“[Navy coach Paul Johnson] is my leading candidate because of his ability to turn losing teams into winning programs. He simply gets more out of his talent than anyone else.”
“Paul Johnson’s offense has never seen the athleticism in every single game like he will see in the ACC. I’m not convinced. … If you want to get fans against the program, bring in Paul Johnson and bore us to death. Not a good idea.”
— Posts from The Tar Pit, a message board on Scout.com’s Inside Carolina Web site.
Paul Johnson has been a hot topic for the followers of the North Carolina football program for weeks, and now that John Bunting will not return next season, the discussion among Tar Heel fans is magnified.
Johnson is a polarizing figure when his name comes up in any discussion at a school with a head coach vacancy. It is especially true at Chapel Hill because Johnson is a Newland, N.C., native, and there have been hundreds of posts from opinionated fans both for and against him.
One thread actually compares him to former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith for “doing it the right way.” Another alumnus threatened to burn his diploma if UNC hired Johnson.
Johnson has piled up victories as the coach at Georgia Southern and Navy. He won 86 percent of his games and two Division I-AA national titles in Statesboro, Ga. He has won 31 of 44 contests in the past 3½ years in Annapolis and sits one victory from the Midshipmen appearing in their fourth straight bowl game.
But could Johnson be successful at a BCS program? It is a debate that rages on in Chapel Hill and is certain to flare up in other college football communities as more positions become available and Johnson’s name surfaces as a candidate.
Johnson’s opponents immediately point to recruiting — the lifeblood of college football — and say A.) he wouldn’t be able to attract NFL-caliber talent, particularly at quarterback with his spread-option offense, and B.) he has no experience recruiting against elite programs for the best high school players.
“You don’t have to have the who’s who of high school players to win with that offense. It is built on people who are tough,” CSTV college football analyst Trev Alberts said. “Do you want to have statistics or do you want to win? But it will be used against him in recruiting.”
Enticing the prototypical NFL quarterback would be an issue if Johnson wanted one. Every year there are numerous elite high school athletes who were quarterbacks in high school, but switch to another position in college — like Penn State’s Derrick Williams, Louisville’s Michael Bush and Notre Dame’s Tom Zbikowski. Johnson most likely would not have trouble finding athletes to play quarterback in his system.
Any criticism about not being able to recruit at other positions is probably also a myth.
“Why would what you do on offense affect for one minute who you can recruit on defense?” Johnson said. “Let’s see, I have an offensive lineman who wants to play in the NFL and is 6-7 and 295 pounds, but he’s not going to come there because you run the ball? … [If you run the option], everybody says you can’t recruit running backs? Auburn had Bo Jackson, Brent Fullwood and Lionel James. It is ludicrous. If you are winning, kids are going to go there.”
Johnson and his staff have not had to recruit against the elite programs in the country for talent. But they do have to convince 18-year old kids with aspirations to play college football to come to the Naval Academy and embrace its non-football related responsibilities, as well as the five-year service commitment after graduation.
Not only has Johnson’s staff recruited better athletes than previous coaches at the academy, but it has developed kids nobody else wanted into quality players.
“The lessons learned at a place like Navy where you have a harder time recruiting and the No. 1 job is to cultivate them into good Division I players will transfer well into a BCS school,” ESPN college football analyst Ed Cunningham said.
When Johnson was at Georgia Southern and had a level playing field, he had no trouble beating other I-AA schools for talent. While many I-AA schools rely on an infusion of I-A transfers, Johnson did not take them. He had several players play professional football, including Chicago Bears running back Adrian Peterson.
The passing quandary
If recruiting isn’t the first topic for Johnson’s critics, then certainly passing the football is. This season, Navy is ranked 119th — dead last — in passing offense. Even with more accurate quarterbacks, the Mids have never thrown for more than 1,400 yards in a season with Johnson in charge.
Detractors say in this era of college football, teams must throw the football — not only to succeed on the field, but also at the gate.
But when Johnson was the offensive coordinator at Hawaii from 1987 to 1994, his teams lined up in the same basic formation he uses now: two slotbacks, two wide receivers and a fullback. But Johnson’s Hawaii teams threw the ball. Garrett Gabriel had a pair of seasons where he threw for more than 2,000 yards, including 2,752 in 1990.
The next year Michael Carter passed and ran for more than 1,000 yards — a feat Aaron Polanco narrowly missed for Navy in 2004.
“Everywhere he has been, [Johnson] has been successful and in record-breaking fashion,” Carter said. “With the way he adjusts to what other people are doing and the type of athletes you’d get at an elite program, I think it would be close to unstoppable.”
For many elite programs, the option used to be a significant part of the offense. Teams started to move away from it because of perceived difficulties with recruiting and the notion that any fast defense could stop it. The option offense became an endangered species.
In recent seasons, more and more teams are incorporating it back into their playbooks. Rich Rodriguez won first as an offensive coordinator at Tulane and Clemson and is now winning big at West Virginia by using a spread offense to run the ball. His variations of the option became a hot item after the Mountaineers ran all over SEC power Georgia in the Sugar Bowl last season.
Urban Meyer turned Utah into a BCS-buster and Alex Smith into the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft with his version of the spread offense that is option-heavy. He faced the same type of critics who said that wouldn’t work in the SEC. Despite having a quarterback in Chris Leak who isn’t a perfect fit, Meyer’s Gators are 6-1 and No. 9 in the country.
“Urban [Meyer] has done a great job at Florida disguising what they do,” Johnson said. “Nobody thinks they are an option offense, just like Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia. They run the option 70 percent of the time, but nobody calls them an option team because they do it from the gun. Rich is a good coach and I think he has a good system. You can’t worry about [outside perceptions].”
Because Navy is an independent, the Mids are not forced to play the same teams every season. Opponents of Johnson point to this and say if he had to face teams every season in a conference, they would adjust and figure out his offense.
But adjusting to defenses is the cornerstone of Johnson’s success. He calls the plays from the sideline without a chart or notes. Johnson and his staff watch tape of opponents and formulate a game plan, but once the game starts, it is all about what they see and reacting to the defense. And Johnson and his staff don’t wait until halftime — they will change blocking assignments or the direction certain plays go from series to series.
“There are little adjustments here and there. We try to see how people are keying us and what they are trying to get there reads off of,” Navy assistant head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “A lot of it is based on how they are playing.”
Johnson has never expressed a desire to leave, but as long as he continues to win consistently in Annapolis, his name will be on message boards and talk shows in other communities and the debate will continue.
He is well compensated for his work (a contract that runs through 2010 and has been reported to be worth in excess of $1 million a year), and Johnson is a hero to fans of a program where this type of sustained success wasn’t suppose to be possible anymore.
In 1991, Johnson’s offense at Hawaii scored 42 points against a Notre Dame team that won 10 games. Eight years later Johnson’s Georgia Southern team went to Oregon State and scored 41 points against Dennis Erickson’s Beavers (who also went to a bowl game). Any argument that this spread option offense, which is unique from other option-based attacks, couldn’t be successful with better players is probably a bit shortsighted.
“Let’s assume that you went to a school in the SEC,” Johnson said. “Why would those bigger and faster players not be able to run this as well or better than the guys are here? If we can move the ball at Navy against Notre Dame, why wouldn’t we be able to take the guys at Georgia and move the ball against Notre Dame?
“I think that there is a perception out there that it would be hard to recruit to, or that the alumni wouldn’t like it. But I don’t know how much of that stuff is really out there. Honestly, I don’t worry about it.”