Paul Johnson downplays Brian VanGorder dig, but hasn’t forgotten it

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson doesn’t know Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. He thinks they may have met when VanGorder was a Falcons defensive coordinator, but that’s about it.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever had a conversation,” Johnson said Monday at his weekly news conference.

The two coaches, whose teams meet Saturday in South Bend, Ind., may never have spoken, but they’ve evidently traded words from a distance. And while he downplayed any notion of a rivalry between the two on Monday, Johnson was still willing to recount his version. When he became Georgia Southern coach in December 2005, VanGorder ditched the option scheme that had been instrumental in the Eagles’ six Division I-AA (now FCS) championships in favor of a multiple offense.

He also apparently took a dig at the offense, which did not escape the attention of the man responsible for it, Johnson. Saturday will be their first on-field meeting since that time.

“I think the only thing that ever happened along those lines was, after Mike (Sewak, now Tech’s offensive line coach) got fired at Georgia Southern, (VanGorder) said something about bringing them into the 21st century,” Johnson said. “And I said, ‘There’s a record. Shoot for it.’”

VanGorder stayed one season in Statesboro, jumping to a defensive coordinator job with the Falcons after a 3-8 season – the worst single-season record in the Eagles’ 33 modern-era seasons. Those who know Johnson well suspect VanGorder’s comments will add fire to the coach’s motivations for Saturday’s game. Notre Dame assistant coaches are not made available to media.

“He remembers everything,” said Kennesaw State coach Brian Bohannon, a longtime assistant to Johnson.

His memory bank is particularly ironclad for those dismissing his unorthodox scheme, which he developed as a Georgia Southern assistant in 1985 and has honed with record-setting success over the years despite a stream of critics.

“He’s pretty passionate about it,” Bohannon said, “and he was passionate about Georgia Southern.”

Johnson will bring to South Bend a team that has outscored its opposition 134-16 to reach 2-0 – the most points Tech has scored in its first two games since 1918 – but has not met his satisfaction.

“I don’t think we’re as good as people think we are right now,” Johnson said.

It may be part of Johnson’s responsibility this week to ensure that team members aren’t getting clouded by thoughts of their own grandeur after such a dominant start to the season.

“It’s my job to point that out to our guys, so that they know that,” Johnson said. “Sometimes when everybody’s telling you you’re all this and the cat’s meow, that’s a trap. You’d better not fall into it.”

And a considerable challenge awaits. No. 8 Notre Dame will be a far sterner test for No. 14 Tech than either Alcorn State or Tulane. Johnson said the Irish’s athleticism and individual talent jumped out at him. He noted that linebacker Jaylon Smith is “probably as good as we’ve played against in a couple years.” He called wide receiver Will Fuller one of the best at his position in the country.

Notre Dame was dominant in its season-opening win over Texas, limiting the Longhorns to 60 rushing yards on 29 attempts.

“It’s a big step up for us,” Johnson said. “We’ve just got to do our thing.”

Further, it will be the Jackets’ first road game of the season, in one of the most celebrated stadiums in college football.

“We’ll have about probably 30 or 40 guys who haven’t traveled before (for a road game), so it ought to be interesting to see how they react to their first road game,” Johnson said.

Of little question will be how Johnson responds. His competitive streak is legendary, and it may be juiced up a notch this week because of an old, unforgotten slight.

“He feeds off that,” Bohannon said. “Somebody says he can’t do something, he’s going to be hell bent to do it. That’s just the way Coach is.”

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