Stansbury’s first objective at Tech: Heal and unify

Paul Johnson is not in trouble. Paul Johnson never was in trouble. It certainly seems like some folks wanted Paul Johnson to be in trouble, either because they don’t like his offense or maybe just because they had their feelings hurt in a news conference, but the juvenile, Twitter-thin narrative of, “We’re Georgia Tech! We can do so much better than this schlep with the high school offense!” has been kind of laughable.

Ask Kirby Smart about what that schlep with the high school offense did to Georgia last week.

One more thing about Johnson before I move on to the real issue at Tech. His resume includes one ACC title, two Orange Bowls, two 11-win seasons, three ACC title-game appearances, three wins in five tries at Georgia, three ACC coach-of-the-year awards, three Top 25 finishes, one top-10 finish and only one — one — bad season over nine years.

Travel back in Tech history and let me know when you find a Yellow Jackets’ football coach who has accomplished that, against this difficult academic/economic backdrop.

Take your time. I’ll wait. Waiting. Still waiting.

Moving on now.

Todd Stansbury, Tech’s new athletic director, officially started work Monday, met with Johnson for an hour Tuesday and spoke to the media Wednesday. By now, you’ve probably heard Stansbury gave Johnson a ringing endorsement, saying, among other things: “If you win, I love your offense.”

Sometimes analysis is brilliant in its simplicity.

“I was there Saturday,” Stansbury said. “When you can go between the hedges, I don’t care who you are, and win a game down there, that tells you a lot about where you’re at.”

Agree. Here’s the problem. Since the win, while I’ve heard mostly from Tech fans rejoicing about the game, I’ve also heard from many fans who were upset their team won. They were hoping the Jackets would lose on the chance it would push the administration to make a coaching change. Some stuff, you just can’t make up.

Johnson was never going to get fired, although part of me has wondered if he would just walk away, fatigued by the criticism. But the fact Tech’s football coach remains polarizing reaffirms Stansbury’s biggest challenge at Tech: uniting a fractured fan and alumni base.

“I’ve got to do a better job of highlighting the positives of what we’re doing,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ve always done that.

“A lot of people don’t understand. They understand what happens on Saturday and what goes across the ticker, but they typically don’t know what’s going on the other six days of the week.”

Stansbury spoke slowly in the news conference, as if tip-toeing through answers. He took a long time to process questions before responding, then gave long, even if intentionally vague, answers. He was just fine speaking in shades of gray and avoiding major sound bites. He knows he is stepping into a difficult situation and aimed to not rattle anybody.

Tech’s athletic department became an unhappy and fractured place under former AD Mike Bobinski, who lacked the people skills of his predecessor, Dan Radakovich.

Credit to school president Bud Peterson for understanding a healer was needed when Bobinski left for Purdue. He pursued Stansbury, who in happier times at Tech played for Bill Curry and served as an assistant athletic director under Homer Rice, before leaving to run athletics at East Tennessee State, Central Florida and Oregon State. Peterson squeezed the budget to get Stansbury, presumably paying his near $2 million buyout at Oregon State to get him here.

Stansbury has sought early feedback from athletic department employees and acknowledged, “There is a hunger to get down to business. They’re interested, and maybe concerned, about what I want to do, what direction I want to take. When there’s a change at the top like that, there’s a little hesitancy, as, ‘What does that mean for me?’”

Stansbury met for an hour with Johnson, who recently hasn’t been shy about venting that Tech comes up short in resources and facilities, compared with most other Power Five programs. Stansbury oversaw major facility projects at Central Florida and Oregon State, and he’ll push for the same at Tech.

But can he be a healing and unifying presence?

Responding to a question about Johnson being polarizing, Stansbury said, “Regardless of the differences or likability or all that, the proof is in the pudding. These are the results we are getting, and we’ve got a lot of young men who are benefiting immensely from being in this program.”

His hope is to change the narrative. For starters, there’s this novel thought: The failure of a team to win the ACC or get to a major bowl game annually doesn’t necessarily equate to failure.

Tech can be Tech. Tech isn’t going to be Georgia in resources, and it’s not going to be Florida State or Clemson and contend for a national title every year. But that doesn’t mean it can’t beat Georgia, win conference titles and periodically have top-10 seasons.

And then there’s all that other stuff: The mission of college athletics. Remember that mission?

“While I totally understand we’re judged on our wins, losses and graduate rates, ultimately our success is what our student-athletes are doing five and 10 years after graduation,” he said. “That’s where I think Georgia Tech can own that space.”

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