A transition like no other: Johnson to Collins at Tech

The story at Georgia Tech is how different Geoff Collins is, but the difference doesn't lie so much with the new man. He fits the mold of the neo-coach — upbeat and out-front, having a message and sticking to same, building "the brand" with every waking breath. If you attend any preseason media convocations, you're familiar with such Mission Statements. Halfway through Collins' introductory remarks in December, I was thinking he reminded me of …

(Fair warning: Tech fans will hate what comes next.)

Butch Jones.

I'm not saying that Collins will fail as spectacularly as the overmatched Jones did with Tennessee. (Though Jones' Volunteers did, if memory serves, inflict maybe the most excruciating Tech loss of this century.) The trouble with Jones was that the messenger offered no follow-through. Collins has a chance to do well here, but his approach isn't much different from what you'll find with just-hired coaches from sea to shining sea. It's the guy Collins is replacing who was, and presumably still is, different.

Among football coaches, Paul Johnson is — flashing back to high school Latin — sui generis. There’s nobody else like him. Collins hit the ground at the Flats talking recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. Every contemporary coach save one always talks recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. For a dozen years, Tech employed the exception.

When Johnson addressed the topic, it was usually in response to a question — he wouldn't often broach it — and accompanied by a shrug or a sneer. ("Not bad for a bunch of 80th-ranked recruiting classes — huh, Mark?") Johnson didn't care so much about the brand, a word I never recall him speaking, as about his offense. His belief was: If we run the offense right, we'll win. In the grand scheme, he wasn't wrong.

My feelings toward Johnson wobbled all over creation, but after a decade or so — what can I say? I'm a slow learner — I'd begun to believe that, for what Tech football was, he was the right man. Much of this had to do with, ahem, recruiting. Had Johnson run the same offense as everyone else and recruited a couple of notches better, would he have won more? My feeling was that he'd have won less.

My eventual-if-not-immediate conclusion was that Tech's recruiting ceiling was the famous Chan Gailey class of 2007, which ranked 15th nationally and yielded Derrick Morgan, Joshua Nesbitt, Jonathan Dwyer and Morgan Burnett. That group fueled Johnson's first two seasons, which saw Tech go 19-7 and win an ACC title (later forfeited). My conclusion was that Tech was never apt to crack the recruiting top 10 — George O'Leary, who was big on the concept, had the No. 19 class in 2000 — and even breaking the top 20 on a regular basis would prove difficult.

There’s a reason that, in 2005, Tech athletic director Dave Braine said: “Georgia Tech can win nine or 10 games. They will never do that consistently. That’s my belief.” Then: “We are an academic institution that happens to play football.”

Braine’s comments came on the day he awarded Gailey a contract extension, prompting some guy to write in the ol’ AJC: “It sounded like a concession speech.” If the oft-maligned Braine wasn’t much of a brand-builder, he was pretty good at telling the truth.

It mightn't have been Dan Radakovich's plan — D-Rad succeeded Braine as AD in 2006 — to replace Gailey with someone capable of gaming the system, but that's what happened. By design, Johnson's Yellow Jackets were out to wrong-foot opponents. In 2008 and 2009 and 2014 and 2016, his teams won nine or more games. ("They haven't done that very often around here," Johnson would note.) Later results showed a marked decline, a sign the rest of the ACC had begun to catch on, and it was with some relief the Institute accepted Johnson's resignation in November.

Following a coach who went 24-25 over his past four seasons wouldn't appear especially difficult, but — we say again — Johnson didn't run a boilerplate program. It'll be tough to fit middling talent into a standard system and hope to play at a higher level. (The recruiting class Collins is assembling ranks No. 23 nationally according to 247Sports, but those guys aren't here yet.) And it won't be easy to find a better tactician. For all his idiosyncrasies, Johnson could coach a game.

Don't misunderstand: This isn't intended as a tweak of Collins. He was a fine hire, and he has made a bright start. (Even when he was winning, Johnson was never Mr. Blue Sky.) But Tech and Johnson were, for better and worse, a fit. As Braine noted, this is a different place, and for 12 years it worked under a different sort of coach. The new man is hoping to hit it straight down the middle. For all involved, that's a change.