Paul Johnson has been in the game a long time. Speaking before close to 4,000 coaches at last week’s AFCA Convention, Johnson talked about his decision to jump into coaching college football, and how close it came to not happening.
After graduating from Western Carolina in 1979, Johnson took a job as a coach and assistant athletics director at Avery County High School in North Carolina. Johnson said Erk Russell wanted to hire him as an assistant on his Georgia Southern staff, and he was interested. Problem was, Johnson was making $38,000 a year as a high school coach, and the job on Russell’s staff paid a third of that. As her husband hemmed and hawed, Susan Johnson urged Paul to take Russell up on the offer, saying she’d get a job, and if it didn’t work out he could always return to North Carolina. Johnson agreed, saying he’d give it until he was 30.
He was the offensive coordinator at Hawaii by age 30. Needless to say, he never returned to North Carolina as a high school coach.
Thirty-plus years in the college game – 17 as a head coach – allowed Johnson to develop what he calls 12 Foundation Pillars of his program.
1) Surround yourself with great people and define their role in the program. “Everybody wants to be the head coach at Ohio State,” Johnson said. “It a’int gonna work like that.” Johnson stressed that assistants and staff members must check their ego at the door and know that opportunity will be there if they do a good job.
2) Be demanding and hold people accountable while giving them the opportunity to do their job. Treat them the way you would want to be treated if you had their job. Johnson hired an offensive coordinator during his time as Georgia Southern’s head coach and let him call the plays. Then, in his head, he second-guessed every call. He didn’t do this with the defensive coordinator, just the offensive coordinator. The he realized it wasn’t fair to his offensive coordinator to hire a coach to do a job and not let him do it his way. (Keep in mind, Johnson was 63-10 with two Division I-AA national championships at Georgia Southern.)
3) Be yourself, people are smart, and they see right through someone who isn’t sincere. Stay true to your philosophies. After winning the ACC in 2009, Georgia Tech slipped to 28-25 from 2010-13 because “we got away from our base stuff”, straying from the tried-and-true triple option for some of the trendier stuff in the game, ‘and what I found was we weren’t worth a s— at any of them.”
Johnson said the Jackets got back to being Georgia Tech this year, and the results speak for themselves: 11 wins, an ACC Coastal Division championship, the team’s first win over Georgia since 2008, a No. 8 final ranking and the first New Year’s Six bowl victory since the 1956 Sugar Bowl. (The emergence of spark-plug quarterback Justin Thomas also helped.)
4) Be willing to make tough decisions and hold yourself accountable to them. Nobody wants to work or play for someone who can’t make decisions. Johnson learned the danger of hard-and-fast rules from Russell at Georgia Southern. “The guys you don’t want to break them will be the ones who break ’em,” Johnson said. He told a story of three players missing curfew, and Russell asked Johnson thought they’d play hard in the next day’s game. “Probably not,” Johnson said, “it’s obviously not important to them.”
Russell then addressed his players and said, “Guys, I’m disappointed in you. I’m going to decide what I’ll do with you after I watch how hard you play.” The truant trio played as hard as anyone on the team.
5) Have a plan to develop the total person. They need to know you care about more than football. Johnson said twice a year the program will bring in local alumni and businessmen to help players establish connections and have a face-to-face glance at what success looks like.
6) Never try to teach a pig to sing. It frustrates you and annoys the hell out of the pig. That slice of back porch wisdom is pretty self-explanatory.
7) Every good coach has at least at least one of the following three things: A) Fear or Respect, B) Love, C) Superior Knowledge. Johnson said the really good coaches have two, and the great ones have all three.
8) Recruiting is like shaving: If you don’t do it at least once a day, you look like a bum. Johnson acknowledged it’s a cliche, but spoke to its truth. Every morning starts with a meeting where staff members will put three recruits on the white board, and the entire staff writes a handwritten note to each prospect.
9) It’s not how long you work but how efficient you work that counts! Have a plan and routine to get things done! Longer isn’t always better. Johnson said he worked at a place (but didn’t name which) where the head coach stayed until 11 p.m. every night, and the offensive and defensive staffs took turns peaking to see if the other side was still there. Once the head coach left, the rest of the staff raced to the door. Now, Johnson leaves by 7 p.m. on Sunday nights and tells his staff to stay until they get their work done, then leave.
Johnson also shared his weekly in-season schedule. The Jackets are in pads on Tuesday and Wednesday, and spend one hour on the practice field the rest of the week.
10) It’s not what you know as a coach that matters, it’s what you can teach and communicate to the players so they can play fast. A standard of every coach’s belief system.
11) Have fun with your job. If it’s only a grind, you won’t make it very long. During their shared time in Atlanta, Johnson became close with Falcons head coach Mike Smith. Smith said he worked so hard to finally be an NFL head coach, and then never enjoyed the job once he had it.
12) Every member of the team and staff needs to feel important. You’re only as strong as your weakest link. Johnson spends the time before practice getting to know younger players, and makes sure to let every support staffer know they’re doing a good job.
Finally: Johnson has long had a streak of, as younger people would say, wanting to stick it to the haters. Johnson said he was happy being Georgia Southern’s head coach, but took the Navy job to prove his offense could work at the FBS level. Then he took the Georgia Tech job to show his offense could work at the BCS level.
Johnson: “I’ve been running (triple option) since 1985 and I’ve been told every reason why it won’t work.”
— Zach Barnett (@zach_barnett) January 13, 2015
Finally, one last piece of wisdom from the great Erk Russell.
Paul Johnson: “As Erk Russell used to say, you know you’re getting older when you go on a recruiting visit and grandmas start to look good.” — Zach Barnett (@zach_barnett) January 13, 2015