It was late in the evening of Nov. 30 last year when then-Tennessee athletic director John Currie’s phone received a text message from an Atlanta attorney.
“Mr Currie I represent Paul Johnson of Ga Tech. He has interest in your HC position . I can be reached at (phone number redacted). Best Regards Jack Reale.”
The text message from Reale was but one of a flurry of text messages and phone calls from and to Currie’s phone as he led the search for the replacement for Butch Jones and ultimately was himself replaced by Phil Fulmer. The log was released Thursday by the University of Tennessee in response to requests made through the Freedom of Information Act for Currie’s communications during the school’s job search for the replacement for Butch Jones, who Currie fired Nov. 12. It was shared with the AJC by a Tennessee news outlet.
It would have been a bombshell of a possibility – Johnson leaving Tech after 10 seasons to join the SEC, the league whose hype he has jabbed for years. There was not, however, any actual interest, Johnson told the AJC on Friday.
“I didn’t know anything about that,” Johnson said. “I’m sure that’s Jack being an agent. But it never got mentioned to me.”
At the time, Reale was negotiating with athletic director Todd Stansbury for an extension on Johnson’s contract. Interest from Tennessee – or any other school – would have given Reale more leverage.
“You can ask him, but that’s what they do. They try to test the waters to see about contracts,” Johnson said.
Reale did not respond immediately to a voicemail Friday morning.
Gregg Garrett, a major donor and friend of Johnson’s, likewise explained the text as a bargaining tactic and did not suspect the possibility of Johnson having interest in the Tennessee job.
“I would be incredibly surprised if Paul Johnson was actively looking for somewhere to go other than Georgia Tech,” he said Friday.
An agreement in principle on Johnson’s contract extension – for two years, through the 2022 season – was reached in January. It is expected to be finalized soon.
Johnson did say he turned down two other requests to interview for “a couple of jobs” in the last hiring cycle.
Asked if he cared to share the identities of the schools, Johnson replied, “Not really. But you can figure it out.”
The job that Johnson was connected with most, at least in speculation, was the one at Nebraska, which has had a tradition of run-based option offenses. Other schools with openings included Florida, Mississippi State, UCF, Florida State and Arkansas.
Currie did not evidently respond to Reale. That day, he was in the midst of pursuing N.C. State coach Dave Doeren and Washington State coach Mike Leach. He was put on paid leave the following day and replaced by Fulmer.
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