Georgia Tech football head coach Paul Johnson turns 58 on Thursday heading into his eighth season with the Yellow Jackets. During his tenure in Atlanta, the Yellow Jackets have compiled a 58-35 record, and he has been named the ACC Coach of the Year three times, in 2008, 2009 and 2014.
His overall head coaching record, which also includes a five-year stay at Georgia Southern and six years at Navy, is 165-74. He went 62-10 at Georgia Southern and 45-29 at Navy. Johnson’s teams have failed to reach postseason play just once in his 19 years as a head coach, and that was his first season at Navy when the Midshipmen finished 2-10.
In a recent conversation, I asked him to name his five biggest or most memorable wins, and he came up with the first four fairly quickly and the fifth after a few minutes of thought. Johnson’s list includes games at all three of his head coaching jobs.
The first was Georgia Southern’s 1999 national championship when the Eagles defeated Jim Tressel’s Youngstown State Penguins in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Adrian Peterson (no, not the Minnesota Vikings standout, but the one who played for the Chicago Bears for eight seasons) rushed for 247 yards on 25 carries while scoring three touchdowns as Georgia Southern won in a rout 59-24. Peterson won the Walter Payton Award that season as the top offensive player in FCS play.
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Second on Johnson’s list was Georgia Southern’s 2000 national championship when the Eagles beat the Montana Grizzlies, also in Chattanooga. Georgia Southern pulled out a 27-25 win. Once again, Peterson was the man of the hour. After building a 20-3 halftime lead, the Eagles fell behind 25-20, but Peterson saved the day, racing 57 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with a little more than 11 minutes remaining in the game. He finished the game with 148 yards rushing and two touchdowns. It was the 43rd straight game that he rushed for 100-plus yards in a game.
I was positive Navy’s win over Notre Dame in 2007 would be on Johnson’s list and it was. The Midshipmen ended 43 years of futility against the Fighting Irish, taking a 46-44 win in three overtimes. Regulation ended with the score tied at 28. Both teams added touchdowns and field goals on their first two possessions and scored touchdowns on their third. Rules require teams to go for a two-point coversion after a touchdown in the third overtime, and Navy converted while Notre Dame did not. Navy had not beaten the Irish since 1963 when Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach led the Midshipmen to a 35-14 victory.
Georgia Tech victories rounded out Johnson’s top five with the ACC championship win over Clemson in 2009 taking the fourth spot and a 25-23 win over Virginia Tech earlier that season completing the list.
In that ACC title game, neither team punted, and every possession ended in a touchdown or a turnover. The Yellow Jackets fell behind 34-33 with just more than six minutes remaining in the game but drove the length of the field to score with just 1:34 remaining to take a 39-34 win. The ACC later vacated Georgia Tech’s 2009 title due to sanctions from an NCAA investigation.
The final spot, which Johnson had to think about for a minute, was Georgia Tech’s 28-23 victory over fourth-ranked Virginia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium earlier in the 2009 season. Quarterback Josh Nesbitt rushed for 122 yards on 23 carries and scored three touchdowns. The Yellow Jackets’ defense held the Hokies to just 175 yards rushing. It was Georgia Tech’s first win over a top-five team since the 1962 season.
I was a little surprised that he didn’t mention Georgia Tech’s 49-44 win over Florida State in Tallahassee in 2009 or last season’s last-minute victory over Georgia in Athens. But as he said when he gave me the top five, “That list could change tomorrow.’’
Contact Bobby Pope at firstname.lastname@example.org