Retired life suiting former Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson

Former Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson shares a laugh with Lassiter High assistant coach Michael Helmly in a meeting at the school Dec. 9, 2019. The coaching staff sought Johnson's knowledge as it considers running an offense similar to Johnson's. (AJC photo by Ken Sugiura)

Jamey Johnson isn’t a coach at a power-conference school. Or for that matter, even at a high school. That didn’t prevent Johnson – coach at Avery Middle School in Newland, N.C. -- from making a splash hire that would have turned heads in the ACC or SEC.

The Panthers’ occasional defensive assistant for the 2019 season – former Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, Jamey’s older brother.

Newly retired and spending the summer and fall in the western North Carolina county where he grew up, Johnson helped Jamey at practice and games. He also lent a hand at Avery County High, his alma mater, watching game video with the defensive coordinator, whom he coached at the outset of his 40-year coaching career. (He also stuck with defense over offense because, Johnson said, “they throw it every down.”)

“We invited him up to talk to the kids, and he saw some stuff that we were doing and he just started helping us and giving us some advice here and there and all that,” Jamey Johnson said. “He seemed to enjoy it.”

It is an amusing image – 12- and 13-year-olds wrestling with puberty and algebra heeding the instruction of an uncompromising giant in his field. Jamey said that the kids loved having the three-time ACC coach of the year at their practices, a legend returned home.

“It was fun to try to help him a little bit and help those kids a little,” Paul Johnson said. “I enjoyed it, and it was great because I could just go whenever I wanted to.”

That has been the essence of Johnson’s first 12 months since stepping down after 11 years at Tech, a run that included four ACC Coastal Division titles, two Orange Bowls and one ACC championship (since vacated, not that Johnson cares). He is free of the demands of an all-consuming job and the off-field challenges that wore him down.

“You miss the relationships, and you miss the kids,” Johnson said. “I don’t miss all the (nonsense).”

Since coaching the Yellow Jackets for the last time at the Quick Lane Bowl, Johnson has traveled with his wife, Susan, to Arizona to watch their daughter, Kaitlyn, sing with the Arizona Opera. He went on a golf trip to Ireland with friends. He has had a regular golf group at his club in North Carolina and another at Cherokee Town and Country Club in Buckhead. He hangs out occasionally with former Falcons coach Mike Smith, a longtime friend.

“I think the best part of it is just maybe seeing him more relaxed, and he looks better, he feels better,” Susan Johnson said. “It’s just he’s enjoying himself.”

Former Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson with wife Susan and daughter Kaitlyn in Sedona, Arizona, in the winter of 2019. (Photo courtesy Kaitlyn Johnson)

When he announced at the end of the 2018 regular season that he was stepping down, he was careful not to call it retirement, saying that he might realize how much he wanted to keep coaching. There has been no such epiphany. While not completely closing the door, he told the AJC that he doesn’t have any plans to coach again.

“I’ve enjoyed the time off,” Johnson said. “I needed a break. I needed to re-charge.”

Johnson did not figure out retirement immediately. In January and February, Susan said, with golf not an option, he lacked for something to occupy his time.

“He would be like, well, what are you doing today?” Susan said. “And then occasionally he would drive me to whatever I was doing – if I had to go to the bank and the library and then the grocery store. So that took a little getting used to, but it was nice.”

Besides golf, Johnson is a big TV watcher – he loves old Western movies and series like “Gunsmoke” and “The Virginian.” He and Susan have shows they share, including “Chicago P.D.” and “The Rookie.”

“I can occasionally talk him into a movie that’s more geared towards ladies,” Susan said.

He walks the dog, a golden retriever named Ellie. He has helped feed his hyper-competitive drive by devoting more time to a hobby of his, investing in the stock market.

“I’ll go through a week and trade like crazy, and then I might go two weeks and not do anything,” he said.

He touted his success with Ulta Beauty, a chain of beauty stores. His wife’s and daughter’s frequent purchases there brought it to his attention.

“I bought a bunch of Ulta and I killed it,” he said. “It’s like the same thing with Costco. You see all these people (shopping there) and you’re like, hmm. Then you do a little research. More of that line than going through financials and all that.”

Ulta Beauty went from a December 2018 low of $229 to a July high of $366, and Johnson bought and sold multiple times along the way. It was pointed out to him that it was sharply down from August.

“That was a good time to have sold it, wasn’t it,” Johnson said wryly.

