On the first play of the second quarter, Air Force quarterback Zac Larrier dropped back from his 6-yard line and threw a deep ball over the Navy secondary for a 94-yard touchdown pass, the opening score in a 17-6 win for the Falcons.
“And (Gladchuk) looked at me and he goes, ‘Can we pay you to stand down here?’” Johnson said. “I’m like, ‘Nah, I’m through with that.’”
The pull of the game hasn’t completely left the relentlessly competitive Johnson since stepping down from Georgia Tech at the end of the 2018 season.
“That’s the kind of stuff I miss, the strategy part,” Johnson said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I really miss the players, the interaction with the players. But I’ve been fortunate; a lot of the players stay in touch.”
Following on-field recognitions at Navy last week and Georgia Southern on Thursday – the two other schools where Johnson worked as a head coach in a 40-year coaching career, Johnson will be honored by Georgia Tech on Saturday during its game against North Carolina at Bobby Dodd Stadium. It will be the first time that Johnson has returned to the stadium where he served as head coach from 2008-18 and led the Yellow Jackets to an ACC championship, four ACC Coastal Division titles and nine bowl trips.
Aside from Tech’s bowl game in Detroit in December 2018 following his announcement to step down, this will be the first opportunity for Tech fans to honor Johnson en masse. Anything other than a warm, enthusiastic greeting would be a surprise. It will be a moment well-deserved.
“I’m excited to come back,” he said. “I had some great years there. I had a chance to work with a lot of great players and a lot of good people, and I’m excited to be back. I appreciate the honor.”
When he made his decision to step down, Johnson remarked that history would judge his 11 seasons leading the Jackets. The first five since then have cast a favorable light on his tenure. Tech’s best record in the four full seasons since his departure was 5-7, last season with then-interim Brent Key. The Jackets are 3-4 entering Saturday’s game.
“I’m proud of what we accomplished there,” Johnson said. “We’ll just let it stand at that.”
Johnson has continued to follow Tech from his home in Linville, North Carolina, in the western part of the state. Key has reached out to him with invitations to speak with the team, requests that he has appreciated but been unable to fulfill yet.
“I hope that they can get the thing turned around,” he said. “I really do. But I know how hard it is.”
The challenges of winning at Tech were a subtext throughout his tenure. Battles to raise money, improve facilities, increase the assistant-coach salary pool, add staff and work with admissions were constant. Johnson called the Tech job “absolutely, no question” the most difficult of his three head-coaching positions.
And yet, the Jackets perennially were one of the better teams in the ACC. While the game and business of college football have changed drastically, it was less than a decade ago (2014) that the Jackets won 11 games, beat Clemson and Georgia in back-to-back games (neither had yet to become the game’s dominant powers, but both still finished in the top 15), won the Orange Bowl going away, finished ranked with a No. 8 ranking and ranked in the top 20 in total offense.
Johnson arrived at Tech from Navy with questions about whether his spread-option offense would work at the power-conference level. The body of work, to say nothing of the Hall of Fame recognition, answers the question. He was asked if he had accomplished what he set out to do at Tech.
“With the exception of getting into the College Football Playoff – I would have liked to have done that,” Johnson said. “But we did win an ACC championship, even if they said we didn’t (because of NCAA sanctions that seemed overly harsh). We went to two Orange Bowls and that kind of thing. So, yeah.”
The memories return easily. Quarterback Joshua Nesbitt’s fourth-and-inches conversion in overtime against Wake Forest in 2009 to help advance the Jackets toward the ACC title. B-back Jonathan Dwyer scoring the game-winning touchdown in the ACC title game the same year against Clemson on a play that Johnson drew up on the sideline. In a 2014 game against Georgia Southern, a touchdown pass by quarterback Justin Thomas to A-back Deon Hill to win the game in the final minute.
“That team got along as well as any team I ever coached,” Johnson said of the Orange Bowl champion 2014 team. “They really liked each other and got along great. They were a fun bunch to be around.”
With the games now in the past, Johnson’s life in the North Carolina mountains, not far from his boyhood home in Newland, revolves around rounds of golf with a group of friends. He and his wife, Susan, have begun to spend winters in Arizona, where their daughter, Kaitlyn Sabrowsky, continues to perform as an opera singer but also has earned a doctorate in vocal performance and now teaches and gives private lessons.
Their winters in Arizona have provided Johnson with a new fix for his competitive itch – playing poker in area casinos.
“It’s fun because you’ve got all those guys who play professionally, and you can sit in there and play with them,” he said. “Sometimes they don’t know how to handle guys that aren’t very smart like me.”
Johnson will be inducted in December in Las Vegas. He’ll be one of 230 coaches in the game’s century-plus history to have earned the honor, joining Tech legends John Heisman, William Alexander and Bobby Dodd. (Georgia’s Mark Richt is part of Johnson’s class.)
Along with his run at Tech, Johnson won two Division I-AA (now FCS) national championships at Georgia Southern and achieved a 45-29 record in six seasons at Navy (including 43-19 in his final five seasons) after it had been 1-20 the two seasons before his arrival.
“I’m awfully proud of (his induction),” he said. “I think it validates your career. To go in on the first ballot was even more special. I think it goes to show that people all around, other people recognized that you did a pretty good job at the places you coached.”
On Saturday, an important constituency, one that probably didn’t fully recognize what it had in Johnson, can voice its approval.