By Tim Gardner
Ironically, one coach with North Carolina High Country ties has just taken over a major college football program, while another has just retired. A second irony is that both are from an Atlantic Coast Conference school. And yet a third irony is that they both have strong connections to Avery County.
One day after Linville resident Mack Brown was named head football coach at the University of North Carolina for a second time, Newland native Paul Johnson stepped down as head coach at Georgia Tech.
The 61-year-old Johnson made the announcement Wednesday after meeting with his players.
He coached Georgia Tech for 11 seasons, compiling a record there of 82-59 that includes eight bowl appearances and three trips to the ACC championship game.
Johnson will coach one more game at Georgia Tech, staying on for its bowl game. The Yellow Jackets have been linked to the Military and Music City bowls.
This season, the Yellow Jackets bounced back from a 1-3 start to finish 7-5, winning four straight games before a suffering a 45-21 rout at No. 4 Georgia last Saturday to close the regular season.
Georgia Tech finished 5-3 in the ACC, its first winning record in conference play since 2014.
“After 41 years of coaching, it’s time to take a break,” Johnson said in a statement. “My family has sacrificed a lot over the years. I want to watch my daughter [Kaitlyn, a professional opera singer] perform and do some things with my wife [Susan] that we’ve never had a chance to do. It’s been a great run for the last 11 years here on The Flats (at Georgia Tech). I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished and am looking forward to having the chance to coach this team one last time at our bowl game next month.”
A news conference formally announcing Johnson’s resignation is to be held at 9:00 a.m. Thursday at Georgia Tech.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (ajc.com) listed several possible replacements for Johnson at Georgia Tech, including Appalachian State head coach Scott Satterfield. On ajc.com, the following was highlighted about Satterfield in an article about candidates for the Georgia Tech job: Took over Appalachian State in 2012 and switched to a spread formation offense. Has a 50-24 career record as a head coach, all at Appalachian State, including 9-2 this season. Will make fourth straight bowl appearance after wins in previous three. Team was briefly ranked in the AP Top 25 this season.
Athlon Sports publications also have listed Satterfield as a candidate to replace Johnson.
Satterfield’s former defensive coordinator at Appalachian State, Nate Woody, took the same post at Georgia Tech following the 2017 season.
Los Angeles Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who played at Georgia Tech, also is expected to be a top candidate to succeed Johnson. Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, Alabama offensive line coach and former Georgia Tech player Brent Key are considered candidates as well. Others who could be in the mix include Kennesaw State head coach Brian Bohannan and Army head coach Jeff Monken, who are both former assistants to Johnson.
The decision to resign apparently was Johnson’s to make. He reportedly had been under pressure from some of the school’s constituency to resign or be fired after the Yellow Jackets suffered losing seasons in both 2015 (3-9) and 2017 (5-6) and again after the team’s bad start to this season. But Georgia Tech athletics director Todd Stansbury reportedly wanted Johnson to continue as head coach.
“I was saddened when Coach Johnson informed me that he was going to step down as our head coach,” Stansbury said. “Not only is he Georgia Tech’s winningest head coach in more than 50 years, but he is also an incredible mentor for the young men in our football program and has helped develop countless student-athletes who have gone on to great success after graduation.”
The Johnson era at Georgia Tech ends as the longest tenure and most wins for a head coach at the school since legendary coach Bobby Dodd’s retirement in 1966. Dodd was Georgia Tech’s head coach for 22 years and he won 165 games there,
Under Johnson’s direction, the Yellow Jackets reached heights rarely scaled since Dodd was their head coach. The team’s two Orange Bowl appearances, at the end of the 2009 and 2014 seasons, were the Jackets’ only major-bowl appearances since Dodd’s era.
But Johnson’s Georgia Tech teams struggled against the Yellow Jackets’ biggest rival, the University of Georgia, losing to the Bulldogs eight of eleven times during his tenure. And the gap between the two school’s football fortunes seems to be widening hugely in Georgia’s favor. The Bulldogs have won the last two games in the series by a lopsided 83-28 margin. Georgia will return a large bulk of its players from this season in 2019 and will be a heavy favorite to beat Georgia Tech then.
Under Johnson, Georgia Tech won the 2009 ACC championship – just the third in school history – and finished eighth in the country in 2014 with a team that won 11 games. But Georgia Tech was fined $100,000 by the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), stripped of that conference football championship and placed on four years of probation for failure to cooperate with its investigation into the football and men’s basketball programs. Johnson was not penalized for any rules violations after the investigation concluded.
Johnson is best known for his triple-option offense, which has produced gaudy rushing statistics but is derided for being one-dimensional and out of touch with today’s wide-open offensive schemes. Still, Johnson’s offense has often bedeviled opponents and piled up plenty of yards and points. The Yellows Jackets lead the nation with an average of almost 335 yards per game on the ground, but they completed only 11 passes in their last five games combined.
The Yellow Jackets ran for 5,222 more yards than any other major conference team during Johnson’s tenure. They also averaged only 13.0 passes per game — only Army (9.5), Navy (10.0) and Air Force (12.9) attempted fewer passes during that same period.
Prior to his tenure at Georgia Tech, Johnson was a head coach at Georgia Southern and Navy.
He guided Georgia Southern to a 62-10 mark and a pair of lower-level Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) national championships before moving to Navy in 2002. After a 2-10 record in his debut season of 2002, Navy ripped off five straight winning seasons and bowl appearances. Johnson never lost to arch-rival Army as Navy’s head coach, going 6-0.
Johnson’s over-all major college coaching record is 127-88, with only four losing seasons in his 22 years as a head coach.
He also served as an assistant at Navy, Hawaii, Georgia Southern and Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk.
Georgia Southern won a pair of I-AA national titles in 1985-86 while Johnson was Offensive Coordinator.
Johnson’s first football coaching experience came as an assistant at Tuscola High School in Waynesville, NC in1978, while finishing 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 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.