’re not supposed to. But heck, everybody does that.”
But not as a coach. It’s why Johnson took a verbal 2-by-4 to the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions. He says he did nothing wrong. He says the punishment slapped on Georgia Tech’s football program, including the forfeiture of the 2009 ACC championship, is wrong. He wants the school to appeal. That decision hasn’t been made yet, but the trophy has been removed from a case in the Edge Athletics Center and is sitting in an office closet.
At the very least, Johnson wants it known that the Yellow Jackets gained no competitive advantage before the conference title win over Clemson. Also, he’s not giving his ring back.
“I’m proud of what those guys did on the field — they won it on the field,” Johnson said. “The NCAA can’t take away the memories or what happened on the field. Let’s say somebody took something illegal. I’m still not convinced that happened, but let’s say it did. Well, you’re punishing 115 guys who didn’t do anything but work their butt off.”
Johnson said he’s still “stunned” by the NCAA’s actions. He never expected anything of significance would come of the investigation until, “They started ripping [former compliance director] Paul Parker in the hearing.”
He understood why the NCAA might be upset that athletic director Dan Radakovich informed him of the impending investigation after he been told not to, but said, “I knew there was no coverup. If we were trying to cover the thing up, we would’ve just said that Dan never told me anything. Their perception of what happened and my perception of what happened wasn’t close.”
Johnson’s perception: “That they came in here and talked to seven or eight kids and they didn’t find what they were looking for.
“I’ve been in this business a long time. You see all the things that are going on in college sports today, and you get slammed for this? I mean, come on now. I feel for Dan and [Tech president G.P. "Bud"] Peterson. I’ve known Dan since I got here. Dan Radakovich isn’t going to cheat or cover up anything. Did you get bad information or maybe make a bad decision? You can debate that. But I certainly wasn’t privy to any information we had.”
The Tech case will go down as one of the strangest in NCAA history. Investigators never found proof or established a paper trail indicating former players, specifically Demaryius Thomas and Morgan Burnett, received improper benefits from agents. But there was the suspicious matter of $312 worth of clothing given to Thomas. Radakovich also went against the NCAA’s mandate by forewarning Johnson (and indirectly players) of the investigation.
Any potential violations might’ve been secondary, but the NCAA didn’t like the way Tech acted during the investigation, perceiving administrators tried to hinder the process.
Johnson said, “We thought we were cooperating,” then pointed to a black book on his desk and added, “I guess if they say that book right there is red and you don’t agree, then you’re not cooperating.”
He named at least five Tech players who were interviewed during the bye week before the Georgia game — Thomas, Burnett, Derrick Morgan, Jonathan Dwyer and Cord Howard (as well as Morgan’s roommates) — and said they shuttled off and on the field during practice. Peterson, who was relying primarily on the advice of since-retired school counsel Randy Nordin, ultimately cleared Burnett and Thomas to play.
Johnson said an investigator also interviewed one of his assistant coaches.
“They tried to say that he [the assistant coach] was directing players to agents,” Johnson said. “He even asked me if I was directing players to agents. I told him, ‘Dude, I don’t even know what you’re talking about.’ ”
The assumption here is that the NCAA was not expecting a warm embrace. Maybe they’ve just got a thing about bluntness.
“If you went out and you did something to gain a competitive advantage, if you knew you cheated or you paid somebody, it might be easier to swallow,” Johnson said. “But when you don’t feel like you’ve done anything wrong, it’s tough to take.”
The one saving grace for Tech is that the NCAA didn’t take away scholarships or issue a postseason ban. Also, this whole ugly process and resulting anger might help Johnson’s cause in at least one area with his players.
“Motivation won’t be a problem,” he said.
By Jeff Schultz