Stationed high above the playing surface, it was from a broadcast booth where Bill Curry first witnessed the chess master at work.
No evidence of a play sheet, no sign of notes directing his next move, the crafty competitor looked comfortable, confident and in control. He was different; far from any other participant the game had ever seen.
“I give credit to my (ESPN) broadcast buddy, Eric Collins,” said Curry, a former college football analyst and Georgia Tech head coach. “I was his analyst for several games, and we covered a lot of Paul Johnson’s games when he was at Navy. Every time we talked about Paul Johnson, Eric said the same thing, and he said it on air. ‘The rest of the coaches are playing checkers, Paul Johnson is playing chess.’ Eric came up with that. And he’s right.”
Creator of a unique option-style offense, Johnson — the Yellow Jackets’ current head coach entering his second year — began drawing praise from commentators while at Navy several seasons ago. That praise resulted from the success his offense was enjoying as it routinely attacked opposing defenses.
Not to mention, Curry added, Johnson had a finesse for employing key, unexpected in-game adjustments that countered varying looks defenses presented his team.
“If you have a flaw,” Curry said, with a laugh, “Paul’s going to find it, and then he’s going to beat you to death until you correct it. And when you correct it, then he’s got a counter for that, and it’s all in his head. He does not have a play sheet, he doesn’t always have a card in his hand, he doesn’t look at notes. He stands there, and it’s all upstairs.”
Johnson knows how to play chess but has not played it very often. But the way he views football is very similar to the board game.
“Once the (football) game starts, you have to be able to move and counter-move,” Johnson said last month on the Bill Shanks radio show. “You have to know your system and your opponents’ system enough. Although, that doesn’t always work because sometimes, physical superiority can get in the way of all that.”
On Tuesday morning, both Curry and Johnson were in Macon at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame as part of the Pigskin Preview. An annual event, the function is an opportunity for coaches and players to meet with members of the media before their preseason conference meetings next month.
Curry, who coached the Yellow Jackets from 1980-1986, recently stepped away from the broadcast booth and handed over his media credential for a coaching headset. Starting next fall, the 66-year-old will be back on the sidelines, leading the upstart Georgia State Panthers. A program in its infancy, football has never been a part of Georgia State’s legacy.
“There are people saying Georgia State shouldn’t start football,” Curry said. “No, it’s going to work, and it’s not because of me. We have a lot of good things in our favor that I had absolutely nothing to do with.”
He credits the school’s student body, as well as resources in Atlanta as being reasons why the program will succeed.
Johnson, who admits having had limited interactions with Curry, believes there is reason Curry’s soon-to-be players should be optimistic about their futures.
“One thing I know about him is that he’s a gifted and motivated speaker, and if there’s one thing I’d have to pick about him, that’s it. That’s kind of his calling card,” Johnson said. “He exudes a lot of class and credibility. He’s just got kind of a little bit of that ‘it’ factor. He demands respect the way he carries himself. He’s got a lot of clout, when he walks into a room.”
The type of clout Curry sees Johnson display is of a quieter, but intense variety.
“When Paul was hired, I was asked a lot, ‘What do you think?’ And this was my answer: ‘Listen very carefully, be real quiet. You hear those gagging sounds?’ ” Curry said, while making choking sounds. “ ‘They’re coming from Athens and Tallahassee (Fla.) and Chapel Hill (N.C.) — nobody in the ACC wants to play Paul Johnson. He is a great football coach. He’s perfect for Georgia Tech.”
Calling him a cerebral game-manager, Curry believes one of Johnson’s other assets is his knack for discipline. A hard-liner known for his challenging conditioning workouts, Johnson earned his players’ immediate respect for the ways he wants them to conduct themselves both on and off the field.
“He gets it about Georgia Tech, because Georgia Tech people expect a couple of things, and he knows that,” Curry said. “They expect everybody to graduate — I don’t care how hard it is — and they expect you to win. And they don’t want to hear any excuses about a limited curriculum or high SATs. They just want to hear the (game) score and you better beat Georgia periodically.
“It’s a tough job, and he’s perfect.”
Johnson said he appreciated that sentiment, but he acknowledged that his body of work still leaves much to be desired from the Georgia Tech fan base. After a 9-4 season in his first year, Yellow Jackets fans are hungry for more.
“Coaching sometimes you just never know. Hopefully we’ll be a fit, but you can’t base it on one year, so we’ll see,” Johnson said.
That said, this time next year, he believes his two-season resume with the program will indicate that his staff was a firm fit.
“We’re going to be a better football team this year. We’ll be a better team,” Johnson said. “Now will we win more games? I don’t know. That’s why you play the games. But if we stay healthy, we’re going to be a better football team.”