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Paul Johnson, Avery County native, named to College Football Hall of Fame

By Tim Gardner

Avery County native and former Georgia Tech, Navy and Georgia Southern head coach Paul Johnson has been selected for induction into the College Football Hall of Fame for its 2023 class, the National Football Foundation (NFF) announced on Monday, January 9.

Johnson’s Hall of Fame selection came after he was placed on the ballot for the first time last June. He was among nine coaches and 80 former players included on the 2023 Major College Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) ballot. In addition to Johnson, 21 others earned Class of 2023 enshrinement.

Johnson, who has a home in Linville, offered the following comments via his Twitter Social Media account about his upcoming Hall of Fame induction:  “Extremely honored to be selected to the College Football Hall of Fame.  Thanks to (the) NFF Network and selection committee.  (I) feel fortunate to have been surrounded by so many outstanding coaches and players. (I) appreciate everyone who has reached out.”

Johnson and the rest of the College Football Hall of Fame Class of 2023 will be officially inducted on December 5, 2023 at the 65th NNF Annual Awards Dinner in Las Vegas, Nevada. Each of their enshrinements will be commemorated at the College Football Hall of Fame, located in Atlanta, GA. Enshrinees will also be honored at their respective schools with an NFF Hall of Fame On-Campus Salute, presented by Fidelity Investments, during the 2023 season.

Johnson compiled a career collegiate coaching record of 189-99 (.656) in 22 seasons as a head coach on major college and lower-level, Division 1-AA levels.  His over-all major college coaching record is 127-89, and he had a 62-10 mark at then lower-level, Division I-AA Georgia Southern.

Johnson had only four losing seasons as a college head coach.

He is one of only a few college football coaches to never have played football on the collegiate level.

He coached Georgia Tech for 11 seasons (2008-2018), compiling an 82-60 record. His win total is the fourth-most in Tech history, behind only his fellow-College Football Hall of Famers Bobby Dodd (165), William Alexander (134) and John Heisman (102). Johnson’s .577 winning percentage with the Yellow Jackets ranks fifth-best in program history, behind only Heisman (.764), Dodd (.713), George O’Leary (.612) and Alexander (.580). Johnson led the Yellow Jackets to nine bowl appearances (winning three) and three Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) championship games. He was named ACC Coach of the Year three times (2008, 2009 and 2014).

Also under Johnson, the Yellow Jackets compiled two of the nine 10-win seasons and one of the five 11-win campaigns in Georgia Tech’s 130-year football history.

When he resigned at Georgia Tech at the end of the 2018 season, his 189 career victories ranked fourth among NCAA Division I FBS head coaches.

Prior to his tenure at Georgia Tech, Johnson was head coach at Navy (United States Naval Academy) from 2002-2007 and his first collegiate head coaching experience came at Georgia Southern from 1997-2001.

In his six seasons at Navy, he led the Midshipmen to five eight-win seasons, five Commander-in-Chief’s trophies and five bowl appearances, turning around a program that had won just one game in the two seasons prior to his arrival (1-20). His 2007 team earned a berth to the Poinsettia Bowl, but Johnson had already taken the Georgia Tech head coaching job and Navy was coached in that game by Johnson’s replacement as head coach, Ken Niumatalolo. Navy won 2 of 4 bowl games when Johnson coached the Midshipmen.

Johnson’s Navy teams never lost to arch-rival Army (United States Military Academy) during his tenure as head coach and lost only once in six games against the Air Force Academy. And his 2006 senior class was the first in Navy history to win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy (for beating both Army and Air Force) all four of their years in school.

In 2007, Johnson coached Navy to a 46-44 triple-overtime victory over Notre Dame, ending the Midshipmen’s 43-game losing streak against the Fighting Irish.

In five seasons as Georgia Southern’s head coach, Johnson led the Eagles to a pair of NCAA Division I-AA–now called Football Championship Subdivision (FCS)–national championships (1999 and 2000), one national runner-up finish (1998) and five-straight Southern Conference titles.

Georgia Southern went 14-3 in Division I-AA national playoff games during Johnson’s tenure as head coach.

Johnson was Southern Conference Coach of The Year in 1997 and 1998, and he also received the Eddie Robinson Award in ’98. The latter honor is given annually to college football’s top head coach in the NCAA Division I FCS (formerly Division I-AA).

Johnson was also named the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Division I-AA National Coach of the Year in 1999 and 2000.

And in 2004 at Navy, he was named the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year. That award is presented annually to the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision head coach whose team excels on the field, in the classroom and in the community. The award is named for Dodd and was established in 1976 to honor the values that he exemplified.

Additionally, Johnson was the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) Sportsline 2008 National Coach of The Year while coaching at Georgia Tech.

Johnson coached 11 First Team All-Americans and one First Team Academic All-American. He coached 1999 Walter Payton Award winner and 2017 College Football Hall of Fame inductee Adrian Peterson at Georgia Southern and 2010 Burlsworth Trophy recipient Sean Bedford at Georgia Tech. The Walter Payton Award is awarded annually to the most outstanding offensive player in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) of college football, while the Burlsworth Trophy is an award given annually to the most outstanding FBS college football player who began his career as a walk-on.

