Paul Johnson coached to the end. And then the next day, he slept in. Such is the privilege of no longer being Georgia Tech coach, a position he officially relinquished after the Yellow Jackets’ Quick Lane Bowl loss to Minnesota on Wednesday.
“I might have woken up about 9:30,” Johnson said Thursday. “For me, that’s the longest I’ve slept in years, probably. I’m usually a pretty early riser.”
Less than 24 hours after coaching his final game at Georgia Tech, Johnson was in full-on retirement mode after 40 years of a life driven by schedules set by recruiting, practice, games and, for the past 22 years (the last 11 at Tech), serving as administrator over his football team.
His Thursday slate, as of about 2 p.m.?
“Nothing,” Johnson said by phone. “Just piddling around.”
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People brought the family dog back. He did some year-end tax work, selling off losses.
“That kind of thing,” he said. “Just doing some busy work.”
The day before, he had been preparing to lead the Jackets against Minnesota in their bowl game. It did not go well. The Jackets were thoroughly outplayed and lost 34-10. On offense, defense and special teams, Tech succeeded only sporadically, getting outgained 392-283 in the same number of plays, 56. While the outcome was probably determined when the Gophers went up 27-10 with 12:07 to play in the fourth quarter, if not earlier, Johnson continued to coach up his team.
When quarterback TaQuon Marshall returned to the sideline after his final series ended with a turnover on downs with a little less than 10 minutes to play, Johnson gestured to Marshall about how he had wanted him to run a particular play, though the Tech careers of both were minutes from ending.
In a quiet locker room, he addressed his team one final time. He said he told players that “We don’t get to write our own ending,” that he was sorry that he couldn’t help them more and that he would miss them. He spoke to media after that, ending with an answer to a question about not having to give any more news conferences.
“Contrary to what you guys said, I’ve never had a problem with the media, ” he said. “Really until I came to Atlanta. I’ve got about 8 million congratulatory things from everybody who’s ever covered me at any school I was at. So that may have been the perception you guys wanted to paint. You painted it. You did a good job with it. I don’t think that you ever asked me anything I didn’t answer or you asked for an interview that I didn’t give you. So write whatever the hell you want. That’s my final press conference.”
He wasn’t quite done exercising his duties as coach. He watched video of the game on the bus to the airport and on the flight home to confirm what he had seen on the field and see if there was anything he could have done differently.
His conclusion: “We just didn’t play very physical, and we didn’t get very many key blocks at the point of attack. The way they were playing, if you ever broke the line, you were going to go (for a long run). We had the numbers a bunch of times, we just didn’t execute.”
He acknowledged that the team had dealt with a lot leading to the game, primarily Johnson’s decision to step down followed by the hire of Geoff Collins and then Collins’ decision not to retain any of Johnson’s 10 assistants, coaches who had recruited, coached and grown close to the players over the past seasons.
“Those kids had to digest a lot,” Johnson said. “There was a lot going on.”
For Johnson, though, a new chapter opened Thursday morning.
“I was joking with my wife this morning when we woke up – it’s the first time I’ve slept in like that for a while – and I said, ‘OK, so now I get to see what retirement’s like,’” he said. “I said, ‘You’re going to have to coach me up on this.’”
Susan Johnson had a response ready.
“She told me, she goes, ‘I don’t think I’m ever going to get to retire,’” Johnson said. “She tells me all the time that her work’s never done. She doesn’t retire.”
Johnson does have some immediate plans. On Thursday, ESPN announced that he will be part of the network’s Cotton Bowl “MegaCast.” He will join North Carolina’s Mack Brown, Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson and Memphis’ Mike Norvell for “Coaches Film Room,” in which the four will break down Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinal between No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Notre Dame in real time on ESPN News. Johnson said he was contacted by the network “about 30 minutes” after the announcement about stepping down.
This will be a toe in the water for both sides to see if there’s a match for Johnson and television, where his sharp eye and quick wit might have a place. He said doing studio work could interest him, but being a game analyst might not. While being careful not to decline outright, he said that “I don’t know if I could see myself to traveling to Bowling Green, Ohio, on Tuesday night for a MAC game. But who knows? At this point, for me, I’m just going to kind of chill out, and if it’s fun, it’s fun.”
After the ESPN gig, the Johnsons will go to their second home in western North Carolina and then go see their daughter Kaityln perform with the Arizona Opera. He plans to spend the summer at the vacation home. There may be a golf trip with buddies in the spring.
“I may do that,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to doing whatever the hell I want.”