- The Washington Times - Friday, August 26, 2005

The rumors came but nothing materialized. Various media outlets linked Paul Johnson’s name to head coaching vacancies at Illinois and Mississippi. He was offered a head coaching position in his home state at East Carolina, but turned it down.

Outsiders might call Johnson crazy. There are too many recruiting restrictions at the Naval Academy. The team always will be physically outmatched on the football field.

But he’s back for his fourth season in charge in Annapolis. Johnson is building something special and rare in college football, made even more exceptional since it is being done at a service academy.

He is winning consistently at a place where it is not supposed to be possible.

“I think it’s a huge challenge. It’s a challenge and every day it’s something new,” Johnson said. “I’ve always operated under the atmosphere that when I have a job I just do that job and don’t do any other ones. It’s a full-time job just doing this one. I can’t worry about other openings and any of that.”

Since Johnson’s return — he was the offensive coordinator in 1995 and ‘96 — the program has turned around. The Midshipmen have gone 18-7 over the past two seasons after a 2-10 finish in Johnson’s first year.

While the team likely will continue to be undermanned against major schools, Johnson and his staff are recruiting better high school athletes. They are beating Army and Air Force — even some BCS schools — for players.

But the program’s transformation extends past the improved level of play.

Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium has been renovated from an antique facility to a start-of-the-art, aesthetic beauty. Same goes for the locker rooms and the coaches’ offices. In March, the school will break ground on a $52million indoor practice facility complete with a full-size football field, an indoor track, weight rooms and fitness areas.

As Johnson looks out his office window at peaceful Spa Creek and beyond to the Chesapeake Bay, he just might feel content.

“When I took the job at Georgia Southern, I fully expected to be there until I quit or they ran me off. It’s the same way here,” Johnson said. “I could coach here until I’m ready to quit and it wouldn’t bother me one bit.”

Johnson’s philosophies about football and life blend perfectly with the atmosphere of academy life. His southern roots are immediately apparent, whether it’s his drawl or the folksiness of his catchphrases (two of his best are “They kicked the fool out of us” and “He couldn’t play dead in a western”).

At times Johnson displays a laid-back, care-free personality. He’ll crack a joke or flash a sheepish grin. Other times, he is fiercely intense and doesn’t mince words.

He is a straight-shooter, never afraid to give his opinion of anyone ranging from a starting player to a scout-teamer. Referees have been known to be within his firing range as well. Johnson doesn’t ask for focus and hard work from his players — he demands it.

At the Naval Academy, Johnson knows more is expected of his players. He pushes them harder, whether it’s conditioning or execution drills. When he tells players they’re not talented enough to just get by, they listen. Or they run and then listen.

“He has kind of an old school approach to football,” defensive line coach Dale Pehrson said. “Our guys are going to be in shape and they’re going to be tough and they’re going to know where to go. I think those are some things that a lot of [coaches] say they’re going to do, but Coach Johnson really does them.”

Most members of the coaching staff who have known Johnson for years say he hasn’t changed a bit. But quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper said Johnson mellowed a bit when his daughter, Kaitlyn, was born.

That seemed far-fetched after a practice last week. Johnson put the players through an extra-long session of sprints and then berated them for their lack of effort in a tone clearly audible half a football field away.

“Coach hasn’t changed. It’s like I always joke, ‘He yelled at me when I was 22 years old and single, and he yells at me now when I’m 40 with three kids,’” said assistant head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who quarterbacked Johnson’s offense when he was the coordinator at Hawaii.

Johnson has become a guru of the option offense.

Dating to his playing days at Avery County High School in North Carolina, Johnson has learned the nuances of executing — and stopping — the offense.

Johnson calls his own plays, and can tell what went right or wrong by who made the tackle. When Johnson was an offensive coordinator, he sat in the coaches’ box but he has adapted to seeing everything at ground level.

Always aggressive, he possesses a confident — even cocky — gunslinger attitude. He’ll go for it on fourth down when others wouldn’t dare.

It’s common for paranoid college coaches to close practices to the public, but Johnson has never closed a practice.

“We don’t have any secrets,” Johnson said. “It’s no secret that when we play you we’re going to run the option. So you can come to our practice and go back and say, ‘Coach, you’d better get ready. They’re going to run the option.’”

Johnson has few, if any, rivals when it comes to gameday decision-making. He and the offensive staff prepare through the week for what an opponent might throw at them, but there is no panic when a team tries something different.

“A lot of people talk about halftime adjustments and this and that,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve been together so long as a staff and Coach [Johnson] has been doing this forever. All of our adjustments are series-to-series. We’re going to find out what you’re doing in the first series and go from there. We don’t wait until halftime.”

Added Johnson: “To me that’s part of coaching. Anybody can have a 2,000-page playbook. It’s adjusting it once the game starts, that’s what it should be all about.”

Two things happen wherever Johnson is coaching — the offense lights up the scoreboard and the team wins. He won 62 games in five seasons at I-AA power Georgia Southern. The three most successful seasons in post-George Welsh history at Navy have come with Johnson calling the plays. He has become a master of what is supposed to be a dying brand of offense.

A common perception was that Johnson’s system wouldn’t work at a big-time program. That’s why Notre Dame and Nebraska have dumped successful coaches in the past decade in favor of someone who favors a modern offense.

People that think that way don’t know Johnson, or weren’t paying attention in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. When Johnson was at Hawaii, his team threw the ball — a lot.

“I might end up someplace where we throw the ball a lot again,” Johnson said. “But it won’t be because some athletic director or some guy says, ‘Hey, I’m going to hire you but I want you to throw the ball 70 percent of the time.’ I won’t operate like that.”

Johnson has good reason to laugh off critics who say his offense couldn’t be successful at a BCS school. That spread offense he ran at Hawaii? It looked pretty similar to the one used by one of the country’s hottest young coaches.

Urban Meyer led Utah to a perfect record and a BCS bowl win and his quarterback, Alex Smith, was the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft with a shotgun-based, spread-option offense. Now Meyer is in charge of a big-time program, Florida.

“It’s been my experience in coaching through the years that people wouldn’t care if you pulled your pants down and painted your head red,” Johnson said. “If you won it would be all right.”

Johnson isn’t just an option expert. He’s also a winning expert.

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