When the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets take the field for the Quick Lane Bowl on Dec. 26, two head coaches will stand in stark contrast to each other. One is nearing the end of his sixth year as a head coach and his second year at Minnesota, where he hopes to build something special. The other is closing out a head coaching career that started 20 years ago, culminating in a successful 11-year stint at Georgia Tech.
I spoke with Benjamin Tankersley, co-manager of the Georgia Tech SB Nation site From the Rumble Seat, about Johnson’s decade-long tenure with the Yellow Jackets.
When Paul Johnson was first hired, what was the reaction from the Yellow Jacket faithful? I imagine there was a great deal of skepticism, as is often the case when “triple-option offense” and “Power 5 program” are used in the same sentence.
Benjamin Tankersley: I was still a very young fan when Johnson was hired, but I remember hearing that some coach from Navy had been hired to replace Chan Gailey, who was not particularly liked by the fanbase. After scoring six points in the ACC Championship Game against Wake Forest while having Calvin Johnson at your disposal and not beating your rival in seven tries, you’re not going to be a well-liked coach. People were skeptical at first, with most expecting Tech to struggle out of the gate. And obviously that didn’t happen.
It didn’t take long for Johnson to succeed at Georgia Tech, winning the Coastal division in 2008 before beating Clemson in the ACC Championship in 2009. How was he able to achieve such instantaneous success?
Tankersley: The immediate success was due in large part to the players who were already on the team. The 2007 recruiting class (which was Chan Gailey’s last) was ranked 15th overall by 247Sports, and featured some key players for Tech on both offense and defense, such as Derrick Morgan, Morgan Burnett, Joshua Nesbitt, Jonathan Dwyer, Jerrard Tarrant, and Roddy Jones. The combination of Nesbitt and Dwyer at quarterback and B-back is arguably the top combination from the Paul Johnson era. Nesbitt, himself, willed the Yellow Jackets to a number of victories. The defense was also some of the better defenses, despite some poor decisions from defensive coordinator Tony Wommack. Another reason he was able to achieve instant success, I think, is because a lot of teams weren’t expecting Tech to be so good so quickly.
In 11 seasons at Georgia Tech, Johnson led the Yellow Jackets to nine bowl games, seven winning seasons, four division titles, and one conference championship. Not to be blunt, but: That is good, right? Is that in line with what fans expect from the program?
Tankersley: Personally, I see Paul Johnson as the best coach at Georgia Tech since Bobby Dodd. I know there are those who will disagree with me, but I’ll stand by it. There were certainly some lows, but the program also achieved incredible heights, highlighted by the incredible 2014 run. Since Dodd, there hasn’t really been another coach who has brought such consistent success. Sure, Bobby Ross won a national championship, but outside of the magical 1990 season, Ross was 20-26-1.
Is his retirement an entirely personal decision or were there other factors? Was their pressure from fans for a head coaching change? I’m curious what the perceptions have been around the program the last few years.
Tankersley: Paul Johnson has long maintained that he would retire from the game when he stopped enjoying it. Needless to say, it’s been a bit of a rough couple years for the Jackets, so personally, I’m not surprised. He mentioned in his final press conference that he had talked with [Georgia Tech athletic director Todd] Stansbury during the year, saying that it “wasn’t much fun.” Depending on who you ask, there was pressure for a change, as a lot of fans are tired of the option offense and want someone who has a bigger focus on recruiting.
What have been the hallmarks of Johnson’s program at Georgia Tech, whether it be on the field, in the classroom, in the community, etc.?
Tankersley: While there are those that disagree with me, on the field, Johnson’s hallmark (more years than not) was putting a fun offense to watch on the field. I’ve long been a fan of watching the flexbone in action. When done right, it’s a thing of beauty. If you want to have a good time, go watch some highlights from Tech’s 2014 bowl game against Mississippi State. Off the field, Johnson’s biggest hallmark is graduating students. The Yellow Jackets, under Johnson, have long done well in terms of APR and graduating student-athletes. I think that speaks to Johnson making sure his student-athletes are prepared for life after college. Even with students who weren’t able to compete due to injuries, Johnson still honored the scholarship. The best example of this is Jaylend Ratliffe, who was part of the 2015 class. Before signing, Ratliffe was involved in a very serious ATV accident that ended his football career. Johnson honored his scholarship anyway.
Why do you think Johnson and Georgia Tech were such an effective pairing? And are there aspects of Johnson or his program that will be important to find in the Yellow Jackets’ next head football coach?
Tankersley: It’s difficult to explain, but honestly, it just works. Johnson came in and bought into the program. It’s no secret that Georgia Tech isn’t an Alabama-like program that is a coach’s highest goal, so even with this new hire, if it’s a younger coach, I could see them using Tech as a stepping stone. Johnson never had any interest in that. After his first couple seasons, he received some pretty nice offers, including one at Auburn, but he always stayed at Tech. So moving forward, I want someone who will have a similar commitment to Georgia Tech, at least for the time they are here.
(Editor’s Note: This Q&A was conducted prior to the hiring of Geoff Collins.)
What will Paul Johnson’s legacy at Georgia Tech be? How will he be remembered?
Tankersley: I will certainly remember him fondly. In my time as a fan, I’ve only ever really known Paul Johnson and the option at Georgia Tech. And that has produced some of the best football memories, but the biggest one for me would have to be the entire 2014 season. Everything just clicked, and it was just incredible to watch.
I’ve seen a lot of stories come out in the last week about people’s favorite memories of Coach Johnson. My personal favorite would be the press conference following the Miami game in 2014. Tech had just won a nail-biter, 28-17. The first question asked was something along the lines of, “Coach Johnson, how’d your team pull out the victory tonight?” Johnson picked up the stat sheet in front of him and said, “Well, we held onto the ball for 40 minutes.” His press conferences were always great and filled with his sense of humor, which is close to mine, so I always appreciated that.
I’ll also remember him for some of the ballsy things he did on the field, like always going for it on fourth down. Or against Wake Forest in 2009. The game was in overtime, and Wake Forest got the ball first and scored a field goal. The Yellow Jackets maneuvered down to the three-yard line. It was fourth down, and most coaches would have kicked and gone into a second overtime. Johnson put the ball in the hands of Joshua Nesbitt, and he scored the game-winning touchdown. It was a thing of beauty.
Coach Johnson, we’ll miss you.