Johnson is best known for his flexbone, spread-option offense, which usually bedeviled opponents and also piled up plenty of yards and points with Johnson calling all the plays. At the end of the 2018 regular season, Georgia Tech had run for 5,222 more yards than any other major conference team (school) during Johnson’s 11-year tenure.

Johnson also served as an assistant coach at Navy (1995-1996), Hawaii (1987-1994), Georgia Southern (1983-1986) and Lees-McRae Junior College in Banner Elk, where he got his first college coaching experience. He assisted with the Lees-McRae Bobcats in 1981 and 1982.

Georgia Southern also won a pair of I-AA national titles in 1985-86 while Johnson was its Offensive Coordinator.

Johnson’s first football coaching experience came as an assistant at Tuscola High School in Waynesville, NC in 1978, while he finished his undergraduate studies at Western Carolina University.

He then returned to his native roots as an assistant at Avery County High School in Newland. The Vikings produced two of their best seasons ever with Johnson as offensive coordinator in 1979 and co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach in 1980. Avery compiled a 17-4-1 record, captured a Blue Ridge 2-A Conference championship, was league runners-up the other year and earned state playoffs berths both seasons.

Johnson, who was raised in Newland, also played football for Avery High, where he graduated in 1975. Johnson then earned his Bachelor of Science degree in physical education from Western Carolina University in 1979. He also earned a Master of Science in health and physical education from Appalachian State University in 1982.

He was presented Western Carolina University’s Professional Achievement Award in 2022 and was honored during the school’s homecoming football game activities this past season.

Johnson and his wife, the former Susan Propst, have a daughter, Kaitlyn. Johnson is the son of Paul Johnson, Sr. and Joyce Johnson, and he has two brothers, Tim and Jamey.

In addition to Johnson, the 2003 Class of the College Football Hall of Fame includes: Eric Berry, Defensive Back, Tennessee (2007-09); Michael Bishop, Quarterback, Kansas State (1997-1998); Reggie Bush, Running Back, Southern Cal (2003-05); Monte Cater, Head Coach Lakeland (1991-1996) and Shepherd (1987-2017); Dwight Freeney, Defensive End, Syracuse (1998-2001); Robert Gallery, Offensive Tackle, Iowa (2000-2003); LaMichael James, Running Back, Oregon (2009-2011); Derrick Johnson, Linebacker, Texas (2001-2004); Bill Kollar, Defensive Tackle, Montana State (1971-1973); Roy Kramer, Head Coach, Central Michigan (1967-1977); Luke Kuechly, Linebacker, Boston College (2009-2011); Jeremy Maclin, Wide Receiver/Kick Returner, Missouri (2007-2008); Terance Mathis, Wide Receiver, New Mexico (1985-1987); Bryant McKinnie, Offensive Tackle, Miami (2000-2001); Corey Moore, Defensive Lineman, Virginia Tech (1997-1999); Mark Richt, Head Coach, Georgia (2001-2015) and Miami (2016-2018); Michael Stonebreaker, Linebacker, Notre Dame (1986, 1988 and 1990); Tim Tebow, Quarterback, Florida (2006-2009); Troy Vincent, Defensive Back, Wisconsin (1988-1991); Brian Westbrook, Running Back, Villanova (1997-1998, 2000-2001); and DeAngelo Williams, Running Back, Memphis (2002-05).

The Hall of Fame ballot was emailed to the more than 12,000 NFF members and current Hall of Famers whose votes were tabulated and submitted to the NFF’s Honors Court, which deliberated and selected the class. The Honors Court, chaired by NFF Board Member and College Football Hall of Famer Archie Griffin from Ohio State, includes an elite and geographically diverse pool of athletic administrators, Hall of Famers and press members.

Criteria for Hall of Fame consideration includes:

*First and foremost, a player must have received First-Team All-America recognition by a selector that is recognized by the NCAA and utilized to comprise its consensus All-America teams.

*A player becomes eligible for consideration by the Foundation’s Honors Courts 10 full seasons after his final year of intercollegiate football played.

*While each nominee’s football achievements in college are of prime consideration, his post-football record as a citizen is also weighed. He must have proven himself worthy as a citizen, carrying the ideals of football forward into his relations with his community. Consideration may also be given for academic honors and whether the candidate earned a college degree.

*Players must have played their last year of intercollegiate football within the last 50 years. For example, to be eligible for the 2023 ballot, the player must have played his last year in 1973 or thereafter. In addition, players who are playing professionally and coaches who are coaching on the professional level are not eligible until after they retire.

*A coach becomes eligible three full seasons after retirement or immediately following retirement provided he is at least 70 years of age. Active coaches become eligible at 75 years of age. He must have been a head football coach for a minimum of 10 years and coached at least 100 games with a .600 winning percentage.

*Nominations may only be submitted by the current athletics director, head coach or sports information director (SID) of a potential candidate’s collegiate institution. Nominations may also be submitted by the president/executive director of a dues-paying chapter of the National Football Foundation.

Players who do not comply with the 50-year rule may still be eligible for consideration by the Football Bowl Subdivision and Divisional Veterans Committees. Veterans Committee candidates must still meet First Team All-America requirement.