All along, whenever Paul Johnson addressed the topic of retirement, he said he would stop coaching at Georgia Tech when he stopped enjoying it. That was evidently the point that Johnson reached this past season, his 11th at Tech and his 40th in coaching.
“I told (athletic director Todd Stansbury) in the middle of the year that it wasn’t much fun,” Johnson said Thursday at his news conference to answer questions about his decision to step down as the 12th full-time coach of the Yellow Jackets.
As he sat next to Stansbury before media in the Edge Center, the 61-year-old Johnson looked at ease – smiling, joking and reflecting. He seemed like a man ready to explore a new phase in his life with his wife, Susan, and daughter, Kaitlyn, who is at the beginning stages of a professional opera career. For now, at least, the never-ending cycle of a coaching life will come to a halt.
“It’s never seemed like work, so it was a difficult decision, but it’s one that I think I needed to make, and I know that I need a break,” Johnson said.
He left the door open for a possible return. A man whose competitive drive is renown in a business rife with hyper-competitive men, Johnson acknowledged that nothing will compare with the chess matches he directed from the sidelines. He suggested that he might be able to slake his thirst through fishing, which seemed on the improbable side, but otherwise may be a distressing development for local bass.
“I may get out there and go, ‘Man, why didn’t I do this five years ago?’ or I may be out there and go, ‘I really miss (football),’” Johnson said.
Stansbury left the decision to step down up to Johnson, not wanting to rush him. But some space following Tech’s last game of the regular season – a 45-21 defeat to rival Georgia on Saturday – did nothing to change his mind. Johnson wanted to make a decision quickly, with the early signing period beginning Dec. 19. Tech has 15 players committed, and Johnson wanted to give them and the new coach time to connect and determine if both sides were still willing to stay committed.
“It would have been easier to do it after the bowl game, but I wasn’t going to mislead recruits,” Johnson said.
Stansbury and Johnson met Wednesday, when the decision was finalized. Johnson met with his team in the afternoon. At the end of the meeting, Stansbury said, Jackets players honored him with a standing ovation.
Stansbury said that he has been in a number of similar meetings where a head coach has departed for one reason or another, “and I can honestly say I’ve never been in a team meeting like that one I was in (Wednesday). Very emotional. You could definitely see the bond between head coach and his team.”
Stansbury’s management of the situation with Johnson was one last act in a partnership that Johnson has clearly relished, as the AD has stood in his corner and addressed the wish list that Johnson has carried, such as a new locker room and additional staff. Johnson went so far as to say that, if not for Stansbury’s hire in 2016 (following Mike Bobinski’s departure for Purdue), he was ready then to take his leave.
“Because it wasn’t much fun,” he said. “It was drudgery.”
Being Johnson, he didn’t let the opportunity pass to take on perceptions held by fans and media. No, he said, a coach would not have difficulty adapting Johnson’s players to a new scheme.
“None of these kids grew up in the fifth grade lining up in double slot (Tech’s base formation) and that’s all they’ve ever played their whole life,” he said. “They’re all football players.”
And, while he has often been portrayed as a grumpy pain (or worse), he noted that he was hired to be head coach at Georgia Southern and Navy after serving previously as offensive coordinator at both places.
“If it was that bad, I don’t think the schools you worked at would want to hire you back,” Johnson said.
He tried to take sum of his career. He won two Division I-AA (now FCS) national championships at Georgia Southern, he won five Commander-in-Chief trophies at Navy and led Tech to two Orange Bowls after the Jackets had not played in a major bowl game since Bobby Dodd’s final season in 1966. He was named ACC coach of the year three times.
“It’s been a good run,” he said. “That’s what I’d say. I’ll let people judge that, but in my mind, I’m satisfied with it.”
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