It was time for Johnson to go, but the next guy might do worse

Here are a few highlights of Paul Johnson's 11-year coaching tenure at Georgia Tech.

A word to Georgia Tech fans: This could be one of those be-careful-in-thy-wishing deals. Your next coach won't have it easy. The ACC got bigger and better over the 11 seasons of Paul Johnson's stewardship, and Johnson was -- credit where it's due -- a darn good tactician.

As noted a time or two in this space, he was less adept at program-building, at recruiting, at caring about anything beyond his stylized offense. For both better and worse, his offense came to be Tech Football. That his offense worked less well at the end of his tenure than at the beginning is surely one reason he’s stepping aside. That, and he’s 61.

He'd taken Tech as far as he could, and that's not meant as faint praise. He won the ACC (though the title later was taken away by the NCAA). He won the Orange Bowl. He beat Georgia three times. He had three losing seasons in 11, but he also won nine-plus games four times. Contrast that with his predecessor, who never had a losing season but who never won the ACC, reached a major bowl or beat the Bulldogs even once.

To say that Johnson leaves Tech better than he found it is a reach. What he was doing won't work for anybody else. The enthusiasm for his spread option cooled a while back, and it's hard to imagine Todd Stansbury considering two coaches who might otherwise be viable replacements – Brian Bohannon of Kennesaw State and Jeff Monken of Army – because they're Johnson acolytes whose teams run his offense. As Stan Kasten, who has been president of every sports franchise under the sun, once said: "If you're going to make a change, make a change."

The belief here is that Stansbury will seek a more conventional – read: non-option – coach. Question is, can Tech hope to beat the ACC’s better teams by doing the same things those teams are already doing? Apologies for hopping back on my hobbyhorse, but the lifeblood of every program is recruiting. The first thing Tech’s next coach must do is rustle up pro-style quarterbacks and tight ends because, for 11 years, Tech hasn’t had one. In PJ’s world, those positions didn’t exist.

The next thing is to convince in-state players that Tech isn’t off-limits to any recruit ranked above a 3-star. Johnson’s disdain for the process was palpable. His belief was that he could take pretty much anybody and win, and for much of those 11 years he did. But he stopped beating Clemson, and the aggregate score of the past two Georgia games was 84-28, and he’d even lost four of five to Duke.

A lesser strategist might have gone 4-8 with the roster that Johnson just lifted to 7-5. The catch is that any other coach would have configured his roster differently, would have recruited harder. But recruiting at Tech has never been easy – calculus! – and with other ACC schools pumping more and more money into the sport, the Jackets are playing catch-up ball.

That they’re based in a state that produces a slew of prospects could help the next coach, but the reality is that Tech has had one top 20 recruiting class this century. (That was the Gailey outlier of 2007, which included Joshua Nesbitt, Jonathan Dwyer, Derrick Morgan and Morgan Burnett.) Being Atlanta-based should likewise be a selling point, except when recruits note that this Atlanta school rarely fills its stadium. The Tech footprint has never been fainter in a market that includes the Braves, the Falcons and now a top-shelf MLS club.

Three names I've heard as possible replacements: Brent Key, Alabama's offensive line coach; Tony Elliott, Clemson's offensive coordinator, and Geoff Collins, Temple head coach. Key and Collins both worked at Tech. Collins is from Conyers, and his Owls just went 8-4, beating Maryland – which Ohio State almost didn't do – and Cincinnati and Houston. Thing is, he's a defensive man by trade, having been the coordinator at Mississippi State and Florida, and most ADs are looking for offense. (Then again, Kirby Smart was a defensive guy, and he has done OK.)

Tech fans will hate hearing this, but Tech isn’t hiring the hottest guy out there. It isn’t a program on the rocks – Johnson is retiring; he didn’t get fired – but the makeover from Johnson to whomever will take years, not months. If the Institute taps Key or Elliott, it’s betting on a man who comes from one of the nation’s best programs but who has never been a head coach. If it taps Collins or Mike Norvell of Memphis, it’s betting on someone who has never won in a Power 5 league. Nobody who could be considered a sure thing is apt to consider Tech.

There are some programs that are essentially one-coach creations – think of Virginia Tech under Frank Beamer – where nothing much happened before that man and there’s no guarantee things will ever again be as good. Tech is not such a place. John Heisman coached here. Bill Alexander coached here. Bobby Dodd reigned supreme here. Bobby Ross won the UPI national championship. George O’Leary shared an ACC title. Johnson won one outright.

The current reality is that, since winning the Orange Bowl, Johnson’s Jackets were 24-24. This year’s team beat no opponent that received a vote in the latest Associated Press poll. It lost to Clemson by 28 and Georgia by 24. This time four years ago, Tech was ranked No. 9 in the College Football Playoff rankings. The years since had seen it slip from relevance to curiosity.

We still noticed Tech because it was the team with an offense that could still stack 60 points on an opponent that didn’t know what it was doing. The better opponents, though, eventually figured it out, and nearly every Power 5 opponent had better personnel.

I know this will sound like a condemnation, but that’s not how I mean it. I’ve said it before, and I say it now: He was the best Tech coach since Dodd, and there’s a real chance Tech’s next coach won’t be half as good. And that, weird as it sounds, is also due to Johnson. His program was all about his offense, and ultimately about him. With that gone, the next guy will be starting over.

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