When Paul Johnson was in Statesboro

If not for Erk Russell and a job opening at Georgia Southern, Paul Johnson might have become a high school football coach and athletic director, and then a principal, in the North Carolina mountains where he was raised.

“My goal was to be the principal of an elementary school,” Johnson said this week. “No athletics, all you have to do is make sure they got on the bus, off the bus. They don’t kill each other in the lunchroom. It would have been good. Get a good secretary and good teachers, you’ve got it knocked.”

The intersection with Russell, the Georgia Southern legend, directed Johnson to exercise his gifts elsewhere. Following the 1982 season, when he was the offensive coordinator at Lees-McRae College in Banner’s Elk, N.C., he accepted Russell’s offer to coach at Georgia Southern for $12,000 a year. It was the start of a historic run for both men and their team, ultimately launching Johnson to head coaching jobs at Georgia Southern, Navy and, since 2008, Georgia Tech.

Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium, for the first time in his career, Johnson will face the school that gave him his break more than 30 years ago in the first-ever meeting between Tech and Georgia Southern. Johnson has not wanted to attach sentiment to the game but conceded that it “might be interesting” when he sees the Eagles’ uniforms across the field and hears the Georgia Southern marching band.

Said Johnson, “It seems like it was yesterday, in some ways.”

Johnson’s sharp recall includes the nine years he and his family – he and wife Susan on the first pass, then with daughter Kaitlyn when he was head coach – lived in Statesboro. Besides his 62-10 head coaching record and two Division I-AA championships, he remembers the noon golf games at Forest Heights Country Club, when players headed out in groups of six or even eight with plenty of wagers along for the ride. He remembers the spring and summer days when he and Russell played hooky at a dog track in Jacksonville, Fla., and the hours he spent casting lures with Russell.

“You could go fishing and fish for three hours on those farm ponds and he might not say two words,” Johnson said. “He’d smoke a cigar and drink beer and fish. Take his shirt off.”

In 1982, Johnson was 25 and had finished his master’s degree in health and physical education at Appalachian State. He had an offer on the table to be an athletic director and football coach at a high school in North Carolina when a connection got him an interview with Russell at Georgia Southern. It was supposed to be for an offensive line coaching job, but it turned into a defensive job. Johnson had never coached defense and the pay was less than half what he’d make at the high-school job. Susan Johnson intervened.

“She goes, ‘If you want to try it, I’ll get a job and we’ll try it,’” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Well, look, I’ll give it till I’m 30.’ By 29, I was the offensive coordinator at Hawaii. It just kind of worked out.”

The genesis of Johnson’s spread-option offense is part of Georgia Southern lore. After the 1984 season, Johnson was about to leave for a defensive coordinator job at Gardner-Webb until Russell asked him to stay and fill the vacant offensive coordinator job. In 1985, Johnson called plays out of Russell’s preferred I formation for three games before telling Russell it wasn’t going to work. He wanted to use a run-oriented variation of the run-and-shoot offense that Johnson’s predecessor had coached.

“(Russell) came down to my office about 20 minutes later and said, ‘Do what you think you’ve got to do,’” Johnson said.

With quarterback Tracy Ham orchestrating the “hambone” offense, the Eagles won back-to-back national championships in 1985-86, relying on plays and formations that are still staples of Johnson’s Tech offense. Johnson ran the offense. Russell, who was the longtime architect of the Georgia defense for Bulldogs coach Vince Dooley and re-started Georgia Southern’s program as a club team in 1981, took care of the defense.

“One of my jobs was to tell Erk what plays Paul called,” said Roger Inman, who since the team’s founding has done everything from drive the team bus to manage the equipment room to take care of the facilities. “There were certain plays Paul told me not to tell him until we were getting ready to snap it because they were plays Erk did not want called.”

Johnson’s success took him to an offensive coordinator job at Hawaii 1987-94 and then, after Kaitlyn’s birth, back to the mainland for two years at Navy. He returned to Georgia Southern in 1997 and led the Eagles to national titles in 1999 and 2000 before leaving for Navy again after the 2001 season.

Over time, Johnson’s offense has broken pages of records and won championships. Johnson doesn’t know what might have happened had Russell not recognize Johnson’s acumen and chosen instead a more experienced offensive coach to run his offense.

Said Johnson, “I’d probably have been a defensive guy somewhere.”

During his tenure as head coach, Johnson passed up bigger jobs to stay in Statesboro. In 2001, Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk had to make two trips to Statesboro, the second time coming with the academy’s superintendent, to persuade him to take the job.

“I enjoyed my time there,” Johnson said of Statesboro. “I liked being there. (Shoot), we had just won the national championship two years in a row and we had about 19 starters coming back the next year, including the quarterback.”

Not fully ready to leave, Johnson said he made one last pitch to then-athletic director Sam Baker. If Georgia Southern had plans to make the jump to Division I-A, he might reconsider. Baker said no, and Johnson left Statesboro, presumably for the final time.

“But it worked out for the best,” Johnson said. “The truth of the matter is, by the time I left, I was stretching them financially.”

Good feelings remain. He and Susan still maintain relationships with friends made there, like Inman, many others through non-football circles like golf and church.

“I told somebody, we’ve had opportunities to live in some great places,” Johnson said. “I mean, Jiminy Christmas, we lived in Honolulu, Annapolis, Atlanta. We’ve lived in some really neat places. Up in the mountains in North Carolina where everybody wants to live. And we probably like Statesboro as good as any of them. One-hundred-ten degrees in the summer, and the gnats are all over you, but it’s the people, for the most part. They’re genuine.”

Russell died in Sept. 2006, of a stroke, at the age of 80. Johnson fondly remembers his charisma and manner.

“I don’t know of anybody who didn’t like him,” Johnson said. “He was just that kind of guy.”

Undoubtedly, many will pause to think of Russell Saturday, as the team he built from scratch into a champion faces his greatest protégé. Perhaps Russell’s fishing buddy, who without his help might otherwise have never discovered the full scope of his talent, will be among them.