Stansbury-Johnson partnership showing encouraging signs

Georgia Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury marked one month in office Wednesday. His impact has been felt already. His days have been jammed with meetings with donors and staff, and the work evidently doesn’t stop for long.

“He seems to be one of those guys you can get an email at 3 in the morning,” said Gregg Garrett, a major donor to the athletic department.

Coach Paul Johnson, whose team will play Kentucky on Saturday in the TaxSlayer Bowl, has made his own observations.

“He’s high energy,” Johnson said. “He communicates. I think he has hit the ground running in trying to do the right things. Hopefully, he’ll get some things done.”

The working relationship between Stansbury and his most high-profile employee is only weeks old, but it appears to be one that could provide for Johnson the programmatic improvements that he has been calling for and raise the Yellow Jackets’ standards in trying to keep up with an improving ACC. Both men indicated as much in separate interviews with the AJC.

“I’m feeling really good about our partnership together, and for putting (the football team) in a position to be successful,” Stansbury said. “I think so far it’s been great getting to know coach Johnson.”

Two items at the top of Johnson’s wish list — a renovated locker room and enhancements in the recruiting office — are likewise at the top of Stansbury’s. Hired in September from Oregon State, Stansbury has picked up former AD Mike Bobinski’s vision for an overhaul of the Edge and Rice centers that house the bulk of Tech’s athletic offices and operations. He called the locker room a priority, as well as a freshening of the public space in the Edge and Rice centers and strengthening recruiting efforts across the department. The locker room and the Edge and Rice centers are among the first places that recruits are often brought when making visits, and Stansbury recognizes the value in making a strong initial impression.

“Funding is always kind of the linchpin to those types of things, but it’s something that we are in the process right now of at least trying to identify what we could do in the short term,” Stansbury said about the locker room.

The locker room has not had a major update since it was last renovated in 2003 as part of the expansion of Bobby Dodd Stadium.

“I don’t know if you’ve been in it lately, but it’s pretty rough,” Garrett said.

Stansbury estimated that the combined cost of the renovations to the locker room and the Rice and Edge centers would be in the neighborhood of $5 million. He said he was “very hopeful” that he’ll be able to secure commitments for those projects to go forward.

Stansbury might be even more pronounced than Johnson in articulating the need for augmented recruiting staffing. Johnson said that Tech is at a disadvantage with its recruiting office and wants to add staff who can focus on identifying potential recruits earlier in their high-school careers and developing relationships with them. Stansbury said he is “totally with him” on those matters and is trying to identify funding that will allow him to expand recruiting operations as quickly as possible.

“I think, if anything, Georgia Tech is a place where (early identification of prospects) is probably more important than anywhere, just because of the nature of the institution,” he said. “That’s definitely not an area I want to give up anything or give up anything to anybody on, so I agree that’s an area that we definitely need to be focused on. Because that’s an area that I think Georgia Tech needs to kind of be almost the best at. And I’m not going to say we’re going to have the same operation that Nick Saban has down at Alabama, but I think it’s definitely something that we’ve got to have a Georgia Tech operation that looks and feels like Georgia Tech.”

It will take far more than naming the priority. In September, the department projected to run a $2.8 million deficit for the 2017 fiscal year with the buyouts to former basketball coaches Paul Hewitt and Brian Gregory draining the budget. Johnson also wants to see an increase in the salary for his staff. Additional hires will likely have to be made from cuts in the budget or through new revenue sources, but not from donor gifts because the need to fund staffing can continue indefinitely. Johnson recognizes the challenge ahead.

“It’s not like he can just come in here and do it,” Johnson said of the improvements. “We’ve got to find people to give the money to do it and you’ve got to get backing from the administration. There’s a lot of things that have to happen.”

Regardless, the relationship and common ground that Johnson and Stansbury have found would seem encouraging for the team’s future. The relationship between Johnson and Bobinski was professional but distant, particularly when contrasted against the friendship that Johnson shared with former AD Dan Radakovich. Garrett, the donor and a friend of Johnson’s, said that Johnson and Stansbury act as though they’ve been working together for five years.

There is a recognition that nothing will happen overnight, Garrett said, but also an agreement on what needs to be done and a commitment from Stansbury for the long term. Stansbury has said multiple times that he wants to ultimately retire at Tech.

“It’s been a long time for me personally since I felt as excited about where this program is and where it’s going, and it’s mainly because of Todd coming in,” Garrett said.

At the end of a season that has surpassed expectations, Johnson has reason to look with anticipation to 2017. On the field, the Jackets will return 18 players who have started six or more games this season. Off it, his athletic director has made quite clear his agreement and support of his vision.

Said Johnson, “It’s refreshing.”