Tech gains apparel deal, loses a star, but Johnson says team will be fine

Georgia Tech has repaired its long-time perceived branding issues with a new apparel deal with Adidas, although there remains some disagreement how greatly this will impact recruiting.

This is what athletic director Todd Stansbury said Tuesday: “When you have the recruits on campus, you actually have to have all the uniforms out so they can see them, feel them, put the gloves on. Our part of that recruiting process was a little bit lacking. We did not have a head-to-toe partner.”

This is what the curmudgeonly football coach Paul Johnson said: “It’s a factor. I don’t know if it’s a deciding factor. The kind of kids that that will be a deciding factor for probably aren’t getting into school here.”

He’s probably right, even if it was surprising he actually said it -- and delivered it in typical Johnson-speak, like: “I don’t need no fancy Labradoodle. I’m just fine with my old hound dog.”

Besides, Johnson has greater concerns. He lost his best player, Dedrick Mills, last week when the running back was dismissed from the program for an undisclosed reason, believed to be a failed drug test. Johnson loved Mills as a person and a player, as did Stansbury, who said, "It’s obviously something that pains you, not just from the athletic standpoint, but as educators you hate losing a kid. But in athletics, people get hurt all the time and you lose kids for different reasons. So you get pretty resilient, and you just roll with the ones you got."

Johnson is rolling. His is a run-dominated offense. It’s going to produce.

“We won’t change because of the person -- we never have,” Johnson said. “It’s a system deal.”

There’s a common debate in sports: Is it the system or is it the player? There was an argument that went on for years in San Francisco when fans and media were attempting to assign levels greatness to Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. (At some point it became obvious the answer was: both.)

But Mills was special. He rushed for 771 yards and scored 13 touchdowns as a freshman despite missing four games (three with suspensions, one for injury). He rushed for 169 yards and was MVP of the TaxSlayer Bowl. He was on the “watch list” for this season’s Maxwell Award, given to the national college player of the year. He was good enough that Marcus Marshall, who led Tech in rushing two years ago, decided to transfer after 2016 because he wanted to be the primary ballcarrier.

Now, the Jackets’ top two backs in 2016 play for FCS James Madison (Marshall) and Garden City Community College (Mills). That wasn’t the plan, but Johnson will be OK, and so will Tech.

I asked Johnson what he’s learned about getting players to rebound after the loss of a teammate.

“There’s an old adage I adhere to: If you want to see what’s gonna happen, get a bucket of water, stick your fist in there and pull it out,” he said. “After about 30 minutes, everybody starts to worry about themselves and the game and the team.”

As for his players’ emotions: “I think the guys were fine. I’m sure Dedrick has a lot of friends on the team and a lot of guys like him and he likes them, but he’s going to move on and hopefully be successful, and they’ve got to move on and be successful.”

Las Vegas oddsmaker Todd Fuhrman, who has no vested interest, said Tuesday the loss of Mills prompted him to downgrade Tech one-half point to a four-point underdog in the season opener against Tennessee. But he doesn’t believe it will impact the Jackets’ projected win total or their ACC chances this season.

Stansbury also has confidence in both Johnson’s scheme and the coach’s ability to rally his players.

“Paul’s been around a long time, and emotionally he can handle any setback,” he said. “As far as just a football mind, he’s one of the best I’ve ever been around, and having a system like he does gives him an ability to run by committee. The basis of his offense is all about matchups. I think half the time he’s drawing up a play in the sand on the sideline just based on what he sees out there. That’s just the way he rolls. I’m not concerned about a lasting impact.”

Some likely believe Tech is in trouble. Johnson tends to be at his best when he has that as a backdrop. He and his players feed off it. The reality is that there are only three opponents on the schedule clearly superior to Tech in talent -- Clemson, Miami and Georgia – and the Yellow Jackets seldom follow the script. I still suspect they’re going to open with a win over Tennessee.

“Like I tell guys all the time, they’re going to play football at Georgia Tech whether I’m coaching or you’re playing,” Johnson said. “The program and the team has to be bigger than one person. Guys get hurt. You don’t have time to worry about it.”

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