In defense of Paul Johnson’s contract extension. (Really)

Georgia Tech, which leads the world in bad contracts, just handed a two-year extension to a coach whose teams have gone 17-19 – and 9-15 in ACC play – over the past three seasons. This coach already had three years remaining. He now has five. On the scale of regrettable deal-making, this doesn’t match the perpetual five-year rollover bestowed on Paul Hewitt by the same Institute, but that’s in part because nothing ever could.

But let’s say it here: Paul Johnson is not Paul Hewitt. The latter’s basketball program, which played for the 2004 national championship, had within five years gone so wrong as to defy explanation. The Hewitt deal, signed in the wake of that stirring Final Four run, was done as much to inoculate Tech against him leaving for a better job – he’d have had to pay $3.6 million to exit – as to make it daunting-beyond-belief to fire him. (Tech had to pony up $7.2 million. Given that Hewitt agreed to deferred payments, it’s still paying the coach it fired in March 2011.)

At one point, Tech was paying Hewitt and Chan Gailey not to coach. The latter’s contract had been extended in November 2005 – it was scheduled to lapse after the 2006 season – through 2010. This was done by athletic director Dave Braine, who also signed off on Hewitt’s infamous deal. Braine chose the announcement of Gailey’s extension to opine that, “Georgia Tech can win nine or 10 games, but they will never do it consistently.”

Two years and 11 days after getting his extension, Gailey – who had, sure enough, managed but one nine-win season – was fired by Dan Radakovich, who succeeded Braine. (Radakovich also fired Hewitt. Much of his time as AD was spent trying to find the money to pay off Braine’s hires.)

Tech’s silliest bit of contractual business was the one-year extension granted Brian Gregory, hired by Radakovich to replace Hewitt. Gregory was given a six-year contract. Two years in, then-AD Mike Bobinski – yes, Tech has run through a few of those – granted Gregory another year. This was done after a 16-15 season.

This became a bigger issue when, two years later, Bobinski considered firing the overmatched Gregory, whose teams were 19-51 in ACC play, but blanched at having to pay $2.4 million to another ex-coach while still paying off Hewitt. (Mercifully, Gailey had come off the books.) One year later, Gregory’s buyout having been reduced to $1.3 million, Bobinski did the deed.

Apologies for the lengthy history lesson, but there’s a reason Tech folks are conditioned to duck and cover on hearing the words “contract extension.” Giving Johnson two years atop his remaining three hasn’t gone over well among Yellow Jackets backers – and has inspired glee among Georgia fans. (Giggling Bulldogs might note that their team’s last victory over Tech in Sanford Stadium came Nov. 24, 2012. Aaron Murray was the quarterback.)

Yes, five more years sounds like a lot. But Johnson has worked 10 seasons at the Flats, and he has established a baseline. That line has wobbled, but this part we know: Of those 10 seasons, four saw his Jackets win nine or more games. From 1966, when the sainted Bobby Dodd retired, through 2007, when Gailey was given the gate, eight Tech coaches combined for six such seasons.

Johnson has won an ACC title. (Since vacated.) He has taken three teams to the conference title game. He has won an Orange Bowl. He has beaten Georgia three times, and not in an O’Leary-like cluster – the victories came in 2008, 2014 and 2016. Johnson’s .300 winning percentage against the Bulldogs mightn’t sound like much, but it trumps the .230 clip that endured from 1978 until his arrival.

Faithful readers know that I’ve been known to nit-pick Johnson’s job performance. And I did, I admit, almost laugh out loud when I read his agent’s rationale for the added two years. “You don’t want to go in trying to recruit with three years (remaining),” Jack Reale told esteemed colleague Ken Sugiura. (Because – heh, heh – nobody cares more about recruiting than PJ of GT.) I read these two years as AD Todd Stansbury’s way of saying, “I’m giving you what you say you need; maybe now you could give me a couple more 4-star guys.”

As we know, Stansbury is both a football man and a Tech alum. He surely has a realistic view of what can be expected from his football program. It would take a Leicester-City-winning-the-Premier-League thunderclap for the Jackets to make the College Football Playoff. (Tech finishing 12th in the final CFP rankings of 2014 is about the best we’re apt to see.) Station Kirby Smart at a school where calculus is a requirement and see how many 5-stars he signs.

But the bigger point, at least to these eyes, regarding Johnson’s five more years is that he knows he’ll have a job for as long as he wants it, which mightn’t be five more years. He’s 60. I see little chance that he’ll be coaching when he’s 66. I see a much better chance that he’ll be done by 2020, which is when his previous contract was set to lapse. Put it this way: He likes playing golf way more than he likes recruiting.

In the years ahead, I wouldn’t imagine we’ll see anything different from what we’ve already witnessed. (Though the man did surprise us in 2014, did he not?) I doubt he’ll win the ACC again: Clemson is too good, Miami is rising fast and Florida State made a deft hire in Willie Taggart. On the other hand, I don’t imagine last season’s 5-6 will touch off a run of losing seasons and thereby force Tech to eat another fat contract. If the 11-3 of 2014 was the outlier on the high side, the 3-9 of 2015 was the same on the low. Johnson has been a good coach for a long time. He’s not apt to go all Hewitt on us.

Maybe you think that rewarding a guy who has gone 17-19 since the Orange Bowl is subsidizing mediocrity. I’d suggest you check the body of work. Johnson isn’t the greatest coach in Tech annals, but he’s the best of the past half-century. He’s worth keeping.