Tech vs. Vandy: Johnson vs. Johnson

Nashville – When Bobby Johnson and Paul Johnson meet Saturday night, there won't be many secrets.

Known for ball-control offenses and fundamental approaches to the game, the two have woven their own crossing pattern that will intersect for the ninth time when Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech team visits Bobby Johnson’s Vanderbilt squad.

The similarities are striking: Both were assistants in the Southern Conference. Both became elite Division I-AA head coaches. Both left after the 2001 season to take I-A jobs. And both have established reputations as the coach you'd rather not see standing on the other side of the field.

“Our coaching staff has a long history with Bobby,” said Paul Johnson, whose teams have defeated Bobby Johnson's in six of their past eight meetings. “We played a lot when I was at Georgia Southern and he was at Furman, and then we played him a couple of times when I was at Navy. So we’ve played them a lot.”

Bobby Johnson knows better than most the challenge ahead.

“I have a pretty good knowledge of what he does, but for me to get that over to our players is the trick," the Vanderbilt coach said. “. . . The challenge is to be as simple as possible."

Bobby Johnson is in his eighth year at Vanderbilt – he led the Commodores to a bowl in 2008 and has the longest tenure of any Vandy coach since Art Guepe (1953-62). Paul Johnson guided the Midshipmen to five straight winning seasons before going to Georgia Tech.

While in the Southern Conference, the two were national contenders. Paul Johnson won two national titles in five years with the Eagles. Bobby Johnson took Furman to the championship game in 2001, having beaten Paul Johnson’s team in a semifinal.

“We always had some great games, some hard-fought games,” Paul Johnson said. “When I was at Georgia Southern, there were always three dominant teams: Georgia Southern, Appalachian [State] and Furman, and it generally came down to those two games as to who was going with the league.”

The list of Southern Conference coaching alumni includes Dick Sheridan (N.C. State), Sparky Woods (South Carolina), Jim Donnan (Georgia), Tommy West (Clemson and Memphis) and Bill Stewart (West Virginia).

"They're excellent football coaches,” said Jerry Moore, now in his 20th season at Appalachian State. “Both of them believe in the basics, and both of them stress ‘no mistakes.'

"The Southern Conference has always been very strong from top to bottom, just like the SEC. You've got to get ready to play every week. That's always good preparation for any coach."

But while their backgrounds are similar, their 2009 seasons couldn’t be more different.

Georgia Tech (7-1) is ranked No. 11 in the country and in hot pursuit of an ACC title. Vanderbilt is 2-6 after Saturday’s 14-10 loss to South Carolina; the Commodores led in the fourth quarter before the Gamecocks drove 99 yards for the game-winning touchdown.

Commodore fans still revel in the memories of last year’s Music City Bowl victory over Boston College – the school’s only other bowl win came in 1955 – but this year’s team has lost four in a row.

Since defeating Auburn little more than a year ago, Vandy has lost six of seven at home, with the only win coming against Western Carolina. This season’s other win was at Rice.

The Commodores’ offense scored only three touchdowns in the team's six losses. A bright spot has been true freshman running back Warren Norman, a Chamblee alum. In addition to being the team’s leading rusher, he also has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, including one Saturday against the Gamecocks.

Norman has run for 533 yards and is closing on Vanderbilt’s freshman rushing record of 798 (Kwane Doster, 2002).

Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, who has coached against both men and will match wits with Paul Johnson again Nov. 7, is a fan of both.

"First off, they're good people," Grobe said. "Not only have they had success on the field, but they're good guys. And you know when you face either of them, you know you're going to face a very well-prepared team, on offense, defense and in the kicking game.”