It was time.
According to multiple reports, including this one from Ken Sugiura at the AJC, Georgia Tech football coach, Paul Johnson is retiring. An announcement made Wednesday afternoon, and a decision Johnson has come to after 11 seasons at Tech and 40 years coaching in all.
And hear me good when I say this: I’m not saying “good riddance” to coach Paul Johnson.
I know some of you Georgia Tech fans will, and that’s your prerogative. But I feel that such a pronouncement over Johnson’s tenure on The Flats would be shortsighted and unfair, to say the least.
Tech didn’t have a bad 2018 season. It finished the regular season 7-5. The Yellow Jackets won four of their last five games and will qualify for a bowl game for the eighth time since Johnson’s been around.
Johnson is the winningest coach at Tech since the legendary Bobby Dodd. He’s guided the Jackets to four ACC Divisional championships and one conference crown (2009). He oversaw that 2014 campaign where Tech finished ranked Nos. 7 and 8 in the AP and American Coaches Poll, respectively and was pacing the sidelines when Tech produced some of the program’s most memorable moments (think Florida State, 2015).
So to say that Johnson’s tenure was a failure would be the hot take to end all hot takes, and would be an incredibly lazy way out of describing his stay in downtown Atlanta.
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t time for a change.
When Johnson showed up in 2007, he came with a quirky option offense and immediate success. His first season at Tech ended with a 9-3 mark, a co-division championship and a win over arch-rival Georgia in Athens.
From there, it was up and down and topsy turvy to say the least. But what’s more telling than Johnson’s record alone is the way Tech fans have responded to their beloved program’s inability to breakthrough on a consistent basis.
I wasn’t surprised, but still intrigued by how many people were consistently frustrated with Georgia Tech football year in and year out. I mean, I’ll be honest. I didn’t know much about Tech before arriving to the Atlanta area 12 years ago. I pretty much swore them off from my radar when they humiliated my beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers in the 1991 Citrus Bowl — the national championship season, I believe.
But when I came here and started immersing myself into the Tech culture a bit, I found it to be a school that prides itself on its academic prowess and reputation, to the point where athletics — while not a complete afterthought — didn’t seem to be as high on the priority list as it was in other schools.
Indeed, folks have used that to excuse — or decry — Tech’s lack of consistent success, both on the football field and in the recruiting scene. But I always assumed people, for the most part, were kind of okay with it.
I mean, why else would they have allowed Johnson to stay for 11 years when it was pretty clear that what you got from year to year was pretty much what you were going to get?
But I think the combination of fan frustration, the success of Group of Five schools like Central and South Florida, some of the subtle changes at Tech, like the switch to a snazzier style of threads, to more obvious things such as this past summer’s $125 million initiative kickoff geared to bring drastic upgrades to the school’s athletics facilities, signaled that a new day at Georgia Tech was not only desired, but needed and inevitable, if not already peaking over the horizon.
And although there’s no way of knowing if Johnson’s retirement came under some pressure, or if it was something done completely of his own volition, though it was a bit of a shock to hear, the timing of it does feel kind of right, given current tenor and mood around the program.
Georgia Tech fans want more than 7-5 and 6-6 seasons with an occasional 8, 9 or 10-win campaign mixed in, and the even more rare conference title or top 10 finish.
There’s probably not a Power Five fan base in the nation that doesn’t think their program should be contending for national championships at least sometimes. But for some programs that’s a little bit more realistic than others.
At Georgia tech? I say, why not?
Yes, the admissions standards warrant going after a different kind of student-athlete than what a UGA or Clemson goes after. But why does that have to be a hinderance toward conference crowns and the occasional national title chase? Especially when your school is situated in one of the most football talent-rich states in the land, and even more specifically, nestled in the attractive downtown metro Atlanta area.
I think one thing — not the only thing — Johnson did do right was try to offset the perceived recruiting difficulties with a system and scheme that could be effective without being littered with star power.
It’s just that in today’s big-boy college gridiron world, running flexbone/wishbone style option football has become about as antiquated as giving a college student-athlete a CD player for Christmas.
Sure, it still plays music. It still gets the job done. But the practicality of its functionality in today’s WiFi world is laughable at best.
To be sure, Georgia Tech still needs quirky. It still needs unconventional methods and style to get where it wants to be, and where I think it can be — and that is, challenging regularly for ACC championships and making a serious push for the College Football Playoffs a couple times a decade.
And while some of you will guffaw at this, for those aforementioned reasons, Washington State coach, Mike Leach should be at the top of Georgia Tech’s list.
Leach is a weird guy. But he’s an offensive genius. Kind of like Johnson was branded as, even since his days at Georgia Southern. But Leach is such in a new-school kind of way. And he’s always been.
I remember him well from back in his Texas Tech days while my Huskers were still in the Big 12. Leach and the Red Raiders lit up scoreboards all throughout the midwest with his high-octane, “air raid” offense which was known for spreading out defenses to nightmarish proportions, even before the spread offense became a thing in college football.
It’s a scheme that puts up a bunch of points in a much different way than what Tech fans are used to right now.
It produces an exciting brand of football that not only gets the butts in the Bobby Dodd Stadium seats out of their seats and on their feet, but it’ll get some solid quarterback, wide receiver and, yes, even offensive line talent interested in Georgia Tech football in a fresh way — guys who felt they had to pass on coming to Tech because of their NFL aspirations.
Plus Leach and his personality alone would create a bit of an instant buzz (no pun intended. Seriously) in the program — a buzz that goes along well with fresh, new plans for fresh new digs.
Ultimately, I think Johnson’s style — not necessarily personally, as he seems to be nothing but a great guy — just got old and stale, and justifications of it began to sound like the “Wah Wah” teacher talk that Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang was used to hearing from their teachers.
Nevertheless, and regardless of who the Jackets go after, change is good. Even for Johnson, who, at this point in his career, may not have thought it fun to remain in the Georgia Tech pressure cooker that grew hotter with championship aspirations after every “how did we lose that game” performance.
At age 61, though not necessarily old for a coach, it may very well be the right time for Johnson to ride off into the sunset in the direction of a more laid back way to spend the rest of his days.
And for Georgia Tech, 28 years after its first and only national championship in college football’s modern era, it just feels like the time is right for it to start getting serious about being a Power Five contender once again.
Gabriel Stovall is the sports editor at The Covington News. He can be reached for tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @GabrielStovall1.