A year ago at this time, Paul Johnson was a pretty good football coach with a growing chip on his shoulder, stemming from the fact that his team went 7-7 and 7-6 the previous two seasons and few people seemed to remember or care about his early success at Georgia Tech, primarily the school’s own athletic director.
But after going 11-3, including a narrow defeat (37-35) to then undefeated Florida State for the ACC championship, and being given a contract extension, the optics have changed. Tech returns this season with an impressive quarterback (Justin Thomas) and an improving defense, and should be viewed as one of the conference favorites, even if Johnson said, “I kind of hope we get picked to finish fifth again.”
That’s probably not going to happen, although the Jackets have one of their most difficult schedule in years (Notre Dame, Clemson and Miami on the road; Florida State, Virginia Tech and Georgia at home).
The ever-present question at Georgia Tech is: What should the expectation level be? Should double-digit wins and an ACC division title be considered the norm now? Or was last season, if not an aberration, merely affirmation that it’s something an academics-driven institution can accomplish every few eclipses in the world of big boy football?
Johnson’s response: Yes. But no.
Yes: Tech has proven it can compete for ACC titles. No: Last season shouldn’t be considered a raising of the bar.
That’s may seem like an odd thing for a coach to admit. But Johnson is a realist. He also understands the academic and financial landscape in athletics at Tech, which, in short, hasn’t changed.
Asked a few different times and a few different ways if the expectations should be different at Tech now, Johnson said, “Let me say it this way: I don’t see anything that’s changed other than that we won 11 games. We didn’t add majors. We didn’t pour more money into the football program. We didn’t go hire high-priced guys. It’s kind of the same as it’s always been.”
In other words, you’re still working with the same handicap of tougher academics and smaller budgets in recruiting and coaches’ salaries than others?
“It’s all relative,” he said. “If you look at the last seven years, you would have to conclude that, while we’re not in the top of the league in funding and budget, we’ve found a way to compete. But if I say, ‘Florida State, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech – which one doesn’t fit?’ what would you say?”
The reference: Tech has won more games (58) since Johnson’s arrival in 2008 than any ACC program other than Florida State (74), Clemson (64) or Virginia Tech (64). The other three dwarf Tech in home attendance and revenue streams.
Johnson understood the situation at Tech before he took the job. He’s not expecting the academic standards or the priorities to change. He has had chances to leave for other jobs and passed, including Auburn after his first season. But he also is not going to sit mute when somebody – whether it’s a fan or an administrator – complains about the program’s perceived shortcomings in recruiting or other areas, relative to bigger programs.
Do you know the trick to getting an opinion out of Paul Johnson? Say hello.
“I’m not saying we have to raise (budgets) to win,” he said. “I’m just saying if you ask where we stand in the league, we’re in the middle to lower end. And if you ask where we are compare to the schools around us – Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, Alabama – their assistants (salary) pool is double ours. Clemson’s coordinator’s made more than our whole staff – their two vs. our nine.”
“What was it coach (George) O’Leary said? You can’t be Harvard Monday through Friday and Alabama on Saturday. Now, sometimes you can. But to suggest you can do it consistently probably isn’t going to happen.”
Johnson has won three coach of the years of honors in the ACC in his seven seasons. He has won 11 games twice at school that had done that only three previous times in its history. After upset wins over Clemson and Georgia last season, athletic director Mike Bobinski, who had balked at a contract extension, finally opened negotiations for a new deal. Johnson eventually received a slight raise and an extension through 2020 at an average salary of $3.02 million (third in the conference behind Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney).
But he paused for an extended time before responding to the question: Do you feel fully supported by the administration now?
Finally, he said: “In what ways? The wherewithal and the expectations have to be within par. If you want to compete at the very top level and you want to consistently compete at the top level of the conference, then you have to support the program and fund it that way. The administration is supportive in some ways, but they’re not going to let the athletics override things, like some other schools will.”
Johnson has shown he can succeed with relative obstacles. It’s probably just best to keep expectations in check.
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