It should come as zero surprise that even in this age when college football coaches are swapped in and out like so many zip drives, Paul Johnson is beginning his second decade at the same program. After all, he always has been big – real big – on time of possession.
Come to think of it, he is like one of his Georgia Tech possessions. The ones that never end. The ones that not only give you a chance to get up and make a sandwich and pour a drink before they are over, you also have time to completely digest the meal.
He goes on and on and on. Unstoppable, seeing how earlier this year he received a contract extension to 2022.
Oh, and his detractors – no one coaches this long in one place and sticks so stubbornly to hand-off-or-pitch-it football without collecting plenty of those – will love to hear this one.
Speaking Wednesday at the ACC Football Kickoff here in Charlotte, Johnson talked fondly of his vacation home in the mountains of this state. The funniest thing happens, he said, whenever he visits there.
“There are a lot of supporters from the schools here in North Carolina. And it’s ironic when I come up here, and they think what we’ve done (at Tech) is amazing,” Johnson said.
“But, yet, a lot of people who are your supporters think, ‘Aw, we should be doing better than this.’ But they can’t really offer you any statistics to tell you why. It’s just because.”
Paul Johnson runs straight at you. That will never change. To change would run counter to the very concept that has kept him gainfully employed all these years.
“I’ve kind of stayed true to my core and my principles,” he said Wednesday. “Even when people say it won’t work and you can’t do that and you can’t recruit to that (the option) – I’ve just kind of focused in and stayed with what we do rather than trying to jump over here and jump over there.”
He is coming off his third losing season as a head coach, his second at Tech. Although he’ll quibble a bit with last season’s 5-6. One game at Central Florida was cancelled because of hurricane, and you know in his mind he won that one.
In the previous two losing campaigns – a 2-10 his first season at Navy and an injury-plagued 3-9 at Tech in 2015 – his teams won six more games the following season. Yeah, he’d take 11 wins this season (don’t bet on that). But don’t call Johnson a bounce-back specialist.
“I think each season is brand new,” he said. “For the most part, fortunately, we’ve been pretty successful. We haven’t had a lot we’ve had to bounce back from.”
Putting Johnson’s longevity at Tech into some kind of perspective: Down I-85, at the SEC Media Days in Atlanta, they were introducing six coaches new to their job. And look at another coach here at the ACC gathering. So turbulent is the turnover in this profession that no one among the state of Florida’s other five FBS programs has more seniority than Mark Richt. He’s starting just his third season at Miami.
This season, Johnson has a new defensive coordinator, Nate Woody, whose daring designs he hopes will get opponents off the field before they can mount yet another comeback. (Tech lost four times last year after get out to at least two-score leads). “We’re measured by the results. And in some of the categories – sacks, tackles for loss, negative plays, turnovers – we were not very good,” Johnson said. “I think it would help us if we could get an extra two or three negative plays a game.”
He has another year of quarterback TaQuon Marshall, who Johnson said has the capability of being “an adequate passer.” But “Dare to be Adequate” will not be the working motto of the offense this year.
Offensive balance, you say?
“I don’t want to be balanced,” Johnson said. “I can find a bunch of teams with losing records that are balanced.”
He’s going to have a new locker room and a new uniform deal with a company someone’s actually heard of. He’s got an athletic director in Todd Stansbury who, Johnson said, gets it.
As to what he likes about this season’s team, Johnson said, “I think that they’re hungry. I think they were disappointed a year ago the way the thing unfolded. We’ll see.”
“I think we have a good nucleus coming back, we have guys with experience,” he added. “A year ago we had all the experience on defense and we needed a crutch for the offense a little bit and let those guys get experience. Well, it didn’t turn out that way. And the offense wasn’t good enough to carry the other side. This year, maybe the offense has enough experience that they’ll be able to start out quick, and when you’re transitioning to a new defense it’ll help.”
And, turning 61 next month, Johnson does not sound burned out.
Of coaching, he said, “I like the relationship with the players, and I like the competition. The competition drives me. I probably compete at everything I do. There’s nothing I enjoy more on Saturday than going out there and matching wits with the guy calling defense or the other head coach with (the overall) strategy of the game. It’s still fun to me. It’s refreshing to me to think every year, man, you get a fresh start.
“I heard (linebacker) Brant Mitchell talk today about playing with a chip on your shoulder. And I have kind of gone through my whole career with a chip on my shoulder.”
And yet, think about it, it has been a career marked by that rarest of advantages afforded a college coach: Stability.
“I don’t know that you ever have too much stability in this business,” Johnson said. “A lot of times you are measured on the last game or the last season. People have a hard time looking at the totality of what you’ve done.
“I’ve been fortunate. I’ve made it 40 years (as an assistant and a head coach) without ever being asked to leave. Doesn’t mean it might not happen at some point.”
The fact that Johnson doesn’t sound entirely comfortable with his long-standing is but another sign that he is not ready to give it up anytime soon.
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