Could Georgia Tech do better than Paul Johnson?

Georgia Tech was 3-3 halfway through the 2016 season, which ended with the Yellow Jackets going 9-4 and Paul Johnson chortling – not many people actually chortle; PJ is among the few – over having gone 3-0 against teams from the SEC East. (Never mind that his team was 3-3 against the ACC Coastal.) Bear that in mind when you take note of the 2018 Jackets being 1-3. Season’s not over, folks. That said … 

There’s a difference between 3-3 and 1-3. There’s also a difference between being 21-1/2 months removed from an Orange Bowl victory (over Mississippi State, also of the SEC) and being nearly four years down what has become a rocky road. Tech is 18-22 since New Year’s Eve 2014. It is 9-17 against ACC competition. It is 12-21 against Power 5 opponents. It is 2-14 in true road games. 

About here, you’re doubtless expecting something along the lines of, “The numbers presented above make the case for moving beyond Paul Johnson.” And – not going to lie – those numbers are powerful. Even if we include the relative rut of 2010 through 2013, when his Jackets were an aggregate 28-25, this post-Orange period marks Johnson’s nadir. He’s in Year 11 at the Flats; his team has had two losing seasons in three and could be bound for a third in four. That said … 

Johnson is the best Tech coach since Bobby Dodd. He might well be the best Tech is apt to do. As tempting as it might be to imagine this program under – tossing out three names with Tech affiliation – George Godsey/Ken Whisenhunt/Brent Key, their cumulative record as a collegiate head coach is 0-0. (Godsey, a quarterback under George O’Leary, is QB coach for the Detroit Lions. Whisenhunt, a tight end under Bill Curry, is offensive coordinator for the L.A. Chargers. Key, a grad assistant under O’Leary and Chan Gailey, is offensive line coach for Alabama.) 

Tech folks will hate this comparison, but their proud program is approaching the place in which, not long ago, the hated mutts from Athens found themselves. Mark Richt won the SEC twice at Georgia, most recently in 2005. Johnson won an ACC title at Tech – in 2009. Athletic director Greg McGarity pulled the plug because he lost faith in Richt’s ability to deliver championships. Is it realistic to believe that Johnson, whose only conference crown (since vacated) came with a nucleus inherited from Gailey, is apt to outdo imperial Clemson and now Miami under Richt? 

The ACC of today is not the ACC Johnson entered in 2008. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney has upped the stakes. Every school is spending more and more – Tech just got a new locker room – and recruiting harder and harder. The latter area is an arena in which Johnson will never prevail, partly because of his offense but mostly because he believes he can take marginal talent and outsmart the other guy. Once upon a time, he could. Not lately, though. He started 4-1 against Clemson; he’s 1-6 since. He was 6-0 against Duke; he’s 1-3 since. 

Back to Richt and Georgia. Whenever a school contemplates changing coaches, it must ask a second question: Can we find anybody better? McGarity did, but he could pluck the best assistant from the nation’s best program – who was, not incidentally, a Georgia alum – because the Bulldogs possess every resource and could pay the going rate. Tech is, er, a technical school that struggles to fill its 55,000-seat stadium. (There were empty seats for Saturday’s Clemson game despite those in orange comprising half the gathering.) 

Tech AD Todd Stansbury cannot fish from the same pond as Georgia. He can’t hook a Tom Herman, who bided his time at Houston until Texas came open. Would any hot non-Power 5 coach – Mike Norvell of Memphis, say – pick Tech if other options existed? Would – pause for effect – Lane Kiffin be a fit at the Georgia Institute of Technology? Would any halfway decent Power 5 coach leave his job for this? (Maybe Mike Leach, but would Tech want Mike Leach?)

As for retreads: Would you fancy Jim Mora? (Shudder.) Butch Jones? (Ye gods.) Bret Bielema? Jim McElwain? Gene Chizik? As for career assistants: The best in the business is Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, but he’s essentially what Smart was – a hugely respected No. 2 who can have his pick of jobs. 

Since Homer Rice plucked Bobby Ross from Maryland, these are Tech’s hires: Bill Lewis of East Carolina, coming off his only winning season as a head coach; O’Leary, a career assistant imported as defensive coordinator when it was clear Lewis couldn’t cut it; Gailey, who’d spent one season as a college coach since 1984, and Johnson, who’d won at Georgia Southern and Navy.

My belief regarding Richt and Georgia: Once McGarity determined his coach couldn’t produce at the expected level, he had to make a change. My question regarding Johnson and Tech: What’s the expected level? To be better than some ACC schools but never again among the upper crust? Radakovich hired the coach from Navy – not from North Carolina or Nebraska, mind you – and that coach delivered one ACC title and two Orange Bowl runs. Know the last time pre-PJ that the Jackets reached an Orange Bowl or its exalted equivalent? On Jan. 2, 1967. It was Dodd’s last game. 

I know Ross won the UPI national championship in 1990. I know O’Leary shared an ACC title in 1998. I also know that together they had three seasons of nine-plus wins. Johnson has had four. Do I believe his program has suffered a downturn? Duh. Do I think he bleeds eight wins from this regular season, given that he’d have to go 7-1 from here? No. Do I feel Stansbury should begin to ponder alternatives? Yes. 

But now to the heart of the matter: Do I believe the next Tech coach would fare better? Probably not. That’s not because I consider Johnson an untouchable. It’s because I doubt that Tech has the wherewithal to land a clear upgrade. For Georgia after Richt, there was a way up. Should Tech choose to part with Johnson, I’m not sure there is.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.
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