For 11 seasons, Georgia Tech football has been about Paul Johnson’s offense. The triple-option had worked at lesser levels of football, and Tech figured Johnson could use it to wrong-foot their more talented ACC foes.
And that’s how it went, for the most part. In a way, playing throwback football made the Jackets inventive. They fooled their foes with something old.
But now Johnson is off to retirement after Tech's bowl game (or, as he put it during a Thursday news conference, "taking a break.") Johnson never recruited at a high level, but he got the right players for his spread option and coached 'em up. Those circumstance create a potential conundrum for Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury.
He said competing for ACC titles is the expectation, and that “fit” is the most important consideration for Johnson’s successor. But, outside of hiring another option guru, how do you find a coach who fits a program that’s been tailor-made for Johnson’s brand of football?
“At the end of the day, I just want to win games,” Stansbury said. “I don’t necessarily worry about schemes. I leave that up to the coaches. I’m looking for the best coach for Georgia Tech.”
As Stansbury spoke, you could see that Johnson was eager to address the topic. He noted that his successor will inherit a team that won at least seven games this season and dismissed the notion that a new offensive approach will mean a step back for Tech.
“These kids are football players,” Johnson said. “Very few of them, if any, ran this offense in high school. People act like it’s going to have to be a total transition.”
Maybe it won’t have to be if, as Johnson says, football is football. Certainly, there are players on Tech’s roster who can make the change to passing more than a few times per game. One of them is quarterback Tobias Oliver, who set the school record for passing yards at Northside High in Warner Robins.
But, assuming Stansbury doesn’t hire another option devotee, there will be a big cultural change for Tech football. Johnson’s option has been its brand. That’s what allowed Tech to punch above its weight and, no matter your views on its entertainment value, it worked.
The Jackets could be unstoppable when Johnson had the right mix of talent and experience. From 2008 to 2014 few programs put up numbers like Tech. The option is beautiful to watch when operating at a high level.
Of course, when the option didn’t work, the Jackets had no Plan B. That’s when they could be excruciating to watch.
The Jackets were mediocre on offense from 2015 to 2017, raising the question of whether Johnson’s option no longer fooled foes. Tech’s offensive resurgence this season quieted that talk but, against Clemson and Georgia, we saw how inept Johnson’s offense can be when the Jackets are forced to climb uphill.
Still, in the final analysis, Tech’s gamble on Johnson’s offense working at this level paid off. I’m thinking the transition to something else will be more difficult than Johnson believes. Still, there could be benefits to putting a new face on Tech football.
At times it may have been too much about Johnson’s option. If defense wasn’t an afterthought, it sure looked like it sometimes. The Jackets won a lot of games with offensive outbursts, but it wasn’t often that the defense saved them on bad days for the option.
Tech’s new coach also will have a low bar to clear in recruiting. Johnson’s classes ranked near the bottom of the ACC recruiting rankings and, despite Johnson’s protestations, they do matter in the aggregate. He disputed the perception that he doesn’t like to recruit, but the results are what they are.
Johnson’s teams won more games than their recruiting rankings suggest they should. The obvious path for Stansbury is to get a coach who can attract better recruits. It’s an open question whether that’s possible at Tech.
Beyond the academic challenges, there’s money. Johnson’s salary this season ranked mid-pack in the ACC, and Tech’s total spending on football is near the bottom of the league. Tech doesn’t spend like a school that wants big-time football, which is fine, but then that limits what’s possible over the long run.
Stansbury has started a fundraising initiative that just passed the $50 million mark. He’ll have to sell the new football coach on his ability to raise more. But the reality is Stansbury will have to find another coach who can do more with less.
“At Georgia Tech you need to be an innovator, regardless of what that is,” Stansbury said. “I think that’s actually part of the DNA of the Institute. I’m more interested in the thinking behind whatever it is they (the new coach) want to do, why they want to do it, and how they see it giving us an advantage.”
Johnson’s offense was that edge for more than a decade. He proved that it can work at a Power 5 school. Now he’s leaving, and Tech will look for a new coach to run a program that for so long was created in the unique image of Johnson’s offense.