GSU and Navy: A Parallel Universe

Saturday's game at Navy-Marine Memorial Stadium might as well be titled the "Remember Paul Johnson Bowl". This game was scheduled when Paul Johnson was still coaching Navy. It's hard to think of two schools playing each other where both owe so much of their football history to one coach.

While the Paul Johnson coaching tree doesn't exactly rival Bill Walsh's, both head coaches and offensive coordinators in Saturday's game are protégées of Johnson.

It was at Georgia Southern where the spread option was born. After two years on the Eagle staff Johnson was promoted to offensive coordinator in 1985. Johnson developed a triple option offense that was a hybrid of the veer and the run-and-shoot. With star quarterback Tracy Ham, the Eagles went 26-4 and won consecutive Division 1-AA national championship while on offense averaging 435 yards and 36 points per game.

After Bob Wagner was hired as head coach in Hawaii he asked Johnson to become his offensive coordinator. Johnson helped Hawaii win their first Western Athletic Conference title and was a key factor in the Warriors appearing in their first bowl game. Johnson spent eight years in Hawaii and recruited quarterbacks Ken Niumatalolo and Ivan Jasper. Navy's future football fortunes turned when Bob Wagner was surprisingly fired in Hawaii. Charlie Weatherbie was hired at Navy and brought Paul Johnson in to run the offense. Johnson then hired Ken Niumatalolo and Ivan Jasper as assistants to help him implement the offense.

It was Johnson who developed star quarterback Chris McCoy. McCoy had been a backup defensive back as a freshman and came to Johnson at practice and said he thought he could play quarterback in Johnson's offense. Johnson says he told McCoy to get in the back of the line but after watching him run one play Johnson said he moved him to the front. After a 5-6 debut season the Mids had a breakout 1996 season where they posted a 9-3 record which included an exciting victory over Cal in the Aloha bowl. It was Navy's first winning season since 1982 and one of only two winning seasons the Mids had during a 19-year span.

Meanwhile at Georgia Southern the Eagles continued to run the spread option. In 1989 coaching great Erk Russell's unbeaten team won the Division 1-AA title and he retired. Offensive coordinator Tim Stowers was promoted as head coach and in his first season the Eagles repeated as national champions. However, despite a 51-23 record, Stowers wasn't Russell and he was fired after the 1995 season. In 1996, after a 4-7 season, Georgia Southern brought back the man who created the offense.

At Georgia Southern from 1997-2001 Johnson won over eighty-six percent of his games and won back-to-back Division I-AA National Championships in 1999 and 2000. He was named Division I-AA National Coach of the Year for four straight years. In 1999 super star running back Adrian Peterson won the Walter Payton award which is awarded to the top player in Division 1-AA.

Meanwhile at Navy, after Johnson left as offensive coordinator, Charlie Weatherbie eventually fired Niumatalolo who had been promoted to replace Johnson. However, the Mids fell on hard times and from 2000-2001 Navy went a miserable 1-20. Navy's new athletic director Chet Gladchuk turned to Johnson to run the program. Gladchuk hired Johnson with a slogan "Expect to win". After a 2-10 initial season Johnson joked the slogan should have read "Expect two wins". The joking stopped next year as Navy won the first of what is now seven consecutive and counting Commander in Chief Trophy's. Johnson's teams went 43-19 over his last 62 games including five straight bowl appearances, 11-1 against service academy rivals and the ended of the 43 years of futility against Notre Dame with an overtime victory.

After Johnson moved to Georgia Tech Ken Niumatalolo was promoted to head coach. Navy hasn't missed a beat under Niumatalolo and he has raised the bar in recruiting. At Georgia Southern, after Johnson left for Navy, Mike Sewak compiled a 35-14 record but didn't live up to standards set by Johnson and was fired. The Eagles went 21-23 over four seasons following their abandoning of the spread offense. This year Georgia Southern, under former Navy and Georgia Tech slot back coach Jeff Monken, returns the Eagles to its spread option roots. On the field Saturday you will see two very different programs that share so much history.

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