EXCLUSIVE: Johnson Family Interview, Part Two

In 2001, the Navy football team was shipwrecked. They were winless and without a permanent head coach once Charlie Weatherbie was fired after the seventh game of the season. The search for a new coach, led by then Superintendent Vice Adm. John Ryan and newly-appointed Athletic Director Chet Gladchuck, quickly turned to a familiar face.

But this time when the phone rang in Statesboro, Georgia, Paul Johnson wasn't keen on moving anywhere.

 

"He was real comfortable at Georgia Southern.  He was winning and we were all enjoying life.  So why leave?" recalls Susan Johnson.

 

"But to Navy's credit, they didn't give up.  Admiral Ryan and Chet Gladchuck flew down to Georgia to ensure Paul knew how much he was wanted in Annapolis," she added.

 

"I don't think it was actually until he heard a few people tell him he couldn't win at Navy that he changed his mind.  That and the fact that Kaitlyn wanted to live someplace where it snowed," joked Susan Johnson.

 

In December 2001, Navy introduced Paul Johnson as their new head football coach. And eight months later, after the first game of the 2002 season, it looked as though it would be smooth sailing in Annapolis once again for the Johnson family.

 

"After the SMU game [38-7 victory], I remember Kaitlyn telling me that [Navy] fans aren't used to winning.  It was pretty exciting – but it didn't last long," said Susan Johnson. 

 

Unlike previous stops in Hawaii and Georgia Southern where Johnson was able to help turn the programs around quickly, it became clear during the 2002 season that it would take a bit longer to make Navy a consistent winner.  

 

After the SMU game, Navy went on to lose its next ten games by almost 200 points combined.  Those losses translated into a lot of long days at work for the Navy coaches.

 

"He and the staff were at the office all the time, even at the peak of dawn on Sundays, but there was really no second guessing about [the decision] to come to Annapolis," remarked Susan Johnson.

 

But with one game, the most important game, everything seemed to change overnight.

 

"When we beat Army [58-12] to end the year, it gave everyone hope.  It almost single-handily wiped out the previous ten losses," noted Susan Johnson.

 

Since the victory over Army in 2002, Paul Johnson has led Navy to a 36-15 record, including his 100th win as a coach which came this past Friday against Temple.

 

Regarding the win, Susan Johnson said that every one is special; whereas her 14-year-old daughter chose to put the victory into a historical perspective.

 

"It's a pretty big accomplishment to win almost 10 games a season," said Kaitlyn Johnson.  "Not many coaches have reached 100 wins after only ten years."

 

Turns out, Kaitlyn is correct as only 25 other coaches in NCAA history have reached the milestone faster.  It also turns out that Paul Johnson's daughter knows her football.

 

"I couldn't be a football coach tomorrow, but I know somewhat about it," she said.  "[When it comes to Navy] I can kind of notice the way they line up and if they're going to pitch or pass…I kind of know that stuff…but I don't know if the offensive tackle went the wrong way and that's why we didn't score."

 

But what about mom – what is her football IQ?

 

"I know when somebody scores…I know when we have the ball, but I don't know the plays…I'm just like your normal fan," said Susan Johnson.

 

Chances are a lot of Kaitlyn's knowledge was gleaned by watching football on television with her dad.  She has even gotten into the habit of taping all televised Navy games even if she saw them in person.

 

"I'll DVR the games and re-watch them on Sundays at least once to see what [the commentators] said.  I don't want anyone trashing [my dad]."

 

Remarkably, at even nine-years-old, Kaitlyn was in the film room with her dad.

 

"It's fun for about 20 minutes but watching film can get boring.  There is no noise," remarked the Broadneck High School freshman. 

 

"Dad is very serious when he is grading film…he'll write something down for every play," she added.  "He's really focused on what we did well and what we need to do better for next week."

 

On the other hand, watching football on television with her dad can be even funny at times.

 

"During games, he does impressions really well…he can mimic somebody – even college coaches," said Kaitlyn Johnson, who went on to say which coach her dad mimics real well. However, this reporter believes some things are better left unpublished.

 

Kaitlyn continued by saying that her dad "hates it when coaches look at their clipboards."

 

In response to her daughter's comment, Susan Johnson quickly interjected, "He doesn't hate it."  Mom then added, "But he does make a lot of comments during the games."

 

Her daughter insisted though that "In the NFL they do it a lot and dad will say, ‘there they go, looking at that board again.'"

 

"I think he likes watching the games [on television] because he doesn't really cheer for anybody," added Kaitlyn.  "He does pull for the underdog though, that's his thing."

 

So does the coach's daughter have any favorite Navy players?

 

"I like Reggie [Campbell] because he is five inches shorter than me and he's really fast," she said. "But, I like them all.  They are all very respectful."

 

Susan Johnson has been equally impressed with the Navy players over the years.

 

"They have very high character. That's just the type of young men the Naval Academy attracts and there is something to be said about."

 

As a mom, though, she understands the decision to send your son to an institution that requires a military commitment can be a difficult one.  However, according to Susan Johnson, parents of players should know their sons will be in good hands with her husband.

