After one ACC championship (later vacated), three conference coach of the year awards, 82 wins (and 59 losses), 72 300-yard rushing games, a stream of graduated team members and no shortage of deft play calls, sideline outbursts and unvarnished opinions, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson is stepping down.
A career begun in 1979 as an assistant at his high-school alma mater (Avery County High in Newland, N.C.) with the aspiration of becoming its head coach, Johnson has reached far higher. With the aid of an unconventional option scheme that he made his own, he directed record-breaking offenses as an offensive coordinator at Georgia Southern, Hawaii and Navy, won two FCS (then Division I-AA) national championships at Georgia Southern, led a Navy team that had gone 1-20 in the two seasons before his arrival to five consecutive bowl games and, in this last chapter, took the Yellow Jackets to two Orange Bowls, which is two more major-bowl games than the school had been to since the legendary Bobby Dodd retired after the 1966 season.
» Mark Bradley: It was time for Paul Johnson to go
His 11-season tenure at Tech, begun in 2008, will conclude with more wins than any Jackets coach since Dodd’s retirement (he’s officially 82-59 going into Tech’s bowl game, not included the vacated 2009 championship victory) and the fourth longest span all-time, following William Alexander, Dodd and John Heisman.
Johnson is the rare coach to go out on his own terms. He had athletic director Todd Stansbury’s full support and desire to return in 2019, according to Gregg Garrett, a major donor and close friend, and another person familiar with Johnson’s decision. Notably, the word “retire” was absent from the school’s news release announcing his decision.
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“After 40 years of coaching, it’s time to take a break,” Johnson said in a statement. “My family has sacrificed a lot over the years. I want to watch my daughter (Kaitlyn, a professional opera singer) perform and do some things with my wife (Susan) that we’ve never had a chance to do. It’s been a great run for the last 11 years here on The Flats. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished and am looking forward to having the chance to coach this team one last time at our bowl game next month.”
The team was informed Wednesday at a team meeting at 2:30 p.m. Johnson and Stansbury will hold a news conference Thursday morning.
“I was saddened when coach Johnson informed me that he was going to step down as our head coach,” Stansbury said in a statement. “Not only is he Georgia Tech’s winningest head coach in more than 50 years, but he is also an incredible mentor for the young men in our football program and has helped develop countless student-athletes that have gone on to great success after graduation.”
Not all Tech fans will be as sad as Stansbury to see Johnson leave. Tech’s mixed results in recent seasons and Johnson’s unconventional offense made him a lightning rod for fan unrest. While Johnson enjoyed the support of Stansbury and key donors, not to mention much of the fan base, average attendance at Bobby Dodd Stadium this season (43,087) was the lowest since 2001, which was before capacity was expanded.
Johnson’s decision to step down came as a surprise even to members of his own coaching staff, who Wednesday were on the road recruiting when they learned the news. It had been a decision he had been contemplating during the season. Garrett said he thought that Johnson, who turned 61 in August, was not comfortable giving the nonstop commitment that the job of FBS head coach requires.
“It wasn’t one particular game or one particular thing that didn’t go well off the field,” Garrett said. “I think he had come to the realization that it was time to go to that next phase.”
Johnson’s contract includes an “early retirement” clause for $1 million that would be paid out over four years.
Johnson’s legacy starts with the Jackets’ success on the field – Tech finished first or second in the Coastal Division seven times in his 11 seasons, including this season’s runner-up finish. Johnson’s spread-option offense was often among the most efficient in the country, a productive run-oriented attack that Johnson honed over decades. He has also helped boost the team’s graduation rate from around 50 percent at the time of his hire to 86 percent by the NCAA’s most recent measurement.
The Jackets will learn their bowl destination Sunday. A fitting trip for his finale would be the Military Bowl, held at Navy’s stadium in Annapolis, Md.