EXCLUSIVE: Johnson Family Interview, Part One

In anticipation of Paul Johnson winning his 100th game, GoMids.com's David Ausiello sat down with the two people who know the Navy football coach better than anyone. In an exclusive and candid interview, Johnson's wife Susan, and their 14-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn opened up about living with the coach and sharing in the journey to 100 victories.

Most Navy fans only know Coach Paul Johnson through his press conference transcripts or from seeing him on the sidelines of a game.  But what about when he is not delivering one-liners to an attentive reporter or an absent-minded player…who is the real Paul Johnson?  Who is the man behind the success of the Navy football program?


The search for answers begins back in 1977 when Susan Propst met Paul Johnson while both were attending Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina.  So what was it that first attracted Susan to Paul?  Was it his Southern charm?  Perhaps a fancy one-liner he delivered?


"I guess it was…he's always had a high opinion of himself.  He's very self confident – very assured of what he was doing.  I was attracted to that," said Susan Johnson. "He was also very handsome and smart.'


But what about that Southern charm…


"Well, he'll say I chased him and he finally let me catch him." 


But surely, there must have been a pretty impressive proposal?


"Actually we just had a little spat, and then, he's like, here [you go] and he handed me an engagement ring.  That's the way he did it."


It may not sound like the typical courtship, but 27 years later there is no denying the Johnsons are as happy as ever.  I mean what's not to be happy about?  They live in a gorgeous home.  They have a beautifully gifted daughter. And Paul Johnson has perhaps the most secure coaching job in America.


In a profession that is known much more for whose been fired than whose been hired, Susan Johnson is thankful for not having to see her husband out of work since he began coaching in 1979.


"We've never been in that situation…it's remarkable to be this long into his career and never have anyone want to fire him."


However, Johnson's first full-time job wasn't coaching; it was in a classroom, but not your typical classroom.


"His first year at Avery County High School he was one of those in-school suspension people…where he just got the bad kids, recalls Susan Johnson.


"There was this one time a young man was suspended because Paul had asked him to do something and he said he wasn't going to do it.  And in order to come back to school, the student had to bring his guardian in and apologize to Paul. So [the student] comes back in with his grandpa.  His grandpa looked at Paul and asked his grandson if [Paul] was the ‘boy' he was going to woop?"


"The student replied, ‘Yep, that's the one,' which made his grandpa turn to him and say, ‘Son, you need to go back home with me now, you're too dumb for any schooling.'"


Susan Johnson says they "would have been perfectly happy to retire at the high school" but budget cuts soon forced the school to cut her husband's position. He received an offer to teach at an elementary school in the district; however, the job would have meant Paul would likely have to give up coaching both football and basketball at the high school, and that was something he just didn't want to do.


"So he just went to the junior college in the county and talked to the football coach one day," said Susan Johnson.  "He made such a good impression that the coach said he wanted to hire him.  I remember moving into faculty housing soon thereafter.  I think [the housing] was free.  It was a pretty small place.  It maybe had one or two rooms – including the bathroom."


Johnson would stay at Lees-McRae Junior College for two years and at a game during his second year, a representative from Georgia Southern University approached him about meeting with Erk Russell, the head coach in Statesboro at the time.


Johnson was offered and accepted the position to coach the defensive line for the Eagles in 1983.


Although Johnson started coaching defense at Georgia Southern, it was the offense he installed there once being promoted to offensive coordinator in 1985 that would bring his next suitor according to Susan Johnson.


"Bob Wagner had just gotten the head coaching job at Hawaii in 1986 and he was in Tacoma, Washington the same time Paul was there with Georgia Southern in the Division 1-AA championship game.  He saw Paul's offense and wanted to hire him."


Unfortunately, Wagner's initial call to the Johnson house wasn't very well received.


"Paul hung up on him," explained Susan Johnson.  "Some of the younger coaches had made prank calls in the past so he thought someone was fooling him.  Fortunately, Bob Wagner called back."


When it comes to changing jobs and moving on to a new place, Mrs. Johnson enjoys the opportunity.


"It's very exciting," she said.  "It's very complimentary to Paul to know that these other people want to hire him.  I lived in the same home [growing up] and my parents still live there, but I don't know why but I'm usually ready to move."


There was a time, however, when Susan Johnson said family played a role in blocking a potential career move.


"When I was pregnant with Kaitlyn [in 1993] and she was due any minute, Paul got a job offer from Baylor to be their offensive coordinator. He decided not to take it and we stayed in Hawaii."


Family came first in that decision but a close second was how content her husband was in his current job.


"I think the thing with Hawaii was Paul was in a position where he was in charge of the offense because Coach Wagner was a defensive guy.  So Paul knew he was calling the plays – calling the shots on the offense.  That means a lot when you are an assistant coach and somebody isn't always second guessing," said Susan Johnson.


However, two years after Kaitlyn was born, the Johnson family was ready to move closer to their families in North Carolina.  As Susan Johnson recalls, "We wanted to get back in the South."


But once again the phone call from an admiring head coach didn't take place without a hitch.


"We were in North Carolina at my parents' house and [newly-named Navy head coach] Charlie [Weatherbie] had waited up to call, thinking we were five hours away in Hawaii.  So at three o'clock in the morning, the phone rings.  This time, fortunately, Paul didn't hang up," said Susan Johnson.


And just like that the Johnsons were off again – this time to Annapolis, Maryland, and the U.S. Naval Academy.


Paul Johnson's first trip to Annapolis would be the shortest coaching stint of his collegiate career, lasting only two seasons.  However, it was enough time for Susan to draw some conclusions about the community.


"It's a great place to be…a great place to live.  It's beautiful, and we were extremely happy to be back on the East Coast."


As for leaving Navy back in 1996 after only two years, Susan Johnson said the timing was right.


"He needed to be a head coach.  He was ready.  After being in Hawaii for eight years, I knew he could be a successful head coach if he got the chance."


She continued, "When we left Georgia Southern for Hawaii, we hoped that we would go back to Georgia Southern one day."


For the next five years, Paul Johnson led the Eagles on arguably one of the greatest runs in college football history, compiling a 62-10 record and winning two Division I-AA titles.


"It was like we never lost," remembers Susan Johnson.


Well those days would soon be in the rearview mirror as the Johnson family was about to make a decision that would lead to one of the longest years of their lives.




Be sure to come back to GoMids.com tomorrow because…


In Part II of my interview, Susan Johnson remembers the 2002 season at Navy and answers some questions fans are dying to know all about like: Will Paul Johnson ever coach at Army?  Could they be happy retiring in Annapolis?  And what impact has the brigade support had on the program?  You'll also hear from Paul Johnson's daughter Kaitlyn, who talked about watching football with her dad, his superstitions (yes, he has some), and whether or not she would like to see his triple option offense at a BCS school.


If you would like to share your thoughts on this article, send David an email.

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