 

"He is very loyal to them.  He'll take care of them.  I see that with the relationships he has with his former players."

 

But she cautioned, "They are not going to be able to lie their way out of something.  The players need to be honest with him because that is what they will get from [Paul]."

 

In fact, when asked what her husband's best quality is, Susan Johnson quickly answered, "His honesty…What you see is what you get."

 

However, there are some things that both Susan and Kaitlyn Johnson agree the Navy head coach can work on.

 

"He's sometimes hard-headed," said his daughter, whose comment was quickly softened by her mom.

 

"He's very competitive," said Susan Johnson.  "Even when Kaitlyn was younger and they were playing a game, [Paul] would never let her win."

 

"It's especially difficult to win an argument with him because he has a memory like an elephant.  He remembers everything," she added.

 

Both agreed that he takes losing very hard.

 

"If we ever lose a game, and its close, he'll second guess himself and he'll have to work through it a lot," said Kaitlyn Johnson.

 

"He's very hard on himself.  He'll talk [the loss] through, but he doesn't really want us to respond.  He'll say, ‘we should've done this,' and if I say something, he'll say ‘that's not the way it was,'" said Susan Johnson.

 

"But I'm the worst person after a loss," said Johnson's daughter.

 

"Kaitlyn will cry, she can't help it," said her mom.  "Fortunately we haven't lost that much…but that first year [at Navy] she didn't know how to act."

 

There would undoubtedly be a lot more tears shed by Navy fans if the Johnson family decides one day to pick-up and move to another football community.  In part one of this interview, Susan Johnson left some fans hanging on a thread by saying that she is "usually ready to move" when other colleges come calling.

 

So would she go on record as saying the Johnson family will never, ever leave Annapolis?  Well, not quite.

 

"We would have been perfectly happy [staying] at Avery County High School, and look at where we are now.  I think this would be a great place to retire," said Susan Johnson.

 

But what about Kaitlyn…As a football fan, would she like to see her dad try to bring his offense to a BCS school? 

 

"Dad never likes people to tell him that he can't do something," she said.  "[When people say to me] this option won't work in the BCS, I tell them it's working at Florida and West Virginia."

 

"I think [the triple option] could definitely work, and you want to see that, but we are definitely satisfied staying here," she added.

 

"The only reason I would want him to do that is to prove to the naysayer that he can do it.  I know that he can, but does he need to prove it to everyone else?  I don't think so," said Susan Johnson.  "[However] if the opportunity presented itself, I think it would have to be considered. You can't not listen." 

 

But she added, "The Naval Academy has been very good [to us]."

 

A major part of the support for the team today, according to Susan Johnson comes from the brigade of midshipmen.  Unfortunately, that wasn't always the case.

 

"The first year was terrible because there was nothing to cheer for.  The brigade didn't want to be at the games. The coaches' families would be screaming to support the team and we would see alumni wondering what we were yelling about," said Susan Johnson. 

 

"At Georgia Southern there were times when nobody would sit for a whole game," added Kaitlyn Johnson.  "On a fourth down, when we were on defense that first year, I just wanted to shout, ‘stand up!' to the Navy fans."

 

But both Susan and Kaitlyn Johnson acknowledge winning has brought the team and brigade closer together.

 

"It was more of a social event to come to a Navy game, but that has changed.  It's almost like the brigade has ownership of the team now," said the elder Johnson.

 

"When [the brigade] started the ‘I believe we will win' chant, it was awesome.  It helps to have the brigade cheering for the team," noted Kaitlyn Johnson.

 

Susan Johnson recalled one of her best memories of Navy football was the time when the administration arranged for the brigade to meet the team buses outside of Bancroft Hall after a road victory.

 

"It was pouring rain…and there is the whole brigade out there, cheering the team when they got off the bus.  It sent chills down your spine.  There was a sense that it was everybody's team."

 

The success of the Navy football team has also poured out into the Annapolis community, a place, due to a superstition, and shall we say a domestic situation, the Johnson family frequents often.

 

"[Paul] doesn't like to eat my cooking – you can quote me on that," said Susan Johnson.  "I'm the take-out queen of Annapolis."

 

What is the most frequently requested entrée for Mr. Johnson you ask? 

 

"Fajita nachos from Chevy's – he'll order the same thing every time," she said.

 

Another place admiring Navy fans in town have been known to get an autograph from the Navy coach is at California Pizza Kitchen which is where you will likely find the Johnson family this week.  How does one know that?

 

"We're a little superstitious…if we win on Friday (against Temple) then I have to go eat with him again [at the same restaurant] the next week.  You have to do what you did the week before."

 

According to Susan Johnson, attendance at dinnertime can be a good barometer of whether or not Navy is enjoying success

 

 "[Paul] comes home for dinner every night now.  That wasn't the case when we first got here.  I think it's really important to him for his coaches to have some family time."

 

But Coach Johnson knows what he is doing now…doesn't that help him get out of the office in time for dinner?

 

Susan Johnson smiled then said, "Well, I think so."

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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