Tech coaches mix with Middle Georgia fans

Dressed in polos and dress shirts of varying shades of yellow, gold, old gold and white, they came.

More than 80 Georgia Tech fans converged on North Macon’s prestigious Idle Hour Club on Thursday to meet the school’s highest profile coaches and ask them their most burning questions.

The second of five stops on Georgia Tech’s statewide Coaches Caravan, the Idle Hour visit marked one of two chances Yellow Jackets fans outside the metro Atlanta area have this spring to see the coaches.

Joining Georgia Tech radio personality Wes Durham on the trip was athletics director Dan Radakovich, women’s head basketball coach MaChelle Joseph, football head coach Paul Johnson and men’s head basketball coach Paul Hewitt. Hewitt wasn’t expected to attend the event, but he made the trip after returning from the ACC spring meetings at Amelia Island, Fla.

“Is Shane’s Rib Shack still in Macon?” Hewitt jokingly asked, rhetorically. “I know if Shane’s is still here, I’m going to make a trip back to Macon.”

The event’s headline speaker, Johnson got to the country club some five hours before the Caravan began to take in a hot, blue-sky day on Idle Hour’s golf course. Edging Durham, Johnson said he shot a 78.

Following the relaxing hours on the links, he got down to business.

First, Johnson appeared on the Bill Shanks radio show on 1670 AM, answering questions from Shanks and co-host Skip Ceda. Later, he chatted with some fans individually before speaking to them en masse from a podium.

Commenting on as many aspects about his football team as possible, Johnson also appealed Georgia Tech spectators to make the Yellow Jackets’ home Bobby Dodd Stadium feel comfortable when rival Georgia visits Atlanta in late November.

“My plea, wish, request or whatever, is let’s make sure that our stadium isn’t red,” he said. “Let’s make sure it actually looks and feels like a home game.”

With respect to his on-field aspirations, the head coach — entering his second season on The Flats — said he expects several Middle Georgians to be key contributors to his program in the fall.

Receiver Demaryius Thomas, a West Laurens product, has an “NFL body,” Johnson said, and is slated to enjoy a strong junior season.

Joining him in the receiving corps will be true freshman Stephen Hill. A quick wide out from metro Atlanta’s Miller Grove High School, Hill was one of the state’s top prospects this past recruiting season. During one private, one-on-one interview with a reporter, Johnson couldn’t stop praising Hill’s athletic ability.

“We’re excited about what Stephen can do; he set the GHSA state record in the long jump last weekend, jumping 25 (feet), eight-and-3/4 (inches),” Johnson said. “He should be able to make some plays for us.”

One of Hill’s fellow incoming recruits is former Westside linebacker Julian Burnett. A two-star rated defender by most recruiting services, Burnett was criticized primarily because of his short stature. Listed at a generous 5-foot-10, he’s an explosive linebacker who packs a hard hit every time he finds the football. Not to mention, he was coached by one of Georgia’s top high school coaches of all-time, Johnson said.

“When we recruited Julian, the knock everybody was giving him was that he was a little too short,” Johnson said. “But then I talked to his head coach, Robert Davis, and Coach Davis told me he was ‘one of the best, if not the best football player I’ve ever coached.’

“That meant a lot coming from him because he’s coached a lot of good football players.”

One good high school basketball player coming to Georgia Tech next fall is highly-touted recruit Derrick Favors.

The MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game and the Naismith Award winner, Favors comes to Georgia Tech from South Atlanta High School and is expected to help Hewitt’s program return to prominence after a tough 12-win season this past year.

“He has a great chance of being successful,” Hewitt said of Favors. “Derrick isn’t one of those guys where he’s got to go out and try to show people what he can do. A lot of times, you get a lot of young big guys who want to take the ball and get out on the perimeter and shoot—and that’s not to say Derrick isn’t capable—but he knows what his bread and butter is, which is dominating around that rim.”

Hewitt also spoke privately about forward Gani Lawal, who declared for the NBA draft last month, signaling a potential departure from the team. The all-ACC selection did not hire an agent, so there is a chance Lawal could remove his name from the draft and return to Georgia Tech. He has to make that decision by June 15.

“He’s in a good position right now. And he’s got to decide is, ‘is it the right time? The spot where I might go in the draft — first or second round or wherever — am I comfortable with that?’ He and his family have to be comfortable with that,” Hewitt said.

Joseph, fresh from a 10-day trip to France and Tunisia with her basketball team, spoke for a few minutes about her program, as well.

Making their third-straight trip to the NCAA tournament this spring, the Yellow Jackets had a 22-10 record. They also led the nation with 13.6 steals per game.

During their trek to Europe and Africa, Joseph’s players received what she called “an educational opportunity that was a once in a lifetime experience.”

From riding on camels to trekking the Eiffel Tower, the players got a chance to do things many had never dreamed of. Coaching-wise, the most exciting thing about the trip for her was the opportunity to hold an impromptu clinic for a Tunisian team after the Yellow Jackets employed a tough defensive press on them.

“The Tunisian coaches asked for us to teach them our presses, and of course, a few days later, we held a clinic and did,” Joseph said. “The interesting thing about that, was that none of them spoke English. That’s probably one of the most interesting moments I’ve had as a coach.”