ATLANTA — It was early.
The sun, up for just a few hours, was beginning to peek above the stadium’s lights.
Yes, it was early, but there they stood, preparing to go to work once again. Just two days after clocking in one of their most memorable shifts of the brief year, they readied themselves for the next major task ahead.
On Saturday morning, as college players around the country started taking the field for their latest game, the Yellow Jackets found themselves back on the site of their own most recent contest.
Empty and devoid of the cheering fans who willed the Yellow Jackets to a 30-27 win over Clemson on Thursday, Bobby Dodd Stadium was the place where the business of instilling mental toughness resumed.
“We just got done running six gassers. You don’t really do that after you’ve won a game,” a sweat-drenched, somewhat beleaguered Sedric Griffin said, grinning after the morning workout.
Gassers — football lingo for cross-field conditioning sprints that require players to finish within a particular time — were the drill du jour for the Yellow Jackets on this day, after they had just extended their undefeated start. The win came as Georgia Tech held off a 24-point Clemson comeback when Yellow Jackets place-kicker Scott Blair made hme a 36-yard game-winning field goal.
But as beneficial as the Saturday exercises were physically, there was a larger theme to which they were contributing.
“That’s the mental toughness that (head) Coach (Paul) Johnson instills in us,” Griffin said. “You have to be mentally tough because things (like the Clemson comeback) happen like that.”
According to Griffin, Johnson’s hard-line, mentally demanding coaching philosophy has helped will the team through several clutch, close-game moments during his brief tenure.
But regardless of what it is exactly, the head coach definitely seems to have some effect on the Yellow Jackets when the game is on the line.
Consider this, for example.
In 2006 and 2007, Georgia Tech had a 3-6 record in games decided by fewer than four points. Since Johnson’s stint with the Yellow Jackets began last fall, the team is 6-1 in such contests.
Add that to Johnson’s personal 9-2 mark in those types of games across the past three seasons, and it certainly looks like that the coach is doing something correctly when it comes to close-game management. But don’t tell him that.
“I think a lot of football is mind-set,” Johnson said cautiously, before indicating that he doesn’t know if his approaches are any different than other coaches.
So if it isn’t the coaching, what has changed to seemingly give the Yellow Jackets confidence that they can win tight battles such as the one they played last week? Perhaps it is in the personnel.
“We had a lot of seniors that year,” sophomore A-back Roddy Jones said, reflecting on 2007, previous Georgia Tech head coach Chan Gailey’s final season. “So I think it’s just a whole new group of guys, and it’s a whole new attitude from the top all the way down.”
That attitude, Jones contends, helped the Yellow Jackets claw back into last Thursday’s contest when Clemson had taken an early fourth quarter lead on a field goal.
“We don’t quit. When it comes down to it and when it comes down the stretch, we trust each other and we believe we can win,” Jones said. “We lost focus a little bit against Clemson and let them get back in the game, but we wanted to win the game, and we really didn’t quit the whole game. Guys didn’t hang their heads or anything like that, and everybody stayed in the game.”
The view from Georgia Tech’s defense was much the same, Griffin said, adding, “We told ourselves, ‘They’re not going to score. We’re going to hold them to a field goal so our offense has a chance to lead us back.’ ”
Three seasons ago, the argument could be made that that may not have been the case. In the year before Gailey’s tenure came to an end, the Yellow Jackets dropped three straight games by three points. Losing to rival Georgia 15-12 to end the 2006 regular season, the Yellow Jackets went on to lose to Wake Forest in the ACC championship (9-6) and to West Virginia in the Gator Bowl (38-35).
But that’s where Johnson’s decree of augmenting Georgia Tech’s mental toughness comes in, said Griffin, was a freshman that year.
“You’re not going to be up every game, or you’re not going to be the best defense, but when the crunch time comes, you’ve got to be a collective group and you have to stick together with each other and that’s what we did at the end,” Griffin said.
For that reason, he has no problem running gassers, stadium steps, laps around campus — or anything else — for Johnson.
“Coach Johnson brings a swagger to the team. And I know that’s kind of a big word for ’09, but that’s what he does,” Griffin said. “Coach Johnson has an aura around him — a winning aura that you really want to be a part of. He’s got a past that speaks for itself. So when he steps on the field, you see a leader like that. You see, he’s a general for us, and you want to go to war for somebody like that.”