There’s a country song title for just about any big life event. And surely there is one for the day that Paul Johnson said he wasn’t going to coach that Three-card Monte option offense at Georgia Tech any more.
Let’s try on this one from Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks: “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?”
Johnson is going away after 11 long seasons at Tech, a veritable lifetime in his profession. Only now do we seriously start the process of determining just how much he’ll be missed.
A guess here is that he’ll be appreciated more in retrospect than he was in real time.
Not until Johnson goes away, and there is some distance between Tech and its former coach’s signature scheme, can we get a clear read on whether the last decade really was the best that could have been wrung from this program.
Not until the next guy comes along and does it differently will the Johnson Years be put in complete context. Certainly, the new regime will rely at least somewhat on the forward pass, lest the fans storm the ramparts. Which makes the coming hire only more intriguing.
It was the eternal debate around Tech football: Was the option a necessary concession to the recruiting limitations at Tech? Or was it in some ways holding back the Yellow Jackets? (I’d argue the defense was more the limiting factor – but that falls on the head coach, too).
As fans work on what to make of Johnson and his option moving on, you know there’s probably relief around the ACC, and maybe even some corners of Athens. One of the best compliments paid his scheme was just how much other coaches hated preparing for it.
Defenders, too, may be saying a prayer of thanks today, knowing that there won’t be quite so many blockers coming at them from quite so many inconvenient angles.
Johnson’s rightfully proud of the three trips to the ACC Championship game, the four nine-or-more-win seasons (two of those double-digit win seasons), the three ACC Coach of the Year awards. Bigger picture, he can point to a pair of Division I-AA (now FCS) national championships at Georgia Southern and a great run at Navy. And he is rightfully not shy about pointing out those highlights because, as he said Thursday, “I can promise you, your critics aren’t going to.”
Not bad at all for someone who grew up in far western North Carolina, with a lot more trees for neighbors than people, whose ambition in college was just to come back and coach his high school team.
“Had they not had a penchant for running off basketball coaches and trying to make me the basketball coach, I’d probably still have been there,” Johnson said.
“It’s been a pretty good run,” he added. “In my mind, I’m satisfied with it.”
OK, so Johnson didn’t always have a nice, political answer for his critics – or even those with fairly innocent questions. He’d bemoan the excesses of recruiting and then mock those who inferred that it was a part of the job that wore away at him. “That’s people who just don’t know, they just run their mouth,” he said. His personality wasn’t exactly down-filled.
On Thursday, Johnson did betray a softer side seldom seen in his 11 seasons at Tech. Speaking about meeting with his team the day before to pass on the news of his departure, he said, “The two hardest things I’ve ever done in my life is when I left Navy and then yesterday. It’s just tough, emotional.” So, yes, there is some soft bread beneath the crust.
More in character was when he detailed what he won’t miss about coaching: “Dealing with the outside noise, I won’t miss that. Like an old guy told me one time, call me whatever you want today, but tomorrow you’ll be calling me long distance.” Sounds like another country song title, should Johnson wish to move to Nashville and start a second career (he, by the way, has not ruled out coming back to coach someday).
And then there was this, when someone asked if he could ever seem himself crossing over into a media job, and contributing to “the noise”:
“I was joking with the staff this morning, yeah, I could do that, then I can take a shot at everybody. ... You could probably do that job, it wouldn’t be that hard.”
Honestly, I’m going to miss that.