When the Johnsons went to Arizona to see Kaitlyn perform, the three took a side trip to Sedona, including an off-road tour of the area’s red-rock formations. Previously, Kaitlyn said, her father might have busied himself checking his phone during such an excursion or otherwise had his mind elsewhere.

“I don’t know, you could just tell that he was a lot calmer and was, I think, enjoying the ability to have that time off,” Kaitlyn said.

The Johnsons own a home in Linville, N.C., not far from Newland, where he grew up. They were there from May to October for the duration of the golf season at a club there.

“That’s something that he’d always wanted to do, and I was curious about how he would be, say, maybe in August when the busy time started,” Susan said. “But he just never missed a golf game. And I think he was fine. He’s good with it.”

The time in North Carolina enabled him to be near family, including his mother, Joyce, and brother, Jamey, who is the 911 director for Avery County. They shared Sunday dinner at his mother’s, and Johnson invested time with a foster child that Jamey and his wife are seeking to adopt, including helping him with his free-throw shooting.

“I think he enjoys spending time up here with his family,” Jamey said. “It’s home. it’s where he was born and raised.”

When coaching search firms inquired about his interest before this year’s hiring cycle, Johnson said he told them it would have to be a “special situation, and I don’t want to get into another situation where you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back.”

That’s not to say that he separated himself from the game. He ingested a steady diet of college and NFL games.

“He has his seat and that seat’s getting worn out, for sure,” Kaitlyn said.

Part of his viewing was every Tech game this fall, he said. Asked about the first year of his successor, coach Geoff Collins, Johnson refrained from commenting.

“It’s probably best I don’t say anything about that,” Johnson said. “I’m just trying to stay back and give them their distance and let them do their thing.”

He has served as a resource for a number of coaching colleagues – notably Duke’s David Cutcliffe, who incorporated Johnson’s formations and plays and used them to help beat the Yellow Jackets in October – and fielded several invitations from former competitors to watch their practices. He has yet to make it to any, save a visit to Kennesaw State and coach Brian Bohannon, a longtime Johnson assistant.

On Monday morning, he sat at the head of a conference table in a meeting room in the Lassiter High field house, where coach Sean Thom is looking to install a spread-option scheme similar to Johnson’s. Johnson answered questions from Thom’s staff about blocking techniques, terminology, practice organization, plays and tactics, occasionally getting up on the whiteboard to diagram plays.

“We killed Clemson one year with that because they hadn’t seen it,” Johnson said of a particular counter play. “There’s a myriad of (stuff) you can do. You just have to decide with your personnel what fits.”

After wrapping up after almost three hours, Johnson stuck around for another hour or so, opining and spinning stories collected over four decades in coaching. The Lassiter staff sat rapt, and Johnson seemed to enjoy it, too.

Former Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson shows Lassiter High coaches a play out of his spread-option offense in a meeting at the school December 9, 2019. (AJC photo by Ken Sugiura)

There have been more formal tutorials. In June, Johnson visited the Baltimore Ravens at the invitation of coach John Harbaugh to offer his insight into installing option elements for quarterback Lamar Jackson, an electric run-pass threat whose facility at the option has helped him become the favorite to win NFL MVP as the Ravens hold the league’s best record.

“Certainly, I didn’t put in the Ravens offense,” Johnson said. “I’d like to think I helped them a little bit with some ideas and thoughts, maybe.”

To Johnson, it has been further indication that an option offense can work at any level. It was one of the reasons that he took the job at Tech in the first place, to prove wrong the critics who dismissed the offense’s viability at the power-conference level.

“There’s always some reason why it wouldn’t work,” Johnson said. “You’d hear the same thing in the NFL. ‘Well, you can’t do that in the NFL. They’ll knock the quarterback out’ or they’ll do this, or they’ll do that. Knock on wood, they haven’t knocked him out yet.”

As Johnson and his wife, Susan, married 39 years, venture into their second year as a retired couple, they don’t lack for gratitude for the privilege.

“Because I think so many times, people retire and then they think, I’m going to enjoy this life and I’m going to do all this and something happens and they can’t,” Susan said.

It’s been a pretty good ride for the old coach thus far – more time with family, more golf and, among other things, a highly successful application of his offensive tenets at the game’s highest level. And Avery Middle School went undefeated.

Retirement may not have a scoreboard, but Johnson seems to be winning at that, too.

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