“I felt bad for the fans and bad for the kids,” Johnson said. “I spent 11 years there. I certainly want them to be successful.”
What bothered him was Collins’ references to Johnson’s tenure, direct or otherwise, particularly early on. For instance, TV commentators for Tech games during Collins’ first season in 2019 often remarked that Jackets’ offensive linemen averaged 260 pounds when Collins took over, a talking point that surely emanated from Collins.
“Just common sense, if you look, those guys, there wasn’t any of them that weighed 260 probably, much less average 260,” Johnson said.
Johnson said that he was more disappointed that the assertion continued without being challenged.
“What do you have to do?” Johnson said. “If you’re the (athletic director), all you’ve got to do is call his (expletive) in and say, ‘Knock if off. Let’s move forward. We’re not going to talk about the past, we’re moving forward.’”
In the same vein, Johnson was irked by the repeated claims of a changed culture, the implication being that it needed fixing.
“I don’t understand why he wanted to do that,” Johnson said. “I mean, he alienated a whole decade’s worth of players (who played for Johnson) is what he did.”
The fact that then-athletic director Todd Stansbury wanted him to stay another year after Johnson told him during the 2018 season that it would be his last – “He said, ‘Just give me one more year,’” Johnson said – is further confirmation that team culture was healthy on his watch, he said.
“We didn’t spend a lot of time on uniforms,” Johnson said. “And swag. We worked on trying to play hard-nosed, tough football and be blue collar.”
As Johnson (and many fans and former players) perceived it, the new regime did not pay respect to the one preceding it.
“And that’s the thing,” Johnson said. “He acted like for 11 years we never played football. And I would contend that, if you go back and look, over a 10-year period other than (Bobby) Dodd, we probably accomplished more than anybody there. And not so much for me, but for those kids who played.”
Further, the gains in recruiting that were expected with Collins did result in one strong class, the 2020 group headlined by four-star prospects Jahmyr Gibbs, Jeff Sims, Jared Ivey and Miles Brooks. (Gibbs and Ivey transferred and Sims has now been separated from the team.) It ranked 27th in FBS (247Sports Composite), Tech’s highest ranking since the famed 2007 class. Collins’ 2021 and 2022 classes ranked 47th and 55th, respectively. Johnson’s final two classes signed before his retirement – 2017 and 2018 – ranked 48th and 44th, respectively.
Aside from the 2020 class, Johnson said, “the rest of them were right around where we were. It’s like I said, there was no use for me to pile on the dude. He was catching enough grief.”
Another narrative that irked Johnson was that coaches on Collins’ staff were making recruiting visits to metro Atlanta high schools that had been passed over by Johnson’s staff. Johnson said that every spring, he had his assistant coaches visit every high school in the state, whether it had potential prospects or not. And then after making the visit, the coaches were required to call in to report in.
“And then we sent a letter out the next day from me thanking the schools for hosting them and having them by,” Johnson said. “Now, do you really think that, over that timeframe, if nobody went to those schools and they kept getting those letters from me, somebody wouldn’t have picked up the phone and called me and said, ‘Hey, Coach, we haven’t seen anybody from your staff’?”
In Johnson’s 11 seasons, the Jackets compiled an 83-60 record. They won the 2009 ACC championship, played for two more ACC titles, went to the Orange Bowl twice (winning in 2014) and beat rival Georgia three times, all in Athens. Before the 2010 Orange Bowl, Tech had not played in a major bowl since 1967. Johnson was named ACC coach of the year three times.
Collins finished his tenure with a 10-28 record. It’s inarguable that he did oversee a significant change in offensive scheme, and coaching through the pandemic was another hurdle. But, three consecutive three-win seasons and six losses by 40 points or more (the previous six were spread out over 42 seasons) are also points of fact, as is the reality that Johnson himself coached through the same scheme change in reverse.
“I think we’ll match our results against his,” Johnson said.
As for the search for Collins’ successor, Johnson said he had thoughts about it, but declined to divulge them.
“Hopefully, it sounds like the president’s getting involved and some people are getting involved and they’ll fund (the program),” he said. “They’ve got to fund it, no matter what they do. If they don’t fund the program, it’s going to be a struggle for whoever.”
Johnson, who turned 65 in August, and wife, Susan, have moved on a permanent basis to their one-time vacation home in Linville, N.C., having sold their house in Cobb County in March. He plays golf with friends often during the summer and enjoys retired life. His daughter, Kaitlyn, married in 2021.
He was named to the College Football Hall of Fame ballot in June in the first year he was eligible, recognizing his accomplishments as head coach at Georgia Southern (two FCS national championships), Navy (a 45-29 record with five Commander-in-Chief’s Trophies after inheriting a team that was 1-20 in the two previous seasons) and Tech. The inductees will be announced in January. He’s not sure what his chances are.
“You can’t run any TV ads,” he said. “If it happens, it happens. But, like I said, I’m proud of what we did in 40 years, and 22 years as the head coach. We won a lot of games. And, more important than that, we got to be involved with a whole lot of really great young men and so many of them have been successful. That’s the best part.”
Having the last laugh isn’t so bad either.