Former Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson’s gratitude to legendary coach Erk Russell goes deep. First, Russell hired Johnson prior to the 1983 season at Georgia Southern to coach the defensive line when Johnson had been an offensive coordinator at a North Carolina junior college.
But, through his example and teaching, the late Russell gave Johnson wisdom that helped him on his path that has ultimately led to selection to the College Football Hall of Fame. Johnson related a favorite anecdote about Russell on Wednesday when he spoke with media via videoconference. It took place early in the 1997 season, when Johnson was in his first year as the Georgia Southern head coach, his first time as a head coach.
Russell, for whom Johnson served as defensive line coach and then offensive coordinator in a highly successful four-year run, remained in Statesboro and stopped by campus to watch one of Johnson’s first practices that season.
“And he walked up to me and he goes, ‘What are you doing?’” Johnson said. “I was running around between drills and watching everything. And I said, ‘What do you mean, coach?’
“He said, ‘Get over there and coach those quarterbacks and call the offense,’” Johnson said. “And he said, ‘That’s what you’re good at. That’s why you got this job. Go help the team.’”
The thought stuck in Johnson’s head. In the Eagles’ next game, Georgia Southern’s starting quarterback broke his hand on the first play of the game, and backup Greg Hill went in the game.
“And I told the guys, ‘I got it,’” Johnson said. “And from that point on, I called every play the whole time I was the head coach and did the offensive game plan and I did that kind of thing.”
It made Johnson unusual, in that typically head coaches give game-planning and play-calling responsibilities to the coordinators. But Johnson served as his own offensive coordinator, putting his strengths to use to best serve the team, as Russell implored him to do.
Johnson said he probably would have figured it out eventually on his own, as he found himself second-guessing his coordinator.
“You didn’t have to just stand over there like a dog and watch the game,” Johnson said. “You could be involved and do both.”
Johnson’s recollection was part of a larger lesson learned from Russell, who led the Eagles to three FCS national championships and died in 2006 at the age of 80.
“Certainly, coach Russell was a great coach,” Johnson said. “Probably the biggest thing I learned from him, in all honesty, is you’ve got to be yourself.”
Johnson saw it in Russell’s own style.
“His mannerisms, the way he did things – if somebody else had tried it, they’d have gotten laughed out of the building,” Johnson said. “But he could pull it off.”
Johnson said that while Russell may have had the reputation of being “this big, tough guy” – perhaps the most enduring image of Russell is his butting heads with his helmeted players when he was defensive coordinator at Georgia and drawing blood – it was not the reality.
“I don’t know if I ever heard him yell at anybody,” Johnson said. “Discipline-wise, we (assistants) would be harder on the guys than he was. He had that knack that they knew that he cared about them. And he was comfortable in his own skin. He could be himself. That’s probably the biggest thing when I started coaching is I learned, ‘Hey, be yourself.’”
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