In the grand scheme of things, 10 years doesn’t seem that long.
But when it comes to coaching at one program for 10 years, it’s huge. So when Paul Johnson leads his Georgia Tech team onto the field for the season opener against Tennessee on Monday, he’ll do so as one of the longest-tenured active college coaches.
It didn’t used to be that way. Coaches — especially good ones — seemingly would stay forever. It is definitely true at Georgia Tech, where John Heisman served 16 years, William Alexander served 25 and Bobby Dodd enjoyed a 22-year run.
“At times it’s gone by really fast, and at times it’s been slow,” Johnson said. “Ten years is a long time to be anywhere. In this profession, it’s a long time. I’m excited to be here for a 10th season, and I’m looking forward to getting started.”
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Since Dodd’s departure, the job had been held by eight men, none of them staying more than seven seasons. Johnson arrived in 2008 and will begin his 10th season on the job Monday.
Johnson is the longest-tenured coach in the ACC, an honor he holds by a few weeks over Duke’s David Cutcliffe. The only FBS head coaches who have served longer at their current jobs are Kirk Ferentz at Iowa (hired 1999), Gary Patterson at TCU (2000), Kyle Whittingham at Utah (2004), Frank Solich at Ohio (2004), Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State (2005), Rick Stockstill at Middle Tennessee State (2005), Pat Fitzgerald Northwestern (2006), Mark Dantonio at Michigan State (2006), Troy Calhoun at Air Force (2006), Nick Saban at Alabama (2007), David Bailiff at Rice (2007) and Bobby Wilder at Old Dominion (2007).
“It’s a lot different than it was when I first started in about every way possible,” Johnson said. “From the athletes involved to the media attention to the compensation. It’s all different. It changes gradually, so you have to be able to adjust as you go through.”
Johnson has been through a few highs and lows the past 10 years. There were a couple of Orange Bowl appearances, three appearances in the ACC championship game and three wins over the Georgia Bulldogs. There have also been down times — a 6-7 season in 2010 and the 3-9 season from 2015. Through it all, Johnson said he never felt threatened.
“Believe it or not, nobody was ever on me,” Johnson said. “I never had anybody in the administration come to me and say, ‘You need to do this,’ or ‘You need to do that.’ Two years ago was an enigma. Anybody that was paying attention realized all those injuries, and it was a freak deal, and you have those sometimes.”
The players don’t often work with Johnson — they spend most of the time with their position coaches — but they appreciate him.
“Coach Johnson is just an old-school, hard-nosed coach, and he wins games,” senior Lance Austin said. “You can’t ever go against that.”
Senior defensive end KeShun Freeman said, “Ten years, that says a lot about him. People say, triple-option this, triple-option that, but Coach Johnson knows the game. He’s had some great seasons. We respect him, and we know he knows the game. It’s great having a coach who’s been here so long.”
Johnson continues to march to his own beat. He has grown weary of defending his offense, which has won national championships at Georgia Southern and plenty of games at Navy and Georgia Tech. It may not be sexy, but it usually gets results. His teams have won 177 games in his 20 seasons as head coach, and he’s 70-48 at Georgia Tech.
“I wonder if I coached 59 years if I’d ever have to quit answering questions about the offense,” Johnson said before the season began.
Under Johnson’s watch, Georgia Tech has had four different nine-win seasons, including last year. Between 1966 and Johnson’s arrival, the program fielded only six nine-win teams.
“I want to frame this the right way, but people outside our program appreciate our program better than people inside our program,” he said. “We’ve had nine years, and we’ve been in the ACC championship three times. You can go back a long time and see when Georgia Tech won an ACC championship. It’s not like they were winning that thing every year.
“There’s a lot of revisionist history that goes on about when this guy here or that guy was here, and when I leave it will be the same. We’ll be much better after I leave than probably when I was here. That’s just the nature of the beast. But if you look, I don’t think we have to apologize for what we’ve done the last 10 years. I think it’s pretty good.”
Johnson said the perception of the program all depends on what happens on game day. That was the case when he took over at Georgia Southern, and it has been so since he took over at Georgia Tech. Win and the coach is a genius. Lose and the coach is a moron.
“It’s the nature of the thing that you’re as good as last week,” Johnson said. “Everybody is entitled to win on Saturday. I used to joke at Georgia Southern, it’s all good until you lose one. Then you forget everything you knew, and you’re not very smart, and people have caught up with you, and they have the blueprint. You get all those things.”
Not that Johnson really feels the pressure. He’s an ultra-competitive coach. No one wants to win more than him. He doesn’t need anyone holding his feet to the fire.
“I’m pretty competitive, and I love to win,” he said. “If I’m not winning, I’m usually miserable, and everybody around me is. A lot of time people say this guy’s on the hot seat or that guy’s on the hotseat. Hey, everybody’s on the hot seat. It’s the nature of the profession.”
Georgia Tech vs. Tennessee
8 p.m., Monday