April 8, 2008
ATLANTA Most media reports about the Georgia Tech football program's transition from Chan Gailey to Paul Johnson have revolved around Johnson's triple-option offense, and justifiably so. Johnson's attempt to take his extremely successful scheme into a major conference such as the ACC will be fascinating to watch.
But anyone who followed Johnson's head coaching career at Georgia Southern or Navy knows that everyone around the Tech program players, administrators, media and just about everyone else should be prepared for additional contrasts that go well beyond diagramming Xs and Os.
Like Gailey, Johnson is a straight shooter with a southern drawl. He speaks his mind and tells it like it is. Players always will know where they stand with Johnson, because he won't hesitate to let them know.
"I'm not going to tell them what they want to hear," Johnson said. "I'm going to tell them the truth."
Johnson is hard-nosed and competitive, but also good-natured. (That basic description also applies pretty well to the previous two Tech football coaches, Gailey and George O'Leary.) Many of those who have spent a lot of time around Johnson say that he has a great sense of humor and is famous for his sarcastic wit and biting one-liners.
But many of those same folks will tell you that, unlike Gailey, Johnson also has an easily ignited temper and does not conceal his anger well. Don't tick him off, they say, because you'll get an earful and possibly be paid back tenfold.
Gailey, a devout Christian, had an extremely peaceful nature that seemed to balance out his intensity the overwhelming majority of the time, publicly and privately. Johnson is far more likely to express his more extreme emotions outwardly whether they're good or bad, and sometimes even if that means sharing them for all the world to see.
Once, a Navy player who already had annoyed Johnson with his poor work habits missed the start of preseason practice because he did not return from summer break in time. Johnson personally cleaned out the player's locker. When the player arrived the next day, he found his equipment gone and a note: See Coach Johnson. He went to the coach's office and was read the riot act.
Johnson is extremely confident in his coaching abilities, to the point of being cocky. However, it's certainly not unjustified, because he's always backed it up by winning.
Johnson is as honest as the day is long, almost incapable of telling a lie. He can be brutally honest at times and doesn't care if sometimes the truth hurts. Throughout his tenure at Navy, Johnson was not afraid to call out an individual player or the team as a whole. Following a preseason intra-squad scrimmage, it was not unusual for Johnson to challenge his men directly.
"We don't play hard enough," he said once. "Clearly, our guys don't understand what playing hard truly means. Well, they're going to find out. I'll make sure they know what playing hard is all about."
Johnson is a perfectionist and has high expectations. He demands excellence from himself and those around him, notably his players and assistant coaches. If Navy players did not put forth the effort Johnson expected in practice, they ran until they threw up afterward. If players weren't going full speed in drills, or if they were making basic mistakes, it was not uncommon for Johnson to blow the whistle and order the entire offense to perform up-downs.
"I'm not going to lower my standards to meet theirs," Johnson was fond of saying early in preseason camp, when the team was not competing to his liking. "They're going to have to raise theirs to meet mine."
BLUNT STYLE CAN RUFFLE FEATHERS
Johnson's penchant for being blunt and answering questions about particular players or units has been refreshing to many in the media, who often become accustomed to coachspeak. However, it sometimes has bothered parents and fans, who felt he was being too critical.
After losses, Johnson would explain exactly what went wrong, even if it meant pointing out how a player failed to perform his job correctly.
"We can't even make a 25-yard field goal. That's ridiculous," Johnson once said. Some fans took that as Johnson being too critical of the placekicker. "We have guys drop the ball for no reason. They're running along and just drop the ball. That's inexcusable," Johnson once said. Some fans took that as Johnson being too critical of a slotback who had committed a costly fumble.
In Johnson's mind, he was not criticizing, but rather simply stating the truth. The failure of the kicker and slot back to perform their basic jobs were key factors in Navy losing a football game.
At Navy, one beat reporter apparently received numerous phone calls and e-mails from fans who felt that Johnson had criticized the players too much. The writer later presented the issue to the head coach, and that led to an exchange that wound up receiving national attention.
Reporter: Can I ask you something without making you mad?
Johnson: Maybe. I don't know.
Reporter: I was talking to a Navy fan, and he said he follows the coverage and that he noticed something, and I'm just going to put it to you. He says that it seems like when Navy loses you blame the players i.e., "We can't execute fundamental plays" but that the success of the team the last four years has been attributed to brilliant coaching. How do you respond to that?
Johnson: Whatever he thinks. I don't go down to McDonald's and start second-guessing his job, so he ought to leave me alone.
Reporter: But do you feel like it can't be both ways?
Johnson: You know what? I could care less. I'm old enough where I could give a crap what the fans think or what you think, to put it in a nutshell.
Reporter: Wins and losses are evenly distributed as far as credit and blame, right?
Johnson: If you could ever find one time that I said we won the game because of brilliant strategy, I will kiss your butt at city dock and give you two days to draw a crowd. Find it and bring it to me. Tell that guy that if he wants to talk to me, I live at (address given but deleted from the transcript). I will be right there. Come ring my doorbell, and I will be glad to talk to him.
Reporter: But the bottom line is, the coaches do take as much responsibility as the players when the team loses?
Johnson: We are ultimately responsible. What did I say about eight million times? I did a poor job. We have to get them ready. What else do you want me to say?
Numerous national media outlets wrote about Johnson's testy responses to those questions, with ESPN.com columnist Pat Forde going so far as to compare the situation to the now-infamous tirade of Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy.
Johnson may have been stung by the attention those comments received, because he spent the rest of the season being overly careful not to criticize a player and going out of his way to say that the coaching staff didn't do a good enough job of getting the team ready to play if Navy lost.
It appears that the coach's new-and-improved approach has carried over to Georgia Tech, at least to some degree. Johnson took some of the blame for the offense's poor performance in the team's initial scrimmage.
"I'm going to guess there must have been 60 missed assignments, 70 missed assignments on offense," Johnson said. "Clearly, we don't know what we're doing. That's a poor reflection on us as coaches. We haven't done a very good job coaching them if they don't know what they're doing. I'm embarrassed that they don't know what to do."