Beneath the stands of Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, Georgia Tech fans loaded up on hot dogs and soft drinks before heading out to their seats in the club section of the east stands.
In a few hours, the Yellow Jackets would end their three-game losing streak with a 63-17 win over Bowling Green, led by the coach who has experienced a decline in support from fans in recent seasons, and particularly with the start to this season. In the 11th season of a tenure in which he has led Tech to its only two Orange Bowl trips in the past 51 seasons but also missed bowl games in two of the past three seasons, coach Paul Johnson’s future at Tech appears less certain than at perhaps any point in his first 10 seasons.
While expressing his respect for Johnson, Herb Humphrey, in his fourth decade as a season-ticket holder, said that “it might be time to try something else.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m totally against Johnson being replaced, but I’m kind of leaning toward that way,” said Tony Bryans, a season-ticket holder since 1996. “I think a lot of people are.”
Their wordings were likely softer than those of many sharing the stands with them. Response to Tech’s consecutive losses to South Florida, Pittsburgh and No. 4 Clemson has been significant enough on social media and in athletic director Todd Stansbury’s email inbox that Stansbury was compelled last week to write his own email to urge support, express his confidence in Johnson and call public criticism of the team counterproductive.
While some may have concluded that Johnson’s fate has been decided, that appears to be a misguided understanding.
“It would be disingenuous, or I would be less than honest with you if I said that there isn’t pressure and pressure hasn’t been built significantly over the past couple weeks on the coaches and players and so forth,” said Gregg Garrett, a major donor to the athletic department. “With all that being said, I think we’re a long ways away from any decisions being made about anything.”
Other significant contributors and Tech staff familiar with Stansbury’s thinking contacted by the AJC shared Garrett’s perspective. First, Stansbury has repeatedly made his support of Johnson clear. Also, he is not seen as someone who would move quickly on a decision of this magnitude.
“I don’t think this team is as bad as it has maybe looked at times, not to confuse them with the New England Patriots or anything,” Garrett said before the Bowling Green game. “Let this thing play out. I’m not sure they’re not going to get back to a bowl game this year.”
Stansbury’s email to donors and season-ticket holders was something of a litmus test for Tech supporters. Many were in agreement with his assessment that Tech has “slowly fallen behind our competition in terms of the resources needed to our student-athletes and coaches” and appreciated Stansbury’s challenge to buy tickets and make donations to the athletic department’s $125 million capital campaign. Others found his pitch for contributions galling in light of their frustration with Johnson and the team’s disappointing 1-3 start.
One was Russell Brown, who held season tickets for 29 years before giving them up after Tech’s 3-9 season in 2015 and said he won’t give any money to the department until there’s a coaching change.
“It’s really a sad state of affairs,” Brown wrote. “If (Stansbury) really wants to show Tech fans and alumni that he cares, he will look closely at Coach Johnson and his style.”
In the wake of Tech’s 11-win season in 2014 and with a strong home schedule, attendance hit a six-year peak in 2015 at an average of 50,707. It has dropped in the two subsequent seasons, with last year’s average at 46,885.
The attendance for the season opener against Alcorn State was almost 10,000 lower than the count for Tech’s 2015 season opener against the same team. The crowd for the Clemson game was perhaps a third Tigers fans. Saturday’s game against Bowling Green drew 40,740, the sixth smallest home crowd in Johnson’s tenure, although that was also likely a reflection of the opponent and yet another noon kickoff. An online petition calling for Johnson’s dismissal started last week and had more than 300 signatures as of Monday afternoon.
Brown said that he maintains a large network of Tech fans and alumni, and that sentiment is against the coach.
“While we all love GT, many have quit going to the games and the ones that do (go to the games) are mad/upset,” he wrote.
Garrett and others acknowledged that, the worse the season goes, the more difficult it would be to retain Johnson in the face of mounting disenchantment. He added, though, his understanding that where a bowl game would ensure his return, Tech's failure to do so would not necessarily preclude it.
According to the terms of the extension Johnson received after last season, a buyout of Johnson at the end of this season would cost Tech $4 million, payable in four annual installments of $1 million. It’s also possible that Johnson could retire on his own.
The extension also includes a clause that, should Johnson choose to retire, he would receive a $1 million payment (also in four annual installments) if he were to inform Stansbury of his decision a month before the final game of the season. Should Johnson not exercise that option but still choose to retire at season’s end, another possibility is a negotiated settlement.
“If the season goes very badly, I think Todd and Paul are likely to find a solution that works for everyone,” said Garrett, who supports Johnson. “Neither side wants to be in a situation that isn’t in the best of the program.”
A buyout would likely not be easily swallowed at Tech, which is usually challenged to break even in its yearly budget. Consider that the department has appealed to fans and donors to raise $400,000 to fund the hiring of four recruiting staff for two years.
Johnson continues to enjoy the support of Stansbury, a number of major donors and undoubtedly part of Tech’s rank-and-file fan base, viewing Tech’s shortcomings in recent seasons as being more systemic than coaching-related. (It bears mention that, in the drive to raise funds for recruiting staff, Tech raised $315,000 in a month from more than 320 donors, giving that would seem an endorsement of Johnson, not to mention the $200,000 offered by an anonymous donor in a 50 percent challenge grant.)
When Stansbury announced the capital campaign in June, he told athletic association board members that Tech needed improvements in facilities and staff.
“I think that, unfortunately, resources equate to wins,” he said. “There’s no other way around it.”
Under the club-seat section at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, Jackie Copelan deemed himself “100 percent behind (Johnson).”
“This is Georgia Tech; it’s not Alabama,” said Tom Turner, a friend of Copelan’s and a season-ticket holder. “You’ve got to understand that.”
For Tech’s bowl chances, Friday’s game at Louisville looms as a critical contest. The Cardinals appear quite beatable, and a win would return Tech to .500 at 3-3. Last week, Johnson didn’t discount the possibility of winning the remaining ACC games to possibly win the Coastal at 6-2. (After Louisville, Tech plays Duke, at Virginia Tech, at North Carolina, Miami and Virginia, with the regular-season finale at Georgia.)
“I know what I see in practice and I know what I see with our guys,” Johnson said. “I think we’ve got a chance to get better and play better. So we’ll see.”
Garrett called the Louisville game “massively important” for the team’s prospects this season.
“If they can get back to .500 and feeling better about themselves, this team could run off some wins,” he said.
Those results over the next seven games may determine the direction of Tech’s football future.